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


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.

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.

One of the photos in the book that stood out to me is of a man who seems to be baring his teeth at someone. Was he making that face at you? Do you remember that scene?

That was taken just near Penn Station. He was just making a grimace like that as he was walking down the street. Maybe he had some false teeth that were too big that day. I don’t know. I saw him and then I had to reposition myself. I had to kind of swing around and pass back by a second time because I was like, This is too good, I gotta get this. And I did.

Besides hoping for a great shot, what else drives you to get out there and be in people’s faces?

I’ve always been interested in people. And looking at people and what makes people them and not somebody else. And it’s not like I look for beautiful things as you can clearly see. I don’t look for things that make traditionally neat and tidy photographs. I look for things that are weird or different. And it’s funny because I got into a lengthy discussion at one point with Joel Meyerowitz, who’s a pretty famous New York photographer, and Meyerowitz was trying to say my work was very grotesque. And I kind of took issue with that, because I don’t go after the grotesque, despite what you might see. It’s not grotesque; it’s reality. I’m actually photographing the real moments that we see out in the street. I take a photo of somebody who’s fat or bald or crippled or whatever because that is our reality, and it can be beautiful, too.

Right. You have a lot of nice fleshy, imperfect bodies in your Coney Island photos.

Once again, it’s real. That’s what’s on the beach at Coney Island. Yes, there are also these very toned and cut young bodies there. But that doesn’t actually represent the vast majority of reality, even though that’s what we are most subjected to in the media. We see photos of beaches on television or in magazines, and we see all these nice, beautiful bodies. But what’s actually on the beaches are the people who are represented in my book. And why can’t we learn to look at these images in a way that incites something in us besides disgust? Why shy away from that?

Another image I loved was the one of the woman resting on a towel with all of the flip-flop prints in the sand around her. And what made me laugh is that there are flip-flops printed all over her towel as well.

That was something I actually saw afterward in editing. Like I said, I’m producing these things in fractions of a second. Because I can’t hang around for someone to realize that I’ve taken a photo. I don’t want a conversation. I don’t want to explain anything. So, I often don’t have time to examine the whole frame. My eye probably catches one thing or two things, and then later I look to see if there are richer elements in the frame that I’ve also captured. Sometimes there are and sometimes there aren’t. So I guess what I’m really saying is that — as much as an artist probably doesn’t want to admit it — there’s a certain element of chance in all of my work, simply by necessity because of the speed with which I work.

Do you do much tinkering in Photoshop?

I don’t own Photoshop. I’m very adverse to technology when it comes to photography. I was born in the wrong era. This whole body of work is digital, but I don’t like digital photography. And therefore, I try to do everything I can to limit the digital aspect of photography. So first of all I shoot jpegs in the camera; I don’t shoot raw. I shoot it in black-and-white; I don’t shoot color. Most photographers shoot raw color images and then later decide whether it’s going to be black and white and adjust. I don’t do any of that. I use very cheap and accessible software called Snapseed. In fact, I think Google bought it, so it should soon be entirely free. I adjust contrast, and I adjust the grain, and that’s it. I make the photo a little grittier, a little grainier, and I boost the contrast. I don’t tinker with anything else. I could care less about having 50 shades of gray in a photograph. It’s not interesting. I’m not Ansel Adams. I don’t care about the tones. You could photocopy my photographs and they would look the way I would like them to — gritty and rough, edgy.

The problem I have with cameras today is that they outdate themselves like computers. Your camera is only good for about three years and then you need a new camera. Whereas, in the analog era, if you bought a Leica M6, you could give it to your grandkids. It’s become all about consuming. When you pick up a camera today it doesn’t feel like a camera, it feels like a computer. And it’s really annoying to someone who grew up over the divide. I grew up first with film and then had to switch into digital, and that’s the most frustrating thing about the migration to digital: I don’t feel like I’m working with cameras anymore; I feel like I’m working with computers.

Do you have any advice for photographers just starting out?

I guess my advice generally would be to do your thing. If you are doing something that you enjoy and you’re producing something that you’re happy with, keep doing it. Don’t listen to the naysayers. Don’t listen to the critics. Don’t listen to the haters. In fact, the more negativity you’re getting is generally a sign that you’re becoming more and more famous. Like the old saying goes, It’s better to be talked about than not talked about at all. And that’s true. So, just keep doing what you’re doing and try to be different, because we have enough of the same.