The Shock of the New Tech and Who We Are : The Thoughts and Work of Street Photographer Richard Koci Hernandez
I like the sound of – interconnectedness. It has a ring to it… like global.
The idea that the subject, the street photographer, their art and their audience are in some kind of abstract way ‘fused’ together. Irreversibly interconnected, forever, in a great image universe.
The photographer shoots, captures the subject, and then technology takes the photograph to be interpreted by a worldwide audience from wherever they are located, east, west, north and south.
Throw in various multi-media possibilities – TV, magazines, newspapers, SMS, Whats App, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so on, and you catch yourself singing under your breath Somebody left modernity out in the rain… as it all begins to run obliquely together.
I was speaking with University of Berkeley, California, Professor and street photographer Richard Koci Hernandez.
“Our ability to shoot and throw things up into the world in seconds has an impact,” he tells me. “For street photography, for everything to be captured and shared in seconds, and it has had an impact on us, culturally, artistically, creatively…and it’s changed the game.”
We let it float on the sea of now, a universe of possibilities unfolding before us. New existential configurations that we are only starting to figure out. Take a photograph on your phone and in seconds it can be beamed around the world, it can become viral – 20 years ago this would have been cyberpunk, if not science fiction.
“Sadly, I often think we are more concerned with pixels and new cameras and the actual mechanisms and technologies but not the output,” he continues. “I think we need to be having more discussions about the content…and how it is being presented and represented and morphed and changing our sense of WHO WE ARE.”
Copyright ⓒ KOCI
So, WHO are we? What does that actually mean for society? Or how we go about our business and relate to one another? What does it mean for the street photographer?
“The more important point,” he reads my mind. “Is to recognise that it has morphed into a completely different language…spoken and shared and created on a completely different technology, a platform, and a completely different kind of society that has a different kind of expectation around its visuals.”
In our interconnectedness are we, paradoxically and simultaneously, generating the possibility of greater divisiveness – more voices? More visuals? More opinions? More diversity?
Richard Koci Hernandez came to photography via an admiration for the work of Ansel Adams.
“My first instinct,” he said of his own photographic beginnings, “Was the landscape, but eventually it morphed into a really fascinating interest in people. So just photographing snapshots, family images and nothing too spectacular.”
It was from the get-go a love affair. Koci and his camera were creative soulmates and he was soon capturing stories for the San Jose Mercury News as a photojournalist.
It was this stint as a storyteller that acted as the precursor for his contemporary pursuit of street photography and that rich seam of storytelling.
“My biggest instinct is to follow light,” the university of California, Berkeley, Professor says of his methodology. “Or to see the play of light or lack of light or flat light or direct light. But, to see that light and allow myself to see if within that light there is some geometry that is attractive, and then eventually for me it’s about bringing in the human element.”
Copyright ⓒ KOCI
In his search for light, and his use of it there is often a strange – out-of-sorts ‘darkness’, or foreboding in his work, often acutely accentuated by reflection – light bouncing. A way that he works with shadows and light – Ansel Adams influenced perhaps – that lends itself to anticipation. The sense that something is just about to happen – maybe even something incredible – but, of course, we never ever get there, we never ever arrive at the next frame or any other denouement than what we have in the initial image.
There is here a sense of miracle, mystery and authority – to borrow from Fyodor Dostoevsky(The Brothers Karamazov) .
“Some photographers work the other way around,” Hernandez observes. “They are more concerned with the human element, I’m more concerned with the anonymity of the human element. Meaning, I want the place and the situation and the geometry, the light, the mystery, the ambiguity, the darkness or the lightness or the evenness of the light to be an actor in the composition.”
It is a fascinating take on street photography and one he approaches with a rare use of colour.
I did notice, however, one of his recent Instagram images in colour. He had cleverly shot a photograph of the stars and stripes beneath the word business – because, with the Covid-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, it is NOT ‘business as usual’ ( I am paraphrasing from his own caption).
So, what is it about street photography that drives the man?
“There is no question that for me, there is a moment which other people have described as flow,” he told me. “I describe, because I tend to be a dramatic person, as an almost out of body experience, an experience where time and my thoughts kind of seemed to melt away, and I really feel in a moment – almost Matrix style – like it’s..a slow motion moment. It’s not frequent and it’s something that you chase the feeling…of not knowing what is around the corner. The potential reflection of light off a building that bounces in an alley that puts a spotlight where people walk.”
The unravelling of tales, of ordinary folk, caught in what he refers to as the ‘spotlight’ (or car headlights?), in a certain moment in their life, good, bad or indifferent. ‘Stars’ in their own script, for that fleeting moment
“It could be part of someone else’s story,” he says thoughtfully. “There is just so much magic and potential in…walking the street with kind of loose intentions, capturing the beauty and following your heart and your feet, and maybe someone else.”
Copyright ⓒ KOCI
A clear reference to his penchant for taking photographs of people wearing Fedoras, a street photography strategy, he tells me, but beyond that?
“I fell on this idea of every time I see a man…in a hat as I am walking the street, that’s an inter-cosmic sign to just follow that person,” he explained. “Not in a creepy or weird way, but just to follow their path and see where it takes me and kind of get lost with them.”
It had shades of Sophie Calle, the French photographer, but was he really mining something else?
“Hat fascination,” he continued. “Has to do with that kind of internal searching for the kind of father figure in my life, for the mysterious [surreality] of being, of the mystery of not having had one…so there’s something deep there.”
We soon stray back into talking about the idea of mobile street photography, the smartphone as the vehicle for creating art.
“Advances have come so far,” he said. “You can tap on one button, as is evident by any Apple iPhone… and computationally get different lighting situations, refocus, lighten, brighten. So, I would argue that photography is something new.”
New? How can that be?
“We are definitely in an era of computational photography,” he continues. “That opens doors and changes potentials… visions and creativity.”
When I ask about what cameras and equipment he uses I expect him to mention a couple of favourite models and lenses. But he ambushes me with a thoughtful overview on how he works.
“I’ve been creating with all kinds of tools in all kinds of ways,” he fields my question. “Meaning I just like to have a…full jar of ‘brushes’ at my disposal. To restrict myself to just a camera like a mobile phone or just a DSLR or maybe an iPhone and a DSLR is not enough. I need to have a Polaroid, I need to have access to to all kind of different phones and plastic cameras and toy cameras and disposable cameras. On a daily basis I use my mobile phone. It’s the camera dark room and… a delivery mechanism in my hand, so I get immediacy which is unprecedented. So, as a modern photographer I feel like that’s the tool that’s most handy and useful for me.”
This feels like the start of an interview, and there was so much I wanted to ask, but we were done.
Richard Koci Hernandez is a thought-provoking street photographer who is never happier than when he is pushing boundaries, exploring the genre, thinking about what he is doing and considering how every advance in technology impacts upon that practice and the people involved in the art.
But it is more than that.
Interconnectedness, driven by technological advance, is producing new ways for us to go about our business, relate to one another while producing new possibilities in photographic creativity, art and visuals.
Richard Koci Hernandez once said this is the : ‘Dawn of an image sphere, this is our time as photographers.’**
I am happy to ride with that.
Koci did admit to being ‘infatuated’ with a small Sony camera (HX 99) because it shoots in raw and has an optical zoom, he also has an iPhone SE that he uses a lot.
**Taken from a lecture in Bucharest, Romania, 2015 and available on Youtube
Richard Koci Hernandez on Instagram
WITH OUR IMMENSE GRATITUDE