Cool Factor 10: The Photography of Sebastien Barre, Part 2
Here’s the second half of our interview with Nippertown photographer Sebastien Barre. (If you missed the first half, it’s here.)
You have a style that mixes strong compositions and a keen color sense with an almost tender approach to the subject. Is this something you consciously work towards?
I’m not sure, but thank you. To be honest I am really new to this and it is the first time somebody tells me I have a style. I do care about old places. We are just visitors, spending a bit of our lives within theirs walls. The buildings carry our memories for some time, and the memories of people before and after us. What’s not to respect? I think I have made progresses in composition but I am still too academic and should take more risks. A lot of photographers can be identified by the physical distance to their subjects. This can be a very conscious and artistic choice, or a consequence of using a specific kind of camera. I’m trying to work on this aspect and fight the urge to put everything in the frame, for example. There is a lot to gain by leaving a bit to the imagination. It is difficult with abandoned buildings because the scale is so large. I’m certainly tempted to show a lot. As far as color is concerned, it can get tricky since, as I mentioned earlier, I am colorblind. I have a good background in color theory and color management though and it helps me keep this minor issue under control. I don’t push the “vibrance” slider to 11 but I do like a healthy dose of contrast.
So far this year, you’ve had your first solo show, set up your photo blog and published a book. What’s next?
There will be more abandoned buildings coming up and maybe a second book next year. In the past few months I have rekindled an old interest in scuba diving and started to experiment with underwater photography. I brought an old camera with me on a few dives in Lake George and I’ll share my story soon. Heads up: it’s a murky one. This is a very technical type of photography, an expensive one too unfortunately, but I would love to take pictures of underwater ruins ultimately. That would close the loop nicely. At the opposite end of that spectrum I would like to leave my heavy gear at home more often in favor of good old-fashion, spontaneous, discreet, lightweight street photography. I keep an eye on Micro Four Thirds and Leica M digital systems, smaller high-quality cameras with interchangeable lenses that promise to bring back some freedom to the equation. I used to travel a lot more in my 20’s, but I didn’t have a camera at that time: I would like to explore these places again, especially in Eastern Europe. Closer to Albany, I am planning to document more community projects. My friends and I have already started taking photos of The Grand Street Vacant Lot Project for example. It is very unfortunate that Revolution Hall in Troy doesn’t feature concerts anymore, I loved taking photos there. I will have to travel a bit farther to shoot live performances. I used to cover the good people at the Albany All Stars Roller Derby for a while and I will capture more sports and action-packed scenes in the future too. I really need to get the blog going with more material, new tutorials and technical articles. I have a lot of projects on my mind, but just not enough time.
Do you remember the first photo you ever took?
Unfortunately no, though I can definitely look at the first photo I put online, in 2006. It’s a terrible one. I do remember the first few photos I shot December 19th, 2008, when I received my DSLR camera. I ran out of the house, right after a snow storm, it was a very exciting moment. The next day I had the opportunity to bring the new gear to a Phantogram (then Charlie Everywhere) concert in Saratoga. The photos weren’t so good but I knew then that I was going to enjoy shooting live performances in the future. Fast forward a couple of weeks and I bumped into hip-hop dancers in Salt Lake City. I had a good interaction with the people there. One photo ended up in a book if I recall. This is when I realized that given some professional gear and a good attitude, most people would welcome that I captured the moment. One of my favorite photos materialized a few months later. A picture of young kids protesting against the Westboro Baptists Church in March 2009. A lot of great expressions here and this was the first time I actually helped document a community event, something decidedly positive and valuable. I edited and posted the photos immediately and they made the rounds online a few hours later. I understood then that I could make myself useful through a simple and honest photojournalistic approach. As you can tell, I can’t really remember the first photo, but I do recall a few defining moments.
Digital or Analog?
Digital. I’ve used film just like anybody else a long time ago, but I’ve never developed film per se. I don’t actually worship film. I respect it, this is how it all started, but I don’t feel the need to go back, there is so much to learn with digital tools already. I work in IT so I guess I’m a bit biased towards digital. A lot of people are jumping on the vintage bandwagon, lomo and polaroid in tow. This is not for me at the moment. It’s very possible I’m too rigid in that respect, I want my photos to be sharp and in focus. There is something attractive about blurry pictures I’m sure, I just don’t quite see it for now.
To Photoshop or not to Photoshop?
No Photoshop pretty much. I know my Photoshop well. I’ve used it for many many years but I switched to a different workflow in 2009 and left it behind. I use it now and then for panoramas or exposure composites, and of course to put my friends’ heads on exotic animals, but I am more productive with Lightroom. At the end of the day it’s all about adopting the tools that save me the most time while removing the temptation to tweak my photos too much. For every hour I take a series of photos, I still spend about 1.5 hours “developing” them. I try to keep it simple though. Most of my post-process is about recovering blown highlights or burnt shadows, then tagging and geolocating my photos. I experiment with color presets once in a while. Maybe a form of sepia, or a subtle cross-process, but that’s really as far as it goes. As I mentioned earlier, I’m leaning towards a photojournalistic approach. I will remove a dust spot, but not a pole or a fire hydrant. I find abusing Orton effects, selective colors and cutouts, solarization, infrared, bad HDR or even watermarks a bit tacky. Don’t get me wrong, this is something I was definitely doing back in 2006, but I realize now I was just trying to pimp photos that didn’t deserve to be salvaged.
If you didn’t have photography, what would you do?
Probably music. I’ve been in a band for about 7 years. I’m not a very subtle drummer but I would absolutely take more lessons if I had the time. If I didn’t have photography I would try to make electronica, set up a small studio, play around with sequencers. It would probably take years before I get anything decent, but I like this kind of journey.
What advice would you give an aspiring photographer?
This isn’t very original, but first, “The best camera is the one that’s with you”. Photography is a very democratic and increasingly popular form of art, and I always encourage people to grab a camera and shoot. I don’t think you need a big fancy camera at the beginning. You will do great with a well-rounded portable camera that you are comfortable carrying around in a pocket or jacket. A camera that is fun to use, one you can grow with. It should not be an exercise of frustration. Sure, entry-level cameras don’t have all the bells and whistles but working around these limitations can bring out some of your creativity. Maybe you won’t be too happy with some of your photos, but this is certainly better than regretting the photos you *didn’t take*. Go ahead and just pick a camera, start small. Second: “Shoot often”. Just do it and you are bound to progress. Digital photography is very accessible and memory cards are cheap, don’t be afraid of taking hundreds of shots and compare your experiments at home. I’m not saying you should use it like a machine gun, you should definitely be aware of your subject, but it takes some practice so start early and keep it steady.