A Conversation with Carl Corey
By Michael Ernest Sweet
How did you get started in photography?
I got my first camera in 1963 at age 9. It was a Kodak Brownie I still have. I liked to collect pictures.
Why street or documentary photography and not studio or commercial?
I studied photography in college and was greatly influenced by my mentor, David Gilmore, from Southern Illinois University. He’s a documentary photographer with great respect for the classic photograph. I did commercial work in food, fashion, and illustrative for twenty-five years in Chicago. I then started doing film and moved to Los Angeles for four years to follow that muse. I returned to the Midwest in 1994 where I continued commercial work in both print and film. Then, in 2007, I decided to return to my roots as a documentary style photographer. The experience and technique of commercial work have very much helped my efficiency in this realm, i.e. planning, logistics, scouting, and travel.
What do you feel makes a good photograph?
Aesthetics alone are not enough. Unfortunately, there is an abundance of nice looking pictures on the web that mean nothing. I’d much rather look at a poorly executed picture with strong content than a vapid well composed and printed one. The best pictures work on both levels, they are visually interesting, encouraging the viewer to look, while also stimulating thought.
Copyright ⓒ Carl Coney
What kind of gear do you use and how important do you think it is to your overall product?
I like tough gear with good optics. The simpler the better. I have used every camera you can think of from 8×10 view cameras to Leica 35mm. My favorite film cameras in the commercial days were, 8×10 Cambo, Hasselblad, and Nikon. Now I use a 1971 Mamiya Press Universal for portraits, and a Fuji Xtrans kit for everything else. I have always held the Fuji optics in the highest regard and those X cameras are very tough. All this being said, I don’t believe the camera makes the picture, it facilitates it for sure, but the picture comes from the photographer’s soul.
I notice most, perhaps all, of your work is in color, why color?
We see in color and color is more natural than B&W. I do some B&W portraits and am currently doing a series of bleached color negative portraits, but really I am very simple in my approach.
Much of the street photography we tend to see these days is urban photography. How do you feel about shooting the “street” in rural areas? What are some of the unique challenges it presents?
More photographers live in cities than in rural areas, which accounts for the majority of local work being urban. I photograph where I am and that is the upper Midwest, so most of my pictures reflect that. I do travel a lot, but rarely into cities to photograph. My process is to walk about a town then return the next day to photograph what I saw that interested me. The biggest challenge is coping with the lack of trust and suspicion from folks when they see a man with a camera. I usually encounter the police every trip. Most of whom are very polite, a very few not so much. But I am charming.
Copyright ⓒ Carl Coney
Tell me about some of the things you like and some of the things you dislike about street photography today?
I like that there are intelligent soulful people, who have something interesting to say, who would have been intimidated by the pasts’ technical requirements and cost of entry, now making good pictures. I dislike that there are too many visually illiterate people that are adding visual clutter to the industry because now there is no technical requirements or cost of entry. It is a conundrum. It all comes down to content. Everyone has access to pencils and the thesaurus, but there are only a few really good writers. I encourage photographers to slow down, think, and post less – quantity is no substitute for quality. You are only as good as the worst picture you choose to share.
Who are some of the photographers that have influenced your work the most?
Well of course David Gilmore, my mentor, as well as Saul Leiter, Helen Levitt, William Eggleston, Irving Penn, Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, Richard Avedon, Stephen Shore, Richard Misrach, and Diane Arbus. A big list I know – probably why I still like making studio portraits and documentary work.
Many of your photographs lack a human subject. What are some of the challenges to making an effective image without a human subject?
I want the viewer to enter my pictures, to experience the place and, hopefully, stimulate some thought on their part. My pictures are as much about the viewer as they are the subject. As soon as there is a person in a picture that picture becomes about that person. That’s great but does not fall into my criteria. I try and photograph in the wee hours or when a locale is unoccupied. I do not like nighttime pictures for the sake of the nighttime “look”, i.e. pretty colors and strong graphics, most are vapid pretty pictures, but sometimes I need to work at night to accommodate the emptiness. I did an entire series on Manhattan with no people in the pictures. Of course, most were made at 4 am. It is important that there is soul in a picture and that means artifacts or another semblance of humanity. While there are no people in many of my pictures, I do try and have a touch of humanity very present.
Copyright ⓒ Carl Coney
You refer to yourself as a documentary photographer and yet much of your work is indeed candid and found in public spaces. What do you feel sets the documentary photographer, like you, apart from a street photographer?
It’s pretty hard for any photograph to not be documentary. All are a document of a moment in time whether created or found. There’s lots of discussion around this and no real clear answers. I immerse myself in the environment I wish to photograph and walk about making pictures sharing my experience in that environment. I consider it documentary if the project has a focus primarily to share “honest” observations within a context or theme. Of course, what is honest is also open for much discussion. I define honest as portraying the actual frame of the camera lens however I use my visual experience to make that as strong and interesting as possible.
Do you see any overlap? Do you ever consider that you are doing street photography?
There is definitely overlap. I believe street photographers are definitely working to document their surroundings. This is what I do with my long format projects, just making sure they stay focused upon the documenting of a particular theme defined by the project at hand.
What comes next for Carl Corey?
This year I am finishing a three-year project, The Strand, about the American Great Lakes communities along the American Great Lakes strand. I am publishing two projects with Cottage Industry, a zine for the Visual Conservancy named PEER, and a book of portraits by Xavier Tavera. I am also starting a natural light studio portrait series as well as putting some thought into a project about extreme rural life in Wisconsin.
Copyright ⓒ Carl Coney
Carl Corey has exhibited widely in solo and group shows in the United States and abroad, his work has also been featured in many of photography’s most prestigious periodicals, including Camera Work Bicentennial Edition, Communication Arts, Columbia Journalism Review and Visual Communication Quarterly. He is the recipient of more than 100 awards from the advertising, publishing and photography communities, including National INDIE Book Publishers Best Photography Book, The Crystal Book Award, Midwest Publishers Gold Book Award, New York Art Directors Club, Communication Arts, Print Annual and USA National Best Book Awards.
Corey’s photographs have been the subject of several books including The Tavern League: A Portrait of the Wisconsin Tavern (The Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2011), Contemporary Photography in New York City, edited by Marla Hamburg Kennedy (Rizzoli, 2011) in which he was a featured photographer, and Rancher (Bunker Hill / GalleryPrint, 2007). For Love and Money: A Portrait of the Family Business was released in April 2014.
Michael Ernest Sweet is a Canadian writer and photographer. His work has appeared in magazines such as Popular Photography, Black and White, The Village Voice, Digital Camera, and The Evergreen Review. Michael is the author of two books of street photography, The Human Fragment, and Michael Sweet’s Coney Island, both from Brooklyn Arts Press. Michael lives in New York City.
For More of Michael E Sweet @mesweetphotos twitter
& on Instagram @mesweetphotos