Jonathan Higbee’s Coincidences Street photography par excellence shot with the Leica Q

Born in 1981, Jonathan Higbee is an American photographer hailing from Missouri but now based in New York City. His work has been exhibited around the world, most recently in a solo show in Tagil, Russia, while regular features and profiles of his photography can be found in print and online including on Vice and Buzzfeed. His long-term street photography project Coincidences sees Higbee exploring his chosen home of New York City, capturing uncanny moments that offer a surreal and sometimes bizarre view of life in this most chaotic metropolis. Lying in wait for days or weeks on end, his patience and persistence is paid off more often than not, with the resulting photos providing an almost too-good-to-be-true sense of humorous serendipity. We spoke with the affable Leica Q photographer at length about his route into photography, how he goes about shooting on the street and how capturing “once-in-a-lifetime” moments is all about how you view the world around you.

Find out more about the Leica Q

When did you first pick up a camera?

I was very young when I first held a camera, maybe 5 or 6 or so. It was a pocket 35mm that belonged to my mom or one of my grandparents. They were infatuated with it, so of course I was, too, though I didn’t know exactly what I held in my hands. Over the next few years, I began to understand the power of cameras and the infinite creative possibilities it contained. As a child I didn’t have much patience for waiting for film to return from the lab so I gravitated to the immediacy and fun of Polaroids. My fate was sealed when I received one for my 8th birthday!

How did your passion for photography develop? Is there anyone in particular, who influenced or inspired you along the way?

Though I loved my instant cameras and the Polaroids I made with them as a kid, photography remained a casual hobby among many others for a few years. Then everything changed. A cousin who was more like an older sister to me became a pop culture connoisseur as teens tend to. She began collecting Herb Ritts’ books for legendary portraits of all the big 90s celebrities. But a lot of Ritts’ books also included his gorgeous work celebrating the male form and the late 20th century’s conception of masculinity. As my cousin flipped through the celebrity worship, I lingered on every page featuring these other works. I had known I was gay for as long as I can remember. Some of the earliest memories that I can recall are of a primitive understanding of this. By the time I discovered Ritts’ work I had already suffered through years of ridicule, bullying, ostracism, physical attacks and mortal threats. And that was just from my schoolmates. The entire part of the Bible Belt that I grew up in in the 90s was actively hostile to gay people, which isn’t exactly easy for a ten year old gay boy to process without internalizing self-hate. To make matters worst, I didn’t know a single other gay person with whom I could talk; the only other gay people I knew of were the absolute worst stereotypes trotted out on television shows as punch lines or villains. It was already a nightmarish existence, and I wasn’t even a teenager yet.

But then Herb’s masterpieces came into my life. Holding in my hands an image made by a male photographing another male in such intimate, often loving ways filled me with hope, which wasn’t easy to come by then. These works eschewed not only acceptance but also celebration of the kind of stuff you could never talk about or acknowledge where and when I grew up.

Just as important as these social and personal reactions to looking at Ritts’ images is how struck I was by the artistry. It was my first exposure to the kind of fine art photographs you don’t see everyday in mainstream middle America. Ritts was a master of all the minutia one needs in a successful photograph, but it was his handling of light, his brilliant compositional skills that often bordered on abstraction, and his unparalleled ability to bring the viewer into the fantasy of the photograph that lit the fuse of passion for me. I never looked at photographs in the same way after studying Ritt’s groundbreaking work. A photographer had been born.

Do you think that shooting Polaroids while you were a child helped train your eye (and/or mind) to appreciate the value in capturing a singular moment in time?

Absolutely! The immediate feedback you get from working with a Polaroid presaged what photography would be like in the coming digital age. Being able to have immediate feedback on the image I had just made — specifically to see if a composition worked or not while I still had a chance to change it — was a valuable lesson in my developing years. I think it gave me an early start on being able to train my eye to “see” which perspective, angle and composition would work best as the moment was unfolding. This would become key to my practice shooting the streets of New York later in life.

When did you move to NYC? And how did this move affect your photography?

I moved to New York from Los Angeles about 10 years ago, in 2009. At that time I was working as a travel correspondent and photographer for a national print magazine, and my focus was obviously on travel photography. Almost instantly upon moving to New York, I felt compelled to begin making street photography. The city just has that kind of an effect on people! I’d been a fan of street and urban photography for a long time but didn’t think I had what it took to be successful (probably because of the uninspiring environments I often found myself in while home). But NYC was definitely inspiring; almost overwhelmingly so. I can confidently say that New York made me a street photographer, and gave me a career that I hope I’m lucky enough to have for the rest of my life.

When did you start shooting your on-going Coincidences series? And how did you come up with the idea?

The work that would come to be known as Coincidences first came about in late 2014 early 2015. I was still on my nascent journey through street photography, making mostly traditional-style photographs. I would go on several organized photo walks, take several street workshops with photo walks, walk the streets with friends. It was fun, but in my own time out shooting I found I preferred staying at locations that interested me, taking the scene in, and waiting for curious moments to arise. I came home with stronger images using this method, so I looked for a promising spot and waited around for hours, observing the city go by. One of these photo-waits was at the entrance to a subway station on the east side of Manhattan. The entrance and the ceiling covering the stairs that descend down to the trains are made of glass. I sat there for a long time, photographing people on the stairs through the glass, which superimposed a reflection of the surrounding skyscrapers on top of the subway riders. After an hour or so of shooting this scene, two men who seemed to know each other walked down the stairs. One of the men reached out to pull back the friend ahead of him just as they approached the edges of the teetering reflected skyscrapers. It appeared as if the man in the back suddenly realized they were about to walk off the ledge. The narrative potential of these kind of “once in a lifetime” coincidences immediately struck me. I had been interested in the overwhelming creep of massive advertisements in the city and how it affects New Yorkers for some time. I was also consciously producing work that sought to bring some order, organization and meaning to a city that seems to be filled with nothing but chaos, disorder and purposelessness. All of these seeds found fertile ground in my imagination, and combined to eventually become Coincidences.

Did photography help you in discovering your new home? And perhaps even finding out things about yourself?

I’ve moved a lot my entire life, basically was a nomad until my 30s. One of my preferred ways to learn more about new adopted cities or surroundings or even neighborhoods is by walking around with a camera. There’s something about even just having a camera in your hand that opens your eyes up to observing the world in a clearer way. This is how I first got acquainted with New York, too. I’ll often allow myself to get lost when I’m on a photo walk, so in this way, photography definitely helped me literally discover parts of the city that were new to me, and that I’d probably not have consciously ventured to. But photography also helped me discover more about New Yorkers. The celebrated diversity of the city really stands out when you’re making street photography. Also, the “who cares?” / “I don’t have time for that” mantras that are in the lifeblood of those of us, who live here, really echo when you’re carrying a camera around photographing people on the streets, who couldn’t care less what you’re doing. Though New York is rightfully known as a fast-paced city, there’s also this underlying current of laid-back vibes flowing on the streets.

As far as finding things out about myself, photography is constantly teaching me new things about my perception of who I am as a person. During my time spent photographing New York, I’d say that I’ve learned I might not be as shy as I thought I was. It’s a huge challenge to make a strong body of street photography work if you’re too timid (as I thought I had been my whole life), and this exercise has shown me that I’m a little more outgoing.

Are these images shot exclusively in NYC? How do you think your photographs relate to the city?

The images in Coincidences are all shot in New York, for now, as I have tied myself to the notion that it’s ultimately a series about the city. But I’m evolving on that idea and considering that the future of the work might make sense to feature other locations. I have made Coincidences-type work in other cities but do not yet include them in the official set.

Coincidences began as a method to the madness of Manhattan. When I first arrived in the city, I was overwhelmed by the sensory overload so characteristic of New York. The visual pollution everywhere you look; the competing odors (like hot summer trash mixed with amazing halal cart smoke); the discordant orchestra with horns, blasting radios, restaurant patio chatter, airplanes and low flying helicopters, jackhammers and construction; the constant touch of strangers moving past you on the sidewalk, stepping in something gooey on that same sidewalk (gum, if you’re lucky!), the torturous drips of air conditioner moisture landing on your forehead from several stories above. It’s this unimaginable chaos that can be the most salient experience for someone first stepping foot in the city. Coincidences was my way to process and acclimate to this. It prompted me to hunt for scenes that could force the meaningless machinations of the city to make sense. It tasked me with making work that found a signal within all the noise. It inspired me to find bursts of color, or expanses of negative space, or beautiful minimalism — three things that are rare in New York. Over the years, as I’ve become accustomed to the pace and energy of New York (in fact, I now love it), Coincidences has evolved to focus more on celebrating the unbelievable magic that life can sometimes throw together. But at its heart, this series is still about the kind of uncanny moments that only New York can provide.

Can you tell us a little about your process? How do you go about capturing your images? Is there any element of staging that goes on at all?

To make the work in Coincidences, I begin by going on a traditional photo walk around the city. As I make classic-style street photography on my stroll, I’m also paying attention to potential environments or elements that could tell a great story for the series. What I’m looking for can be advertisements, street art, the particular way the light falls at a certain time of day — anything that could interact with a New Yorker passing by in an interesting way. If I’m lucky enough to find something that piques my interest (it’s rare!), I will plant myself at the scene and wait for the magical moment. I’d say that the average time I spend waiting is a few days to a week, but I’ve often returned to shoot the scene over a period of months! If the endeavor is productive, I bring my treasure home, clean it up in post, and apply a custom-made LR preset to help thread the new work into the rest of the series.

Coincidences isn’t at all staged — it’s all candid — though being asked this very question is one of my favorite compliments! I take it as a sign that the work in this series is strong, and that it disrupts the viewer’s sense of reality for a moment or two; that surreal experience is a fundamental goal of mine for these photographs.

Several of these images work with billboards to create an interplay between ad and potential consumer. Are you consciously commenting on the role of advertising in modern life?

Before Coincidences fully took shape, I had started a series that explores consumer culture in the capital of capitalism, called Consumed. I had developed a potent interest in the psychology of advertising while in college. A separate but related curiosity about modern consumer culture also sprouted around this time. When I moved to New York, my fascination with these two topics reignited, and photography became my method of exploration. Though I became fully invested in Coincidences, its DNA absolutely includes traits from this earlier project.

Which of these images is your favorite? And why?

My personal favorites seem to change with the season, but right now it’s The Giant, 42nd Street. I recently was made aware of a Reddit thread devoted specifically to this image and how it was made. Commenters posited many different theories with only one out of about a dozen being correct. The engagement, conversation and interest this one photograph had generated just in this Reddit thread reminded me of why I am so passionate about this series.

You shot this selection of photos with the Leica Q. What is it about the camera, which you appreciate the most, when shooting on the street?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Leica Q is the quintessential camera for street photography. Before I first picked one up, I had already developed a rangefinder workflow. So, when the Leica Q came into my life it felt like I could take the rangefinder experience to the next level! The 28mm focal length has always been my comfort zone, so toss in the superb ease of manual focusing, along with the addition of lightning fast auto-focus and the stunning image quality and it was love at first photograph. I know I sound like a shill, and I agree that the gear ultimately doesn’t matter, but I still genuinely believe that at least some part of my success is due to the Leica Q.

Apart from more fantastic “Coincidences”, what can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?

I’m thrilled to say that my urban minimal / abstract / fine art series If You Listen Closely recently made its solo-show debut at the Nizhny Tagil Museum of Fine Arts in Russia. It’s a milestone for my career in general, and this series specifically, and it’s encouraged me to continue devoting some of my photography time to this hard-to-label work.

I’ve also been working with video lately, both in filming it myself, and being in front of the camera on various television shows and documentaries. Being on both sides of the cinema camera has been an exciting experience, and I hope to pursue both more in the near future.

What advice would you offer to anyone looking to improve their street photography?

I think too often we look at a specific artistic genre and walk away with the impression that our own work in that field needs to resemble or at least fit in with the rest. I know I felt that way when I first started shooting the streets! It’s a natural — and maybe even good place — to start, learning about the conversations that have taken place in the street photography world, gaining an understanding of the boundaries and why they exist… but to kick our work to the next level we need to move beyond this. We need to investigate what we see in the world that nobody else does and really lean into that. It takes time and it’s important not to rush it. But when and if an artist finally finds their voice, the work they produce has the ability to show viewers the world in a brand new light. Successful art, especially street photography, can be a transcendental experience. This is the work that rises above the rest. But one has to push past the “rules” and the trends and figure out both their unique perspective as well as how to translate it into their work to begin that journey. The reward is twofold: you walk away with work that you’re proud of, and a deeper sense of your experience of life. It’s hard work but the payoff is priceless.

 

You can connect with Jonathan and see more of his photography via his website and Instagram.

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