Featured: James Watkins

Interview with James Watkins

How long have you been involved in photography?

I’ve been involved in photography for about 26 years now, ever since I purchased 11 disposable cameras for a trip to Paris in 1991. Prior to that, I had no interest in photography whatsoever; all I wanted to do is document the fact that I had finally achieved my lifelong dream of going to Paris. When I returned from that first Paris trip, I was very impressed with the quality of the images that I produced from those plastic boxes. I decided that on my next trip to Paris, I was going to take a “real” camera. Two years later, I was back in Paris with a Minolta film camera and was forever hooked on capturing landscapes and cityscapes. It wasn’t until the year 2000, however, that I became seriously involved in street and documentary photography in my hometown of Chicago.

What are your motivations in Street Photography?

I’m motivated by the desire to capture that instant that has never happened before and will never happen again, that critical “decisive moment”. I’m motivated by the story-telling potential of every shot I take, and the rigorous challenge of successfully harnessing that potential. I’m motivated by the possibility that an image of mine might one day make a difference somewhere.

What is your process in the field?

My goal is to capture the street as it is, with as little interference from me as possible. As such, I try to be completely unobtrusive, trying not to impact the scene unfolding in front of me. Much of the time I employ a hip-shooting technique, shooting from a low angle with looking through the viewfinder. I’ll approach a subject, or a subject will approach me, I’ll focus the subject, compose and shoot, all the while looking in another direction or pretending to shoot something else. Other times I’ll pretend to be fixing my camera when I’m actually shooting away. I make no eye contact with the subject as I move on to search for the next unsuspecting target.

What is going through your mind when you push the shutter?

I’m almost always wondering whether I’m close enough. A compelling story is hard to convey from across the street with the need for severe cropping. The eyes and the face tell the story; you lose the necessary detail from a distance. Sometimes you must capture the moment from wherever you are, then consider moving closer if that moment is still present.

On the flip side of that, I often wonder whether I’m getting enough into the frame to provide the proper context. When I’m in the midst of the action and need a split-second shot, that becomes a concern. As much as the subject itself, the environment can be a critical part of the story. If too much is missing, the viewer of that image may quickly move on. Better to capture too much than too little.

There are also times I go through a moment of ethical angst as I’m about to push the shutter, particularly when the subject is a street person or a child. In those cases, I’ll shoot anyway and deal with my conscience later.

What tools are you using to assist in the creation of these images?

Right now, I do my street shooting with a Nikon D600 and a 35mm prime lens. It’s a beast, but it works for me. I feel lost without my Black Rapid sling strap that allows me to carry that camera low along my right hip until I need it. Then there’s my trusty hot-shoe bubble level. Since I do quite a bit of hip shooting, this allows me to ensure that the camera is reasonably level without looking through the viewfinder.

What other photographers (living or not) inspire you?

Henri Cartier-Bresson was my earliest influence in street photography. My quest for capturing that quintessential “decisive moment” still drives my passion for the streets. Robert Capa, the famous war photographer, was another early influence. His work in the 1930s and into the 1950s fueled my desire to become a conflict photographer (I’ve since come to my senses). Robert Frank and his work “The Americans” opened my eyes to the appreciation of beauty in the mundane. Viewing William Eggleston’s work at a museum exhibit several years back inspired me to work with color in my street photography.

Is there a theme or narrative in you work/style?

Human interaction or isolation are concepts that fascinate me and are common narratives in my work. I like capturing scenes where two people are interacting (or alternatively, purposely avoiding interaction) in some interesting manner, be it positively or negatively. I did a series along Market Street about the guy with a bullhorn spewing profanities while preaching his version of the gospel. It wasn’t him that fascinated me from a photographic sense, but how the people passing him reacted to his mix of religion and vulgarity. The expressions were priceless.

Being a natural introvert, I’m sensitive to those that appear isolated even when surrounded by others. Sometimes I use light and shadow to evoke this sense of isolation, sometimes distance from the subject and the background players, even a glance in the opposite direction from everyone else in the scene.

Do you find the arts or music play a role in your work?

I’m a huge fan of the film noir genre in cinema, the use of shadow and light and Dutch angles to create tension and engage the viewer. The Carol Reed film “The Third Man” is a prime example of how these practices work together to convey the story. I’m fascinated by those film techniques and try find a way to use them effectively in my street work.

I’m also inspired by the cinematography in some of Woody Allen’s black and white films of the 70s and 80s, the ones where the location was as part of the cast as any actor. This is particularly true of the film “Manhattan”, where the masterful use of monochromatic tones and shadows were integral in setting the mood for each individual scene. “Stardust Memories” and “Broadway Danny Rose” are other examples. The cinematography brings such texture to these films that the viewers feel a part of the scene. This sense of place something I strive to achieve in my street images.

Paintings also play a role in what I do on the street. The work of Impressionists such as Claude Monet (use of light) and Gustave Caillebotte (capture of everyday street scenes) were early influences on how I approach street photography. You can also see the strong influence of the American painter Edward Hopper in some of my images, the sense of physical or emotional isolation in an urban setting. Several people have mentioned Hopper by name when commenting on my work.

Finally, there’s a specific music video I use for inspiration on the streets. Back in 1995, Natalie Merchant released the album “Tigerlily”. One of the songs on the album is “Carnival”, which is a national anthem for street photographers in my humble opinion. The accompanying video has her walking the streets of New York City, taking pictures of the “carnival” of the streets with her Leica M3. If you listen carefully to the lyrics, you can understand how it completely nails the world of a street photographer. I can’t get enough of that video!

What are you trying to capture from these moments in the street?

I’m trying to capture the underlying stories that drive these moments, or at least a basis from which the viewer’s curiosity is piqued. One of the more gratifying comments that I get on my images are those that wonder what the subject is thinking, or what the subject must have gone through to come to that moment captured through my lens. That means the viewer is engaged enough to examine my motivation for capturing that particular image. After all, that what we as photographers of all genres strive for.

Another thing I often try to capture is visual tension, some sort of cognitive dissonance if you will. For instance, it could be by capturing an uncomfortable situation, or eye contact from the subject, or tilting the composition in camera or post (like the Dutch angles used in cinema for that purpose), having the subject leaving the frame, or any combination of these. Visual tension engages the viewer, stimulating a need to consider the story behind the frame more closely.

What are you trying to say in your work?

Reconnect, reconnect, reconnect! Unfortunately, we’ve become a society that celebrates self-involvement. Mobile devices have our heads buried into screens that give us the illusion of connectivity. All the while, too many of us are oblivious to the fascinating stories swirling all around us, aching to be told. I would like for my images to remind people of this, set aside their phones and stressful schedules for at least a moment and fully engage their actual environment and the humans that inhabit that environment. We street photographers are lucky in that we get to do that. Earlier I mentioned Natalie Merchant’s song “Carnival”. In it, she says: “Have I been blind, have I been lost/Inside myself and my own mind/Hypnotized, paralyzed/By what my eyes have found/By what my eyes have seen.” She’s talking about her life before and after photography, the wonder of stepping outside of herself with the camera and truly seeing the world as it is.

Some perform for self and others are looking for social commentary. Where do you find yourself?

In the spirit of California, I’m a hybrid. I’m a creature of the former in that I tend to ignore many street photography conventions of what images are taboo and shoot what I feel. There are those that say shooting homeless people is not good street photography, and for the most part I agree with that convention. In San Francisco, however, they are so woven in the fabric of the streets that it’s disingenuous to completely ignore them. If you avoid being exploitative and create an image that suggests their story (and heightens awareness of this critical social issue), then capture it.

The second part of this question can be looked at in a couple of ways. If by social commentary you mean social media feedback (positive or negative), I would say yes, I do seek comments from others. I hope they would be all positive, but I can learn best from comments that can constructively point out why the image does or does not work. I’ve even come across several instances where people have pointed out aspects of the photo that I hadn’t even considered.

Now if you mean by social commentary conveying a visual message shedding more light on a particular social issue, I would say yes to that too. The issue of homelessness I cited above would be one example of that; if I can spark a conversation on this issue through my images, I’m all for it. Crime, unhealthy living conditions, the stress of everyday existence would be other social issues that street photography can accentuate in a single frame.

Are you engaging with the people as you shoot? 

I try not to disrupt the candidness I’m trying to capture with my images. I want to depict that moment just as I initially saw it, without my presence altering the flow. It doesn’t always happen that way, though; inevitably, one of your subjects will engage with you regardless of hard you try to avoid it. Once in the Civic Center area, a gentleman approached me and proceeded to tell me his life story. As I listened, I hip shot all his facial expressions and gestures without him even realizing it. Still one of my favorite series.

There is another aspect of this where I do alter the scene in a way, however. This happens through a form of nonverbal, nonconfrontational engagement, the dreaded eye contact. There are times I capture people glancing or actually staring directly at me when I’m taking the picture. Sometimes they’re just wondering why I’m standing so still in the middle of a flowing mass of people; sometimes they’re staring at the bubble level atop my camera. Most of the time they don’t even know I’m clicking the shutter release. I like capturing these moments in that it creates a layer of tension between the subject and the viewer of the image.

Do you find yourself working the scene with multiple shots, or just a split second?

It depends on the area I’m working and the positioning technique I’m employing. If I find an interesting sliver of light breaking up a shadow mass, I’ll use a static positioning technique – standing in place and waiting for interesting subjects to pass through or into the light – and take multiple shots of the scene with different subjects. If I’m employing a dynamic positioning technique – walking and shooting – it’s more of the split-second capture, more decisive moment stuff. If I have time, though, I’ll fire off multiple frames. For me, the ratio of static to dynamic positioning would be about 60/40.

Thank you so much for your time today. Is there anything you want to add?

The most effective way to improve your street photography is to get out there and shoot, and shoot often. You can take all the classroom instruction you want, real all the online articles and e-books you want, and look at all the Youtube videos you want, but unless you’re actually on the streets practicing your craft, you won’t improve much. Only through actual experience will you find your voice. Look for subjects that can suggest a story, then speak to the viewer through them. Eventually, people will recognize your voice and gain an appreciation for what you’re trying to convey through your work.

– Questions by Photo Center Director, Dave Christensen

After 34 years in large corporate banking in Chicago, Jim and his wife moved to the Bay Area at the end of 2012. The entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley lured Jim away from high finance and had him forming his own photography-based company, Watkins Media Group LLC. Now Jim enjoys his California life working primarily in street, editorial and fine art photography.

Jim serves as one of the administrators of the San Francisco Street Photography Group, a network of talented artists that share a passion for street photography. He also co-hosts with RE Casper a bi-weekly podcast called StreetPX , an interview broadcast showcasing street photographers, documentary photographers and photojournalists from around the world.

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