Olga Ginzburg

We all know the feeling of returning to a place we used to know well; that strange mix of familiarity and newness when our memory, as clear as day, collides with the reality seen through our eyes. Many of us as photographers have trodden down the path of retracing our steps: to see how things have changed, to reacquaint ourselves, to rediscover it as new.

We spoke with Belarus-born and New York-based street and documentary photographer Olga Ginzburg, who regales us with an account of her fascinating and undulating history and exactly how it was that she was introduced to photography. Feature are Ginzburg’s intriguing, cheeky, warming photographs of Staten Island and its people — a curious self-reflection on her own return to a home she had been trying to move away from.

Read the full interview below:

Tell us about yourself.

I was born in Belarus. When I was a child, my family and I emigrated to New York several years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Currently, I work as an editorial assistant at a newspaper. The kind of meaningful work I hope to engage in and aspire to do full-time is visual storytelling, particularly for the publications that I myself have always looked to to both deepen and widen my understanding of our world.

I’m into so many different things and increasingly find myself seeking out contemporary work when I go on gallery and museum crawls; however, the work that I make might be considered fairly traditional. I don’t entirely mind as I think that I’m working within a long tradition.

I’m still passionate about the kinds of things that originally drew me to (street) photography — fleeting gestures, ambiguous glances, glimpsed narratives… I guess what you would call the transitory nature of life. It’s meaningful to me to observe people and try, without judgement, to understand how others exist in the world.

What’s your story?

I recall coming upon a Helen Levitt quote years ago where she said that she’d always wanted to be an artist and settled on photography because she couldn’t draw. When Patti Smith was young, she prayed that she had it in her to become an artist though she hadn’t yet had any proof that her sensibility would tangibly translate into art-making.

These are the women I looked up to and drew inspiration from, and still do. It never occurred to me that I would not somehow be involved in the arts, even when I didn’t have much direction. Particularly in school, I’d make pronouncements and intensely commit myself to an area of study, only to move on when I either got bored or the skills needed to master that particular craft proved to be too difficult and time-consuming.

I bounced around from one art school to the next, from interior to product design and few other things in-between, until the inevitable occurred and I dropped out. Around this time I met and fell in love with an older painter. His home, which would become our home and remain so for nine years, was crammed full of art, literature, stacks of films, a handful of photography books and a couple of very old cameras.

I think this is when my real education began. In time, without realising it, I started to look at the world differently. I became more curious and observant. I walked around imbued with Kertész’s lyricism, Brassaï’s misty romanticism, Winogrand’s bravado and sense of the absurd, [Boris] Mikhailov’s irony, [Milton] Rogovin’s humanity, Frank’s unsentimental poetry etc.

By the time I finally enrolled in my first photography course, a traditional analogue colour class at The Cooper Union, I’d already spent several years studying the history of the medium and committed myself to it without having really taken any photographs. I remember feeling completely terrified, not knowing if I could make even a single image that would hold some kind of meaning.

You call yourself a street and documentary photographer — what is it about the street that draws you to it, to photograph and document it?

Although I’m a rather solitary individual, the paradox for me is that I really enjoy navigating places that are full of hundreds of overlapping narratives — give me a crowded rush-hour subway ride any day!

I’m thrilled by chance encounters and also curious about the ways in which people conduct themselves in public spaces, even at times when they think that no one’s watching — but this is just a part of my practice. As a documentary photographer, I’m not so interested in being a fly-on-the-wall but really seek to engage with the people and the communities that I’m drawn to, which I often become emotionally invested in.

What is your motivation behind capturing all these images? Is it simply a way to record things, a sort of visual diary, or something more?

I moved back home to Staten Island not long after I (finally!) completed my studies. It was a very difficult to decision to make having spent the entirety of my adult life in the city, in Manhattan, as well as some time abroad. And I was ambivalent about many things; I was back in a place I had essentially spent years running from, not to mention that I was quite literally back in my teenage bedroom. I began to photograph Staten Island not only as a way to reacquaint myself with it but also to get to know it in a way I never cared to when I was younger.

I live just a stone’s throw from the ocean and yet I don’t recall ever taking a walk along the water, savouring the expanse of the sea, the briny air, the quietude, as I do now. The tight-knit community along the water, largely comprised of charming old bungalows, was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy and even after five years many homes remain withered and vacant.

When I first started coming around last year some people wondered if I worked for a bank, there to appraise property values, while others asked if I was with the local paper, working on an assignment. As far as working for a bank, I thought that was such a strange assumption to make given my appearance (slightly dishevelled hipster-ish hair and clothes, an old film camera at my side). Nonetheless, it remained clear to me that I was an outlier. It didn’t feel very good and I longed to be accepted, particularly since my family has lived in the area for years, but these things take time. At least folks took notice of me and I’ve been having interesting conversations and experiences since.

Have there been any moments you’ve had while photographing which stick out?

So many moments stand out for me, moments that usually involved a conversation I was able to have because I approached someone with the hope of taking their photograph, or maybe I myself was approached by someone who was curious about me; the camera as a conduit for human connection is something I find to be quite wonderful.

For the sake of an example, I recently quelled the urge to dart off into the city on a day off and instead chose to stay local and take a walk along the South Shore. About halfway through my walk, I saw something I hadn’t seen before: a man sitting in a beach chair on the sand, underneath some brush, carefully cleaning his large gleaming silver hookah.

All of his things were laid out on a rug and the scene gave the impression that I was glimpsing a pleasurable private moment — one that I’ve only ever seen in the intimacy of someone’s home. There was almost something ritualistic about the care he was taking with his pipe. I stood there awhile, transfixed, wondering whether I should say hello or keep my distance and not wanting to impose.

Luckily he got up to retrieve something from his car and as he walked past he commented on my camera. We did end up falling into a conversation when he returned, which makes me very glad that I hung around. His name was Said and he was from Egypt, though he’s of Lebanese descent, and he came here to study civil engineering on a work-study program.

He took great interest in my educational background and I asked him about his family of who he spoke passionately about, ultimately noting what he saw as major cultural differences between the Middle East and the States, with regard to family dynamics. We spoke of other things too and when I felt that it was time for me to go, wanting for him to enjoy the bit of solitude he permits himself once a week, I could sense that he really wanted to give me something so I could share in his small bounty.

I politely declined the hookah. After rifling through his bag, Said handed me a small juice packet — undoubtedly something he keeps on hand because he has young children. It may have been a small gesture, but it meant a lot and I gladly accepted.

What are you up to next?

I would love for this body of work to have some meaning and value, and not just for me but for others as well. Having the photographs and stories eventually collected into a book would mean a great deal to me, but this is just the beginning and there’s much more work to be done.

Talking to you about it is quite valuable for me, in part because it makes me pause and reflect but also because I don’t really have the answers yet. It might make more sense if I had more structure,and a clearer idea of what and how I want to continue to make photographs, yet at the same time I don’t really want to have preconceived notions about the things that I should be photographing.

I want to hold onto an element of surprise and discovery. The camera I choose to leave the house with is also not entirely insignificant, and does have some impact on how I view and frame things. I’ve made some interesting photographs with my DSLR and sometimes find that I’m a little freer and more experimental with it. But I do think that I tend to be a bit more meditative with a film camera on hand, which is what I crave when I take long walks in the neighbourhood or visit parts of the Island that I’m unfamiliar with. When I can’t photograph or don’t have my camera with me for whatever reason, I record bits of conversation that I overhear and observations that I might have. I’m curious to see how all the various elements will come together, but I’m not in a hurry and I’m not yet looking to have a clear path; just an open mind.

There are some other fun things that I’m currently thinking about and working on. For example, my mother saved some of my things from my childhood and adolescence, which I discovered in a box in my bedroom closet when I moved back home. Of course it was nice to look at things I hadn’t seen or thought about in years, and some I may not have even remembered had they not been saved, but I also think about how these ‘rediscovered’ mementos were chosen seemingly arbitrarily and now it feels like a chunk of my life has been curated and distilled into this small box of stuff. I’ve been playing around with ways in which I photograph these objects (some of them admittedly embarrassing!), and it may be fun to make a little book.

What’s on your recommended reading/watching/listening list?

There’s an unending stream of excellent work being made across so many platforms — I’m utterly humbled when I think about this — but there are some things that have been particularly important to me this year which I’d highly recommend:

Watching:

Andrew Haigh’s devastating film 45 Years about looking back on one’s life with a measure of regret, brought on by the sudden unravelling of long-held beliefs and certainties; Tomas Leach’s In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life, a quietly stirring documentary on the inimitable Saul Leiter; Kenneth Lonnergan’s Margaret, a profound, not to mention visually stunning, meditation on life’s utter randomness and the ways in which people grapple with meaning in the face of an upended world; Aziz Ansari’s Master of None — I don’t watch very much television but I fell in love with his second season, where essentially every half-hour episode has its own visual language (with a big nod to cinema), and has the scope and feel of a short film.

Reading:

Ron Padgett’s poem How to be Perfect, it is just that — perfect; David Sedaris’ collection of his diary entries spanning more than three decades, aptly titled Theft By Finding. Sedaris has fine-tuned my ears in ways that others have trained my eyes. Patti Smith’s latest, a small gem-like book titled Devotion, which comprises of essays, photographs, a short story and poetry. This book is about the act of creation, and in it she shows how small bursts of light can form into a radiant constellation.

Listening:

I’ve been indulging in quite a bit of dreamy indie on my long commute to work and these are some current favorites: Joseph of Mercury’s Without Words; Hamilton Leithauser’s Heartstruck (Wild Hunger); Destroyer’s Tinseltown Swimming in Blood; and also, sometimes in the morning I like to listen to a recording of David Foster Wallace giving the commencement speech This is Water. It reminds me of the things that are most important.

Finally, tell us about one artist who is currently inspiring you and why.

The artist and photographer Stacy Kranitz is someone I think about often. I am absolutely astounded by the breadth and depth of her work. Kranitz uses the language of documentary to explore concepts of identity, both individual and within the larger context of community while also acknowledging the limitations of photographic representation.

The subjective nature of her work is meant to be self-referential, and questions the role of the photographer while also implicating the viewer; I think one of the biggest reasons that I’m so incredibly inspired by her is that she makes me question my intentions.

Another is that, simply put, her photographs are undeniably, breathtakingly beautiful. They can be, in equal measure: ambiguous, voyeuristic, aestheticised, brazen, poetic, tender, human. Taken as a whole, her work is like a Baroque opera by way of Appalachia.

A major body of work that I come back to often is Don’t Drop the Potato. As she states in the introduction, ‘This work does not attempt to summarise Louisiana as a “place”, “community”, “state” or “region”. It instead resides as an intimate record of small, often marginal, struggles for presence.”’

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