In a busy and hectic city like New York, it is easy to get lost in your own little bubble. Most people keep their eyes stuck to the ground and don't pay any attention to their surroundings. Jonathan Higbee is not one of them. He is very aware of all the little things going on around him and particularly focuses on those small, random but magical moments, that we like to call coincidences.
Hi Jonathan, welcome to the Lomography Magazine. Please introduce yourself to our readers.
Hi Lomo Community! I am a long time lurker and admirer of the entire Lomography creative community, so I'm so stoked and humbled to introduce myself to you all. I've kinda been a nomad my whole life. Moved around a lot as a kid in Missouri, the second I turned 17 I moved to Los Angeles. Also have lived in Detroit, Chicago and Seattle. About a decade ago I moved to New York City. At the time I was a travel correspondent for a magazine, and was happily transferred here. I fell in love with the city immediately, despite how overwhelmed it can be for newcomers. To get to know it better and to try to manage the chaos in a way I could understand it, I started photographing life in the city.
Your series “coincidences” is fascinating. What sparked the idea for it? Was there one particular photo or moment that initiated it?
It all kind of just happened by coincidence! I was getting into urban abstract photography, and found a subway entrance with a clear glass ceiling on the east side of Manhattan. The glass reflected the tall buildings surrounding the entrance atop people entering the station. It was interesting for some abstract work so I stayed and shot the scene for a bit. When I was back at my apartment editing the images from the day I noticed a little but very important detail I didn't realize when I was photographing: a man reaches ahead to slow his friend down just as they reach the edges of the reflected skyscrapers. [view photo here] My jaw dropped! All of the elements of the photograph together made for a compelling narrative, and I was instantly determined to forage the city for more of these serendipitous moments.
How do you find these moments? Are you really simply that lucky?
The recipe for "Coincidences" consists of one part patience, one part observation, one part of the magic of New York, and a heaping tablespoon of luck!
So, it's actually pretty rare for me to find a scene that's appropriate for this series, a scene that I'll return to for as long as it takes until I get my shot. I mostly spend my day doing the traditional street photo walk, making work for my portfolio and other urban projects. But once in a while I'll stumble upon some element that gives me a gut feeling for potential, an element like a billboard or street art or even the shadow that a particular building casts at a particular time of day. I take a bit to observe the element I'm drawn to, explore particular camera angles, check out the kind of foot traffic the scene gets, consider the light, etc. I'll decide then if it's worth returning to for a "photo wait." The rest just takes patience, observation, anticipation, good fortune, dexterity -- and of course, the perfect subject to come along to tell the story.
What was the longest you have waited for a photo to work out and which one was it?
The longest I've waited for a photograph is about four months. It was for Wall Street. I didn't work that scene every single day, but definitely multiple afternoons a week. I have so many b-sides for that image that I could make a book! I was actually starting to feel burned out and considered moving on to find another scene, but gave it a few more days. Then the absolute perfect moment materialized, one that still leaves me overjoyed because of the narrative this uncanny coincidence tells. So glad I gave it a few more days.
As lucky as you are with your perfect timing, it must be frustrating at times too, when you simply don’t get the shot you are waiting for?
It is unbelievably frustrating when I don't get a shot I've put a lot of time and effort into! I actually have resolved to work on this emotional response as it tends to affect me for several days and puts me off of shooting for that time. That's not healthy, for sure. Thankfully, I've only dealt with that a couple of times. The typical reason I won't get a shot is because the element I was working (an advertisement, for example) has been taken down and replaced. It's the nature of the always-changing New York, which I have a love-hate relationship with. A few other times I've missed a perfect shot because of a technical miscalculation, like my zone focusing was completely off. I have to work at such a breakneck speed for this series that it's all too easy to make mistakes. That's why I mostly keep my aperture at f8 and above (to ensure as much of the scene is in focus as possible), shoot with the zone focus method, and a minimal shutter of 1/500s (to minimize the amount of camera shake that is inevitable with super fast movements).
What spot are you currently waiting for this magic to happen?
My main "set" I'm working on right now is smack dab in the middle of Times Square. It's in front of an empty building, which has advertisements for leasing it at the street level. The advertisement is half a block long and minimal, geometric and colorful, three of my most important criteria. Lots of foot traffic. Great light in the afternoon. But I've been working it for nearly six weeks now with not even one image that's close to worthy of the series. I did an Instagram Live session at this spot recently hoping to fuel my mojo a bit more. Still, I have nothing to show for it! Lucky for me, considering the price of real estate in Times Square, I have a feeling this scene will be available to me for a while.
Which one is your personal favorite photo?
My favorite photograph changes with the seasons! Right now I'm really into "Morningside Heights." [below]. It was made at the annual Marian Festival, which takes place every October in Upper Manhattan. Members of local dioceses spend months decorating costumes and even their vehicles to parade down Broadway on this day, in celebration of the Christian Saint, Mary. Hundreds of people gather on the sidewalk to cheer them on, fall to their knees in vigorous prayer, raise their hands to the sky in rapturous joy; I mean it's definitely a surreal, transcendental event unlike any other I've ever been to, and won't soon forget.
What other projects are you working on?
Another project that has received some attention (though not nearly as much as Coincidences) is my urban minimal / abstract series, called If You Listen Closely. This work was born out of an urge to seek out aesthetic cheer and visual calmness during a particularly rough New York winter. I have a bit of an issue with anxiety and depression, and winters in the Northeast certainly don't help. This particular season really seems to bring out the drab, beige, grey, gloom that can feel smothering in New York, so I started forcing myself to seek out sources of bright color and pleasing composition. The project has absolutely helped me see New York in a different light, and continuing to make this kind of work always perks me up a bit.
I've also worked on and off over the past two years on another project related to anxiety, "Akathisia." It's a fine-art type series that details my journey trying to get off (and then back on) anti-depressants. Uplifting, I know!
The latest project I've launched is definitely the most unconventional, which is an adjective I love. Forbidden City continues the kind of street and travel photography I'm passionate about making, but in countries that I'm forbidden to visit because I'm gay. So, instead of risking the death penalty for being gay (United Arab Emirates) or even three years in prison (Tunisia), I use the Google Street View camera to "travel" to them anyway, and make the work I'd try to make if I was there in the physical space. It's a genuinely controversial series for many reasons, which I anticipated and, honestly, am motivated to keep moving forward with it because of.
Do you have any advice for people who want to get into photography?
There's so much I wanna say! But it would all be overwhelming, so I'll keep it simple. Vow to always make photographs for yourself, first and foremost. When you get a bit along into your hobby or career, it's all too easy to start considering how other people will feel about a work before you've even shot it. It's understandable and can be a positive thing, but always remember to primarily make the image for you. All the other considerations that go into making an image need to be secondary. The best way for you to find your personal artistic voice is by staying true to this. The presence of a singular, unique vision can make or break a great photograph, I think.