Street photography as fine art photography: Q&A with Kevin Weinstein

A self-confessed voyeur prone to gaping at people longer than is socially acceptable, Kevin Weinstein uses his camera to extend, anonymize and legitimize his gaze. His resulting images are inhabited not only by captivating subjects but also the commingling of light and shadow, and the magic of the moment when they all converged just so. Here, the artist talks about his work.  

What does “street photography” mean to you?

It’s easiest to define street photography by what it is not. It is not set up; it’s candid. It is not sitting across the street with a long lens; it’s close up. It usually takes place in public, open spaces though there are exceptions to the rule. It is not shot in a studio nor is it landscape photography. Urban landscapes can be a part of street photography but it’s important that there be a sense of people even if there are no people in the images. Street photography is like reportage and photojournalism because of the candid approach and public spaces; however, street photography does not necessarily have any news value. It mainly is a study in the human condition. I think in the end, the one thing that all street photographers have in common is a curiosity about strangers, and one way to get inside other people is using a camera which acts like a license. Having said all that, defining street photography gives it parameters, which is unfair because street photography above all else is supposed to be fluid and free.

From an artistic and technical standpoint, how does street photography differ from other forms of photography?

Street photography is one of the easiest yet hardest of forms—easy because all you need is a small camera, one lens and a great pair of walking shoes, but hard as hell because there are many elements that must come together serendipitously in order to make a street photograph worthy of attention. Street photography bucks the modern, digital-age methods used in most fields of photography in that it’s pure and uses very simple, straightforward techniques with no manipulation or personal control. You can’t ask people to move let alone pose. In a split second’s time, you either got the moment or you didn’t. If not, you move on.   

What elements must come together to make an attention-worthy street photo?

Most important to me are perfect light, solid composition and the right moment. Some people think the moment is most important and if the light is poor or the composition is off you can still have a successful photo. For me, all three criteria must be met to have street photography that rises to the level of fine art photography. And the quality of light is at the top of my list when it comes to what inspires me to make an image.  

Do you go out on a mission to capture these images or does it happen by chance when you’re out and about?

I tend to carry my little Sony A7 everywhere I go. When I see little moments I’ve been known to brake and jump out of the car. But I do go to specific locations with the intent to shoot. I end up walking 5 or 10 miles. It’s like a scavenger hunt except you don’t really know what you’re looking for. 

After living in Chicago for several years, what was it about Los Angeles that inspired you to photograph people on the streets?

It was actually the light that drew me outside when I got here. Coming from Chicago, which has the most uninspiring weather in the world, I couldn’t believe the beauty of the Southern California sunlight. But L.A. is actually a tough place to photograph if you’re interested in people on the street because it’s so spread out and everyone drives everywhere. It’s not like Chicago where there’s a sea of people. I seem to like taking pictures of people in their cars. Maybe it was born of necessity but those images make powerful statements—about isolation, about excess, about freedom and entrapment.

What other subjects captivate you?

Light, lines, architecture. Sometimes I’ll see an architectural element or a shaft of light that I like and I’ll wait for an hour for the right person to come into my frame. I tend to photograph people alone, often in near-empty streets to emphasize the loneliness that comes from within myself and the feeling of not fitting in to the world. Looking at my work, there’s no denying I like women. I especially like women in high heels because of all the contradictory stereotypes involved. For me it signifies power, but it can also be about vulnerability. I think it’s an act of daring—of physical daring—to wear shoes like that, but it’s also part of either a self-assured or an insecure effort to present this put-together external image to the world. I hate to say this, but it makes it all the more easy for me to find that one little flaw. Ultimately, this is what interests me—the humanity beneath the veneer. I also like elderly men. I point my camera at people I want to connect with because of some fascination or awe. People are like actors filling my frame to help me confront certain insecurities and anxieties of my own.

Your photo “Identical Gaze” has both a beautiful woman and an elderly man in it. Can you describe its genesis?

That image is sad. I felt horrible taking it, actually. But I knew the juxtaposition was just too incredible—they both have the same exact facial expression and intent in their eyes. One is youthful and full of life, the other with a walker and clearly focused on just getting to whatever destination. I was walking across the street and saw this and thought, “You either have to take it or let it go, and you have less than 3 second to decide.” I tried to make it look as if I was taking a photo and he got in my way. However, I missed the shot the first time and had to scramble back to take it again, so I feel bad. But then, considering he’s on Rodeo Drive and wearing a Burberry scarf, maybe my sympathies are misplaced. It’s safe to assume his later years are a hell of a lot better than mine will be!

Many of your photographs have contradictory elements like that—in this case, the struggle symbolized by the walker and the “got it made” status symbol of the scarf. Do you seek out such contradictions?

I do look for contradictions or jarring juxtapositions, not always in the subject matter itself but in the overall mood. It comes back to my fascination with chiaroscuro styles of lighting. As much as I love light, I’m also drawn to darkness. The darkness in a photograph leaves me wanting to know more. This goes way back. When I was young, I used to beg my parents to let me stay up until 11 to watch Twilight Zone episodes. I liked the darkness of the storylines as well as the moody lighting. Later, as an undergrad, I’d sit in front of the TV and take pictures of Twilight Zone episodes and save them for inspiration. Remember, this was back when we shot on film so this meant countless hours in the darkroom. Clearly, I was obsessed and still am.