Reality Through Abstract Visual Puzzles: An Interview With John Goldsmith, Vancouver-Based Street Photographer

John Goldsmith

(Above image by John Goldsmith)

Eric’s Note: I recently had the pleasure of interviewing John Goldsmith, a street photographer based out of Vancouver. He is part of the collective, and has also recently released a book, “Drop Out of Art School“. Goldsmith is one of the most prolific and valuable members in the street photography community and is always on the breaking edge of innovation.

I had the chance to ask him a few questions about his history in street photography, his work, and some of his future aspirations. If you want to gain lots of insight from his way of working, read on.

Dear John, huge pleasure to have you. For those of our viewers who may not be familiar with your background -can you share a bit about how you got started in street photography?

(Copyright: John Goldsmith)

Thanks, Eric, for taking an interest in me and my photography. I greatly appreciate the opportunity.

I am a professional photographer living in Vancouver, Canada. I arrived in here in 2003 via Chicago. I didn’t start out with a career in photography. Rather, I have a masters in physical chemistry. Before making the move, I was working as a research scientist at a major pharmaceutical laboratory. It was during this time that I took photography courses.

Before that, I had a job making film for novel holographic applications. Needless to say, I enjoyed the lab. But then there was a downsizing. After two mergers within the course of a year and learning that the company doors would be shuttered, I was open to new possibilities. As it happens, to the day when I learned of my eventual pink slip, my wife was hired for a great job in Vancouver. I was ready for a new city. A new country. A new career, even. Making the move west (and north!) was one of the most exciting moments of my life.

It wasn’t too long after arriving out west when I began taking photography more seriously. Unfortunately, this was right about the time my mom passed away due to complications from a brain tumor. I moved to Arizona for a good part of her last year to take care of her. It was challenging but I feel fortunate to have been by her side but my emotions were a tangle after watching her go through brain surgery, chemo, and ultimately her death. I needed an outlet. It began with poetry and that eventually led to photography.

It didn’t take long for me to discover a group of talented and intelligent photographers, including the likes of Ben Roberts, Hin Chua, David Solomons, Dr. Joni Karanka, Paul Russell, and a host of others. There are to many to name, really, including others you’ve featured here, such as Ludmilla Morais and Bryan Formhals of LPV Magazine, and now a whole host of others from the HCSP family.

Describe what you are trying to communicate with your photos to your viewers?

Copyright: John Goldsmith

I consider my photographs open ended. However, there are reoccurring themes of shared space, community (or lack thereof), environment, and also more elusive ideas that I consider abstract visual puzzles. While my photos cannot be completely divorced from reality, I don’t intend to portray truth within the four walls of the frame. A little ambiguity goes a long way to the enjoyment I get from a photograph.

The more I shoot, the more I realize I’m moving towards what David Alan Harvey describes as the “incomplete” photograph. I like to think about this concept as a torn paper held together with clothing pins on an outdoor line. If the wind blows too strongly, those elements might just tear the photograph into a sort of unintelligible ambiguity. This forces viewer to have more control over the interpretation of the image and maybe more responsibility for determining the representational outcome.

Your images are often complicated with great layers in them. It is like a visual delight with a great deal of complexity. However how do you make the decision that your images aren’t too complex and overwhelming for the viewer?

Copyright: John Goldsmith

In my home I have a black and white photograph that was given to me as a gift. It’s a double exposure from a student at Parsons (New School, NYC). It’s likely the first picture that I appreciated from an artistic point of view. It’s not even the imagery itself that is so great but, rather, every time I look at the work I find something new or have a new thought about what the photographer was trying to achieve. It’s the idea of the photograph that matters. It also has a certain complexity that acts as a visual glue, binding subjects together to create tension and a unifying theme. These are the kinds of photographs that I want to make.

So getting back to your question about the complexity of my photos: I don’t think so. The computer screen, however, isn’t the best way to view these sorts of photographs which tend to be taken at distance with filled frames. There is a certain quietness that I’ve come to prefer and this subtleness is enhanced by populating a picture with as many elements that I can fit within the constraints of a candid photo.

Think: Tetris. This means balancing the momentum of the scene and the weight of the elements. Because of the complexity, I’m asking my viewers to take a longer and more inquisitive look of an obfuscated landscape that acts as sort of a stage between the open curtains that is the shutter.

How much of your shots are anticipation versus spontaneity?

Copyright: John Goldsmith

I’m not convinced anticipation and spontaneity are orthogonal, at least, not all of the time. Some situations evolve so fast that reacting (i.e., spontaneity) is the only means of capturing the scene. However, because of the very nature of Street and its low capture rate, increasing one’s chances by exploiting probability by anticipating an outcome is often a required ingredient.

In other words, with street photography’s rather low odds of success, anticipation and spontaneity go hand in hand, especially when the art involves accommodating fast moving subjects at the last second. When it comes down to it, anticipation probably enters the equation quite regularly but at what point in the process would be difficult to quantify.

With this subject, it might be useful to mention the concept of the invisible photographer. I’ve said it elsewhere, but I don’t believe in this notion. None of us can make ourselves disappear. We are there. Our bodies have mass. We take up space. Like a magnet in an electrical field, we change the dimensions of that field. Maybe this argument is simply the thinking of rational scientist emerging from some slumber due to the lack of a proper laboratory.

Still, subjects must move past us. That physical and emotional presence affects how people respond to us, our cameras, and ultimately our pictures. For example, just being present sometimes makes the photograph, such as is the case with strong eye contact. While being invisible would arguably make for some amazing and otherwise off-limits-likely-illegal pictures, it would also reduce other pictures to nothing more than a broken puzzle.

Describe your role as a judge for last year’s Street Reverb “Unreality” Street Photography Competition?

(Copyright: John Goldsmith)

Yes, I was one of the judges for the contest which is sponsored by Sony Ericsson. Along with Peter Dench (UK), Ludmilla Morais, Justin Vogel and James Dodd, who skillfully helped organize the contest, we chose the five finalists and one grand prize winner. What I loved about this contest, and part of the reason I accepted the offer to take part, is that unlike most photography competitions, Reality Remade financially supported photographers to develop their artistic vision. It wasn’t a contest for the person who can make the one best photo, which can tend to reward luck. Instead, the contest was project-based and required a proposal before any pictures were made.

Judging becomes more evaluative and this leads not only to the highest quality pictures from serious photographers but also, and maybe more importantly, the best ideas. The contest moves towards an intellectual plane rather than the randomness that comes along with  trying to appeal to a judge’s personal preference on style.

In the end, the judging was challenging and each of the five finalists had well thought out ideas. Ultimately, the judges decided that Jack Simon made the best images overall inline with his vision. Congrats Jack! Lastly, the competition was  strongly aligned with photographer rights in mind. The contest got a green light from If you don’t know the organization, check out the website.

Who are some photographers you draw inspiration from?

(Copyright: John Goldsmith)

Trent Parke, Alex Webb, and Garry Winogrand. Those are likely my favourites but also Christopher Anderson because I think he can be thrown into just about any situation and make great pictures. I really envy that kind of photographer. So many photographers get hooked to one way of shooting or can only produce one kind of photograph. A truly great photographer can and will vary their approach and match the aesthetics of their photography to the story they’re trying to tell. Trent Parke might be the best at that.

There is often much conflict when it comes to defining “street photography”. How would you define street photography and what do you think makes a great street photograph?

(Copyright: John Goldsmith)

Trying to put a finger on a definition will almost immediately create an uproar. I don’t choose to direct people on how they should take pictures or what is an acceptable subject. But, if I were to take a stab at what defines street photography (for me), it is the process of taking pictures to help evaluate an understanding of our existence, including our motivations, relationships, and choices of how people move in a collective sense. It’s a philosophical perspective and none too literal and not photojournalism; that requires captions. But anyone who is interested in street photography should begin experimenting with different styles and approaching it from their viewpoint.

Also, it takes time to define one’s own skills and preferences with regards to street photography. Doing so simply takes practice and time. Lots of time. I suggest that anyone who is new to Street should begin photographing things that are important to them. For understandable reasons, but few based on reality, many people are fearful of photographing strangers. They might find it easier to begin photographing something closer to home, like family, friends, and parties and festivals. I came across a quote recently by Australian photographer Tamera Dean. When discussion projects, she had this to say:

“Usually my works feature my friends and family, the people closest to me. I have approached people I don’t know in the street who have a particular look which struck me but this is more unusual. I find that by photographing the people closest to me there is already an understanding and a sense of intimacy that make the unguarded moments I am trying to capture more accessible.”

Of course she’s not a street photographer, per se, but I guess that’s what I’m saying. While street photography is fun, it can be challenging for a variety of reasons. While applying oneself and improve one’s photography, sometimes the best subjects are not strangers at all but rather one’s own family and friends. Those photos can still be taken in the street-style forms and aesthetics without the fear of confrontation which, in all honesty, occurs few and far between especially if you have good way of working.

While not a hard and fast definition: Street Photography is documenting real life but adding fictional prose.

To my knowledge shooting street photography in Vancouver is quite tricky due to the laws over there. Can you describe the photography laws, and if they have hindered your work in any way?

(Copyright: John Goldsmith)

Ha. I think you mean “up” here. This is the great white north, after all, home of hockey, the McKenzie brothers, beer, and snow. Although we do have palm trees in Vancouver!

I am not hindered here any more than you are. In most parts of Canada, the laws around taking pictures in public are quite similar to what you find in LA, Detroit, or any other public space in the United States. Taking candid photos in the public realm is specifically protected under the law. In Canada, the document that gives us those rights is the Charters of Rights and Freedoms.

The only real difference is the Province of Quebec (i.e., French Canada) where, in 1998, a young woman named Pascale-Claude Aubry won a decision in Canada’s Supreme Court. The case stemmed from a street photograph taken a decade earlier. The photo of Aubry, then 17 years old, was taken in public space and subsequently published on the cover of the French language Vice-Versa magazine without the woman’s consent. She won the case including monetary damages, though these were quite modest.

At the time of the decision, it was an alarming result for the media and for photographers as I understand it. But the case, even though it was a decision by the Supreme Court of Canada, was only in relation to provincial laws. In other words, the outcome impacts only people in French speaking Canada; similar privacy laws are on the books in France and street photographer Nick Turpin of In-Public has an on-going project about this. But, in fact, I know of several Quebecois street photographers who actively practice, myself included.

It might be worth nothing that since 1998, the transformation of the Internet and social media has been dramatic, not to mention the use of CCTV by the police and property owners. Sometimes I wonder if that Supreme Court decision is antiquated. It seems to me that privacy laws might need to be updated especially with how Facebook users are so readily willing to give up their privacy to corporations.

Additionally, citizen journalism and the democratization of the media means that we are all part of the press. With that in mind, there’s no telling where or when the next photo will be scraped off of Twitter and land on a front page story in the mainstream media.

What are some things you look for when you are out shooting?

Banana Tans
Copyright: John Goldsmith

Light and dark. And if there is not light, I bring a flash. I’ve really grown into adding my own light and I think that’s a result of living in a climate that mostly offers clouds for a good part of the year. Since I primarily shoot at f/8 or higher, my friend jokes with me that I should sell my fancy glass and stick a Coke bottle on the front of my camera body!

The scenes I seek are not extraordinary within themselves. In fact, often times, I’m not looking for any one thing in particular but I am drawn to many things. Like Winogrand, I like to experiment and see how a camera translates our three dimensional world to a surface. I enjoy seeing how the camera distorts reality and then I like to emphasize that fiction.

Not to be overdone, but I enjoy shadows and reflections as they provide a more theatrical and complex view and ultimately what I think as a more compelling street photograph. I search for as many focal points as I can compress them into a frame. Of course, neither shadows nor reflections are a requirement to making good photography, but I think using these approaches help add depth, both literally and figuratively, to one’s work. Shadows also help frame a photograph. Both brightness and darkness carry weight. I think of them as gravity within a photo.

Tell the story behind one of the most memorable photos you have taken, and why it is special to you?

“Rive” – John Goldsmith

This a challenging question because, as with editing, it forces me to make hard decisions. You know that saying: kill all your darlings? Part of why I enjoy taking photos is because I’m memory challenged. When was a scientist, if I couldn’t remember an equation, I would derive what I needed to from base principals. That doesn’t work so well with non-technical material and that’s partly why I started photographing in the first place: to remember.

As far as a photo, Rive is one I took on a sunny Summer day in Melbourne, Australia. I was there for about six months with my family. Strolling along the bustling Yarra Riverwalk, I noticed this intensely golden spotlight on a couple. I walked away from my own family to what I am guessing was a couple and I quickly took a photograph.

I then took one more and that’s what you see in the picture. I would say that the second is more to my liking because of the composition and because my first photo primed the scene (such as with the case I mentioned above with the invisible photographer). This is the kind of photograph I most enjoy. There’s a bit of human emotion, I would surmise, but also uncertainty about the time of day and even the possibility of whether there is a fabricated backdrop.

How do you find your street photography influencing your professional work? Do you ever feel the two are in conflict – or do they mesh well?

Copyright: John Goldsmith

Well, when I was less experienced shooting events and weddings, I used to think there was a conflict but I no longer see that as an issue. The conventional view is that personal work and commercial work should be separated, if not by an entirely different website than at least by an alternative portfolio. I disagree. Over the past 5+ years, I have been working towards unifying my approach and aesthetic. It took me time to determine where I was headed but it’s pretty clear now.

My clients hire me because they appreciate what I’m doing artistically. I don’t see any reason why combining my personal work into my professional would be a problem. Instead, I would say it’s beneficial. Of course, some assignments need flexibility and I’m not going to close off any doors prematurely. I’m just pleased that clients, unlike most mainstream media outlets these days, accept artistry and complexity. So, yes, I think they mesh extremely well.

What are some current projects you are working on?

(Copyright: John Goldsmith)

I’m extremely excited about my current project ‘Drop Out of Art School‘ which was launched on at the beginning of May 2012. The project is a bit of a departure from my usual approach in both tools and concept.  Last month, while struggling to finalize a project, I arrived at the notion that I’m at a point with my personal photography that the actual images are secondary to the idea of why I am taking pictures. As a photographer that a difficult thing to say but, as an artist, nothing makes me happier.

Just briefly, the project is a fleeting look at my neighbourhood in Vancouver, Canada. The project evolves just as your parent’s photo albums with their pictures becoming unglued from the pages and fading over time. There is a multilayer component to the narrative and I hope that it challenges how photographers and connoisseurs of photography view pictures. But instead of me trying to explain the project here, I suggest that your readers head on over to to check out the project. Oh, would it be a good time for a shameless self plug? I think so! There is a book launch happening any day now which I will announce via Twitter (@jogofoto).

What is some advice you would give to an aspiring street photographer?

(Copyright: John Goldsmith)

Keep taking pictures and try new things. Each person is different. We all have our own strengths and weaknesses. The only way to know what method or modus operandi you are best suited for is by experimenting. As Fred Herzog said:

“You have to take risks. You have to take risks even now. And if you go out, and you take only safe pictures, you have not achieved anything. You have to make a hole for yourself every day you go out and you take 50 pictures, at least a few of them have to be risky. I mean technically risky. You have to do something you have never done before.”

I love this quote by the way. I thought about it for a long time. I had great difficulty in getting around the word: technically risky, because Mr. Herzog did not mean to take risks with your gear. If you listen to Herzog speak, you’ll quickly learn that gear is the least important aspect to photography. Once I connected those two thoughts, I knew that this pioneering street photographer was telling us to use our life experiences to make a new adventure.

Who are some people you would like to give a shout-out to?

(Copyright: John Goldsmith)

The! I’m only one of many at the international photography collective. I have great respect for my peers, not only as photographers but publishers, creatives, thinkers, and doers.

Anything else you want to share that I missed?

(Copyright: John Goldsmith)

Two things, actually.

The first is that I’m ecstatic to be showing work in the 2012 Head On Photo Festival in Sydney, Australia. It’s one of the largest and most influential exhibitions in the world. In 2011, I spent six months living Australia and I produced photos for a project that I hope to share later this year, preferably in book form. Two photos from the project are in the show, including ‘Underground Bar,’ which is A1 size. It’s huge! Sadly, I won’t get a chance to see it as the cost of travelling to Sydney is seriously prohibitively expensive for a family of four. If only I could spend summers in Vancouver and then summers, again, down under. Some day!

Lastly, I have this to say: at the time of her death, Vivian Maier had roughly 115,000 negatives in her collection. Garry Winogrand, arguably one of the most prolific snap-happy street-shooters, had some 130,000 frames. And, Fred Herzog, who is maybe the self-proclaimed Shutter King, has upwards of 150,000 photos by his own account. My advice for young street photographers? Get cracking – you have many more pictures to take!

Follow John

Also make sure to check out “Drop Out of Art School” – John’s newest book!
Scroll to Top