What the hell? How Jonathan Higbee shoots these impossible street photos

Photographer Jonathan Higbee has a number of projects on the go, but it’s his “Coincidences” collection in particular that’s been winning him many fans around the world.

Each of these delightfully quirky images show real — or one might say “surreal” — moments that prompt the viewer to take a moment to fully process the composition. Entertaining and captivating in equal measure, Higbee’s images reflect an unquestionable talent born from a sharp eye that views the world in a unique way. Waiting several months in the same spot to capture at least one of his shots, he clearly has plenty of patience, too. Digital Trends asked the street photographer about his work and how he goes about capturing these extraordinary images.

jonathan higbee photographer with an eye for the quirky facebook
Jonathan Higbee/Facebook

Digital Trends: How did you get into street photography?

Jonathan Higbee: My job as a travel photographer required me to move to New York back in 2009. Immediately as I arrived, I felt absolutely compelled to begin making street photography. A passion for celebrating daily life’s routine, mundane, obvious aspects while trying to be more present has kept me shooting the streets ever since.

What equipment do you use?

I’m a bit of a gearhead! I enjoy tech and gadgets and wear the proud “first adopter” badge proudly, so my kit varies wildly. My go-to camera is the incomparable Leica Q, though I’ve started tossing a Leica M10 and 35 Summicron ASPH in my bag to play with a different focal length. When it comes to street photography, Leica is the standard-bearer for good reason. The rangefinder system combined with lenses that make zone-focusing a breeze, in my experience, is unparalleled when it comes to nailing focus in challenging conditions. And I’m one of those people who swears that there’s some magic sauce in the images produced by a Leica. So, though there may be great cameras that are a bit smaller, I always keep the pocketable digital Leica CL and the new 18mm TL in a pocket or a bag, so I’m never caught without a camera that produces great image quality.

I love shooting analog as well, in a variety of genres. My favorites for 35mm are my Contax T3, Yashica T5, and, of course, Leica M6. As far as medium-format goes, my Hasselblad Xpan + 30mm is considered my second-born child (after my dog!). The panoramic format of the Xpan inspires so much creativity, and produces a jaw-dropping cinematic look that is difficult, if not impossible, to replicate on digital cameras.

What do you love about doing street photography? Are there any downsides?

I love that making street photography feels like a constant collaboration with the living, breathing city.

Street photography is a way of life, a philosophy. It’s about so much more than shooting the streets, and I’m passionate about every aspect of it. I particularly enjoy the extra artistic freedom and room for conceptualism that artists find more in street than in any other candid genre. I love that making street photography feels like a constant collaboration with the living, breathing city. Its emphasis on exploring the humanity of strangers is also a strength.

On the flip side of all of this is the perennial threat of confrontation. Whether it’s with the authorities or a bystander who passes in front of the lens, negative (often violent) encounters are not unusual. As a reserved, sometimes shy person to begin with, this looming risk is difficult to dislodge from my mind.

How often do you manage to get onto the streets, and how long would you be outside for on a typical day?

If I don’t get out to shoot at least four days of the week then I grow irritable and depressed, ha ha! I prefer the bold and bright light of mid-afternoon, so I’ll typically shoot for two to four hours while the sun is at its highest.

Coincidences Jonathan Higbee

Your Coincidences collection is particularly striking. In the images where you include a mural or ad, what’s the longest and shortest amount of time you’ve had to wait to get the shot?

On average, each image in this series took roughly a week to make. Wall Street, however, took nearly four months, the longest I’ve waited yet. I returned and waited at least three afternoons a week in that time period. Each week I’d make a photograph that would have satisfied me for portfolio use. But I knew that I could do even better and find a moment that told the story I was interested in telling. So, much to the dismay of a hot dog cart salesman who I had to regularly stand near for the perfect angle, I kept coming back, month after month, until this scene unfolded. The second I captured it, I knew I had the shot. That’s a rare but exhilarating feeling.

On average, each image in this series took roughly a week to make. Wall Street, however, took nearly four months, the longest I’ve waited yet

The other end of the spectrum is this photograph in front of a Sephora. I was walking at a snail’s pace through Times Square (sometimes the crowds there prevent anything faster). Immediately, I noticed this story unfolding before my eyes as I approached the beauty chain storefront. When this kind of thing happens — when I strike gold “without trying” — I switch into a kind of trance where I have no sense of self. Everything just happens naturally by intuition. I photographed this story from every angle possible before the customer moved away, and knew that I had successfully captured a story I had long hoped to tell.

With some of your images, it seems like you have to be super-quick on the shutter. How often do you miss a great shot, and does it bug you for long?

Making successful street photography rests entirely on timing. It’s vital. My Coincidences work is entirely reliant upon timing. There have been countless instances where I’ve screwed up the timing, and being too slow to change a necessary setting or angle and completely missing a scene. Sometimes timing literally gets fumbled when I’m just a half-second too late in lining up all the elements for a juxtaposition. This happens, sadly, once every couple weeks, I’d say.

Coincidences Jonathan Higbee

It’s never been easy for me to overcome my knee-jerk emotional reaction to missing a shot. It’s actually something I’ve been working on lately. There have been scenes I’ve missed that stick with me for several days. A recent one involved a beautiful geometric pattern on a tourist bus that really worked well with passing cyclists. There’s an irrational sense of loss, of grief, and of shame that I struggle with. It’s not healthy, and I’ve made some progress with turning it all into water under the bridge.

Could you pick out one of your favorite shots from your collection and say why you chose it?

My favorites change with the season, it seems. Right now I’m particularly fond of Pink Wall #1, which I made recently in Los Angeles. This location was overwhelming — crowded with tourists like me — but I felt like a kid in a candy store. So there’s a bit of an emotional connection to being able to get this shot that is still reverberating in my skull, but my affection for it is really mostly about the color story, the story story, the composition, and the mood. I think it’s a great balance and representation of my body of work as a whole.

Do you ever lose motivation for doing street photography? If so, how do you pick yourself up again?

Gear has the power to motivate you to make street photography even when you’re not especially feeling it.

I don’t really experience a loss of motivation, thankfully. Photography flows through my veins at this point, there’s no way to stop it. I do quite regularly confront creative block, which is frustrating because I’m certainly motivated to shoot but just completely blanking out. What helps me is to not get too worked up about it (I used to give myself a guilt trip and pressure to perform, which backfires) and work on a different project for a while. Sometimes the different project isn’t even photography related. What really ignites the flame again is going to a new neighborhood to photograph. It’s not always possible to go somewhere new, but when it has been feasible, it has never failed to demolish that creative block into dust!

What does the future hold for you in terms of street photography? Do you have any new projects planned?

Right now, I’m really focused on making what I’ve long considered to be the apex of Coincidences a reality. So, in the near future you’ll see the series released as a book and tour as a solo show — should all the stars align. It won’t be the end of this work, but it’s a great milestone to give it some breathing room and allow me some bandwidth to begin new work — “new” being the key word. I plan to start working with unconventional new technologies and other experimental tools to find other ways, other angles from which to tell the story of being alive. I don’t know where street is going next, but I want to be a part of it.

Coincidences Jonathan Higbee

Aside from experimenting with avant-garde tech and ideas, I’m also exploring video art. I’ve been interested in video ever since I’ve been interested in still photography, but initially found film to be intimidatingly complex. I’ve finally given myself the space to learn this craft. Currently, I have a few street-related video project ideas that are starting to take shape and can’t wait to debut.

Can you offer some tips for street photographers who are just starting out?

New street photographers are often told that the gear doesn’t matter. It’s absolutely not true. Of course, you cannot rationally expect your camera alone to instantly transform your work into brilliant art. That’s impossible, but who knows what inventions lie ahead? Still, your gear matters significantly. If whatever you’re using to make photography — whether it’s a DSLR, old analog point-and-shoot, smartphone app, whatever — doesn’t excite you to begin with, that’s not good. The right gear should really excite you to go out and shoot with it. Gear has the power to motivate you to make street photography even when you’re not especially feeling it. So in that way, gear totally matters. You should absolutely be excited to get out on the streets! Also, the right gear will have the ability to “disappear” after you’ve used it a bit. After being excited to use it, you should then understand your camera or phone app so intimately that you can make photographs without even thinking about the mechanics of it.

Oh, and another piece of advice: get a map of your city’s best public bathrooms before you head out for a long day’s walk.

Where can we see more of your work?

My website features all my current projects, as well as touring dates, print sales, news, and more, so it’s a great one-stop shop. I’m very active on Instagram, so please follow me there.

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