PCM: Why street photography? What motivates you to take street photographs over other forms of photography?
Jones: I was pulled into street photography by watching my great uncle, whom we called Toot. He always had his Polaroid at the ready and would snap candid shots constantly. My grandfather was also an amateur photographer, and while serving in Korea, he took a lot of slides of the people, the cities, and his life. So, by the time I was 12, I had already decided I wanted to take photos like they did. I grew up near a college campus, so I had ready access to books on photography, as well as years’ worth of National Geographic Magazines at home. I pretty much looked at everything I could find by any published photographer, but it was the work by street photographers (Weegee, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Frank Sutcliffe) that really struck me.
I think what motivates me the most is history. We remember the grand things – good or bad – in society. But the small moments are the ones that matter, and those are the ones we forget. I want to help create a record for future generations of what life was like at the start of the century, just as we began to overcome racism, sexism, nationalism. We’ve set ourselves up in little societal boxes, and all of us are afraid to look in the other boxes. But when you watch people on the street, what strikes you most is how much alike we all are. I hope that comes through in the totality of the work.
PCM: Your works often have that apex moment about them or a duality. How do you go about capturing that special moment? Do you specifically look for it or does the moment find you?
Jones: With street photography, it is mostly about speed and opportunity. The primary skill you develop is observation, to which you have to add the ability to shoot quickly. I literally wander around with my camera strapped to my hand, and try to notice what’s going on. Mostly, I’m focusing on relationships: people with others, people vs. nature, contrasts between the living and artificial. What’s odd is that I often find myself shooting things without even consciously being aware of what’s going on. Maybe the duality is the conflict of the conscious and subconscious. Overall, however, my motto is “Shoot what’s there.”
PCM: I get the impression that you prefer to keep your work natural, without much after photo work. What is your philosophy/view on tweaking/editing photographs?
Jones: Since I have to shoot fast, I do correct things like exposure, but I try not to alter shots too much. I used to do a lot more post-production, but once I bought a good camera, I started hating the more artificial looking photos and deleted most of them.
I’ve read some photographers who think tweaking photos is cheating. I couldn’t disagree more. Ansel Adams spent more time fixing his shots than he did taking them. For me, I think the composition and the subject should dictate what you do. I’ve done some extensive alterations, and would do so again. I think the stronger the composition the less tweaking you have to do.
PCM: What photographic techniques do you use (e.g. colour versus black and white, lighting, long exposures)?
Jones: I use to hate black and white photography (mainly because I was never good at darkroom work). With digital, I’m probably half black and white and half colour. In fact, the way I tell if a composition is right is to convert it to black and white. If it’s boring then, it’s just a boring shot. I find that I stick with colour mainly when the colour palette is vivid; then it becomes part of the composition.
I use available light 90% of the time. To me, the best shots are photographs of light and shadows. Rather than alter the light, I prefer to move around until I find the shot I want. Having ADHD is helpful in that regard. I don’t even own off-camera lighting equipment. Since I’m usually wandering with my cameras, I don’t drag around tripods, and I use high ISO rather than long exposures. Even my night shots are hand-held. I would love to experiment with more long exposures; I simply haven’t tried yet.
PCM: Which are your favourite photographic techniques? Why do you use these most and what do they offer your art form?
Jones: My favourite techniques are actually realizing that my most flexible piece of equipment is me. I shoot really fast, in most cases. Since I’m shooting moving subjects, I often take multiple photos in a burst – three to six per second – to get the composition I want. If you saw me on the street, you’d see me kneeling, standing, moving, trying different angles and perspectives. Sometimes, just lowering your body three feet changes the dynamic of a photograph completely. The photo of the reader, “Gentleman Reader,” evolved because I didn’t see an angle I liked. Then I sat on the bench opposite him, and the shot was there. Seeing the bench isolated him, which is what I wanted to show.
I also love shooting in ambient light, without flash, to capture the actual mood of the environment. Of the 30 photographs in the exhibit, I think I used a flash in one.
In terms of post-processing, the one technique I’ve used the most is the “clarify” tool in Corel Photo Pro, which adds local contrast. The photos “Seek Joy” and “La Luz” use that technique to emphasize the water in the fountains, and the children’s detail. I try to be careful, however, to keep their skin tones natural.
I’m also ridiculous when it comes to converting to black and white. I’ll spend 30 minutes figuring out exactly what filter I want to use in order to create the tomes I want. It’s just south of obsessive (especially since I usually end up using the equivalent of a red filter).
PCM: Photographic techniques can develop a sense of mood. Obviously some techniques can be tricky when attempting to remain unnoticed and capture a natural moment. Give us an example where you have used one or more techniques to enhance a photograph. Why did you choose to use that technique? Do you fee you succeeded? Why or why not?
Jones: Probably the best example is the photo “Women at the Wall.” The Vietnam War Memorial has this reverential aura about it, because of the sheer enormity of the number of names of fallen combatants on it. So, when I shoot there, I try to avoid being intrusive. In the photo of the two women, I was standing near them, but shot the photo with the camera at my chest, so they wouldn’t alter their behavior to accommodate the camera. They were meant to be representative of all visitors, so I picked a position where their faces were mostly hidden.
What I wanted to do, once I saw their poses, was to contrast the youth and beauty of the girls with the stark finality of death. (Most of the names on the Wall are young men that same age as these women.) In post processing, I use Corel’s Clarify tool to add detail (it makes the words and stones stand out.) Then, i smoothed the girls’ skin tomes slightly to ensure they stood out against the grit of the scene, much like beauty magazines do.
My ultimate goal was to create something that resembled a photo-realistic painting, or that stepped out of Vogue. I wanted the viewer to ask themselves why the women were there and who they were looking for. I think I mostly succeeded, even though creating the contrast washed their skin out a bit.
PCM: I’m not normally a fan of street photography. However, in recent years I have found photographers, like yourself, who have managed to captivate me with their creativity and their ability to speak to me, grab me, through their photographs. When you shoot a subject, what is going through your mind?
Jones: I think when I am doing street photography, I’m mainly thinking of connections. Sometimes, it is the lack of connections that stand out. Two good examples are “Hard Times” and “Long Lady in Wheelchair.” What struck me in both instances was that both were unusual situations for a human being to be in, and yet, in a crowded area, people acted as if they didn’t notice. The wheelchair-bound lady, for instance, had remarkably long legs, and likely would have dwarfed me standing up. She’s in this enormous chair and people are walking around her as if she’s one of the street signs. The same was true of the men camped out in front of the bank. Noe one sees; no one stops. My goal is to ensure that someone remembers they were there.
PCM: You have mentioned to me that you like to capture what you term “ordinary celebrities” where a “single photograph can capture parts of a person’s life, and show the brilliance in ordinary living.” Please elaborate, using one of your photographs as an example.
Jones: One of my favorite moments as a photographer was with the photo “Midshipmen and Friends.” We were near the United States Naval Academy, where these gentlemen attended, in preparation for careers as naval officers. Walking down a side street, we saw two petite, lovely young women walking. Opposite them was a group of 20 or so midshipmen. The girls were selling or canvassing for something, and rather than being intimidated, they stopped the entire group of Middies, and had them eating out of their hands.
I took a couple of shots of the women before, during and after their encounter with the men. Even during their brief meeting, some of the guys saw men shooting, and became amused at the humor (and my amusement) with the situation. The girls left, looking for more people to canvas, and the midshipmen continued, laughing.
I think the one photograph captures what is really a meaningless encounter, which the women likely thought little about. However, when you look at it, you see a large group of polite young men towering over them, most of whom seem completely smitten. It’s a small moment none would remember, unless they saw a photo. Those are the photos I want to take.
PCM: Each country has its own laws regarding rights to privacy. When photographing people out on the street, how do you balance your wish to capture a moment with the privacy of the individual(s)?
Jones: For the most part, at least in the U.S., you are allowed to photograph anything you can see from a public place, provided you aren’t photographing into private property. You can use the photos as long as you don’t commercialize their images. That said, there is still the matter of common courtesy.
I try not to photograph anyone who doesn’t want their picture taken. People are pretty adept at using facial expressions, etc. to let you know. The photo “Oh No He Didn’t” is one of the rare instances that I ignored that wish (because she was so adorably mad at me). I think the fact that I live in a tourist area helps. I use large Nikons (D300 and D600) so it’s no secret I’m taking photos. Believe it or not, most of the time, people will look at my demeanor to guess if I’m some kind of pervert. Once they satisfy themselves I’m not, they don’t care.