Eric’s Note: I am excited to share this interview which was conducted by Brian Eden, a street photographer in New York City. He interviewed Joshua Yospyn, a freelance photographer from Washington D.C. about his “American Sequitur” project. Find out more about how Joshua got started and see some more of his photos in the interview below!
Brian: Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? Where do you live?
Joshua: I was born in Cleveland, moved to Detroit halfway through the first grade, and went to college in Dayton, Ohio. That was my fill of the Midwest. After graduation I committed to the Eastern seaboard. I’ve always been drawing or creating things, but photography never entered my mind until I moved to DC at the turn of the century (it sounds weird to say that).
What got you into street photography?
First, let me say that I’m not a street photographer. I don’t walk around town with my camera every day. Sometimes I do, but I’m not a Flâneur in the traditional sense. Instead of city sidewalks, I prefer campaign rallies, protests, the suburbs, naturalization ceremonies, highway rest areas, rainstorms, parades, or the state of Florida. Florida is weird, very weird. It’s a goldmine. Hector Isaac, who’s also a member of the STRATA Collective, is in Miami and gets bizarre, fantastic stuff.
What got me to this point was a cross section of things that mostly occurred in 2009. That year I started freelancing for one of MSNBC’s websites doing political coverage, running around town getting candids of politicians or activists, and I also worked with a reporter for “street style” spreads in The Washington Post. At the same time, I began using a football-sized Mamiya 6×7 camera to take portraits of people on the street. Also in 2009, I helped start Worn Magazine, a style and arts beat that still publishes hardcopy photography magazines in DC. I’m no longer a part of it, but for two years I blogged about the arts scene from Richmond to Baltimore, plus I had a place to stick my street portraiture.
Finally, several years ago I stumbled into a group called the “Cult of Frank Van Riper,” also known as “Suds and Silver,” (a reference to drinking beer and talking about developing film—Silver bromide crystals). The group is comprised of photography students or friends of Frank’s, including many street photographers.
Anyway, a lot of things got me into street photography.
How did you get your photography to where it is now? Have you had formal training? Did you teach yourself?
I’ve taken a few workshops but largely taught myself when or how to push the button. I applied to a few grad schools, was rejected by all three and will probably try again this winter. Yet justifying $60,000-plus in debt is almost impossible. I would rather spend $6,000 to arrange 60 meetings with editors in New York or elsewhere. That makes more sense to me.
What do you look for when you’re shooting? What inspires you? What catches your eye?
I look for anything weird and ironic, but lately I’ve been pushing the boundaries of banality. Like this series I did of my cousin mowing his lawn. This is consistent with my belief that reality is far more interesting than what you see on TV or in glossies.
The challenge is to photograph the commonplace in such a way that’s provocative, revealing and being mindful of what’s considered “contemporary.” It often involves taking risks.
What are the most rewarding parts of photography for you?
Photography is a reward in itself. A good image is like your birthday. It’s like Christmas. Everyone likes presents. Sometimes you get socks, but every once in a while you get laser tag.
You also shoot editorial work – what do you see as the main differences in that work and your photography?
Photographing for yourself is very different from photographing for someone else—for a writer, for an editor, for a designer, for a page layout, for a paycheck or for the clock. Occasionally these worlds merge and you have total freedom to create and experiment, but it doesn’t always go that way. Regardless, I always have a street mentality in mind. I want to get something real and candid, even if that person is staged beneath 3200 watts of artificial light in a studio. With editorial it’s hard to plan reality, so it’s mostly replaced by anxiety.
By the way a great site for editorial photographers and freelancers is http://whopaysphotogs.tumblr.com/.
It seems most American photographers are based in New York, Chicago, LA and San Francisco. What are the advantages, opportunities and challenges that come with being a photographer based in Washington DC?
They are? New York of course, but I honestly don’t know the geographic allocation of street photographer density. That would be an interesting Flickr experiment.
DC is just like any other city, only more so. We have mass gentrification, mass transportation and mass political insanity. Everyone comes through here at some point. DC is the world’s turnstile. It’s a great place to be with a camera. For the challenges or opportunities of street photography in DC, you should talk to Matt Dunn (also in STRATA).
Your work does a brilliant job of weaving in humor and irony. Tell us a little more about the way you use humor as a storytelling element throughout your American Sequitur project.
Thanks. Creating this book has been like hunting for yeast. It’s as if I’m poking my finger at the Pillsbury Doughboy. You love him, but you’re also looking at the ingredients. This is the essence of American Sequitur on a base level.
A very important lesson I’ve learned over the years involves sequencing images to heighten their meaning. I’m creating diptychs—images on facing pages—that juxtapose for greater irony, whimsy and impact. Then beyond the diptychs, the book itself will be one giant sequence that has to be done right. This takes time and I’m getting help from a lot of people.
What do you hope people take away from the American Sequitur project?
I hope they enjoy the images and take away a different interpretation of America than they traditionally knew.
Tell us a story behind one of your favorite shots from the project.
A few years ago in Florida I drove past a young man walking on a sidewalk with a sign that read, “I stole from this store.” I pulled into a Walmart parking lot nearby, walked up to him and asked to take his portrait. He was totally fine with it. Apparently he shoplifted from that same Walmart and the judge gave him the option of carrying that sign for a couple hours or paying a fine and probation (possibly something else, I can’t remember precisely).
Anyway, he chose to walk with the sign. He also told me to talk to a supervisor sitting in a car nearby, who made sure he carried out his sentence. She didn’t care if I took pictures either. The entire episode was so Florida—so weird and random. When I returned home, I discovered a This American Life story on the town’s judge.
What photographers or artists do you look up to?
As mentioned in the New York Times Lens blog piece, Martin Parr and Stephen Crowley are big influences, but I also try to keep up on what Alec Soth and Emily Shur are doing. Visually, I also love a good illustrator. Barry Blitt used to do Frank Rich’s column in NYT and Ben Wiseman does Frank Bruni’s column. DC-based Elizabeth Graeber should be doing someone’s column.
On a day-to-day basis, my friends in the STRATA Collective are hugely influential and motivating. We often photograph together, but we’re constantly critiquing each other’s work and talking shop. There’s also a few exhibitions of our work coming up, notably during FotoWeek DC and the Miami Street Photography Festival (during Art Basel).
As far as deceased influences, it’s largely Diane Arbus and Harry Callahan. I find myself completely drawn to the way Callahan approached his photography. Maybe it’s because we’re both from Detroit.
It’s important to me to study the past. I devour biographies of photographers, of which there is a short supply.
Do you have any advice you’d like to share with aspiring street photographers?
- Show us something we haven’t seen before.
- Don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is a huge part of photography. If you’re not suffering enough, you don’t have a clue what makes a great image.
- Know what makes a great image.