A Photography Interview with Conrad Benner of StreetsDept.com


StreetDept.com is a Philly-based photo-blog that documents and celebrates street art, graffiti, and urban exploration in and around Philadelphia. We sat down with creator Conrad Benner to learn more about his work and about a recent shoot he did on the FMC Tower while under construction.

Streets Dept was established in January 2011, and has since become one of the top Instagram accounts in Philadelphia, thanks to Conrad's unique and deep knowledge of the urban landscape of America's 5th largest city. 

Our first ever collab tee at TogTees was the result of a partnership with Conrad to create his very own line of original tees representing street art in Philadelphia.  You can see them here.

 

Bokeh Fire - Streets Dept

Photo by Streets Dept. Shot with the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM @ 70mm

So… how did you end up top of this building in West Philadelphia?

The FMC Tower, which is still under construction, is currently the tallest building west of the Schuylkill in Philadelphia. When it’s finished, it will be one of the tallest in the entire city.  It all started when I reached out to this construction company a few months ago.  I knew they were building this and I figured from this position, it would have a unique view of the Center City Skyline.  I had recently been to the One Liberty Observation Deck in Center City.  As exciting as it is, one of the things about that is, because you’re in the center of the city, you kind of only see one building at a time.  There’s no broad view.

So I reached out to the company building the FMC tower.  The way the building is being constructed, all the main equipment will be at this intermediate floor 30 or 40 stories up, and then the building will thin out from there.  There would be a long delay during construction on this floor, so it was a perfect time to go visit.  So we got a group of other local Philly photographers and we all went up. We had to sign our life away, you know the standard stuff – if we fell off the building, our family wouldn’t sue them, etc.….

The day of, we had to wear construction hats, high-visibility vests, steel-toe boots, and so on.  It was like being a kid all over again!  And now I know what it’s like to dress like a construction worker all day.

Bokeh Fire - Streets Dept

Photo by Streets Dept. Shot with the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM @ 70mm

We went up there during their lunch break, when it would be less busy.  We rode an outdoor construction elevator.  These are very slow and terrifying, because all you can think is, they built this temporary elevator in 2 seconds... and right in front of your eye is open air and the entire city as you get higher and higher…

When we got to the top, one thing that surprised me is that I expected more barriers between us and the edge.  All they had was these little strings between us and the open air.  So they’d be like, oh by the way, don’t get so close to the edge…

So we spent an hour and a half running around the floor taking photos, pointing my lens at the city.

In this photo, you can see the Chestnut Street Tower at Cira Center South and all of North Philly in the distance behind it.

Bokeh Fire - Streets Dept

Photo by Streets Dept. Shot with the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM @ 70mm

Tell us a bit about how you take pictures when using your DSLR. Do you shoot on full Auto, Manual mode, do you set aperture, and so on…?

This is something I’ve grown to not be so self-conscious about this – I shoot on auto all the time.  I never went to school for photography, I never took classes, I haven’t even watched YouTube videos about it.  I just go out and shoot.  This is the advantage of digital photography – we can take 100 photos and we’ll make it right in one of them.  As long as your composition is good and you like the content, it will work out.

Talk about your editing tools and workflow a little bit.

I use Lightroom and usually bring up the clarity a little bit, the contrast a bit.  Sometimes the saturation.

Tell us about your shooting style.

Usually if the light’s right - and I usually have control over that because I go out when the light’s good for shooting – I can get good shots.  In this situation we had to go up mid-day and the lighting wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t’ have a choice about that.

The golden hour is the golden hour for a reason. A lot of what I shoot is street art, murals and so on.  If it’s bright mid-day sunlight on a mural, you can’t see anything. So it has to be a certain light.  It’s not always like that, sometimes you’re just walking around and you see something.  But if I can make the decision to shoot at a certain time or in a certain light, I do.

On this particular day, it was really foggy when we got there, but the sun was burning through the fog, so even though we were only up there for less than 2 hours mid-day, the light really changed during that time.  And you can see that in the photos.  Some are more hazy from the fog, and some are crystal clear.  The changing light and the atmosphere up there was great.

Bokeh Fire - Streets Dept

Photo by Streets Dept. Shot with the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM @ 70mm

Tell us about this photo of the construction worker hanging off the edge:

Using the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8, I took some tight photos of this guy working from half a building away, and then I went up to him and said, Hey I took some photos of you is that ok, and he said that’s absolutely fine, so I sort of got permission after the fact… and got some more photos of him as well. 

He was a really nice guy but it was pretty funny – he was fascinated that we were so interested in being up there and taking photos.  He’s up there every day, he does this for a living, and it’s what he does.  I on the other hand, live in a 2-story apartment building like most Philadelphians in row homes, and I’m rarely 40 floors up in the air above street level with such an incredible view of the city.

He was amused by us and I think for a second, he looked around and saw through our eyes the novelty of it.  I think that’s similar to photography in general – any good photographer or Instagrammer posts photos that let you see things that you walk by or have seen a million times, just in a different light – whether that’s because it’s edited, or it’s a creative use of filter, or it’s the time of day, or half of city hall is cut off by fog or whatever. It’s always nice when you can pause for a second and see things anew.  That’s what photography is.

What’s your favorite photo from this shoot?

Having this lens let me do things I haven’t done before.  Normally, I don’t have a lot of lenses and I just recently got a new camera.  The lens I had before is a super wide-angle lens.  Mostly I explore abandoned buildings or need to get into tight spaces to shoot, or even taking photos of Philadelphia murals, or shooting a piece of street art, you really need context to see what’s around it and so on.  So I’m usually shooting with a wide angle lens.

So this was the first time I really shot on a telephoto zoom lens that can zoom in really close.  I love this really cool shot of buildings in Rittenhouse Square. 

Streets Dept - Bokeh Fire

Photo by Streets Dept. Shot with the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM @ 125mm

Everything is square and perfect and flat.  It’s one of my favorite photos from the day.  You kind of can’t tell what’s in it or what city it is. And I love all the lines of the building. If I didn’t have that lens, I wouldn’t have gotten that photo.

And being up there with such a great unobstructed view, I was constantly switching back and forth between my wide-angle kit lens and the telephoto zoom, getting all kinds of different shots.  You have to – especially with viewpoints like that, there’s so much to see.  The wider you can get, the more you can see the skyline and the context.

Now that you’ve used the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS and you’ve seen what it’s good for and what it can do, what’s something else you’d like to shoot with that same lens?

More candid street photography-type stuff.  As we get into summer and lots of people are out – I’d love to get some candid shots of people on the street – showing life in the city.  Standing a block away and getting photos of people – it’s not something you can do with your camera phone or with a wide-angle lens.

I like capturing a time and place and a big part of my blog is archiving street art and graffiti in Philadelphia. I’ve been doing that for 5 years now and I can look back on the blog and see stuff that I documented that’s no longer around or that I’ve even forgotten about, and it’s great to archive those things for later.

And my Instagram is a bit broader – life in Philly, architecture, street life, public places, whatever catches my eye.

Bokeh Fire - Streets Dept

Photo by Streets Dept. Shot with the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM @ 115mm

5-10 years from now, how would you like to be characterized or known as a photographer?

I’ve always thought about it in the frame of streetsdept.com – I’m the only person creating an ongoing documentation of a lot of street art.  It’s openly curated by me – I’m not trying to document every piece of street art in an unbiased way.  There’s artists I like and artists I don’t like, things I hate.  And I don’t photograph the things I hate.  So hopefully for the blog – people see it as a living archive of street art and graffiti in the city.  Hopefully 10-20 years from now people can look back and get a real sense of what this street art scene was like – that would be really cool.

So... a mix of curator and historian. With the Instagram – which is a bit wider – and encompasses street art, urban exploration, city life, when I travel, I post on there…

I think you can classify me as a photography who explores public spaces, and everything that encompasses.  Street life, graffiti, architecture, everything.  If it’s in the public space, it’s stuff I photograph.

And hopefully I’d be known as the best photographer to come out of Philadelphia (laughing). Or at least, as a photographer who was born and raised in Philadelphia, my eye is a bit different as opposed to someone who moved here from Cleveland.

There is something to be said for knowing a bit about the city and the history of the city and seeing a lot more to the average street scene than someone walking around as a tourist might see, because you know a bit of the history of things and especially the artistic history of things – cool art pieces around the city.

Oh yeah, there are so many places like in Northern Liberties, so many old abandoned garages that used to be the place where if you wanted to see new street art or new graffiti, that’s where you went.  And now they’re new row homes…

The great thing, where you like it or not, about Philly, is that we have so many abandoned spaces, there’s plenty of blank canvases.

Any tips for people who are trying to pursue their photography, whether on Instagram or elsewhere?  How can they build a reputation or success that lasts over time?

Something that helped me focus myself and ultimately helped me get some attention was picking a category of things to photograph.  Not necessarily a theme or a stylistic choice, because as I grow as photograph, I get new cameras, my style is always evolving, my tools are always evolving.  But the content I shoot, at least when I started, was all the same – street art and graffiti.  I’ve expanded now because I can, but that was a huge part of focusing me. It made me want to go on a search for more street art – I would walk home from work instead of taking the train because I knew I had to find more stuff.

So, picking something to focus on and sticking with it.  It’s not that you can’t expand and experiment more things.  But what I’ve noticed is people want you to tell them who you are.  And everyone is a photographer now, so you can’t just be a photographer.  You have to be the photographer that does X.  It’s a bit of advertising, you have to sell yourself.  Follow me, because I’ll show you all the best of this, or follow me because I’ll show you the best portraits. And it doesn’t have to be that original – there are so many street art photographers, but like hyper-local – I’m from Philly, I’ve lived here my whole life, I know it really well.

So pick something that you’re able to package and sell to people in a sense.  But also pick something you’re deeply interested din – that you know would keep your interest for years.  I’ve always been interested in street art and graffiti – I had books about it in high school and middle school, and I read all the blogs…  So yeah, do that.

Thanks so much for your time, Conrad! 

No problem, it was fun!

 

Visit StreetsDept.com and the StreetsDept Instagram to learn more about street art and life in Philadelphia. 

Check out our very own original StreetsDept tees

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