Street photography has long been defined as the act of capturing a moment. Photographing this elusive moment, in which meaning seems to crystallize, is often about being in the right place at the right time. For many people, street photography represents a depiction of reality in concentrated form, yet it can also be abstract – moving away from the real to represent something ephemeral. Everyday moments are laden with poetic beauty and meaning but they tend to go unseen, making the ability to capture these moments in abstract photographic form a rare talent. Having studied photography and art in Belgium, Brussels-based photographer Sven Laurent shoots street photography with a fine eye for form, color and composition. The sense of stillness and serenity present in his images may be at odds with his character, yet while shooting with the Leica M-P he can access a certain calmness of mind. He also manages to imbue his images with deeper meaning but not by codifying them, as is often the case with contemporary abstract art. His images can be appreciated simply as beautiful snapshots and also act as an invitation to, as he puts it, “go deeper”. We caught up with Sven to talk about intellectual elitism in the world of abstract art, the beauty of a well-composed image and how he goes about escaping time and space.
Could you start by telling us a little about yourself? How did you first get into photography? And which photographers influenced you along the way?
The first time I was thinking about photography as a possible path to follow, I wasn’t sure it was for me. I didn’t want to spend 4 or 5 years studying to realize that it is not the life I want to live. So I decided to find a photographer to figure it all out. That’s how I ended up spending almost two years with a photographer specialized in architecture. A few months later, I started art school where I had a great teacher who encouraged us to experiment with lots of different techniques such as polaroid transfer, liquid light and darkroom processes. After 3 years of experimenting I felt the need to explore the technical side of photography in order to make the pictures I wanted and started another 3-year course. For my graduation I came up with a rather creative and personal set of images in an environment that was not at all creative. That was the turning point when I realized that I would never stop creating images as a form of self-expression, even if it didn’t pay the bills.
With regard to my influences, I learn a lot by looking at contemporary art installations, painting and sculpture. My first photographic “wow moment” was an exhibition by Francesca Woodman. I was struck by the relationship between her subjects and their environment, giving an incredible presence to her images.
When did you discover Leica and what drew you to using Leica cameras?
I’m part of the generation that studied with analog and worked with digital. Around 2002, I sold the analog SLR I was using for work and bought a Leica M7 with a Summicron 50mm. Very quickly digital SLRs took over the professional side of my photography but I kept using the M7 for personal projects. It was a beautiful camera and definitely one of those I wanted to keep.
At some point in 2014, I was getting bored. Everyone in my professional environment was using the same kind of gear and producing the same kind of results. I saw myself becoming lazy and I was losing interest. I needed to reinvigorate my love for photography. I went to the camera store and asked to try a Leica M Typ 240 for a few days to see if it would fit my workflow. Of course, I knew it wasn’t made for the kind of stuff I was doing at that time but I wanted to go for a try. A few days later, I left the store with the newly released Leica M-P. I already had the glass, a Summicron 50 mm and a 35 mm. I was super excited again and went back to work.
The size, the simplicity of use and the great glass are qualities mentioned by a lot of Leica users. I know that using the M-system influenced the way I shoot, slowing me down, focusing on the essential. But what I love most is the reaction the camera generates. People are really intrigued by it and even when I’m in places where I’m not supposed to be taking pictures, any initially aggressive reactions quickly become a discussion about the camera or photography in general. This camera is a great tool for meeting people.
You say your aim with this series is “to make the ordinary look extraordinary”. Can you explain what you mean by that?
When you travel, everything is new and kind of exotic or spectacular. It makes it easier to take pictures. On the other hand, creating images in your usual, close surroundings is very difficult. It requires a lot of attention to detail and the ability to see what you see everyday with fresh eyes.
I don’t look for the exotic or the spectacular. I’m looking for the specific in the ordinary. I’m looking for what others wouldn’t notice. Then I try to make it attractive by composing a clean frame, organizing elements according to light, color, forms and perspective. Making the ordinary look extraordinary, in order to show people that there is a possibility to find beauty everywhere if you take the time to look.
A lot of the images in this series present a kind of accidental street installation. There is a definite sense that you are photographing installation art. Where do you think this comes from?
For more than 10 years I have been working as a photographer specialized in contemporary art documentation. I was shooting exhibitions and artworks for artists, collectors, galleries and art institutions.
The representation of the object in space, whether it’s a sculpture in a gallery or an object on the street is the same for me. It’s about finding the right distance, the right angle, in order to give more presence to the photographed subject. Most of the time I don’t really look at the object in detail but at the amount of space it takes in the frame. I try to find the right balance between the mass of the object and the mass of the surrounding space.
Several of your shots manipulate form, shadow and composition to create a classic style of abstract photography. How do you go about conceiving these types of shot?
I like conceptual and abstract art but it intimidates a lot of people. This has been emphasized a lot by contemporary art installations. A concept that requires 20 pages of reading in order to be understood by the viewer makes it sort of elitist. The initiated understand, while the others feel stupid. I use classical composition to introduce the abstract. The viewer can rely on something they know, they feel confident rather than insecure and confidence is the door to deeper reflection.
Often, conceptual photography leaves the viewer asking, why has the photographer taken that photo? Or what’s so special about that? Your photography though seems to bypass this by creating a feeling of implicit significance, despite refusing to define what this meaning might be. What do these photographs mean to you?
Giving the viewer something they know, something they can rely on, is a way to initiate deeper reflection but it is not mandatory. The viewer can appreciate the aesthetic qualities of a picture and then choose to go deeper by reading a statement of the artist’s intentions. The whole body of my work has different layers so that people from different backgrounds, whether educated in the arts or not, can find something and dig deeper if they want. I try to introduce the viewer to another way of looking at the world they live in.
I aim to reveal the beauty that often goes unseen, so that others can see it too.
In most of these photographs there is a lack of action or movement, which creates a sense of serenity. How important is the stillness of your scenes to you? And what do you think this stillness communicates?
For me it’s a relief. I’m a sensitive and melancholic person by nature, always in doubt, always with a thousand thoughts in my head, one chasing the other. It’s actually exhausting for the people, who are close to me. That being said, the moment I pick up the camera and put it in front of my eye, everything goes quiet in my head, everything makes sense. There are no more doubts, no more questions, just the frame, just the moment, peace and tranquility! It’s a balancing act, it helps me to live and it’s an escape from oppressive daily routines.
I like to think that this stillness, this serenity, acts as an invitation to slow down, to look closer, giving the viewer also a moment of relief. This would be great!
How do you manage to create photography without a clear sense of time or place, especially considering that street photography is usually heavily reliant on these two elements to define itself?
Most of the time street photography focuses on reality. I’m not interested in reality. I’m interested in this floating moment, escaping from time, space and reality.
In order to achieve that, I use real elements in combination with a disturbing factor to reveal either the sculptural or the immersive qualities of the photographed subjects, transcending the traditional perception of presence and materiality.
Where are these photographs taken? And do you plan your shooting days or simply carry your camera with you whenever you’re outside?
Most of the time, the camera is with me, night and day. I don’t plan anything, I just walk around and when my attention is attracted by something, I take a picture or two. It’s the same short and spontaneous process whether I’m traveling or in my own neighborhood.
I am aware that the images look very composed, clean, straight and precise but the whole process is very spontaneous and takes just a few seconds.
Which camera and lens do you use for this series in particular and what do you like most about shooting with this set-up?
Since September 2014, I use the Leica M-P Typ 240 with a Summicron 50mm. The 50mm is my distance. It’s probably the most difficult thing in photography – finding your distance. It’s a great combination of size, simplicity and image quality. I don’t have to ask myself anymore, which camera to take with me when I leave the house.
In addition to your street photography, what else are you working on at the moment or in the near future?
I am currently working on adding some writing to accompany the images, a few words emphasizing their visual poetry. I’ve always been interested in mixing pictures and words. I think they’re complementary. You can see a few on my Instagram.
I also work on portraits. The questions of presence, intimacy and existence are what are on my mind when shooting a portrait. I’m not interested in showing people’s social masks. I’m interested in this floating moment when the subject starts to realize and accept their own presence, to feel vulnerable and then reveal their otherwise hidden beauty. A form of beauty that often goes unseen.
What advice would you offer to anyone looking to take up conceptual street photography?
Find your own distance, don’t try to be “artistic”, just do your thing consistently and long enough. Working a day job can also provide a sense of freedom, so that you don’t depend on revenue from the images you create artistically.
You can connect with Sven and see more of his photography at his website.