Mark Wyss is a street photographer from Switzerland and one of the founding members of swissstreetcollective. Today we wanted to have a word with him, to get to know him and learn about some of his views on street photography and his creative process. You will find his social media links below the article.
“The enlightened” © Mark Wyss, Bern 2019
My photos did not tell a story. (…) I finally made the decision to get intensively involved with storytelling through street photography.
Mark, what was first in your profession, the pen or the camera? Or is it a marriage that always depended on each other?
In my case the two things are closely connected. During my studies at the university I had the opportunity to take photos as a newspaper freelancer. Experiencing the daily newspaper business through this part-time job was one of the reasons why I started to work as a journalist after graduation. My everyday life became a mix of writing and taking photos. Today I work as a copywriter and photographer for education / teaching. And I would like mention one additional thing: you have introduced me as a professional writer and photographer. I have never completed an education as a photographer. Therefore I see myself as a professional writer who loves to take photos as well and has the luck to earn money with his hobby every now and then.
When was the first time you thought about street photography? How did you start with it?
It is impossible to determine an exact point of time. Even during my work as a photography freelancer I was much more interested in unstaged situations. I was fascinated by the expressiveness of the photos of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, Vivian Maier and other icons. For me, those photographers created poetry without using any words. For this reason I have tried again and again to take street photos, for example during vacations. With little success. Back then, my photos did not tell a story. About four years ago, I finally made the decision to get intensively involved with storytelling through street photography.
Black and white photography is the perfect way for me to focus on the essence of a moment with as little distraction as possible.
Now you shoot in black and white. That probably trains the eye in a much different way than for example I train my own eyes. I always wanted to achieve the “eye” for black and white street photography. So, what is the reason for you to shoot exclusively in black and white?
I sometimes have the feeling that the wires in my brain never got a high speed upgrade. What I mean is that I might get sensory overload by too many external stimuli. And also holds true in photography. Black and white photography is the perfect way for me to focus on the essence of a moment with as little distraction as possible. In addition, a black and white photo bores me less quickly than a color one.
“Gotham City” © Mark Wyss, Zürich 2020
What would be your advice for someone who wants to try to shoot black and white, who like me, is more used to color?
Honestly: leave it. Keep on taking color photos. This may sound a bit strange. But in the recent past, I think black and white street photography has really exploded. I estimate that eight out of ten street photographers shoot in black and white. I suspect that many beginners decide to take black and white photos because they think the photos get additional artistic value by the lack of color. They take photos of nearly everyone and everything they see. But if you are really interested in black and white street photography, you have to delete many, not all, of your ideas about compositions. So don’t try to photograph your ideas just in black and white, try to create different ideas. Certain things that worked in color may no longer work. You do not have the ability to direct the eyes of the viewer with colors. Black and white is often about lights, shades and contrast.
You shoot in various cities in Switzerland. So you have a very special point of view. Can you compare let us say Basel and Zurich? Is there an obvious difference when shooting on the streets?
It is. In the last four years I have regularly taken photos in eight different Swiss cities. None is like the other. Apart from obvious differences concerning the built environment and the light situations, it is primarily the people who are different. How they are dressed. How they act. How attentive they are. I really do not want to use clichés. But let us take your example: in my eyes people from Zurich are a little more absorbed in thoughts compared to people from Basel. Many of them wear headphones. People with cameras are perceived as tourists. Besides, very elegantly dressed people walk around in Zurich. The financial center is very visible. But it often feels somewhat uniformed. In Basel things are a bit more colorful. There are also elegant people walking around, but somehow more individual, sometimes more artsy. There are hundreds of more examples. But I have to mention that this is just my personal opinion.
There are no right and wrong perspectives. Therefore people should dare to show their own view of things in their photos.
One of the questions that are always popular is the question of the influences. What are yours, if you have any?
As I said, I love the famous street photographers from former times, especially Elliott Erwitt. Photos like Erwitt’s are the reason why I have such a passion for street photography. But I would not call it “influences”. From the beginning it was important to me not to copy the style of someone else, but to develop my own personal style. I often find it a pity when people copy others too much and neglect their own view of something. There are no right and wrong perspectives. Therefore people should dare to show their own view of things in the photos. Not from a visual criterion, but from a content criterion I am especially influenced by those street photographers who manage to capture humor in their photos. For me this is one of the most difficult and at the same time most beautiful things in street photography. I automatically think of my dear London colleague Alan Burles, a master of humorous street photography.
“The Devil Is In The Details” © Mark Wyss, Basel 2020
I do not want to take photos, I want to tell stories.
People who are familiar with your work know you shoot preferably in landscape format. Obviously with great success, but is there any particular reason for that? A clear plan to do it like that or is this the result of shooting instinctively?
I do not photograph preferably in landscape format but exclusively. It is absolutely intentional. This may sound very limiting. And I do not want to take photos, I want to tell stories. For example, I do not want to use unusual focal lengths to create effects. For me, the 35 millimeter focal length (in full format) and the landscape format offer the view that most closely corresponds to how we see everyday life. And it is this everyday life that keeps the stories ready for me. Moreover it has something to do with my compulsion for order. When I imagine an exhibition of my photos, all the photos must have the same format, the same frame and they all must hang at the same height. That restricts me on the one hand. On the other hand it makes it all the easier for me to bring consistency into my work.
Interview conducted by Bastian Peter