Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted in the spring of 2018.
In 2019, cameras can feel like anachronisms. Why own a specialized device for taking photos when your smartphone can do that and so much more? But according to a 2018 survey by Keypoint Intelligence, an analytics company, 60% of teenagers (ages 13-19) own some sort of camera besides a phone camera. Between social media and simple hobbies, interest in photography is alive and well. By extension, so is the artistic medium of photography.
In this interview with award-winning local photographer Ed Panar, whose work has been exhibited everywhere from San Francisco to Milan, we explore the modern-day life and artistry of a professional photographer.
Daevan Mangalmurti: When did you decide you wanted to be a professional photographer?
Ed Panar: My adventure and obsession with photography began in high school, but it wasn’t until years later that I decided to fully devote myself to it. I hesitate to call myself a ‘professional’ since I do not make many photographs for hire, and it is a passion that I must pursue no matter what which makes it feel like much more than ‘just a job’ to me. Because of this I have [had] to do other jobs and work to support myself over the years, mostly freelance graphic design and some teaching for example.
DM: Which cameras and equipment do you generally use?
EP: My philosophy has always been the best camera is the one that you have on hand when you need it! I like to keep it simple so I have mostly used one 35mm camera (Olympus Stylus Epic), one medium format camera (Pentax 67), and shooting digitally I use the Sony Alpha line, in particular the AR7II. I still use my camera phone when it’s all I have as well. Camera phones are great, until you want to look closely at the image and want to print it larger than screen size.To me the question of what to photograph is always more important than what tools you are using, although like any instrument you want to be highly fluent and proficient with it so you can use it most effectively.
DM: What technology do you use in addition to your physical camera to create finished works?
EP: The typical photography software: Adobe Photoshop and Bridge for processing, printing, and organizing images, and Adobe Indesign for book design and layout sketching.
DM: What is your favorite work of the last few years?
EP: I tend to be most interested in photography books, because it is in photobooks that an artist can really show their full vision, thought process, and ideas most clearly. Putting many photographs together in a certain sequence and arrangement is a different challenge and photobooks are a natural home to these types of projects. Two personal favorites from the last 10 years or so would be A Shimmer of Possibility by Paul Graham and The Notion of Family by Latoya Ruby Frazier.
DM: What is the best way for someone to improve their photography skills?
EP: Take A LOT of pictures! And besides taking pictures constantly, make time to look at them closely afterward to understand what happened, what works and what doesn’t so each time you take more pictures you are incorporating feedback from the last round. Equally important to making lots of pictures and looking at them is to look at great photography, to learn from others to find inspiration. The best photographers are also good students of photography and know something about the history of the medium as well as those who are working with photography in interesting ways today.
DM: What advice would you give to students interested in photography?
EP: Making photographs that are personal and important to you is the first step. Find ways to make pictures that you connect with, that show the world as only you can see it. Everyone has unique access to some part of the world that no one else does. And what might at first seem ‘boring’ and ‘normal’ to one person might be the most interesting thing to someone else. Don’t let anyone tell you what is important or not, decide for yourself. Also, Instagram is great, but know that there is a difference between the fleeting images we scroll past every day and a photograph that is able to keep our attention and that we want to keep looking at again and again. Keep it fun and personal, and you will always find new ways to make new photographs.
DM: What do you think is the most common misconception people have about photography?
EP: There are many! But my favorite quote about this would be “Photography is a foreign language that everyone thinks they speak” (slightly modified from Philip-Lorca di Corcia) It is typical to see a photograph of something and assume that you are looking at that thing itself, but it’s just a photograph, and something is different. The most interesting photographs will challenge this and keep you guessing a bit at what you are ‘seeing’. Photography is a complicated medium, more than you might realize at first. What we see is not always what [we] get when it comes to photographs. There are ways to push beyond the limits and tell new stories that we haven’t even imagined yet.
DM: How do you decide on the subject matter of a given collection, exhibition, or book?
EP: The beauty (and challenge) of photography is that you can deal with multiple subjects and ideas at the same time, so it’s easy to layer things. The subject matter for me usually starts with a certain place, or time, or a vague feeling that I can’t quite shake, and it branches out from there. Sometimes “subject matter” is a little over-rated, and doesn’t have to be something obvious or easily definable. Questioning what is worthy subject matter and how you can deal with different ideas in photography is half the fun to me.
DM: Which other artists have influenced you most?
EP: There are too many to list! But lately I have been looking back and learning more about the incredible work of Robert Adams, Walker Evans, and Eugene Atget. I have also been very inspired by recent Japanese photography, especially the work of Koji Onaka, Rinko Kawauchi, [and] Yoshinori Mizutani.
DM: What do you try to communicate in your photos?
EP: For me the idea that photographs could give us a way to look at the world, and maybe even imagine how things look from a different perspective, is exciting. The feeling that photographs can show us a world frozen in time is very interesting to me. I am also interested in the basic “record-keeping” aspect of photography, recording scenes of the world as they appear today, knowing that they will change and look surprisingly different over time.
DM: What are your motivations when taking photographs?
EP: When I am outside walking or biking around I am just looking. I try to respond to the world as it presents itself to me and not impose my own ideas onto the world. In this way taking photographs is a bit like fishing, where you are simply hoping to catch something, although you don’t know ahead of time what it might be. (And it may be just a shoe!)
DM: Where do you think your most interesting photographs have come from?
EP: I think the best photographs represent a combination of personal vision and the motivations of the one making them. Anyone can make a great photograph today, so the trick is figuring out how to do so in a personal way consistently and to imprint your ideas into the photographs in other ways. Learning how to decide to organize and arrange your photographs is an important part of that. For me the most interesting photographs somehow defy our expectations, even when they seem to be ‘normal’ or showing us something that we think we already know. The subtle nature of how photographs can reveal aspects of our world and encourage our minds to wander is a valuable experience.
DM: Why do you choose not to take many photographs of people?
EP: I have always been more interested in the background and atmosphere of things, I suppose. I like to think about all the things that a city or any place consists of, and while humans might be the most obvious part, they are certainly not the only part. So I tend to focus on architecture, landscape, animals, and other objects and things that one might encounter in places that also shape our experience of the city and share space with us. I try to pay attention enough [to] these other things to give them some weight as well.
DM: Why did you choose to live in Pittsburgh?
EP: I grew up in Johnstown, so the winding streets and zig-zagging hills and hollows of Western Pennsylvania feel like home to me. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to live in a few different places (California, New York, Michigan) which helped me appreciate what makes this area unique. Pittsburgh feels like a city in the middle of a forest, which I love. And being able to live someplace comfortable that is also somewhat affordable is very important. This has allowed me to dedicate more of my time to my photography.