Street-style fashion photography is in crisis; Karl-Edwin Guerre might be its savior

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

(c) 2015, The Washington Post.

NEW YORK — The street-style photographer Karl-Edwin Guerre is easy to spot in the forest of lensmen who regularly gather outside fashion shows — all of them hunting for name-brand editors sporting head-turning looks that appeared on the runway less than 12 hours earlier.

Guerre is distinct both in posture and person. He is the rare black photographer documenting the ensembles of arriving fashion show guests, gate-crashers and bystanders. When he works, Guerre eschews the familiar photographer's uniform — typically jeans and jackets chosen for storage capacity, comfort and durability. Instead, Guerre dresses with such aplomb that he cuts as striking a figure as many of his subjects.

Unlike most photographers, he prefers a long, 200-meter lens, as if he were shooting zebras on safari. Guerre has a rather distant relationship with fashion — an attitude that reflects a shift in the street-style scrum.

With New York fashion week beginning Thursday, Guerre will once again be on the street. Not every day, and not in front of every show, just a judiciously chosen few. But he will be working as he usually does: calmly, while impeccably dressed.

Guerre — which he advises is pronounced "gear" because it's just too time-consuming convincing Americans to give his surname its proper French inflection — first took a camera to the streets in 2008. Back then, the sidewalks outside shows weren't so terribly crowded. There were distinctive points-of-view. Scott Schuman captured the idiosyncratic. Garance Doré brought an artful charm. The two were honored by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2012.

Tommy Ton zeroed in on the elements of style. And the great Bill Cunningham, whose work appears in the New York Times, caught snippets of cultural transformation.

In the years since Guerre began shooting, much has changed. There's a whole class of young photographers tasked with shooting particular brands or a certain style handbag or a specific editor. Show-goers have become aggravated by the constant buzzing of shutterbugs who swarm someone simply because they see someone else clicking away. And photographers get frustrated when the young women they made famous turn peevish about having their picture taken.

There's a frenzy on the sidewalks, the streets, the pebbled pathways. But Guerre can remember when there was a kind of street photographer code of conduct. He would stand down if a more veteran photographer such as Schuman was already approaching a subject, for instance.

His art form, he says, is falling victim to sameness — too many photographers trying to get the same shot. "Street style is at risk of becoming the runway," Guerre says.

Some of the veterans have moved on or simply cut back. Ton shut down the Jak & Jil blog, which made him famous, ended his relationships with other Web sites and launched Cunningham skipped Paris. Schuman has gone global with his pictures — snapping away in Peru and South America — and will publish his third book, "The Satorialist: X," in October. And Guerre has been doing more photography and social media work for Italian brands.

Eventually he hopes to shift into filmmaking. Even now he thinks of each photograph as an image on a storyboard. But until then: the streets.

Guerre, who posts his work on his blog Guerreisms, is interested in style, not trends or fancy designer names. His eye is drawn by the well-chosen pair of shoes, a beautifully cut jacket, an African-beaded bracelet. He has never been especially attracted to famous editors. And he long ago weaned himself from pretty faces. In fact, it's not unusual for him to crop heads out of his photos. Artfully, of course.

He picked up a camera because the images he saw seemed more focused on fashion — the trends and must-have items — than on style. "They were photographing a lot of editors and I was always — whatever."

When he began, he spent a lot of time photographing women as they arrived for shows, but he shot men, too. And what he realized, mostly from feedback he received from admirers, was that he was particularly adept at photographing men. "My sense of women's style was blurred by the beauty. I couldn't differentiate between a beautiful woman and style," he says. With men, he was not distracted by faces, and he was able to focus on interesting details as well as capture them in a more journalistic way: guys in mid-conversation, striding briskly to an appointment, or simply caught up in their own world.

"Style is something that's natural. I enjoy fashion in the sense that I like new things, but for me ... to capture a person in their natural element, to me, evokes style," he says.

Guerre's own style leans towards tweed or linen jackets and elegant coats, colorful trousers and dapper hats. He might have a scarf knotted jauntily at his neck. He looks polished. He arrived at this aesthetic having grown up interested in hip-hop and later dabbling in Wall Street pinstripes. He eventually realized that his true taste lay somewhere in between.

"Casual fly," is how he describes his style, which means dressing for comfort, but friends and colleagues "can call me anytime of the day for a meeting or a party and I never have to go home and change." For Guerre, style is the equivalent of preparation and planning.

But is it practical? People have asked, "How can you shoot street style while wearing a suit?" His answer: "Because I don't run after people. I'm not paparazzi. I'm laid back and low key."

Guerre, whose parents are Haitian, was born in Brooklyn but moved around to Haiti and Michigan before returning to Brooklyn where he lives with his wife and two daughters, ages 3 and 5. By day, he is a hospital administrator — a flexible job that provides his family with health insurance while still giving him time for his artistic pursuits.

His eye for street photography wasn't honed by an interest in fashion as much as an idea that capturing individual style could have both artistic and social value. He has made a point of going to neighborhoods — like his own in Brooklyn — that were not initially part of the fashion conversation. The locations and the subjects weren't diverse, he says, because the people behind the camera weren't. "I look at the photos and try to determine if they were shot by a man or woman or whoever. There's a common thread with all the people they shoot and black (people weren't) one of the popular ones."

Guerre isn't out to make a political statement — just a social one. Fashion is a mask; it's a collection of labels and trends that people use to craft a public persona, he says. Fashion is a way of hiding one's flaws, perhaps even hiding one's true self. Style is a process of revelation. It's about laying oneself bare. It's telling a personal narrative through clothes. And for Guerre, those stories are worth capturing.

bc-fashion-photographer (TPN)