I am conducting a series of interviews titled “You Can Shoot. Can You Talk?” The set is composed of 20 unconventional yet simple questions; some of them apply purely to the art of photography, while some strive to get to a deeper emotional level. My interviewees are gifted and accomplished visual artists with a keen interest in the documentary, situational, candid, travel, and street genres.
AR: Ansel Adams once said, “You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” Could you tell us about your favorite photographs, books, music and people who are closest to you?
JH: My favorite photographs are ones that reveal the unique vision and creativity of the photographer who made them; images that only that person could have possibly produced. To that end, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Bullring, Spain, Valencia, 1933 and Spain, Valencia Province, Alicante, 1933 are some of my all-timers. I’m also inspired by too much contemporary photography to list here, but two of my favorite modern images are: Matt Stuart’s Peacock/Juxtaposition work and Jesse Marlow’s Laser Vision.
As far as books go, my obsession with photographic arts continues. Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Errol Morris’ Believing is Seeing have shaped my philosophy. Photobooks I’m currently obsessed with are Alex Webb’s La Calle, Siegfried Hansen’s Hold The Line, Matt Stuart’s All That Life Can Afford, Jesse Marlow’s Don’t Just Tell Them, Show Them, and Jackie Higgins’ World Atlas of Street Photography. And, of course, I’m very proud of World Street Photography 3 (not just because my work graces the cover).
Finally, music is so good right now! There’s too much to list, so I’ll stick with strictly contemporary inspiration. New work from Phoenix, MJ Cole, Astrid S, the XX, Feist, and Yellow Claw are constantly playing in my studio.
AR: What visual artist made the most impact on you and why?
JH: That’s really tough to pin down, but Alex Webb has probably had the biggest impact on me, if I were to pick one. He was my first favorite documentary/street photographer, the first artist to inspire me to express myself in the medium. Unlike a lot of other artists I’ve followed over my lifetime, Alex Webb continues to produce images that blow my mind and push me to work harder.
AR: Bruce Gilden claims that photography is a voyeuristic medium. Does that idea resonate with you?
JH: The concept of photography as a voyeuristic medium absolutely rings true.
In my opinion, the single biggest skill necessary to make strong street photography is the power of observation. If one learns how to truly be present in the moment (and take themselves out of it) step back and observe life, they can then tap into a special quality of the moment that so few have access to. This is the nature and appeal of voyeurism.
AR: There’s a thin line between invading people’s privacy and taking their photographs. Why do ethics matter?
JH: True, there is a delicate balance between intruding on a person’s privacy and making a photograph of them. However, I feel that the legal framework we are fortunate to have here in the United States is a good one: a person can have no expectation of privacy if what they’re doing is visible to the public. That’s reasonable to me, and helps to avoid the thorny and subjective debates around privacy.
Ethics in art is a difficult topic to discuss as there are a million different opinions. Yet I think this diversity of views, even when they conflict, of what art should and shouldn’t do is one of its biggest strengths and sources of power. The idea that one photographer’s personal set of principles should be forced upon every other photographer (and every situation) is bullshit.
Street photography should reject rules or any adherence to dogma. I think the most interesting work being produced in the street genre does that well.
AR: Do you feel nervous when someone goes deeper and scrutinizes your work?
JH: I think all artists have a sense of unease when their work is seen and scrutinized by other people. I surely do, and I consider this anxiety a good thing. Each photograph I make and then decide is worth releasing is one of my babies; I’m very protective and sensitive and emotional about my work. In my opinion, this is the essence of passion, and there’s always a fear in the back of any artist’s mind that criticism of this passion will undo or negate all of their hard work or even invalidate their talent.
There’s also a keen fear of being “exposed as a hack” when an artist puts their work out into the wild. Every artist I know and have spoken with about this feeling has experienced this fear. I feel it. To be human is to be insecure; the key is leveraging that insecurity to power your voice and artistic development, and to find and hold on dearly to confidence.
Most of us can work on our ability to handle constructive criticism, myself included. But if a critic has an oversized angry and vocal reaction to your work, I’d take it as a sign that you’re on to something worth exploring more, that you’ve tapped into an idea that provokes others in such a primal way. Dig in deeper.
AR: What would happen if you made images for a couple of years and didn’t get a positive audience reaction? Would you continue taking them?
JH: This is probably the most difficult question you’ve asked! My ego wants to say, “I don’t give a shit if nobody else enjoys my work!” But the truth is, I probably would have some serious soul-searching to do if I went years without positive feedback. And this disappoints me.
When I started shooting on the streets, I honestly was making photography for me and for me only. Then, other people started noticing it and encouraging me, and it kinda became a challenge to separate the attention from the process. I need to work harder on remembering that my biggest source of happiness is when I make photography for myself, first and foremost.
AR: If you could wake up tomorrow in the body of another artist, who would you choose and why?
JH: If I could wake up in the body of another artist, it’d be Henri Cartier-Bresson. His genius thrived in such a pivotal and pioneering time for the nascent field of photography. Photography was barely considered an art form at the time, and he rose to the exciting challenge and laid the foundation for modern photography. How exciting it must have been to have a nearly blank slate to experiment with.
AR: What do you want your tombstone to say?
JH: I want to be turned into compost and have a baby tree planted on my remains. So, no tombstone here. But if someone were to carve an epithet into the tree’s trunk, I’d like it to read, “All colors will agree in the dark” (Francis Bacon).
—Jonathan Higbee, interviewed by Arek Rataj
Editors’ note: You can see more of Jonathan Higbee’s work on his LensCulture profile or on his personal website.
We will be running a small selection of Arek Rataj’s interviews over the coming months, focusing on some of our favorite contemporary street photographers. Note that this is an edited version of Rataj’s exchange with Higbee. You can find the full transcript and much more information about this project on Rataj’s personal website. The first conversation in this series was with Dimitri Mellos, the second with Stuart Paton.