He began his professional career as a comedy writer and actor for corporate events and wandered into photography later in life. At first he enjoyed street photography purely for pleasure and had no expectations. But serendipity stepped in, and since then Craig Semetko’s life has been one lucky break after another. After 10 years of working as an amateur photographer, his first book, Unposed, was published (teNeues, 2010). People took notice of the subtle humor and interesting slices of life in his images. “None of the images were staged; some were taken with the subjects’ knowledge, but most without,” says Semetko. “When I see something that amuses me, I just click without thinking. Thinking constipates things.”
Semetko was one of 10 photographers chosen for an exhibition to premiere at the grand opening of the new Leica headquarters and factory in Wetzlar, Germany on the company’s 100th anniversary. The photographs he produced also resulted in his second book, India Unposed (StreetView Press, 2014).
His comedy background gives him a highly developed sense of the absurd and the ironic, which is reflected his work. In the foreword to Unposed, Elliott Erwitt wrote, “Good photographs are tough enough to shoot. Really funny ones are even harder… In my book, [Semetko] is the essential photographer. That is, the one who sees what others could not have seen.”
Semetko is in demand for workshops and lectures both in the U.S. and abroad. I first met him when he lectured at the Leica Store in Miami with his photographs on display. He later graciously agreed to an interview, and although by then he was in California, we were able to meet via Skype.
Ken Lassiter: What was your early life like?
Craig Semetko: I was born near Detroit, Michigan and grew up in the suburbs. My father was an extremely funny guy, and I inherited his sense of humor. My mom is very tenacious and persistent; I hope I take after them both.
KL: What was your first career choice?
CS: I had been a professional actor and comedy writer for most of my adult life. I wrote and performed comedy sketches for large corporate events, and I still do that occasionally.
KL: What college did you attend, and what did you study?
CS: I went to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and studied speech and political science. At one point in my life, I was convinced I would go into politics. When I was 16, I was a page in the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. and went back as an intern when I was 19. After the internship, I decided that if I were going to BS people, I should at least be upfront about it and became an actor.
KL: How did your college experiences prepare you for your career today?
CS: I studied human behavior and loved people-watching, even as a kid. I learned to read body language, and that helps me anticipate what people might do next.
KL: What got you interested in photography?
CS: In the year 2000, I had a three-month gig for a large corporation that took me all over the United States, England, Ireland, China and Japan. It hit me that I should probably take a camera to record what I saw. I didn’t own a camera, so I bought a medium- range SLR. In Shanghai, I photographed two peasant women going down a stream in a dugout canoe. When I saw the picture, I was shocked. It didn’t look like a standard tourist picture — to me, it looked like a picture out of National Geographic. Then it struck me: I could use photography as another medium to tell stories. And that’s how it started as an extension of my writing and acting.
KL: Tell me about buying your first Leica.
CS: After taking the photo o f the two peasant women in Shanghai, I thought that if I just had a big zoom lens, then I would be a real photographer. Ha! I went to camera stores in Hong Kong but didn’t find what I was looking for. In one store, I saw a sign for Leica, which I had never heard of and didn’t know how to pronounce. I asked, “What are those ‘Leesa’ cameras in the corner?” The salesman corrected my pronunciation and said, “They are very expensive and very complicated — and not for you!”
After I got back to Los Angeles, I went into a camera store to buy the zoom lens and stood behind a lady buying a new camera. I heard the salesman ask her, “What do you like to shoot?” I thought that was an interesting question and went downstairs to come up with an answer. When I went back upstairs it was my turn and the salesman asked me, “What do you like to shoot?” I responded, “Funny you should ask. I like to photograph people and I travel a lot.” He asked, “Have you ever thought about a Leica?”
My blood ran cold because I knew Leicas were “very expensive and complicated.” He handed me a Leica M6. It felt great. I asked, how much? This was in 2000, and I was stunned when he told me the camera cost $1,800 — and I would still have to buy a lens. I asked for time to think about it. He said, “I understand. Take these brochures. Go home. You won’t sleep tonight.” He was right. I was up most of the night looking at the brochures, which included many photographs by famous street photographers and an interview with Henri Cartier-Bresson. I was captivated by his philosophy and images. The next day I went back and bought the camera. I said to the salesman, “Please tell me I won’t regret this purchase.” He responded, “You’ll only regret it if you don’t use it.” I decided then and there to use the heck out of it.
KL: How did Cartier-Bresson become your main influence?
CS: I bought all his books and pored over them. I loved his ability to capture the decisive moment and his sense of geometry. I also discovered the work of Elliott Erwitt, who is known for his humor. I wanted to marry their two styles.
More of this article can be read in the Summer 2015 issue.