Richard Koci Hernandez: “Once the image is in the public stream-of-consciousness it belongs to the person viewing it and really leaves my grasp and its intentions”
Richard Hernadez Koci is an Assistant Professor of Berkeley Postgraduate School of Journalism , a Visual Effects EMMY Award-winning , nominated for an Oscar-documentary, named “One of the 25 Most Influential Communication Teachers” and “One of the 100 Best photographers on the internet “.
You are an amazing modern photographer and you serve as a point of reference for many artists involved in creative photography. Documentary vs conceptual/fine art photography. Do you believe that the distinguishing feature between these two is in the way one sees? Marcel Proust said: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”? Do you find yourself in accordance with that statement?
Thanks for the kind words. The distinguishing feature of everything photographic is ‘seeing.’ It’s what distinguishes everybody’s unique style, their vision. And as much as I would love to emulate other Master photographers, it’s impossible because no two people see the same thing. And the Marcel Proust quote are certainly words to live by and to prove that it’s in line with my outlook, let me share my favourite quote and what I consider one of The Commandments of photography:
“I trust that the creative eye will continue to function, whatever technological innovations may develop.” – Ansel Adams
How did this journey begin? Which photographers have been your role models?
My journey began as all good Journeys should with a trip to the Ansel Adams photographic Gallery in Yosemite National Park in California. When I was around 14 years old I was on a family vacation and my uncle took me to see the work of Mr. Adams and inside the gallery, I had a life-changing experience. The mystery, technique and presents that Adams brought to his work was astounding, and even more powerful to me as a young teenager when I stepped out of the gallery and witnessed in full Glory the Landscapes that he had transformed into these mesmerizing images. My uncle happened to have a Nikon camera that I promptly took from his shoulder and snapped my first photographic images. I never gave him the camera back and he was gracious enough to let me have it. I believe that any photographer should have a Cadre of others who have come before him or her to rely on as inspiration and great teaching. I am self-taught and much of my education came from hours in the library consuming the photographic monographs of the great Masters. I could rattle off the normal list of people that everybody would recognize like Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Henri Cartier-Bresson Etc but there is one photographer in particular whose Mastery style and approach left me speechless and continues to inspire to this day and his name is Roy DeCarava. Not only beauty of his Images, the tender moments but mostly his work ethic and his outlook on photography inspired me more than most.
Having spent many years in photography starting with analog and moving on to DSLR cameras which, it goes without saying, they provide multiple and enviable capabilities, you finally opted for your phone’s camera. What is so alluring about that? Does it lie in the ease with which we make an immediate capture?
The Allure of the smartphone camera for me has always been its constant availability. But don’t get me wrong, I was the kind of photographer who has always had a camera with me, be it a small pocket camera like the Lomo, or the Holga or a standard SLR and eventually DSLR, but for me the smartphones iniquitousness and inconspicuousness, which might be seemingly at odds, are what makes it a great device or tool for street photography, in my humble opinion. But in the end, it is the smartphone and its capability to not only be my camera but my darkroom and my delivery truck. For me, it’s pretty hard to argue over its ability to shoot and share with unprecedented immediacy.
You seem to be editing your photographs quite enough. The opinions on editing are divided since many are those who claim that the value of a photo lies in the capture by 50% and the other half is consisted by the edit, whereas other people think it non-acceptable to spend split seconds on the capture but hours on end on the editing. Where do you stand on that?
I’d answer it with another quote from Adams:
“Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.” – Ansel Adams
That is meant as a slight joke. To get closer to answer, another one, 🙂
“No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit.” – Ansel Adams
For me, there is something to be said about the art of the edit. I remember spending long hours in the darkroom dodging, burning, getting particular tones right using potassium ferrocyanide to bleach my whites using filters to create more contrast, etc. So I certainly fall on the side of taking creative control of the image after it is captured, but would certainly err on the side of truthfulness and reality and less darkroom manipulation if we are talking about photojournalism. So when we are talking about my work on Instagram I believe that the quote above from Ansel Adams rings true in that I edit my images to hopefully reveal myself, my perceptions and emotions and build confidence in the creative spirit.
You used Ansel Adams’ quote “I trust the creative eye will function, whatever technological innovations may develop”. Have there been photographs that haven’t been to your satisfaction during their moment of capture, but proved to be little masterpieces in the process?
Yes, of course. My process is to shoot and not review the images for at least 24 hours if not longer. I like to allow my images to potentially mature and separate myself from the often instant gratification and immediate vanity review in the moment. I think that for me a good distance between the time of capture and the time of edit is essential for my editing process. Ιt’s actually very rare when a photograph is to my satisfaction and certainly don’t see any of my images as Grand or even small masterpieces. I think that this outlook, constantly being disappointed in my work keeps me striving and coming back.
You mostly show a preference for b&w photography. More to the point, despite the fact that the mainstream trend (especially in the USA) for street photography nowadays (which you follow in part) is color, you remain faithful to the old school photography standards. What do you seek to achieve with b&w photography?
I really don’t seek anything in black and white, to be honest, I truly believe that masterful color photography is one of the hardest aspects of Photography and I really suck at it. So, it’s much easier to distill an image to its basic form of moment, light and composition and do my best to arrange and capture those aspects and not have to worry about the dangerous and complex aspect of color photography.
Your photographs bring out a film noir atmosphere, especially of a “Hitchcockian” origin. Sometimes they seem dreamlike and others nightmarish. In any case, they radiate mystery. If we were to assume that photography reveals the photographer’s mentality, then do your photographs betray your mysterious phyche or some obsessions perhaps that you chase during the capture?
Wow, I didn’t know that this was going to turn into a therapy session! I’m just kidding of course. In truth, it doesn’t really matter what my motivations and inclinations are because I believe that once the image is in the public stream-of-consciousness it belongs to the person viewing it and really leaves my grasp and its intentions. What you see and described is your perspective on my work which may or may not be truthful intentions that I carry with me as I snapped the image. I’m not a big fan of the idea that it reveals something about the photographer, because sometimes a photograph is just a photograph and nothing more to the creator, but can have an enormous impact on the viewer. Beauty, mystery, obsession, “Hitchcockian” undertones are in the eye of the beholder.
You profess to be a Storyteller. To many people, the value of a photograph is also hidden within its narration. When you go out to photograph, have you thought of the scenario beforehand? Or during a scene on the street, while you compose the frame, have you already composed the narration as well? How hard is it for someone to narrate something in a single still/frame/shot?
No, no… for me there is very little to no thought about anything beforehand. Almost all of my images are a byproduct of my daily life, walking to work, shopping, walking my dogs, on my way to a meeting, etc. It’s very very rare for me to leave the house with the intention of shooting images for any particular reason. Everything comes after I have the shot in hand, then the storytelling begins. I take what’s given by the gods of photography and do my best to choose an image that I have captured that I feel — during the edit — first speaks to me in some way — a very complex in dialogue issues — then ‘might’ speak to someone else, but always expecting it to speak in ways I did not intend.
How difficult is it for a photojournalist to delve into creative photography during their chase of the story?
It depends on what you mean by ‘creative.’ Let’s take ‘creative editing’ out of the equation, which is never acceptable in photojournalism, and concentrate on the making of images, then quite a lot. It’s a massive creative endeavour to first see and conceive a potential image, then choose the right camera settings, lens, adjust your body to get the right composition and then, of course, capture the moment. Whew! Creativity at its most potent.
You have worked as a visual journalist at the San Jose Mercury News for 15 years. Your photographic work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today and a National Geographic Book on iPhone Photography among others (as seen on the “About” link at your official webpage). What have you earned through this journey?
Patience and a maturity I wish I had had 20 years ago. I would have shot more and worried less. Also an appreciation for the grey areas of life, nothing is black and white, no pun intended.
You borrow the Albert Camus quote “You are forgiven for your happiness and your successes only if you generously consent to share them” and you choose to impart this knowledge you have to others, since you are a visiting professor at the Paris-Sorbonne University, Assistant Professor of New Media at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and a lecturer at multiple workshops. What attracts you to work with young people with whom you share love and passion for the same subject?
This aspect is more important to me than my own work. There is a saying, “write the book you would want to read.” I’m just trying to be the mentor I wish I had had. Open and honest communication between two people looking to create photographs is a wonderful experience that keeps me coming back for more. It’s also a bit selfish, because I’ve learned the more I give away, the more I have to force myself to refill my coffers. It pushes me to be better, to see more deeply and it’s a constant reminder to always be the beginner.
Your work for covering the Latino Diaspora and the California Youth Prison System earned you two Pulitzer Prize nominations. You have also been named one of the “Top 25 Influential Communications Professors” and one of the “Top 100 Photographers on the Web”. So, playing an important part in the formation of the photography of tomorrow, can you predict its future? Which trends do you think will prevail?
I try to never play futurist, but I’ll venture to say that the image will continue its importance in everyday visual communication, visual literacy will continue to evolve, and tools will get better. Is that vague enough to be right in 10 years, 🙂
You collaborate with great photographers, journalists, and storytellers from all over the world. Are you familiar with a few Greek names?
Nikos Economopoulos and Chloe Kritharas Devienne
KOCI HERNANDEZ, RICHARD is an internationally recognized, award-winning innovator in journalism and multimedia. Koci Hernandez recently published “The Principles of Multimedia Journalism: Packaging Digital News” Routledge, 2015. Koci Hernandez is a national Emmy award winning multimedia producer who worked as a visual journalist at the San Jose Mercury News for 15 years. His photographic work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and a National Geographic Book on iPhone Photography, among others. He has been named one of the “Top 25 Influential Communications Professors” and one of the “Top 100 Photographers on the Web.” His work for the Mercury News covering the Latino Diaspora and the California Youth Prison System earned him two Pulitzer Prize nominations and in 2003, the James K. Batten Knight Ridder Excellence Award. In 2006, Richard was named deputy director of photography and multimedia at the Mercury News after spearheading the creation of the organization’s first visual journalism website, MercuryNewsPhoto.com. He has taught multimedia workshops and presented keynotes for dozens of professional organizations and was most recently invited to be a visiting professor at the prestigious Paris-Sorbonne University. In 2011 Koci Hernandez was named an Assistant Professor of New Media at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.