People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log

Photographer: Craig Semetko

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I discovered Craig Semetko through an interview on my favourite photography podcast ‘The Candid Frame’ [1]. An audio podcast might seem a strange way to discover new photographers, as you spend about an hour listening to them talking about their work before you see any of their pictures! But actually in many cases (this one included) my reaction on listening was a good indication of whether I liked the photographer’s work. He came across as very likeable, affable, humble, curious and very interested in people and in the world around him. One particular aspect of his story that resonated with me was that he picked up photography quite late in life – late 30s / early 40s I think – after a successful career as a writer and comedian. An inspiration to all us late starters!

Unposed

Most of my knowledge of his work is through his debut collection ‘Unposed’ [1], shot between 2000 and 2010. As the title suggests, his milieu is very much street photography. He quotes his biggest inspirations as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Elliott Erwitt – and he even got the stamp of approval from Erwitt who wrote the introduction to Unposed.

In his style and subject matter he is closest to Erwitt by far. He shares a sense of humour and an ability to spot the absurdities of life unfolding in front of his camera. And as Elliott Erwitt is most likely my favourite photographer, I was hoping very much that I’d like Semetko’s work as well.

There is a danger of dismissing Semetko as derivative, kind of an Erwitt tribute act. But he has enough of his own ‘eye’ that this isn’t the case. There’s one aspect of Semetko’s work in particular that stands out to me – he is a master of juxtaposition. Many great photos work so well because of the incongruity of the elements brought together, and he knows this (or does it instinctively). Sometimes the elements are of equal prominence, like the cleaner and the chained angel, and the effect is of a clear allegory. Other times, like the Vietnam shot of the couples looking over the lake and the single men behind them, the balance is so perfect that it helps to convey a whole narrative in a split-second.

Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam – © Craig Semetko 2010

Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam – © Craig Semetko 2010

Another common type of Semetko juxtaposition is what you might call the double-take shot; the ones where there’s a primary point of interest that would, in itself, constitute an interesting shot… then you spot something else in the background, or in the corner, and the image takes on a new meaning. Or sometimes, raises new questions – for example, there is a great character portrait of a smiling woman in a fringed bikini swinging an SLR camera, then after a few seconds your eye moves to the background… wait, what’s that man doing up the ladder…?

Probably my favourite such double-take shot is this one of the fountain monument in Paris… at first glance you think maybe it’s all a part of there sculpture, but then you realise what the lads are doing up there. It’s a great visual punchline.

Paris, France – © Craig Semetko 2006

Paris, France – © Craig Semetko 2006

There are numerous other examples of great juxtapositions, both serious and frivolous, in the book. He has a real eye for these moments. I like the way he sees the world.

  1. The Candid Frame (podcast) http://ibarionex.net/thecandidframe/ [accessed 23/06/2014]
  2. Semetko, C (2010) Unposed. Kempen: teNeues
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