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Best of ASMP 2008

During a trip to Kiev to work as a photo assistant at an international conference, Washington, DC-based Ezra Gregg escaped the comfort of the Hyatt hotel for a personal photo shoot. Armed with a twin-lens camera and black and white film, he went searching for willing subjects and the authentic culture of the streets. Due to a language barrier with most of the locals, Gregg used a combination of gesture mime, and cigarettes to engage his subjects and record spare, softly lit, environmental portraits.

Ezra Gregg — Washington, DC

Web site:
Project: Self assigned portraits of real people met in the street during an assistant job in the Ukraine.

© Ezra Gregg
All images in this article © Ezra Gregg.

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

EG: 3 years.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

EG: 2 years.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

EG: I love to do portraits or projects that have people as the focus. Here in DC I think it is hard to specialize. In the beginning, I think, photographers here have to generalize to make a living.

© Ezra Gregg

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.

EG: Technically I kept things very simple, using a vintage Yaschica twin lens and Kodak Plus X. (The film was given to me by Rhoda Baer, a great photographer and generous mentor.) The process I used was to walk through the city and identify places based on the light, location, or people. If a location had nice light but no people, I would find someone I thought would look great in the location and ask them if they would like to have their portrait made. If the location was good but the light wasn’t, I would file it away in my memory and try and come back to see if the light had changed and if there were people around to photograph. If there was someone I saw whom I really wanted to photograph, I would quickly size up the available locations close by and convince them to let me photograph them. In no case did I ever pay anyone or make a promise to send a print. From experience I know that promises like those rarely let the subject interact with the camera in a real way.

© Ezra Gregg

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?

EG: It is hard to say. I see equipment as tools. I used to work for an antique restorationist, Bill Breaux; he used to say, “You have to have the right tool for the job.” I think what he meant was you have to have a brain to decide which tool is the best.

© Ezra Gregg

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

EG: My style or my taste is classic and simple. My approach is to work tirelessly. I keep myself open to the possibilities of spontaneity. I always look around the next corner and down the next alley. I never accept only what is presented first. I think that my approach is to be constantly curious, patient, and open to change.

© Ezra Gregg

ASMP: Please describe the assignment you were assisting on in Kiev when shooting these self-assigned portraits.

EG: The project was documenting a large conference. The location was the downtown Hyatt, and a couple of other locations around the city center. Some headshots, large group shots, and stills for video.

ASMP: After the rigors of your paid assisting work, what inspired you to go out and shoot for yourself? Were the people you were working with aware that you were going out to shoot?

EG: I am always inspired to go out and shoot. I always bring a camera with me when I travel or know that the person I am assisting will let me borrow one of theirs. I never have kept it a secret that I aspire to be out shooting on my own.

© Ezra Gregg

ASMP: Did you find there to be any difference in mood or feeling between the environment where you were working and the environments you encountered while shooting on your own? Please elaborate.

EG: The Hyatt was a very insulated environment that catered to a homogeneous culture that people like to find in high-end hotel chains around the world. It was very comfortable and, after a couple of days, you could have been anywhere in the world and never known the difference until you looked out the window. Getting out on the street put me in touch with some local folks and culture of the city.

© Ezra Gregg

ASMP: Is shooting with a twin-lens reflex and black and white film your normal choice of camera and media? How did your choice of film and a square frame format affect your images and the relationship with your subjects?

EG: No, I use all kinds of cameras. I knew going over there that the weather would more than likely be cloudy ninety percent of the time. In my opinion, overcast soft light looks beautiful in black-and-white. I had a bunch of free film — it was perfect opportunity.

I chose my Yashica because of its small size. I have found that people engage with medium- and large-format film cameras more than they do with 35mm digital cameras. They are likely to give you more time and this leads to a stillness and awareness in the image, and I like that.

© Ezra Gregg

ASMP: How did you engage people on the street and convince them to be photographed? How much time did you spend in taking each portrait?

EG: The time spent on each portrait varied. Usually I spent no more than a half hour with each person, sometimes a little as a few minutes.

After I identified who I wanted to photograph I would walk up, say hi, and ask them if they wanted to be photographed. I speak no Ukrainian or Russian, so this was all in English. I tried to keep a positive look on my face that said, “Hey, it is ok to say no, and I am completely willing to walk away.” People generally said yes.

© Ezra Gregg

ASMP: What personal information did you try to elicit from your subjects? Was there a language barrier and, if so, how did you deal with it?

EG: Communicating was difficult since, in my experience, a lot of Ukrainian’s don’t speak English, and I don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian. I did a lot of miming and gesturing. People were really more interested in what I was doing. So we talked about that, and the weather, and food, we shared cigarettes. (I don’t smoke, but “when in Rome.”) Younger Ukrainians are learning English in school these days, so they where eager to practice.

© Ezra Gregg

ASMP: Did you run into any issues with local officials as you wandered the streets taking pictures?

EG: No; one or two even let me photograph them.

ASMP: Were there any specific artistic influences that guided these images?

EG: Not really anyone in particular. I am constantly influenced by all kinds of images in movies, advertisements, photography books, and by what I learn assisting. I am sure all of these things seep into the decisions I make while looking through the viewfinder. But I really try and make unique decisions.

© Ezra Gregg

ASMP: Have you used these images in your portfolio or marketing pieces? If so, have these images received any specific response or lead to an assignment?

EG: I am using these images in my portfolio. The only marketing I have done with them to date is entering them in the PDN photo annual competition (they didn’t make it in) and the Best of ASMP competition. As far as I know, I have not gotten specific assignment because of these images, yet.

© Ezra Gregg

ASMP: Has the style and content of these portrait images influenced your other work or projects?

EG: I use my Yashica, my pinhole and 4x5 more. I am shooting more film.

ASMP: How much time do you currently spend working as an assistant vs establishing/working with your own clients?

EG: I probably spend too much time assisting. My bread and butter money still comes from assisting. But I am getting more of my own assignments and, over the last year, more repeat clients. I feel good about the direction my career is taking and I’m positive about the future.

© Ezra Gregg

ASMP: Do you have any insights or advice for young, aspiring photographers about how to get work as an assistant? About making the transition from assisting to shooting?

EG: Local ASMP meetings are a good place to meet people and find assisting opportunities. When you think you are ready to go out on your own, take Hank Williams advice “Mind your own business, you’ll stay busy all the time.”