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Accidental photographer: Making pictures of 'our own personal little gods'

Seymour Templar

Seymour Templar

Seymour Templar’s work has been published in numerous online publications, but this New York-based photographer is genuinely humble about his photographic beginnings, referring to himself as an "accidental photographer." He says that much of what he knows about photography he learned from other photographers on Flickr.

“Digital photography also has been a good teacher, allowing me to try things out without second thoughts before being emboldened enough to try medium format and emulsions (film)," said Templar.

I recently spoke with him about his recent project called Social Light. Below are highlights from our conversation.


Seymour Templar

Seymour Templar

Q: Where did the idea for Social Light originate?

A: The series came about quite naturally, after noticing that I started to have a few photos with this curious, unusual light on people's face, at night. I have always liked moving between being a participant and an observer. After noticing the emerging trend, I started paying a bit more attention to it, but it's only after a dozen or so images that the sociological meaning of that specific activity became apparent to everyone.

Q: How long have you been shooting this series, and how did you create these images?

A: (I) think it has only been a month or two, even if I probably have shot something accidentally that would fit in the series. I used to shoot mostly during the day, on breaks from my daytime job, but recently I have been busy and had only nights to shoot for my own pleasure. I have this wonderful camera that allows me to make images in a very unobstructive way, in low, low light, and automatically searched for subjects in interesting lights. I was instinctively attracted to that intimate light provided by these smartphones.

Q: You mentioned being unobstructive. Has anyone ever told you not to photograph them?

A: It's been extremely rare, maybe once in a thousand times. I usually do not disrupt any ongoing interaction, but often seek visual acknowledgement the person photographed is aware (though after the fact) that I took a photo. Most time they are very interested in the reasons I would take their photo, and curious about the result, and even then ask me to take a straight portrait, but I have never been asked to delete an image. Sometimes the bar or club I am in asks me to not take photographs, and that's fine.

I have been asked that question hundreds of time. I think the photographer's demeanor is crucial: I am respectful, engaging and therefore free to do as I wish. I am lucky this way. I am grateful people let me do my thing without fear. It took a lot of courage when I started photographing people, because I am fairly shy, but the camera, the project provides a buffer, a connection.

Seymour Templar

Q: What are you ultimately trying to capture with your Social Light series?

 A: I was first attracted by the "dramatic" lighting provided by the smartphones: the down-side-up glow is both reminiscent of a certain light found in old paintings, like in some Toulouse Lautrec or Monet or even in the Italian Chiaroscurists, as well as the way it isolates and emphasizes a face. There is nothing I could do to not be attracted to these correlations. The sociological aspect, the social commentary came as a result, as it became clear that it was more than just pretty lights. The fairly new activity of constantly checking our phones, I mean ascertaining our dual existence, both in real life and in the virtual world of social networks, switching from the people present in flesh and blood and the uninterrupted conversation with "friends" we have across time zones and borders, is an interesting phenomenon. I was first stunned by the faculty we have to isolate ourselves for a few seconds in the middle of a loud, crowded bar, and immediately become oblivious of our surrounding, letting candidly the virtual world reflect on our faces. The social masks fall for a fleeting moment, and our pleasure, our worries or sorrows, show for anyone to see. That is the moment I am trying to capture. I see people's soul.

Seymour Templar

Q: I understand you went to school to be a painter. Tell us about your background and what you do currently?

A: I studied Fine Arts in Brussels, Belgium, and all my life I have kept a practice in painting. When I moved to New York in 1992, I was literally shocked by the commercialism in the art milieu, and instead started making furniture in my studio, abandoning the idea of making a living with painting. I then became a design director for a home furnishing company, which I left early this year, when photography became so important in my life.

 Q: Is there anything else you'd like to add that I haven't asked?

A: I was talking about it to someone in Tel Aviv during a recent interview, and she said something interesting. I am not sure I understood correctly but she compared these phone lights to the kind of light found in churches, and that we treat our phones like little personal gods. We pray to them, we tell them our secrets, our hopes. I love that comparison: our own personal little gods.

To see more of Seymour's work, please visit his website.

If you are an emerging photographer with interesting photo projects, I'd like to hear from you. Please send me a link and a brief description to your work at Twitter @jameschengmsnbc