The Leica Oskar Barnack Award bears the name of the inventor of the very first Leica camera, Oskar Barnack, and was awarded for the first time in 1979 to mark the centenary of his birth. Previous winners have included Sebastião Salgado, Martin Kollar and Mikhail Subotzky. In 2017 Leica received 2800 submissions from 104 different countries, while entries for the LOBA 2018 are open from 1st March. With this is mind, what better way to whet the appetite for some of the most innovative and exciting contemporary photography than by taking a closer look at one of last year’s finalists. Born and raised in Hungary and now based in London, Vera Török and Robert Pap are focused on photographing people within the context of their everyday lives. Their on-going project “Accidentally on Purpose” represents an new approach to street photography, featuring double exposed images from Hong Kong, London and Tokyo. In the photos featured below, the duo have found a universal imagery to capture the complexity and chaos of everyday life within modern cities. We caught up with Vera and Robert to talk LOBA, the challenge of redefining the world of street photography and the fascinating mechanism at the heart of their work.
Could you start by telling us how you got into photography? And who or what influenced you most along the way?
We always had the urge to see what’s going on outside of our “bubble”. Around 8 years ago we travelled to Nordkapp, Norway with friends to see the northern lights. We travelled by car and we were fascinated to see how the landscape changes along the way. At that time we didn’t know it but this journey changed us as well. We realized that there are so many things that we haven’t seen before and a strange feeling the we would like to record and show these things to others started to manifest itself. Since that journey, we have been simply addicted to photography and to discover how people live in different places, in different environments. During the years we developed our vision and we took a deep dive into documentary photography to tell the story of everyday people. Photography became our passion and obsession in a good way. Who or what influenced us? Good question. Above all it’s the dreams, which we pursue and we guess we have influenced each other. If we had never met, then we probably wouldn’t have gotten into photography. The greatest challenge has always been interpreting the world around us, which is difficult to understand, due to the ever-changing, chaotic nature of the modern world. However photography helps us in both recording and realizing our thoughts, ideas and emotions.
In 2017 you were nominated among the finalists for the Leica Oskar Barnack Award – LOBA. Could you tell us a bit about the experience? And how has the recognition you received had an effect on your lives since?
When we submitted the images, the criteria was to express the relationship between man and environment in the most graphic form, be creative, groundbreaking and innovative, so we said “yes, this is for us and this project is the perfect match”. We were over the moon when we received the notification that we been chosen, it was a dream come true. Especially because we wanted to be recognized by Leica, whose cameras we use and like very much. To be honest, we hoped our life would change a bit and we could focus more on photography and continue our projects, as we had achieved greater exposure and been rewarded with this great award. We have been featured by several magazines and online publications and, fingers crossed, there are more to come soon.
Your series “Accidentally on Purpose” represents a unique take on street photography. How do you go about creating these surreal images?
This project is the result of 4 years of experimenting on the streets but we were never satisfied with the pictures, we never wanted to create images that everyone else does. Our concept was to bring something new into street photography, which is different in appearance, but still involves the classic visual elements, such as composition, layers, moment, gestures, light, colors, surprise, etc. as laid down by the pioneers of color street photography. The idea had germinated in our minds to find a universal imagery to capture the complexity of everyday life in a modern urban setting and depict the human condition; how people live in this age, full of impacts all the time. Through this, our intention was to capture intersecting slices in time of our beautiful, confused world. “Accidentally on Purpose” became a fusion of street, documentary and experimental photography, where the camera is our tool to capture cross sections of time and space, and by merging the images we are able to express the presence of the virtual and physical world, which surrounds us and this appears in our images in an abstract, surreal and two-dimensional way.
Where did you shoot these images? And how much thought goes into the choice of your locations
We choose modern, crowded cities like London, Tokyo and Hong Kong where people use the technological advances that have significantly changed our everyday life today, as well as cities that dominant the history of street photography. Our last destination this year will be New York, where we will finish the project.
Using double exposures is not a precise process and a certain amount of factors lie beyond your control, however these images are not simply the result of chance. How much can you affect such factors as color, composition and detail?
We are always wandering the streets together in search of scenes and always discuss what we shot previously. After years of trial and error we know more or less if the two images will work or not. Of course, sometimes you react instinctively and you don’t think, but rather just want to capture the moment, you don’t have time to compose and just hope that it will work out with the second shot. However we never know how the sensitive layer will behave with the second touch of light on the film, and how the colors will merge.
On a purely visual level, the images are almost like reflections within an asymmetrical prism. Yet on a metaphorical level they could also been considered as a reflection on modern city life with all its contrasts, confusions and dualities. Was this the idea behind “Accidentally on Purpose”? Or what was it that you wanted to express?
What really got us is the multi-layered facet brought together by shots with many dimensions, which melt together into another, abstract sphere that projects our physical and virtual world. Our photographs represent how we manage to live today totally secluded from the outside world in our bionic bubble: the fear, the rush, the power, anxiety and the pulse of life. We want the viewer to feel confused and lost, as you feel if you are in a crowded busy street in a big city, when there’s so much going on around you. If you stop and look around you can observe this manic jungle and this is what we want the viewer to discover in the pictures and then through their curiosity try to understand it, to consider their perception of today’s reality, while diving into the complex detailed picture. We have hopefully opened up another dimension, in which we can invoke the ever-present, yet unseen mechanisms of the world around us.
How and why did you come up with the title “Accidentally on Purpose”?
Imagine, you start to shoot a roll of color slide film with ISO 100 and you expose just 15 frames. Then you need to change the roll because the light changed and you need ISO 400. So you rewind the film, and that roll goes to your pocket. Next time when you go out to shoot, you want to use the previously exposed ISO 100 roll that is in your pocket, so you reload it but accidentally you start to shoot from the 14th frame because you just forgot where you finished it before. And this is what happened with us. When we developed the film at home, this ended up with our first double exposure image, which had such a dissonance and harmony at the same time that left both of us dumbstruck. That was the “eureka moment”, which shaped the way we functioned from then on. This fateful incident helped us to find the innovation that we were always looking for and from then on we used this on purpose to achieve out creative vision. We also figured out that if we swap the rolls with one another to shoot the second layer, this gives the images special character and look. It allows us to combine two unrepeatable moments from two photographers’ distinctive viewpoints in one frame. This twist with the swap is unique because we don’t think that anyone has combined shots like this before.
You used the Leica M6 to create these images but which lens/lenses and film do you use? And what do you consider the advantages of using the M6 and your set-up as a whole?
For this project we use two Leica M6 film cameras with 35mm Leica Summicron and 35mm Zeiss Biogon lenses. We shoot this project with an analog camera because we have way more scope than with digital. We mean if you want to shoot double exposure with digital you will see the previously shot on the camera display and this will influence the next shot, therefore boxing you in, rather than giving you artistic freedom. Images come straight from the camera without any Photoshop or darkroom manipulations. The main advantages of using the Leica for us are the great viewfinder, which allows us to make good compositions, the size of the camera and its pure simplicity. It’s fascinating how limitations push your creativity to the maximum.
We chose color slide film because of the colors, rendering and the fact that it gives us a more 3D look. A further reason is that the pioneers of color street photography mainly used Kodachrome and slide film, and this is the closest to that that we can get.
You worked as a duo on this project. Could you describe the dynamics and the working relationship you have?
We always work together as two merging elements: two heads, four eyes, one heart, one picture. Working as a team, we are not competing with each other, the main goal is the picture and the story. It’s the greatest thing to meet someone in life, with whom you find the perfect balance and also, with whom you find the same intense passion for photography.
You both also run the Gravitatephotos collective. Could you tell us a little more about this project?
We created Gravitatephotos to represent us, as we are working on all the projects together. In the future we would like to expand the collective. We have many ideas but as long as they are just plans, we don’t want to publish any details.
What are you both working on at the moment and what do you have planned for the near future?
We both have day jobs to pay the bills and from which we save all we can to cover the cost of our travels and continued work on our projects. As this is our passion and the main focus of our lives, we will keep carrying on like this as long we can. We have a few other ongoing projects that we would like to finish and many new ideas in our heads for we want to do in the future. Hopefully we can publish a book of images from the “Accidentally on Purpose” project.
Finally, if you could offer one piece of advice to your fellow photographers, what would it be?
Try to develop your inner voice and follow your intuition, do something new that no one else can do and always take the road less travelled.
Entries for the LOBA 2018 are open from 1st March. Find out more here.