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Interview with Manuel Guerzoni of San Francisco Daily Photography

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Manuel Guerzoni is the photoblogger behind San Francisco Daily Photography.


PetaPixel: Could you tell me a little about yourself?

Manuel Guerzoni: I’m in my thirties, born and raised in France, currently residing in San Francisco. I have lived in Germany for a few years before moving to the US.

I have spent many years in University studying Science trying to satisfy my curiosity for all things.

PP: How did you first get into photography?

MG: I am a very curious person. I have a hard time dealing with the unknown: I must open the box and know what’s inside. As such, I have been observing people and things for a very long time. In 2001, a photographer friend put a camera in my hands and it’s only then that I realized that a camera could become a tool for me to record those things I was so curious about, so that

I could “study” them later inspecting their picture.

PP: What was your first camera?

MG: My very first camera was a Polaroid I was given in the late 70s. I didn’t use it much because I couldn’t afford the film.


PP: What gear do you use now?

MG: I use a Leica M8 with a 35mm lens. All my gear, including filters, a spare battery, cleaning tools and a tripod fit in a small camera bag that I have with me at all times. That’s luxury. Another set of eyes with better recording capability.

PP: What’s on your wishlist?

MG: I sometimes wish I had a wider angle lens which would suit street photography better. When I had reflex cameras, I would exclusively use ultra-wide angle lenses. But I’m very happy with my current gear, I really don’t need anything else right now.

PP: What do you do for a living?

MG: Photography is my only source of income right now.


PP: Tell me about photographing in San Francisco. How is it similar to or different from other places you’ve photographed?

MG: San Francisco is a complex blend of cultures. It is very different from other places to photograph because no single picture can accurately depict the city. People are typically very tolerant and open-minded here which, in my opinion, makes taking pictures of people easier here than in other cities. Also, because the city enjoys lots of visitors, it makes it harder to take unique pictures. Everyone seems to be walking around with a camera here. If you’re looking to do something unique, it’s not a bad idea to get “uninspired” using sites like flickr before going to shoot to see what other people are doing and try to do something different.

PP: How would you describe your photography for someone who has never seen it?

MG: Each photo I publish on my San Francisco photoblog is a piece of the complex San Francisco puzzle. I strive for the images to be narrative, and hard to be placed in time.

PP: How often and how much do you shoot?

MG: I use my camera pretty much every day, I shoot about 50 pictures a week in average.

Can you tell us very briefly how you make a living through photography? (is it through exhibitions? prints? commercial photography? editorial? etc…)

Unfortunately, I can’t say that I make a living with it, or maybe I should stay hopeful and say “not yet”. But I make money taking commercial assignments and selling prints.


PP: What are some questions you hear the most from your fans?

MG: Most questions I get are related to the equipment I use. With the introduction of “affordable” DSLRs, lots of folks have started buying new equipment or are considering it. There’s so much choice out there, that people will ask for advice. I tend to think that the equipment doesn’t make a big difference. If you’re a good photographer, you will be a good photographer with any camera in your hand. If you made an analogy to musical instruments, everyone would agree that Jimi Hendrix would have been an amazing guitarist even he had played a guitar other than a Fender Stratocaster. My advice would be to figure out which focal length you want based on what you want to photograph. Then, you can just let your budget dictate the rest.

I also often get the question “did your subjects know you were photographing them?”. My answer to that is that I don’t talk to my subjects prior to taking their picture in order to keep the scene candid and honest, but I often do talk to them afterwards. My experience is that folks usually know you’re there with your camera. But if you act in an honest way, without hiding or trying to be sneaky, they will act normally and will also respond better to your taking their picture.


PP: Do you have any formal training in photography, or are you entirely self-taught?

MG: I did read some books to understand the basic techniques, and learned a lot by doing things wrong. I found that if you spend as much time looking at your “bad” photos as you spend on your “good” ones, you learn quickly. I find that the hardest part is not learning the technique, it’s figuring out what you want to do especially if you’re trying to be relevant.

PP: Where do you get your film developed?

MG: I use digital exlusively now. I use Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop.

PP: Can you tell us about your workflow?

MG: I have to admit that there’s room for improvement in my workflow. I don’t keyword my images very consistently and I often go straight from raw to jpg, bypassing the tif format. I’m also horrible at doing backups… But my typical workflow consists of transfering my files to my computer, then keywording them, then going through a review assigning from 0 to 5 stars. When processing, I may make some light exposure adjustments in Camera Raw, and then will go to Photoshop for doing work like black&white conversion, resizing, noise reduction or perspective adjustments. I am lucky to own a camera whose exposure meter is very accurate and the dynamic range is great. So I don’t need to do much in post-processing. But in general, if the original image is less than 95% of what I want the final image to be, I don’t bother trying to salvage it. If I had more time or better photoshop skills, maybe I would. As far as copyright information, licensing information and other metadata, I only populate the file once I sell the image.


PP: Do you have any personal tricks for doing street photography?

MG: My trick is being as obvious as possible and making eye contact. The faster people acknowledge you, the faster they’ll forget you’re there and will go back to whatever they’re doing. Making eye contact also tells you whether the person is ok being photographed or not. Another trick is to make eye contact again, after taking the photo, and staying cool. That has proved to avoid some negative reactions. I try to always talk to people after I took their photo, to tell them what I’m doing and ask for a model release when needed.

PP: Do you have any memorable or awkward experiences from shooting on the street?

MG: I’ve had a number of unsuccessful attempts at explaining candid street photography to people I have photographed. I have perfected my pitch over time. I remember one interaction with a gentleman who asked me to delete his photo right on the spot. I didn’t mind doing it but as soon as I did, he started calling me names. I guess that for him, my deleting the photo was an acknowledgement that I should not have taken it without his prior consent. I won’t do that again.


PP: What are some common mistakes you think people make when doing street photography?

MG: It’s easy to fall into the trap of taking pictures from the distance with a long lens. It feels safe because you’re far away. But street photography is meant to be taken very close to the subject, with a wide-angle lens. A wide-angle lens mimics the angle of human eyesight. That’s the only way you can involve your viewer in the scene photographed.

PP: How should one go about talking to strangers after taking their photograph?

MG: I suggest to do it as honestly and directly as possible. Personally, I usually start with something along the lines of: “Hi, I just took your picture, hope that’s ok with you, I phototograph people in the street.” See how they respond and go from there. I usually also offer to send a copy of the photo by e-mail. On another note, an e-mail exchange seems to be a more effective way of obtaining a model release than trying to get one signed on location.


PP: Who are your favorite photographers, both historical and contemporary?

MG: My favorite photographers are Diane Arbus, Sally Mann, Nan Goldin, Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Roy DeCarava and James Nachtwey.

PP: Who is one person you would like to see interviewed by PetaPixel?

MG: I’d love to see an interview of Sally Mann on petapixel…

PP: Anything else you’d like to say to PetaPixel readers?

MG: A big thank you to all the folks that follow my photography online.

Manuel’s work will be on display in an exhibit titled “Caught in the Spotlight” at BridgeHead Studios in Alameda, California from October 9 through November 11, 2009.

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