Thursday, August 13, 2009

PP's Photographer in the Spotlight:

Matt Heidelberger

Most people shun urban blight. They're accustomed to how things are supposed to look, so they see no art -- or potential for art -- in such things as abandoned homes, broken windows, rotting trees, unkept foliage and piles of debris.

Matt Heidelberger is an exception, and for almost a year now he has been developing an ongoing

project to photograph Indianapolis, mostly in the one-mile-square area of Downtown, and posting his images on his blog called The Heidelberger Papers. Heidelberger, 28, calls Indianapolis his hometown, a place he has lived most of his life. "I first attended school at Ivy Tech, then on to IUPUI, and would eventually like to receive more certifications in systems engineering and programming," he said.

Heidelberger has no qualms about what time of day he hits the streets to do his photography. He'll go after a shot day or night, and a good number of his shots, indeed, have been taken after dark. He also is among 648 people who submitted images to the CaptureIndy project, a book-publishing endeavor driven by The Indianapolis Star to collect images from area photographers that best represent the community.

When he's not out looking for a new photo subject, Heidelberger works as a systems programmer at the City-County Building. Besides photography, Heidelberger also enjoys film, music, reading and biking -- and researching "whatever interests me at the time." He has two cats.

Matt, when and how did you get into photography and what was it about the craft that pulled you into it earnest? Did you do a lot of shooting in film and/or do your own darkroom work?

I’m still very new to the world of photography. I’ve always enjoyed taking pictures

of locations and items as a method to document my experiences, but it's only been a little over a year since I believe that my pictures evolved into photographs. The constant discovery of both new locations that I shoot and the continued development of my abilities as a photographer, is what pulled me in and keeps me involved with the craft.

I have spent very little time in a darkroom, but I do enjoy the process. I kind of missed the boat on film photography so I find myself entrenched in digital.

Are there any prominent photographers you count as favorites or inspirations?

I really don’t have any formal education in photography or engaged in formal study, so my knowledge of historical photographers is limited. I do possess much more knowledge in classic cinema, which has served as a strong inspiration. Much of my black-and-white night shots are influenced by the lighting and focusing techniques used by films of the Noir period from the early '40s. to the mid-'50s. I am also a fan of 1970s cinema, so my grainy/gritty, low-saturation urbanscene shots are in part inspired by films like The French Connection, which in my opinion is beautifully shot.

You have an ongoing project to document photographically the one-square-mile area surrounding the heart of Downtown Indianapolis, and you publish your work on a Web site/photo blog called The Heidelberger Papers. Talk to me a little about the project. Is the way you approach it now the same as it was when you started, or did it evolve over time? Do you have a system on what or where to shoot? Or is it largely random? Do you have an organizational system to track everything you've shot and/or what else is out there to shoot?

I have lived in and around Indianapolis for all of my life and even since I was a child have been fascinated by it. At the age of 10, I was already studying various maps of the city, my favorite being an old map from 1962, and learning thevarious changes that have occurred to present. I’ve always been interested in exploring, but The Heidelberger Papers was naturally born as my interest in photography developed (no pun intended here). Indianapolis has a very active blogging community with a strong interest in many aspects of Indianapolis of which I follow closely. This was where the idea of using a blog as a medium came to be.

The Heidelberger Papers has evolved drastically since its creation in October 2008. It started more as a blog of observing Indianapolis (surrounding architecture, people/culture, etc.), then evolved into a much more active project of exploring as much of the inner workings of Indianapolis as I can find. I usually mix how I plan my shoots. Some of the material I shoot are places that I know very well and just wish to share with other people. Others are random, unfamiliar places I survey, scout, and then explore. A large amount of my work on The Heidelberger Papers is from either the south or east sides of Indianapolis. The reason for this is quite practical: I have lived for years on both those sides of town and know them very well.

I carry enough details in my mind to remember areas I have been. It's quite funny actually; I frequently forget the most rudimentary details of my life (e.g., phone numbers, passwords or the last whereabouts of my keys) but could visually draw you a map of Marion County and much of its surrounding counties and share anecdotes about my visits to the places on that map.

The Heidelberger Papers moniker is a clever adoption of the famous immunologist's research papers. Are you any relation to Michael Heidelberger, by chance?

While I’m related to a Michael Heidelberger, I’m not related to the immunologist Michael Heidelberger. The blog title was influenced in part by the work of Michael Heidelberger even if I couldn’t tell you much about antigens, antibodies or the immune system. LOL

A lot of your shots in The Heidelberger Papers project are taken at night. What is like to shoot so much at night? I've seen references in your blog to how occasionally you'll get stopped by police, probably because to them you're acting suspicious. Is that a pretty innocent check on their

part to make sure you're not engaged in anything criminal? Do they "get" the pursuit of your craft as you explained it to them? Or have there been some uncomfortable confrontations?

I would have to say that night photography is my favorite type of photography, even though it can be a pain. It requires more planning, and usually more equipment, but you have more control over the mood of your shot, in my opinion. The risks for confrontations involved are obvious: Hauling more than a grand and a half worth of photography equipment into dark conditions makes you a little more aware of your surroundings. That being said, I’m still pretty comfortable doing it. I have had some incidents where I’ve run into trouble or have seen things that have disturbed me. I have encountered people who just seem to object to cameras in general and get hostile and stumbled upon people doing various illegal substances while walking on railroad tracks. I have been stopped and questioned by the curious members of local law enforcement, but nothing further than curiosity.

Once, I thought I was possibly in trouble when I was stopped by a CSX transit officer for walking on the railroad tracks on the east side of Indy, an incident I escaped from with only a verbal warning. On another recent occasion, a woman sitting on a porch in a neighborhood near Fountain Square starting giving me a hard time about taking pictures of the area. These incidents usually follow a common formula. They ask why I’m taking pictures, I answer them, but they aren’t usually interested in an explanation. Sometimes they threaten to call the police as if law enforcement serves as their own personal security service. At this point, you can only remind them that you’re not breaking the law.

Based on your experiences with your night shots, what advice would you give to other photographers who would be interested in doing more of that kind of photography? Do you often do much prep work -- do you call ahead anytime to make sure there's no hassle, for example? Have you drafted a mental "plan" to deal with seedy sort you might encounter along the way? Do you have a workable plan to explain your hobby to police when they stop you to inquire?

The first bit of advice I would give to someone wishing to explore night photography is to bring the correct equipment or you trip out will be a bust. I suppose like most other photographic settings, be prepared to take several shots and be happy only with a few. Most of the areas I visit don’t really have a representative I can call up and give a heads up about my presence. It should be noted, however, that most of the issues I’ve had with people objecting to me being around, law enforcement or otherwise, have occurred during the day. I have the benefit of being large in stature (6'4" and just under 300 lbs.), which may deter some people from seeing me as a potential "mark." If I am approached, I usually will carry myself in a friendly, yet confident, non-intimidating manner. If that fails, my monopod has a consistency similar to a large maglite and can serve as an effectivemeans of defense. If I am approached by the police at night, I will explain to them what I am doing, but regardless, they are going to ask you to move along.

What about the general public? Surely they've seen you out there shooting things apparently at random? Do they stop to question you, and or/give you any hassle? How do you deal with that? Do you have a sense of what kind (volumewise) of following you have? You do tend to get a nice number of comments on a lot of your images.

Urban photography inevitably puts you in personal contact with people, sometimes more than what’s comfortable. My encounters with people vary; some can feel nothing but suspicion, others are just baffled about the "why" (“why would you want to photograph that ugly old thing?”), others are intrigued and inform me of other photographic opportunities in the area.

I don’t exactly know the size of my following; the indicators I have are mainly in the form of blog hits (a weekly average of about 70 views/day as of 8/3/09) and Flickr views and comments. I’ve been active in the online world for only a little less than a year, and my following is steadily growing.

I really appreciate the comments I receive on my images. I have a tendency to be extremely critical of my own work while being impressed with the work of others. When I receive a nice comment about my work, it lets me know my development is headed in the right direction.

What kind of equipment do you use? Anything special for the night shots you compose? Do you have many "favorites" among all the images you've captured along the way in your project?

My equipment base is rather modest. I have two cameras: a Canon Rebel XSi and a Panasonic DMC-TZ25. The majority of my photos are taken with the Canon, but there are times when a camera like that is impractical, then I bring along my Panasonic point- and-shoot. I have three Canon lenses: the EF-S 18-55mm, EF-S 55-250mm, EF 50mm f/1.8 prime.

My night shots are usually taken while braced on a tripod, monopod, but most likely, up against the nearest utility pole or street sign. I don’t typically use my 250mm telephoto for night shots, as lighting issues make things tricky. My 50mm f/1.8 lens, although the cheapest I own, works really well for shooting low-light shots.

My favorite image to date probably is a night shot (right) I took in a dark alleyway in the St. Joseph Neighborhood, just north of downtown. It had just stopped raining about an hour before. The light at the "end" of the shot is the Central Library.

How much time is required to keep your project going? Is that a priority among your photography endeavors? I guess what I'm wondering is ... do you enjoy any other types of photography, and do you have much time to spend on those after tending to your expectations/goals of The Heidelberger Papers project?

Currently, The Heidelberger Papers does dominate my time dedicated to photography and much of my personal life. Most of the other photos I take outside Indianapolis are acquired out of a coincidental opportunity. I do enjoy photographing people and events, but I find that to be much more of a challenge for me (you don’t have to interact and instruct a bridge or building).

How important is feedback in your photography -- whether it's The Heidelberger Papers or other work you do outside of that?

I do enjoy it when I hear that other people enjoy my work. I also enjoy receiving helpful feedback from more experienced photographers than myself. The comments on The Heidelberger Papers have been extremely helpful in other ways as well. For instance, I would do a post featuring a landmark, and a comment would be made comparing it to another location. This, in turn, would lead me to explore that area for a future post. Aside from The Heidelberger Papers, I am quite active on Flickr, which to my surprise, fans of my work there are not really acquainted with my blog, and vice versa.

You're a contributor to the CaptureIndy project -- the development of an illustrative book of Indianapolis presented by The Indianapolis Star. How do you decide what to nominate for inclusion in that? Are you enjoying any side benefits of the exposure your work is getting as a result of so many people seeing your work (other than this interview, I mean)?

I chose to submit some of my personal favorites of locations that I felt not many other participants would post. I have noticed higher blog traffic since I began participating in CaptureIndy (especially in the first few weeks) and have discovered other participants’ work on Flickr.

Have you ever had any of your work on display in a public gallery? Have you ever sold any of your work? How was/were that experiences(s) and what was it like for you? Would you like to experience more of that ... and/or do you consider that a goal -- short-term or long-term -- at some point?

I’ve never had my work displayed publicly, except my blog, of course. I have sold only a few prints of my work, but they were definitely gratifying. I can’t quit my day job, but it’s a rewarding feeling to know someone is interested enough in your work to purchase it.

Check out:

Matt's Web site, The Heidelberger Papers

Matt's photo stream at Flickr

Matt's page at CaptureIndy

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