Interview: Daniel Šperl

The Czech photographer talks about Lifestyle USA, a series of black-and-white photographs taken during his American travels

Americans in Prague used to seeing the city through their own eyes now have an opportunity to look at the US through the lens of a Czech photographer.

For the next few weeks, Školská 28, a small gallery hidden at the end of a passage around the corner from Vodičkova, is exhibiting Lifestyle USA, a collection of photographs by Daniel Šperl documenting the street life of east and west coast America.

"I take pictures everyday and everywhere," says Šperl. "It's like a diary for me."

The photographs, all in black and white, are taken during Šperl's personal trips to the USA and capture the faces, emotions and stunning imagery that perhaps are only visible to a foreigner. What might seem like a bus shelter or a set of stone steps to the everyday observer is suddenly transformed into a dramatic scene, often framing characters that speak their lives to you through their expressions.

"I like looking at pictures taken by foreigners," he says. "I can't take pictures of Prague – it's very hard for me. I work here every day and have no energy for it."

It's the difference in lifestyle, he says, that attracted Šperl to the US - in particular California. "You notice the small things," he says, "for example, social interaction. When you go to a shop in America, the shopkeeper smiles and asks if he can help you. It's very different over here."

When asked about his inspiration, he answers in one word: "People."

"I like looking around me for something interesting and unusual yet natural," he adds. "Everyday life is very rich in this respect."

One of his main aims, he says, is simply to take pictures of emotions and situations that people can recognize and relate to.

The photographs are certainly sensitive enough to convey such nuances of emotion and it is this, he says, that he's looking for in the split second before he pushes the shutter button. Yet, strangely, it's not a warm feeling you get when looking at his work. Many of his subjects appear to be alienated from their surroundings or somehow separated from society.

One of the more touching pictures shows a young woman walking down a busy sidewalk in New York. Her face carries a worried anxiety that singles her out from the crowd. "There are a lot of people, but she is alone," Šperl explains. "She is sad and has some trouble and a personal story to tell. It's a question for us, what these stories might be."

Maybe the loneliness is a projection of his own personality, he speculates. This feeling is emphasized through shooting all the pictures in black and white. The lack of color focuses attention on the often symbolic forms and shapes found in the pictures. Indeed, much of the work concentrates on the shadows cast by people or things, as opposed to the people or things themselves. But Šperl, rather modestly, has another explanation for his black-and-white imagery.

"It's very simple," he says, "I don't know color. I was born in 1966 and grew up in a black-and-white era. Then I studied at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU), a very traditional institution where many of the teachers specialized in black-and-white photography." But it’s also about control, he adds. Working in black and white means he can craft every stage of production by himself.

After graduating from FAMU, Šperl has made photographic studies of life in France, Japan, Israel, Portugal and, of course, the US. He has published two books - one about the mentally disabled, and another on everyday celebrations in the Czech Republic.

The official opening was held two weeks into the exhibition because Šperl was away in Finland and Estonia doing his day job as a cameraman for TV Nova. Although hard work, he says photography is simply recreation for him - and he prefers it this way. If he had to earn a living through taking pictures he would cease to enjoy it.

• Lifestyle USA is at Školská 28 until April 21st; from April 13th, the exhibition spills over into two nearby venues - 16 further photographs from Lifestyle USA will be exhibited in Café Therapy and nine photographs taken from of Šperl's series on Japanese life will be exhibited in the Amana tea shop; admission is free

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