Photographer of the Month Interview: Lukasz Palka | Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, November 2017:   Lukasz Palka

We are happy to have Lukasz Palka as our featured guest photographer this month. We appreciate that he gave us some of his time and generously shared his beautiful photography with us! Please visit his links to see more of his work, and to let him know you enjoyed this interview.

:: Why photography? What draws you to this medium as a form of creative expression?

When I was young I started out with writing as my main avenue for creative expression. However, when I arrived in Tokyo 10 years ago I found that medium rather limiting in conveying the chaos of the city. The interwoven narratives, forms, and visual stimulation—I could only capture those things in images. And so, at that time I began to shoot more and more. In other words what drew me to photography was the ability to capture reality, while at the same time to distort it in ways that convey my own narrative of what I see in the city.

:: What draws you into street photography? Especially, Tokyo... what about that city inspires you?

With street photography I must be open to whatever I may encounter. There is very little premeditation in street photography—and no planning. This gives me a great sense of freedom. There are no rules. I work in other genres as well—particularly in urban landscape and urbex photography. When doing those shots, I tend to strive for a kind of perfection in composition and so on. But in street photography perfection exists differently. It cannot be crafted, only grasped at in fleeting moments. It’s ephemeral. That means we must hunt for it, and that is intoxicating. It makes me wonder what’s around the next corner. It makes me stay on the streets longer than I planned. Just 5 more minutes—who knows what might come down the street?

:: A lot of your work is broken down into projects? What does having a project do for you creatively? How do projects emerge from your normal workflow?

Projects arise from curiosities. I might find and photograph something here and there, once or twice. I realize that this subject or theme exists more broadly in the city (or retrospectively in my previous work) and then I try to organize it into a project. Projects are great for me because they give me a sense of direction. I know certain photos can fit into a theme or narrative and that helps keep me focused. My earlier projects were very much theme based (e.g. photos of bicycles) while more recently I strive to convey a more narrative quality with the project (e.g. Noctopolis).

:: What do you find the most challenging about being a street photographer? What misconception do you find those not in the profession have about it?

The biggest challenge is dealing with constant failure. Street photography is easy to pick up but a lifetime to master (if one can ever really master it anyway). In the beginning, small successes are easy to come by, but as time goes on those easy photos are no longer good enough and the real successes become more and more rare. Most days I come back with nothing great. I believe Saul Leiter was once quoted as saying “if I took 1 good photo each year, after 10 years I’d have 10 good photos.” This is how I feel about my street photography. It takes ages to get even one good photo and you must take thousands in between that are mediocre. This leads to the biggest misconception: all those great photographers make beautiful pictures because they are somehow magically talented. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Great photos are the result of years and years of hard work.

:: What’s the scariest thing that has happened to you while out on a shoot?

The rooftops are serene and enchanting. I love being up there. But it goes without saying that sneaking around on dark rooftops at night is not a smart thing to do if you value safety. One time I was on a roof 10 floors up over Ikebukuro. There was ladder leading up further still to the top of a narrow tower about three stories tall. It was flat on top so I thought it would make a great perch for views of the area. When I got to the top of the ladder I sat on the concrete lip at the top and swung one foot onto the roof of the narrow tower. I was straddling the top of the wall and felt around for the floor of the roof with my left foot. As I did that I heard dust and small stones from the rooftops falling far below me and as I looked more carefully onto the ‘roof’ I realized it was just a black void—I had climbed to the top of an oddly-shaped chimney. Had I hopped down onto the roof without looking I would have likely fell 13 floors into darkness.

I ‘noped’ out of there, right back down the ladder, and down into the streets. That was enough roofing for one night. I cringe every time I recount this moment.

:: One of the projects that I found fascinating was the Shibuya Halloween, how was this project to photograph?

This was a great deal of fun! In fact, I do this every Halloween! People are very friendly and happy to be photographed. Often, they are too drunk and enamored in their revelry to notice the camera and the flash, which makes for great candid shots. It’s very fun to shoot it with flash as well. I tend to set 3200 ISO and f/5.6 to get the ambient light too, using the flash mostly as a fill light. My goal is to capture good ‘street’ photographs amidst the chaos, rather than mere portraits of the eccentric characters. So far, I feel I have had some success but this project is far from over!

:: You’re a big fan of the 40mm lens…what about that lens do you like, and with street photography what are the pros and cons of sticking to a fixed focal length lens?

I feel that prime lenses are a must have in street photography, especially for the beginner. The fixed focal length, and therefore, fixed field of view, force the photographer to think within those constraints. This helps down the line with learning the pros, cons, effects, and side effects of the various focal lengths. But more than that, constraints breed creativity. Constraints force us to take the hard road sometimes rather than the easy way out. Instead of being able to simply zoom in or out, we must move around to get a good frame. Even now, it’s fun for me to go out and shoot in the streets with an 85mm from time to time just to put a constraint upon myself that might lead to a creative insight.

After years of shooting on my trusty 40mm pancake lens, I decided I wanted to work closer and I changed to a 28mm prime. These days the 28mm lets me get much closer to people, while also allowing me to shoot more atmospheric, open wide-shots of city scenes. It was a conscious decision that I feel I could only make after thousands of hours of shooting with other prime lenses.

:: Street photography is often about telling stories as they unfold in front of you. Do you have any lines of what you won’t shoot when it comes to what you see?

There are few lines I wouldn’t cross. However, I would hate to publish work that embarrasses or shames a specific person, especially if it was for mere shock value. I tend to avoid shooting people at their low points in life, such a homeless people, or passed-out drunk people, unless I feel a significant artistic or narrative value to the photo. Simply put, I don’t photograph shocking people for the hell of it. But if there is a deeper story in the scene, nothing is off limits.

:: Culturally how is Japan different from other countries when it comes to being photographed on the streets?

It’s hard to say as I have not shot in other countries nearly as much as I have in Japan. But I can say that in the big cities, like Tokyo, street photographers have become ubiquitous to the point of being mundane. Upon seeing a person with a camera, snapping away, locals usually adopt a blasé attitude. In very busy areas such as Harajuku or Shibuya, being photographed has become the norm in some ways. Sure, some people might not like it, and they will politely but firmly tell you so. But cameras and shooters are so common that most people simply let it be as one would the many crows cawing from perches above the streets of Tokyo—a curiosity, or a slight nuisance at worst.

:: It seems with any kind of street photos there is a certain amount of the photographer getting into a person’s privacy…how do you do that and remain civil, while still shooting it the way you want?

Basically, for me if it’s in a public place I have a green light. Though I never ask to shoot because that would ruin candid moments, I always respect an individual’s wishes. So, if they say, ‘no photo’ then I stop and go away. But it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

:: What are your opinions on social media and how it helps or hurts the photographic community? Especially with photographing a lot of situations where you might not be able to get a media release, or anything like that…are you worried at all about what you share?

I think social media is great in the sense that it allows photographers and artists in general to get their work out to a larger audience without depending on traditional media and publishing. This lack of filters has gone a long way to connect creators with viewers. Where social media falls short is in the feedback department. Social media can quickly devolve into the pursuit of the ‘like.’ What starts out as the desire to share work and be part of a community, can become the desire to score more internet points. As a result, I feel there is rampant pandering to the masses on the one hand. And on the other hand, a lot of work tends to regress to mean. Everything looks the same—style without substance.

:: What is your favorite piece of non-photographic gear and why?

My shoes. Good, comfy shoes are crucial for an urban photographer. Being able to walk for hours on end without sore feet is a superpower.

:: It seems like with street photography it might not have the mass appeal a pretty landscape photo does…and that makes the success of an image much more personal…what is a successful image to you and how do you make sure that what might be considered a lack of public fawning over specific images doesn’t lead to discouragement?

I try to take photos that make me happy. That’s all there is to it. I’m eager to share them with others, but I learned over the years that even if people don’t react positively, that does not make them bad photos—those shots are just not for them. In the past, this would discourage me, but years of social media presence led to the above revelation. Social media success is only icing on the cake.

The real success lies in my own taste for the image. A photographer (or any creator, for that matter) must cultivate great taste in work. This means viewing lots and lots of great work. This is one of the defining characteristics that separates the masters from the rest of us. All the great photographers who’s work I venerate have that in common—a refined taste for very specific characteristics in their work. This is what makes their work not only phenomenal, but consistent.

:: It looks like street photography was perfectly designed for a platform like Instagram…how much do you use this platform for sharing your work? Do you feel like the overwhelming masses of folks using the platform decreases potential value of an image…or perhaps makes your job of a street photographer tougher, because everyone is looking for the next Instagram trend?

For me, Instagram is not very fruitful. In fact, I only contribute to our business account @eyeplor which is shared by my partner and me. It’s nice to be able to share with our past customers and to see the work that they produced on our workshops. But as for self-promotion as a photographer, I find there is simply too much noise, and too much emphasis on trends and what’s cool at the moment. In addition, I really don’t like how Instagram forces their way of displaying the work. Though it’s gotten a bit more relaxed in recent years, it’s still clearly geared for mobile viewing. Despite the fact that most people these days consume media on their phones, some art and photography simply needs to be viewed in a large size. If not on a wall, then at least on a large screen. So, to me, Instagram is like the air in the room—it’s there and there is no getting away from it. But it lacks substance and has no real bearing on creativity. Anyway, Instagam is mostly a way to connect to celebrities and for big companies to sell stuff by tricking people with boobs.

:: What was the best piece of advice you received while getting into photography, and what advice would you give to those just getting started and looking to get into street photography or photojournalism?

It’s not advice per se, but something I heard spoken by the artist Chuck Close:

“Inspiration is for amateurs - the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will - through work - bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art [idea].' And the belief that process, in a sense, is liberating and that you don't have to reinvent the wheel every day. Today, you know what you'll do, you could be doing what you were doing yesterday, and tomorrow you are gonna do what you [did] today, and at least for a certain period of time you can just work. If you hang in there, you will get somewhere.”

What this means to me is that creativity stems from hard work and perseverance, not from some inherent talent or a bolt of inspiration from a muse. Get out and work. That’s it.

Lukasz Palka

"...creativity stems from hard work and perseverance, not from some inherent talent or a bolt of inspiration from a muse. Get out and work. That’s it."

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