The Unrepentant Flâneur’s Guide to Street Photography Part 3
Rural photography; is that for real?
Sure it is!
Rural photography (RP, rural exploration photography or rurex photography) is the sister genre of street photography (SP). Generally, you do it with the exact same mindset as you would with SP. The only thing you really change is the setting. Instead of walking city streets and shooting inside and outside urban dwellings and other spaces, your shots will be made in the periphery of cities. Every city on the planet has rural lands and communities associated with them. Engaging in rurex photography is really a natural progression for a street photographer who wants to explore as many aspects of a municipality as possible.
There is a trick to this, however. Whereas in the urban environment you might be able to make shots of strangers while on the public streets that are freely open to anyone, you may have to get someone’s permission to photograph them, a landscape, a rusty old tractor or a bucking bronco on their own expansive country property.
Once you’ve obtained their graces, you then have the challenge of shooting them or some antiquated but fascinating manual water pump in a way that is totally candid, and not inconveniencing them while you wait for any length of time for the perfect light, atmosphere, nuances and perhaps moment somewhere on the back 40.
How do you accomplish all that? You do it through rapport. Being patient enough to spend a considerable amount of time getting to know the people who live in the country is even more compulsory in RP than it is in SP. Most street photographers know what it is to have someone in town object to having their pictures, shops or mere activities photographed. Now imagine a no nonsense farmer, who probably hasn’t hired you for your photographic talent, flatly denying you access to his or her spread, even though you’ve envisioned that their living space has aesthetic and social qualities that ought to be artistically captured and shared with the world.
If you already live in the country, especially having years of living in that environment, then you probably have half of the obstacles beaten before you begin rurex.
So, do you really, I mean really, want to explore a city with a camera? Consider adding rural photography to your repertoire.
Born and raised in Argentina, Federico Buchbinder lives in and mainly photographs the rural scenes of Manitoba, Canada. Federico’s photographic talents run the gamut of abstract, still life and landscapes. His work is superb! It has been; to quote his website, “used or published by National Geographic Society, Rhubarb Magazine, American Museum of Natural History and Smithsonian Magazine, among other notable organizations and publications”. If you want to be inspired to pursue rural photography, look to Federico.
In Part 2 of this series, I spoke to a top-notch urban photographer named Kevin Valencourt. For this post, I had a chance to interview Federico who also focuses on vacant and rundown edifices. He began responding by telling me that he became involved with rural photography four years ago but he started focusing specifically on abandoned rural buildings and farms approximately three years ago.
As I’m all about being inspired and helping other artists get inspired, I was curious right from the start about what inspires him in the rural photography genre that he hopes would motivate others.
“I admire and am inspired by those photographers capable of seeing a photo where others see nothing. Abstract photography would be the epitome of this. I also find inspiration in the work of any photographer who tries something different, regardless of their genre of choice.”
“The area where I live is not what you’d call a photographer’s dream destination – there’s really not much of interest, in particular when you compare our province with other regions of Canada or the States. The terrain around here is flat and monotonous. This dull geography is what trains you to find beauty in odd places. Maybe this is why I gravitated from traditional landscape photography towards rural exploration. My subjects are what most people would call ‘eyesores’, and the challenge I face is to make them look interesting. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
“I don’t think rural exploration is for everyone though – much like any other genre in photography, you either ‘feel it’ or you don’t. The exploration side of it could be a turnoff for some too – driving around for hours without finding anything interesting to shoot can be frustrating, but when you do find something . . . it’s exhilarating.”
Of course, I asked Federico to provide some tips on his personal approach to rural photography.
“I have a pretty unorthodox approach to photography in general, with very little planning and a lot of playing by ear. I shoot with a couple other rurex photographers; we simply choose an area of Manitoba that we haven’t explored, or maybe one that we explored in a different season, and we just go. Once there, we try to stay away from the asphalt and proceed to ‘attack’ the back roads instead – that’s where most abandonments in this province are. We have two rules: we leave the houses exactly as we found them, and we respect trespassing laws.”
“In Manitoba, trespassing laws are very photographer-friendly: as long as an abandoned house doesn’t have a ‘no trespassing’ sign, and is not locked or fenced off, you can go inside without permission and still stay on the right side of the law. If the owner shows up and asks you to leave, you must. If you know the law, the majority of the abandonments here are fair game for rurex photography. That’s a big difference between rural and urban exploration. As opposed to us, urban explorers have to deal with locked buildings and ‘no trespassing’ signs all the time.”
“In terms of chosen technique, my thing is to use natural light only. Inside these houses, the mood that natural light creates when filtering through windows, doors and roof holes cannot be beat. Natural light also emphasizes the textures of decaying walls and ceilings. I don’t use reflectors either – I want my photos to show the scenes exactly as I saw them.”
Before talking with him, everything that I had seen so far of Federico’s work indicated that he concentrates mainly on still life and landscape work that excludes the actual presence of humans. He confirmed my perceptions:
“What I try to tell through my photos are the stories of these abandoned buildings, in particular their isolation and their silence. I think that the actual presence of humans would defeat the purpose and also switch the focus from the buildings to the models. I might still do it [include people] sometime in the future though.”
From Federico’s website, ‘Weathered’; which he made in 2010, is my favourite. It is the most perfect big old rundown barn that I’ve ever seen, and he’s created an image that really stands out with the details he’s captured and the tones that he has in place. It’s a remarkable composition.
I don’t see it as an old barn I actually see it as a worn and tired old man. He’s going out of this world and he’s boldly accepted his fate. It’s the manner in which he exits that means so much to him now. He won’t say, “I’m too weak to go on, please finish me off.” Instead he still fights for his dignity by saying, “I don’t need any help to die.”
A sentimental connection is made when I see this image. It happens whenever I see any visual or performance artwork that I respect. I am motivated to push myself harder to create images that have such a powerful impact on the psyche.
As usual, I had to ask Federico if he has a favourite of his own images.
“I tend to brush off, at any given time, the work that I did more than a couple years earlier. I don’t know what the reason for this is. Maybe it’s the fact that my aesthetic taste is constantly evolving, so my favourites are changing all the time. Right now I’d say that my picks would be ‘Golden Years’, ‘Enjoy the Silence’, and ‘Adelpha’. Why? In general, my preferences in photography have to do with what happens at the subconscious level when I view a photo; mine or otherwise. As a result, I rarely have a rational explanation for my choice other than the fact that the image made a deep emotional connection with me.”
“The ‘Weathered’ barn is something unique, I agree. It was the lone good find on an otherwise arid day of exploration.”
So, I popped the big question. What rural photographers inspire him? I expected an interesting response because while many shooters have done RP, it’s still not a genre that is highly recognized. It and its shooters are usually just lumped in with general landscape or barn themes.
“Curiously enough, none . . .” yeah, I couldn’t help raising an eyebrow when he said that, “. . . but let me explain. I started shooting abandoned rural houses and barns way before I knew there were others out there doing the same thing. So when I did come across those other fantastic photographers’ work, I had already developed my own style, blazed my own trail if you will. That being said, the rurex photographer whose work I enjoy the most is Rodney Harvey ( http://www.flickr.com/photos/rodneyharvey ) – his infrared images of abandoned schools, houses and churches are superb.”
“There are some photographers who, despite dabbling in other genres, have inspired me. For instance, Virginia del Giúdice ( http://www.virginiadelgiudice.com ), an Argentine photographer from whom I learned the beauty of shooting with natural light only. Another influence would be Lee Jeffries ( http://www.flickr.com/photos/16536699@N07 ) – his portraits are incredible. I believe that most of his subjects are homeless people that he finds on the street. His portraits convey a lot of emotions, but mainly resiliency and sadness. Neither Virginia nor Lee shoots abandonments, but their fingerprints are all over my style, even if it’s not apparent. In particular, Lee Jeffries’ moody lighting has influenced my approach to dramatic B&W photography.”
Now, art isn’t only about creative expression. I imagine that most readers of this live in a market economy, as I do. You can’t escape the issue of art marketing, it is important to most contemporary artist and other interested observers. I had to try and find out if Federico’s photography is sought out mostly as fine art, or for advertising and editorial work.
“I’ve received inquiries from Getty Images about one or two photos that featured abandoned buildings. In order for the deal to work, I would’ve needed to provide Getty with written permission by the building owner to use the building’s image for commercial purposes. What Getty didn’t get is that abandoned buildings are, well . . . abandoned! Their owners are either living elsewhere or dead, so obtaining their permission is not possible.”
“So to answer your question: definitely fine art.”
I am completely understanding in Federico’s expressed reluctance to say whether or not RP is lucrative. He did explain; nevertheless, that it can be an expensive activity and that, in his case, it has been lucrative enough to help pay for equipment and all the costs associated with exploring Manitoba (i.e., travel expenses).
“In a way, people who buy my photos are ‘sponsoring’ me to keep doing this. I’ve been lucky, though – I know very, very talented rurex photographers who, for reasons that are beyond me, are not selling as many fine-art images as they deserve.”
“Ever since I started doing this, I’ve contacted about a dozen art galleries who show fine-art photography, both local and in Quebec. Three of them expressed strong interest in my rurex photographs and two of them have been showing and selling my work for a while now. That’s about 25% of the galleries I contacted. I also sell rurex images through my website, each year more than the previous one. All of this tells me that there’s a market out there for rurex photography . . . even if it’s not necessarily easy to find or conquer.”
He reinforces the typical nature of fine art marketing. Most fine artists who are able to sell originals or copies of their works; whether photographs, paintings or whatever, make just enough profit to keep producing work and perhaps supplement incomes that they actually live off of. Most of us don’t get rich off of our talents. There are many who make enough to live entirely off of their art but as a group, they still add up to being the minority.
High end art that sells for umpteen thousands or millions, landing the bulk of that cash squarely in the hands of the actual creators, is actually the rarest of them all. Auctions, other transactions and even high end art thefts do make the evening news because of the “worth” of those pieces and the notoriety associated but keep in mind that such reports are quite few and far between. It is an uncommon occurrence.
I would suggest to most that are professional artists or aim to be, that focusing exclusively on rurex photography would not be pragmatic. It should be pursued with the other forms and genres that they do. Don’t rely too heavily on agents, galleries and various arts advisory committees and councils to help you promote and sell your work. That is, use their services if you can but do more than what they can offer. Be prepared to do whatever is necessary to find the majority, if not every single one, of your buying customers.
Federico is a true and respectable commercial artist. He’s business smart about his work, and has monetary ambition but he considers the financial goals/rewards of rural photography as not being as important as the experiences of shooting.
“When I set out to do this, I only had one goal in mind: to have fun. Many years later, the goal is still the same. I do this for me, as a means of artistic expression, and whatever else comes out of it is extra. While stock photography (i.e., landscapes without buildings) has provided me with an additional stream of income, photographing abandonments is still at the top of my list when I get out there. That’s where it’s at for me.”
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Street photography has become saturated since its resurgence. While there are many talented shooters in the genre; however, there are many images that seem to suggest that people are just out to make reasonably attractive or even shocking pictures. There doesn’t seem to be too much serious justification behind it all. At least that’s my perspective. I suspect that a lot of it has to do with many new photographers being new and still finding their way in SP, which is totally understandable, but for those who are considered established; at least in their own minds, it seems to be a shame. I also fear that some engage simply because SP seems to be the “in thing”, and they want to be able to say to others that they do it. To me, without truly putting their heart into the work, that’s shallow and unfortunate, and will only serve to hurt street, urban and rural photography. I hope my perceptions are wrong.
I consider myself an artistic flâneur (flâneurism in SP and its related genres is the premise behind this blog series). I don’t do nearly as much rural photography as I do street and urban photography but I love them all and use them all as means of exploring virtually all aspects of communities; whether it’s the one I live in or one that I visit. It’s partly for the thrill of doing it, satisfying my curiosity, and about sharing what I see with others but it’s also to really try to understand the communities and affect change where it might be necessary, and to encourage the continuance of any goodness that I see. This is my chance to illustrate citizen’s diverse ways of life and the environments we live in. I truly believe that this even helps me to mature creatively with my photography. Federico sees his work similarly:
“Absolutely. This activity has taken me to small towns and remote rural areas that I would’ve never thought of visiting otherwise. I’ve gotten to meet people very different than the types I interact with in my everyday life. Farmers and small-town folk live at a much slower speed and have a much more relaxed approach to life. We city folk could borrow a page or two from their book.”
Federico Buchbinder’s main website is http://www.federicobuchbinder.com, and his Facebook fan page is http://www.facebook.com/federico.buchbinder. I highly recommend going to these sites yourself and spending time enjoying his work and studying the quality of his compositions. I’ve added a direct link to his main site to my blogroll under the “Photography” category.
Thank you so much Federico, for opening up to me and MOF readers.