If you’re going to pull up stumps in a city and spend the next decade walking its streets in search of photo-worthy moments, it may as well be New York.
Which is exactly what American photographer Jonathan Higbee has done for the past 10 years. With a mixture of impeccable timing and dogged patience, Jonathan has pounded the pavement zeroing in on visual coincidences that are so utterly perfect, his work has had sceptics questioning is authenticity online. In aptly named photo series Coincidences, Jonathan captures quirky, one-in-a-million moments that would pass by all but the keenest observer. The photos are ridiculous, humorous, and a friendly reminder that if you open your eyes and look around you once in a while, you might just see something incredible. We caught up with Jonathan to find out how he chooses his visual prey and the missed moments that keep him up at night, below.
Who in the world of photography most inspires you?
It’s so hard to nail down a single source of inspiration in photography, there is just an unbelievable amount of compelling work that we all have easy access to these days. But I’d say that Matt Stuart consistently impresses me and fuels my motivation to hit the streets every day.
Aside from New York, where is one of the most inspiring cities in the world to shoot?
That’s a difficult question to answer as well. My career kicked off as a travel correspondent for a print publication, so I’m fortunate enough to have seen a bit of the world. I’d say that Bangkok is an absolutely invigorating city for street photography. The colours, the light, the energy and most of all, some of the friendliest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to be among. I hope to go back soon, actually.
What is one of your favourite shots from the series?
My favourite ‘coincidences’ seems to change with the season, I’m so fickle. Right now “8th Avenue”, the image with smoke coming out of the man’s head, is a particular favourite. It’s probably for emotional reasons, honestly. That photograph was so difficult to get; I’m not talking about time spent waiting—though I did spend about a week here—I’m referring to this specific image, and how I had to run around in the middle of 8th Avenue trying to line up this man’s hair with a smokestack. There was no other way to pull it off except to just let myself go on autopilot and get into the zone, which is what I did. And I’m happy with the reward.
What is the one shot that got away?
Countless images have gotten away from me over the years. Processing it and dealing with it psychologically is still a challenge, and something I’m trying to consciously work on. I get so upset and give myself the worst guilt trip when it happens. A recent scene that slipped through my fingers involved four Times Square sanitation crew members, who wear red from head to toe (including red hats) working on some unusual project that involved cardboard squares. So, these guys, who all looked the same, were carrying various rectangle shapes of cardboard, and behind them is a minimal background with different coloured triangles. It would’ve been perfect if I could have nailed the composition, but I couldn’t get close enough—too many people on this day—or in the right position to make anything of it.
Do you see an element you’d like to photograph and patiently wait for the right moment to present itself? Or is it more spontaneous than that?
These photographs are produced primarily with a lot of waiting, but on the rare occasion, one will happen spontaneously as I’m walking down the street. I obviously love those spontaneous ones, they’re so easy and magical, but there’s nothing like working an element for months and walking away with a truly strong photograph that fills me with a sense of accomplishment.
What’s the most beautiful thing you saw this week?
This might be my favourite question I’ve ever been asked in an interview! I love taking time to reflect on the beauty of life; we don’t do that enough. This week I saw an older woman fall a block ahead of me (that wasn’t the beautiful part). By the time I got there, there were already six other New Yorkers who beat me to it, all of them strangers, cooperating together to ensure the woman was safe and okay.
She wasn’t hurt, thankfully, and felt well enough to hug each of those who took time out of their days to rush to her side. New York has this reputation for rudeness, but my experience has mostly been of the kindness of the strangers you’re constantly surrounded by in this city.
Has taking a photo ever gotten you into trouble?
I’ve been in several altercations as a result of making street photography. The worst happened around the summer of 2017. I was hanging out on the sidewalk in front of a building near my apartment in Manhattan. The afternoon light was mesmerizing and reflecting in interesting ways off the metallic edges of the building. As I’m waiting, two security guards approach me. “You can’t photograph this building, sir. You need to leave now.” As every street photographer should, I am familiar with the laws and regulations of photographing in public in New York, and research the laws if I’m travelling to a new country.
United States law allows for the photographing of anything or person that can be seen in public, which is reasonable. So, with the security guards in front of me making a scene, I stood my ground. I informed them of my legal rights to take pictures of the building from the public sidewalk. They claimed I was wrong and it was illegal, and as they radioed in for help, I insisted I was staying. I even suggested they call the police, I am so confident in my rights and the law. More security guards came over and it was starting to turn into a really big scene, one of them tried to get physical with me by nearly pushing me and raising his hands as if he was going to punch me in the face. Finally, one of the five guards received a call from someone way up in the tower or something who confirmed what I had been saying all along: street photography is totally legal in the United States.