Here at #itchysilk our writer Ciaran O’ Fathaigh casts his eye on the Berlin based street photographer Alex Pfeiffer. Street photographer has been maligned (by some). Many see street photography as the inferior brother of photography dragging it’s esteemed brother down a path filled by amateurs and charlatans vying for a brief bit of Instagram fame.
In Ciaran’s interview with Alex Pfeiffer (based in Friedrichshain), we can understand and celebrate street photography more. Far from an inferior photographic form, Alex Pfeiffer speaks with a genuine love for street photography and urges us to see the power of this form.
Are there any photographers from the past who have influenced your work?
There are several photographers. They did not influence my work in its entirety, but I do take some inspiration from them. I really like the eye for composition and the use of dynamic symmetry by Henri Cartier Bresson, the intense storytelling of Ara Güler, Andre Kertesz and finally the straight and clear compositions of Thomas Leuthard. I am drawn to minimalistic compositions, using strong lines and geometrics.
You are vocal about your love of vintage cameras and more traditional techniques.
Yes, I think we´re living in a time where virtually everyone can possess a digital camera. Consequently, photography (especially street photography), where you don´t need that much gear, has become affordable for everyone. Many people just walk out, take a shot of a random public scene, convert it to black and white and call it street photography. But they rarely think about creating a good composition, well placed elements or following simple photographic rules.
It´s not easy to create something special out of an everyday scene, but that´s the challenge in street photography.
And traditional methods.
When shooting with vintage cameras, you are taken back to the roots of photography when it was a real handcraft. You can´t press the shutter in P-Mode where the camera does everything for you. You are responsible for choosing the right aperture, the right shutter speed and you need to read and understand the light instead of a digital camera manual. It helps you slow down your photography. It´s easy to shoot 20 frames of a scene and choose the best one afterwards on your laptop. But when you are forced to work with 24 or 36 frames, (or even 12 when shooting medium form), you´ll have to think twice before you take the shot. You will consider the scene, what might be the best angle, the best perspective, the best setting. It’s this conscious awareness that you only have so many frames you can take and each one is precious.
Have you always been drawn to ‘street photography’ as it were?
I was on the tour in Japan and South Korea with my friend (Basti), who told me about street photography. It sounded interesting. While walking in Osaka and Seoul, he introduced me to that un-staged, un-posed documentary of our society and [taught] me the first lessons between sushi and Asian beer. This trip absolutely brought me into street photography and it was the start of an ongoing love of this challenging and untameable field of photography.
Do you think that making a distinction between artistic photography and street photography is ultimately unhelpful?
I think street photography is a genre, that contains a lot of other forms of photography. Some street photographers have their foible for street portraits, whether they are candid or not. In the urban landscape images of Eric Kim you can see strong connections to regular landscape photography. In my eyes, street photography is often influenced by other forms of photography and transports their special peculiarities to the urban environment.
How do you defend (if that is the right word) street photography when some say that it dumbs down the artform of photography?
I would invite this person to one of my workshops. It´s easy to create art in the studio, where you arrange everything or work with high level post processing afterwards. Take one of these critical photographers out of his comfort zone, place him in a random street with a small, lightweight camera and just a 28mm prime lens for creating some art.
It´s not easy to create something special out of an everyday scene, but that´s the challenge in street photography. It´s a different kind of seeing. You can´t create a situation or an “artful scene”. The scene is already there, and you must discover and capture it in the best way.
Apart from the obvious, how does street photography differ (if it does) from other forms of photography-is it a more powerful photographic medium?
The biggest difference is the factor of the un-staged or un-posed composition. I would name it a more powerful medium when it´s about its documentary of character. It´s kind of documenting our society but not in the staged or overedited way like in commercial photography – we show the barefaced reality. You will see true emotions through our eyes, real sadness, real anger or real happiness. These are true stories of a moment in common people’s life, that could be you and me.
Friedrichshain is your photographic canvass. What intrigues you and why do you think that Berlin has become such a popular place for creatives?
I think Berlin was always such a fascinating place. After the wall fell, it became an even more interesting city for creatives and artists from every part of the world. Everyone had the chance to find [their] place in Berlin- from the luxury oriented upperclass at Ku´damm to the rough, alternative areas of Friedrichshain or Kreuzberg.
There are big changes in Berlin due to gentrification, rising rents and the change of society. These fast changes have influenced the artistic scene. You have many artists following the mainstream and trying to fit the needs of the hipster scene. There are many talented artists in Berlin, but to stand out of the crowd you must create something special, be at the right place at the right time and know the right people.
Your work is powerful in its simplicity.
I´ve read and learned a lot about the psychological effect of images on the viewer, especially related to composition, placing of elements and the rules of so called Gestalt-Psychology. I´m trying to work with clear geometrics, strong lines and patterns, that´s why 90% of my work is in black and white. When an image is composed with elements placed in the right way, kept in a minimalistic style and built in clear, geometric forms, it´s easier to “understand” for the viewer’s brain and creates the feeling of a harmonic composition. This is one of the most important points for me to keep an image. When I´m not absolutely satisfied with the composition of it, I´ll delete the image.
Talk to us about your visual stories.
I am always striving to create a strong story or interesting content. There are so many random shots of big city streets, where you see a lot of people but nothing interesting is happening. In contrast to composition, I do not believe you can learn and understand story telling from a workshop. You learn that ability to predict situations before they happen. This develops with experience, because every photographer is looking for different things. In your eyes, a fascinating person might be interesting, for others colourful subjects or juxtapositions are interesting content, in my case it´s the geometrics. When a clear composition and a strong, interesting story combine- then I think that helps to form the foundation of a great image.
You are part of the collective Berlin 1020. Talk about that more – what are its aims?
We are very relaxed group of street photographers, supporting each other in every case – whether it´s about exhibitions, competitions or just having fun together. We meet at various times, sometimes all of us, sometimes just a few. The special thing is, that we all are not only interested in street photography, it is a real friendship in our collective without any envy on others’ success in exhibitions or awards. Every one of us follows a different style or uses different techniques, so we are inspiring each other to try something new or different all the time.
You have an exhibition we note – talk about that more.
My exhibition Barefaced started in July 2018 in the gallery Lieb and Teuer in Berlin-Kreuzberg, one of the current hotspots of an up-and-coming part of the district. The images are all black and white with a focus on geometrics and scenes that makes the viewer think about what´s going on in the images. The idea behind barefaced is two-fold. On one hand it was a comment by an old lady, when I took a candid shot of her. She reacted and called my behaviour rude and barefaced. On the other hand, my image shows Berlin as it really is, without a mask, the true life in the streets, just barefaced.