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INTERVIEW

January 13, 2023

ON THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO

IN CONVERSATION WITH STEPHEN LASZLO

Photography by Stephen Laszlo
Interview by Bill Lacey

As the fog rolls in off the bay, muting the sunlight and dampening the contrast, photographer Stephen Laszlo may be found walking the streets in his beloved San Francisco with Leica in hand and a sharp eye out for slices of life. His photography is at once recognizable, setting itself apart from the many who embrace street photography but don’t quite match style with vision. There is thought in what’s visible in the frame - and what isn’t. There is story in what is exposed - and what is underexposed. His photographs pull you in, and you find yourself asking questions, waiting for answers, and wanting more. Be it an expression, a doorway, a pair of hands, a pass-by, or a lone reader… the street and its subjects are elevated to fine art in the work of this master photographer.

Stephen Laszlo’s passion is the black and white image, captured by the rangefinder-style digital camera and cultivated in the software darkroom. Schooled in the use of traditional film and darkroom techniques, his approach has evolved as developments in both digital sensors and darkroom techniques within Lightroom allow him to capture and adjust tonalities to match his vision. As a dedicated Leica Monochrom and Q2 Monochrom user, he explores the potential of the familiar, finding stories in the place he calls home. His eyes see what the tourists miss. With his more than twenty years of experience shooting in the city where Tony Bennett left his heart, Stephen Laszlo’s fine art photography beautifully captures the dark and grittiness of the street and the people who live and work in San Francisco “above the blue and windy sea”.

“The subject’s trapped in a box, a frame that won’t allow it to escape the edges. A deep despondency that’s driven by the light that casts upon the subject. I want those who look at my photos to feel a convincing emotion that primes questioning the image itself.”

THE PICTORIAL LIST: Hello Stephen...welcome to The List! Please tell us about yourself. What would you say first drew you to photography?

STEPHEN LASZLO: I was born in Washington D.C. in the 70s, my mother worked in the White House and my father owned an art store. They were both graduates of The Art Institute of Philadelphia but neither pursued careers in art. My grandparents were also artists, but they pursued careers as business owners. I grew up around pragmatic thinkers who were also artists in their private lives. I was literally surrounded by art growing up.

My parents had their art around the house and so did my grandparents, they were also art collectors, there was art everywhere. They even had a large studio in their home filled with so many art supplies. If you wanted to learn clay modeling, you could. If you want to learn how to paint, grab some canvas and oil paint. There was always artistic freedom around me, and it was impossible not to be influenced by it.

Around 3 years old, I started drawing on everything, and I mean everything. Including the piano, all 88 keys. My father wasn’t too happy about it. I eventually formed control over what I was drawing, and I got heavily into automobiles. Which led into a passion for automotive design. My goal was to go to Rhode Island School of Design, but right before graduating high school, I changed my mind and ended up going to film school in New York City at the School of Visual Arts where I majored in screenwriting. Even so I was always immersing myself in all art mediums, going to film school led into a decent career working in the motion picture industry in Los Angeles.

After a decade and a bit exhausted, I was looking for a change, and that led into a tech career here in San Francisco. Today I’m a product leader in the eCommerce space. And I absolutely love what I do. The products and experiences I create touch millions of people around the world. And that’s very rewarding. But much like my parents and grandparents, I’m an artist in my private life. And photography is my beloved art medium.

TPL: How would you describe your photography, and what would you say you are always trying to achieve artistically?

SL: I’d like to describe my street photograph as fine art street photography. And I honestly didn’t make this transition until a few years ago. Prior to the transition I did a lot of traditional street work that was more on the lines of reportage. I didn’t do a ton of post processing either.

Today, there are really powerful post processing applications, and it wasn’t until I delved into Lightroom where I found an output that feels like what I want to portray as a B&W photographer. And that’s a purified emotion that’s propped by the symmetry of the backdrop.

The subject’s trapped in a box, a frame that won’t allow it to escape the edges. A deep despondency that’s driven by the light that casts upon the subject. I want those who look at my photos to feel a convincing emotion that primes questioning the image itself.

I’ve never seen one of my photos for the first time, so I have no idea how they may emotionally engage a viewer or what they think when they look at my work. I want my work to be emotional. And I hope it is in one form or another.

TPL: Most of your street photography takes place in the city of San Francisco. What is it about that city that separates it from others?

SL: San Francisco can be a tough place for street work. A city like New York, provides a huge amount of street coverage and diversity. You can shoot a million different ways. A treasure-trove of subject matter too. There’s absolutely no shortage of anything in New York City.

Here, in San Francisco, it’s more challenging to find locations. There’s plenty of diversity and interesting things happening on the street to capture, but downtown is small, and you can exhaust it quickly. This forces you to find locations in the neighborhoods surrounding downtown and they are generally uninteresting.

Because of this though, it has serendipitously forced me to be cleverer. I didn’t really have any other choice, I needed to make it work. I live in the Richmond District, just a few blocks from the ocean in a neighborhood called Sutro Heights. A lot of my work is local to where I live. You may have to walk around to find a good backdrop for a few hours, but because you’re forced to look beyond the weeds, you find incredible opportunities.

When you look at my work, you cannot tell it’s been shot on a residential street, surrounded by row houses painted in pastel colors and occupied by families. I’ve been able to take what most tourists would say are the most beautiful areas of San Francisco and transitioned it into a dark and gritty place. Full of emotion.

TPL: What elements are you looking for on the street that make you click the shutter?

SL: It’s all about the light and time of day. I only shoot on foggy, overcast days. It’s why most of my work is done over the summer. Because that’s when it is foggiest. It’s a natural diffuser for B&W photography. And if you put all the ingredients together, I can translate what I’m trying to emotionally convey in my work overall.

TPL: Do you have a philosophy about street photography? In other words, do you shoot on the move, or do you find a location and wait for a choice moment?

SL: It wasn’t until the past few years that I felt I reached the point of knowing exactly how I want to express myself artistically through my photography. I will always love shooting street, but instead of how I used to approach it, which was more on the lines of reportage, it’s now shifted into a fine art form, and I consider my work as fine art street photography.

In the past, I wouldn’t plan my day, I would get hooked on the ‘could happen’ frame-of-mind instead of a ‘what could I make happen’ frame-of-mind. Shooting from the hip per se. Today I plan it more than I fall into it. Prior to going out, I have an idea of location and light. And what type of backdrop I’d like to lean on.

What makes this ‘what could I make happen’ challenging, is that once you find that backdrop, you must wait and wait to create the controlled moment. And sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. But the better you get at predicting human behavior and movement, and how the subject will meander the street, you can then control it, and you can get your shot. Nothing makes me happier when I invest in that approach and get my shot.

TPL: How do you approach post-processing?

SL: I use Lightroom for almost all my post processing. For a portion of my work that doesn’t have enough of the elements I’ve mentioned earlier, I usually approach those in a more traditional darkroom way. But for the work where all the elements come together, I remove 90% of the exposure.

Since I’m already capturing with a lower exposure, reducing it more allows me to work from the inside out. After mapping out in my head what I want to expose and what I’d like to keep unexposed, I begin a very painstaking process of dodging the subject forward and then burning in areas that I’d like to stand back. This process allows me to control how the subject becomes center stage. And with this approach I can also control the original lighting and push it where it counts.

I’m developing them to look like they were done on a set. With lights and a stage. Turning off all the lights and using stage lights to cast upon the subject. Isolating the subject onto the stage, to tell the story. And this is how I approach my work today, and it somewhat helps fulfill all that passion around filmmaking which I don’t do a lot anymore.

TPL: Most of your Instagram work is in B&W, but your website also features color work. What influences your choice to shoot in either?

SL: A B&W photographer is what I want to be known as. And B&W is a passion. I cannot really see the world in color when I’m trying to express myself as an artist. Although color is a great medium, I only do color when I don’t have much to do or I’m just not feeling the B&W work I might be doing at the time. It’s much like writer’s block. When that happens, you become dry.

Sometimes I go out and I’m just not communicating through B&W. And it can get very frustrating. When this happens, and I’m in a dry spell, I shoot color. Unfortunately, I sold all my cameras that could produce color so now if things aren’t working out in B&W, I just simply take a break from photography and focus on other projects I have going on.

TPL: You still shoot film occasionally. What motivates you to do so?

SL: I was doing both film and digital for a while, but film is very hard to do now. Getting film stock is difficult, they discontinued my beloved Neopan, and renting a darkroom is a thing of the past. The reason why I was still shooting film was because digital just wasn’t there yet. I could never accept early digital as anything near what film could do.

It was around 2012 when digital really started looking like film, and I sold off all my film equipment. I was really into portrait work at that time and had a wonderful Hasselblad CM 500 with an 80mm lens. Absolutely loved that camera before selling it to an art student. I remember the day I sold it, and when I met the buyer and placed the camera in his hands, he looked at me with such sincerity and said, “What a beautiful thing this is.” That’s when I knew that the same passion I had about that camera, was now passed onto him. I haven’t used film since that day.

TPL: What was the first camera you ever held in your hand, brought to eye, and released a shutter on? What is the camera you use now and your preferred focal length? Does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? Is there anything on your wishlist?

The very first camera was a Nikon FM2 with a 50mm lens. I remember looking through the viewfinder and finding an isolation that belonged to me. It was profound. It was very different from the other types of art mediums I would embroil myself in.

Canvas, paper, clay, all these mediums were worked on in an open space. Although you could control what was in front of you, you could not control what was around you. With a camera, looking through that viewfinder, it belongs to you and only you. And you get to control everything inside that frame.

Although I’ve owned all sorts of cameras over the years, from peel-apart instant film to medium format, from custom made kits to Hasselblad’s, my favorite camera to use is the rangefinder. In the digital world they’re rangefinder-style cameras, but nonetheless, the compactness and feel of a rangefinder is my go-to. When I was shooting film, I used a Leica M6 and an R6.2. But when digital came about Leica really struggled to compete and output a good digital image.

When I made my initial transition to digital, it was all Nikon. And I really appreciated how Nikon and Canon led that transition and drove the technology. It wasn’t until the Leica M10 that I picked up a Leica again. Leica finally got it right. And I haven’t looked back since. Although I went through a few M10s, I ended up getting a Monochrom and that also includes a Q2 Monochrom.

My favorite focal lengths are 35mm and 28mm on full frame. I find these 2 lengths ideal for street work and 35mm is what you’d typically use for street in general. The 28mm, fixed on the Leica Q2M, allows for error in street work. A 35mm lens on a full frame sensor can restrict a little bit especially if you don’t have enough room to frame, it’s just not enough space to work with sometimes. The 28mm as my back up, helps me get around some of those tight challenges especially on the street and how I frame my work.

TPL: Do you have any favorite artists or photographers you would like to share with us, and the reason for their significance?

SL: Paul Strand was without a doubt the most influential photographer that still influences my work today. It wasn’t so much for the subject matter as it was his framing and tonality. I absolutely love the tonality and emotion in his work. It always feels like it’s raining and that’s how I feel as an artist. My artistic side is very different from my pragmatic side.

My favorite Paul Strand photo is Wall Street, 1915. That photo was the first Paul Strand photo I saw when I was younger and it’s what influenced my initial desire to shoot B&W and how I wanted my images to look and be processed. It’s the symmetry and dark verticals that promote my work and you’ll find this element as a backbone in most of my work.

TPL: Are there any special projects that you are currently working on that you would like to let everyone know about? Are there any plans for an exhibition? Book? What are some of your photography goals?

SL: I’ve been doing a series on San Francisco, Chinatown for some time now. I’d like to publish that work when it’s ready. It’s been a side project that I’ve been doing for the past 10-years.

My goal with that work is to capture the transition that’s been happening in Chinatown but through my lens, this includes how gentrification is slowly eroding the most important cultural foundations we have here in our American cities today, especially San Francisco, but doing it with my signature.

The old ways are dying and the young ways are leaving Chinatown. And the developers are moving in. It’s shameful and I want to make sure I preserve it and one day my work there can be a part of a collection which reminds everyone what Chinatown is and was.

I would love to have an exhibition or book one day. I feel I’m getting closer, but I will need to work a little harder to get there. It’s not always about the subject or the impact of the emotion either. It’s also the technical approach and mastering each aspect of photography from the camera itself to the darkroom techniques used through modern digital applications. It needs to be the entire package for me, and I want to feel confident enough around all aspects of the medium, not just the final output. I want to be a true master at what I do in photography. And be remembered.

TPL:“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…

SL: I have a lot of hobbies and so many that at times I stress myself out for no reason at all. I cannot get enough of everything around me. I love life more than life loves me. And if I’m not doing photography, then I’m tackling a new script. If writing isn’t something I feel like doing, then I’m drawing future automobiles. I also have a 13-year-old son who’s everything and making him proud is my overall goal. I want to leave him something meaningful."