Making a Fiction in the Mind of the Viewer: Interview with Jack Simon

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Eric’s Note: This is a full transcript of an interview I did with Jack Simon, a talented street photographer and practicing psychiatrist (over 45 years). I interviewed him at his home, and got to know more about his philosophies and ways of working in the streets. Jack is also member of international candid collective Burn My Eye and based in the Bay Area, California. 

Listen to the interview

Can you give a brief introduction of yourself  ?

I’ve been practicing psychiatry and living in California with my wife for almost 45 years. We have two adult children and three grandchildren.

How did photography enter the picture? You worked as a psychiatrist your entire life. Did you pick it up as a hobby- or did you do anything more professionally with it?

I wasn’t interested in photography until this past few years. I only took snapshots when on vacation. A few years ago I bought a digital point and shoot- and basically got fascinated with the idea I could get immediate feedback – which I needed.

With film, when I got prints back, they looked like nothing I wanted. But I wasn’t organized enough to figure out what to do the next time. With the immediate feedback of digital it was easier for me to learn how to get the type of image I wanted. I didn’t know anything about cameras, aperture, and just started to learn and experiment. I started taking photos of everything around me.

Over time and with looking at what other people were doing with photography  I realized that street photography  was right up my alley- because I like walking urban environments, exploring, and I liked what the street photographers were finding. So I started to take photos away from the garden and vacations and into the street around 8 years ago.

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You have always been interested in art- can you tell us more about that?

I’ve enjoyed art museums my entire adult life.  There wasn’t much photography in museums early on but saw some early shows of Avedon’s portraits and Joel Peter Witkin’s work that were very exciting.

In terms of artists, can you share some artists you particularly enjoy? And how they have shaped your artistic vision in your photography?

I have always liked the surrealists- like Rene Magritte — I like their sense of other-worldliness and the odd humor that goes into the surrealistic view.

I’m attracted to artists like Edward Hopper whose paintings tell an interesting story often with a psychological bent.

When it comes to art, I am pretty much a junkie across the board: I like all kinds. I like wandering through museums.

I find it fascinating that you are a psychiatrist—and can see how that influences your work on a psychological basis. Can you share when you are out on the streets—how do you work? Do you go out and search for these moments? How often do you carry a camera with you?

I am pretty mindless when I am out on the streets. I would think that the years of doing psychotherapy, I am fairly good at reading people, but whatever influence is there, it is mostly unconscious.

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When I am out shooting on the streets, I am really mindless. In fact if I try to set my mind to something, I don’t create anything nearly as satisfactory (as if I was shooting more spontaneously). Sometimes I find an interesting scene, which I would go back to.. But it doesn’t necessarily mean those photos will be more successful. They usually aren’t.

So when I am shooting spontaneously on the streets, I think it is random events that hit my eye. I might see something interesting and respond to it. Sometimes I know what I got, sometimes I think I got something good, but don’t. Sometimes it is a total surprise. I might take a photo of something very quickly, without being quite sure of everything going on. And in the editing process I can discover interesting things.

For example, the photo I took of a large ball behind a truck I did not notice the knife in the man’s hand until later.

Can you tell us more about the story behind the photo of the blown-up ball?

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I’d seen that ball on top off a roof, which was part of a display in Venice, California. When I first saw tit, I thought it might make a good photo- and I tried to shoot a few as people walked by.. My son lived around the corner, and so I passed the scene several times during one visit. I did not take anything I liked.

But on the day that my wife and I started driving back home to northern California, we stopped at the restaurant bakery around the corner. At that moment, I saw the ball sitting on top of a truck. Apparently the people from the store brought the ball down from the top of the display and was being moved. I managed to take a few before eating my breakfast and it was one of these that I especially liked because of the man in the photo on the phone.

To answer your other question, I always have a camera handy. If I go out to dinner, I have a camera with me. If I’m at the airport and ready to fly home, I have the camera with me.

When I started street photography, humor was something I always identified with and hunted for. I loved the work of the In-Public photographers and humor was something that always appealed to me.

Over time I realized that what I appreciated about most in photographs are images that don’t tell an easy story. I prefer complex stories, in which it isn’t clear what is going on. I like to have my images suggest stories that aren’t real. I’m not trying to document what I see- I am trying to create the circumstances or find the circumstances that will stimulate a viewer to make his own mind about what is going on- and make his own story. Currently this is an ideal type of photo I would like to make.

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Garry Winogrand once famously said something along the lines of, “Photos don’t tell stories” – what would you say in response to that?

I like my photos to tell stories- but not to tell stories about reality. I’m not interested in reality- I am interested in using the ingredients in the streets to create a fiction in the mind of the viewer. To me, that is the photo I am most like to find, but I don’t find them very often. We spoke about Gregory Crewdson who creates tremendously imaginative work. He first imagines, then plans and creates the kind of set that he wants.   Just like Jeff Wall.

Unfortunately I don’t have creativity like that. What I like to do is come upon something that hits me as a scene that will tell a story

I mentioned Tim Walker to you- he is a fashion photographer and works for Vogue who does incredible work. He tells these fantastic stories- with elaborate sets, like fairy tales- similar to Crewdson. I’m not going to find a Tim Walker or Gregory Crewdson photograph, but I hope to find a photo to have a resemblance of what they are doing.

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I think you have reoccurring themes in your work: reflection, isolation, sexuality. Regarding sexuality, one shot that comes to mind is one you took at a tattoo show with a woman with a tattoo on her butt- and another woman looking over, a bit enviously. You also seem to take a lot of photos of children. Would you say these themes are intentional or unintentional- and can you maybe elaborate about that?

These themes are totally unintentional, but probably understandable. The children are often in photographs because I like to be with my grandchildren.

One of my more popular photos is of my grandchild taking his first train ride. He was sitting, looking out of the window. Behind him, there was another kid with a Spiderman toy – who put it on the window closeby my grandchild.  So this is where I appreciate luck: the window, the dirtiness of the window, and the movement of the train- makes his reflection like an old man, a bit strange. Of course his mother didn’t like that image.

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For another photograph, I took both of my grandsons to the aquarium- and both looking up in this mysterious way. I took a photo of them, and it was the beautiful light of the aquarium, and the fish floating above which made the photo interesting to me.

Other themes: well, sexuality is kind of interesting to me. I don’t go looking for it- but if there is a woman who is nude on the street- it is interesting. One day I was walking down an alley and I saw a woman with her top off—and a man on his knees in front of her.

So I took a few photos- and then approached and talked to them to figure out what was going on. I discovered the man paid the woman to model for him in the alley. But what I like about the photo is the mystery: you can’t really tell that he is taking a photo of her, it just looks like he is on his knees. But perhaps you can see it, but perhaps you don’t.

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For the tattoo woman [of the butt], I went to a tattoo/body art show. I was looking for interesting things to shoot and still don’t haven a tattoo. That is something I like about photography – it gives me the license to go off and do things I usually wouldn’t do (like go to a tattoo show).

My wife often says she is jealous (not of the tattooed women) but I can do almost anything, but as long as I have my camera, I’m interested because an opportunity might be there. I am always looking   hoping something interesting will arise. So it creates expectation out of a  moment that might  otherwise be a little bit more boring.

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You mention when you first started shooting- your approach and style now. Over the last 8  years or so, how have you seen your street photography change and evolve over the years?

Partly I am more interested in storytelling. I think early on, a one line jokes or something that was amusing or exotic was enough to catch my attention.

Nowadays I am trying to find things that are a bit more complex.

Earlier you mentioned how you looked at some of my photos and identified them as a “Jack Simon photo.” In the past I took a one one-week workshop with Constantine Manos – he is very good, and I love his work, his strong colors. and detailed compositions .  He likes to fill the frame like Alex Webb But for me more importantly he was advising to do find your own photographic voice…to take a photo that not everyone would have taken.

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You mention Alex Webb Constantine Manos, and color. In your earlier work you worked in black and white, now you work exclusively in color. Can you tell me what about color you enjoy the most and when you are shooting in colors- are you specifically looking for the colors? Or does it happen to be in color? What does color mean for you in street photography?

I have always been shooting in color, because when I started shooting I used digital and RAW. Initially I didn’t know what I was doing. I liked black and white- and sometimes converted some of my photos into black and white. Some of my photos looked better in black and white, because the colors clashed and interfered with the photographs.

Over time, I realized I couldn’t mix the black and white and color. So I tried to be more consistent. Some photos might still look better in b&w. The children crossing the bridge in the fog would probably be a better black and white photo than a color photo. Maybe I can have a black and white period later.

I love colors, good light, but I am really mindless when I am on the streets. Perhaps it is what I enjoy about street photography – I am just out wandering and seeing what comes up. I love that process. And I am not thinking.

When I participated in the “Street Photography Now” project, we had assignments every week and they would drive me crazy – now I have to look for an animal or do this approach. And it wasn’t the way I liked to work. So I would read the assignment, and try to forget about it. Then go shoot, and look through my photos in a week, and find something that might apply to the assignment. As a psychiatrist, I believe in the power of the unconscious- and it is back there operating. I think if I start thinking too much about the photos I take, it doesn’t work for me. Maybe the same thing with colors –I cant think too much about how the colors are working.

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You mention about being a part of the ‘Street Photography Now’ community and you are active on Flickr. And you are part of ‘Burn My Eye’ – and spent time on Hardcore Street Photography and such. Can you share the role that social media had on your photography?

Social media has generally had a positive role . I have learned from groups that are curated like hardcore street photography, Social media became a way of sharing what I was doing with other people, and getting feedback.

Burn my eye is a collective I’m part of- which started with the idea initially   to have a group of like minded people to critique images with honest feedback.  It started that way, but it  ultimately became a collective of to   show together and create projects as a group.

Nowadays you are starting to work more on books– can you tell us more about that?

"Untitled" by Jack Simon
Untitled” by Jack Simon. Selected to be shown at the FORMAT International Photography Festival.

I  like to see photographs in print and the larger the better. I always make prints of personal photos I like.

Apart from the enjoyment of seeing it that way, I was never able to calibrate my monitor well and test prints were the best way for me to see that my adjustments on the computer were to my liking.

Regarding books, I wanted to put photos I liked into a book and did a first book via blurb “Untitled.” . I sold the  book on blurb and gave copies to my family.

I did a second book  ‘Interior Landscapes’ which was an experiment of putting some new photos on print into a larger format.  I was also trying to do some kind experiments of spacing and pairing…a failed experiment.

Recently I have been putting together a new book to celebrate my 70th birthday SEVENTY with yes 70 images. I plan to give it to friends and family as well as sell it. Unfortunately the print by demand is very expensive way to create books for sale. The printing, though, is wonderful with excellent paper, but costs are high. Most of the 70 images I chose are paired and the process of pairing was enjoyable and challenging.

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When you are pairing these images, what was the logic you used to pair them together?

There wasn’t a unifying way to pair them. Sometimes there would be color matching, a content theme or a similar action. Some of the pairs are probably inside jokes that maybe I will be the only person to get it. I also found that often photos complement one another and one plus one can become more than two…at least in my enjoyment.

Another thing I notice is that things come in batches. You can have long and frustrating periods of time that nothing seems to show up. Maybe it’s partly you, your own eye, and your own psyche isn’t ready for it—or luck not going your way.  I have had weeks like that and the frustration can build.

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When it comes to editing and choosing your shots- roughly if you shot consistently for a month. How many keepers would you say you get in a month, assuming you have shot regularly?

That is a tough question. I was in LA for a week, and had 3 photos that I really liked from that time. I have been to LA since then and have no photos that were in that category. One day in SF I can find 3 strong photos,  and then can spends weeks visiting  SF for a month without getting anything I am excited about.

The problem with having more experience is I am tougher on myself and tougher what I am looking for.  I think that happens to every photographer, and we are wanting something better than we have done before, or at least as good. And it can be a bit trying at times. You go through periods of time where you are not finding much, even though I find in general I am better at seeing these things- finding them, quicker at taking them. But I still have really dry periods.

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Assuming you started street photography over again, and advice you would give to street photographers starting off- what would you say? How would you advise people to find their own style and personal vision- and any other tips you wish people gave you when you started 8 years ago?

1. I think at first, you look at a lot of different styles: study photography, look at lots of people, and try to figure out what kind of photos you like. Then go out and take a lot of photos, and   over time—over weeks or months try to and find out what it is about your  favorite photos that express your point of view..

2. Look at art and not just photographs. Go to museums, check out street art, interesting architecture, etc. In other words train your eye and your soul.

3. Have a good time when you go to photograph. Ultimately spending hours walking around, no matter how interesting the city is, b can be tedious. So it is important to do things you like when out shooting. You can go to museums, food, and great coffee are perks I look for when I spend the day shooting… or special events.

4. The other thing I am finding which I think should be considered street photography is a style and not necessarily a description of a location.  So have a camera with you even if you are going into your usual boring suburban village. You never know what might be there. I’ve found airports sometimes can be as  or more productive  than the cities.  My favorite photo from a trip to Japan was in an airport lounge.

Why do you photograph?

Someone answered it: I like to photograph to see what things looked like photographed (Garry Winogrand). I like the surprise- I like seeing what a photograph looks like. I like how photographs alter the 3 dimensional world in a way which is quite wonderful. I like having a hobby- an interest. I went from wind surfing, which was my obsession- to photography.  I like being interested in something. Being interested is much more helpful to well being than being interesting. Of course, I haven’t had experience with being interesting.

Another side benefit, but not why I photograph, is that I am much more observant… I see more. My wife says in the past I became expert on wind because of a hobby and now I am always aware and commenting on light.

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Shooting with Jack Simon in the streets of SF

Below is a mini-documentary I made with Jack Simon, shooting in the streets of SF!

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