Q&A: Michael Ernest Sweet Discusses The Human Fragment and What He Hates About Digital Photography

Categories: Photography
Michael Ernest Sweet
If you've ever been photographed by Michael Ernest Sweet, there's a good chance you wouldn't know it. With his pocket-size Ricoh GR in one hand, he scans the streets for a target, snaps his photo without using the viewfinder, and moves on in the blink of an eye. "It's like I'm a ninja," he told us via phone from Montreal, where he works during the school year as a teacher at an alternative school for troubled children. The lovely results of his stealthy method can be seen in his new monograph, The Human Fragment (Brooklyn Arts Press), with a foreword by Michael Musto, out December 15. Collected here are black-and-white photos he shot during his trips to New York City over two years, and if you don't look carefully, you'll miss the little details -- sometimes humorous, sometimes heartbreaking -- that make his work terrifically rich.

Primarily self-taught, Sweet was introduced to photography as a teenager by his aunt, a professional photographer, who allowed him to use her cameras and darkroom. A recipient of both a Prime Minister's Award and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in Canada for "significant contributions to his country in the fields of education and the arts," he spoke to us about why New Yorkers make great subjects, what he dislikes about much of today's street photography, and the trouble with digital cameras.

You live in Montreal, but this book is all shot in New York. What brought you to the city for this collection?

My partner lives in New York, so I spend a lot of time there. I part-time live in New York almost, and my teaching schedule is such that I have several months a year off. The other thing, too, is that as a photographer who primarily works in the field of street photography, it's not against the law to take photos in the street in Montreal, but it's against the law to do anything with them, basically. So, I wouldn't be able to take photos in public and publish them if they featured recognizable people. So, that kind of restricts me to doing my work in New York. But, of course, there's also very different energy and New York is so conducive to that kind of photography. So, it's kind of a necessity but also a pleasant necessity.

What makes one photo more successful than another for you?

A photograph has to tell a story across the entire frame. I want to be able to read it left to right and have various things going on. I'm not someone who just aims to photograph a thing in the center of the frame. In fact, I've had a lot of great photographs that have had just a thing in the center of the frame and nothing or something that doesn't make sense going on in the background, and I will usually pitch those photographs because, for me, the background and the foreground and everything has to be in sync, and it has to be readable.

Your new book is titled The Human Fragment because you tend to focus on body parts or a telling piece of clothing. How did this become your subject?

I was looking to do something fresh and different, and in street photography, one of the things that really annoys me when I look at other bodies of work is people are just constantly taking casual photographs of strangers. I don't find that interesting. I don't know why there's such a fascination with that at this point in the arts. Because street photography is probably at its most popular point right now, and yet most of what we're seeing are just thousands and thousands of snapshots of strangers. It's kind of like looking at someone else's wedding album. It's grueling. It's not interesting. It just doesn't work for me.

So I thought, how do you get street photography that kind of pushes the boundaries and enters the realm of art and can sort of stand on its own. Some picture of Peggy getting her groceries is not interesting. So what is interesting? Maybe a picture of Peggy's fur coat or her crazy shoes. And then all of a sudden when you start to look at that stuff when you're out in the wild that is New York City, it's like, Oh my God! There's just a never-ending world around us to be photographed.

Michael Ernest Sweet
Right. That's what's so fascinating about this collection. It seems like you're quickly figuring out the precise detail that defines each person and zeroing in on that, like a woman's fur coat and matching bag, or the squeegee boy's squeegee.

Exactly. And those things tell me more about that person as an anonymous person, because we don't know these people, right? If you wanted to take a snapshot of your friend, you wouldn't necessarily take the photo in this way. But when we're taking pictures of people as objects for art, the face really doesn't tell us much of anything. And when you get right down to it, most people's faces kind of look alike. There's a lot more personality and individualism in the way people assemble the rest of themselves.

That's really true.

And, of course, there's been some people who have influenced my work. I mean, it's not like I came up with this entirely on my own. Mark Cohen is a big influence. His whole career of street photography was done in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. And he took elbows and knees and everything but the human face as well in his work. I've corresponded with him over the years and he's been, not exactly a mentor, but he's been very inspirational to my work.

There are so many fascinating people in New York. How do you choose? What usually draws your eye?

It's a really hard thing to answer. It's instinctual on some level. It's not something that I process intellectually very much. I use a very small, fast camera, which is in my hand at my side with my finger on the shutter when I'm walking around New York, and my eyes will see something and my hand will raise and fire the shutter without -- it's all one action -- without me being able to process yet what's going on. So, it really is instinctual. And I use a very wide lens, a 28mm. So, there's not very much need to look through a viewfinder or to frame the shot. I kind of know how the lens is going to see. It's very odd even to me when I'm working. This is not how a photographer works, right? A photographer brings the camera to eye level, they very meticulously frame a shot, and use rule of thirds and do all these things. I don't do that. It's like I'm a ninja. I'm moving very quickly and quietly through the street and the camera is firing, and later on, during the editing process, I kind of look and see -- what did I get?

How close do you get to your subjects?

Very, very close. Sometimes it is within inches. And that's the great thing about New York City: You can put a camera within five inches of someone's face, and even if they do realize that it's there -- which half the time they don't -- they don't care. Nobody gives a shit what you photograph in New York. As long as the camera doesn't physically hit them, they're usually pretty happy.

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