Arts in New York City: Baruch College, Fall 2008, Professor Roslyn Bernstein
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Jeff Mermelstein

Jeff Mermelstein is a street photographer, who prefers the title photojournalist.  He is not comfortable with the title street photographer because it implies different things to different people. Since he was five years old, he had a strong and vigorous interest in colors.  When he was 20, he fell in love with color photography. “Working in color is an additional ingredient in the juggling act of making an interesting photograph.” He is very interested in surprise and what one cannot anticipate, or plan. The literal proximity in which he has made most of his work is on the streets of NY, although he was quite prolific outside of NY as well. The American social content in general interests him, but he “just happens to live in NY.”
When Jeff Mermelstein first began taking photographs, Asbury Park, a place under the NJ shoreline, became a vicinity for him to think about who he was. He took many trips there to explore his interests and figure out his identity as a photographer. It was a significant stepping-stone for him in terms of his evolution as an artist. What drew him there was the abundance of bizarre people, vivid colors, and strange things. Many of the slides that we saw were very interesting, and even funny because some of the things in the picture were not intended, and happened purely by accident (or luck). He told us which kind of camera he uses and the lens he likes. He had an automatic focus camera “1 Touch.” It was quicker and looser than the film cameras.  It had an energized, free flowing approach. Jeff Mermelstein uses 35 mm lens, usually standing 5-10 ft. away from his subjects. Now he uses a Leica camera, and a Canon film camera. He thinks it’s always a “great experience to go without looking through the view finder.” In some ways, I believe that is the best method to take pictures. It’s not the typical, traditional approach to picture taking. That’s another thing that made his photographs interesting to look at, he is not trying to get his subjects’ attention and he just photographs what he sees. In some ways, just like Diane Arbus’ work, it brings out the real people, the person’s most true self.

Then a question about privacy rights arose. Technically, you are entitled to photograph people on the streets with the intent to use them for art. Although it has gotten more paranoiac the last few years because of the terrorist threats and the misuse of photographs, Mr. Mermelstein still walks around the city and takes pictures.

When asked if he uses photoshop to edit his photographs, he responds with “I’m a dinosaur.” He doesn’t know how to use photoshop, he doesn’t even have it. “I’m interested in the realism of pictures.”  He wants to catch soulfulness and realism in pictures and thus never crops or edits. I really respect him for this because I feel like in a lot of today’s artwork, many artists rely too much on technology. In some ways, so much, that it becomes a debate about whether to consider it art or not.

Jeff Mermelstein feels comfortable with thinking of himself as taking pictures of anything and everything at all times. He urges us not to be discouraged in photographing some theme in particular, i.e., men or redheads. I really enjoyed this class visit by such a great photographer. Not only does he take great pictures, he is also very funny. Now I am motivated to go out into the streets of NY and photograph anything and everything!

1 comment

1 Yuriy Minchuk { 12.12.08 at 8:33 pm }

I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who was inspired and motivated by Jeff Mermelstein to go out and take photographs. I also enjoyed his sense of humor during the class visit. Great job!