Going underground with Birka Wiedmaier
#HerSideOfTheRoad speaks to Birka about her intriguing double exposures on the Moscow and Berlin Metros, and photographing on transportation. by Charlene Winfred
Please tell us a little about yourself. How did you come to be a photographer, and when when you were drawn to the street genre?
My name is Birka Wiedmaier, I am from a small town in the Eastern part of Germany, Arnstadt in Thuringia, where I spent my childhood and youth. My family and I lived in different places in Germany, and we spent four years in Israel. Around 14 years ago my husband’s job brought us to Moscow where we live now.
Photography did not really play a big role in my life until I arrived in Moscow. I started taking pictures to keep memories of my walks through the city, though it wasn’t really street photography in the beginning. To get a better understanding of photography (the technical and visual aspect,) I took some online classes, and bought myself lots of books.
I started out with cityscapes, tried architecture, photographed details — whatever drew my attention. But when looking at the pictures on my computer, I always felt that they lacked something. I was not satisfied.
During my city walks, I met many people and photographed them, and this is how street photography became my biggest interest about 3 years ago.
I love the work of Jacob Aue Sobol and Trent Parke, Martin U. Waltz (who gave me some great advice on a photo walk last year), Oliver Krumes, Sergio Larrain, Dorothea Lange, Constantine Manos, Josef Koudelka, Vivian Maier and many, many more. I think all their work has influenced and helped me to get were I am now.
A lot of your work seems to revolve around transport — why are you drawn to transportation?
This is difficult to answer, I did not really choose this theme consciously, it more or less developed itself. I think it has something to do with my love for traveling, and of course using public transport often. Every train station gives this feeling of leaving for another great destination.
What was it about the Moscow and Berlin Metros that made you start your Underground Moscow — Berlin project?
I go several times a week into the city, for walks or for meetings with friends, and always take the Metro. This is the fastest and most convenient way to get around — no traffic jams underground like there are above ground.
The Moscow Metro is one of the biggest in the world, and really beautiful. I started taking pictures, portraits of people, and of the beautiful stations, whenever I was using it. From time to time, I would just go on a Metro tour, especially during the winter — with temperatures around minus 20 degrees Celsius, walking outside is not possible for long. Inside the Metro it is warmer, and it’s interesting to see how people are dressed. You can clearly see who is a tourist or foreigner — tourists usually either open their jackets or take them off, unlike Russians who stay fully dressed and never seem to be bothered by how warm it is on the trains.
The biggest difference between the two Metros is the train frequency. In Moscow a train comes every two minutes, unlike in Berlin where trains are farther between. The stations in Moscow are more impressive as well — a lot of marble was used to build them, along with beautiful ornaments and mosaic tiles; in every station you find different lampshades. The underground in Berlin is simpler and not so extensive.
All of your underground work is in black and white. Why black and white? And how did the idea of double exposures come to you?
I wanted to shoot it differently: convey somehow the sounds of the incoming and outgoing trains, the conversations and footsteps of the passers-by. It was not possible to implement this in the pictures. To try and express a little more of this chaotic, busy atmosphere to my viewers, I started to experiment with double exposures.
For the Berlin double exposures, I had started in color, but found this distracting. With black and white, it was easier to concentrate on the main subject, and show how rough the place can be. For example, the Moscow Metro is used by up to 8 or 9 million people per day, and during rush-hour, it is possible that you have to wait in a big crowd for about 10 minutes to get onto an escalator. And most of the stations are often dimly lit — the black and white conversion emphasizes this too.
A lot of new stations were opened recently, and I am currently enjoying exploring them. They are very different from the older ones, less pompous though equally impressive. For my double exposures this can add a new feel too.
What differences are there between shooting in Moscow and Berlin? Do you find that people react to you differently? Are people more open to being photographed in one city than another?
Most of the time the people on the Metro inspire me — I like to observe them going about their daily routines, and try to capture little gestures.
The difference between the behavior of people in Berlin and Moscow is not too wide, though Russians are quite suspicious about cameras. Often with a nice smile and the right attitude, I get along well, and speaking the language helps me too. In Berlin, I would say it depends on the area where you take pictures, and also on your attitude. The common sense you would use everywhere in the world is the key.
I have one little story from the Moscow Metro: I often use my phone to take pictures, as I was doing on this day. There was an old lady sitting next to me, looking at my phone, and she was noticing that I had just taken a picture of the couple across from us. I was a little nervous, not knowing how she would react. However, after some time she smiled, told me the picture was a very nice one and started asking me questions about myself. When people tell me they don’t like my taking their picture, I delete the images straightaway.
How long did it take to complete both your Moscow and Berlin Metro projects?
This project is still an ongoing one. When I look at my pictures, I notice how much they have changed and developed. In the beginning, it was about Moscow only. But Berlin feels like a second home to me, and I have always wanted to connect those two cities in my photography. I explore Berlin a lot via public transport, so it was somehow natural to experiment with double exposures there. I’ve started experimenting with slower shutter speeds recently too.
Where this project will go, and how much longer I will work on it, I cannot yet tell.
Are you a film or digital photographer? What equipment do you shoot with?
I am a digital photographer. Though I absolutely adore the look of analogue photos, I cannot bring myself to get into it, I like to see the results instantly.
For my double exposures, I use a Fujiflm X-T1 camera — the in-camera function for double exposures makes it a perfect fit. Besides the Fuji camera, I also use the Leica Q and M cameras for street photography.
Birka Wiedmaier | Website | Instagram |
Guest interviewer: Charlene Winfred
Valentina’s Side of the Road
#HerSideOfTheRoad gets to know what Valentina Martiradonna looks for while shooting from transportation, By Charlene Winfred
Please tell us a little about yourself, and how you were drawn to the street genre.
I’m Valentina Martiradonna, I was born and raised in Rome, where I currently live. I am a psychologist, and I work in the field of vocational training. My greatest passions are photography, fashion and cinema. As well as working as a psychologist, I collaborate with a foundation which promotes art in all its aspects, and puts together many artistic performances.
Photography has always been part of my life, as I’ve been snapping pictures since I was but a child. I have always tried to shine a light on what brings photographic and cinematographic expression together.
I have been nurturing my fascination with street photography for the past ten years or so, owing to some courses I attended which brought me closer to this wonderful world, and through spending hours on end shooting in the streets. As well as studying the lighting and structure of a photo, I also learned to be brave and reach out to strangers to create “street portraits.” These courses made me realize that photographing people has always been a passion of mine. I remember when I used to go on school field trips, I always used to prefer stolen shots at my classmates, snoring in the back of the bus, over the usual landscapes photos!
You shoot a lot on transportation. What makes shooting on transport special?
Well, I use public transportation often to go about my city. People are so sucked into their phones these days, that they don’t even look around to observe what is going on around them, or to have a chat with the person riding next to them.
I, on the other hand, have a thing for “people watching.” I am truly fascinated by the little, every day life gestures, and that’s what I like to capture in my photos.
One thing I really like doing is standing at bus stops, observing people hopping on and off, especially in the morning when the light is amazing. I like to switch up the perspective, so sometimes I shoot from the outside (I love the way images reflect on the glass,) and sometimes I shoot from within the bus. At times I like to take the picture without being seen, but other times I want the person to be aware of being the center of my shot.
Do you shoot differently on transport than you do in the street normally? And are you primarily a film or digital shooter?
Because of the tragic events which have happened recently, I think suspicion has spread in our cities, can you imagine how a person in this state of mind would react to a complete stranger wanting to take their picture?
I learned to photograph when only analog cameras existed, but now I almost always shoot digital, even though I sometimes go back to my first love — it was so magical to snap, and then to have to wait for the photo to develop!
In the streets, I prefer to shoot with my camera, but when I travel by public transportation, the cellphone is definitely more practical, because I can always carry it around with me, and it allows me to go unnoticed.
Until very recently, I owned bulky reflex cameras which were hard to carry, but a few days ago I finally bought a Fuji X100T, and I really am head over heels! I now want to start shooting with the Fuji on buses and trains, because while my phone is very functional for some aspects, its downside on the other hand is that I can’t control the lighting, timing or aperture. I can’t wait to start going out with my new camera and be able to expand this project of mine to public transportation.
How do you think being a woman affects your photography?
I have an approach that takes respect for others into maximum consideration. I like to observe human beings in their ordinary lives, and I try to capture in my shots the emotions and sensations that I feel in those moments. Attention to composition and color is an essential component of my way of shooting. I don’t really know if these are all traits relatable to being a woman, but they represent me nonetheless.
Who are your influences?
Letizia Battaglia, Sarah Moon, Alex Webb and Joel Meyerowitz are among the ones that I love the most. As far as street photography is strictly concerned, Bruce Davidson’s and Stanley Kubrick’s shots in the New York subway are extremely inspirational to me.
Valentina Martiradonna | Instagram |
In transit with Lauren Welles, interview by Charlene Winfred for #HerSideoftheRoad
Please tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from, where do you live now? What’s your background in photography? How and when you were drawn to the street genre?
First, thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk with you. And now to your questions: I was born in NYC, raised on Long Island and currently live in NYC. I’ve been photographing since 2003 and am primarily self taught. I was drawn to the street genre somewhat unintentionally. When I caught the photography bug, I was working full time as an attorney, feeling very unfulfilled, career wise. I didn’t have a lot of time to photograph, so I started waking up 45 minutes earlier than usual to walk to work, photographing along the way. I didn’t realize I was doing street photography; I didn’t even know it was a genre at the time. By paying attention to what I used to deem “my banal surroundings” I started seeing stories everywhere and pretty much got hooked.
Your Subway NYC series is really vibrant, with a swathe of characters in almost constant (frozen) motion. What made you decide to do this project? And how long did it take to put this particular series together?
As with almost all of my street photography, I didn’t decide to make this a project. I just go out and shoot and see what comes of it. I ride the subway a lot and usually have my camera with me, so I’m bound to take photos there. Every so often I go over old photos. Recently, I saw I had lots of subway photos and started editing to see if there was a commonality among them. The thread was the same one I find throughout a lot of my photography — a slice of life. So I guess it’s turned into an ongoing project with no end in sight (as long as I’m riding the subway, I’ll be on the lookout!) These photos were made over the last four years.
Are there particular differences about shooting on the subway, compared to shooting while you’re out and about walking? Do people react differently, do you find yourself employing a different approach?
Even thought they’re mostly indoors, the stations and the platforms are like the outside streets to me since everyone is free to move about. I shoot the same way as I do when I’m above ground. But when I’m shooting in the cars themselves, the space between people is more intimate and confined. I tend to take more time checking my surroundings, making sure I feel safe and that I’m being as discreet as possible, before taking a shot. If someone gets upset or reacts aggressively, it’s harder to walk away, so I use my intuition as best I can to feel out the situation.
Were there any memorable moments?
This may sound a bit corny, but it’s rare that there isn’t a memorable moment when I’m on the subway (whether or not I come away with a photograph.) There has been so much gentrification in NYC (as in most cities.) The subway is one of the only places left where I still feel like I’m in the “real” New York on a daily basis. People of every ethnicity, religion, economic, educational level and social status come together in a small space. During that time, our differences are irrelevant — we’re all just people going from one place to another. I meet so many interesting people and have great conversations with random strangers. So it’s not necessarily the memories from making these photographs, but the mere fact of interacting with a diversity of people, that makes it interesting to me.
Are you a film or digital shooter?
I’m a digital shooter.
All the street work on your site is in black and white. Why?
I started out shooting in color, but I found black and white to be more succinct. I want my photos to be about the people in them. To me, color is a subject all its own and can compete for attention with the intended protagonists. By eliminating it, there’s one less thing I have to think about while I’m out shooting. The less I have to concentrate on, the freer I am to enjoy the experience. But who knows, I’m sure one day I’ll try doing something in color, just to change things up.
Who are your influences/inspirations?
A mix of influence and/or inspiration: Winogrand, William Klein, Cartier-Bresson, Koudelka, Sylvia Plachy, Jill Freedman. Jason Eskenazi, Keith Carter, Larry Fink, Helen Levitt, Martha Cooper, Richard Sandler, Sam Abell, Saul Leiter. This list could get extremely long, so I’ll stop here!
Left Behind: Dogs in Cars
This November we introduce “Everywhere Street,” a series examining the boundaries of street photography, and just what are the rules of where it can be found. When we take away most of the people, go into rural environments, when we go the beach, or even under the waves to get our candids — if we visit the zoo, have animals as our primary subjects, if we knock on strangers’ doors, will we still find the street? This fall and winter Her Side of the Street goes “Everywhere,” see you there.
In our first installment we chat with Vermont photographer Tara Wray about her project photographing dogs in rural Vermont.
What draws you into a project about dogs in cars?
I just have a connection to animals, probably in a way that I don’t necessarily have with people, probably because I’m pretty shy, and I’d much rather approach a dog than a person. That’s not to say that I can’t talk to a person, I just find dogs much more engaging — I find their faces very honest immediately, and we just sort of feel an immediate connection.
I think sometimes the things that I see in the animals are very human qualities. Sometimes a loneliness or a kind of sadness or an anxiety, you know “Where is my person?”
Most of the series is shot near your home in Vermont?
Yes, it is called Barnard, and everybody’s spread out, so there’s a general store and a lake, and that’s sort of our town, about a thousand people.
With such a rural environment, does everyone know about you and this project? Do they say “ Here comes the dog lady!”?
They might say that, and I don’t know about it! But usually if they are doing that, they are people with dogs, and they understand that level of passion for animals. If they know me, it’s because they have one.
I would say I know people’s dogs better than I know them. People up here are just sort of going about their business, they are doing their thing, and respecting you doing your thing, and keeping to themselves. I mean everybody is very friendly, the neighbors are very supportive, and everybody shares apples and all that good stuff. I definitely know people in the community, but I don’t know that they know me, and that I’m taking pictures of their dogs, unless they come out of the general store and I’m standing there taking a picture of their dog.
What usually happens if they do find you standing there? Is there one particular instance you would share?
Usually people will just stop and tell me about their dogs, because people love their dogs. I guess it could be a little sketchy if you’re walking up to somebody’s open car window and putting a camera into it while their dog is in there! Some people might not like that, but I do remember once a couple years ago, some people approached me with “Hmmm, what are you doing in my car!” I said “ Oh, I noticed your dogs, they were beautiful, and I wanted to take their picture.”
So they opened up the car and put their three dogs into this little stroller. They started telling me how the dogs basically saved their lives, at a point in their lives when they were sick, they didn’t have much going, they were a little depressed, and these little dogs came into their lives, and they eventually gave them a reason to live! They sort of just poured it all out, you know, told me everything.
Have you ever found any other animals in cars?
One day I found a hatchback full of goats, I unfortunately only had my iPhone, so didn’t get the pictures I was hoping for, but I will never forget, it was a hatchback full of goats and kids, two little kids and three or four goats. The people came up, and I said “Wow!” They said “Yeah, we’re moving, and this is how we have to do it.”
“Rural street photography” takes away most of the people.
It forces you to look elsewhere, and that’s what I do. I’m connecting to the animals, and I’m sharing that, so it’s my personal connection, what I see in them, and what I feel like they’re giving to me. I feel like I’m able to capture that, sometimes.
I just shoot what I see. There are places nearby with downtowns, where there would be people. I live close to a town called Woodstock, Vermont — basically a postcard town, ridiculously beautiful — and people come in by the bus load. There is a ton of foot traffic, so there would be “more traditional” street photography opportunities there, but I guess that doesn’t quite appeal to me in the same way.
I think my work has a moodiness to it, which I guess I am drawn to, kind of an environmental sadness. Vermont in February is kind of like living on the moon — it’s intense, you sort of have to want to be here, if you don’t want to be here, you are going to be sort of miserable because it’s a challenge. It just is cold, coupled with the fact that everyone is pretty spread out, it’s rural, it can be very isolating, sometimes you can feel a little bit alone. So I think some of my work reflects that loneliness. But I think there is also a hopefulness in just connecting — whether it is with a person or an animal, or whatever it is — for me having the camera is my way of connecting to the bigger world, feeling more part of it.
One of your journalist projects is Lady Shooters, interviews with women photographers.
I want to be a champion of women, a supportive person for women who are making great work. The idea of being a collective of women who are doing something like what you are doing with your group, I think that’s very important.
It’s a challenge, especially being a working mom — another aspect that I struggle with, and I reach out to other women who are doing the same, and we’re constantly trying to find our footing. Not only as the “perfect moms,” but as somebody who is trying get paid the same amount of money to do the same amount of work — and to just do good work that is respected, regardless of our gender.
Tara Wray is a filmmaker, photographer, and journalist. You can find her series Doin’ Work, flash interviews with photographers on Huffington Post, and Lady Shooters, interviews with women photographers for BUST magazine. Follow along with more of her dog series on her Instagram.