Here at Streethunters HQ, the radar is always on and it is busy. As you probably know, there is an unrelenting flow of images coming in for landing at our social sites, and we’re always looking out for images touching down on remote fields as well. The internet begets crowded skies with street photography’s surging popularity, but every so often, our bleary-eyed air traffic controllers are jolted to attention by an image stronger than a cup of hot, strong joe.
Last fall, Jonathan Higbee shared such an image and our radar lit up. His photograph, ‘Times Square’ was our street photo of the week on October 30 and we weren’t the only ones to pick it up. The photograph earned Higbee the grand prize of the 2015 World Street Photography Awards and his winning shot is also the cover image for WSP’s recently released third annual book. The book is being released in conjunction with WSP’s exhibition at the Gudberg Nerger Gallery in Hamburg, Germany.
However, Jonathan Higbee is defined by more than his once-in-a-lifetime shot. At his core, the photographer is a New Yorker who has channeled his passion and love for the city into his own colorful, poetic style. One look at his portfolio and it’s plain to see that Jonathan Higbee, the street photographer, is also an artist. One with unwavering patience and a tireless work ethic. The same can be told from portfolio samples of his fine art and urban abstract/minimalism work. And it’s not just color and the moments that make Higbee’s work stand out. The shooter has a keen eye for the abundance of geometric delicacies the city can serve up.
An Interview with Street Photographer Jonathan Higbee
Jonathan Higbee was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions for Streethunters and gives us an honest look into his growth, his style, the state of street photography, his success and even the subsequent backlash to his award-winning ‘Times Square’ shot! Please enjoy this insightful conversation with a truly rising star and explore his work with the provided links!
Things are really happening for you right now… pushing your work farther into the physical world (the exhibitions, the book cover) and outside of the internet. How exciting is this for you? Did you visualize this happening as you’ve grown as a street photographer?
Seeing people enjoy and experience my work in more than just the digital medium is certainly a dream come true — and has been a goal ever since I began shooting the streets. I love the creativity and strategizing that goes into sharing work on social media (particularly Instagram), but I always visualize how each photograph can be experienced in a physical print, either hung in a gallery or in a book, while shooting, editing and processing my images. At first, I genuinely wasn’t so optimistic that this would actually happen, so I feel humbled and fortunate to be able to see my work offline lately.
What got you interested and started in street photography? Who were your influences/inspiration?
I moved to New York as a budding travel photographer. The independent national magazine I worked with was strapped for budget, so I was tasked with both writing and photographing for travel features. It was a natural progression for me as someone interested and active in travel photography to try my hand at shooting the street; an unbridled love for New York further fueled the desire to attempt capturing the spirit of the city in photographic form.
Also around the time I first moved to New York (at the end of 2009) I was introduced to the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Like my passion for NYC, seeing HCB’s imagery was also love at first sight. He’s been a major influencer, in both photography and philosophy. Artists like Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky and Ernst and contemporary shooters like Alex Webb, Matt Stuart, Siegfried Hansen, Michael Ernest Sweet and Jesse Marlow inspire me every single day. Though they’re both very different artists, Sweet and Eric Kim have generously mentored me at times and have each contributed to where I’m so fortunate to be in my career. Their opposing philosophies and styles have afforded me unique perspectives at opposite ends of the spectrum, and I think that’s been really valuable to how I’ve developed.
Your portfolio is exclusively color. Have you always shot color? If not, what moved you to color?
When I began shooting street I shot evenly in color and monochrome. It was a disaster, made my work inconsistent and bipolar. I believe to really be successful at shooting color, one has to be able to look at the world in a very different way than one looks at the world when they’re shooting black and white. It’s certainly not impossible to shoot both mediums well and many have done that successfully, but it was important for me to remove the inconsistencies in my work and allow my style to crystallize. To do that, (with a nudge from Eric Kim), I devoted myself to shooting entirely in color for one year. I decided to go with color for the experiment because color photography has always resonated with me, personally, in a deeper, more emotional way than monochrome. After the year of shooting and seeing the world in color ended I was hooked and haven’t really looked back as far as my street work goes.
Does color factor into your decision to take the shot?
Color majorly factors into my decision to squeeze the shutter. For better or worse, I’m really attracted to (or distracted by) color stories and palettes, sometimes to the detriment of any other worthwhile element in a scene.
Finding exhilarating color stories is a challenge living in a city like New York, which is notorious for being a drab, gray place. But I think the skills I’ve honed in pursuit of colorful elements and scenes have helped my NYC photography stick out. One of my favorite reactions to my work is when a viewer cannot believe a photograph was made in New York due to an abundance of color! Oh, that reminds me: Saul Leiter is also a big influence. A lot of his work was met with the same reaction, with many shocked that so many different red tones exist in Manhattan.
You also have a keen eye for geometric play in your images. I see it in both your urban abstract and minimalism work and your street. Did use of it one genre spawn use of it in the other?
Haha, yeah, I go ape shit for some good, colorful urban geometry. Graphic design theory and basic compositional fundamentals are interesting and important, so I love playing with real-world and unexpected geometry to create strong visual interest in my work. I try to use these design elements to lead viewers through the story I want to tell in a photograph, though when working with something as unpredictable as street, that’s not always possible. This might be why I gravitated toward urban abstract/minimalism: I have more control over the story and esthetics of the image while still putting my love for color and geometry to good use.
You have definitely developed your own style, it is very poetic.. Was it your initial goal to develop this style or is it something that created itself?
It makes me happy to hear my style described as poetic. That is certainly always a descriptor I had hoped to find association with, but I didn’t know if I’d arrive there. It took time for my work to organically cohere; forcing it can be disingenuous and likely the worst way to find one’s unique voice.
During my first year or so of street work, I was convinced that I would go the Bruce Gilden route. Being in Manhattan, I assumed that relentless crowds of people + tricky lighting + an abundance of muted palettes + near impossibility of subject isolation meant I was limited to a life of shooting street portraits of interesting characters. If done well those obviously are wonderful, but I think we suffer from an overabundance of street portraits flooding online photography channels right now. I deliberately set out to try something a little different. I’m not saying the kind of work that I’ve made in the past few years is unlike anything else in street photography, but I feel that for street photography from New York, it is a bit different and can stand on its own. Wanting to leave my own mark forced me to look at the city differently through the viewfinder. I gave myself space and freedom to allow my voice to develop naturally from there.
You also have some street portraits in your portfolio. Do you shoot portraits often? Do you enjoy that as much as your other shots?
Shooting classic-style portraits doesn’t excite me enough to get me out on the streets everyday, at least not in the same way that the hunt for an environmental street shot will.
It’s even difficult for me to stay engaged looking at street portraits these days! There are only so many shots of weathered older folks I can look at before they begin becoming unremarkable. That may be because I don’t feel like I’m a very good portrait shooter, or others might be able to relate to street portrait fatigue, who knows.
I don’t want to discount the degree of difficulty in making a successful street portrait — it’s absolutely not easy to do well — but after shooting those and then evolving my style to where it is now, I know firsthand that making successful photographs utilizing juxtaposition, layering, context and the decisive moment is a huge challenge, especially in dense, overcrowded cities. I thrive on the challenge and the photography that results from such hard work and investment of time. The Japanese have a term that encompasses this: ikigai, which roughly translates to “the reason you get up in the morning.” This kind of work, not portraits in the classic sense, is my ikigai.
What is your favorite photo and why?
My “Times Square, 2015” photo (man taking a photo with a blue camera, blue triangle billboard and woman playing with her hair in the background) is my favorite right now.
I spent five or six days over a period of two weeks returning to that spot, knowing I’d be able to walk away with something strong.
Along with the warm reception it received — which by the way has been immensely fulfilling — it also ignited a conversation that I’m proud of and could devote an entire book to discussing.
A few people insisted that the photograph was staged. Insinuating that I had choreographed the participants. I explained to them that the photo wasn’t staged. That I waited for the right moment, not knowing exactly what that would look like, but knowing that something good would eventually come along.
Needless to say they didn’t budge and instead doubled down on their accusations, calling me a liar!
Others said that it wasn’t street. Suggesting that comedic and/or whimsical scenes don’t qualify.
At first, these challenges really got to me. Until I realized this was an opportunity for me to grow.
- First, it was an opportunity to remind myself that objection is a sign of interest. Common sense seems to suggest that a good photo is marked by universal acceptance. Quite the opposite, a good photo is one that draws conversation. And a conversation almost always necessitates differing opinions. People don’t get worked up about things they agree with.
- Second, it gave me pause to consider what I consider sacred in photography. Street in particular. All too often we follow rules without ever questioning if we should, let alone determine when the rules should apply, and most importantly, understand why the rules exist. Consequently, we hold ourselves back because we play by someone else’s rules instead of creating our own.
So, I took the time to consider what I wanted to define my photography. And for me this ultimately boiled down to the question:
Should we insist that street photography obey the same rules as photojournalism?
Beyond the critics of my photo, a vocal contingent of purists insist that street must adhere to the rigid laws of photojournalism.
I however, firmly reject “rules” prohibiting staged photos, multiple exposures, long exposures, composite photos, extensive processing, etc., under the street photography umbrella.
Artistic liberty in telling the human social story is one of the key differences between street and documentary photography. And a major factor why I’m shooting street and not pursuing a career as a press photographer. The line between street and documentary is broad and distinct; pretending that it isn’t bores me.
I don’t want to be restricted by “rules” when making narrative visual art, and it’s been liberating not getting caught up in concerns over cropping, shooting from the hip, or other nonsense.
Too much time in street photography is spent on regulation and not enough out shooting! I attribute the success of this photograph to that evolution and awakening within me, and I hope the conversation continues so the street shackles can ultimately be shattered.
What is your favorite street photography experience? Is there a particular image of yours that has a weird/wonderful backstory?
One of the very first street photographs I made — back when I was focused on making portraits — left me with a smile and sense of purpose that was rare in my early days. I was photographing an interesting restaurant worker while he was on a smoke break near Bryant Park. He noticed me photographing him and waved. I smiled back. He gestured for me to come over, and I obliged. Unlike other encounters with photo subjects, he didn’t care to know why I was photographing him; instead, he immediately told me that he has more interesting tattoos all over his body, and wondered if I’d be interested in photographing them. Of course I was. He twisted and pulled at his clothes in various positions to show me all the work he’d had done, explaining each piece carefully. He loved every second of the attention, and I appreciated how comfortable he made me feel shooting strangers from then on out. That experience really helped me understand that not everyone who notices I’m photographing them is going to want to smash my camera.
Consumed, your project on the intersection of urban life and advertising in New York City seems like it was a perfect fit for you and your style. When and how did this idea come to you? How is it progressing and do you plan for this to become a book?
The first time I visited New York was when I was 16 in late ‘97. It was a long time, maybe a decade, until I was able to return. When I finally did, it had seemed like massive advertisements had taken over the streets since I was last there. Every corner I turned on my second trip to the city seemed to be met with a giant building-size ad. This really changed my experience of and relationship with the city. I became intrigued and decided to explore all the implications this mass visual consumption culture has on New York and New Yorkers. It’s difficult and painstaking to make each photograph in this series, but I do ultimately hope it’s realized as a book — and there are a few publishers who’ve expressed very early interest in helping achieve that dream.
Your self-portraiture fine art project, Akathisia, is a creative spawn of your withdrawal from antidepressants and dealing with anxiety and depression. Does shooting street provide any sort of therapy for you?
Street and studio work both provide therapy and relief from anxiety and depression. For its part, making street photography helps shuttle me to a place of zen because I’m forced to be in the moment and as much out of my head as possible. When I’m finally warmed up during a photo walk (it can take up to an hour of walking around before I feel I’m “in the zone”), it becomes almost a meditative or spiritual experience. It’s one of the few times I’m able to clear my head of anxiety to be fully present in the world and life.
Do you belong to any street communities or collectives? Do you think that street photography, as a whole, is in good health?
Street is healthier and more popular than it’s ever been. Smartphone camera ubiquity made everyone want to be a street photographer, which has its costs and benefits. More than anything, the fact that everyone now has a decent camera with them at all times means that more street photographs are being made, shared and consumed than ever.
Appreciation for the artform seems to be at an all time high, too. I’ve been told by many people over the years not to expect to make any money in street photography (not that that’s been a primary motivating factor anyway), but I’ve been fortunate enough to sell prints and bring in a decent income this year. I’m positive other street shooters can do the same.
As far as collectives go, I’m a member of the NYC Street Photographer Collective and the Camera of the Month Club , both of which are exploding in membership, releasing zines and planning shows — all signs of good health for street photography. I’m also stoked that I’ve been asked to be one of the launching artists for StreetPhotography.com, launching in early fall, which I think will be a landmark resource and asset to the genre as a whole. [I think Spyros is also a launching member of StreetPhotography.com…]
Do you have any future projects planned? What’s in the works/on the horizon?
I’ve been kept busy by really fun events and activities surrounding the World Street Photography Awards book release and annual gallery show, but I’m focused on making books and solo gallery show I talk about above become reality.
Another goal I’m working on I haven’t really talked about much. Though I don’t consider myself an expert by any means, I believe I have a lot to offer those who are early in their hobby or career who are looking for guidance. I haven’t exactly figured out how to do this but I’m working on it. A workshop is the most obvious answer but I’m not sold on that format for myself.
Everyone who’s involved in street is aware that there’s much politicking and infighting and insecure comment-section trolling at risk of toxifying the community, but I’ve been really fortunate in meeting some of the kindest, most helpful people while working my way up my photography career. I want to pay that generosity and love forward and help counteract all the negativity that can too often bog down what is otherwise one of the most powerful and beautiful artforms of the modern era.