“Robert Frank shook the world with The Americans. The 50-year anniversary seemed like a unmissable milestone to pay homage to Frank and re-explore the relevance of his themes half a decade on.”
Jacob Perlmutter (born in 1989) is a photographer and filmmaker from England currently based in London. Other than what he learned at secondary school, he’s self-taught when it comes to photography. Jacob Perlmutter studied filmmaking at Arts University Bournemouth (AUCB). He’s represented by LILK Gallery, London. His recent project “88 days”, which is an homage to Robert Frank’s work The Americans, is available as a book.
“I try to show the world as I see it.”
Interview with Jacob Perlmutter
Jacob, why did you become a photographer?
I never really decided to become a photographer. I more fell into it through my interest in visual language. I studied GCSE and A Level photography and the more I did, the more I loved it. I suppose the point that it turned from a hobby and into a profession was when I was funded by Converse to make 88 days.
What was your most memorable moment shooting pictures?
My strongest memory, which I’m sure will never leave me, was when I was in Sri Lanka in Christmas 2004 and got caught up in the tsunami. It was the first time I’d ever used a camera, but I still remember the sense of watching a terrifying scene unfold and raising the viewfinder to my eye, waiting to select the precise moment. I’d never really taken photos before, but all of a sudden I found the need to digest what was happening through documentation. It came very naturally to me. After that point, I didn’t really stop. It had jogged something in my brain that informed me to continue to see scenes and events as pictures.
What does photography mean to you and what do you want to say with your pictures?
Photography can take on so many different forms. I see my work as a form of ‘real fiction’. Although the pictures are not staged and are of ‘real things’ (ie not assembled studio shots), my methods and aesthetic aim is to remove a sense of ‘real world’ and bring it into my own world. I like to portray the world as I see it.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
Garry Winogrand’s work has had a lasting impact on me. His ability to capture the theatre of the city streets and the poetry of suburban communities made me look in a different way and begin my questioning of what’s real and what an artist’s portrayal of that reality is. Not only that, but the moments he chose were at the arc of the subject’s gesticulation, saturating the scene’s potential. Plus his composition, wide lens and often skewed horizon line are still as relevant and fresh as they were when he shot them.
In one of your most recent projects you followed the footsteps of Robert Frank. What made you embark on that journey?
Robert Frank shook the world with “The Americans”. The 50-year anniversary seemed like a unmissable milestone to pay homage to Frank and re-explore the relevance of his themes half a decade on.
When Robert Frank presented his work “The Americans”, it turned out not to be the patriotic praise but instead revealed the dark sides of the “American Dream”: poverty, racial conflicts etc. What story do your pictures tell of the same country 50 years later?
Robert Frank’s images do indeed explore some dark territory, presenting the unpatriotic ground level views on the American Dream. However, in his book ‘Crisis of the Real’, Andy Grundburg brings to light that Frank’s essay is more than this – the series is, in fact, about the photographer himself. The Americans presents, through grungy, blurred, grainy black and white images, existential and personal scenes.
They explore Frank’s isolation, his identity as a Swiss Jew in America at the time and his mixed views on America all at once. Consequently, I’d say that I hope that my work attempts to do the same; on the surface it looks at differing classes, racial conflicts and the like, but as a whole, it is about me as a young man exploring the country with my camera and a backpack of film. This brings me back to my previous point: I am not a photojournalist or a social commentator. I present the world not “as it is”, but rather, as I see it. I think my pictures explore similar themes that Frank explored, only my series is much smaller, given my limited 88 days on the road and less turbulent and complicated background.
At the beginning of each project one has some kind of idea in mind as to what the result could be like. Sometimes that changes along the way and the result is quite different. Was that the case and if so what did you learn during the project?
I certainly had one idea in my head when I set out and came back with something quite different. The sensibility remained the same, but for sure the content was more tame than I’d initially hoped for. However after spending weeks with the contact sheets and making test prints, I realised that I was on a different journey to Robert Frank, living in a different time. This understanding meant that I relaxed a lot more and stopped trying to live up to Frank’s work and subjects; simply echoing his style and methods was enough, and the rest was up to me.
Many of your images are black and white, with a gritty texture. How would you describe your photographic language and creative process?
I’ve dabbled with other techniques, but have always returned to the “gritty” black and white style. For me it creates an instant drama and it never gets boring. Plus there is something refined about it. Giving yourself restrictions enables you to explore a focused territory more. I am a vegetarian. And I feel that the more I learn about vegetarian food, the deeper I can get in my understanding. With meat at my disposal as well, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Colour is meat. But that’s just me.
What’s important in order to develop an own photographic voice?
It’s always important to know what you like and to explore the confinements of that aesthetic. It’s easy to think you must be able to do everything these days because a lot of creative industries require a ‘one man band’. But artistically, I’d say explore your interests, your influences and when you think you’ve hit the ground, dig deeper and discover the lineage of your voice. In his book Steal Like An Artist, Austin Kleon suggests to research who your artistic heroes idealized. This is a great help, both in deepening your knowledge in your field and also by simply knowing that your heroes weren’t the start of it all artistic voice evolves through generations.
I’ve heard that you prefer to shoot film and still develop your photos in your own darkroom. Why do you preserve and appreciate this old-fashioned way of photography?
I’ve always shot on film because I quite simply prefer the aesthetic. The process is fantastic and I love working in the darkroom, but because I like grain, I like film. However, I recently bought a Leica M9 which has stolen my heart because it functions just like my M6 but with the benefits of digital. From now on, I’ll use both.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?
However interesting your subject matter is, if the images don’t hit you at the surface level, they won’t draw you in. Therefore I always try to create images that use dynamic framing, multiple points of interest and tension, all of which tell a particular story or evoke a mood. The visuals and concept are tied in the aesthetic may inform the subject, or vice versa.
What qualities and characteristics does a good photographer need?
It’s becoming harder and harder, I think. But originality always wins the day. This can be originality presented through a reoccurring subject (such as America) but really to have something original the photographer must have something to say or specific to explore. That and great framing and shot selection.
What does a photo need to be a great photo in your eyes? Especially keeping in mind the over abundance of photographic imagery in today’s society.
A great image must have a quality about it that is far greater than purely aesthetic. Great street photos have tension, narrative, dynamics, characters, purpose, poetry, heart, personality where the viewer can look at the image and either identify with, or dislike some of the characters. I don’t enjoy the irony in a lot of street photos, where something in the background is undermining or contradicting something in the foreground.
To me, this is a cheap gag. If you saw it in a painting you would think, ‘who puts all that time into intricately painting this amazing scene, just for that half-second joke?’ Why should a photo be different? Because it takes 125th of a second to take? No. Photos take up just as much space as a painting. If the joke appears within a more complex frame with more going on and is just part of the story then fantastic, but these kind of shots aren’t serious. A great photo is deep. It hits you on the surface and takes you in deeper. It (normally) also has multiple elements going on, setting off one another like little bombs. Therefore a great photo must simply be a great image that just so happens to be in the form of a photo.
What do you consider to be the greatest changes photojournalism (documentary photography) has gone through in recent years and what will be the challenges in years to come?
It must be going digital. Not only has this changed the aesthetic, but the explosion in quantity of images has changed how people work. You can shoot so many frames in a second that it’s become less about Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ and more about picking the shot in the edit. I feel that the art has been lost somewhere. The over-abundance of imagery also means that people are less careful about their editing and often online I see two similar shots carelessly displayed together. Furthermore, with Photoshop, it’s impossible to tell if an image has been heavily manipulated. The challenge therefore comes with the notion of ‘telling the truth’ when it comes to photojournalism, but in street photography’s case, it’s less of an issue.
You are not only a photographer but also a filmmaker. In what way differ these mediums from one another and how do they complement each other on the other hand?
Photography has lent itself well with my filmmaking in that my understanding of framing has enabled me to be more economical with my cinematic visuals. Other than this, however, I see them as totally separate, especially as I write as well as direct my film work.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
Inspiration normally comes from looking at other’s work because my work is not photojournalism, a current event won’t draw me in I’m more interested in humanity overall social interactions and the like, which was being explored in the street photography boom of the 50s-80s. I get inspired when I look at that work and sometimes it will make something in my brain click and want to start exploring my own ideas.
What kind of photography equipment (camera etc.) and photographic supplies do you use?
Leica M6 or (now) M9.
I have a darkroom in my shed which I use to process, contact sheet and print my work.
What’s your favorite website about photography?
Master of Photography (www.masters-of-photography.com). It’s basic, but has all the classics. A good place to start and also return to.
What’s your favorite inspirational photography quote?
Let’s keep it relevant. It’s a great quote by Roger Ballen:
It is my belief that the most challenging photographs are those that create a tension between what we refer to as the real and the imaginative.
What photography book would you recommend?
Time Life published an amazing 13-or-so part collection of photography books. They’re my bible. They cover all the great photographers with a good amount of detail, whilst having their own purist agenda. I would recommend them to anyone especially the photojournalism and travel photography books. My collection is post-it noted and highlighted to pieces.
Which advice would you give someone who wants to become a (professional) photographer?
Be yourself, challenge yourself, and be nice. It’s an industry like any other and I deplore how certain creative industries somehow justify ego-driven and nasty attitudes there is no good reason for it. Also be in it for the right reasons because you love photography.
Last but not least, let’s switch roles: Jacob Perlmutter, which question would you have liked to be asked in this interview about your work that I didn’t ask? Please feel free to add it as well as the answer.
Q: My question: What’s next?
A: I’m currently working on a feature film screenplay, which, one day, I hope to direct. I am also soon to release a small series called ‘Mindfulness’ with LILK, the gallery that represents me. It’s a collection of images taken in India and is different to my other work in that the focus of the images is not spontaneity, but rather the idea of being present in the moment and taking consideration over the process of the shooting of the photo. I’ll leave it there for now.