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Jonathan Higbee: Photographer, Storyteller, And Friend

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Yes, I admit it - Jonathan Higbee and I are friends. I say this upfront because likely someone will point it out. However, what people likely don't know is that Jonathan's photography was what attracted me initially. His work is good in a way that I cannot quite put my finger on. It's subtle, decisive, intuitive, and at the same time it's warmhearted and romantic - much like the man himself.

Jonathan and I both live with anxiety. What interests me is how this is manifested in our work in very divergent ways. My work is riddled with visual anxiety - it's edgy and restless - whereas Jonathan's being behind the camera seems to calm him, it seems to connect him with his subjects. I like that about this work. I also love that this work is in color. So much of what he captures here just wouldn't work in monochrome - and perhaps that instinct to search out these moments of color is what indicates a master color photographer more than anything.


Michael Sweet: Who is Jonathan Higbee?

Jonathan Higbee: I'm never the same person from day to day or even moment to moment, but there are a few salient constants in my life: storytelling and anxiety. I've felt compelled to tell stories since I was very young, having written my first "novel" when I was 10 (about a runaway in a dystopian near-future, naturally!) and made photographs with my first camera (a Polaroid) even earlier. I've always found joy in unusual moments in life and feel a duty to help these moments be experienced, examined, and appreciated by others - not wasted.

Anxiety is a part of me that stems from childhood, too. It really materialized in my late teens and early twenties in the form of debilitating panic attacks. They were met (on doctors' orders) with warfare and dread, which only seemed to exacerbate the anxiety. In the past decade I've taken a different approach to the cards I've been dealt, and have cultivated a relationship with the irrational fears. I've learned how to leverage anxiety, what it's telling me about my experience of the world. I'm not ashamed to admit that anxiety does in fact shape me, and even the work I produce.


Michael: How did you get involved with a camera?

Jonathan: My mother, her siblings and their parents were all very much a picture-taking family. Cameras have been a part of our lineage for a very long time, so I kind of just grew up on both sides of the lens. I got really involved with cameras, though, in the past five years, thanks to my work as a journalist. Some of my favorite features to write have been travel stories. The magazine I write for sends me out of the country alone for research, so I've had to brush up on my photographic knowledge to get the visual portion of these huge travel spreads just right. My passion for shooting the street was born out of my nascent technical knowledge and moving to - and unyielding love for - New York.


Michael: I know you shoot both digital and film and use everything from an M6 to a cell phone. To do this with ease and confidence is somewhat rare in the photography world these days. Tell me more about this approach.

Jonathan: I'm not hung up on gear, specs or the EXIF data of every photograph I make. I'm not afraid of experimentation. In fact, I really enjoy abstract and unconventional photography. Refusing to get too comfortable and not developing an allegiance to one brand overlord or format allows me to express myself in ways others might be artificially limited. At the end of the day, what matters most is producing a photograph that makes someone feel something. The best camera for this job is the camera I have with me at the time, as someone vastly smarter than me once said.


Michael: Who has inspired your work?

Jonathan: I'm absolutely fascinated by Martin Parr. Daidō Moriyama, Bruce Gilden, Nils Jorgensen, Craig Semetko, Stanley Kubrick, Richard Hamilton and David LaChapelle have also made indelible impressions upon me. Photographers of my generation like Daniel Arnold, Marius Vieth and someone you may have heard of, Michael Ernest Sweet, continue to push me on a regular basis - especially with their works in color.

Michael: When I look at your work I see a gentleness and a modesty that I also see in you, as a person. Joel Meyerowitz speaks of capturing, "beautiful human moments". Do you also look for this emotional element when you shoot, or is only about the visual? What goes on in your head?

Jonathan: New York is hard, confrontational, cocky. I love that about the city, and I get pumped watching the overflow of street photography that evokes that perspective. But there are gentle, graceful moments happening on the streets, too, and we often take them for granted. As you mentioned, these are more reflective of who I am as a person, as an artist, and I deliberately hunt them out when shooting. I do try to orchestrate framing and composition as much as possible during that split second of harmony that we call the decisive moment, but the most important thing that goes on in my head at the time I fire the shutter is not the camera or the visual, but my emotional connection to the experience or other human being in front of me.



Michael: Jonathan, tell us a story behind one of these photographs here.

Jonathan: In another life I was a dancer. Storytelling with movement is also very compelling to me, but, sadly, now I'm over the hill in dancer years (like dog years but even shorter!). So I naturally gravitated toward these kids in Bushwick who were interrupting traffic and dancing in the middle of the street. It was one of the first truly nice spring days of the year, my first perfect-weather day since moving back to the city that I love after years away. We all were celebrating the good fortune that is New York in the late spring and I started photographing the impromptu troupe. A few of them noticed and tugged on my arm, inviting me to dance alongside. I obliged for a few liberating, exhilarating moments. I felt like a kid again, and took that sense of wonder and the gratefulness and spirit of the day with me when I went back to making photographs. That's when I got this shot.


Michael: You work a lot in color, which is still somewhat uncommon in street photography. I always think of New York as a black and white city, yet you certainly have found so many colors. Do you seek out color, or does it find you?

Jonathan: I've been known to run across the street haphazardly to capture a specific confluence of color before it evaporates. I'm trying to be better about paying attention to traffic as I've nearly been hit by taxis a few times, I get that lost in the zone. So, I'd say I seek out color for now, but hope that it starts finding me sooner or later. My legs are getting tired.


Michael: Yikes, careful you... no getting hit by a cab! What is it exactly about color that attracts you?

Jonathan: I've made a few successful B&Ws that I'm very proud of, but color adds an extra dimension to a photograph that I find very appealing. It's also more representative of me. One would think that black and white would be my calling card considering my struggles with anxiety and depression, but, conversely, I find that color represents the hope and joy and appreciation for being alive, being present and able to experience the world that I so acutely feel.


Michael: New York is certainly a great city for street photography, perhaps the capitol of street photography (given our relaxed laws etc.) but it's not the whole world, despite how us New Yorkers sometimes feel. Where in the world would you like to travel to photograph and why?

Jonathan: My love for color makes me hope to one day photograph India. The vibrancy of the images I come across that are produced there is out of this world. If I could only choose one city to shoot it'd be Kolkata, though Mumbai would be a close second.


Michael: Our world today is really a visual world - everyone, literally, has a camera in their pocket. How do you think this has changed the game for actual "photographers" like yourself? What new challenges are emerging?

Jonathan: I definitely think the ubiquity of smartphones has altered the photography world. In the most obvious way, I now always have a decent camera on me, which has been fantastic. But so does every other human. Now, we are over stimulated visually thanks to the deluge of visual imagery online, to the point of fatigue. Though photography, particularly street photography, might be diluted at this point, I feel challenged by the influx of amateur phone photographers to push myself and my work further, to make it more unique or more powerful.

An unfortunate byproduct of the "everyone's now a photographer" world we live in is that I have to spend more time with marketing and on social media - time that takes away from making photographs. But photography has survived many technological advances and I'm sure this challenge will be no different.



Michael: Some are claiming that street photography is facing a "moment of truth". Certainly, there does seem to be an overwhelming number of people out there engaging is this as a hobby. I see a lot of bad work. I see people buying a 4K Leica Q and taking photos which resemble something from a $200 camera. Something seems to be off. What does the future hold for street photography and all these "hobbyist" photographers?

Jonathan: In a world where esteem and hobbies hinge on how many likes someone gets on Instagram, I don't see any of the flippant hobbyist street photographers who are trying the genre on for size - trying, it seems, mostly to become Internet famous - sticking with it. They'll move on to another "hobby" that they erroneously believe is easy because so many talented individuals make it look effortless. On the other hand, street photography is having a huge moment, and the large international interest in the art form is a good thing for those of us who would rather die than give it up.

I do understand why photographers like Jonathan Auch cringe when their work is called "street photography" because they think there is too much crap out there in the genre these days, but I'm holding out hope that the good imagery will rise to the top and the overwhelmingly large amount of poor work will be forgotten. I'm not ready to ditch the street just yet.


Michael: What do you hope to be doing in a year's time?

Jonathan: I'm working on two exciting projects right now. They explore those of us who feel we're on the edge of society, on the outside of the in-group. One I'm shooting with my sights set on a book format, the other I'm shooting with a gallery show and collection in mind. In a year's time, both will have materialized in a perfect world. Other than that, as long as I'm aimlessly stalking the streets of New York and happening upon the idiosyncratic moments that make this city famous for street photography, I'll be a happy, albeit anxious boy.

Jonathan Higbee is a New Yorker by way of the Midwest and West Coast. He's a storyteller, a loving husband, a human companion to the most heart-warming dog in all of existence and a full-time editor for a national magazine. Follow Jonathan on Instagram or through his website.

Michael Ernest Sweet is a New York-based writer and photographer. Follow him on Twitter Facebook or through his website.

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