FAIR WITNESS: The Revival of Street Photographer David Keenan

julius motal dave keenan fair witness Parade, New York City, 2011

Parade, New York City, 2011

All images by Dave Keenan. Used with permission.

Dave Keenan’s re-entry into photography is a story of the natural order of things, rather than rediscovery. In his youth, he got to photograph on occasion with his grandfather’s Leica, which gave an early love for rangefinders. With his father, he built a darkroom where he often spent time developing and printing photos. His photography, however, fell by the wayside as he took up a career in computer engineering, and in the last ten years, he bought a Leica on a whim. His photographic passion, however muted, came back as he started a photo a week project, which gradually turned into his book FAIR WITNESS: Street Photography for the 21st century with the help of veteran photographers like Eli Reed and Elliott Erwitt.

Head on past the break for our interview with David Keenan, and check the Kickstarter campaign for FAIR WITNESS.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


Phoblographer: It seems you’ve had a natural predisposition for photography given that your grandfather owned a Leica and you had some experience with the darkroom in your youth. Can you describe for me what it was like going out for the first time, Leica in hand, and photographing life in recent years?

julius motal dave keenan fair witness Lion Tamers, New York City, 2008

Lion Tamers, New York City, 2008

Dave: I did photograph quite a bit as a teenager in high school and that was when I was first introduced to a Leica camera. In those days, of course, a darkroom was essential for someone who took photography seriously. My father and I built a very functional darkroom the basement of the family home in Michigan. It was my refuge.

I took a long break from photography after college up until about ten years ago. I think you’re right about a “natural predisposition for photography” as it did come back to me more fully than ever despite a three decade hiatus.
The camera that brought me back to photography was, quite literally, a Leica Digilux 2 which I bought because it strongly resembled my grandfather’s M3. Owning this camera and discovering the pleasure of wandering the streets of Austin ignited my passion for street photography and opened the door to owning a succession of Leica M cameras over the years. My go to camera now is the M Monochrom.
I feel like I haven’t really answered your question — a Leica in my hand just feels so completely natural, that word again. No other camera does it for me, no other camera provides me with so much satisfaction during the simple act of taking a picture.
Producing photographs, making books, etc. is the product of taking pictures and there is great satisfaction in that — but equally important to me is the joy holding a camera and clicking its shutter.
julius motal dave keenan fair witness Kyles Legs, New York City, 2010

Kyles Legs, New York City, 2010

Phoblographer: Have you ever talked to the people you’ve photographed, or do you take the image and keep moving?

Dave: I rarely speak to the people I photograph on the street. I made up a little motto for myself, “See, but don’t be seen”. Like most street photographers I have little routines that I follow if I want to photograph a scene and not have people be aware that I might be photographing in their direction.
Dancers by Bus, Austin, Texas, 2010

Dancers by Bus, Austin, Texas, 2010

Some people have a problem with street photography, thinking that it is somehow evil to photograph people in public without their knowledge. I respect their point of view but disagree, obviously, and I respect the people I photograph. Hopefully, my photographs are a tribute to their humanity. I never knowingly photograph the homeless or other disadvantaged people which I do feel is disrespectful and exploitative.
If I am seen by someone that I photograph, I will smile at them, wave or nod, to acknowledge them and to send a non-verbal thank you for their participation in creating a photograph. Of the thousands and thousands of exposures I taken on the streets, I have had maybe half-a-dozen unpleasant experiences. If you come from respect, most of the time you will be treated with respect.
There are occasions when I will ask someone on the street if I can photograph them. These are usually in situations where I either missed what I thought could be an interesting photograph, or I envision something interesting and need a participant to make it happen. But this is not the norm for me. Of the 70 photographs in my FAIR WITNESS book, for example, I’m guessing maybe three of them were set up in some way.

Phoblographer: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you don’t make photographs, you take them. What’s distinguishes the two for you, and why do you feel you need to make that distinction?

Dave: Yes, that’s true. I have always thought of myself as someone who “takes” pictures. As I alluded to in the previous question, most of my photographs are of scenes that I just happen across, as opposed to a photographer who works with models and creates sets in a studio.
Senior Bike Admirers, New York City, 2008

Senior Bike Admirers, New York City, 2008

This is definitely not a judgement or point of view where one method is better or worse than the other. It just a simple distinction about style and method. And it is far from an absolute distinction — there is plenty of blending and crossover. I feel like some of my own photographs fall more into the “made” than “taken” categories.
I was startled recently when a friend recommended a photo book from the 1970s in which the fabled John Szarkowski wrote an essay all about this subject. He used different terminology, he referred to “straight” vs. “synthetic” photographers, using Robert Frank as the primary example of the former and Minor White as the latter. The book is entitled “Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960”. Everything in the book, the essay and the photographs, made sense to me when I read the final sentence in Szarkowski’s essay. “The distance between them (those in the Frank school vs. the White school) is to be measured not in terms of the relative force or originality of their work, but in terms of their conceptions of what a photograph is: is it a mirror, reflecting a portrait of the artist who made it, or a window, through which one might better know the world?”
I think my photographs are more of are reflection of me rather than being particularly informative.

Phoblographer: You’ve entered into a dialogue, I think, with the old masters of the form, like Cartier-Bresson. Where do you think your photography fits into that dialogue?

Dave: Oh, wow. It’s so crazy when I hear that. When Eli Reed, who wrote the introduction to FAIR WITNESS, would include me in the same sentences as some of the greats, it was mind-blowing. If that’s true, it’s certainly not for me to say and only time will truly tell.
In an honest assessment of my street photography, it is a continuation of a traditional form of photography that has been around for a long time. My photographs borrow from the past but they are of the modern world. Just like I couldn’t take any of the photographs Cartier-Bresson took, he cannot take any of mine.
The likes of Cartier-Bresson, Erwitt, Winogrand, Arbus, Friedlander, Frank, Lee, are constant inspirations. That anyone would compare my photographs with one taken by of any these, or other, greats is the highest complement possible.
Car Wash, Austin, Texas, 2008

Car Wash, Austin, Texas, 2008

Phoblographer: Tell me about the process of putting together FAIR WITNESS. How many editing sessions were there, and how did you arrive at that title for the book?

Dave: The idea was born at the suggestion of Eli Reed about four years ago.
There were countless editing sessions. I have a box of small prints that I showed to many people. There were roughly 200 photographs in the box to begin with. I would ask people to go through the box and separate the photographs into two or three stacks, “A”, “B”. “C”, with “A” being one they really liked. etc. In the Kickstarter video, you can see Elliott Erwitt doing this.
Orthodox Giraffe, New York City, 2012

Orthodox Giraffe, New York City, 2012

Once someone was done, I’d write the photograph’s “grade” on the back and put them back in the box for the next time. Eventually, I compiled all of the grades into a notebook and tried to make some sense out of it all. Some of the photographs were clearly more popular than others but, in hindsight, all of this was a really good exercise in learning what people liked about my photography and what they didn’t so much.
As for the title, around the time that Eli and I were working with the box of prints and thinking about what we might want to use, I was reading the famous science fiction book “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert A. Heinlein. The idea of an alien’s vision came to Eli at that time and he used this theme in his introduction.
I was particularly taken by one line in the book, “I am a fair witness, not a participant.”
When I mentioned previously about how I think my photography is a reflection of me, it reflects me as a non-participant in life. Therefore, I am a fair witness, and I had my title.
To any Heinlein purists out there, I am actually not a “fair witness” in any way, shape, or form as they exist in the world of Valentine Michael Smith in “Stranger in a Strange Land”. Quite the opposite, actually, and therein lies some creative license.
Hula Hoop Kyle, New York City, 2011

Hula Hoop Kyle, New York City, 2011

Phoblographer: How did you manage to strike up a friendship with Elliott Erwitt and how has he influenced both your photography and the making of the book?

Dave: Elliott is my photographic hero. Eli Reed, I consider my mentor and he had much more influence in the creation of FAIR WITNESS than anyone. In fact, it simply wouldn’t exist without Eli.
But I relate more to Elliott’s iconic photography than I do to Eli’s. Eli is known as more of photojournalist and Elliott for his funny street photographs, although both have covered the gamut in their extensive careers.
Back around the time of those early editing sessions with Eli, I was also in the process of building the Austin Center for Photography from the ground up. We, as in the ACP founders, had decided that our signature event would be four presentations a year from different iconic photographers. I set my sights on bringing Elliott to Austin.
Beer & Wine, Austin, Texas, 2007

Beer & Wine, Austin, Texas, 2007

To make a long story short, Elliott eventually agreed and so the task of shepherding him around Austin fell to me. Not that I minded! How many times do you get to have lunch with a hero, to drive him around to show off your town, and, in the case of a photographer, to go photographing with him?
Elliott is one of the most gracious people I have ever met. When I tentatively asked him if he would be interesting in looking at my work some time, he said “of course”. And he did. He separated my work prints into stacks on two different occasions, and was very generous to me in many ways.
He actually put one particular photograph into the “A” stack that no one else had ever done. That photograph is in the book for that reason. It is a silent tribute to my hero. When I finally made the first few copies of FAIR WITNESS using Blurb, I gave the first signed copy to Elliott.
Of course, Eli got one a short time later!
Umbrella Talk, Austin, Texas, 2011

Umbrella Talk, Austin, Texas, 2011

Phoblographer: What’s next after FAIR WITNESS?

Dave:I have been working on a project that I call LOOK At Me for several years now. It is a series of environmental portraits of young men. It is more meaningful to me in some ways than my street photography and is a much more definite reflection of who I am. I have another fun project entitled PISS that I will be looking to do something with one day.
Dazed Shopper, New York City, 2011

Dazed Shopper, New York City, 2011

Since I have been doing street photography longer, and I consider it to be more of a complete body of work than LOOK At Me, I have been putting most of my effort into the FAIR WITNESS work and doing everything in my power to get a book published.
But I haven’t been completely ignoring LOOK At Me. I have one LOOK At Me portrait in the Aperture Summer show this year, I have been asked to display 27 portraits in a show this fall in Washington, DC at the museum of The Organization of American States. Last year, portraits in the series were in group shows in Houston, LA, Austin, and Portland.
When FAIR WITNESS is (hopefully) printed, I will shift primary emphasis to LOOK At Me. I’m sure that will create a book and perhaps there will be other opportunities for it.
I have some other ideas too that will hopefully evolve.

Phoblographer:  What advice do you have for young street photographers?

Dave: My advice is pretty consistent, When asked, it goes like this:
  • Always carry your camera (iPhones don’t count)
  • Wholeheartedly accept the “one camera, one lens for a year” methodology originally advocated (so far as I know) by Michael Johnston of The Online Photographer blog
  • Find and slowly absorb books by photographers you admire
  • Make sure that you’re not one of those nincompoops who walk around with a lens hood constantly mounted backwards
  • Avoid telephoto lenses
  • When using a digital camera, TURN OFF the LCD screen and forget it is there
  • The delete button in not your friend
  • Review your pictures at the end of the day (never when you might miss the next photograph)

But mostly, I like to say, photograph because you can’t not photograph. If it’s in the street, head there; if it’s in a studio, that’s where you need to be.

Head on over to Kickstarter to check out FAIR WITNESS.

julius motal dave keenan fair witness White Wall, Austin, Texas, 2004

White Wall, Austin, Texas, 2004