This interview realized by Michael Ernest Sweet has been previously published on the book Made in Italy.
Alex, your work is fresh, innovative, and edgy. I love it. It not only reminds me of my own approach to photography, but, perhaps more importantly, to some of the very best of the masters – Daido Moriyama, William Klein and Mark Cohen, for example. This comparison should not be trivialized in the contemporary photographic milieu where too much of what we are seeing today is unworthy of any such comparison. The field is cluttered with junk photography from techies who know more about Google analytics than they do about photographic composition, ISO, or focal lengths. Through all that clutter your work stands out because it is authentic, it’s skillful – it’s art in the truest sense. Kudos!
I’m delighted to be able to write the interview for this book, as it will give me the opportunity to dig into your mind a little – to uncover some of the genius that creates this stunning photography. Let’s begin!
Michael Sweet: Alex, why photography? How did you get into this medium in the first place?
Alex Coghe: I consider photography the most powerful vehicle of emotion and messages. Certainly there are many other arts that are able to do this, music for example…but the speed of communication and the duration in time will always be in favor of a photograph. If I think about why I have chosen this medium of expression, I would answer because photography allows me to search for the unknown. I come from poetry that is also about the exploration of ourselves, an impulse completely selfish, and if you think about it photography is also a solitary act. Although it may seem presumptuous I make photography essentially for myself, to explore the world as my eyes see it. It is a complex process where I explore the world to explore myself, and there is a sort of continuous exchange between what my eyes see and what my mood and my state of mind feels. The result of this generates another world where my experience emerges becoming one with the world represented… Photography for me is a reaction to what I have before my eyes.
MS: Can you expand on that a bit, I mean your philosophy toward photography in general?
AC: When I look at my work I see memory fragments, parts of my dreams and nightmares and even traces of my mood while I made the picture, but also statements of my visual path. A short time ago a colleague who I respect very much asked me why I became, over time, more and more dark with my vision, pointing out how much readability I cut off from my images. I replied that it is a phase, perfectly conscious that is not a phase because what I am doing now is exactly what I have pursued for a long time. In fact, I feel that I’m finally very close to what I want with my photography. I think of my photography like a mosaic. A mosaic where each photo is important because it is part of a whole. I am using photography to know myself better. Photography is a meditative act, it requires concentration and deep immersion in what you’re doing to the point that we could talk about the art of Zen and its application to the act of photographing. Photography is much more complex than most people realize, including many photographers… Photography is an art but many people prefer to talk about the mechanical action, technical virtuosity, and the result, is that many find themselves talking about cameras. This is a great weakness. It is sad. If you ask me about my influences don’t expect that I will quote just photographers…I could name Bukowski or Bret Easton Ellis, David Lynch or Salvador Dalì, Rob Zombie, or Motorhead…I’ve got the fortune to know and confront myself with different artists, certainly not only photographers.
MS: Alex, nearly every time you speak about your vision, your philosophy, I am startled by the similarities between you and me. For example, my bookshelves are full of Bukowski and he most certainly influences both my writing and my photography. My question is this: Do you feel challenged by these similarities with other photographers like me or do you embrace such overlaps in philosophy as an opportunity to collaborate and learn from each other?
AC: Absolutely, I am really happy when I meet or I discover photographers that have similarities or common points of view. You and I are already collaborating, and this is the better answer to your question. The collaboration between photographers is an opportunity for me, and should always be desirable. Unfortunately, this happens more and more rarely. The fact that lately there are more and more collectives could be read as a positive sign. But then if in practice these collectives don’t truly operate as such then it becomes useless. And, so the old saying goes: better alone than in bad company.
MS: What inspired you to produce this book?
AC: This book can also be seen as a reaction. After three years in Mexico, I’m back in my country. In a month I collected a lot of images. I think MADE IN ITALY was created almost alone. This book is a big thank you to my home country for a month of really intense emotions and a lot of satisfaction.
MS: You recently went to Italy for the first time in several years. How did returning to your native country with a new-found photographic approach influence how you “see” Italy?
AC: Many questions crowded my mind before the trip: Would I recognize my hometown? How would I “see” Italy after all this time? Would there be obvious signs of the crisis? And, how would people react to my “in your face” approach? Italy has surprised me. First of all, I found my country more “Latin”…the most evident sign of the crisis is that people are now more ready to get in the game, to become more creative: breakdancers, rasta singers and people generally more “alternative”, with a lot of tattooed persons too. This is cool. People reacted positively to my photographic approach. Someone in the past said me : “but you are in Mexico, it is easier…in Italy it is different”. Okay, but I don’t believe this anymore because I continued to make my photography, without altering my approach in the streets.
A strange sensation struck me in Italy: while recognizing all the places like where I was born and where I grew up, I saw them with different eyes, with the eyes of a stranger I dare say…
MS: In Mexico and in the United States you work, as I do, very close. I know well the challenges this produces. It’s one thing to photograph someone with a 50mm or an 85mm from a few meters away – quite another to work with a 28mm from two feet away. Did this approach work in Italy? Did it present any new or different challenges?
AC: As I said,I am happy because Italy was my test of strength. I haven’t denatured my approach as shown by the images themselves. In Europe people are more serious, especially with privacy issues…and, of course, I was perfectly aware of this, but also decided not to change my style because this would be tantamount to not following my vision.
MS: Can you tell me more about your vision, your approach when you are working in the streets?
AC: So I continued to make my street shots really close to my subjects. I think I have beat a personal record in Florence with the shot of the lady with the hat… I need to shoot really close my subjects to obtain a certain kind of image. But don’t think my approach is brutal or disrespectful: most of my subjects don’t realize that I photographed them. I am all about respect. When I see photographers that act like they’re in a safari, making a hundred photos in a hundred meters I think they have totally misunderstood street photography. But you can see this through their work also.
I have given up completely the use of flash in the street. There are several reasons for this. First of all I don’t want to be confused with the street photography geeks. Apart from my project, “Reality Remade”, I never used much flash in the streets because I prefer available light.
I am doing this also as a form of respect toward my students: doing workshops I think it is completely unfair to show myself in the streets using a flash. But, the most important reason is that with flash it is difficult to make something different than a “reaction”. So, most of the images we are seeing right now are a poor “Gilden imitation”. An easy way, but also terribly boring, in my opinion, approach to working the street. That said,I am not against flash, and I know photographers who use it really well, but this is not for me.
My vision is nourished, my photos ask questions, but don’t offer answers. The world of dream inspires me, but I am immersed in the reality, in urban chaos. The closed blacks… the high contrast… the whole thing is intended to offer a reinterpretation of reality that is my reality. Human subjects are often used, assuming a new look and new forms… my photographs become graphism. In this approach it is clear that my intention is not to document reality, even if parts of “documentary” are still present.
MS: I use a lot of flash on the street because I like the strobe lighting to be present when I “push” the contrast. It makes the image more workable as a high contrast image, in my opinion. At the same time, I don’t think my work is an imitation of Gilden’s in any way despite some critics drawing that comparison. Do you think there are some hard and fast “rules” for good street photography, or do you think each person has to decide for themselves how to pursue a vision?
AC: I think each photographer should decide the technique and the approach that works best for his/her photography. The important thing is that the choice is really his and not dictated by the fashion of the moment or because some other photographer does the same. There are not rules in Art, in general, and I would certainly not want to impose any. Do what you want and what works best for you. Let me say that critics saying your work is an imitation of Gilden’s know very little of your photography.
MS: Italy has experienced somewhat of a “crisis” as of late. I’m mean economically, politically and so on. How did this affect your vision, your approach to photographing there – or did it?
MS: What do you think about Italy’s current predicament? Will they recover? I’m currently reading Dan Brown’s Inferno and it surely brings up some serious questions about world population – or overpopulation – do you think that has a role to play? Do you think Italy, indeed Europe, simply has too many people to support a proper economy as we know it?
AC: I am skeptical about the Italian politicians, but not about Italy. Italy is a highly populated country, it is true but Italy is not Sweden… with all my respect, Italy is not even Spain or Greece. Italy will come out from its crisis. Italy has an artistic and cultural patrimony without equal in Europe and a few countries in world can say the same. This is our strength.
MS: Okay, let’s migrate away from the politics and get back to photography. Let me ask you, what camera do you currently use the most and why? I ask this only because I know you tend to be a minimalist when it comes to gear and that is unusual in an age when everyone lusts for the biggest, most expensive camera they can afford.
AC: For my personal projects I use two cameras: Leica X2 and Ricoh GRD IV. Yes, you are right when you say I am a minimalist with equipment. I don’t need anything more than a compact camera, and this makes it clear that I’m not even a lens addict: X2 with its 36mm and Ricoh with 28mm are the right choices to follow my vision.
MS: Do you ever ask people to pose for photographs?
AC: I am totally against this when we talk about street shooting. Sometimes it can happen that I have persons aware of being “under observation” by my lens. For example, I love photographing my wife, but also with her I avoid asking permission because she doesn’t like to be photographed.
I would avoid the term “Street Photography” but at the same time I would say that knowing well the genre I think it is ridiculous to use this term for merely anything. If it is not candid it is not a street photograph. That’s simple. I also think that candid photography is an attitude, a different way to “live photography”.Photographers can do what they want…just let me say: If you want to take “staged” pictures, do it but don’t pretend to call anything like this street photography: it would be like calling a photograph of a duck fashion photography.
MS: Alex, your photographs are usually “snapshots” in a sense. I don’t mean this as a negative comment. My own work is very similar and I refer to my own photographs as essentially snapshots. But for someone who is not attuned to what you and I mean, how would you defend this snapshot aesthetic? What makes your photographs different from say something someone’s grandmother would take on vacation?
AC: If you think about it snapshots are the essence of photography. I don’t give negative meaning to the term “snapshot”. I don’t presume my shots are something different from someone’s grandmother’s vacation shots, probably the approach is similar. Basically, we both photograph things that attract our attention. The fundamental difference is probably the experience. A photographer is always able to convey emotions and content with absolute awareness. Everyone can write, but it is another thing to be a writer.
Street shooting for me is a matter of walking and meeting: this is the big difference with commissioned work. I don’t make plans, I don’t have projects when I am out for street shooting. Just me and the camera. I think it is correct to define snapshots as images taken in absolute freedom, made as a reaction to an impulse… independent and unconnected. This is the way I prefer to “live photography”.
I don’t know if we talked about a snapshot aesthetic…pure randomness is not a concept that interests me. Even though, there is a component of randomness in my shots but not just randomness. Previsualization is also very important and moves the discourse a little further away… I can imagine my “no-finder” photography can be seen as a proof of my snapshot approach.
MS: Between Italy, the United States and Mexico, where do you prefer to work? Why?
AC: I don’t have preferences. Mexico has been and is important for me and my photography, at the same time, I loved shooting in Los Angeles, and of course it is the same for Italy too. In the future I would like to travel more…there are so many countries that I would love to visit and photograph! First of all I need to know more of Mexico…Then I would like to go to New York…and Tokyo also!
MS: That’s a lot of traveling indeed. What’s behind your desire to visit such places as New York and Tokyo. Are you interested in retracing the footsteps of some of those famous photographers such as Moriyama and Kelin?
AC: I can’t deny that the names you mentioned exert a significant attraction for me, but I consider NYC the capital of a certain kind of photography. And Tokyo appeals to me for several reasons, yes, the idea of eating real Sushi is one.
MS: Where do you see your personal work in the future? What would you consider success?
AC: I don’t have any idea where my photography will go in future, and this is one of the most exciting aspects. Success for me is to have the freedom to do what I like, continuing to work with passion and always taking pictures with the eyes of young man.
MS: What do you mean, “with the eyes of a young man”?
AC: I was thinking to Daido Moriyama: I am struck by his extraordinary determination to continue to be “cool” and “young” despite having passed the age of 70…
MS: I’m an educator and a writer, aside from photography. Those things pay my bills. Photography for me is purely an art and I don’t have to compromise anything as I don’t need it to produce an income. I know it’s different for you as you are a photographer both as a professional and as an artist. Do the two ever conflict? How do you see the two roles evolving as you become more well-known in each?
AC: My dream would be to join these two worlds, but for the moment I’m happy that they don’t conflict. I am a photographer, but I am also a writer and I am able to write my own articles (political discussion, culture, lifestyle). If someone calls me a street photographer now it offends me: because it shows they don’t know my work. I think I could be defined as a street shooter because most of my shots are taken in the streets, but this is just a part of my activity.
My clients are from the most varied sectors: fashion, photography industry, marketing…and my photography ranges from humanitarian to editorial… street photography is a minor element of my work really.
MS: There seems to be a lot of politics in street photography today. I’m sure it was always there but it tends to be more open now. Often things get dirty and the “haters” tend to be loud and obvious. What do you think about this? Is there a lack of friendship and collaboration in the street photography world?
AC: I love haters! Seriously: they are a litmus test of popularity, and I learned that they also bring luck. I imagine that something is missing in their lives if they have so much energy and time to think of others, especially in a negative way. Moreover, I think that the internet has expanded their visibility, because it is very easy to hide behind a keyboard.The only smart thing to do is ignore them.
MS: Having had personal interactions with the likes of Robert Frank, William Klein and even Mark Cohen, I find them all to be somewhat disillusioned about the human race. Although I admire them all and acknowledge their influence on my work, I still can’t help but feel that they have all ended up as “grumpy old men”. What do you make of this? Do you think photography, art in general, leads us toward a too intensely close relationship with the world?
AC: Maybe I’m too naive, but I still look positively toward these people, and I hope that this is so forever! For sure as a photographer and writer I am an observer and I think art in general makes us more sensitive and empathetic with people. However, not always. There are also photographers lacking empathy, but generally they are not good photographers.
MS: Tell me about one of the most frustrating aspects of a career in street photography from your opinion?
AC: A career in street photography? Really? Where? I don’t believe street photography can be considered a career. Today this genre is really popular, and someone, somewhere, began to think that it is possible to make a living with street photography. FALSE. This is one of the most frustrating aspects today in my opinion. Almost every day I see people create new collectives, new magazines, new groups and forums…many have climbed on the bandwagon, but how many are really all that good?
MS: Leaving the famous names out of the picture for a moment, tell me about a few of your contemporaries that you appreciate. Whose work do you like and why?
AC: I am a fan of Jonathan Van Smit. I think his work is outstanding. He is exploring himself through the documentation of sleazy locations in Hong Kong. Another colleague that I appreciate is Michael Penn. I am totally in tune with his vision and also his attitude with the photographic medium. I have two books from his Philadelphia Project and I love them. I would also say my friend Susan Catherine Weber, for me she too is underrated. Her visual search reminds me of the approach of William Eggleston. She is really a great photographer.
Michael Ernest Sweet is a Canadian photographer. His work has appeared in Popular Photography, Black and White Magazine and as a book titled, “The Human Fragment”. He divides his time between Montreal and New York City. Follow Michael through MichaelSweetPhotography.com or on Twitter @28mmphotos.