In the past few years, Chris Suspect has made quite a name for himself in street photography circles. From exhibiting at the prestigious Photokina festival in Germany in 2014 to being featured at festivals in Brussels, Miami, Milan, Tblisi, London and Romania, he has become a fixture on the international circuit. During that time, he has also led street photography workshops around the world.
He returns this year to Focus on the Story 2019 to teach an intensive 2-1/2 day workshop on street photography that includes a hands-on session in the field and critiques back in the classroom. We asked him to tell us what workshop participants should expect.
You can learn more about Suspect’s workshop, here.
Joe Newman: Your workshop description talks about making successful street photographs through juxtapositions, tricks of perspective and the use of light and shadow. You also mention the “subliminal power of semiotics” i.e. symbolism. Tell us more about how you’ve used this in your work.
Chris Suspect: From the time Eugene Atget was photographing the streets of old Paris to modern day practitioners of the craft, a visual photographic language has developed and matured overtime. By studying the masters and reviewing the work of my contemporaries, I am always striving to add something of value to this ongoing visual conversation. There are numerous cliches and tropes in street photography that really serve as a base foundation for the medium. In my workshop, I go over a large number of these using examples of historic and modern day works to show students how one can build off of these techniques in the hopes of creating something of their own that’s fresh and new.
Newman: You will spend some of the 2-1/2 days of your workshop in the classroom. One of the things you’ll talk about is the history of street photography. Who is your biggest influence or inspiration when it comes to street photographers and what about their work stands the test of time?
Suspect: I can’t limit my influence to one photographer. They all have something great to offer that we can learn something from. For example, we can consider the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson who is best known for exemplifying the “decisive moment.” Bresson was a master of composition, timing and precision. However, on the flip side we can explore the influential work of Robert Frank, who is nothing like Bresson. Frank’s gritty, tilted, off the cuff and socially aware images are observations of the contradictions in the idealized American dream/modern consumerism era of the 1950s. And while we are at it let’s throw in the great humorist Elliott Erwitt, who is nothing like the previously mentioned greats. The point of this section of the workshop is to consider these photographers and explore their contributions to the medium and to drive home the point that knowing your history will help you grow as a photographer.
Newman: What is the biggest trend in street photography today and why is it either a good thing or bad?
Suspect: I think the biggest trend in street photography is one that has been forced upon us by technology. These days we consume and consider most photographs on mobile devices. Because of the small size of these images and compressed time we get to view them, I find people are gravitating towards creating images that are optimized for this form factor and medium. In other words, there is a real subconscious compulsion out there to make photographs that are more simple, more visually grabbing (think contrast and geometry) and easy to consume in in-between moments (at a bus stop, in an elevator, before a meeting, etc.). The fact is is that more complex and intellectually compelling images that take time to digest can easily get lost in social feeds and as a result really don’t acquire the audience they deserve. Obviously this is not a great trend in my opinion.
Newman: You’re recognized internationally as a street photographer but you’re also well known for photographing wild parties and the club scene. How do the two pursuits complement each other? That is, what elements of good street photography do you take to your nightlife photography and visa versa?
Suspect: As I mentioned earlier, there is a visual language in street photography that has developed over the past 100 years or so. Knowing these cues and how to create images that rise above mere depictions can translate well beyond the “streets”. I try to apply the aesthetics of street photography to all my photography when possible. One example of how I apply this concept is when I go out and shoot punk shows. When you are out taking candid photos of people in public the people in the images may as well be anonymous. You are ideally looking for elements in a frame that will ultimately make a strong image. Often times for many people this idea can get thrown out the window when shooting musicians. So if I am shooting a show I care little about the actual band members and more about their interactions with the environment and the audience. I am looking to bring in as many elements as possible into a frame so it says much more than guy or girl with a guitar for example.
Newman: What type of person should take your workshop and if they only walk away learning one thing, what will it be?
Suspect: Anyone interested in street photography, or photography in general for that matter, and wants to know what makes an image successful should take my workshop. The one thing that I want them to walk away with is the idea that chance favors a prepared mind. In other words, by being a student of photographic history and a dedicated practitioner of the craft, you will ideally find yourself in a better position to recognize more visual opportunities and be able to express them with your own unique vision.
Joe Newman is the executive director of Focus on the Story.