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An Interview with Paul Anater

P A Interview An Interview with Paul Anater

Paul Anater, The Man Behind #lancastergram

We sat down with local photographer, Paul Anater, on an overcast December morning at the Lancaster Train Station. He gave us insight into what inspires him and compels him to document the world around him through photography.

paul_anater Instagram.JPG Paul Anater @paul_anater
Find Paul Anater online

You've been at this a long time, how did you first connect with other Lancaster Instagrammers, following hashtags?

Yes, and just finding people through location searches. I had just moved here after having lived away for a long time and I wanted to make some local connections.

Lancaster Photographer Paul Anater Lancastergram 9 Who do you remember from that time?

Who do you remember from that time?

Yolanda and Diana Negron were very early. They were like the first two people I connected with and Kathy Howard Shaeffer connected me with Dave Berk. Dave Berk had really started serious photography around the same time that I had. Pretty early on, I started using a new hashtag I’d invented, #Lancastergram. I was using it as a way to show my friends from all over what my new life looked like in Pennsylvania. For the first six months, I was the only one who was using it. I used to search the tag and I would find like 400 photographs with that tag, all of which were mine. My nieces and nephews used to chide me about “trying to make #Lancastergram happen.” At around this same time, cities around the globe started to have live Instagram events and they were based on hashtags. #Phillygram and event to celebrate it really hit home and I thought, why not something like that here? I came up with a basic outline of a Lancastergram promotion that would allow Lancaster based Instagram users to document their lives and the whole thing would culminate with a community gallery show. My goal was twofold, I wanted to provide a forum for people who’d never have imagined seeing their work hanging in a gallery to see just that. And I wanted to make some inroads with the local advertising and marketing communities.

LancasterGram Posts about Lancaster County.JPG

I approached the Lancaster County Convention and Visitors Bureau with my idea and Kristen May on their staff jumped on my idea. And so, Lancastergram the contest was born. When we launched, we thought we’d get 800 photographs entered over a six week period if we were lucky. By the time the entry period ended we had somewhere around 7000. To call it a success is an understatement. Now when I search that hashtag there are more than 28,000 photographs tagged with #Lancastergram. I can now inform my nieces and nephews that yes, I made #Lancastergram happen. Now that there have been two successful #Lancastergram promotions with the Bureau, I’d like to turn it back into the community art event I had in mind originally.

I never liked that it was a contest so we’ll see. That’s the thing about hashtags, they belong to everybody. I’m really thrilled with how all of it turned out and I have to say that it had a really profound effect on me as a photographer and as an artist. I used to say that I needed to find my voice and #Lancastergram led me to it.

How so?

Paul Anater Street Photographer 1.JPG How so?

When I started seeing, and this is not to knock anybody else's subjects, when I started seeing where this was heading and what was rising to the top --what it did-- I remember early on through this whole process telling a friend in New York that I needed to find my voice. I needed a unique perspective. I’ve always thought that taking pretty pictures is easy but that’s not me. I much prefer to have to work to find the pretty in un-pretty places and scenes. So that’s what I started to do.

And this person in New York, are they a photographer?

No, he is a historian. I call my solo photo trips that I do regularly my photo safaris, I get that from him because he does the same thing in Manhattan. When I first started re-familiarizing myself with this area, a typical photo safari for me was to go to Roots Market, or go to Central Market, or to walk around Mt. Joy.

Why Mt. Joy? Is that where you are from?

Paul Anater Street Photographer 11.JPG Why Mt. Joy? Is that where you are from?

Actually, I was born in Akron. Mt. Joy just has a pretty downtown, like Ephrata, or Columbia. I would find myself in Columbia, which has a lot of history. The story of Columbia is amazing! I would find myself taking these photographs of Columbia and it really spoke to me because the city lives in its past. Its present isn't very nice. I would find myself taking pictures of abandoned factories and things like that. Eventually, I gravitated back to downtown Lancaster and to the residential neighborhoods that ring it. Penn Square is beautiful but you know what? So is South Prince Street. I’m drawn to the beauty of everyday life. Again, for me it’s about finding beauty in what aren’t typically considered to be beautiful places.

So you've unleashed your inner passion?

That's just the type of photographer I am. I was able to tap into that for real and say at the end of the day what I am good at is seeing things that most people miss when they walk down the street. I walk down South Prince Street or South Duke Street and I just love that stuff! It's not just those neighborhoods, like I can walk down West Chestnut and see things that a lot of people miss.

That is what I like about your art, You focus in on the details.

Paul Anater Street Photographer 2.JPG That is what I like about your art You focus in on the details.

It's one of the reasons I love that everyone here does these photo walks and stuff like that. For me, my photography is such a quiet, private, solitary pursuit. I get distracted when I have people around me. I worry that I rub people the wrong way when I don’t show up to the group things but I need to be alone when I’m shooting. I go into a mode when I walk into a neighborhood where I just need to concentrate on what I am doing. But at the same time, one of the coolest experiences of finding a Lancaster that most people don't want to recognize as being there, is meeting the people that live in those places. It's a great opportunity for me to get out of my normal life and to just walk down a neighborhood that most people wouldn't be caught dead in and meet people who live there and say “Hey, I want to show your life!”

Hard to do as a a group, right?

Yeah, it is. You know, I have certainly been on them. It's a lot of fun! That's how I got to know Dave actually. The first time I met Dave Berk was at a photowalk. My cam strap on my camera is pure Dave Berk, and I can't recommend them highly enough! They really free you up, it's an amazing thing. Hanging with Dave Berk’s always a good thing too! So, that's just a little bit on how I approach all this. I grew up here (Lancaster) and I couldn't get out of here fast enough. Times were different then.

How old were you then?

Paul Anater Street Photographer 3.JPG How old were you then?

I left to go to college. I came back a couple for of summers, but I was more than less out. I was done with small towns. It's been wild to come back here as a middle aged person and see it through a new set of eyes because I see things now that I could never see when I was younger. A lot of ways it's a function of my age, but it's also a function of having been gone.

Do you think it is also that Lancaster has changed?

Lancaster Photographer Paul Anater Lancastergram 4 Resized Do you think it is also that Lancaster has changed?

Some things will never change. I have a series that I occasionally do called “Landmarks That Nobody Want to Talk About”, and there are things here that will never change and things here that people would rather not acknowledge existing. It's a lot of fun to shoot them and press buttons.

There isn't a soul in Lancaster that doesn't know what the Whirl-A-Sage is or what happens there. Its also been there for 50 years, or the Tally Ho, or even the two porn stores downtown. Everyone knows where these things are, but no one will acknowledge it.

It's just interesting.

What kind of art do you like? What kind would you frame? Is it the same type of stuff you take photos of?

I like things that don't make me comfortable. I like things that make me think. What I really want when I look at art for myself...I want to get dragged into someone else’s perspective. I want to be in the mind of someone else and I want to see another perspective. To me, art is an exercise in empathy. Empathy in the sense of it teaches me to look at life through someone else’s perspective.

In the social media age, with the amount of art you are exposed to, do you even have much time to empathize with art anymore?

Lancaster Photographer Paul Anater Lancastergram 8 In the social media age with the amount of art you are exposed to do you even have much time to empathize with art anymore?

Well, they are all different media. As much as I love going to New York and walking through the Metropolitan Museum, or the Museum of Modern Art, that's quiet time with actual pieces which is a separate thing from going through my instagram feed, or looking at my facebook feed.

It’s interesting with the new media like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or any of them to find unintentional art. Where someone takes a photograph or captures a moment and describes a scene in a way that wasn't intended to be artful, but it is in every sense of the word. When I'm walking through MOMA, I'm there because those people who have that work on those walls intended for that work to be art. If I’m at home going through my instagram feed, people aren't intending most of that to be art.

What are they intending it to be?

Their passion and their lives. "This is what my life looks like."

There are different types of people on instagram.

Paul Anater Empathy.JPG There are different types of people on instagram.

Oh yeah! I follow some serious photographers and I follow some amateurs like me, because I'm not a professional. I love the work that I see where people are trying, and I love the work that I see where people aren't trying.

So about that, does the equipment make the photographer?

No.

You don’t see any difference, someone could go out with a cell phone?

Paul Anater Nothing is Ordinary.JPG You don’t see any difference someone could go out with a cell phone?

Not all of my photographs are taken with my real camera. I have a point and click that I use sometimes. Probably the biggest photograph that I have had in the last couple of weeks was a photograph that I took on my cell phone on 27th Street in Manhattan at about seven o’clock in the morning as the sun was coming up and Santa-con was going on the day before and the street was TRASHED.

So, I took this perspective shot and Nothing is Ordinary picked it up. Nothing is Ordinary has something like 100,000 followers. I started tagging my photos with #nothingisordinary because Jen McNeil uses it all the time and I think it's a neat thing because nothing really is ordinary, I didn't know it was a real website. Within ten minutes of me posting this black and white perspective shot of a dirty street in New York, Nothing is Ordinary picked it up and it was like the photograph that was shot around the world!

How did that feel?

It was WILD! HOLY COW, I just took this on my phone.

Isn't it strange that sometimes the photos you least expect to be popular will be?

It's always that way. I know this from being an early blogger. Blog posts that I was very proud of never did anything, but the crap I would just regurgitate and post would end up being popular.

Do you find that it changes your perspective of the photo you took or the blog you wrote and think, “Maybe I didn't give this a proper first look?”

Paul Anater Photo Safari.JPG Do you find that it changes your perspective of the photo you took or the blog you wrote and think “Maybe I didn't give this a proper first look?”

No, It teaches me to not take any of it seriously. As cool as the internet is, it connects you to the world and at the same time it shows me how insufficient my contribution is. My opinion generally doesn't play into how something is perceived. Honestly, in a day it is forgotten. There is a metaphor for life in that, which some people take as meaning as sad but it gives me a lot of purpose. I'm here on earth for a short period of time and I have only mattered to me. It's my job to make that moment as meaningful as I can because nobody is here to experience it but me.

What are you doing during any given day. Are you thinking, “You know what, I'm going to go take photos today.”

Lancaster Photographer Paul Anater Lancastergram 3 What are you doing during any given day. Are you thinking “You know what I'm going to go take photos today.”

I take mental notes as I'm driving around. Typically what I do is concentrate especially on Lancaster city. I pick a neighborhood in some kind of an order and say, “Today I am going to walk down West Lemon Street. All of it’s alleys that it connects to and I am going to see in an hour and a half what I can see.” Or, “Today, I am going to drive to Colombia.” But, that hasn't happened recently. It's interesting to me to live in a place that has such a palpable history.

You cannot walk down any street in Lancaster and not feel the people went before us. What I find equally interesting is living in a city that is obsessed with its own history. Lancaster is unique because it thinks it is in the center of the universe, and a lot of of things have happened here. But really, it’s a small town and most of the big stuff in history happened somewhere else nearby. A lot of people’s view of history isn't very accurate though, and they actually take comfort in this nostalgia.

When you say “they”, who are you referring to?

Paul Anater Street Photographer 4.JPG When you say “they” who are you referring to?

The Lancaster mind. There is a mindset here that is fascinating. I think it’s people in general not just people in Lancaster. They want to believe the past is better than today. It's interesting to walk down a street in Lancaster and get lost in how pretty the Fulton Opera House is and to forget the building the Fulton is built on top of.

If you walk behind the Fulton on Water Street, there is a historical plaque that says, “This was the site of Lancaster’s original prison and this is also the site where the last of the Conestoga Indians were massacred.” On the Prince Street side you have this beautiful historic opera house, a true opera house, but it is built on the foundation of an old prison.

Interesting and Fascinating.

It's little tidbits like that. If you walk down Prince Street today you see this beautiful theater and if you continue walking, you see St. Mary’s which everyone will acknowledge is a beautiful historic building and then you look up the hill and you see St. Joseph’s, which everyone acknowledges now. But, when those buildings were built, it was not a harmonious time. Those buildings came out of conflict.

You are just a wealth of knowledge about Lancaster. How does this come to be with you not living here so long, how do you know so much history?

Really again, It's the glory of the internet. Doing a Google Search for St. Mary's.

Do you find yourself constantly feeding your mind with information?

Constantly.

Is the research related to where you are shooting?

Yes.

Paul Anater Street Photographer 5.JPG So will you shoot first or research first?

So will you shoot first or research first?

A combination of the two. You know a lot of time I will walk around you know. I’m not the only person with a local interest in history and all you have to do is Google search any of these buildings and that leads you to the name of the architect and you find the architect’s work and you find Catholic and Protestant conflicts in Lancaster and then throw on top of that racial conflicts in Lancaster, which isn't as well documented but it is still available to anybody who cares to look.

Again, that is not to say that everything is horrible, it's not that at all, we are standing on the shoulders of people who were every bit conflicted as we are and times then were every bit as messy as they are now.

So when people are dreaming of the past, then need to realize it was not as rosy as they think.
Right. You know, times were not simple then. It's a normal human thing to look back and seek comfort in the past, but there is no comfort to be had there.

What other artistic outlets do you have besides photography? Anything else you dabble in?

Lancaster Photographer Paul Anater Lancastergram 6 What other artistic outlets do you have besides photography? Anything else you dabble in?

No, right now that’s my big thing. Through the course of my life I have always been thrown artistically, whether it be sculpture or pottery or painting or whatever. But, there is something about modern digital photography that plays with all sides of my mind. One part, at least the way I approach it, you take the representation of life and the first thing you do is interpret it and decide this is important. Now you go back into a software package and say, “How can I make this photograph tell the story I want to tell and how do I draw attention to the aspects of it that are advancing this story I want to tell?”

For me at least, photography is interpreting my world and it's letting people see the shadows I see or the parts of life I see. I talk a lot about going through bad neighborhoods. My goal is to never ever, ever capture sadness. My goal is always to show human triumph and how somebody can take living in a bad situation, or “living in a bad neighborhood”, and turn that into a positive thing. How can somebody who, in his or her own life, is without a voice, how can he or she express him or herself?

Is that what you are doing with your Christmas light series? Showing how people are still joyous?

Paul Anater Street Photographer 6.JPG Is that what you are doing with your Christmas light series? Showing how people are still joyous?

Yeah! In an abstract and the broader picture, some of these Christmas displays are tacky, but they are joyful. These folks are expressing themselves and how can you look at someone who is expressing themselves joyfully with anything but appreciation? It may not be my thing, but I'm not trying to capture my life.

But you are, in a sense, creating your own joy in seeing joy in other people.

Again, that is all part of my own progression. I used to not be so positive. I don’t want to make small town America look bad, that's never my goal. I will never mock someone. Other people might interpret my photograph as a mockery but it certainly is never my intention.

You didn’t mention writing as an art form when I asked earlier.

Yeah, that another lifetime type thing.

So what type of writing styles did you like? Was it mostly work related, blog related?

Paul Anater Street Photographer 10.JPG So what type of writing styles did you like? Was it mostly work related blog related?

Anything. I just like to express myself. I have always been a really good writer and that's a function of being a heavy reader. I think that's where my empathy comes from too. Empathy is a hard one, a lot of people struggle with it, but I find it easy to write through someone else’s perspective. I have always been a really heavy reader. I think whatever problems people have with empathy stems from the fact that people don’t read.

Interesting. So where are you heading next? Where do we see you in the future? Maybe same style and more of it?

Yeah, same style and more of it. I love Lancaster city and I’d like to be taken more seriously as a photographer. Not so much technically, but just from my perspective, like everybody, I want a gallery show, or I want a book.

I think unfortunately today, it involves a lot of self promotion to be there. Do you find that tough? You don't seem like the person saying, “Hey, I’m Lancastergram!”

Lancaster Photographer Paul Anater Lancastergram 2 I think unfortunately today it involves a lot of self promotion to be there. Do you find that tough? You don't seem like the person saying “Hey I’m Lancastergram!”

Yes, I want my work to speak for itself. I don’t want to be the man behind the curtain. At the same time, given my professional background, I’m incapable of being the man behind the curtain. Really, that's what it is going to take. I get approached all the time, “I want to buy that photograph, I want to buy that photograph.” I have sold more than a few. A good friend of mine was a photographer in Philadelphia and just started his own digital gallery where people can buy downloads and that is probably my goal for 2016. I will start a digital gallery where people can buy my stuff. Where the price is, is still what I'm struggling over. It just feels like such an attention grabbing scheme at this stage in the game. It's a logical progression though.

The kind of photography I do, I don't see represented, and I would like to see it represented. I think in addition to coming up with a true community art exhibit in a gallery where people photograph their lives, and it's everyone, not just white people in Millersville, I think what would be kind of cool is to pull together a bunch of disparate voices from this region and put together a photography book of all those voices. That might be in the cards too. It would be kind of fun!

I think there is a lot here that does not meet the eye, and there are a lot of voices here that don't get heard. I was walking down South Shippen Street and it was a Sunday morning and typically what happens when I walk down South Shippen Street with my camera is that it draws a lot of attention. One of the kids I ran into a year ago told me, “One of the first things you need to do when you are walking down these neighborhoods is tell them you are not a cop.” So normally, that’s one of the first things that I do. “I’m not a cop, I’m just an artist!”

I had this heart to heart chat with some 20-something guy on a stoop on South Shippen Street a couple of months ago, he told me it was important that I told the story of his block. I take things like that really seriously. I told the story of his block as an outsider, because I am. I can’t deny my background and heritage and upbringing. But, what I think would be really fascinating would be to see his block through his eyes and see what he sees. I know what the Lancaster newspaper’s version of South Shippen Street is, and I know that it’s not accurate. I know what the perspective of South Shippen Street is from somebody who lives in Manheim township is, and I know that is not accurate.

I am almost hearing a new blog style feature where you follow a resident around and hear their story and see what they see.

Paul Anater Photo Safari Back Street.JPG I am almost hearing a new blog style feature where you follow a resident around and hear their story and see what they see.

I think what would be more instructive would be to teach that guy on that stoop on that street, on South Shippen Street, to take a photograph so he can tell his own story. That is the sort of stuff where The Mix Arbor Place is dedicated to doing. It is one thing to me as an outsider to draw attention to this stuff but I think the real juice for it would be to have him photograph his own life.

Tell me about your work flow, briefly if you can. From taking to photo to bringing it home, where do you go from there?

Typically I do a photo safari a week. During which I take upwards of a thousand photographs and that’s the wonder and joy of digital photography. You can take twenty photographs of the same subject and get the right one.

And it is all in RAW?

Yeah, I shoot in RAW. So, I come home, take the card out of my camera and pop it into my laptop, import everything into Lightroom. I’m kind of obsessed in that I save every photograph I take. I know a lot of people do that but no one admits it! Then I go through, frame by frame, and find what I think are the best photographs.

Paul Anater Street Photographer 9.JPG Do you have a tagging or labeling system?

Do you have a tagging or labeling system?

Yes. I catalog and archive everything. Then I just pick the ones that I like. I finally did the math a couple weeks ago and my keep rate is around 10%. Then I crop them, do my retouching and all that stuff, and export it to Google Photos. Then from Google Photos it goes to my phone and then they end up on Instagram. Typically, photographs that I post to Instagram always lag behind in life by two weeks. I post to instagram three times a day usually.

Do you have set time or do you just limit yourself to three?

I limit myself to three.

Paul Anater Street Photographer 12.JPG Do you find that tough?

Do you find that tough?

No. What I find tough...there are photographs that I really love that I want to post first but they are generally not the ones that people are drawn to. But, I always keep a bunch in the hopper that I know are going to get me through the next week until the next photo safari. Then, when I start reaching the bottom of that barrel, I come across a photograph that I didn’t think was very good and those are the ones that people like.

Can you tell us one thing we might not know about you yet?

(Thinking)

Any types of reading you are into?

I think I am the world’s number one John Steinbeck fan.

What do you think of all the marketing that is going on on #lancastergram now? I find that when I open it up, there isn't just photography, but attention-seeking businesses.

I think it is proof of concept.

What are your thoughts when your photos get reposted?

I love it when somebody is so moved that they’ll repost my stuff.

Any special signature in technical or anything you leave behind in your photos that you always do? Any fundamental principles you lean towards?

No. Well I try to balance the photograph. My center point is never my focus. I vignette almost everything.

When I look through instagram, your pictures instantly stand out, I know which ones are going to be yours.

How so?

The vignette and typically close-up on an object. Different perspectives, when I see a lot of urban I see you. When I see a sunset over a farm, I know that it is not you.

(Laughs) Not that there’s anything wrong with sunsets over farms!

But it's not something you are out there taking so much.

The word for street photography in French is flâneur and it is a very popular global hashtag. There are an awful amount of people who are street photographers. There aren’t very many in Lancaster and I would like to see that change.

What does that mean to you, street photographer?

Someone who walks down a busy street and shows me light as it reveals itself. I wish more people photographed that more than they do. I don't know, if there is something in my photography, my stuff always has a defined perspective, like a point of view. I use things like tilt shift functions in post.

That's what I think I am seeing.

That's what you are seeing. I make a lot of use of tilt shift.

I see you are shooting with a Canon, any other cameras you shoot with? You mentioned your cell phone.

Paul Anater Street Photographer 13.JPG I see you are shooting with a Canon any other cameras you shoot with? You mentioned your cell phone.

Yeah, my phone and I have a Canon point and click. I use a T5i and I have come to realise in the past couple of months that I am officially outgrowing my T5i and I am ready to make the move to full frame. When I first started shooting with this camera, I thought I was taking the clearest photographs I have ever seen and now I think they are all muddy. That is a sign in my own eye and the fact that I am ready.

So you are growing.

I am ready to make the move.

And you are going to stay with Canon?

Yeah, mostly because of the lenses. The EOS lens family fits all Canon handsets.

You have mentioned your lenses before, that you shoot with a zoom lens and a 55mm fixed focal. Talk to me about why you choose those two lenses.

I like the zoom because it is my comfort zone and it lets me zoom like I like to do. I like my 55mm fixed focal because I am not comfortable with it and it forces me to see whole scenes.

Paul Anater Street Photographer 8.JPG And you have to get a little intimate with your subjects.

And you have to get a little intimate with your subjects.

Right, and you know I am a macro guy, I want to take detail shots. With the 55mm it is as close to my vision as it is going to get. It is a good experience for me because I tend to have this laser focus on details and it forces me to step back and see the whole thing and then in post I can go back in and play around with it. That's another reason I like shooting in RAW. I can zoom in on an aspect of something and not lose clarity. The 55mm are good because I have a tendency to focus on details and miss the big picture. The 55mm forces me to see the big picture.

What aperture are you flipping at around constantly?

It changes constantly. It is a function of light and subjects.

Can you give us an idea of what kind of movies you like? Maybe top three?

Three of them and they are all Alexander Payne movies; Citizen Ruth, Election, and Sideways.

Election, the school movie. Yeah, that was awesome! Are the other two like that one? I don't think I have seen the other two.

Citizen Ruth was his first movie, it was his darkest comedy. It didn't do well but honestly it’s an amazing movie. I don’t know, I'm a big Alexander Payne fan.

So dark comedy? So your friends would say that you are very witty. What are 4 other words friends would use to describe you.

I am very witty and I think am I very smart.

Artistic of course.

Artistic, cynical, and, I don’t know, loving.

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