Staying True: Interview with Jonathan Higbee

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Interview by A.g. De Mesa, Photos by Jonathan Higbee

A.G.: Any creative pursuit, especially photography comes with anxiety and a whole lot of uncertainty. We all have our ways of dealing with them but for Jonathan Higbee, it is the impetus that is driving his work forward. Together with his keen eye on color and creative juxtapositions, he positions his work to counteract this anxiety by putting it front and center in his work. Check out our conversation and his visually arresting photos in this interview.

A.G.: To put it simply, Why street photography?

Jonathan: I shoot street to discover who I am. It took me some time to figure this out (I used to attribute my passion for street photography to an obsession with storytelling and New York), but it’s the unveiled truth. I could take up any artistic process and say the same thing, but self-investigation rings truest for me in street photography. The moments on the street that inspire me enough to release the shutter are tacit collaborations between me and the world as it really is. There’s no studio, no professional lighting, no makeup station outside on the pavement, just a block of metal and plastic and light-sensitive sensor between me and what I’m experiencing. With every scene that latches under my gaze or surprising shot that sticks out to me during editing, I learn more about myself, what drew me to that moment, wanting to preserve it for eternity. Every work I release is a self-portrait, really.

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We know what the practice of street photography is but what do you think about its weaknesses, perhaps as a genre or method of photography?

It’s both a strength and a weakness, but the low barrier to entry into street photography makes it unique as a genre. Everyone has a camera now, and, as I mentioned above, unlike other photographic genres, there’s no need for a budget for a professional shoot. You’ve just gotta walk outside with your smartphone and start snapping away, and sooner than later you’re uploading to Instagram, Flickr, Facebook, etc., adding to the deluge of snapshots that inundate most street photography feeds these days. There is some great work coming out of this process, to be sure, and a democratic art form is a beautiful thing, but street photography is starting to feel diluted; some artists I know are abandoning the genre because of this association, and they share fear that the art world will be even more willing to devalue street as a whole. But I can see the glass half full. I think the strong interest in street photography is fantastic, and a watered down online feed featuring mostly uninteresting people not doing anything will only make the successful shots stick out even more, and the photographers making them easier to identify amidst all the noise.

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Can you expound further on your meaning with diluted? I personally feel as a genre street is becoming odd and there are times, that like what you said, I am one of those that abandon the genre because street photographers tend to go for an aesthetic instead of a narrative or a personal style and relationship with the genre. So when you say diluted Is it because people don’t have the personal style and copying each other or the feel of street photographs has to have that certain look that feels forced?

I agree that a majority of what we’re seeing these days lacks narrative. Unfortunately, it seems that a basic shot of a stranger on the street constitutes as acceptable and interesting street photography. Many shooters don’t feel the need to elevate the substance of the work they’re adding to the noise, since everything else in social media feeds looks the same and manages to get a few likes. Adding to the appearance of similarities in so many shots we see is the fact that many street photographers don’t do much editing of their work before they share them with the world; I see more street photographers than I can count uploading three or more images a day without a second thought. I relate to the excitement of a fresh SD card of shots, but have learned first hand the power of letting the products of a photowalk simmer, and, when ready to evaluate the photographs, of taking a serious critical eye to each shot.

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Let’s switch gears and talk technicalities a bit, why color?

Eric Kim actually has a lot to do with my focus on color! In the beginning of my career, I gave equal consideration to shooting black and white and color, and found myself torn, my mind unable to focus. I was afraid to give up either; I feared that if I stopped shooting black and white I’d lose followers and not be taken as seriously as a fine artist, yet I experienced an intense gravitation toward color. Eric simplified it for me. After looking over my early work, he suggested I work with only color for one year. This, he instructed, would hone my eye, focus my work and establish my own style. He was absolutely correct, and I haven’t looked back since.

As far as being more attracted to color, I think it’s because I live and shoot mostly in New York, a very gray city. It’s a challenge to find these bursts of vibrant color in a monochrome city, so when I do find them, it’s easy to feel like they were made especially for me, especially for that moment. I battle with anxiety disorder, so finding a burst or confluence of color in this city truly represents something meaningful to me: a glimpse at peace, calm and joy, rising amidst a struggle.

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Well Good Job on Eric! Kidding aside, when I look at your images, I feel a very patient man behind the camera. Do you shoot in volumes and do most of the work in editing and selecting or you really just take one or two frames but make absolutely sure it is the most perfect you can make it?

Before experiencing shooting street photography on 35mm film, I would shoot anything and everything that mildly interested me and simply filtered the best while editing. But during the month or two that I shot strictly film, I learned to be more deliberate while making photographs, or else I’d run out of the roll of film (and spend a small fortune buying more). Since the film experiment, I’m more thoughtful with each and every shot I take – digital or film – which has an additional benefit of making the editing process faster and easier.

In previous interviews you mentioned that you work with both film and digital, do you bring both when you walk out or just one of those and go with whatever you feel like for the day?

On a typical photo walk I bring both film and digital cameras, my Sony A7R or Leica Q strapped into my hand and a tiny Konica AF Mini 35mm camera in a pocket or bag. I switch off and on throughout the day depending on the light and the mood that strikes as I walk around the city.

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I want to know your thoughts on this one: Do you think there would be a time when street photography can be commercially viable or recognized by the art world?

I see street photography already being recognized by the art world. As I speak, Sotheby’s is exhibiting and auctioning off work from Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” and Daido Moriyama is on exhibit at NYU. Also, my friend Sally Davies shows around New York, has regular collectors, and is accepted by the city’s general art community, and she’s not the only local street shooter I know enjoying this acclaim. I do think street photographers have more to prove to the art world and have to work harder to gain attention from that community, though.

As far as commercial viability goes, that’s tough if you’re not a Magnum photographer or of a similar status. U.S. law limits what street photographers can do with their images of people in public unless they get model release forms from everyone appearing in their work (and I don’t know a single street shooter who does that), meaning most commercial opportunities for us outside of selling fine art prints are out of the question. I’d love to see ad agencies working with street photographers on projects that incorporate our genre into something groundbreaking and respectful, something that would make us proud (and give many of us an economic opportunity open to so many other photographic genres). But who knows if that will ever happen. Until then, street photographers have prints sales and dreaming of one day teaching workshops to look forward to.

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How about photobooks, do you see yourself making one or do you always see your work is more appropriate on gallery walls?

A photobook is in my future, and I hope it happens sooner rather than later. I’m getting closer to discussing my current projects with a few publishers, who, I already have word, are interested in considering going to press with me. I see my current body of work as having two distinct personalities, with one half of what I’ve produced so far ideal for experiencing as a book and the other ready-made to be consumed printed large and hanging in a gallery.

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You are currently working about a series regarding anonymity in the city, what motivated/triggered you to pursue this project?

When I first moved to New York, I learned that walking on the city’s crowded streets often had a counterintuitive effect: rather than being seen and noticed by others in public, one often feels hidden, like they disappear on the streets themselves, or blend into the throngs of people or the skyscrapers’ shadows. Sometimes, in New York, to relieve the immense pressure and responsibilities it takes to live here, you can turn to the streets to escape and become just another person in the crowd.

A related phenomenon I quickly became acquainted with in Manhattan was a shocking feeling of loneliness. Lonely, in a city with 9 million people? These contrasts surprised and intrigued me, and I decided to explore them more with the camera, particularly with a focus on why I myself sought to hide in public amongst the crowds of New Yorkers. What was I running from? Who did I become in those moments when I reveled in the liberation of being nameless and just another face? Who did I leave behind? These are questions I’m coming to terms with in this project.

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If you don’t mind me asking, is this a bit related to your anxiety?

This feeling of seeking anonymity in the crowded streets of the city is certainly related to my anxiety. Like my mind, the streets of New York are chaotic by default. Finding peace and calmness in the midst of bedlam is exceedingly important to my mental health, and is what both losing myself in the crowd and street photography help me achieve.

You have an exhibit coming up in Spring and you are continuously developing your project, what do you see in your future? Will you keep shooting in New York or try visiting other cities or perhaps smaller towns?

I shoot travel photography as well (I was commissioned by the government of Thailand earlier this year (2015) to photograph around the country and produce a story that was published in September), so I regularly enjoy taking my camera outside New York. Nothing would make me happier than cementing a legacy as a New York photographer, but shooting elsewhere – especially smaller towns – affords great perspective and keeps my eyes fresh.

My focus right now, though, is on solidifying my concept for a photobook and finding the ideal publisher to help me realize it. Hopefully by the end of next year I’ll have both my first exhibition and photobook checked off the goals list, and then ideally I’ll just rinse and repeat, dreaming bigger with each cycle. More abstractly, I sincerely want to produce work that helps new street photographers feel comfortable taking risks and experimenting with their own styles. Experimentation pushes the entire genre further, which we all stand to benefit from.

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You found your style with a little bit of patience and listening to a friend’s (or a teacher’s advice in Eric), to those in a rut, unmotivated, or just lost in their photography- What advice would you give them?

I was petrified of abandoning shooting in black and white. I thought it spell the end of my career. Though I couldn’t see it at the time, I was, of course, wrong. Don’t be afraid to follow your heart, regardless of how many likes you may or may not get at first. It takes time for your vision to materialize and coalesce, but if you’re patient and determined, it will.

Also, editing our work is just as crucial as the actual photowalk in street photography, and we could all learn to be even more critical of ourselves during this process. Is that photograph strong enough to share with the world? Will it enrapture an audience, or will it be forgotten in a feed of dozens of other images that it echoes? Another gem that Eric Kim impressed upon me was that street photographers have to be exceptionally selective while reviewing work.

After some practice, I’ve elevated the bar so high for myself that I’m at a maximum only making two photographs a month that are worthy of being shared with the world, worthy of being included in my body of work, of representing my name. So, deeply scrutinize every shot you come across during your editing workflow, and ask yourself if you’re absolutely thrilled having it represent you as an artist, having it represent street photography in general.

It sounds harsh and restrictive, but it’s outrageously liberating – and one of the keys to my nascent success – when you give yourself and your hard work the respect it deserves. Once you’ve developed this, enter your very best work into legit international competitions (the World Photography Organization just released its guide to the best non-scam competitions of 2016, though I’d add to the list the World Street Photography Awards). If you’ve stayed true to yourself while editing, you might be surprised how quickly the recognition rolls in.

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By ERIC KIM

Artist-Philosopher