What is “In Focus”?
Places and Images
with Howard French
Howard French is a senior staff writer for the New York Times, and has written his own book about Africa. He is also an inspiring documentary photographer based in Shanghai, China.
Good day Mr. French, for those who are
unfamiliar with you, could you please illustrate your first
contact with the photography(consider revisiting this
fragment)? How and when did you decide Photography
is the career you want to pursue?
Thanks very much for your interest in my work, and for
taking the time to do this interview.
To tell the truth, photography is the career I wish I could
pursue. I am an amateur photographer in every sense of the
word. Some of my images have been published here and there,
but I do this for the love of photography, not to make a
It’s a bit late to be thinking of switching from a life of
writing to making my living as a photographer. I still have
goals as a writer. My first book, a book on Africa, was
published a couple of years ago, and I have active plans to
write others, including a first novel I hope to finish soon.
That said, I would really relish the opportunity to shoot on
assignment from time to time, and I’d also like very much to
publish a photography book on Shanghai.
If we say what caught our attention initially was
how “alternative” or “beautiful” your works were, do you
believe us? In your own words, how do yourself describe
I am fundamentally concerned with people; with human beings
and their natural environment.
I don’t believe in tricks. I like to shoot as close to
nature as my camera and its lens and the film (usually)
will allow me to. I don’t like to add energy to the scene
through my own presence. The ideal for me is to capture
things the way they are, or the way they were, an instant
before I showed up.
I don’t usually crop. I do the barest minimum of work in
Photoshop, and I usually work in black and white — partly
because I love the way it looks, partly because its more
affordable and partly because I haven’t ever managed to
completely figure out color.
I see tons of amazing images on Flickr. Many of them
involve intensive manipulation of one kind or another. I’m
not against that in any philosophical sense, it’s just not
me. I’m not clever enough, for one. Besides, the world is
already deeply compelling as it is. and I love it that way.
Japan, West Africa, ChinaÃ– Where did all this
energy come from? Moving and traveling aroundÃ–
I’ve been a correspondent for the New York Times for 20
years, and before that, was a freelance reporter, working
and traveling in Africa and elsewhere. I’ve been blessed
with a career that has taken me to a great many places and
exposed me to many, many things. My eyes are addicted,
though, quite apart from the rest of my brain, and I can’t
see not being photographically engaged with the world.
What in your opinion is the most exciting aspect of
traveling? Less exciting?
It’s all about discovery. There’s nothing more vivifying.
The mechanics of travel can be arduous and tiresome, but
there’s a devil in every bargain. I use airplanes and
trains as occasions to read, and when possible to rest, and
sometimes even to take pictures.
What was your the most
memorable photographic experience?
I have a new one every weekend, when I get up after several
hours from my writing table, load my camera gear into my
bags and hit the streets of Shanghai, where I live, and
shoot ordinary people. So far it seems to be an
I shot this image last weekend with my Rolleiflex, one of
12 images on a roll of 120 film, without a disappointment
among them. That’s a pretty rare, Zen-like feeling,
especially for street work. It’s my favorite till next
You specialize in journalistic photography, is there
something that you will not shoot?
I’m trying to think what that might be. My curiosity is
Actually, I wouldn’t call myself a journalistic
photographer. Documentary or street might be more
appropriate labels. I’m not too interested in practicing
news photography. That’s not because I don’t respect it.
Quite the contrary. I’ve worked with some really great
talents (Stuart Isett, Chang Lee, Angel Franco, Gilles
Peres, Jeffrey Salter, and on and on). It’s just that I’m
personally into something quieter.
What makes a photographer a good one?
It depends to a certain extent on the kind of photography
you’re talking about. For what I do, you can talk all you
want about technique, but the most important elements —
the things that make or break most of my shooting
experiences are communication skills and patience.
In the former category, most of what I have in mind is
silent. I’m talking body language and an ability to put
people at ease without, or if necessary, with words.
As for patience, photography teaches me lessons in this
virtue every day. Taking pictures on crowded Chinese
streets, where I’m the only foreigner around — all 6”4′
of me — has taught me a kind of patience I’ve never
attained in any other endeavor I love, whether writing or
playing tennis or what have you. I’m usually intensely
multitasking, but when I’ve got a twin lens reflex in hand
and am scouting a scene or lining up a subject, I manage to
turn everything else off.
Do you suffer from that thing called That Last-minute Syndrome?
Only in the sense that I constantly give myself too many
things to do.
Who is your photography hero? Care to
share your source(s) of inspiration?
I’m not good at singling out examples. I recently read a
terrific book on photography called The Ongoing Moment, by
Geoff Dyer, and loved his take on influences and history.
We’re basically all shooting variations of the same images
over and over to believe what he’s written (much more
artfully than I’ve just stated it).
That said, I’d recommend great writing as the best friend
of the photographer. Read someone like the novelist Cormac
McCarthy and study the way he builds atmosphere through an
accumulation of details. It’s a recipe for great
You have to choose something that you’ve
tried and tested to recommend to anyone reading this
interview. Perhaps, like your must-have photo kit.
Yes. You should know how to use a light meter. In camera
meters can work fine if they are true spot meters. I prefer
using a hand held meter and taking a reading from a white
balance or gray balance card. I carry a very handy one
called WhiBal that does the trick really well for both gray
and color. If you are shooting film, you shouldn’t switch
around all the time. It takes a lot of rolls to really know
a film in all of its nuance. Stick to one or two types. I
like Ilford Delta b+w film, but there are other fine
I’m not a wild gear head. I shoot an old Rolleiflex or an
old Yashica Mat for 120, and have recently bought a Konica
Hexar RF rangefinder, which is still breaking me in, so to
speak. I’m got a bunch of old Olympus OM series SLRs, which
I love. And I’ve got a Canon 20D. I’ve always got two or
three bodies with me when I’m shooting.
I understand also that you are a big fan of music. From any genre of music, what is your favorite line and lyrics? And why?
I’m not good at “favorite” questions. I’ve got a huge music
collection, and it ranges pretty broadly. It’s core would
have to be called Jazz and the Blues, but there’s music
from all over the world and from lots of different periods.
I keep my IPod on random and usually just let it surprise
Last night there was this lyric from Jimi Henrix’s “Astro
Man”, from his Cry of Love album: “A little boy inside a
dream just the other day, his mind fell out of his face and
the wind blew it away. A hand came down from heaven and
pinned a badge on his chest and said get out there man and
do your best…”
I keep a running tab of what I’m reading and listening to
on my website, by the way, along with tons of pictures and
articles by me and from many other sources at:
If you are not a photographer, what
do you imagine yourself doing now?
A struggling novelist,
which is pretty much the case already…
Howard, thank you for taking your time to answer our interview questions.
Sure. You’re welcome!
More About Howard French
Flickr Photo Stream: flickr.com/photos/aglimpseoftheworld/
Official Website: howardwfrench.com
Originally posted at 3:40am, 12 June 2006 CST ( permalink )
Hello Doodle! edited this topic 5 hours ago.