The author of The New Yorkers, Robert Herman has been a street photographer since his days as an NYU film student back in the 1970s. From an archive of 25,000 images, Herman selected 82 photographs shot between 1978-2005 on Kodakchrome for his first monograph. The most remarkable thing in his look at a now-vintage New York is the color. It overwhelms the senses.
Herman’s ability to capture the spirit of a place is evident in his relationship to the medium of film. He understands the importance of light and the necessity of timing. Nowhere is his color work more captivating than in his series of photographs of Cartagena, Colombia, collected together in a series called “A Waking Dream.” Herman speaks with The Click about his life in photography, a life influenced by both moving and still pictures.
Herman recalls, “When I was growing up my parents owned movie theaters. Living in a big house in Long Beach, my dad set up a screening room. There was a projection booth with two 35mm projectors, real movie seats and a big silver screen. For my birthday, he showed Warner Brothers cartoons. Over the years, my Dad continued to bring home features to screen for family and friends. My favorite theater of their small chain was the Jewel on Kings Highway. The got it in the early 50s. Back then it was the only place in Brooklyn where you could catch a film by Fellini or Buñuel. When Woody Allen discovered Bergman, it was at the Jewel. They served cappuccino and I can imagine all the people in berets sitting around smoking cigarettes. (Laughs).
“After a devastating fire in 1963, the Jewel was gone. My parents finally reopened it as the Cinema Kings Highway when I was in my teens. Now they played Hollywood movies. At the opening night party and screening of ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’, we celebrated my birthday with the cake on the candy counter.
“When I was 14, I began taking the train and the subway by myself from Long Island to work as an usher during the summer. As many times as I wanted, I got to watch films like The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and ‘Easy Rider’. For a kid, it was It was life changing. Antonioni’s ‘Zabriskie Point’ opened in 1970 and in the two weeks it played there I must have watched it 20 times. His composition, his use of natural light and the unaffected acting style was like nothing I ever seen. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that popular and it only played for two weeks. In those days, there was no videotape, no DVDs. The movies would just disappear. If you did not catch them, they were gone.
“Although, I completed three short films at NYU Film, I was feeling overwhelmed by the whole process of filmmaking. My dad always had cameras in the house. So, I decided to take an intro to black-and-white photography class. At the same time, I started checking out the photography bookstores. When I discovered Robert Frank’s The Americans and Harry Callahan’s color book from 1978, it was a revelation. At the end of the semester, we had a little show of student work and I had made some really strong pictures. Something clicked: No matter what was going on with my life, or my career, I didn’t need a film crew to make new work. Absorbing the lessons gleaned from Frank and Callahan and all the movies I’d ever seen, I began shooting on Kodachrome. I’d found my medium
“After I graduated, I started looking for work as a production still photographer on features. I got my first job by showing a producer some stills from some short films I had worked on while I was student, and a portfolio of my street photography. Shooting on location and freezing my ass off, I was being paid $100 a day, (good money back then), to make photographs, In between set ups, I shot my own photos on the streets near the film locations. It was an amazing experience.”
Herman’s brilliant use of color can be seen in his series on Cartagena, Colombia. He was there as a guest of his girlfriend, who was a juror for the annual FICCI film festival. As Herman explains in his artist statement on this project, “Whenever I am driven into an unfamiliar city, I consider it a special luxury. As an artist as well as a photographer, I am free to look at whatever catches my eye and to revel in the sense of wonder I feel when seeing something new and unknown…. Entering Cartagena for the first time, as the old walled city began to appear in the distance, something strange and mysterious began to overtake me. I was not in Cartagena, a city by the sea on the northwest coast of Colombia. Suddenly I was in a ‘Cartagena’ of my waking dream.”
As Herman recalls, “I started walking around and the colors of the city were mind blowing. I would go out and just explore. My walks took me further and further away from where we were staying. I shot five thousand pictures in a week. I loved the way the image straight out of the camera looked. I came home and began editing while I was still in that state of mind.
“Inspired by my images, they decided to use my photographs for publicity for the next year’s festival with the theme being ‘The Walls of Cartagena,’ On opening night, the festival video that incorporated my images was projected outside in the square. It was so amazing to see it with a large audience set to music on such a big screen.
“Later that same week, we went to a screening at the Multiplex, but we were having trouble getting in. The usher, a local guy from Cartagena, recognized me: ‘Oh, you’re Robert Herman, the guy who took the pictures of all the walls, come on in!’ To me, that’s what’s it ‘s all about: my work had touched someone and they got it. It was one of the best compliments I’d ever had.”