Adrian Hatwell talks to rising star Camus Wyatt about creating candid, meaningful street photography
An apostle of Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’, Wellington-based photographer Camus Wyatt likes to roam the streets as a spectre, unnoticed as he goes about creating his art. That obscurity does not extend to the other end of the creative process however; the 26-year-old photographer’s beguiling black-and-white prints have attracted rather a lot of attention.
The young street photographer is a two-time recipient of the annual Ronald Woolf Memorial Trust Grant for photographers under 30, 2011 winner of the National Photojournalism Competition, and has three solo exhibitions under his belt — not bad for someone who only picked up a camera six years ago.
“My dad is a former journalist and photojournalist,” Wyatt explains. “One evening he and I watched a documentary film, In Love and War, about the combat photographer Robert Capa, which presents a powerful message about photographs and their potential for meaning.
“I was seeing some amazing imagery and I was fascinated by the ability of photography to convey feeling and meaning, to affect people on a singular and personal level. I experimented with taking photographs and, like many photographers will understand, it’s been an exponentially [increasing] interest.”
It is an interest that has, by and large, been dominated by black-and-white photojournalism and street photography. With an inquisitive eye for graphic geometry Wyatt has roamed his home city extensively, occasionally casting his lens further afield, capturing spontaneous expressions of life against the urban landscape.
“In these areas, photography has an advantage over other forms of visual communication — the ability to portray what was in front of the lens at a single moment. Compared with this I don’t think that posed or ‘Photoshopped’ images have much meaning. They don’t add anything to our knowledge of people, the way they live, the way they interact with their surroundings.”
Echoing the romance of street photography greats, Wyatt explains he is attracted to the style for its celebration of ordinary life and its claim to authenticity.
“If I was interested in landscapes or still life I would go for painting, which presents a more personal view, in my opinion. Good street photography is candid, the images it produces are as real as a photographer can make them, and at the same time it can capture elements of wonder present in an everyday moment.
“Considering the everyday as a very important and sometimes amazing thing — this is what I love about street photography.”
In pursuit of that truth and beauty, Wyatt’s approach is very inconspicuous, hardly ever approaching his subjects, even after taking the image.
“When I shoot, people only seldom realize they’re being photographed — that is important for a truly candid view. If I talked to them I would be capturing a reaction to the presence of the camera, which is not what I want.”
The photographer’s reverence for spontaneity goes beyond simply taking the picture; he’d rather allow a moment to naturally unfold without disruption instead of interfering to show his subjects the image he has created.
“People are photographed how they are and then they continue the way they are. A couple kissing, a person walking over a particular shadow, or an elderly man standing on the steps reading a newspaper — I don’t want to interrupt that. I like to move on before I’m noticed.”
Wyatt says he does not really have preconceived ideas in mind during his travels — instead he wanders the streets ready for moments of inspiration to strike.
“There are two ways to shoot street photography; you can wait in a spot with great light and geometry, and see what happens. The scene is set for any characters to arrive.
“The other way is to shoot on the move. Walking and shooting any immediate interest provides a different view and the only important aspect of the location is some light.”
It was this ever-vigilant approach to his craft that brought Wyatt to the attention of James Gilberd, owner of Wellington’s Photospace gallery where the photographer held his first exhibition, Street Light, in 2011.
“Anyone who walks in with a camera out of its case, and ready to shoot with, immediately has my attention. One look at Camus’s photos was enough to see that here was a major talent in the making.”
Gilberd says one of Wyatt’s greatest strengths as a photographer is his awareness and appreciation of the art form’s history — an attribute that is not shared by many of his contemporaries.
“Photographers are unfortunately unique in this regard, as artists in almost any other field are very aware of the history of their medium. It is super important, and it is both ignorant and also somewhat arrogant to ignore it, I believe.”
Wyatt’s relationship with the gallery continues to strengthen: another solo exhibition, a collection of some of the photographer’s favourite works from the past few years entitled Ephemeral Joys, has recently closed.
With technology becoming ever more convenient and lazy photography becoming endemic, Wyatt’s drive to fully apply himself makes him an encouraging bastion of diligence that the gallery is happy to support, the owner says.
“Anyone can get a lucky shot or two, but he gets shot after shot that seem to defy probability. It is dedication to the craft and being ready, both physically — your camera in your hand, ready to shoot — and mentally, to take a photo,” says Gilberd.
“I have hardly ever seen Camus without his camera. He has a good eye, but this is at least as much from constant work as talent, and from feeding his mind with inspiring images.”
Though grateful for the support he has received from Photospace and the Ronald Woolf Memorial Trust, as well as feedback from other photographers, Wyatt frankly acknowledges he has picked a difficult space to work from.
“I think New Zealand is definitely a small market, dominated by other forms of expression that get priority over photography. It’s always great to see photography in galleries, but then it doesn’t tend to be candid or people-based imagery, which I prefer within photography.
“The most challenging aspect is probably making a body of work particular to New Zealand, which is a small but unique place, deserving of the attention. There’s a tradition of documentary imagery in New Zealand and, even though it’s a small thing in many ways, people can find the images produced really mean something to them.”
Wyatt’s advice for those looking to make a living from this kind of photography is grim — “maybe choose a different genre of photography” — but he salutes those with the courage to follow their passion. He recommends learning as much as you can from other photographers, but never at the expense of your own voice.
“Shoot how you feel … The best thing to do is learn how to react to your environment in your own way — then you have the potential to create something new and meaningful from your own experiences.
“Candid photographs are a feeling — by reaction — frozen in time. It’s a question of whether you have something meaningful to show people. It’s a great adventure of indefinite length.”
Camus Wyatt’s big 5
The erudite street photographer shares his top five photographic influences:
He counts the father of modern photojournalism and founding member of the Magnum Photos agency as his biggest influence, calling his work “simply genius”.
“His delight in geometry combined with candid life within a frame is one of the main tenets of a lot of great photographers.”
One of the great early combat photographers and another founding member of Magnum Photos, Robert Capa was the photographer responsible for pulling Wyatt into the life.
“The importance of being there, and when you’re there using your skills to do justice to the scene and people in it, that would be a great lesson.”
Nachtwey is an award-winning conflict photographer and associate of the legendary Bang-Bang Club, and his work was the focus of the Academy Award–winning documentary War Photographer in 2001.
Wyatt says Nachtwey is, in his opinion, an almost-unrivalled photojournalist and one of the biggest influences on this kind of documentary photography since Cartier-Bresson.
Influential Swiss-born American photographer of the ’50s and ’60s, Robert Frank brought a sceptical, outsider’s view to bear on American society through his images, which Wyatt appreciates.
“Frank’s ‘messier’ and timely series The Americans conveyed a very personal view of American society.”
Koudelka’s early conflict work in post-war Europe and later examinations of society and culture in Central Europe put him in the same influential boat as Frank, says Wyatt.
“What they achieved is, perhaps, what any photographer would hope for — a type of photography that creates images of substance, a particular subject photographed at a particular time that really means something and is added to by being photographed.”