Howard French is an accomplished writer, having been a foreign correspondent for some of the best-known news rags in the world. He is a senior staff writer and for the New York Times, and has written his own book about Africa. He is also one hell of a photographer.
Hello Howard, thank you for taking the time to do an interview for The Daily Shooter. Can you tell us about yourself?
Sure. I’m a father of two boys — one grown and the other almost grown, meaning a junior in college and a junior in high school — who has spent the last 20 years working as a reporter for The New York Times, mostly overseas.
Over that time, I’ve been based in bureaus covering Central America and the Caribbean, West Africa, Japan and China. As best I could reckon, using the Flickr world map that some people post on their page, but I’ve never managed to make appear, I’ve been to 107 countries, which sounds like a lot, but only represents about half of the globe.
I love my work, because its high demands are matched with a very high level of freedom. I decide pretty much where I am going and what I am going to write about from week to week.
In addition to what I do for the Times, I love to read and to write. One of my greatest recent pleasures involved writing, and seeing through to publication, a non-fiction book about Africa called “A Continent for the Taking”. I hope to have a novel written before too long. And a more recent dream is to do a book of photos about Shanghai, where I live.
I keep a fairly active web page ( howardwfrench.com ), where I post some of my own work, plus a log of what I’m reading, very brief assessments of some of those books, and tons of Snippets of articles that I’ve read recently that I think are worthy of note. I also post a great deal of my photography on the site from Shanghai and my travels around China and elsewhere.
By trade, you are a journalist and writer. Where and when did your interest in photography emerge?
My father and a great uncle separately introduced me to photography when I was about 10 years old. The uncle gave me an old Kodak Retina camera, whose value I regret not understanding at the time. We always had lots of cameras around the house, but the Retina had a seductive kind of complexity to it. It was a toy for mature people, basically, and that drew me to it.
Not long afterwards, my Dad built a darkroom in our basement for my older brother and me, and taught us how to develop and print film. I’ve been involved with photography on and off ever since.
What brought you to Shanghai, China?
I had worked in Japan in my immediate prior assignment, and had come to enjoy this part of the world during my four years there, and had worked hard at learning the language. For those reasons, it made sense for me to try to stay in the region, and when the possibility of a Shanghai posting presented itself, I immediately jumped on it.
Shanghai and Tokyo are totally different, but I’ve been very lucky in that each offers plenty of things to love.
Your work is predominantly street photography. I find these street portraits, especially the black and white, stunning. How do you approach your subjects and engage them in a portrait?
Thanks. There are not a lot of tricks involved. I get asked this question enough, though, to have the answer boiled down to a couple of essential thoughts.
First, be comfortable with your own project. If you look like you are sneaking around, or trying to steal someone’s image, they’ll react to you as if you are violating them. If, on the other hand, you act as if what you are doing is normal, which it is, when done properly, people will generally welcome you, or at least relax enough to let you work.
Second, be patient. You’ve got to hang around to get good stuff. For those of us who are not geniuses, getting good shots when you’re breezing through is nothing more than dumb luck.
In this regard, I’ve found using my trusty Yashica Mat-124G to be a great ally. It’s all manual all the time, which means you’ve GOT to take your time, composing carefully, getting the light right, focusing, etc. It’s completely different from using a digital SLR, and I think it helps facilitate the kind of intimacy I like. For one thing, they’re big, but not menacing when aimed.
As for approaching my subjects, ideally, I like to get some frames off before there’s been any verbal exchange. That means giving yourself time to blend in a little bit, and let the temperature drop. The shots I manage to get this way are usually, but not always, my favorites. I like the human face when it isn’t muddled by an awareness of being studied.
Do you find that getting out in the street and photographing the people helps you connect with the stories that you are writing?
Absolutely. I learned this first by working with great photographers — people like Stuart Isett (see his Flickr page), Gilles Peres, or Angel Franco of the New York Times, and many other great shooters. Their work is fundamentally about people, and that means descending into their midst, getting in close and being intimate. I’ve found that the closer I get to people the better I can write about them. Photography brings me closer to people.
Do you have any advice on the best way to shoot these kinds of pictures?
In addition to what I said above, I’d suggest two slightly contradictory approaches. Know you locale and your subject, and return there often if you are aiming for intimate street work. The other thing is follow your inspiration. I choose an area and then wander within it, without a fixed destination, and certainly without a fixed image that I want to achieve in my mind beforehand.
Have you ever had someone confront you for taking his or her picture?
It happens from time to time, but it’s rarely a big deal. Ninety percent what holds us back is our own inhibition. The other 10 percent you learn to work through. It’s possible to talk with people. You learn to disarm hot heads, to use allies within a crowd to defuse things. It’s not that hard once you plunge in.
For the technophiles in the crowd, what kind of equipment do you use? Film / Digital?
I had an accident last week in which I fell into a swamp while shooting a series about municipal garbage. I lost my Canon EOS 10D body and a couple of lenses, including my prized 35 f/2. I also damaged my Yashica, one of the loves of my life. It’s being restored, but I couldn’t wait, so I went out the next day and bought a new one for about $200. Replacing the Canon, probably with a 20D, will have to wait a bit longer. I’ve recently ordered a Rolleiflex 2.8, and naturally expect to fall in love with that, too.
I’ve been shooting Olympus OM slr cameras since I was a freelance reporter in Africa in the early 1980s. I love film in general, and I love my Olympuses. I’ve got two OM4s, an OM2n, and an OM1. These cameras have very good optics, absolutely fantastic light metering, for the 2s and 4s, and best of all, considering the kind of shooting I like to do, they are remarkably small and unobtrusive.
I like Ilford black and white films, particularly their Delta type film. I shoot a bit of Velvia now and then, but have also come to love Kodak E100 VS color transparency film. I’m planning to start shooting a lot of this in the summer, when Chinese street life reaches its peak. Coming to my curios, I have a Rollei 35B, which somehow manages fantastically saturated chromes.
Finally, I’ve got a little Casio, credit card-sized digital, the E-S500. It’s a remarkably good little camera, and believe it or not, some of my favorite shots on the Flickr site were taken with it.
Do you have a favorite picture taken by someone else? Why?
I find this question too hard to answer. Really. Favorites change all the time. I’m learning too much, and am humbled by the achievements of others in this medium, including tons of anonymous people whose work I discover every week on Skype.
I’m reading a lot about photography there days, too, and am taken with the work and lives of any number of “greats.” Their styles range all over the place: Roy Decarava, Garry Winogrand, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, and on and on.
One recent book I’ve enjoyed immensely is “The Ongoing Moment,” by Geoff Dyer. It’s a broad and brilliant look at photography as an art form.
Do you have a favorite picture that you have taken? Why?
Why is it my favorite? I’ve learned a lot since I took this picture, late last year, in the far west of China, and for that reason, this was a very tough call. This trip, and the work I did on it with my Yashica Mat-124G, including this image, reawakened me to the possibilities of medium format photography, and to the power of black and white.
One can find a bit of everything here that I strive for in this format (more so than in SLR work, which even on my manual Olympuses is far quicker than a twin lens reflex): a bit of story telling, a bit of drama with the light, a strong character(s), and when it works, a sense of busy-ness or complexity in the ordering of objects. In short, this picture represents one of my first steps toward developing a style with 6×6 black and white.
What is the best part of picture making for you?
There are many terrific joys. Composing the image and then snapping it when things have lined up more or less as you wanted them to is an incomparable pleasure. So is seeing the image first pop up on the screen of my computer when I scan it.
You have traveled throughout the world, is there a place that you would like to visit (or live) that you have not been to yet?
I wasn’t taking many pictures during my most recent four year stint in Africa, and I’d love to have a chance to return, to have someone send me there on assignment, to shoot pictures. I’ve got Africa in my blood, and have been away longer now — five years or so — than any time since I first visited the continent, in 1975. I would also like to visit Eastern Europe, where I’ve never been, to Iran, to Turkey, or to just about anywhere in central Asia.
So what next?
My hope is to build a sufficient body of work on Shanghai to support a photography book about one of the world’s greatest cities and how it is being utterly transformed, almost in the blink of an eye, from a place of very distinctive and almost organic character to a place that will certainly be magnificent and may even inspire awe, but will ultimately be far less distinctive. Almost by definition, the wholesale creation of an ultra-modern city means the replacement of identity with anonymity.
Howard, thank you again for taking the time to an interview, and to make The Daily Shooter a source of inspiration for photographers worldwide. I look forward to see some more of your work on Flickr and on your website http://www.howardwfrench.com.
Good luck with you writing and your photography.
To view more of Howard French’s work, please visit A Glimpse of the World Âª