It has been almost 40 years since the term “New Topographics" was coined by William Jenkins, when in 1975 he curated a show of American landscape photography held in Rochester, New York. The show consisted of over 150 black and white prints of streets, warehouses, city centres, industrial sites and suburban houses. Taken together their aesthetic was one of banal ordinariness. At the time the reaction was generally unfavourable however over time the influence of the movement, has been pervasive. Almost as a counterbalance to traditional unspoilt landscape photography these ‘man altered landscapes’ with their roads, trucks, industrial zones and empty cities have found increasing favour amongst photographers.
I have a propensity for this type of photography myself and follow many photographers who propose this style of photography amongst which is Pavel Petros a photographer living and working in the Czech Republic. I have always been struck by his approach and strong sense of locality with its simple translation of light and place, so I recently asked him some questions about his photography and influences.
• Pavel how did you discover photography?
It attracted me ever since I remember but in a serious and consistent way I started in 1999, when I was at the university. That’s when I got my first film SLR. It has however turned much more intensive in last couple of years.
• It is clear that you are inspired by New Topographics but how did you discover this distinct style of photography?
Yes, New Topographics is a direction of photography that charmed me. I first encountered it in Flickr groups devoted to this genre. I loved all the photos showing a landscape in a different way - as a landscape that was touched by a human activity. Soon it became the vast source of my photographic inspiration.
• Which photographers works inspire and influence you?
There are many names. For example Stephen Shore representing the New Topographic movement and contemporary photographers like Alexnder Gronsky known for his photographs of Russian landscapes. But also from closer to home Czech photographers, Jindrich Streit, Viktor Kolar and Vladimir Birgus all brilliant documentary photographers.
• Your work has a strong sense of locality to it, it’s as if you work in an area very well known to you, can you tell me more about your locations and how you choose them?
I live in the north eastern part of the Czech Republic, close to the border of Poland and Slovakia. In this industrial part of the country I have a full time job where I commute from my village to the city. This journey determines the locations where I take pictures, however I don’t choose locations, I choose subjects. Hypothetically, If I was in Paris, I would photograph a recycling facility or abandoned houses on the periphery rather than the Eiffel tower. This quite well describes my attitude.
• Light and weather plays an important role in your work do you often revisit the same places time and again?
Sure, light is essential for any resulting photo. I mean, if I see a super awesome object but the light is not good, I would skip shooting it as the photo wouldn't be any good either. But it works also other way round: often boring subjects and places can result in an extraordinary picture with the right light. For me, photography is an exciting hunt of boring, common, everyday and ugly stuff captured in favourable light.
• Can you tell me a bit about how you approach a shot, what attracts you to a scene and how you work a particular place?
I think most challenging part is finding a subject. I explore the streets, backyards, generally, areas in the periphery. When I find a subject, the easy part of the job comes up – composing and pressing the shutter. I would take three or more shots of one subject just to make sure I have that particular image in the box. Then I move on.
• I noticed that you shot some photos in southern France recently, was it an easy transition for you to anchor your style in this new environment?
I had a wonderful time while on holiday in France taking pictures. I quickly adopted strong mediterranean light as ‘my light’. We stayed in Nice in the middle of the summer touristic season. I took advantage of it and photographed people more often than I normally do. Among all the tourists with cameras I felt invisible and free to capture people without being noticed. If I were noticed I was just another tourist without knowledge of local language. If I had more time I would have explored the periphery of the city and the countryside outside of the city.
• So if you had two weeks to spend anywhere in the world (to shot of course) where would you go?
But two weeks is too short a time to get under the surface of the place! If you asked me what to do with two or six months, I would say any place I haven’t been to before. I’m sure I would find exciting stuff to capture anywhere. It doesn't matter whether it is a little village in Siberia, the streets of the Bronx or old slaughter house in Bulgaria, it depends on the light and the subject itself.
• What role does post processing play in your work?
I like to keep things simple. I try to capture the photo right out of the box. I reduce post processing to very little fixes like strengthening or sharpening. Of course, if it is black and white a conversion is needed since I shoot digital.
• Do you have a project for 2015?
I don’t know if I will get to it this year, but I would like to publish a book of monochrome photos.
For me, Pavel's work is, the more I look at it superbly constructed and considered and far from simply images of the mundane and boring. His ability to apply his own understanding of composition, light and structure transforms these scenes of the everyday. You can see and read more about Pavel's work in his first book Silent Encounters and I certainly hope he produces another monochrome book to accompany it soon.
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