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Robert Fraguada

22 April 2021

Robert Fraguada is an architect who moonlights as a night photographer. His style examines the streets of NYC, with a mixture of candid and architectural shots. He joins us to tell us his photography story and where the alias 'Foul Matter' comes from.

What's your backstory?

I grew up in the suburbs of northeast New Jersey, right outside of New York City. My mother came to this country from Colombia thirty one years ago, and first lived with her sister in Queens. My father was born in Harlem and raised in the Bronx. I had several relatives living in the city when I was young, and as a result, I spent a great deal of time there. These early memories of my experiences and interactions with the city would serve as the foundation for my connection to it.

How did you first start out in photography?

I really started to develop an interest in taking photos during my time in university. I was studying architecture in Brooklyn, New York, and had an interest in urban planning and the way the city around me exists. I would frequently go on walks to explore, especially at night. I naturally started to take photos during all this wandering around with my phone. At first these photos were nothing more than personal keepsakes, reminders of where I had been to already and where to go next. In 2018, after completing university, I finally invested in a full camera, and really started learning and practicing the process of photography.

Where do you draw inspiration from?

I take inspiration from various sources but most immediately would be the other artists and creators I follow on social media. Other significant sources of inspiration are movies and music. I will listen to songs and albums while I am shooting in order to set a certain mood or atmosphere for myself in my head that I want to convey in the photos I take. I will play back certain scenes from movies that I can find on Youtube while I'm shooting, and just leave my phone in my pocket as it plays. Movies provide tons of information about colors and composition of scenes that I study and learn from. Lastly, I let the location I'm shooting inspire me as well. I let it guide my approach. When shooting I try to be as non-intrusive as possible. I want to blend into the background and just let things play out in front of my eyes.

How would you describe your style?

I don't think I have a specific style actually. Lately I have been interested in foggy/misty photos of buildings and high rise towers in New York City, since that is the main focus of my first photo book. I tend to prefer nocturnal shooting, but I do enjoy taking a variety of photos in different conditions. I think it's beneficial to be open and willing to experiment and try different things, because it may lead to new discoveries.

What subjects do you like to shoot and why?

On moody weather days, I enjoy shooting the buildings and bridges. I try to emphasize the weather, for example buildings fading into the mist, or fog rolling off the waters underneath the bridges. At night time I enjoy shooting storefronts and just general scenes from the streets, and the way people move around in these spaces. On rainy nights it becomes the best of both worlds for me, I suppose, but also becomes the hardest scenario to shoot in because of low light and also rain. For night photography, you get the ability to really isolate certain subjects by surrounding them with darkness. It is also special to be able to contrast the colorful street scenes, with lights and reflections, against the dark backdrop of the night. I believe these types of scenes can spark a range of emotions, and I consider them very special. And especially if shooting on film, there's an added layer of nostalgic potential. My goal when capturing night photos is to take on the role of a spectator, just passing through, stumbling upon scenes that affect me in some way.

What catches your eye when you are out shooting?

I may have an idea of what I am looking for or seeking out when I go to shoot, but I also maintain the possibility of letting that change or evolve based on what I discover when I'm actually out there. Some things that will almost always make me stop and take a closer look though are misty buildings, nocturnal storefronts, and rainy reflections. These types of things will warrant a longer look before deciding if it's something I want to commit to my camera. When shooting on film I have to be more selective of which shots I take.

When I have managed to capture a moment that makes me truly feel something, I might consider those photos as being the standouts. The margin of error when shooting street can be so small, since you will typically be shooting moving subjects that don't stay in the same place for long. If you can manage to capture them at the right time, in the right place, I believe that will elevate that photo to the next level. That's not to subtract from other photos in the set that maybe do not display that same timing - I believe a set of photos taken in the same location with the same overall idea in mind, can be a mix of primary shots that can be considered the main highlights, with other secondary shots being interludes and transitions in between.

Are you an impulsive or planned shooter?

A little bit of both - I plan certain locations that I definitely want to shoot, but will try not to lock myself into too many expectations or assumptions for what I want to get out of it. I try to keep it loose going into it, because that will allow me to capture moments as they present themselves without locking myself into a certain mindset of what I "should" or "shouldn't" be capturing.

How do you achieve the look in your photos?

I try to stay out of Photoshop as much as possible. For digital photos, I will import them into Lightroom and edit them according to a certain mood or visual style that I want to achieve. But I will say, for me at least, editing is only about 25-30% of the process, and taking the photos is about 70-75%. I will leave my camera on a semi-auto mode, such as aperture priority, and generally keep the aperture at a certain sweet spot so that it's wide enough to allow a good amount of light in but still keep the whole image sharp (if that's what I am going for).

At night time, if I am shooting digitally and handheld, I will let the ISO fly, sometimes even into the 3K range, depending on how much ambient light is available. If I am shooting film at night, I default to a tripod, even if I am pushing the film by 1 or 2 stops, as a precaution. Since you can't preview your image's exposure (or how it looks once you've taken it) with film, I will use a light meter to determine a proper exposure. If I want to really isolate a lit subject, and have the scene surrounded by darkness, I will meter for the highlights. I tend to do this with storefronts at night. This will add a sense of mystery, even uncertainty, to the image. If I want to reveal the scene, I will meter for the shadows. This will yield a clean, more refined-looking image. My advice is that different scenes will want to be metered in different ways, and it's up to the photographer to make creative decisions about the story they wish to convey for each image. Aside from all of the technical information, perhaps the most important thing to remember is to experiment and learn from mistakes. Trial and error. Repeat.

Southern Edge of Central Park
Nocturnal Storefront on a Street Corner

How do you feel your style has changed/evolved over the years?

I have become more aware of different genres and styles of photography, and how these different styles can sometimes inform one another in certain ways. Learning and practicing has refined my ability to notice scenes more quickly. One thing that has stayed constant is my preference for urban environments and street scenes, but the way I shoot them has definitely evolved. I am now more aware of how certain areas are lit, and more conscious of how the lighting will impact the shot. I am aware of how people walking will render at different shutter speeds, or how sharpness of background elements will be influenced by the aperture. In general I would say I have just become more conscious about everything regarding my shooting decisions.

Can you tell us more about your Sleeping Giants project?

The idea for putting together a book of my photos first came to me back in winter 2019. Although I wanted to do it even back then, I felt I didn't have a big enough or consistent body of work yet from which to choose photos for a book. The idea returned to me again last spring, in April 2020, amidst the COVID-19 lockdown of New York City. I had actually been temporarily furloughed from my job, and found myself with more free time. Since I didn't feel comfortable going back out to shoot again yet, I decided to instead stay home and channel my energy into compiling my photos.

What started out as just a sort of directionless compilation of photos evolved to become an extended narrative supported by short stories spread between photos that gave them a storyline. The stories - and I use that term loosely, they can be thought more of as short poems or even extended captions - were inspired by the photos. The entire process of making this first photo book was an experience that taught me about formatting, printing, paper types and finishes, even a bit of business management in handling orders and shipments! And I believe there is a certain special quality to being able to hold a physical collection of your photos in your hands, and it's even more special to know other people around the world can also hold it in their hands. Due to the success of Sleeping Giants, I'm excited to say I am currently working on a follow-up book as well.

What's the story behind your alias "Foul Matter"?

The name came to me suddenly in November 2017, when I first started my account. Initially I was very interested in capturing the grimy, dirty textures of subway stations in the city through photos, and those are actually the first types of photos I posted when I was starting out, and my love for low light photography developed and evolved from that. I wanted my name to be something indicative of what I was capturing, something synonymous with the filth that I was seeing. For years I had felt like I was searching for something to really inspire me to dive deeper into the art of photography. And for me I found that inspiration in the grimy urban conditions of New York City, and so I became Foul Matter.

Can you tell us the story behind a couple of your photos?

Image One

This is one of my favorite photos I have ever taken, and it was taken on an iPhone 5 in February of 2018. It still holds a special place for me even today. The fog that day was just perfect.

Image Two

Shot on 35mm Ektachrome E100 slide film. This is a tricky film stock to work with, because it produces a color positive, rather than a negative, which means the scene needs to be metered for very carefully, because you won't be able to compensate much for under (or over) exposure in post. I didn't intend to shoot it tilted like that, and I only discovered this after the roll had been scanned in. But I found myself enjoying it, I feel it gives the photo a slight unease, almost tense feeling that something may happen.

What motivates you to shoot? What does photography mean to you?

This will probably vary for everyone but for me there is an intense urgency to go out and shoot as much as I possibly can. I have stayed out for entire nights, into the next day, walking around and shooting, and although I finish absolutely exhausted, it's a good sense of exhaustion. To just capture moments from life as I see it, each of those shots become memories that will remind me exactly where I was, and who I was when I took them.

What advice would you have for people getting into photography?

Go out and take photos as much as you can. Don't have a fancy camera? Doesn't matter, buy a cheap one to start with. Can't find a good cheap one? Use your phone camera! Especially with smartphones, phone cameras have become quite capable and if you are starting out and want to just go and start already, then use what you already have! Immerse (but don't overwhelm) yourself with information and examples of other people's work that you can draw inspiration from. Experiment. Don't be afraid to mess up. It is so important to make mistakes. Don't get bogged down in thinking why your photos don't look like so and so's photos yet. It's a journey that will hopefully last a while. Also, watch good movies, and plenty of them.

How has COVID-19 affected your photography?

Perhaps it has thinned out the streets ever so slightly, although lately it seems like crowdedness levels are somewhat going back to normal, especially on the weekend nights. Since I was not actively shooting much last spring when the lockdown started, I can't say if COVID truly affected my photography. I tend to lean more towards overall street scenes, rather than individual portraits or closeups of people, and as a result I was already used to maintaining my distance anyways!

What are your thoughts on the Instagram algorithm and its impact for photographers?

As far as the algorithm is concerned, to quote Matthew McConaughey's line in Wolf of Wall Street, "Nobody knows if the stock is going to go up, down, sideways, or in f***ing circles." Replace stocks with the algorithm, and that is how I feel about it. It exists, it's there, and it's constantly changing up, but I try to keep it at that. I don't try to let it influence what I post. Something much more influential in what I choose to post is the desire to maintain feed consistency, only because I enjoy the visual consistency for a little while before deciding to start a new set of posts. As for the photography community on Instagram specifically, I have enjoyed coming into contact with so many talented people from around the entire world over the past 3 years, and they inspire and motivate me everyday. I have learned plenty through them. Also, I feel like the film photography community is a big reason for the resurgence of film that's been happening over the past few years, and it inspired me to pick up film as well.

What are some of your hobbies outside of photography?

I have dabbled occasionally in fine arts, namely drawing and painting. It is definitely something I'd like to put more time and energy into in the future. I think paintings, especially oils on canvases, can go hand in hand with photography, and I'd love to learn how to better translate photographs into painted works. One person who comes to my mind that excels at re-rendering his photos into fine art paintings would be Leland Foster.

Thank you for taking the time to speak to us Robert. Any final comments?

Thank you so much for the opportunity to have a place on your platform, it's very much appreciated.

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