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March 29, 2008  -  May 17, 2008
Ilona Sturm in the Photolab Gallery
In the Midst of Things:
Street Photography 1988 - 2008

Interview with Ilona Sturm (excerpt):

Q. How do you define street photography?

Genres in the arts are always problematic and clumsy. Street photography looks like it documents but it’s not “documentary” photography”. There may be portraits, but it’s not about portraiture. It may have narrative embedded in it, or it may involve urban or rural landscapes, but it can’t be distilled to those categories either.

Street photography is unique unto itself and is at the crossroads between other photographic practices. Its development is also related to painting and literature, when they all left the studio for the street. It’s very important historically too, but always maintains a contemporary presence.
Q. Why do you prefer it to other styles, or genres, of photography?

For me, street photography is the pinnacle of photography. To work this way involves objectives very different from those working in a documentary fashion. It’s highly subjective, and works with imagination and memory. Also, the space it leaves open to interpretation for the viewer, the lack of moralism, the rare chances at humor, the sincerity, and lack of pretension. There’s so much more to say!

I’m a very curious person so I love the way I am able to encompass landscape, politics, urban history, human gesture and intimacy, and vernacular lifestyle. Variations of culture, ethnic idiosyncrasies … so much gets played out in the public realm and experienced by the photographer’s eye.

Q. What is your goal when you set out with your camera?

What motivates me is the search for what exactly transpires in the communal space. Everywhere I go it’s different: where and how people inhabit the public space, what the spaces look like. Sometimes it’s hard to find interesting communal spaces, especially in the United States.

Every moment of interaction in the public space, where strangers silently negotiate with each other is experimental. I like to be there and be part of it.

Ilona Sturm

Ilona Sturm was born in New York City, and her earliest memories of the vibrant street life of that city in the late 1960’s inspired her to record the movement, spontaneity, and small dramas that one witnesses daily in urban public spaces.

Ilona Sturm is also a painter with a BFA from the Massachusetts College of Art and published a thesis on creativity in early childhood education in fulfillment of her Master’s Degree at San Francisco State University in 2001. She is the author of a photography book with text entitled: Breastfeeding Success Stories: Twelve Mothers Tell it Like It Is (2004). Her paintings, murals, site-specific installations, and videos have been exhibited in the US, Europe, and Latin America.

Most recently, she completed the video Together We Can, a short, non-narrative piece about children at play.

Sturm just returned home from a trip to India (Delhi and Rajasthan) where she continued her street photography work in black and white and color. Several of these brand-new images are in the exhibit.
Q. How does one do ‘street photography’?

Street photography is a play between your lack of control and being in a state of supreme alertness. Working within the unpredictability of public street life requires the merging of the active and passive, an attitude of daring! It is not easy.

For me, doing street photography is collaboration between my right brain and my left brain. Surely, I’m thinking about what I’m doing, but I’m analyzing the situation with my full mind united. I see the gestalt of the photograph in front of me while I’m also focused on the specifics of light and who’s moving where within the frame.

Q. How is street photography different from documentary photography?

My goal is to apprehend the scene and unite with it, not to document and separate myself from it. It’s been considered an unchallenged fact for so long that the photographer is apart from what she or he is photographing, that she’s an outsider.

I want to merge with the subject and to be in the midst of things.

Q. How can you ‘merge with the subject’ if you’re behind the camera?

If the subject of street photography is indeed the public realm, then the photographer is energetically present in every picture. If we accept this proposition as true, then the rules of operation in street photography are different than in other genres.

Q. Do you work differently in places that are foreign to you?

I was working feverishly in India, as I had only two weeks, and it was my first ever visit there. I had to immediately establish new criteria. My foreign eyes saw many images I’d never seen before. This alone, the surprise, or should we call it “otherness” doesn’t justify a photo.

But most of the time, what was enthralling for me were not scenes that announced something I had already planned on seeing. -- the documentary-like, grandiose images.

You know, this is the pitfall that many a travel photographer, including a tourist with a camera, falls into. When they encounter something they had previously imagined seeing, they photograph it. It’s a confirmation of their imagination, a validation of their journey, and a completion of their purpose.

Q. How can one avoid falling into this ‘trap’?

Well, a better alternative is to remain alert and open to seeing what you could not have imagined seeing beforehand. What one then chooses -- or feels sensitive to, or resonates with – is the photographer’s visceral, internal sensibility. Their, shall we say, innate aesthetic impulse.

A photographer friend put it to me very succinctly: A good photograph should reveal the intention of the photographer. If I just point my camera at a gorgeous landscape in the desert of India, with all the best equipment, it may turn out to be a spectacular shot … but not one that someone else couldn’t have taken. And if this intention is so obvious, it is indeed a generic shot. I am not present in the picture.

Q. Well then, how can one be present or manifest one’s intention in a photograph?

The problem today is that with a profusion of photographs at our fingertips, we potentially do not see anything. It is the disappearance of art. It is the banalization of the visual arts. Everyone and their sister and brother is facilely making “pictures,” uploading and emailing them, storing them and posting them – that it is hard to image there truly is any content involved anymore. If ‘content’ can be created that quickly, and everything is content, then logically nothing is content as well.

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