A street shooter in the tradition of Cartier-Bresson, his Leicas capture classic images that reveal the moment

Perhaps this says all you need to know about Craig Semetko’s inspired Leica photography: In 2008 his work was featured along with images by legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson at the Open Shutter Gallery in Durango, Colorado, in an exhibition entitled, “Street Photography: From Classic to Contemporary – Henri Cartier-Bresson and Craig Semetko.” In 2009/2010 he mounted one-man shows at the Leica Galleries in Frankfurt, Germany, Salzburg, Austria, and at the Leica headquarters in Solms, Germany. His work was also recently shown opposite renowned photojournalist Elliott Erwitt’s in the group exhibition “The Art of Photography Today” at the Camera Obscura gallery in Denver, Colorado. In June of last year he spoke on street photography at the International Center of Photography in New York City and he was the keynote speaker at the Leica Historical Society of America’s 2009 annual meeting in Seattle, Washington.

Semetko is inspired by the humor and irony that crosses cultural boundaries and he travels the world to find them. A graduate of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and a current masters candidate in Consciousness Studies at the University of Philosophical Research in Los Angeles, Semetko’s photographs have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune and numerous other international publications. Twenty of his images were selected to be published in the exhibition book Family of Man 2. Also, his book “Unposed” came out in October from publisher teNeues.

Here in his heartfelt and illuminating words, he reveals the essence of his ongoing creative quest and his profound connection to Leica M cameras and lenses.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught. Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: I’ve had no formal education in photography – I graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in Communication and started a twenty-five-year career as a writer and actor. When I was a kid I would spend hours in the school library looking at archived issues of Life magazine — I loved the human stories told in black and white. After I bought a Leica I discovered Henri Cartier-Bresson and became obsessed with his work. He remains a major inspiration today. Shortly thereafter I discovered Elliott Erwitt and he became a major influence as well. And now, years later, Mr. Erwitt has written the foreword for my book, “Unposed.” I still can’t believe it.

When I was just starting as a photographer, I took a workshop where David Alan Harvey was one of the instructors. He off-handedly mentioned we should study the work of the masters — both photographers and painters. I’ve found that to be excellent advice. You can learn a great deal from looking at work that’s better than your own.

It’s imperative that you understand your camera well enough to take a picture without thinking, but beyond that, in my style of photography, the most important thing is to observe the communication between people — to understand their body language and motivations so you can anticipate what they’ll do next. As Elliott Erwitt once said, “All the technique in the world doesn’t compensate for the inability to notice.”

Q: What genre(s) are your photos? (e.g. fine art, photojournalism, portrait, street photography, etc.)

A: If you asked me that question while I was running to catch an elevator, I would answer “street photography,” to keep the conversation short, but I consider street photography to be a subset of fine art photography. My photography has no specific purpose other than to explore the human condition.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica? What special characteristics do Leica cameras have that help you in executing your kind of work?

A: After I saw that picture from Shanghai I thought, “Hey, that’s not bad. I bet I’d get some really good shots if I just had a bigger zoom!” With this unfortunate thought stuck in my head, I went out to buy a bigger zoom. The salesman, to his credit, asked me what I liked to shoot. When I told him people and that I traveled a lot, he asked me if I’d ever thought about a Leica. I didn’t even know how to spell Leica, but I walked out of the store with an M6TTL and a 35mm Summicron.

A rangefinder camera provides a different way to see. An SLR blacks out everything around the frame — I think Ralph Gibson said it “imposes its composition on you.” With a Leica M, you can see outside the frame and then you decide what to put in the frame. A couple pictures in “Unposed” were captured because I could see someone walking into the frame and was able to push the shutter at exactly the right moment. If I’d had an SLR I wouldn’t have seen them until it was too late. An SLR also has a mirror which blacks out the viewfinder at the moment of exposure — there is no mirror in a rangefinder so you see the subject the entire time.

Also, the Leica M is small and not intimidating. I can’t do the kind of photography I do with a large camera and a big lens. People notice you and behave differently. I have had people look at my MP and M9 and dismiss them because they think they’re antique cameras. That works to my advantage.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: As a writer and actor, I’ve spent my life observing people and telling stories. Shooting with a Leica affords me the ability to tell stories in another medium. It’s really not about photography; it’s about relating one’s experience. As Cartier-Bresson said, “Photography is nothing — it’s life that interests me.”

I want my photographs to speak to people on an emotional level. I want my photographs to trigger a visceral reaction. Not a rational response but an emotional response initially, from the heart and the gut. If they later appreciate the composition, or sense of geometry, all the better.

Q: What do you think your latest book communicates to viewers and have you had any feedback on it?

A: My book is called “Unposed” because none of the pictures in it were staged. I’m trying to convey life authentically, as I see it. My experience so far is that the book communicates very different things to different viewers. There is a picture of a heavyset man at a bar that enraged a gallery owner while a collector loved it so much he chose that print above all others for his collection. The media reaction has been very positive in Europe, but the real pleasure for me has been at signings, watching people linger over a picture, then turn the page and burst into laughter. It makes all those days of walking around aimlessly really worth it.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving and changing going forward? Do you think your approach will change and do you have any specific themes or locations that inspire you?

A: This is a tough question because it’s one I’m currently asking myself. After 10 years, I’m still as fascinated with human behavior as ever — I never get tired of people watching people and I can’t imagine I’ll ever stop photographing them. But lately I’ve been exploring faces as a theme more so than behavior — there’s just something fascinating about catching a person’s face while they’re lost in thought. I don’t know how far I’ll go with this, but it seems like a natural offshoot of what I’m doing now.

As for shooting locations, it’s a case of the more the better. I am inspired by new places and cultures. If I’m at home too long things become routine and I can become somewhat closed off. When you’re a stranger in strange land, however, you’re forced to be more open to people and experiences. I’ve made a few trips to Asia in the last couple of years and the cultural differences are enormously inspiring. The contrasts to western culture are endless —architecture, dress, the rules of the road, you name it. Last April I was run down by a motorcycle in Hanoi. Some new experiences are better than others.

Basically, my interests haven’t changed much since the day I walked into that camera store 10 years ago — I like to shoot pictures of people and I like to travel. Only now I do it with a Leica.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Craig’s work on his website http://craigsemetko.com/ and you can find his book from publisher teNeues.