Peter Kayafas (born 1971) is a documentary and street photographer from the USA currently residing in New York City.
He studied photography at New York University, Tisch School of the Arts.
Peter Kayafas is represented by “Sasha Wolf Gallery, New York”. The exhibition “The Way West, Photographs by Peter Kayafas” will be shown there on April 23rd running through June 8, 2014.
In another interview on this site Peter Kayfas talks about his project “Love And Death In Mexico City”.
“Photography is like pointing, except that the camera creates a tangible result.
A photographer’s measure is the sum of those things at which he/she has pointed.”
Interview with Peter Kayafas
Peter, why did you become a photographer? And what does photography mean to you?
I was given a camera by my father when I was 4-years old. He was the founder of the undergraduate photography program at Massachusetts College of Art in the early 70s, and used my exposed film to teach his beginning students how to develop, contact and print negatives.
“Photography provides permission, justification and reward for curiosity.”
After an initial burst of creativity, it took another dozen or so years for me to reconnect with the medium and begin to really use it as a tool to explore the world.
It’s a bit of a silly story, but it’s true, and it does help to make the point that photography was like second nature to me.
I grew up with it. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on a tall blue stool in my father’s darkroom watching images appear in the developer. I moved to New York City in 1989 because it seemed to me the best place to start really making pictures. Photography is the best excuse/motivation that I know to explore the world. It provides permission, justification and reward for curiosity.
A photographer has many “tools” at hand to bring across his message: lenses, lighting, framing, color treatment etc. Can you elaborate a little bit on the techniques you used for this particular project in order to link form and content?
I have always found the small camera to be the best tool for photographing people on the street. It’s unobtrusive and with the right approach can allow a photographer the ability to point at things as they happen without disrupting the natural interaction of his/her subjects.
The more invisible I am, the more satisfied I am with the results of my efforts. I am much more interested in the way people look when they are not being photographed, or, more accurately, the way they look when they don’t know they are being photographed.
This doesn’t preclude results that depict direct interaction between the subject and the camera, it just means that when I get caught, the reaction to the camera has taken place after the shutter has been released.
In Mexico City, people on the street are, for whatever reason, a bit less keyed into the ubiquitous role of the camera in society. They are simply less self-conscious. This makes Mexico City, Latin-America in general, I would say, fertile ground for the street photographer.
In tandem with the fact that so much seems to happen in the public arena south of the US border, and the general expressiveness of Latinos, yields an explicit, uninhibited environment to make pictures that are about people interacting with people – a street photographer’s dream.
In other words: How would you describe your photographic language and creative process?
“I try to make myself as visually vulnerable/sensitive to my subject as possible.”
I would like to think that my photographic language is the language of the people and culture that I am photographing. I try to make myself as visually vulnerable/sensitive to my subject as possible.
Then I try to make photographs without thinking too much about what I am doing. I want the first step, the acquisition of the image in-situ, to be as intuitive as possible.
I have always felt that the best photography involves three different stages of editing the world we see.
The first, like I said, is intuitive: the photographer knows enough about his/her interest in a particular place to go there and make pictures.
The second stage, less about intuition and more about intention, involves making decisions about which of the results are worth printing.
The final step is the editing of those results into a cohesive, exciting, humane presentation, to a broader audience, of what the subject really looked like. Its visual essence.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
I have been inspired by several photographers.
I don’t think there are many mysteries about this: Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Friedlander, Robert Adams – as I have by other artists/writers: Walt Whitman, Thomas Eakins, James Agee, Knut Hamsun, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire.
What’s your favorite inspirational quote about photography?
“Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”
What kind of camera and equipment do you use?
My approach to the medium, technically, has always been more or less the same.
I’ve used a Leica M6 or M2 with a 35mm lens (sometimes a 28) with Kodak Tri-X film for the last three decades (with occasional forays into 4×5 and square-negative territory).
“I prefer not to immediately see and be preoccupied by the results of my efforts on a tiny screen on the back of the camera.”
I use D76 to develop the film, and Dektol for my prints on Ilford paper in my own darkroom. Not a lot of mystery, not a lot of variety – which is a huge advantage as it allows for keen familiarity and total consistency.
I know what to expect, and how to get what I want technically, which allows me to think about the world while I’m looking at it, rather than which camera or lens to use. People ask me with increasing frequency why I don’t use a digital camera.
The practical part of the answer is that I don’t need to yet – I can still buy all the materials that I need to keep working efficiently with the medium as I have come to use it. The philosophical and technical answer is that I prefer not to immediately see and be preoccupied by the results of my efforts on a tiny screen on the back of the camera the moment after I’ve made the pictures.
With film, the image is latent, and only back in the darkroom/studio does one see the photograph. No editing in the field. No delete button. This provides a more concentrated interaction with the world as it unfolds – instead of looking at my camera, head down, to see what I’ve just done, I keep looking at the world, ready for the next thing to happen. I also believe that I am a much better editor weeks, months or years after I’ve made the photographs.
With the critical distance of time-passed, I tend to choose pictures that are about pictures, and the subjects as they are depicted. I’m less vulnerable to the emotion of the moment when choosing which are the best photographs.
What’s your favorite website about photography?
I don’t have a favorite website about photography, but I look most frequently at the New York Times “LENS Blog”, which I think maintains a high level of respect for the medium and its practitioners by showcasing the best contemporary and historically important work, as well as the ideas of the photographers who made the pictures.
I find fascinating the democracy of image-based web-sites like Pinterest and Instagram, as well as the ubiquitous photo-blogs set up by individuals who collect images from disparate parts of the web that for whatever reason resonate with them.
However, ultimately, on the web, like in the museum, gallery or book, the more considered and contextualized the edit and presentation of photographs is, the more interested I am in them. The ease with which people can borrow the work of others, remove it from its context, and appropriate it as their own “find”, can be as disconcerting as it is interesting.
What book about photography would you recommend?
John Szarkowski’s book “Looking at Photographs” (MoMA, 1973) is the most extraordinary single book on how to think about photographs.
It is also a tour-de-force of Szarkowski’s brilliant writing on photography – like intellectual, visual fire-works, even when he is subtle.
Which advice would you give someone who wants to get started with photography?
The single most empowering thing that any artist can do is find a way to create a cycle of challenging one’s self and learning from their own efforts irrespective of validation from others.
“To keep the creative process free from the preoccupation with making money is incredibly empowering.”
This is not to say that it is not important to be recognized, even celebrated with books, exhibitions and accolade. It’s just that one is much better prepared for such attention if one already has cultivated a mature and self-sufficient work process.
It also helps to have steady income from something other than the sale of one’s art. To keep the creative process free from the preoccupation with making money or achieving conventional milestones of success is incredibly empowering.
Stay focused on your own ideas and approach to the medium, work tirelessly, have patience, and eventually someone will pay attention.