By Lisa Morgan
The AMFM Festival is truly bringing together a phenomenal group of artists who are not only the cream of their industries, but some of the most fascinating, worldly and likeable people you could possibly have the pleasure of talking to. Craig Semetko, rightly billed as “World Renowned Photographer of the Absurd and Ironic” is one such talent. My time interviewing this comedic storyteller, who has mastered the art through both standup and photography, was one of laughter coupled by intrigue and awe.
“I remember getting out of trouble in nursery school. I made this kid cry somehow, and I just knew that if I didn’t get this kid to stop crying I’d be in big trouble. I made a goofy face or something and it was like magic! The tears just stopped and he started laughing. It was completely transformative for me and it made me realize the immense power in being able to make somebody laugh,” shared Craig as he explained how he started in comedy. “It stuck with me – a total survival instinct that I still use today. I was also exposed to Peter Sellers and Jackie Gleason, comedians my dad liked. I was just a funny kid who was voted class clown.” For a while though, Craig’s career path appeared to take a different path. At 16 he took a job as a Page in the House of Representatives. He returned at 19 as an intern. “I remember being at some party with other 19 year olds. One kid said to another, ‘So what are your thoughts on the China/US relationship.’ The other kid started, ‘Well on my recent trip to China…’ I thought, ‘What? You’re 19! Go have a beer. Find a girl!’ At that point I knew if I was going to devote my life to bullshitting people, I might as well be upfront about it. So I became a comedian.”
For several years, Craig worked writing and performing sketches for major corporations. “In 2000, I had a great job that took me all over the world. I thought I should probably bring a camera. Prior to this not only was I not a photographer I was an anti-photographer. I didn’t want to have a camera around my neck looking like a tourist.” As he’s telling me this he laughs at the irony: he explains that as he was talking to me, he was walking around a parking lot in Atlanta with a camera around his neck. “At that time, I didn’t even own a camera. I was outside of Shanghai, and I took a photo of a two people in a canoe and when I got the print, I thought, wow this is beautiful. This could be in National Geographic.” The thought occurred to him, that as a comedic actor, he had some free time. Maybe he could use photography as another medium to tell stories. And that is where it all started. Craig sums up his philosophy of photography by quoting the iconic photographer he has idolized and studied obsessively, Henri Cartier-Bresson: “’Photography is nothing. It’s life that interests me.’ My photography stems from people watching which is basically what you do as a comedic actor and writer. I provide the essence of a story in a single frame.”
“I didn’t have any intentions of using my photography for money. I felt like I had to a certain extent, whored myself out with my comedy taking the corporate route, and didn’t want to do that with photography. I wanted to do it and just see what happens.” Years went by and a friend suggested that he show some of his prints to a gallery in Durango, Colorado. “I brought 10 prints. The woman who owned the gallery was interested and told me to stay in touch. Six months later I received an email. ‘It just so happens that we are doing a showing of some of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work and wondered if you would like to show some of your work along with it.’” This first show was titled, “From Classic to Contemporary–Henri Cartier-Bresson and Craig Semetko.” Since 2008, Craig’s photography has taken off, and his photography has been shown all over the globe.
Craig was eventually approached to do a book of his work. The book was titled, Unposed a collection that shows his comedic side. At the very beginning of the book there is a stunning shot of a small Mongolian child with the biggest eyes looking straight into the camera. I asked Craig what the story was behind the photo. “I took this at an outdoor, night market. Mom was standing off to the side. She didn’t speak English but with hand gestures, she gave permission for me to take the picture. I squatted down to his height and took the picture. Friends have asked me, ‘What in the world did you say to that kid?’ I swear, I said nothing!” he laughs. This is typical of Craig’s photos. He captures images that tell part of the story, and beg for the rest to be told.
Another photo in the book showing two separate couples: two sitting on the curb kissing and the two holding each other mourning over a memorial represent the culmination of Craig’s study of the art of photography and his desire to tell a story. Here the mentors seemed to have been standing right over his shoulder as he was shooting. “This was early in my career and the result of doing all the reading I could and studying picture books. I thought of Robert Capa who said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough. So I had this longer lens on my camera, and I was snapping glorified head shots of the couple kissing. It was an exercise of seeing how close I could get – breaking that shyness barrier. After a while I asked myself, ‘Why am I doing this – to what end?’ As soon as I said that, the words of Cartier-Bresson popped into my head, ‘A good picture has to have a sense of context.’ I switched lenses, stepped back, and as I did, the other couple walked in behind them. That was literally the last fame and ultimately became the cover of my book.”
Craig’s selections from a new book, America Project, will be shown at the AMFM Festival this June. These are pictures that he’s taken throughout America, each telling a story. Not all of these have a comedic aspect, but are very telling in their presentation. One such picture is a devastating shot of the rollercoaster that was sent out to sea by Hurricane Sandy. “The whole body of work in America Project is a bit of a departure. It goes deeper than Unposed. There is still some humor with bitter ironies, and some shots that make you shake your head and say, ‘Wow, what a country!’” These will be viewed along with other selected pieces from Unposed.
You can discover more about this colorful story teller who shoots in black and white, by visiting his website semetko.com/. But do yourself the favor of a lifetime, and make sure you see his work and perhaps even meet him in person at the AMFM Festival held in Cathedral City, June 13-16th. You can purchase tickets and check out the other amazing creative forces the festival is bringing to us at http://amfmfest.com/