This is one of my favourite interviews to date. It really delves into the details of how Eric Kim found his niche, and started to excel in it. We also cover shooting on film, and why he made the switch to exclusively film for street photography. Most importantly though, we discover how Eric has found his own style and the inspiration behind his shooting. And how you can do the same.
If you’re an aspiring photographer, particularly if you’re interested in street, then this interview is for you.
Short Bio of Eric Kim
Eric Kim is an international street photographer currently based in Los Angeles. Through his blog and workshops, he teaches others the beauty of street photography, how to find their own style and vision, as well as how to overcome their fear of shooting strangers.
In the past he has done collaborations with Leica, Magnum, as well as Invisible Photographer Asia. He is currently an instructor at UC Riverside Extension, teaching a university-level street photography course. Last year he was also one of the judges for the London Street Photography Festival.
He has exhibited his work at the Leica stores in Singapore, Seoul, and Melbourne. He has taught workshops in Beirut, Seoul, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Berlin, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Sydney, Melbourne, Zurich, London, Toronto, Mumbai, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Kota Kinabalu. You can see his upcoming workshops here.
He’s 24 years old, but already has a huge following Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. You can find him by clicking on those links. You can also visit his website here.
Right, let’s get down to business.
Hi Eric, first of all, thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview.
How did you find street photography to be right for you, and what can you recommend to other photographers trying to find their niche?
It took me about a year or two or experimentation with different types of photography before I found my niche. When I started off, I was interested (like everyone) in landscape photography, flowers, as well portraiture.
However, something still drew me into street photography. I think it was the fact that I have always been fascinated with faces and people.
I always would be the guy at the party taking photos of friends/family – and I noticed that the best shots I got were always the candid shots.
Taking that to the street, I was fascinated taking photographs of strangers (gasp) without their permission! I first thought I was the only creep doing it, but after posting some of my images to the Fred Miranda b&w forum, they told me that they loved my “street photography”.
I wasn’t quite sure what street photography was at the time- but after a few google searches I discovered the work of the masters such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz, and Robert Doisneau. After that I became inspired by the work of the guys from In-Public.
The advice I would give to people trying to find their niche is to think of how you can combine all your interests in photography (and life) and combine them. For example, when I started off street photography, I was still interested in landscape and architecture at the time. Therefore I would create street photographs that were very landscapy and architecturally-based in nature, while adding in people afterwards. I love this tip.
Furthermore, as a student at UCLA, I studied sociology and was fascinated with the study of people and society. Translating that and my interest in photography – street photography became dominant in my life.
As stated earlier, I would really like to emphasize the importance of sticking to one niche. The turning point was when I took a look at my website and removed all of my wedding photographs, portraits, landscape, macro, etc and only showed my street photographs. I still remember when I changed the title of my portfolio site from “Eric Kim Photography” to “Eric Kim Street Photography”. From that point forward, my photography has only gone up.
Were you formally educated in photography, or are you self taught?
I have never received formal education in photography. However I think it was my formal education in Sociology at UCLA is what gave me the most insight into my street photography and career in teaching workshops.
As a Sociology student, I took an honors ethnography course — in which I entered a continuation high school (school for “problem students”) and did research. I was taught to enter that environment as both an outsider and an active participant, and not to have any pre-conceived notions of the subjects I was studying or the social world. By having an open mind, I would then pick up on themes to focus on and study.
I apply the same methodology to my street photography projects. Whenever I am traveling or working on a project in a certain area, I always enter it with an open mind and heart. The first few days I just take photographs of anything that interest me. Then certain themes begin to emerge, and I continue to pursue those.
Who have you learned the most from?
Whenever I go on a trip, I often shoot 50/50 on film and digital, never quite having the nerve to go fully analogue, even though I prefer the look. What made you decide to make the switch fully, and is digital really dead (in street photography) for you?
For me the switch wasn’t as difficult as I imagined. I too had similar concerns about shooting fully analogue (how would my film react to x-ray machines? what if my exposures are all off? what if I run out of film?) Fortunately I have never experienced any of these issues (I have taken my film through 3-4 x-rays on a trip and have been fine, I know my camera well enough so my exposures look good, and I budget about 50 rolls of film for each month of travel.
I don’t have anything against digital photography, nor do I think that people who shoot film are “better” than digital photographers.
For myself personally, I prefer the workflow of film. In my daily business, I am constantly connected to the internet and web. I blog and make videos constantly, update my Facebook, Twitter, Google+, send emails, schedule workshops, respond to comments- it can be quite overwhelming at times you know? Therefore shooting film helps me escape from all of that and really slow down and zen out.
When shooting digital, one of my biggest problems was chimping (looking at my LCD screen too often). Even when I would go an entire day without chimping, I would still rush home and import my images and look at them too quickly.
With film, I am forced to not look at my images for an entire month at least. This helps me emotionally disconnect from my photos (as I forget taking half of them) – and I can better edit my work (choose my best shots).
I also don’t like post-processing much. I like how in film it looks good “straight out of camera”. This gives me more time to shoot in the streets, and to spend less time on the computer.
I still like to use digital when taking snapshots of my friends, family, or food!
Favorite film to shoot on?
What is it that makes shooting on film better for you? I can never quite put my finger on the exact shift. For me, it’s a combination of grain, dynamic range, and the way you think differently before taking a photo.
I do appreciate the aesthetic of film. I like the grain, contrast of black and white film, as well as the saturation of color film). But once again I appreciate the process the most.
You are definitely much more selective when shooting on film. I generally shoot a lot when on the streets. When I was shooting digital, I could easily shoot up to 300-400 photographs in a day. With film, I might shoot 3-4 rolls (108-144 shots) in a day, and that is a lot. I generally shoot 1-2 rolls a day.
Therefore in the end, the editing process is much easier – choosing my best shots. I have fewer shots to look at, and it is less stressful to choose my best images (as I do more editing in the viewfinder when I am taking my shots).
What camera do you use the majority of the time?
You shoot with a Leica, so a natural question would be, is gear important?
Gear is definitely important – to a certain point.
If you were a painter, you probably wouldn’t use a paint-roller to color in small details in a painting. Similarly if you were a mechanic, you wouldn’t use a hammer to screw in nails.
I prefer to use a Leica because I have found rangefinders to be best for my street photography shooting style. I generally shoot the majority of my shots at around 1.2 meters at f/8. Shooting with a rangefinder makes this really easy (if my lens is focused dead-center that is 1.2 meters, and I can quickly adjust my aperture directly on the lens (without having to deal with clunky menus).
Furthermore, shooting with a rangefinder lets me always have my “eyes open”. I used to shoot quite a bit on my Canon 5D, but I hated having the shutter black-out when taking a photograph. The Leica is also much smaller and compact, and therefore I end up carrying it around with me more.
I also notice that people react differently when I shoot with a rangefinder vs DSLR. The Leica looks like an old hobbyist camera, whereas the DSLR looks too “professional”. Therefore people tend to react much less when I am shooting with a Leica.
When I’m not shooting with a flash and want to be more discrete, the Leica MP I shoot with is dead silent. A DSLR on the other hand – is easily audible when in a quiet subway, bus, etc.
To sum up, you don’t need the most expensive camera in the world to shoot street photography – just whatever camera suits you the best. I know tons of guys who shoot street with the iPhone and get great results!
You can only have one lens for the rest of your life, what is it?
Leica 35mm Summicron f/2 ASPH (the only lens I currently own for my Leica MP).
The first film camera I handled was a Contax IIIa from my grandfather who passed when I was 2 years old. I ruined at least 4 rolls of film by forgetting that the camera still had film in it, and opening the back. I also remember ocassions in which I shot an entire “roll” and realized there was no film inside, or that the film wasn’t spooling correctly.
Everyone I know who shoots film experiences this when starting off. However with practice, you won’t ever screw up again (as the experience of screwing up can be so painful).
If you shoot with a film Leica I have the following advice: Always take two shots in the beginning of the roll and make sure the camera is spooling correctly. Once your camera is loaded and you put on the back, to remember if you still have film in the camera or not – pull up the film rewind knob and see if there is any tension. If there is some tension, it means there is film inside. If there isn’t tension, there isn’t film inside.
That’s a great idea, and one that would have saved me on occasion.
I also suggest if people are going to shoot street photography with a film camera, they stick with it. I don’t believe in switching between digital and film when shooting on the streets – unless they are for different projects. For one project, just stick to digital or film. This way you will always remember if you have film loaded or not!
How would you define your personal style of street photography?
I had a discussion about this in a previous interview with Matt Brandon from his “Depth of Field” podcast.
My style in street photography definitely isn’t purist. I think I would define my style as “social critique street photography” as I am quite interested in embedding my interest in sociology into my street work. Studying sociology has made me critical of society and the world around me in many different ways – and I wish to expose that through my photography.
For example in one of the projects I recently published “Korea: The Presentation of Self“, it was a social critique of Koreans, consumerism, and identity. Being a Korean-American myself, I know how superficial Koreans can be with our brand-named clothes, fancy bags, and luxury cars. We mistake our identity with material objects, and often present a “false self” to others of being “successful” (when we may be in thousands of dollars in debt).
Favourite photography book?
“Office” by Lars Tunbjork.
I am quite the opposite from you, and I don’t mind distracting the subject or interacting with the subject. I think this comes from my extroverted personality and just being drawn to people. Even if I don’t have a camera in hand, I like to talk to strangers, chat about their days, or even compliment what they are wearing.
95% of my shots are without permission, but there are times I ask as well. For example, whenever I feel that I may get my ass kicked without asking for permission or stabbed, etc – I ask for permission. Generally this applies to guys in Downtown LA who either look like real tough guys, have gang tattoos over their body, wear certain gang attire, etc.
When taking photographs, I generally always smile to people afterwards and say “thank you”. I also like to talk to a lot of people I take photographs of afterwards.
I rarely get negative reactions but when I do, I tend to apologize and quickly move on. If people ask me to delete the shot, I tell them I shoot film and show them the back of my camera. This perplexes 99% of the people out there, and they generally let me off the hook. For those who tell me to take out the entire roll of film I politely decline, and say they can call the cops. I only had one case when a woman called the cops on me in Melbourne when I took her photo without permission, and the cops told her kindly I had every right to do so.
What was your proudest moment in your photography career so far?
Teaching a high-school photography class to a continuation school for troubled & low-income students.
What do you think of B&W versus Colour with street photography?
Shooting street photography in b/w vs color are two totally different ways of working.
For example, when I am shooting in black and white I am looking for different things. I generally look for the light, shadows, reflections, form, geometry, and shapes.
When shooting in color I look for color. If I see someone wearing the color red and blue I am instantly drawn to it (I may not be interested in that shot in b/w), as well as other bright colors (orange, yellow, etc). I try to think of how color can add to the image.
The tricky thing is that shooting color can often be distracting, and is more difficult for me. However the last 4 months or so I have been shooting excluslively color film as I find it much more descriptive than b/w. After all, we see the world in color – and not shooting in color brings around some certain questions. Is the McDonalds logo really the McDonalds logo without the red and yellow arches? Is the sky really blue without the blue? And is gold jewelry truly jewelry without the yellow hue?
Which photo are you currently most proud of ?
You’re constantly traveling the world, taking photos and running workshops in different cities. What are your favourite subjects and locations?
Shooting personal work while traveling so much is quite tough. I believe that to shoot a really strong series or project, you need to work on it for at least a year in a certain location. For example my “City of Angels” project is comprised up of 17 images and took me about a year shooting all-around Los Angeles. That meant that I got one or two usable shots a month (and I shoot everyday).
The project I am currently focusing on is a project on “Suits” – which is a reflection of the gloom I had when working as a suit. I was always chasing that next paycheck, raise, and promotion. It was all a rat race, and I didn’t feel fulfilled at my job personally, emotionally, or spiritually.
Now whenever I see people in suits, I can sympathize with them. And the great thing about working on a project about suits is that I can see them everywhere in my travels. Therefore I don’t have a city in particular I am trying to focus on – but I tend to shoot in business districts with a lot of suits.
Martin Parr / Lars Tunbjork / Alex Webb
I’m aware that you outsource all of your film processing (rightly so). But to what degree do you retouch your photos, Photoshop? Lightroom? Aperture? Anything that you like to do in your photos in particular, such as add certain curves?
I don’t know how to process my own film. For my B&W film I got it all processed in Korea and then I scanned the shots I liked the best at home with my Plustek scanner. For color film I heard it isn’t even worth processing it yourself so I get it processed at Costco and scanned for me (only $5 a roll!)
Whenever I come back from a trip abroad for a month, I generally have 50 shots to process. I wouldn’t want to waste my time to process my own film (as others can do it better and quicker than I ever could). I like having more time to work on my blog and shoot.
For black and white photographs, I scan them at a high DPI and then adjust the contrast in Lightroom or Photoshop for more control. For color film, I never need to post-process the shots as they come looking fantastic straight out of camera (great contrast, saturation, etc).
I think that Lightroom is still important for my editing process (for choosing my best shots). I put all my scanned shots in folders, and like to further edit down and flag my best shots.
Favourite photography website?
Top tip for any aspiring street photographers out there?
Know that the photographs you take are self-portraits. Everyone has a unique upbringing and way of seeing the world. See how you can combine your background with your street photography.
Do you love history? Make history with your street photographs. Love fine art? Make images that are well-composed and beautiful with light. Love sociology or political science? Make street photographs that make more social or political statements.
Like the ancient Greek saying, “Know thyself” and you will better know what makes your style of street photography unique.
If you could tell yourself anything when you first started out, what would you say?
And finally, please write a short message to anyone who looks up to your style, with a few words of wisdom.
No man is an island. Although street photography is generally something done alone and a solitary pursuit- find a local community of passionate street photographers to meet. It is crucial to find a community that is not only supportive but critical or your work. They help you stay motivated, and you help them stay motivated to improve.
If you want to become a better street photographer- listen more to critics and less of people who like your photographs. Be ruthless when editing – it takes me around 6 months of editing before I can finalize a series that I feel flows well and are images I feel proud of showing.
Lastly don’t worry if you can’t make photography your full-time profession. Ironically enough, I probably had more time to shoot street photography when I still have my full-time job! Always make time to shoot even if it is just your lunch break – and know that you can shoot street photography anywhere (even in your suburban neighborhood!)