Juan Cristobal Cobo was born in Cali, Colombia and moved to New York as a teenager. Following thirty years of work as a cinematographer and director, Juan found himself drawn to the still image. He particularly revels in the act of “getting lost” among strangers on the streets. This is a peaceful act for Juan. One of the things that attract me, personally, to Juan’s work is indeed that cinegraphic element present in so many of his images. Carefully composed and often with an energy force present, Juan’s work stands above and beyond a great deal of what we see in the genre today. Indeed, his photography was selected for inclusion in the 2016 Fourth Annual Portfolio Review in The New York Times. I recently had a chance to ask Juan about his work, here is that conversation.
Michael: Juan, what does it mean to you to make a photograph? Why make them?
Juan: I make photographs to keep learning about myself. At first I was just fascinated by the moments I could capture, by the light and the people in my photos, but little by little, the pictures started to question me and then I discovered they were telling me things about my personality, about my past and even about my emotions.
Michael: Do you ever engage with your subjects or is everything candid? Why?
Juan: I try to never engage with my subjects before taking a photo. When I do, the results are not the same, but having said that, I do talk to people sometimes after making a picture. Also, when I’m working the same place over and over, I like to bring prints and offer them to the subjects I’ve photographed previously. It’s always one of the most rewarding experiences. I value spontaneity in a photo and I think it can be achieved by having no contact, or by the opposite approach – by staying with the subject a very long time.
Michael: I agree. I think you are absolutely correct about achieving that sense of intimacy – it has to be spontaneous or the result of a built trust and time. So much of what we see today, though, is of the former kind. We snap photos of everything around us almost constantly. Do you feel the camera phone has changed the game? Why or why not?
Juan: The camera phone is a wonderful instrument, and more and more many photographers have decided to use it as a way to approach the medium in a more “transparent” way. Great examples of this are books like “Libyan Sugar” by Michael Christopher Brown made entirely with an iPhone 4 in the middle of a war. On the other hand, the phone could also be made responsible for the apparent “degeneration” of the medium, as it permits the instant production of billions of images that flood are lives every single day in a rather tiresome way.
Michael: Yes, I agree. I think the camera phone is indeed a double-edged sword. In turning back to your own work, I love the cinematic quality of your photographs. I think it is this element, more than anything, which allows your signature to come through. What do you look for when you make a street photograph?
Juan: I look for characters, as well as good light and an interesting place. When they all coincide it is truly a great feeling.
Michael: Juan, who are some of the photographers that have inspired your work?
Juan: Many, but to name a few Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Irving Penn, Alex Webb, Todd Hido, Matt Black, Alec Soth, Daido Moriyama, Graciela Iturbide, Manuel Álvarez Bravo.
Michael: A good gang for sure. I noticed that you have made some amazing street photographs without people. Is this hard to do? Do you make many such photographs?
Juan: Making ANY photograph is hard, especially a good one. Empty spaces can tell you a lot about people, and maybe that’s why I make such photographs when I can.
Michael: Fair enough. In terms of medium, how do you decide what to shoot in color and what to shoot in monochrome? Do you decide beforehand, or do you shoot everything in raw and then decide later in post processing?
Juan: I try to think beforehand about the final outcome of the photo. I like to use monochrome when I feel there are too many distractions in the environment, like was the case in my work in Bogotá in “La Carrera Séptima”. Lately, I’m trying to think “Color” only; I find it more challenging to make everything work when there is color. I love both mediums equally though.
Michael: What about editing. How do you edit your work? Do you involve other people or go at it alone and why?
Juan: I start by working alone, but I often ask the closest people around me such as my wife and son. I believe they have strong visual instincts and will not hesitate to let me know when something doesn’t work for them. I also try to show the work to colleagues and lately to portfolio reviewers. I’ve discovered no two people think alike and there’s no one truth.
Michael: That’s true enough. Some of your images are very, very crisp and almost “high definition” looking. What equipment are you using?
Juan: I use mostly my Fujifilm XT-1 for street photography, but also carry a Canon 5D mark II once in a while. Sometimes I also use flash.
Michael: Elliott Erwitt?
Juan: Erwitt, for me, represents having fun with photography and being irreverent and always curious.