Craig Semetko is an American street photographer whose book Unposed, published in 2010, announced a sensibility that was one part oxygenated fresh air, one part laughing gas. In the best tradition of Elliott Erwitt, who wrote its forward, or even Joel Sternfeld, Semetko is blessed with a great eye, a wonderful sense of humor, and enormous luck. For only luck can explain how a photographer with his point of view could have found, on a Parisian street, a man walking toward him, as he described it in a wonderful talk at the Leica Store in DC this afternoon, “with what looked like a tampon coming out of his nose.”
As for the great eye, Semetko’s mantra can be remembered as D.I.E., with the first letter standing for design. Like his hero Cartier-Bresson, Semetko understands that the action that takes place in front of him will rise to the level of art if it is captured inside well-ordered dimensions and lines. The second letter stands for information — what the image is telling you. And the third stands for emotion, which often as not in his work, is humor.
It makes sense that humor suffuses so many of his images, because — like another wonderful contemporary Leica photographer, William Palank, who picked up a Leica and embarked, mid-life, on a second career — Semetko came to photography late. You see, he had established himself as a comic, mostly working corporate events. His prior career trained him to stand before a crowd and entertain them, as he did today at the Leica Store. But it gave him something more: an ability to capture visual puns, like his image from Unposed that shows a boy selling balloons as a woman with quite large breasts walks into the frame.
Today Craig showed work from his new project, “E Pluribus Unum, which has sent him on the American road, like a modern Robert Frank, capturing all the grit, glory, and absurdity of America today. Photographically, his new work, mostly in color, shows enormous growth and greater depth than Unposed. He’s partly exchanged his signature humor for something deeper, and more meaningful. The project is far from complete, and you can support it, like those of us at Tulip Frenzy have, by going to his Kickstarter page and chipping in. If you do, consider yourself a patron of the arts, for art it is that Semetko’s serving, even as he makes you laugh.
Final note: The Leica Store is hosting Semetko tonight as part of its support for Fotoweek D.C. Fotoweek D.C. is a Washington institution that stretches over a week each November. The Leica Store D.C. has, in just a few short months, insinuated itself into the cultural life of D.C. not simply as a purveyor of high-end photography gear, but as a genuine community center for anyone interested in photography. Today’s talk by Craig Semetko is just one of many such free events they’ve hosted since they opened in May, and we are grateful for it, and for them.