Monday, January 7, 2013

Capturing the Zeitgeist of Style, One Click at a Time : My Conversation with Alkistis Tsitouri of Streetgeist

Alkistis Tsitouri is the photographer behind Streetgeist, a popular street style blog that originated in Athens, Greece in 2008, before moving to Los Angeles, California in 2010. The following is a condensed and edited version of our conversation via Skype on 12/18/2012, when we talked about the difference between fashion in Greece and California, her feelings about advertising and the commercialization of the style blogosphere, and her love of portrait photography, among other topics. It was, I should add for the purposes of full disclosure, our second conversation. I’d spoken with her the week prior in the midst of finals, article deadlines, and general end of school term insanity, and had somehow neglected to record the conversation. She was gracious enough to give me a second chance.

Brent: How would you define street style photography as a genre? What makes it different from other genres of photography?

Alkistis: The focus, first of all, because the focus is fashion. Everything revolves around fashion. Fashion photography, of course is different from street style, [in that] it’s directed. It’s directed by the photographer, the stylist and the art director. Everything is set up in advance. It’s staged.  But [with] street style photography it’s very much a matter of [going] out into the world and hunt[ing] for the right person, the right moment, the right light, and then convincing [that person] to pose for you.
Image by Alkistis Tsitouri, Los Angeles, California.

Brent: Should street style photography have a particular look about it?

Alkistis: No. It shouldn’t. It probably will be [conventionalized] or canonized in the future. But for now, [I don’t think] street style photographers should have in their minds anything [specific] to do or not do. That’s the beauty of it, actually. Because every blog is different. Or some blogs [in any case].

Brent: So what got you into street style photography then?

Alkistis: I didn’t think about it too much when I started. It’s just that Aris [the co-founder of Streetgeist and its website administrator] and I enjoyed looking at other blogs, and decided that we could do that with Athens. Nobody was doing that. We thought there were many interesting stylish people out there, and we felt that we could do it nicely. So we did it.
Image by Alkistis Tsitouri, Santa Monica, California. 
Brent: What was it like the first time you went out?

Alkistis: It was very stressful. I was trying to convince myself to go up to people I didn’t know, and I was afraid I would get rejected and that I wouldn’t get any pictures. But I did it, and it was successful, even though [the first pictures I took] have nothing to do with what Streetgeist is now. I got some satisfaction out of it, so I continued to do it.

The first pictures were in a nightclub, which is weird, because I don’t do indoor shoots now. But I [think] it was a good choice, because people [at nightclubs] expect other people [whom they don’t yet know] to talk to them. They meet new people there. And the alcohol involved helped as well. [I didn’t drink] though.  I cannot shoot and drink, especially in low light conditions.
Alkistis Tsitouri's first post on Streetgeist back in 2008, Athens, Greece. 
Brent: I can understand. That’s a lot of thinking to have to do when you’re intoxicated. So you said that those early images don’t have a lot to do with what Streetgeist looks like visually now. So, I’m wondering how you would describe the look of Streetgeist?

Alkistis: Well, it’s very clean. I’m very strict with the composition of the images and the way my subjects are [posed] in the picture. I think of it [as adhering to a specific] typology.

Brent: I notice that there’s a real minimum of text on the site, and I’m curious why you made that choice.

Alikistis: Because we want the pictures to be inspirational, and we don’t care if their clothes are this [brand] or another. You see pictures. You like it. You get inspiration out of it. And maybe [what they’re wearing] finds [its] way into your closet.

The other important thing is we want the pictures to be very strong. We don’t want to take away from the pictures with any text. And that’s why, we [also] keep the design clean on the blog. 

Image by Alkistis Tsitouri, Los Angeles, California.

Brent: So back in 2010 you moved to LA, and I’m imagining that moving to LA you become very aware of what style was like in Athens. Maybe when you’re in Athens it’s less clear than it is when you move away from it. So I’m curious, looking back now how would you describe the Athens style?

Alkistis: That’s a very good question, because I didn’t have any [sense of that back then], but once I moved out [here], and time passed, and I looked back, I [started thinking], “Hey, that’s different!”
First of all, Athens has good taste. The people I photograph, the ones who are actually making the effort, are very [well-dressed].

Brent: It’s always a small minority.

Alkistis: Exactly. [But] there is also this thing that makes [style in Athens] is different [from LA style]. I don’t know how to describe it, [but now] I can recognize it from miles away. And [perhaps] by me photographing it, the viewer can recognize it [as well].
Image by Alkistis Tsitouri, Athens, Greece.
Brent: Now let’s switch things around a bit. What is it that you noticed about style in LA, after living in Athens?

Alkistis: Well, the first shock I had was in how people can wear the same type (summer or spring) of clothes all year round. At the beginning I did’t like that. I was surprised by how casual everyone dresses. Here in LA, it’s very very very casual. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s just how it is. Looking back now I have learned to appreciate the nice weather of Los Angeles and begin to actually notice differences in the style from one season to the other.The other thing [I notice] sometimes is the lack of layering, due to the warm weather. I miss layering, because layering is an opportunity to play with and be more creative with clothes. 
Image by Alkistis Tsitouri, Los Angeles, California. 
Brent: So what other bloggers or photographers have been most influential on your work?

Alkistis: The Sartorialist, Hel Looks, and Facehunter. With Facehunter we have also participated in a project called “Vienna Fashion Observatory” but unfortunately we did not coincide, he was there a few weeks before us.They invited us [and other artists, designers, and bloggers] to do what we do [as a way to capture the look of Vienna]. We observed the city from a fashion focus point. But it was more like a survey.  

Brent: Was it sort of like a social study? A social study of style.

Alkistis: Yes.
Image by Alkistis Tsitouri for the Vienna Fashion Observatory, Vienna, Austria.
Brent: This brings up one of the things I’ve been thinking about lately, while doing street style myself: It’s not really that different from what I do as an anthropologist.

Alkistis: Exactly. And that’s what is so interesting [about it]. So we [Aris and I] were there for two weeks. It was the first time that I was so close to other bloggers like me.

Brent: Do you think that in the blogosphere these days those kinds of in-person personal relationships still matters in terms of networking and getting your blogs out there and getting recognition?

Alkistis: Of course. It’s all based —[whether] street style, fashion photography, [or] the blog we have — on relationships. First of all, the people on the street have to trust you, so that they let you take the picture, and sign the release. I don’t know if you’re doing releases?

Brent: I am. You do them as well?

Alkistis: Of course.

Brent: So few of the people I’ve talked to seem to.

Alkistis: While it is not really required to obtain a release, I like to be upfront about the use of the photos.
Image by Alkistis Tsitouri, Brooklyn, New York.
Brent: Yeah, that makes sense. I’ve always wondered about that. And yet, I’ve heard so few stories of street style bloggers using releases. I assume that people who are writing books must be doing releases, but I don’t know.

Alkistis: I don’t know either. It would be a great question for others.

Brent: Well if I can get Scott Schuman to let me interview him I’ll ask him.

Alkistis: How about with Facehunter? Because he did a book, and he’s taking millions of pictures all the time. That would be interesting [to know too].

Brent: It’s sort of hard to imagine he gets releases for all of them.

Alkistis: Probably not.
Brent: So aside from getting photo releases and whatnot, is there anything that you do to establish trust between you and the people you take pictures of? What’s your routine when you go up to somebody?

Image by Alkistis Tsitouri, Athens, Greece. 
Alkistis: I stop them and say “Sorry, I’m a fashion blogger.” It’s easier nowadays because I [just] say I’m a fashion blogger, and they’re like, “Oh. Yeah. [Okay].”  I say, “Hey, I’m a fashion blogger or a street style blogger.” It depends on the situation, [though] usually I say I’m a fashion blogger. “And I take pictures of people I find on the street and I like their style like you. Can I take your picture?” And then I introduce myself and ask for their name and continue with casual chitchat.
Brent: Right. And how often do people turn you down?

Alkistis: It’s a small percentage, but it is consistently there. Some people are shy, and you can’t do anything about it. And some people just run away from you. I don’t know if you have that (same thing happen to you). It’s pretty rare, [though].

Brent: It’s pretty rare for me as well. And what I find is that I usually know instantly that they are going to turn me down, once I ask them.

Alkistis: Yes, exactly. And I don’t even push.

Image by Alkistis Tsitouri, Athens, Greece. 
Brent: How do you determine whether you [even] want to photograph somebody?

Alkistis: Sometimes I instantly know. I mean, it doesn’t even go through my brain. My body just runs up to them, and I start talking to them, and then I realize, “Oh! I just did that!” Sometimes I think twice and I follow them and double check the clothes and the style [they’re wearing]. So, I don’t know. There’s something that attracts me. Sometimes it’s just the clothes. Sometimes it’s the face. Sometimes it’s all [of it] together. There’s something about some people. I don’t know how to say what it is.

Brent: Do you ever regret the choice [of subject for your photographs]?

Alkistis: Not really. Mostly I regret mistakes I make in taking the picture. That’s what I regret. When the picture is not good enough, I did something wrong, not the people [I photograph].
Brent: And do you do anything to get people to relax when you take their pictures?

Alkistis: Sometimes I don’t want them to relax, so I’m very strict with them. [Only] sometimes, though. It’s easier for me to get them to pose the way I want them to pose [when they’re not too relaxed]. Sometimes, [however], if they’re too stressed, then I need to relax them, because they look very tense posing the way I want them to pose. So, I talk to them more, and I talk to them while I shoot them, which really helps. Otherwise [they] feel very vulnerable there, and it makes sense since they’re in the middle of the street and there’s a person [they] don’t know and have seen for the first time directing them and taking their picture. So, the more you talk to them the easier [it is]. They don’t think about what they’re doing [that way].
Image by Alkistis Tsitouri, Athens, Greece.
Brent: How many pictures on average would you say you take of someone?

Alkistis: On average it’s about twenty clicks. It doesn’t feel that much for them, [though]. Usually the first ones are the best.
Brent: Yeah, I notice that for myself too. I feel like I use one of my first pictures the majority of the time. I probably do about the same number of shots as you do.

Alkistis: Because actually they don’t feel comfortable after too many clicks. They think maybe something is wrong with them. Which is not true.

Brent: So I notice on your blog [that you] currently have ShopBop as a sponsor, and I’m wondering what your personal thoughts are on paid content, advertising, sponsored posts and whatnot on blogs.

Alkistis: Well, when it happens, basically, it’s a very good thing, because it gives you the opportunity to keep on doing what you’re doing without having to worry about having another job. I appreciate it actually. It means you’re doing something good. And it gives you the means to work more on what you’re already doing.

Image by Alkistis Tsitouri, Los Angeles, California.
Brent: So have advertisements that you’ve had on your blog been enough to make a living off of for you, or have you had to supplement your income in other ways?

Alkistis: Well, we only have one ad, so, no it’s not enough. But it’s very helpful. The rest of my income comes from projects that come from the blog. Companies, or [potential] clients who like the blog, contact me to do Street Style or other Fashion photoshoots. So the blog is my job, I guess. And it brings jobs as well.
Brent: Streetgeist serves as a kind of online portfolio for you. It provides people a way of finding out what kind of work you do and contacting you because of it.

Alkistis:  Yes, it’s something like that. I don’t know how people would [find me] otherwise. [And I still think it’s sort of] amazing that people contact me for work because they like our blog.       

Brent: I think a lot of people would love to be in that position.

Alkistis: Exactly. And that’s because of the blog. This is a totally new age thing.

Image by Alkistis Tsitouri, Brooklyn, New York.
Brent: So in your professional fashion work do you maintain the same basic aesthetic, or do you have to gear it around what the client wants?

Alkistis: The second, of course. And it’s nice, because imagine only taking pictures like [those on my blog] for the rest of my life! It’s great for Streetgeist, but it’s good that I can do other stuff as well. And it’s great for me that I’m able to switch and do whatever the client needs.
Brent: I love the name Streetgeist. It’s one of the more clever names for a street style blog I’ve heard. How did that come about?

Alkistis: Thank you for saying that. [The name is] actually the baby of Aris, the other Streetgeist founder. We were trying to come up with a nice name, “street blah blah blah blah blah,” and he had this epiphany, “Streetgeist.” Geist in German means “ghost” or “spirit,” and when he came up with the name I was like “I think that’s the one!”
Image by Alkistis Tsitouri, Athens, Greece.
Brent: And you were fortunate that it was available as a URL.

Alkistis: That’s true.

Brent: It feels like it’s getting more and more difficult to come up with a name that’s not taken.

Alkistis: And because of that we found [the name Streetgeist]. We had other ideas before Streetgeist, but we checked on them and they weren’t available. It [forced us to] be more creative.

Brent: Is there anything else you would like my readers to know about you or Streetgeist?

Alkistis: Well, I don’t know if it’s important, but I was thinking before when we were talking about Facehunter, that what allowed me to overcome my fears in the beginning when we started the blog was that I was looking at Facehunter’s blog, and I went back and back and back [through his posts], until I came to his first pictures in 2006.  The first pictures were just not as nice as his work now, or were then in 2008, and that allowed me to see that he had [in fact] evolved. [He had become] such a good blogger and such a good photographer, and by 2008 everything he was doing was just so amazing. So I realized, I can start [my own blog] as well, even if it isn’t perfect [at first]. And I can hope that I can evolve too]. And that thought allowed me to start [the blog in the first place].

Image by Alkistis Tsitouri, Long Beach, California.



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