Sylvie Went Shopping – An Interview with Robert Herman By Robert A. Schaefer, Jr. | Education/Inspiration by Robert Schaefer Oct 15, 2009
Last year my friend Rikki Reich and I were at a photography exhibition opening, and she introduced me to photographer Robert Herman who told me that he was currently working on his MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I decided I wanted to explore why a photographer who already knew the processes involved with producing images would want to feel the need to get an advanced degree in the same subject. We agreed that when he had finished his MFA studies, we would talk about it as well as his life and work.
Robert Schaefer: Recently you got your MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. What additional information about photography did you want to gain by doing this?
Robert Herman: Actually, the degree I received was an MPS-A Masters of Professional Studies in Digital Photography. I have been shooting for about 25 years, obviously mostly film: 35mm, I was shooting with Kodachrome and also printing from black and white negs. I also used 21/4 and SX-70 Polaroids to create bodies of work. I bought my first digital camera, a Nikon D80 in 2007. Eventually I started to realize that digital capture is only the beginning. A photographer needs a deep and wide skill set and understanding to make high quality final images. The world of digital imaging was changing so fast that I felt I needed to speed up the learning curve and catch up. Katrin Eismann's and Tom Ashe's program at SVA offered an amazing opportunity to get a crash course in Digital and a Masters degree at the same time.
RS: Did you studies fulfill your expectations? Would you recommend further studies, which would provide a masters degree as opposed to say workshops in specific areas of interest concerning photography?
RH: After meeting with Katrin and Tom, the assistant chair of the department my expectations were very high. Their enthusiasm and their belief in me was so refreshing after knocking around New York relatively unnoticed. What makes this program so unique and is the that on the one hand, there is the full immersion in all things digital: Image Capture, Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, Dreamweaver, CSS, Java Script, Flash and printing to exhibition quality standards. Tom taught the Image capture class and Chris Murphy, the printing class. Both of them taught in a very scientific way. We made tests in the field, so to speak and then the results were evaluated.
This is coupled with with classes in which one’s self-expression is
encouraged and nurtured. Harvey Stein, the great fine art
photographer was my teacher in Editorial Photography the first
semester. I created my first narrative sequence Goodbye to Frankie which I presented as prints and then in book form by the end of the term.
As far as a Masters Degree vs. workshops: If you can take the year off to do it, I would recommend the Masters Degree. You get a much bigger bang for your buck. Eight-week long workshops at $5000 each is $40,000. A one year program at SVA is approximately the same cost and at the end you have a degree and the experience of being with 15 extremely talented students and a world class faculty. it was great to see our work evolve over the three semesters.
RS: How did you feel about the School of Visual Arts? Would you recommend it for an MPS?
RH: It was intense, grueling, challenging and transformative. The MPS program at SVA was one of the best years of my life. The MPS Program in Photography offers each candidate in its program a mentor to work with the thesis project.
RS: Did you have such a mentor? Were you pleased with your working relationship?
My mentor was Peter C. Jones, the photographer and photography book consultant. I had met him at a Powerhouse Portfolio Review in 2007. His encouragement and insight into my work was invaluable. We discussed the direction of my thesis project, edited the images, developed a friendship and a mutual respect and shared our love for photography. He is very talented at looking at a group of images, sequencing them and he helped me put into words what they were about.
RS: You created a film using Apple’s iMovie HD with still photographs and music. Why did you select this venue? Since it is composed of still photographs, would you also like to exhibit Sylvie Went Shopping as these photographs on the wall or in a book?
RH: iMovie HD was relatively simple to master. I didn't have time to learn Final Cut. I edited and cropped all the images in Lightroom and then exported the jpegs for use in IMovie. Two of the photographs from Sylvie will be exhibited along with the movie at the SVA Masters Group show. The book I made of the images which was one of the requirements for getting your degree will also be available for viewing.
Making the book was a fantastic exercise in sequencing, layout and design. Because it was a narrative, I had a breakthrough about letting go of a traditional presentation and used the tools of design to enhance the story and make it exciting for the viewer. Each medium created its own challenges for me and the viewer's experience of the images is altered because of the medium of presentation: be it prints on a gallery wall, a movie or a book.
RS: Although Sylvie Went Shopping begins with a woman’s shopping spree, it graduates into a very sexual direction. What made you want to explore this? Have you experienced any negative reaction to the ménages à trois relationship?
RH: The genesis of this project, as it was with Goodbye to Frankie began with conversations with the lead actress. We talked about what her life and fantasies were and built a fictional story from that. Robin who plays Sylvie loves to shop and at that time she was exploring ways of meeting people through the internet. It was also an opportunity to connect the dots between commodity capitalism with the way people go shopping on the Internet for a date to have new experiences.
"Sylvie" was a device to explore my own feelings about my sexuality. I created a space to grow as an artist and a human being. I realized recently that the piece is somewhat autobiographical. Making something like this I confronted my shyness as well as the part of my nature that is voyeuristic.
Sylvie Went Shopping does make some people uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable at the beginning. That is why it was so interesting to do. I was exploring my own feelings as I was making it. My parents owned porno movie houses when I was in high school and college and this created tension and conflicting feelings in me about sex, imagery and image making.
RS: Could you have made Stefan Went Shopping with two men and a woman in the love triangle?
Yes, I think so. But it has to have an organic origin. These pieces are on one level an in depth portrait of someone at a certain moment in their lives. If I encountered someone who was into that and the material was rich enough, it would be great.
RS: Have you thought about redoing it as a motion picture in 16mm, 35mm or digital?
RH: I suppose it could be redone, but I'm very pleased with the results. I went to film school at NYU for undergrad and I completed three films while I was there. It would be much more compelling to me to write something new with the intention of making a motion picture.
RS: The background music is by a very well known rock group. Usually permission to use the music by such groups is very expensive. What has been your experience? Would you advise makers of small budget films to stay away from this direction?
RH: My experience with licensing has been very disappointing. I waited all summer for Warner/Rhino licensing to get back to me with a quote. I ended up recording a piano piece and narration composed by Nina Maxwell. Nina's approach added an intimate texture to "Sylvie" and I'm extremely pleased with the results. The creative process always has bumps in the road and I can see now that "Sylvie" was in a holding pattern until the appropriate music appeared.
RS: What is your background? Were you interested in photography, film or other art forms as you were growing up?
RH: I was born in Brooklyn. My parents moved to Long Beach when I was six weeks old. I lived there until I was eight when the family movie business had a major reversal of fortune. My parents had to sell our wonderful stucco house and we lived in rental apartments and houses in different towns on Long Island until we finally settled in Plainview by the time I went to high school. I grew up watching movies. I saw Antonioni's "Blow Up" in 1966 when I was 11 years old. In those days my parents' theatre in Brooklyn was an art house and my father would take me to work with him. I loved being able to see the same movie over and over again. Drinking in the beauty of 35mm film projected on a silver screen was an incredible formative experience. Because my father owned the movie house, I could watch the same movie as much as I wanted. After a while, the story recedes into the background and you begin to notice other things in the frame. That was the beginning of my cinematic eye and an appreciation for light. Seeing Lászlo Kovács work on "Easy Rider", and Conrad L. Hall's on "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" was a revelation.
Music was the other big force in my life and still is. I worked after school to have money for concert tickets on the weekend. I was constantly going into the city to see bands. I was in a rock band, playing bass and doing little gigs around town.
RS: Which photographers and filmmakers have inspired you?
RH: When I was in Film School at NYU I took an intro class in black and white photography as an elective. I discovered Kertesz, Frank, Callahan and Helen Levitt. The Mirrors and Windows Exhibition (photography since 1960) that John Szarkowski put together at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was mind-blowing at the time. It's still one of my favorite photography books. I read John Berger's About Looking and that was the catalyst; reading that book helped me find my voice, I was fascinated by the language of juxtaposition and the decisive moment. I went out shooting the late afternoon light on the streets of NY and made portraits in my home studio of my friends.
My composition and eye for light came from cinematography too. In those days I went to the movies a lot: the Bleeker Street Cinema had a double feature that changed every 2 days for 3 bucks. Vilmos Zsigmond who shot McCabe and Mrs. Miller for Altman, Sven Nyquist who worked with Bergman and Vittorio Storaro who worked with Bertolucci and Copolla all made work what to this day still holds up as great cinematography in service to the narrative. Really good directors working with their DP's find the shot that acts as an amplifier of the subtext of the story at a given moment. It was a joy to discover that language.
RS: What was the response to Sylvie Went Shopping in your thesis evaluation at SVA?
RH: The class got to see it evolve and take shape through the editing process and at the thesis review I showed the book as well as the QuickTime movie. The response was very positive, although the reviewers were perhaps a bit surprised by the form and subject matter.
RS: Do your future plans include more iMovie HD films? Are you working on any now? Are you interested in learning to make motion pictures?
RH: I'm working on turning "Goodbye to Frankie" into a QuickTime movie and thinking about making a black and white narrative in stills that is in the style of a silent movie. I am always interested in making pictures. I've also been writing a feature length screenplay. I plan on finishing it soon and getting it read.
Ulisse- Alitalia Magazine
HERMAN FLAH SULLA VITA (HERMAN, LIFE SHOTS)
by Filippo Cellini
We continue our visits to the VIP Lounges where Alitalia is showing the work of international artists. The New York's artist's photographs are currently on show at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci Airport
Alitalia, in collaboration with universities, institutions and private colllectors, continues to promote contemporary art by giving over its VIP lounges, both in Italy and abroad, to Italian and international artists.new York photographer Robert Herman's work can be enjoyed in the Sala Michelangelo at J.F.K. Airport of New York. An established artist in America, with numerous one man public and private shows to his credit, Herman offers an insight into everyday New York life.His interpretation of the Big Apple begins with slightly melancholy colour photos from the early eighties, subjects and places that time has irrevocably changed: an Eldorado car parked in Little Italy, men and women in the fashions of the time, a gentlemanly old man sitting in a coffee shop reflecting the best of American Hyperrealism. Herman doesn't provide the whole picture, focusing instead on the details of the scenes-the bare back of a strolling woman or a beaten up armchair on the sidewalk. Many of the Brooklyn photographer's picture featureshop, bar, restaurant and car windows and anything else that features the characteristic play on reflections, overlays and double images. The black and white photographs from the end of the seventies are different but they still feature rash angles and non-frontal shots.
These are also based on Herman's New York tales and they depict normal city streets. unlike the colour shots, here the photographer lets space and movement interact to create a fuller picture of the situations he catches on film. the subject's movement rather than their personal identity is at the heart of them all-a quick dash, a passionate kiss, a fast stride. Through the expert use of light and shade or using back or low shots, Herman avoids "introducing" his characters to us, letting them instead remain everyday New Yorkers.
The Savannah Morning News
Sunday, December 8, 2002
New York, New York
By Allison Hersh
Robert Herman doesn't like skyline photographs. He knows that most New York photographers find themselves compelled to shoot the city's legendary skyline, with silhouettes of skyscrapers etched against the clouds. Herman prefers to shoot the action on the ground, taking intimate, revealing photographs of people living in the city's interlocking neighborhoods, drawn to the seductive energy of the street.
"The skyline is sort of a cliche," he explains. "When you get into the details of the neighborhood, you find something more unique and more individual -- and yet more universal."
In "40 North x 73 West," a photography exhibit currently at Mercury Lounge, Herman chronicles three decades of New York streetscapes in moody gelatin-silver black-and-white prints and in vibrant cibachrome. Herman's use of texture, color and light evoke a sense of individuality within a lonely crowd. The title of the exhibit refers to the latitude and longitude of New York City, but the focus of Herman's photography is the spirit of the city's neighborhoods.
"New York, to me, has always been a collection of neighborhoods," he says. "Wherever I lived, I would spend a few days a week shooting and responding to what was in front of me. I had the feeling that you didn't have to travel halfway around the world to find something interesting."
What Herman found during those excursions through New York can be viscerally understood by viewing the photography at Mercury Lounge. In a series of color and black-and-white photographs, Herman maps interconnected moments of desolation, solitude and loneliness frozen within a kinetic, often frenetic, streetscape. From the jubilance of children playing in the waterfall unleashed from an open fire hydrant to the connection between two barefoot women drinking coffee and chatting on a park bench, oblivious to the graffiti and clotheslines above them, Herman celebrates humanity in everyday moments.
"Waiting for the Light to Change" captures a fleeting moment of a boy and his mother standing at an intersection, both dressed in bright red clothing. Through this photograph,
Herman reveals the connection between the mother and son as well as the unexpected poetry in this random, seemingly mundane moment.
Some of the most powerful images in this insightful exhibit are those that explore the paradox of loneliness in the Big Apple. "Man Reading Menu," a photograph taken in Soho in 1981, focuses on an old man in trench coat and gloves sitting alone at a luncheon counter, pondering a menu in shades of gray. We see the elderly figure through a plate-glass window, the lights from cars and from the street reflected in the glass. Herman finds beauty in moments of solitude, suggesting that, in these moments, we are truly ourselves.
"It's really important to find that thing, that spark or starting point that makes a good picture," he explains. "It's that realness. The inner invisible heart that comes out when people are themselves."
"Winter Cowboy," a 1984 black-and-white urban portrait of a man in a cowboy hat, his face obscured by a scarf, conveys a sense of dislocation and disjunction in a scene that could have been plucked from the movie "Midnight Cowboy." The blurred, kinetic streetscape whirls around this lone cowboy, who appears to be far from home, stranded in the big city.
Herman's use of color self-consciously accentuates the narratives he tells in his documentary photography. "St. George," a 1984 photograph taken on Staten Island, focuses on a woman in a red hat and red coat sitting on a bench at a children's playground that has been mercilessly defaced with graffiti. Bright crimson berries, like Christmas ornaments or holiday lights, adorn the trees overhanging the playground, their shimmering hues contrasting sharply with the gray sky above, fighting off the desolation of the neighborhood with the power of color.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Herman grew up on Long Island and attended Boston University before graduating from New York University with a degree in film. He worked for a number of years as a production still photographer, but eventually discovered a passion for street photography. "The neighborhood was more interesting than the movies," he explains.
Herman lives and works in New York City and exhibits his work in galleries across the country. His work has been featured at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and numerous art galleries.
Even in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedy, Herman continues to document the tiny miracles that take place across New York every day. "With all this sadness and misery and unhappiness that we all feel, we have to be reminded of that moment when life itself is so good," he says. "And the reminder is in the details."
The Newark Star-Ledger January 8, 1998
For This Shooter, It's All In the Details
By Mitchell Seidel
Robert Herman is a detail-oriented photographer who reads a lot into a given scene. Buildings, for example, are not just structures but complex canvases on which time has painted a picture. A collection of Herman's eye-catching Ilfochrome prints is on display of the next month at the Cooper Gallery in Jersey City.
"View from the LIRR" shows a solitary building on a street corner, the last remnant of what obviously was once a thriving block. The building now stands on an island between an elevated highway and a street. The graffiti-sprayed first floor wall is partially constructed of glass blocks, while above it are an additional two stories of red brick. Green, tarnished metalwork at the building's street corner apex adds yet another dimension of color and texture to the shot. The building is shot from the shadowy confines beneath a roadway overpass, allowing dark railings and ramps to frame the image from the top, bottom and left sides.
"Painter's Hat" also invited the viewer to examine the details of a larger scene. The image draws its title from a man wearing a brilliant white painter's hat as he rounds a street corner. But that is only a small part of the whole. The man is sandwiched between a bright red stop sign and an equally vivid, though darker, rust-colored brick wall.
A building wall that dominates the background, and thus the majority of the shot, is typical downtown New York -- whitewashed brick and dingy industrial strength windows. A retracted fire-escape ladder angling across the middle of the shot casts its pattern on the side of the building, as does the arcing neck of an unseen street lamp.
Both shots feature graffiti-covered walls, probably what attracted the photographer to them in the first place. If these old buildings can be considered part of urban archaeology, then graffiti and old posters can be seen as hieroglyphics.
Many of Herman's other works in the show are also close-up shots of such details -- peeling paint caught in strong sunlight, the street corner collage that comes from layer upon layer of posters and the splatter of hastily scrawled slogans.
"Blessed" is one such photograph. Many images vie for attention in this work, in which snippets of torn posters intermingle in bright, shadow producing sunlight. The high angle of the light serves both to accentuate the textures created by the glued scraps of paper and to brighten their colors.
There is a delightful visual chaos about the work --a man's hand reaches out toward a phone booth in the middle of the shot, but before you can take in the scene completely, a swatch of torn white paper obstructs it. The word "Blessed" is seen repeatedly in shards going across the top of the shot, while in the lower right hand corner an evil-looking black and white parody of the bath soap character Mr. Bubble wails for survival against a slather of old paste.
It is the visual equivalent of channel surfing or spinning the radio dial: What you get is snippets of information in a brief period, thought the difference is, you are free to take the time to ponder the individual fragments and use your imagination to figure out what they must have originally meant.
"REW" relies more on the textures created by layered, mostly white poster paper and a brown brick wall beneath it for the strength of it imagery. The photograph draws its title from the "REW" that survive as a fragment of poster.
The diptych, "Earth, Monte Alban, Mexico," shares a stylistic link with its New York cousins in that Herman uses sunlight and shadows to bring out the textures in a wall. In this case, the colors and shapes of the right panel are provided by layer upon layer of peeling paint and chipped adobe. They provide a festival of color, large patches of white punctuated by splotches of pale blue and rust red next to areas where red is dominant, and blue and white struggle to make it to the surface all on one print. In the left panel, the rust, white and blue theme is repeated with a rough-hewn hole added to the mixture.
It is only appropriate that a self-portrait by the artist contains many of the qualities seen in his other works. In this large, colorful image Herman is reflected in a slower shop window, the street scene behind him reversed by the glass. Daylight coming into the window illuminates the plants inside. These different visual elements work much the same way as the torn posters and peeling paint do in the other photographs, creating a collage in which the image of the photographer is but a small part.