When I started this photo-blog back in 2010 I had a few things in mind I wanted to share. My interest in photography has been the drive behind my posts but I had mentioned early on my plan to shine a light on the work of like-minded local photographers and their vision of the Capital District. I had not made good on that promise… until now. I’d like to introduce this series of conversations with the work of local photographer and friend Justin Higgins. I’ve enjoyed his pictures and experiments for years and I’m glad he took the time to answer my poorly articulated questions. I hope you become a fan, too.
This is the first time I bombard an innocent with that many questions, please bear with me as I refine the formula in the next half a dozen portraits. My focus at the moment is on people who do not have a lot of exposition online, artists who would rather take pictures than self-promote on a blog — I don’t blame them. I borrowed questions from interviews I’ve enjoyed reading in the past and added some of my own. Q&A sessions can be a little contrived, I could ask a few local photographers to join me for a beer one day and transcribe our arguments on a specific topic instead. How would you transcribe a comically thick French accent, I’ll leave to the imagination. In the meantime, here is a one and one with Justin, conducted by email. All the photographs in this post were taken by Mr. Higgins and hand-picked by myself.
A foreword: I picked Justin to start this series for a good reason — we don’t hang out but unbeknownst to him, he was instrumental in my decision to invest myself in photography. Back in November 2008 I was trying my best around the limitations of a small Point&Shoot camera when Justin, a contact of mine on Flickr, posted this photo below. I love low-light photography, pictures taken at night in natural light. I can’t recall we had met yet but what I saw really opened my horizons. I wasn’t very knowledgeable back then, that’s an understatement, and I didn’t think one could take this type of atmospheric shot without an expensive, professional camera. A month later I borrowed a Canon XTi for a couple of weeks and I was hooked. Later in December I bought my first DSLR and it remains one of my favorite companion to this day. For that push in the right direction, Justin, you have my thanks.
Justin (photo on top of this post) was born in Schenectady, NY. He lives in downtown Schenectady and has been in the Capital District for his entire life — 31 years. He is currently an office manager for a local collateral recovery & collections business. The majority of his photography is posted on Flickr, some on his Tumblr, and you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sébastien Barré: How long have you been interested in taking pictures and what got you into it?
Justin Higgins: I started getting into photography back in my teens, the early/mid 90’s. I remember wanting to create long exposure images with black lights and laser pointers (LOL). I remember wanting to record social hang outs. I used my fathers old Nikon FM. I didn’t really “know” the fundamentals of photography back then. I started shooting more seriously with the turn to digital around 2000.
SB: Did you ever take a photo class? Do you have any academic training?
JH: I took Photography 1 at Hudson Valley Community College. I took it just for fun, and loved it. I met some really great people in that class; I’ve considered taking it again.
SB: Can you remember the first photograph that had a profound effect on you?
JH: I remember capturing a good night photo with my fathers Nikon FM way back that made me happy.
SB: What is your favorite subject matter?
JH: This is a challenging question for me. I enjoy the capture of candid, cinematic moments. Sometimes with people, sometimes not.
SB: I find it challenging to incorporate people, often strangers, in my photographs while keeping it candid. How do you deal with this situation?
JH: I think you need to either not be noticed at all (like a ninja) or be completely visible, welcoming, and engaging. You might as well not give a damn and shoot away, knowing you may face confrontation. It depends on the situation, I guess. If you come off as confident, friendly, and not threatening, most people will be accepting of you taking photographs. If you are giving off an uncertain vibe, people probably won’t feel comfortable. Maybe carry a puppy or a kitten to defuse any tension — kidding.
SB: In your opinion, what makes photography an art? Do you see yourself as an artist?
JH: Photography is an art, because It’s a medium of communication that can be crafted and manipulated by the artist (the photographer). It can be used to communicate a message, it can evoke emotion and even cause people to think differently. It’s not just a recording of light off a subject.
I definitely consider myself an artist.
SB: I see you that way too. I don’t consider myself as such, I think this has something to do with paying my dues somehow as an artist, I’m not sure. It’s entirely possible I put the word on too high a pedestal. When do you think one transitions to being an artist, when did it click for you?
JH: Interesting question. Recently I’ve started hearing people use the word “creative” instead of artist. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? For me, I’ve been involved in art since I was a kid, I guess I’ve always considered myself an artist in some shape or form. I should have gone to art school for college, but didn’t. I think you are an artist Seb. You are definitely a creative person.
SB: Every artist creates art for different reasons. What are some of the reasons you create your artwork?
JH: I create art mostly for my personal enjoyment and for the enjoyment I get sharing it with others. Photography has been a great friend for me, helping me get through hard times. It’s kept life interesting. It’s kept me from feeling lost.
SB: Do you have a special style that can distinguish you from other photographers?
JH: I try to let the photograph speak for itself. Friends and peers have said I have a style that can be identified. I don’t see it that clearly. I’ve considered using the term, “fine art” photographer, since I don’t work commercially. I like to think of the images I create more as art, as opposed to strictly photo imagery. I’m not at all against the idea of shooting commercially.
SB: This seems to be a recurring pattern in the portraits I’ll post in the near future — I can’t quite pinpoint my style either. Some people have said it has something to do with the use of colors or my compositions, though I don’t think I’m breaking a lot of grounds in that respect. For me you will always be “the guy with great low-light pictures”. Do you think this has something to do with your subjects or your technique?
JH: Probably technique, since my subject matter has been all over the place. I fall back on techniques and compositions that are probably recognizable to others, but not so much to me.
SB: Since you started your photographic career, have you changed your approach? Do you feel like you are converging towards a specific form you would call your own?
JH: I’ve changed styles, yes, definitely. I think it’s important to continuously learn and practice new styles and methods. It keeps photography fresh, new, and interesting. I see myself working more towards alternative portraiture lately. I enjoy taking pictures of models, mostly women in an interesting light — trying to find something different than what’s already out there. It’s challenging. It often feels like there are more photographers than models around, it has made me question my direction.
SB: How often do you take photos?
JH: I try to shoot daily although that doesn’t always happen. I have a camera with me whenever I leave the house.
SB: Right, the best camera is the one you have with you, as they say. How do you feel about missed shots which cannot be recreated?
JH: Knowing you missed a good shot hurts to think about. Try to use that anguish to keep shooting more.
SB: Do you ever have photographer’s block? How do you deal with it?
JH: Yes. I usually let it work itself out. Trying to force yourself through a block usually results in a lot of bad photographs. Sometimes it helps though. Otherwise I try to find inspiration in other photographers, to get out and try something new.
SB: I know of a few challenges photographers have used to fight blocks, such as “365 days” (one photo a day), “A to Z”, “100 Strangers”, or “shoot with your least favorite lens for a week”. I enjoy taking breaks but I get excited about new gear too.
SB: What has been the most unexpected reaction to your photographs? Or the most predictable, for that matter.
JH: Most surprising reaction was when someone bought a bunch of the prints I displayed in Albany back in 2009/2008? I left to get a beer, came back, and thought someone tore down all my prints. Turns out in that window of time a mystery person bought them. Kinda freaked me out. Wish I could have met the person. I still think it’s a conspiracy. ;)
SB: It’s not easy to sell in this small market, in my own experience, I could do with some conspiracy! Who or what would you love to shoot that you haven’t already?
JH: As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been working with more models recently. So far this has been challenging and rewarding. I would like to continue down this road, and see where it leads. A person is an interesting subject.
SB: I’ve noticed that series (photo below), great stuff, provocative even. I don’t know if I could make somebody feel comfortable doing so. I see you work with models found on Model Mayhem, how do you approach this kind of shoot, any tips?
JH: Thanks for the compliments. Shooting nudes is a new experience. I’ve definitely been nervous when taking pictures, but as the shoot progresses people usually loosen up. Working with someone who has modeling experience helps A LOT. It’s an interesting dynamic, it can be very personal and intimate. In these type of shoots it’s important to communicate A LOT, be open, friendly, and receptive to the model’s input. I’ve heard horror stories of bad models, but also of bad photographers. I’m fortunate to have worked with some great models. Model Mayhem is a great tool.
SB: What do you think about the Capital District with respect to photography? A land of opportunities?
JH: I think the capital district has a ton of extremely gifted photographers, some of whom I’m fortunate to call friends and peers. As for opportunities, I think there are many avenues towards success and exposure here in the capital region. To make a living from photography seems more challenging, but I know it is possible.
SB: Embarrassing moment in photography. Anything strange, emotional, absurd, whimsical, or downright frightening that happened to you while taking pictures.
JH: Being stopped and questioned by the police has always freaked me out. I once was merely unloading and reloading film in a camera, while in a housing project parking lot, and got a knock on my windshield. The local resident didn’t like me there with a camera. I was yelled at once while trying to take photos of some family playing tennis at night in the park. They were clearly devoted to some religion by the way they were dressed. Alcohol is often involved in these awkward moments.
SB: You don’t strike me as a confrontational person, do you usually back off from these situations, do you start a tirade about your rights as a photographer (I tend to) or do you just keep going and use that tension as a subject?
JH: I try to avoid confrontation. If the situation is such that I feel I’m being confronted unjustly and the photos are worth the fight, I would defend my rights as a photographer and the images recorded. If it’s just some casual shots, it’s probably not worth getting into a fight over. I admire photo-journalists who shoot in risky situations. It takes a lot of confidence, I’m working on that.
SB: What hurdles did you have to overcome to mature as a photographer?
JH: For me, it has been myself. Being too critical of myself — I am usually my own worst enemy.
SB: Favorite cameras? Favorite lenses?
JH: Difficult to have an absolute favorite. But right now, and for most of the past few years it has been my trusty Pentax K1000 w/my 50 f/1.4 lens. Love that kit.
SB: Favorite techniques? How technical do you get?
JH: I’m like playing around with optics, blur, distortion, creative lighting. I think it’s important to understand the technical aspects but not let it limit you.
SB: Film or digital?
JH: I shoot both. I shoot film more often lately. Scanning the negatives.
SB: Do you believe that film photography will ultimately disappear in favor of digital photography?
JH: Eventually yes. But not as soon as people think, I hope. There are a ton of film enthusiasts out there still. If there is a market, then it shouldn’t die. Although the price will probably skyrocket.
SB: Interesting point, I didn’t think about it in terms of commodity. If only I had the patience…
SB: What types of photo editing do you do and using what software? How do you feel about digital manipulation and to what extent do you utilize it? At what point do you feel an image changes from a photograph to a computer generated image?
JH: I use Photoshop mostly. It’s my primary editing tool. For film scanning, I spend a good amount of time removing dust and scratches from the negatives. Level adjustments, contrast, sharpening, cloning when necessary. I never want the editing to be obvious. To me, a computer generated image would have to be more artificial than real.
SB: I myself draw the line at cloning I guess, mostly because I’m more into photojournalism than fine art. Some photographers are very much into the manipulation, to the point that the editing process becomes the subject itself. I’ve rumbled about that not too long ago, so I’ll just shut up now.
SB: How do you promote yourself, show your work to the world?
JH: Networking online with other photographers and in person with the local art community. I’ve sold a few prints that have been displayed at local art events.
SB: How do you put a price on your work?
JH: Tricky to say, but obviously I try to recoup my cost. Cost of shooting if it involves any paid models. Cost of printing, framing, matting, and also cost of time invested. The price would differ for an image that I personally feel speaks volumes. You have to also consider if it’s an image that could be sold commercially (publications, blogs, stock photography, etc.). If I ever reach a level where I sell images regularly, then I’m sure I would pan out a better system.
SB: Are there any websites that you visit regularly? Books you would recommend? Do you have inspirations, favorite photographers or body of work? What or who influenced you to become a photographer?
JH: Flickr is a major window to other photography for me. So are Tumblr and Facebook. I know there are a ton of great photo websites out there, but I don’t regularly frequent any. Some photographers I follow and admire? Julian Humphries. Richard Burroughs. Corwin Prescott. Tommy Oshima. Abdukted1456. Skippymarv. Sisilia Piring. Feaverish. Bluecut. Chloe Aftel. Michael Bernard. Tamara Lichtenstein. EJ Holmes. Elf-Y. There are so many, plus my local photog friends!
I try to check out the occasional fashion magazine or online catalogs. Vanity Fair has great fashion advertisements and great photos in general. American Photo has always been in my library — the French version (just PHOTO?), I can’t read the articles but the images are often more bold and provocative. I was never really educated in photo history so I’m somewhat ignorant to the classic great photographers. Man Ray was a pioneer. Miroslav Tichy is mind blowing. I have a Weegee book that I love. More contemporary maybe: Warhol, Helmet Newton, Terry Richardson, Herb Rittz, Annie Leibovitz… I’ve always admired the risque. This list could go on…
SB: What would be your advices to a beginner?
JH: Learn the fundamentals but also shoot freely and creatively. Don’t let technical details overshadow your process. Challenge yourself and the way you see photographs.
SB: What recommendation do you have for someone to become a better photographer?
JH: Try something new. Put yourself in new and uncomfortable situations, and see what you can learn from them.
SB: What is the vision of your future? What project are you working on?
JH: I’ve been thinking a lot about large prints lately. like 3’x3’ and bigger. Printing has always been a challenge for me.
SB: I’ve worked a lot on printing in 2011, I print all my photos at home nowadays, up to 13×19. Hopefully I’ll post something about what I learned in the process at some point.
SB: What would you have done differently during your photography career so far and could this be an advice to others?
JH: There have been many opportunities for me that I have procrastinated or shied away from, only to regret letter. To this day I have this problem. Don’t hesitate at an opportunity to shoot, or show your work.
SB: Show your work, absolutely.
I would love to see more of Justin, online or offline. He is an all-around great guy, with solid stuff to show — if you have a space I’m sure he would love to hear from you. In the meantime, you can follow his work on Flickr or Tumblr.
This wraps up this first conversation, your feedback is very welcome, head to the comments section below. I’ve embedded a few more of Justin’s photos below, I’m just scratching the iceberg, really.
If you want to
stalk hug the guy on the street, here are a few more self-portraits.
Tags: Justin Higgins