Street photographer Richard Sandler came into his own through a path that was as distinctive as his work. He shares his story and his photographs of dogs with The Click.
Sandler observes, “I love dogs. From the day I started photography, I was always photographing dogs. Early on, I was aware of Elliott Erwitt’s work, and Garry Winogrand’s photographs, in particular The Animals.
"I like how dogs mirror people and the human condition. They also provide comic relief. My (non dog) photographs tend to be rather chewy, truth-telling affairs, that often ask socio-political questions. But with making dog pictures it was always about having fun.
"Photographing dogs on the street is pretty easy. Garry Winogrand used to say that making pictures of dogs was like 'shooting hoops on a five foot basket.' And I totally agree.
“Before I was a photographer, I was a natural foods chef. I started two Macrobiotic restaurants, one in Boston and one in New York. I moved to Boston to study with a Macrobiotic teacher there. This led to a deep interest in Chinese medicine, and then I went to England to study Acupuncture. I got my Acupuncture degree in England in 1971, and then practiced it for the better part of the next ten years.
“So, I had been doing things for other people for so long that I realized I had to do something for myself, something artistic. Photography came along in 1976. A friend loaned me a 35MM camera and I was immediately hooked. It was love at first sight. I moved into a communal house in Cambridge and there was a darkroom in the basement. A house-mate was a professional photographer, and the couple that owned the house had a Leica 3F that they gave to me. I walked into the perfect situation where I had a teacher, a darkroom, and a camera…. and I only had to pay $30 in monthly rent.
“The house was owned by eminent psychologist and Harvard professor David McClelland and his wife Mary. They were Quakers and had five children who had grown up and moved out of the house. Their mini-mansion had nine bedrooms. I had fallen into a wonderful living situation with artists and seekers, and achievers. It was a very fortunate start to what would become my life's work.
"Living with a Harvard family also gave me a bit of entrée into the school itself. I was able to sit in on a 1977 class there with Ben Lifson, who was a brilliant lecturer and at the time was the photography critic for The Village Voice.
"From the very start I knew that I only wanted to shoot on the street. Lifson introduced me to the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Andre Kertesz, Brassai, and Garry Winogrand, etc., and their work blew me away.
"I quickly learned to see as the camera sees, and not as the human eyes see: the difference being in the binocular vision of our two eyes, versus the monocular vision of the camera. The simplest way to see like a camera of course is to close one eye.
“I hit the streets of Boston in an uninhibited and experimental way. Two things had a major impact on my work: First my photo mentor in the house taught me how to use the flash with longer shutter speeds, so I started shooting on the street with the flash from the start. The other thing was a weekend workshop I took in the Summer of 1977 with Winogrand. That was the icing on the cake for me. Observing him work was wonderful. I think I learned everything i needed from watching him in just those few days. I saw his mind working. He was so dedicated to making pictures. He had a great sense of humor. He took chances, but at the same time he was very covert. Most of the time, people didn’t have a clue he was taking a picture. I learned how to be covert too, and how not to inject myself into situations. Of course, using the flash changes things because it blows your cover
“The thing about my generation of street photographers was that it was very difficult to be taken seriously. The MoMA pretty much closed their doors to street photography after their virtual coronation of Arbus, Frank, Winogrand, and Frieldlander; they were so good, and their work was groundbreaking. The climate for street photography after them, was difficult at best.
“Photography is the art form with the easiest entrance point of all. You can get lucky on 'day one' and take the best picture of your life, and if you’re talented you can really rise very rapidly. You can’t do that in music or writing or painting though; it takes many years to become any good at those Arts. With photography (even film photography) you don’t need to know a lot, and so you can get inspired very fast. These days people aren’t as burdened with the old 'Academy' and it's conservative influence on photography, It’s not as strong as it used to be."