A Conversation with Stephen Lipuma

Temporary Storage Presents:

“Scene Unseen”

A Conversation with Stephen Lipuma


Stephen Lipuma, Jennifer Piejko


Photography is a way to shake off social inhibitions and cross boundaries; many photographers say they feel emboldened when holding a camera.  Do you agree with that sentiment?

 

It’s funny, I have never used my camera as a way to connect with people. I am a pretty social person and often can speak to complete strangers as if I’ve known them for years. Both my grandfathers were like this, but in very different ways. My Irish grandfather could have sold snake oil, he was so charming and affable. He spent his younger days chasing Nazis through the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. He was handsome, charming and had a gift for the gab. My Italian grandfather was much more of an observer. He carried himself with class and dignity, but spoke very few words.

With that said, he had all of my brothers hitting proper in the backyard, tossing us baseballs. Both men were both New Yorkers and both worked for the city indirectly. My Irish grandfather was a New York City bus driver and my Italian grandfather was a New York City cab driver. So, I think connecting with people, conversation, was something that I was born with.  I think my camera is just an extra appendage. If anything, it’s a tool I use to share things with family and friends. For example, when I get back from traveling I Iike to tell stories. I am fortunate enough to travel with a camera most of the time, so my photos help to illustrate my anecdotes.

Draped In Gold, Barcelona, 2010 (20×24) Digital C-Print

 

Do you feel any sort of, perhaps not direct relationship, but maybe responsibility, to someone when you are photographing them?  Is there a difference in style when you’re photographing someone that you know as opposed to a stranger?

 

I think all photographers have a responsibility to their subjects to portray them honestly, whether that means they are shown in either a positive or negative light, but you have to show them as they truly are. I think trying to make beauty out of something that is not beautiful is wrong. With that said, it is important for me to allow my subjects to feel comfortable, which is the most important factor in creating a good portrait.

Personally, I feel more comfortable shooting strangers. There is that immediate rush of the new when someone allows you to photograph them.  It’s a sign that you’ve earned their trust, that they’re willing to take the risk with you.  If I am photographing friends or family, I find it harder to get them to relax in front of me.

Red Dog, Brooklyn, 2010 (20×24) Digital C Print

 

Would you agree that photography is a way of representing someone in a way that they would never see themselves?

 

I am not sure I agree with this. Unless you are in a studio with major light control, the subject should be photographed as they truly are at that exact moment. We all have bad days and if one of those days happens to be when you are photographed, then that should come across in the image. In the studio, it’s obviously a lot easier to enhance someone and make them look pretty.  You are there to manufacture a very specific type of image.

 

Since the very beginning, there has been a history of class consciousness in photography: working class figures tend to be photographed in “their element”, so laborers are shot outside, etc.  Is that something that you notice in your own work?  For example, you’ve taken many shots of strangers outside, specifically in your “Brooklyn” series.  Do they strike you any differently?

 

I think there is good reason for class consciousness in photography.  The portable camera is the greatest tool for that level of heightened awareness, and it rarely lies. This type of photography is what originally peaked my interest in photography. In recent years, though, it appeals to me less because I think it’s less challenging.  I have debated this exact subject for years. I have done many projects on the working class, but it’s an easy way to tell a story: hard times on someone’s face tells a story.  It tells the same story. Today, I am more into telling a story by showing less. Paul Graham is a major influence on me right now.  A lot of his photographs come off as being simple, but the more I look at them, the more I’m able to see into them.

Hand In Bus, Bangkok, 2008 (20×24) Digital C-Print

 

Your work shows traces of influence by Stephen Shore and William Eggleston.  What do you empathize with in their styles?  They rely on many classical elements of composition and style, yet they are both considered pioneers of contemporary photography.

 

The superficial answer would be to say that they both shoot mostly in color.  Shore is the master of composition, and I can imagine he works incredibly slowly. Not only does he use large format cameras, which are clunky and slow, but every inch of his composition is intentional. His landscapes are not only perfect because of his choice of subject matter, but because of the precision of his composition.  I love this about his work.  However, for me I need to be working faster then that.  I rarely spend more than 30 minutes in front of one scene. I think Eggleston works in the same way, shooting 35mm chromes rapidly, but thoroughly. His attention to colors and details always registers at the highest level. I think both play a role in my aesthetics.

 

 

“U.S. 97, South Klamath Falls, Oregon, July 21, 1973”, from “Uncommon Places: The Complete Works”, by Stephen Shore

 

Are there any photographers you identify as modern, or working in a most contemporary style?

 

Two words: Paul Graham! I can’t elaborate enough on his recent contributions to photography. I think every few years the photography world throws someone new into the fire, and for me Graham has carried the torch in the last decade.

 

 

What is it about travel photography that appeals to you?

 

As a photographer, there is no better way to spend time than exploring a foreign place. I love the new faces and the new terrain. I like the challenge of not speaking a language and trying to communicate through hands and expressions with people. My father packed 5 kids all under the age of 12 on a cross country trip. That created a bug in me that has never left. I like to travel at least once a year. Without that, I go a little stir crazy.

 

 

Television Portrait (Cathy, London), 1989 (Paul Graham)

 

 

All images by Stephen Lipuma unless otherwise noted.

 

 

 

 

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