I was immediately drawn to Alberte’s work because his photographs are almost paintings – they are clean, simple, yet also visually rich and powerful. I like it when a street photographer can make good clean shots and show me just what they want and nothing more. Indeed, getting the clutter out of street photography is no easy feat. I sat down (virtually) with Alberte to discuss his work and how he gets these great shots. Here’s our discussion.
Michael: Alberte, How long have you been photographing on the street and why street photography?
Alberte: I went through a travel photography phase in the 80’s. Then I stopped doing it. I retook to photography a little more seriously in 2012 but I have been doing Street photography for only about three years, actually. I like the streets because you are outdoors and you are observing people’s behaviour, how they interact with their surroundings and so on. I like it for how changeable it is. The light changes, the people and the space, it all changes as times goes by, or when you visit a different city. I also like it when I think about the value these images could have in the future – they are a graphic documentation of an era.
Finally, when I am photographing in a very populated street, I love the feeling of being alone in the middle of the crowd. It’s a kind of “socialized solitude”.
Michael: Although you’ve photographed in both color and black and white, your more recent work seems to be all color. Which do you prefer color and why?
Alberte: That’s true. When I started I just took pictures in black and white and now, only in color. They are two different options, or perhaps more correctly, two different languages. Black and white synthesizes and is more dramatic. The absence of color takes you away from reality. On the other hand, colour is more complex and in my opinion, more difficult. Too much colour, or badly organized color, destroys the image. Some colors just don’t work together, but if you play the perfect combination the image will have a unique strength. In my case, right now, I prefer colour. It’s another element that I include in my photos. As Alex Webb once said, “color is emotion”.
Michael: Your sense of composition is very honed and exceptionally skilled. Did you study art formally, or are you completely self-taught?
Alberte: Thank you for your words, Michael. I didn’t study photography; I am completely self-taught. I have attended some street photography workshops, but I haven’t gone formally to a photography school. What I do is look at images and learn from the great photographers. I buy photography books and, when I have the opportunity, I always visit photo exhibitions. But the more knowledge I gather, the less I feel I know. Anyway, I never stop learning as I think it is the only way to try and improve. I really live street photography with a passion.
Michael: In this photo (insert alberte6) the bottom half of the woman doesn’t seem to match up with the shadow. It’s really mind-bending when you examine it carefully. Was this something you were aware of or a happy accident? What attracted you to make this photograph?
Alberte: There is a girl playing in the park of the little village Vila Nova de Cerveira in Portugal. I go there almost daily because I live really close, at the other side of the Miño River in O Rosal, Galicia. I know very well this location and it is very interesting. I have always tried to make some pictures there, but I never got any that I liked. I took this photo after many shots. I took about fifteen photos in total. It was an afternoon at the end of the summer in 2015. The sun was setting and the light was entering horizontally through the Miño River – at that time of the day the light is really good in that particular location for only about fifteen or twenty minutes. I saw the girl playing and how her own shadow was reflected. Through a lateral opening, I bent down and tried to capture the perfect picture, continuing to shoot until I got it.
This picture is not casual or candid; it is completely sought after. I really like it though because the girl’s body doesn’t appear completely, it is not very descriptive. It is intriguing.
Alberte: Who are some of the street photographers both past and present who influence your work?
Michael: There are many. I don’t know if they influence my photography, but they are absolutely a source of inspiration for me. Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Joel Meyerowitz, just to name three. Also, lesser known or maybe not as famous are people like David Alan Harvey, Alex Webb, Costa Manos and Trenk Park. But, as I said, there are many more equally interesting and inspiring for me aside from these few names.
Michael: Alberte, a lot of your photographs have very clean backgrounds. Is this a product of your location, or do you photograph very early in the morning. What accounts for this lonely atmosphere?
Alberte: I imagine it is intrinsic to the way I understand photography, my way of seeing things, my personality. On the other hand, I have done complex photographs in very small villages and others that are very clean that were made in big cities. I suppose it depends on the feeling you have, the mood you are experiencing in each momento. From my point of view, everything influences the moment when you envision an image. Some time ago I wrote one entry in my blog where I curiously talked about that question. I also shared examples of a renowned photographer, Harry Gruyaert, who has many really complex photographs and others that are very simple or clean. They are all from the same photographer, but he did very different things. Why? I think that everything depends on the above mentioned factors.
Michael: Tell us about your day job, or do you make a living from street photography?
Alberte: I wished! I am a civil servant for the justice department. That is the job that feeds me and pays my mortgage. What I do is bring my camera with me everywhere I go. On my way to work, when I go for a coffee, or just for a walk…If I see something interesting I am always ready to capture it. When I go out to photograph in nearby cities, both Portuguese and Galician towns, – I am one of those who do not stay long in one place, I like to move around, looking for locations where I’ve never been, looking for the light. I want to find the images. There are streets that I always visit at certain hours of the day. I take advantage of those moments and follow my route also. I am very curious photographer.
Michael: What do you think is the greatest challenge for a street photographer working today?
Alberte: From a creative point of view, the biggest challenge is to try and do something different. It’s usually said that everything is done, everything has been photographed, and it is true. To photograph in a different way what has been photographed a thousand times before is the challenge. The “how” is the key and the difficult part also. It’s very possible that we won’t make it always, but that is the fun, to try over and over again. And then there is the most pressing challenge: Every day is more difficult to take photographs in the street because of the fear and collective paranoia installed in society. Perhaps in NYC where you live not as much, but here in European cities it is another story. In fact, there have been groups created like the British one “I’m a Photographer Not a Terrorist”. Therefore, this aspect too is a challenge – claiming the street as a public space.
Michael: Do you think social media is helping or hurting the street photography genre, why?
Alberte: I think social media is not bad in itself. The use we make of it can be, however. In that sense, I think it can be a vehicle to spread the work of a photographer. Using it well, it can be really useful in getting your work out there, and that’s a good thing. A different side of the coin is all the visual noise they generate. There are a lot of street photography groups, in which criteria basically don’t exist. They publish thousands of images daily! That is harmful because those published images are taken as a model of street photography and that concept is wrong and difficult to change down the road. Possibly for this very reason some street photographers are beginning to reject the label of “street photography” and adopting more generic and broader terms like documentary photography or just simply photography, full stop. Anyway, I see social media as a tool that can be good when properly used.
Michael: Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Alberte: To talk about Henri Cartier-Bresson is to talk about one of the greatest photographers, one of the founders of the prestigious Magnum Agency. His work is well worth admiring. Although he is also a photographer that brings controversy around the concept of the “decisive moment”, a term he coined. Some people defend him and some people think he is a burden. Personally, I don’t defend that concept. I feel more aligned with the moment before and the moment after, as Lee Friedlander once stated. I am not dogmatic anyway and I appreciate the freedom of each of us to do the photography we love doing.
Michael: A perfect note to end on, thank you, Alberte. This has been insightful and engaging.