Robert M Johnson’s street photography is some of the earliest street photography I remember, aside from the wildly famous stuff. I discovered his work early on and remember being fascinated by the nostalgia of it all. As Susan Sontag tells us, time will, eventually, make all photographs good – but Robert’s were good to begin with, and that’s what truly makes them great now. Robert has weathered a lot of storms, the rise (and potentially the fall) of the digital image, the ebb and flow of the street genre and its tenuous popularity in the greater world of art – he’s seen a lot. Yet, he kept on firing his shutter, a distinct feat in itself. I sat down with Robert to dig a little deeper into what drives this master street photographer. Here’s that conversation:
Michael: Do you remember the first day you made a photograph? Tell us about it.
Robert: During my first excursion on the streets of Worcester, Massachusetts to attempt what at the time was considered candid available light photography, I encountered what I thought was the perfect subject matter for street photography an elderly bearded scruffy looking gentleman. I asked him if I could take his photograph and replied yes but it would cost me a dollar because someday it might show up in a museum. I happily gave him the dollar and enjoyed the pleasure of photographing him, then we both smiled and parted ways on that cold 70s winter day.
Michael: Robert, what was the mood on the street in the 70s? Did people react to your making photographs of them?
Robert: Surprisingly, Michael, I can only remember one negative encounter that comes to mind while taking a street image during the 70s. Early on I had no problem asking people if I could photograph them but soon I moved on to not asking. Most people became aware of what I was doing after the photo was taken, then it was a quick smile and I was on my way.
Recently as I walked into a local coffee shop I took a photo of a young man standing in front of his motorcycle with my IPhone. He followed me into the coffee shop and asked me why I took a photo of him. I like your bike I answered, he was happy with the explanation and off he went into the night.
Michael: What do you find different about street photography today when compared to the analog era of the 70s and 80s, for example?
Robert: It is so easy now to be nonintrusive with all the small cameras that are available to this generation compared to the Nikon F that I used during the 70s. Everyone has a camera now but in the 70s just seeing another person on the streets with a camera was rare, and if you did most of the time people had them in a camera case.
Michael: What equipment were you using when you made these photographs?
Robert: I gravitated to SLR’s and the various versions of the Nikon F along with Tri- X film over the years. My goto camera ended up being the Nikon FM, It seemed small at the time but it was not small by any means. I shot with a 105mm Nikkor very early on but ended up using the 50mm Nikkor exclusively. In the early 80s I also used an 85mm Nikkor now and then.
The Nikon was so hard to hide that I didn’t even try. I used the classic technique of strapping the camera to my wrist and raising it to my eye to shoot. Then I always ended it up with a quick smile. I also experimented with shooting with a waist level finder and using a hand held meter, after a time I memorize most exposures that were needed.
Michael: Interesting, I must say I don’t often speak to street photographers who are Nikon SLR fanatics! Who inspired you to take up street photography?
Robert: All the classic street photographers that I became aware of played a roll in my development as a Street Photographer but Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank are at the top of my list. Garry Winogrand introduced me to the joys of letting life unfold before my eyes while Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank influenced my framing and timing. Even the legions of anonymous talented photographers at the time had an impact on me. I would spend hours at our local library pouring over the photography books and then hit the streets with my camera. The world was a magical place to view at that point. One of my local photographic heroes is a man named E. B. Luce. He photographed the streets of Worcester with his glass plate camera in the early 1900’s and started the longest operating photo lab in the United States. He is now sadly on the verge of being forgotten, but never by me. And I can’t overlook Vivian Maier, the patron saint of street photography. At first I thought it was just hype but now I’m a believer.
Michael: Of the many millions, or so it seems, of street photographers at work today, who do you enjoy most?
Robert: I tend not to seek out a lot of images from the net these days, but the talent is still out there. I know that I have seen a good photo when I forget about anything good that I have ever done! Seriously.
Michael: Interesting that you kind of overlook the internet’s flurry of street photography. I recently was speaking with Mark Cohen and he told me the same thing, in fact, he went on to profess that the internet was “dead” in terms of photography. Tell me, how do you feel about the crop/don’t crop and the candid/posed debates in street photography?
Robert: I am a no crop guy but it’s just a personal thing. Whatever works making a photo is perfectly acceptable. I never felt comfortable with posed street photos.
Michael: Robert, you shot mostly black and white in the 70s, why?
Robert: In the 70s using a camera was just half of the skill set. Developing and printing your own black and white images also played a big part. I spent many hours in commercial darkrooms as a lab tech and at home for personal enjoyment. My darkroom skills did evolve into the ability to produce a very high quality print.
A funny thing was that when I loaded b&w film into my camera in the 70s I would start to see more color subject matter. Now it is just a switch to be hit but it still happens.
Michael: A couple of the images here have noticeable blur. This stylistic feature is a lot more acceptable today, but in the 70s it must surely have been more frowned upon, just think about the struggles Klein underwent, for example. How was this kind of work received at the time you made it?
Robert: As I was creating my images during the 70s I knew very well that the audience for them would come as the decades went on and this has proven to be true. I moved so fast back then from one image to the next that utilizing blur in my images did not stand out that much even to me at the time. Now I do have a group of blurred images that work well as a theme. These days I have no emotional involvement with any one image of mine, it keeps me grounded.
Michael: Joel Meyerowitz?
Robert: I consider Joel Meyerowitz to be a national hero. He used his talent and heart to document the tragedy of 9/11 and Ground Zero in a way that I don’t believe any other photographer could have done. The entire nation should be grateful for his commitment and dedication to documenting the event.
Robert is Based in MA, USA follow him on Instagram @robert_m_johnson