interview: Todd Gross

by Jason Reed

Todd Gross (aka Quarlo) has been one of my favourite photographers ever since I started making photographs about four years ago. I’m delighted that he agreed to answer some questions for the Observe Blog.

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T h e   r e a s o n s   w h y

JR – A few quick fire questions to get started.

You took to photography in your twenties and, despite a hiatus for a few years in or around 2005, then found yourself back in a photographic groove. What is it that motivates you to keep going?

How often do you get the chance to get out and shoot? Do you set aside time on a regular basis or do you grab what opportunities you have in between your other commitments? Perhaps (like most) it’s a combination of both?

Does your mood on any given day influence what you see and shoot or vice versa?

TG – The potential for a good photograph (one that I’m happy with) is what keeps me going. I just want to be creative. Share the shit that’s inside of me. You know, It’s nice to have something in ones life, besides the usual get up go to work come home start all over again thing. I’m not interested in football or college basketball or whatever, so there’s time for photography! Having said that, the real truth is I might’ve been convinced at some point, that I have at least a little talent with the camera, I see no reason to waste that.

I shoot whenever I’m not too cold, too hot, too hungry, too tired or in too shitty a mood. Which ends up to be not as often as I’d like! Less and less these days, as I’m working more ( a good thing) than I was, say a year ago. I still manage a couple hours or more a few days a week.

My mood plays quite a bit into the equation. I tend towards cynicism and depression, so that’s another obstacle to get out of the way. All minor issues in the scheme of things of course.

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JR – Does shooting help lift your mood when you’re depressed? I find it can go either way.

TG – If I’m doing well, it certainly does. Most definitely. If I perceive that I’m doing poorly, the mood goes right into the toilet. The reality is though, that I have no idea how I’m really doing until I see the pictures. I’ve had many days where the sun is shining inside and out, only to discover later I shot a whole lot of nothing. What I really need to do is relax. In general. But, I’m a neurotic jew, so that’s easier said than done. I could over-think the operation of a paper bag. The best shots come when one least expects.. or tries for that matter.

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I n f l u e n c e s

JR – You have mentioned elsewhere that Gilden, Parr, and Cartier-Bresson were a few of your early influences. Both Cartier-Bresson and Gilden’s work seem very far from where you are now in terms of your images. Did you try and emulate them when you first started out because I see little of their style in your images today? Does their influence still linger as far as you are aware?

TG – Ha ha. My stuff is very far away from the works of those great gents indeed. I take photography pretty serious, but unfortunately I’m not one of those guys that came to it early and devoted their life to it. Wish I was. Truthfully, I am influenced by every great photographer and photograph I see. Currently, this is one of my main issues… trying not to let myself get lead around by the nose by influences. As far as style goes, you would probably be in a better position to evaluate my stuff than I am.

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JR – Which leads nicely to my next question. Would you say that your style or approach has changed in any material way over the years? Some say that it takes many years (if not decades) to find a style, do you think you have “found” yours – or are you still looking?

TG – Speaking in terms of approach.. I’m still looking. I may always be looking. Familiarity breeds contempt, right? I’ve never stuck with much for very long. Jobs, relationships and so on. I get restless and the cracks start to appear and I’m on to something new. But I am trying harder now that I’m getting truly bald and my back hurts when I sit down sometime. Definitely trying harder with photography and my love Jenny. I might be settling on a focal length pretty soon. And film over digital. Although that can’t possibly last, cuz of the $$$ involved.

I think much less about style. I’m not exactly sure. Again, you might be a better judge.

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JR – Do you think its important to find a “voice” that defines “who you are”?

TG – No. Maybe I’m wrong, but I reckon style finds you or not at all.

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JR – Does that mean you’re happy with the work and your results or is there always a conscious desire to move forward and evolve.

TG – Once in a while I’m happy with a picture. But there’s a whole lot of room for improvement. I have a small library of photobooks to show me that.

JR – Is there any particular direction that you would like to explore or are there any projects that you plan to pursue?

TG – I’d like to nail that approach down. Sharpen my scanning and photoshop skills so things look a touch more consistent. Figure out what equipment I really want to use and earn the cash to pay for it.

As for projects… fuck knows. I might not be that guy. I mean, I love prog rock, but I tend to play the same 3 or 4 chords over and over again.

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JR – Is there anyone out there at the moment whose work you see as an influence on your current shooting?

TG – Like I mentioned, I’m influenced by quite a bit. My dad wasn’t around much when I was a kid, so I’m always looking for someone or something to show me the way.

JR – Do you ever meet up with any photographers in NYC either socially or for photowalks (I’ve always found shooting with others to be a bit weird)?

TG – Socially, once in a very blue moon. I had a couple chats with Bryan Formhals this year. Really fun talking to him about photos. No photowalks though. I can’t wrap my head around that concept at all. Seems mega pointless. But I’m fully prepared to be wrong about that at some point and reverse my stance.

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JR – I hate to ask about gear but what equipment do you use? Do you view your kit as being just a “tool” as many claim or are you prone to gear acquisition syndrome like the rest of us from time to time?

TG – I love cameras. I think most photographers do. The tool matters. Could just be the nerd in me, but I love looking at and learning about cameras and lenses. Taking fantasy shopping tours of B&H or eBay. I think it’s a false conceit when folks say they can’t be bothered to talk about gear.

Currently, I’m shooting with an old Minolta point and shoot. The DSLR I was using is great (in a swiss army knife sort of way) and I’ll probably go back to it at some point, but the Minolta is so easy to carry and use (obviously) that I can’t put it down. Plus, it looks rad man.

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JR – What would you choose to shoot with now if money were no object?

TG – Probably a Leica M6. I had an M2 briefly several years ago, but it wasn’t the right time to get my head into that way of shooting. For digital a D610 would be nice (if a bit on the bulky dorky side of things), simply because I have a collection of Nikon lenses. A digital M would also be cool, but they are dumb dumb money. Judging by what Sony (and in turn everyone else eventually) is putting out, it looks like we’re not far off from smallish affordable full-frame cams for all the proles.

JR – Early pioneers of street photography made pictures because they felt an irresistible pull to do so. Meyerowitz walked out his job after seeing Frank in action in an advertising shoot. He is now a legend and has made his living through photography. These days the streets of any major city seem to be full of budding Winogrands. How would you define “success” in photographic terms (being published? High end exhibitions? 100+ faves or likes on social media?)

TG – Success means different things to different bodies, I would imagine. For myself, success is being interviewed by Jason Reed or someone out there writing me a note saying that they enjoy the photos.

I want to continue making these little frames for as long as I can. If something besides the satisfaction of doing so comes out… great.

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F i n d i n g    a    v o i c e    a n d   d e f i n i n g   s u c c e s s

JR – If the internet were to be suddenly snuffed out of existence would you be content to just shoot for yourself or would you need to look for ways to publish your work in hardcopy?

TG – I think I can safely say I don’t have to worry about that. I mean, as long as we have electricity. If we suddenly don’t, I imagine there will be more pressing matters at hand than photographing.

JR – Is it possible to reach that zen-like state of contentment through shooting for shootings sake? I suppose what I’m asking is once the camera’s back in its place at home, and the prints are processed and viewed, would that be enough?

TG – I don’t think it would be enough anymore to just put prints in a drawer. I did that. I much prefer for folks to see the stuff. That said, having every photo rated with a star or heart is pretty fucking daft at the end of the day. Still, why not go ahead and fave a few of my latest whydontcha!!??? Love me love me love me me me!

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JR – I may be alone, but I sense that there is a shift away from the term “street photography”, you describe yourself simply as “a photographer” do you resist being pigeon holed or do you place yourself in any particular category? If so which one?

TG – It took me a long time to call myself a photographer at all. I thought ya had to get published in the magazines and/or wear a funny vest and cap. Now I realize, I can call myself whatever I like. Others surely will.

JR – Is it possible for a style of photography to be “done to death”? If so, are there any styles that you feel are getting a bit “overdone”?

TG – Everyone can do whatever they like. There is no overdone. After all, the only thing new about a particular thing is you finding out about it.

JR – Aside from posed, abstract and fine art imagery, do you think that there’s anything genuinely new that can be discovered in the world of (street) photography? Or are we all just standing on the shoulders of giants like Meyerowitz et al?

TG – We’re all standing on each others shoulders at the moment, I think. But I have no doubt folks will emerge with “fresher” ideas and imagery as time goes by.

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Street and the internet

JR – What are your views on the way that the internet and social media has affected photography today?

TG – Ya got me. This is a question for one of the real thinkers out there. You know the ones!

JR – Do you think that the glut of online images has desensitized us to what is actually quality work or is the opposite is true? Is there such a thing as an objectively “bad” image or is it a largely subjective medium?

TG – Entirely subjective. I remember seeing Cy Twombly stuff for the first time at MoMA years ago when I was a kid. I thought, what the fuck is all this shit with the squiggly lines? Dude’s having a piss, isn’t he? I still think that, but now I know it’s prob due to the fact that I have no frame of reference or natural sense of appreciation for that kind of thing.

Regarding the glut of images, yeah, it has desensitized me. I have to learn when it’s time to walk away and stop looking or else become completely dumb and numb.

JR – The cult of personality leading to an element of “the emperors new clothes” creeping into the online photographic community perhaps?

TG – True. But that’s just folks being folks.

JR – Some photographers seem to make a decent living from the free publicity the internet affords and through workshops and the like. Have you ever been tempted to take advantage of that and move fully into the profitable “electric limelight”?

TG – I wouldn’t know how. I mean, I’ve been interviewed a few times this year, though I guess that’s a more passive form of promotion? It would be nice to make a few bucks, of course. I’ve always been clueless in this regard. I just want to go out, have fun making some photos, go home, crank The Floyd and dream about outer space. I’m just not the workshop type.

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More about you

JR – It may be my projection but I see your images as being as much about circumstances and happenstance as about the human subjects themselves- is this a conscious aspect of your photography?

TG – I use what’s available to try to make a successful image. Not only my surroundings but whatever mettle I’m made up of that particular day. It sounds maybe a bit pretentious to say, but the photos are more about myself than the subject.

JR – That’s a big can of worms – images being a reflection of ourselves. Many of your shots are not of the more mainstream “pavement and pedestrian” school. What do you think this says about you?

TG – I’m not sure, except that, in general, I don’t favor those kinds pictures. Ultimately, (you tell me whether I’m succeeding or not) I’m trying to exclude distracting elements in order to create a simple dynamic graphic composition. If I shoot people walking down the street, head on, with a 28mm lens, it’s exceedingly difficult to do that. Unless, I get really close. I don’t want to get really close. Then again, I’ve used a 50mm from three feet away quite a bit. So, maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Ha ha.

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JR – Although you started shooting black and white, now you shoot almost entirely in colour – why the change?

TG – Overall, I enjoy looking at color photography more than B&W. I think I have some ability to see colors well. So I’m running with that.

JR – Alex Webb famously stated that photography is 99% failure. Does that percentage seem right to you?

TG – Maybe 93%. Not everything has to be perfect and in it’s right place to be properly appreciated, you know?

JR – Sounds a bit like Bresson’s famous quote about sharpness being a bourgeois concept. Do you think slight imperfections can make an image more compelling?

TG – Sure. Why not? They can also sit on top of a picture like a festering boil. I always notice the boils. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to enjoy the rest.

JR– Do you have any plans to publish your work (now or in the future)?

TG – Ambition doesn’t come easy to me, but I guess I wouldn’t mind having my own little book out sometime in the future.

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Thanks Todd.

You can find Todd’s excellent images at www.flickr.com/photos/quarlo/ and at quarlo.com.

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