Mastering Street Photography With Michelle Groskopf
One of LA’s most influential street photographers, Michelle Groskopf, recently released her first publication, titled Sentimental. With an eye for detail like no other and a body of work that keeps us wanting more, Groskopf is documenting Los Angeles one story at a time. Selects from Sentimental have been installed at The Row DTLA as part of the Month of Photography Los Angeles 10th Anniversary, and Milk stopped by the opening to catch up with Groskopf on her craft.
When did you get your first camera? How did your love for photography develop?
I got my first camera in high school when I was 15. I was a restless kid. I would skip class and sit by my locker and read. My art teacher saw potential in me and helped me focus my energy through photography and eventually film. I would wander around downtown Toronto photographing old barbershops and laundry mats. It was love at first sight.
What is your preferred medium, preferred settings and why?
I prefer digital. I shoot a ton. I shoot and share, shoot and share. It’s fast. That’s how I tend to grow and improve. I’m not precious about each photo. Film as a process is way too expensive and slow for my taste. My settings move and change with the scenario but I’m always all manual and I detest zoom lenses.
Flash photography is such a unique style. What encouraged you to master this technique?
I wanted a way to showcase the beauty of everyday objects. I wanted to give the royal treatment to all of these amazing faces I was passing in the street. Showcase the beauty and industriousness of our hands. The street is very much my studio in that sense.
You have such an eye for detail. What are you trying to communicate to your audience?
There is so much pleasure in looking and appreciating. Sadly culturally we are told not to stare. It’s rude. I think the opposite. I use photography as a meditation, as a way for me to be present. To connect with the people around me. It’s also a way for me to connect to myself. My photography expresses how I see. My likes and dislikes. My own curiosity. I want that for everyone. That love of self and others.
Who are some of the most influential photographers that you look up to?
I’m traditionally trained as a filmmaker and cinematographer. I also taught as a graduate professor at school of visual arts in NY. My influences stem from filmmaking and storytelling. Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch. The way Orson Welles played with character and faces. The mastery of Claire Denis and Agnes Varda. The list can go on and on. Don’t look at other photographers. Ugh. Check out painters and filmmakers and musicians. Learn how to see from different perspectives.
Describe your experiences as a women in the photography industry? What are some of the stereotypes that you have had to overcome?
Street Photography is such a boring boys club. Boys with their toys. I ignore it for the most part. I don’t have anything to prove. I work to please myself. Not compromising on my vision has been a slow road but when it connects to people it really connects. That is a huge lesson to me. I’m queer so I’ve felt like an outsider my entire life. I’m not new to that. Instead of suffering I have made it the whole of my work. Street photography is queer. It’s a queer process. It serves the outsider. So I’ve embraced my outsider self.
Why LA? Where is your favorite place to shoot?
LA is the perfect place for street photography. So many faces bathed in perfect light. It’s weird and open and wild. People praise New York as the ultimate place to get it and shoot but they can have it. I’ll get lost in LA any day. It is also full of childhood memory triggers for me. I’m originally from the suburbs of Toronto so I grew up with strip malls and suburbia. This is the land of strip malls and nostalgia. I am constantly thrown back in time and it inspires me.
What are your most memorable moments while capturing a photo? Have you ever had to encounter any confrontations?
Everyday brings challenges. I get it. People become paranoid when they see a camera come out. Add flash and it can be very tense. I get screamed at a lot. I’ve been called a pedophile, a horrible human being. People have tried to grab my camera. Have used their size to try and intimidate me to erase the photo. I know my rights as a photographer which is important. I’m also a kind person and am not out there looking for a fight. I love connecting with people. That’s my goal ultimately.
Your photos are so personable. It is as if you make time stop for a moment. How do you capture those RAW moments of reality?
It all happens to fast honestly. I am generally a quiet person, oddly shy until I have a camera in my hand. Then it’s all fast energy and thinking on my feet. I will do whatever it takes to get the shot. Sometimes I just jump in and grab it, sometimes I grab it and chat and take some more. Sometimes I can be very sneaky. But I always try my best to be gentle.
Do you have any advise for young street photographers that are new to the scene?
Shoot everyday. As much as you can. Practice makes perfect. Make it second nature and always listen to your gut. Most importantly never look back or to the side to see what other photographers are doing. Don’t look forward at the unknown. Look in. That’s where all of the answers are. You are all you need. Get to know yourself.
Where did the name of your new book, Sentimental, originate from?
I am a sentimental person. So much of my work is an exploration of my suburban youth. I am very attracted to faces and hands and styles that whisk me back to being a kid in Toronto. That’s why I named the book Sentimental. My hope is that it transports people.
You have been a photographer for over 20 years, how did you pick what pieces of work you wanted to select for your first publication?
It was horribly difficult. I have such a huge body of work. I knew I wanted to only use the last 5 years in Los Angeles. It speaks the most to the theme. And it’s where I perfected my style and vision.
What does the future of the industry look like for female photographers?
Hopefully more women will be hired and will continue to do the hiring. I am a huge supporter of bringing alternate viewpoints into play. We can’t represent the world without various viewpoints. That means supporting photographers of color, queer photographers, women photographers. I hope the coming years bring proper representation.
Do you have a routine for when you know you are going to be out and about shooting or is your work very impromptu?
I don’t really bring my camera everywhere. My style of shooting is very vigorous and all consuming. I need to etch our specific time for it. So it’s a daily meditation. I am often so hyped up after going out shooting that I sometimes need to spend a couple days coming down. I think I’ve sort of destroyed my bodies stress system. It’s intense.
I am sure all of your photos have a special place with you, but if you had to pick your favorite piece from the Sentimental series what would it be and why?
It’s never about just one photo. It’s about a world that I’m building for myself. The photos add up to Michelle Land. Welcome!
What is the biggest lesson you have learned throughout the years with photography?
Learn to love your weird self. Be gentle with yourself. And most importantly never stop staring.
Event images courtesy of Andres Norwood; photos courtesy of Michelle Groskopf
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