(Above image by Justin Vogel)
Justin Vogel (aka justinsdisgustin) was born and raised in Hells Kitchen in New York City and describes himself as a 42-year old unemployed stay-at-home father of a two year old baby boy. Although he refers to himself as a “dirt bag” his insight and ability to create captivating images is incredible. He captures a unique vision of his neighborhood that is often raw and gritty primarily in film. Opionated and full of vigor, he is definitely a seminal figure in the street photography and his work with the Hardcore Street Photography Group on Flickr. We caught up with Justin and found more about the man behind the camera.
Huge pleasure to have you Justin. Can you tell us a bit more about your personal story with street photography. How did you stumble upon street photography, and how does it reflect your personal character?
I started taking pictures when I was in high school in the mid eighties. I didn’t really know there was such a thing as Street Photography back then, but shooting in the street was something I gravitated towards instinctually. I was a Hardcore kid in NYC and I mostly shot around the lower east side of manhattan, outside of CBGBs, the bums on the bowery, crackheads and street people. At the time I was admittedly more into being obnoxious with my camera and less interested in making good pictures. I enjoyed the confrontational aspect of it, maybe a bit too much. I studied photography a bit in college but eventually other interests won out and ultimately I decided it wasn’t for me. I didn’t start taking pictures seriously again (if you can call it that) until a few years ago. So basically I have been shooting Street for 30 years, with a 26 year gap in the middle of it. As far as my personal character goes, I am, in my heart, a punk rocker. That is the filter thru which I view the world. To me, Street Photography is punk rock.
You have been shooting the lower east side of New York since the eighties. Tell us the type of people that you liked to shoot and how the people in that neighborhood have changed over the years.
I like all types of people. I like the “haves”, and the “Have-nots”. Anybody interesting, anybody with style. I like the people who walk around with a big FUCK YOU on their faces. I like the people who walk around with their hearts on their sleeves. I guess you could say characters or whatever, but I kinda hate that term. I shoot the same Streets day after day, year after year, and I shoot the people who I share those streets with. The people’s style’s change, but the Street stays the same. They clean shit up, raise the rents etc. it doesn’t change things. Back in the eighties this world down here was an immense shit hole. Now it is super fancy. 10 years from now it will be a shit hole again. Part of me cant wait.
As a photographer, what do you want to achieve with your photography? What is more important to you: the story behind your images or the image itself?
Well, Im not very ambitious, I have no grand artist’s statement, I just like making pictures. And I want to make them as good as I can. Making pictures is something that brings me tremendous pleasure. Sharing the pictures with an audience who appreciates them is gravy. I like seeing into peoples little worlds, their souls or whatever, and capturing that essence, and I enjoy allowing people to gain access into mine, thru my pictures. In terms of goals, I would be happy if I could produce 25 to 30 great images over the course of my lifetime. Of course that presupposes that I live long enough to do so. In the mean time, I just hope I can make people laugh.
If the image doesn’t tell the story, or at least make it irrelevant, it is in my eyes, a fail. Meh, I think maybe I don’t really understand that question. The story behind the image doesn’t mean jack shit. Nobody cares really if I stood in the rain for an hour or was standing under an awning with a space heater, if the shot resonates that is all that matters. Is that what you are asking? Is it me, or is that kind of a dumb question? Final answer: The image is all that matters.
What are some clichés you see in street photography that you suggest people to stay clear of?
This is something that I could go on and on about. I think the notion of invisibility is absurd. You don’t need to be invisible to shoot Street. Nobody is going to notice you unless you are acting like an idiot. Just relax and take your pictures. People cant hear your shutter clack, they don’t care if you are using a Leica (there is no need to tape over the logo). That whole pretense of being stealth is a waste of time. If you act sneaky, people WILL notice you.
Shooting buskers, street performers, parades, whatever the fuck. These people are performing publicly, the photograph you are most likely to make isn’t candid. Those people are for the most part performing for the camera, or at least for the audience, and as a result, the image you see is the one they are consciously showing you. I am by no means saying it is impossible to make a good picture with these performers, but you have to try doubly hard to penetrate their public mask. Basically, it is a cliche to take a picture OF a street performer, but it is possible to make a picture WITH a street performer. The difference may sound subtle, but the results are worlds apart.
Closer is better. To me there is a huge difference between physical closeness and emotional closeness. I suggest using a 28mm to 35mm lens to ensure physical closeness, but without an emotional closeness it is hard to create an interesting photograph. You can do it thru composition, or juxtas and what not, but there is something special about getting inside. I guess what I am talking about is feeling a connection to the subject.
Hip shooting. Don’t do it. It is a bad habit and the rewards from doing so are tainted. Especially shooting film, it is just a huge waste. The truth is shooting people on the street requires a certain disposition that not everybody has. There is no shame in admitting it isn’t for you. I think the whole “growing balls” thing is bullshit machismo, and quite frankly, I find it boring. I don’t think it is necessary to change ones anatomy to make good pictures, I think caring about what you are doing enough to look thru the view finder is the bare minimum though.
Tell us what equipment you are currently using or have previously used in street photography and how it affects your process.
I shoot exclusively with 35mm color negative film. I use a Leica M2, (your sponsors will be pleased, I’m sure). Or an Olympus XA4. Both have a 28mm lens. I never use any other focal length. I strive for consistency in my images and I find reducing variables as much as possible has helped to achieve that. I shot with a digital point and shoot briefly and I didn’t like it. I never shot with anything like an M9, I might change my tune if I got my hands on one of those, but that shit isn’t in my budget. With that said, let me add it is not about the gear. A great camera wont make you a great photographer, it really just raises everybody’s expectations. Shoot with whatever you feel comfortable with. Comfort is king.
You shoot primarily in film and your images have great depth and soul to them. How does shooting in film affect how you capture and see the world versus digital?
Not primarily, exclusively. I don’t even own a digital camera at this point. I don’t think shooting film or digital really makes much of a difference in terms of what I shoot or how I shoot. I just like the tactile nature of film. I think that is the great loss of the digital age. I love vinyl records too, for sorta the same reason. There is something about the inconvenience of it all that makes me focus more on the act. It makes me pay more attention to what i am doing. And then, on a purely superficial level, it just looks cooler. That is the actual truth. I shoot film because I think it makes me look cool. I don’t actually give a shit about which is better or why.
Describe your process when you are out shooting in the streets. Do you go out looking for opportunities, or do you let them come to you?
I just get in the flow and let it happen. I guess sometimes they come to me, sometimes I have to chase them down. I am a very lazy person by nature, so I don’t get all wound up in it. Sometimes when I am in the zone everything kind of slows down and I start skimming the crowd with my eyes, looking for the right person, doing the right thing. I watch the sunlight, and follow it, watching to see what gets lit up and how, and when everything comes together I am hopefully in a position to execute. But most of the time I am just doing my shopping or whatever and I see something quick. I always ALWAYS ALWAYS carry my camera in my hand ready to shoot.
Tell us about your history with the vastly popular Hardcore Street Photography Group on Flickr and your personal involvement with it. What do you love most about the group and what are some things that you would like to change?
Pathetic really. I joined HCSP because I was particularly proud of a Sleeping Homeless Man picture I took, and wanted to put it in some street groups I found on Flickr. After I submitted it to HCSP, I noticed it wasn’t appearing in their pool, so I submitted it again and again and again. Then I went and checked out their discussion threads to find out why my masterpiece wasn’t accepted. I posted it to their infamous Image Critique Thread, and I got my ass handed to me. At first I whined like a bitch, insulted the Administrators, and was in general a complete dick.
Then I started listening and looking. These guys knew what the fuck they were talking about and they had the photo streams to back that shit up. I learned a lot about SP in a relatively short period of time. I basically received an education for free. I learned what books to look at, which photographers to study, etc. After hanging out there for a year or two on the threads, much to many, many, peoples surprise and chagrin I got asked to fill a vacant spot amongst the Admins.
Anybody familiar with HCSP knows there is a lot wrong with a group that large and unwieldy. At last count there were like 41 thousand members. Most discussions devolve into name calling and petty internet bullshit pretty quickly. I don’t really know how to change that, or I would have done so already.
The one thing I would change, if I were really large and in charge, would be ANONYMOUS TROLLS. I would ban them from existence. They are the scourge of the internet. I think people who don’t have the strength of their convictions to stand behind their words, who post antagonizing things under a fake name, who hide behind some stupid buddy icon, and attack without consequence, are gutless cowards. That is what I would change. I would have all Anonymous Trolls stripped naked, covered in maple syrup, and lashed to a giant ant hill.
How do you differentiate a “bad” street photograph from a “good” street photograph. How much of creating a good image is subjective vs objective?
Well, when viewing other peoples photographs, I go thru a process. First and foremost I go with my gut. Do I love it, or do I hate it? If I love it, I ask myself why? Is it the composition? The framing? Is it the subject matter? The content? Why does this image effect me? If I hate it I try to isolate the reason. Is the post processing the first thing I am seeing? Are the technical flaws too massive? Is the subject matter boring? And so on. If I conclude that the problem I am having with a picture is personal, I try to step out of myself.
For example, I hate plastic bags. The generic ones you get from the corner store. I cant stand looking at them in my pictures and I don’t like seeing them in other people’s pictures either. But a realize this is my own prejudice at work, so I try to rise above it. I try to look at the picture and see if everything else is great, if things are spaced well, if the composition is strong etc. I can look past my subjective dislikes and see the photograph for what it is. So, yeah, it is a little bit of both. Six of one half dozen of the other. It is subjective, and objective. Did I do A good job not answering that one? With my own photographs it is much simpler: They are all bad.
How do you see the genre of street photography evolving over the next decade?
I dunno man, ten years is an awful long time. What with the internet, and the explosion of social media, I think we will see a lot more quality work coming out of nowhere. I think we will see a lot more Vivian Maier types being discovered as a result. I think the bubble is bound to burst in terms of popularity and media attention as soon as the Next Big Thing comes along, but there will always be people like myself who will go out every day and shoot the Streets regardless of the genre’s relative popularity.
At the same time a lot of the current notables, I imagine, will drift into other more lucrative genres. I think that for the majority, SP is something you either get good at, and move on, or something you suck at, and quit in frustration. Very few people hang in there and shoot Street exclusively. I mean, shit, it doesn’t pay the bills. Oh, well it pays your bills, but most people aren’t cut out to teach workshops and shit. I wouldn’t be able to. The idea of me taking peoples money and passing myself off as an expert is to me, laughable.
What are some misconceptions that people often have about your character or your work?
People who stumble across me, who aren’t SP enthusiasts, tend to think some of my shit is abusive or exploitation or whatever. I have been reviled in places like DPreview by ignorant people who think I am violating people’s privacy etc. A lot of photographers, not to mention the general public, don’t really get SP. They don’t understand the art of it. They think it is just snap shots of strangers without consent. Other people, who maybe are more informed about SP, think I am arrogant. That I am a loud mouth without the goods to back it up. Oh wait, that’s not a misconception, that is actually pretty accurate. All I can say in my defense is my best work is still 5 or 10 years away, and that I am in it for the long haul.
Describe the current projects you are working on. What are some other future projects you would like to work on as well?
I don’t really work projects per se. I have a few things simmering on back burners, but for the most part I am just out, shooting daily. Posting to flickr, getting feedback, learning from my fails and just trying to get better. Every roll of film I shoot brings me that much closer to that elusive Great Shot. As an admin over at HCSP I end up looking at a shit ton of SP in the submission queue. Mostly garbage, but you learn from the garbage too. You learn from the stuff that doesn’t work as much, if not more, than you learn from the stuff that does work.
Also I am a member of a closed membership critique group called Burn My Eye that is a fantastic resource for me. And I very recently joined the Strange.rs collective. So I am really looking forward to seeing what I can get going on over there as well. Oh yeah, and Street Reverb. I contribute there as much as I can.
What are some words of wisdom you would give to aspiring street photographers who are having difficulty finding their own voice?
That is a tough one. I never ever had an issue with developing a personal style, or finding my voice. I think style is innate. It is a part of your DNA. However, practically speaking, I think consistency is as important as originality. I think if you stick to one camera, one lens, one technique, and just concentrate your energies on it, you will at the very least have a tight, consistent body of work to edit. There is nothing I hate more than looking at somebody’s photostream and seeing random color, B&W, model’s head shots, and like macro rainbow puppies or some shit all mixed together without rhyme or reason. With no flow, nothing that connects the images. Nothing that indicates that it is all the work of one person.
I am all for experimenting with all kinds of shit until you figure out what rings your bell, but when you are posting it to the internet, or putting together a portfolio, do it in a manner that suggests you are aware of the effort that people put into looking at your garbage. I personally try to make my Flickr stream feel like an on-going, infinitely enjoyable, slide show. I hope to entertain people while they are visiting me. These days time is money, and I don’t want to waste either of anybody’s.
Are there any shout-outs that you would like to give?
Well, certainly all the folks at HCSP. I think that place is one of the best resources for Street Photography on the planet. Bryan Formhals ,Jeff Hammond, and Kramer Oneil, in particular, have been really supportive of me and I owe them big time. Also, Harvey Arche, Simon Kosoff, and a guy named Blacky. I have never met any of those guys in person, but they have all really encouraged me to keep at it and helped me develop as a photographer. Then there is my family and friends. They are the most important things in the world to me outside of Street Photography. Lindsey, I love you! Oh, one last shout out: SETH GOLDFARB. He is Terry Richardson’s number one assistant, and he has one of the most diabolically brilliant minds in the world!
Is there anything else you would like to mention that I missed?
Not really. Just this: There are plenty of people out there who are better at SP than I am, more knowledgeable and what not, More deserving of attention, for sure, but there are very few people who are more passionate about it than I am. I don’t know if that comes thru in this interview or not, I hope it does though. You can think whatever you want of me and my pictures, but the one thing that is a solid fact is that I love Shooting Street, and I wouldn’t stop for anything. I feel almost evangelical about it. This is my calling, this is the thing I love. I am a Street Photographer.
What stuck out to you most about this interview with Justin? Share which of his images are your favorite, and show him some love by leaving a comment below!