The Confrontational, Contemporary Street Photography of Jonathan Auch
"There is an unspoken violence that exists in the way we treat each other on the streets in New York. Instead of trying to romanticize that, I'd rather show it plain."
Among new American street photographs, Jonathan Auch's pictures are a uniquely gutsy, blurry, and grainy mess of contradictions. Influenced by both postwar Japanese photographers and the American social documentarians of the 1960s and 70s, he also references painters like Caravaggio and Goya. Yet his work is emphatically photographic, hinging on decisive moments and the immediacy of the camera. Auch projects allegorical meanings onto his subjects, who are transient and interchangeable figures in the urban landscape of Midtown New York, rendered at close range, in alarming detail.
This leads to pictures made in the tradition of the great street photographers of yore that are somehow concretely rooted in the present. As any critic will tell you, taking a good picture on the street is one of the hardest things to do in photography, and shooting something that looks new is made even more difficult by the weight of all the incredible street photography made half a century ago.
One contemporary influence is clearly discernable in Auch's pictures—that of VICE's resident street photographer and critic Bruce Gilden. In fact, after Auch submitted his work to our photo critique show Take It or Leave It, Gilden deemed his pictures the best work by a young photographer we had shown him to date. If you've seen the show, you will know that's no small feat. I sat down with Auch to talk about the relativity of beauty, why most new street photography is shit, and how owning a Leica camera does not make you a good photographer.
VICE: The look of your work reminds me of postwar Japanese photographers like Daidō Moriyama, or the Provoke movement in general.
Jonathan Auch: Well, I like Japanese photographers of the Provoke era. If I had to pigeonhole my influences to one movement, it would be that one.
Have you been to Japan?
No, but I studied martial arts: aikido and iu-jitsu, some judo as well. That's how I became interested in Japanese culture, and began studying Japanese. Then I began to get into drawing.
You went to Art Center in Pasadena.
It's a technical school, started after WWII. It was meant to be a craft school. It has a harsh curriculum, focused on learning traditional techniques of design and illustration.
At some point I got fed up with paying through the nose. I began to think about what I was going to do with the skills I was learning. The thought of doing illustrations for Russian Vogue never appealed to me. I had something to say that was the opposite of that. So I took time off, and I started looking at pictures. I went to Europe, and that was when I bought a camera for the first time. I started taking pictures on the street.
What kind of camera did you use?
Just an old Nikon beater.
I ask because you seem interested in the technical side of things.
I think the technical aspect gets you somewhere, but you can take a good picture using anything. You can take a good picture with a phone, although I haven't seen any. But, hypothetically, you could.
You haven't seen any good pictures taken with a phone?
I'm not saying they don't exist. But people try to do photography with their phones like a regular camera. But the phone doesn't lend itself to that. The picture is low-resolution, and shit. They treat it like a regular camera, and it isn't one. I don't see anyone exploiting the phone in a way that's provocative or interesting. You don't need to have sharp photos—half of Moriyama's photos are out of focus or blurry—to be evocative. Some of them are quite compelling for that reason.
There are more capabilities with a real camera than with a phone, because the automatic settings of a phone are trying to make everything sharp all the time.
Well, that's the difference between an artist and a craftsman. An artist makes those decisions all the way through from beginning to end. Like a director of a movie, you have to consider everything. I haven't seen anyone exploit the aesthetics of a phone picture.
Do you have formal photographic training?
No, but I don't think photography is much different than drawing.
It is easier for people to use a pencil than a camera.
I mean, there's a certain amount of technical knowledge required to use a camera.
But, these days, what technical knowledge do you need? For a lot of my pictures I use something like this.
[He pulls two small point-and-shoot cameras out of his bag, a Ricoh and an Olympus, and lays them on the table. ]
This is not what I expected at all, from looking at your work. It seems like the kind of pictures you take would require a lot of control over manual camera settings.
These are just small mirrorless cameras. I don't think it maters. You can use whatever is available to you. You could use a Leica to make these same pictures. I don't have any money so I use cameras that are inexpensive.
How did you end up doing street photography? Is that what you'd call it?
Sure, whatever that term means. It's so broad it's almost meaningless. A "street photograph" could be anything.
I suppose what I'm trying to ask is, street photography is a genre most people would associate with new documentarian aesthetics in the mid 20th century. Winogrand, Klein, Arbus, and all the rest. You're also working in black-and-white much of the time, which is also not the most contemporary choice. How do you work inside of that history?
I think most street photography today is shit.
I agree completely. It's so hard to make a good picture on the street, especially considering the legacy of those legendary figures.
I think that street photography should be something that has guts. That asks a questions versus gives answers. It's an open genre—you can take a picture of whatever you deem important, attractive, or interesting. But to me, most street photography done today is a stage, or it's a one-lined joke, a bad cliche. I don't think that has any artistic value.
It's often more of a fly-on-the-wall approach, and what you're doing is more confrontational.
Yeah, well, I see the world in a certain way, and that's why I take pictures the way I do. You can't escape your mind, your history, and your psychology. I think there are ideas that are not being addressed especially in our normal daily life, which is a subject that street photography is good at addressing.
But you're also working in a way that's out of style. Today people have an obsession with sharpness, and I would say noticeable grain is not in vogue. But somehow, your pictures end up looking very contemporary. It has something to do with the way people are dressed, and I also think it has to do with digital tools. But something about your approach is unmistakably current. Who are you influences, beyond Moriyama?
Early on I saw a Robert Capa exhibition in Berlin. I thought I could do something like that, meaning war photography.
Oh that's interesting, because I can kind of see a connection to those melted negatives from the beach at Normandy. Who else?
Yeah, that was a mistake, but it made the pictures better. The best photographs Capa took.
Well, like I said, Japanese photographers like Shōmei Tōmatsu, Eikoh Hosoe or Kikuji Kawada who did The Map. I like William Klein, and of course Robert Frank. Lisette Model, Gilden, Weegee...
Those are all photographers with political leanings. Do you have strong political views?
How do they influence your work?
I think the economic system we have structures the world, and it structures our relationships with each other. This is especially prevalent in New York. In a way we don't see each other as human. There is an unspoken violence that exists in the way we treat each other on the streets in New York. Instead of trying to romanticize that, I'd rather show it plain.
How do you choose a subject? These guys (above) can really carry a picture.
I liked the pair of them. The man looks like he is walking toward death. The two of them lined up together looked like drama masks.
How do you recognize scenes like this so quickly?
There's an instinct that develops. If I see something that has potential, I try and charge my way through the swarms of people to where it might happen, and either it happens or it doesn't. It's a bit like surfing, although that's more peaceful. Maybe it's more like bullfighting, I don't know.
Do people ever get angry when you take their picture? How do you deal with that?
Sometimes. I try to tell them what I am doing. If people become aggressive I will defend myself.
Do you ever end up dealing with the police?
Yeah, a lot.
After September 11th, there is a hyper awareness of anyone who it outside of the boundaries of "normal social behavior." The parameters to determine whatever normal social behavior is have tightened. New York has become less welcoming to people who fall outside of that.
When you're taking pictures of people on the street, that's unusual behavior. The cops are there to keep people in line.
I'm respectful and polite, but I try to avoid [the cops] because I don't want to deal with that. They do not know the law the are sworn to protect. Many times I have had cops tell me it is illegal to take pictures without asking.
It's not illegal, but people may not like it. You're focusing on those people as your subjects as well—people who may fall outside of social norms.
I have strong political views, and will are always lean towards people who are on the edge of society, or disenfranchised in some way.
Do you think these people are beautiful?
There is an attraction and a repulsion that exists. I think some of them are beautiful, and some of them are ugly.
Do you try to make them look ugly? Are these accurate depictions of these people?
What does that mean? You could take a camera and set it on burst, and shoot ten frames in one second. Every frame would have a different representation of what the person is. It's a still photograph, a split-second in time, and once you separate it from its original context it can be recontextualized again and again.
Also, as the viewer you bring your own interpretation to it. For example, I find this guy (above) quite beautiful in his own way, but some people would find him hideous. What is beauty anyways?
I don't have an answer for that one.
See more of Jonathan Auch's pictures on his blog.
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