Philip Goldberg: Evoking Emotion Through Street Photography

All images and text by Philip Goldberg. Used with permission.

I’m Philip Goldberg, raised in the Detroit area, lived in Costa Rica and China for a combined total of about 35 years, and now back in Miami. There are certain constants in our lives. For me, photography has been one of them, from looking at photos of my parents when they were young, being raised on Life and Look magazines, and watching movies. I took my first courses in college, and used the weekends and some weekdays to shoot, then spent the remaining time in the darkroom, of course. I shot mostly black and white as color was confined to slide film, and color was expensive to develop and print.

My goal was (and still is) to capture what I see, print, and get published in National Geographic as well. I do like (and respect) flash, but generally don’t use it much, because that’s just the way it is.

Now, I shoot 35mm digital (Canon 5D, Leica M Mono, Sony A7r) but I would like to shoot wet plate one day. I also shoot medium format, Tech and Arca Swiss Field, and Phase XF. Some people say I have too many lenses. I shoot anything but Weddings, and family social events for hire.

“I think people will see in my work quality images, most that work on a standalone basis and some as a part of a story. In Shanghai, where I took up shooting printing (digital) after a several years of not shooting, I used walk the same way to the office through the old lanes. I should add that Shanghai is a city in flux between the old and new, and people still in many parts of the city live their complete lives in the same neighborhoods and on the same street, not in cars or malls. I used to shoot what I saw, sometimes the same people day after day. We would acknowledge each other, I would take images they were in, go home to practice my printing, and then seek the people out and give them two copies of 8×10 prints, one for them and one for them to give someone in their family. I would see the print in some store 5 years later. I never felt I did street photography – I did photography on the street.”

Why did you get into photography?

I see interesting things. I like looking at things, scenes, and people that appeal to my desire to express and create. I guess it’s also because I am frustrated musician; I am tone deaf.

What photographers are your biggest influences?

In the 20th Century: Bernice Abbott, Arnold Newman, Jay Maisel, Roman Vishniac, Sebastiao Salgado, Lewis Hind, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams (great instruction and attitude), and expressly the photographers who worked for Look and Life magazines.

How long have you been shooting?

Since 1971. I got a Nikon F with a 50mm, and then later took classes in college. Spent a lot of time in the darkroom learning what I did and did not want to do.

Why is photography and shooting so important to you?

I think it keeps me sane and gives me a personal purpose in an otherwise unmoored world.

Do you feel that you’re more of a creator or a documenter? Why?

I don’t feel either. I feel I show interesting images — set pieces, things you see but miss, things you are affected by but fail to realize — for viewers to decide.

What’s typically going through your mind when you create images? Tell us about your processes both mentally and mechanically.

I look for something that has an interesting aspect — perhaps light, a situation, some scene that is fleeting, cinematic. That’s the capture. Then, processing (for print) is either an extension, in some cases, of what I felt at capture, but generally is a separate mindset. I look at the image and it tells me what to do, sometimes over days or weeks. It’s like practicing a song or a recipe. I don’t add things to my images; no unicorns in the forest, nor do I ask people to pose. I take what I see, and what’s in the frame is mine to express.

Want to walk us through your processing techniques?

I upload now as opposed to contact sheets, and review for interest. I’ll look at the images as though I didn’t take them, select something that calls me. Then first, I’ll set my black and white points, make sure my white balance is correct, look at exposure, contrast, etc., then spot out dust or imperfection. In other words, give myself the prefect negative. By this time the image will tell me what to do – it might say there is no compelling reason for color here; go black and white. I will convert in one of several ways, begin a dodging and burning process, then print and get out the grease pens and correct. Then, print again. If color, I will first print a “straight print” then see what to do, again with a pen. And sometimes make files which I put the word “play” in them, depends on my mood, the image, of or just trying something out. Usually at best I go back a day or so later and work again.

Tell us about the project that you’re pitching, or your portfolio.

I do little projects, and also did a large one while I lived in China. The project took about five years and tells the cinematic story of the social life in the public parks. I put it on my website and have had some of it displayed in China.

What made you want to get into your genre?

I see things and I want to create images, that are like songs, that evoke an emotion, like when you hear a song it can make you sad, happy, lonely, bring back a memory of an old lover, or family member, possibly a time and place.

Tell us a bit about the gear that you use and how you feel it helps you achieve your creative vision.

At heart I am a 35mm SLR guy, it’s like putting on baseball glove or getting on bike. I like and respect the mirrorless cameras, they are so versatile for different lenses, and technically less compromised. Medium format is a wonderful, slower process, due to weight and bulk, but I like tripod shooting, as I find it easy to get lost mentally in what I am trying accomplish. You look longer, you look more carefully. But in the end, all is good, get good files, and then get to work.

What motivates you to shoot?

Every image is a new image. Keep striving to get something that is special, that evokes a emotion, and is quality and solid. Let’s see what happens.

Check out Philip Goldberg’s website to see more of his work.