Jonathan Higbee and his street photography have been on the rise for the past few years. I’m happy to report that I was one of the first to discover (or uncover) Higbee back in 2015 when I first featured him in the Huff Post. Since that time, Jonathan’s work and reputation have taken flight, considerably. This is in no small part because his work is diverse, bold, colorful, and damn good. He works on the streets, in the studio, and just about anywhere one can make a photograph. He’s a street photographer, yes, but a fine art photographer too. One informs the other and it surely shows. Here’s a conversation we had not long ago about some of his street shots. Enjoy!
Michael: Jonathan, How did you get involved with street photography?
Jonathan: I’ve been a travel photographer and writer for a national magazine since 2009, a fortunate amalgam of my passion for exploration and telling stories. I moved to New York the following year and soon after decided to take my work camera out on the streets to capture what I noticed, what I loved about New York. I haven’t been able to leave the apartment with out the camera ever since; I was instantly hooked.
Michael: Are you a street-only shooter, or do you do other kinds of photography too?
Jonathan: Street is my main squeeze, but, as I mentioned above I make travel photography as well. I’ve started exploring the fine art side of street and travel photography, a journey that has taken me to an interest in fine art portraiture (and self portraiture). I’m beginning to get serious about setting up a studio in my loft and embark on a fully realized fine art photography path. But despite what success I may or may not find in that genre, I can honestly never see a future for myself that doesn’t include making urban photography.
Michael: Advertising seems to play a huge role in a lot of your work as a kind of backdrop. Why?
Jonathan: There was a time in my life when I dreamed of career in advertising, on the creative side. So, for a long time, I’ve probably considered the ads I run into more deeply than the average person. But it’s really life in modern New York City that has inspired me to examine advertisements and their place and purpose in public life through what has turned out to be a photographic series. NYC’s streets have for decades been crowded with advertisements, but it seems in recent years that the number and size of ads New Yorkers face on a daily basis has exploded. New York has become a living sales pitch, and I’m interested in the affect this has on public life and New Yorkers.
Michael: This way of working, finding a great backdrop and then waiting for the unusual suspect to enter your frame must require tremendous patience. Tell us about it?
Jonathan: My approach to street photography is rather conceptual. It works for me. I go out for long walks in the city with a compact 35mm or Leica Q and scout for locations. If I spot a great street portrait or the perfect harmony of color and light I’ll be ready to take a shot, but the main mission is to find the perfect environment that works with my vision of New York. The “perfect environments” that appeal to me most are backdrops with a lot of graphic, aesthetic and narrative potential. After a location is scouted I return with a more powerful camera (usually sony a7r2 or analog Hasselblad), and simply wait — up to a few hours a day for a week — for the “decisive moment.”
Michael: What influences your vision, do you draw inspiration from film, paintings, music, literature?
Jonathan: Graphic design powers a lot of my street photography vision. Working for a magazine/website has lead to me working very closely with talented graphic designers for years. I think I started seeing photography through the eyes of graphic designers, as far as which travel images to make to work best with the article based on years of feedback from the graphic pros. I’m proud to say that I can see the influence of graphic design principles in my work, though I hope I’m not the only one, haha!
Michael: How do you feel about manipulation in street photography, both of the subject and of the image? Is there a line?
Jonathan: I’m fine with manipulation in street photography in any manner. Some of my favorite modern street shooters use it heavily and make incredible work. Peter Funch immediately comes to mind, and his street work is Photoshopped into another dimension — but it is gorgeous, mind-blowing and more revealing of reality than a lot of other non-manipulated street photography. The line is inter-genre rather than intra-genre, if that makes sense. I don’t think there’s a line for processing in street photography, but when you cross over into documentary or reportage there absolutely is a processing line that should not be crossed.
Michael: Almost all of your work is in color, why?
Jonathan: Color has always spoken to me more than monochrome. Not a lot of people know, but, when I first began shooting the streets I shot evenly color and black and white. I was challenged early on to pick-one and shoot it solely for an entire year to try it on for size. Since color resonated with me more, I chose it, and, over the year really sharpened my senses for making great color photography. As far as street goes, I’ve become attached to how expressive color is for me, so I’m not sure I’ll ever go back to bw; but bets are off for my fine art work.
Michael: Tell me a secret about the world of New York street photography?
Jonathan: It’s actually very congenial! I was surprised to find that out. On a worldwide scale, street photography can be very catty and competitive, but, as far as my experience, the New York scene is very familial. It might just be my perspective, but I’ve only encountered absolutely passionate photographers, willing to help in any way, excited to go on photo walks, ready to offer perfect constructive criticism. All around, New York is — perhaps counterintuitively — a street photography community filled with street shooters that want to lift each other up. It is the greatest city in the world, after all.
Michael: If your photographs could speak, what are some of the things they would say?
Jonathan: I think for some of my most popular, well-received work, a lot of the power resides in their open-ended conversations. I’ve heard that these images are interpreted in different ways by different viewers — and I’ve purposefully tried to create them in this manner, so I won’t be presumptuous and say that I know the definitive narrative going on in them. But for the street portraits I enjoy making, I think they say a lot about life in New York at this moment in history. I think they speak of the diversity not only in race, gender and sexual orientation, but also class, that you regularly encounter walking the streets of the city. I think — probably optimistically — that the images from my early Columbus Circle portrait (that won an honorable mention in the World Street Photography Awards 2015) to more recent portraits speak about the shared humanity of New Yorkers, whether from the working class or the Ladies Who Lunch.
Michael: What are some famous photography names that your work has been compared to?.
Jonathan: I’ve met some photographers who hate when you compare their work to the obvious influencers, but I’m not like that. I love it, it really inspires me and helps me think of my pictures in a different light, which ultimately leads me to honing my personal vision even further. A few referential names I’ve gotten along the way have included Matt Stuart, Alex Webb and Saul Leiter (all comparisons that made me jump with joy), but of course anytime Henri Cartier-Bresson’s name is invoked while looking at one of my works, I know I’m doing something right.