Featured Photographer Interview with Skot Jonz

July 2017

By Dave Christensen, Director & Curator of HMPC


How long have you been involved in photography?

As a kid, I often borrowed my parents’ Kodak Brownie camera and had simple Instamatic 120 and Polaroids throughout my teens. I was the first in my family to move away to college where I majored in anthropology and archaeology. I began taking photographs in a professional capacity in the late 70s while working on archaeological projects. During that time, it was not unusual for me to be living in a wildlife refuge, wading through swamps, chopping my way through dense vegetation with a machete, or hanging from a plane with several cameras around my neck. I always had at least one camera for black-and-white 35mm film and another for color slides (before the era of digital cameras) to document excavation activities and artifacts. Occasionally, while out exploring on an all terrain vehicle, I would slip in artistic shots such as Fishing in Curlers and Deja vu 

As a field of science, archaeology is a very left-brain activity with cataloguing, mapping, measuring, and analyzing. It came to my attention that the right hemisphere of my brain was lacking attention, and I wondered if any latent creativity or artistic talent resided there. Seeking to learn skills other than digging dirt, and ways to enhance my right brain, I embarked on studies at the Art Institute of Houston, where I acquired essential darkroom skills and learned the basics of photography, as well as its history as an art form. Another benefit was recognizing the difference between a snapshot, a picture, a great photograph, and a work of art. One early class assignment was to take a self-portrait, with no other instructions provided. By presentation day, we had developed our own film and prints in the darkroom where any number of things can go wrong, especially when you’re just learning. Students before me proudly unveiled headshots that looked as if they came straight from a shopping mall photo booth, a high school yearbook, or a passport. By the time it was my turn, I feared that I may have gotten a bit carried away with my self-portrait. The teacher gasped slightly as I heard chuckles echo through the room.

The instructor’s critique emphasized that, if I expected to succeed at the Art Institute, I would need to rethink how to take photographs with more commercial applications. As a portrait, my image was considered too risqué and more suitable for fine arts photography — the direction I wanted to go in the first place. Although I saw the career potential of using a camera as a means to sustain a career, that path appealed to me less than using a camera as a tool to express myself in ways that words cannot. While in Houston during the early 1980s, I worked in a variety of photography jobs including at Astroworld amusement park where visitors dress up in Old West costumes and get a sepia-toned photo or dress as a rock star on a mock magazine cover. It was a fun job with free rides. 

I also worked briefly in a run-of-the mill photo studio with standardized poses for babies, family portraits, and boudoir. These paid the bills for sure, but I was only taking “pictures” for other people. Snapshots and pictures — something any primate with opposable thumbs can achieve. When away from these jobs, and with my own cameras, I would take what I hoped would be great photographs and an occasional work of art. 

Throughout the remainder of the 1980s and the 1990s, I bounced between the Midwest and the West Coast several times. No matter where I found myself, I would seek out a place to have an exhibition – hair salons, bars, coffee shops, galleries, community centers, auctions, fundraisers. My unsettled physical journey was merely a manifestation of my inner world. With a camera I could document this unseen spiritual journey, rendering the invisible visible. In other words, I began taking selfies long before the contemporary selfie craze and social media; not for any egotistical purposes, rather to express something on a deeper spiritual level. My series of self-portraits now spans more than three decades. These are generally spontaneous, not staged or pre-planned, and usually a reflection of something I’m going through at the time. Sometimes, the self-portraits come about not as a result of some need to express a personal message, but because I might be somewhere out in Nature for the first time and see a scene that would be superb with a human form in just the right place. Even if I have the luxury of someone to model for me, they may not be so eager to disrobe in public or put themselves in a precarious position. So I do it myself. Plenty of “male nude” photography books saturate the market, filled with images of muscle-bound, endowed, gorgeous specimens of manhood. Truly fine photography and beautiful execution. I do not in any way consider myself in the same league as those talented photographers and I’m certainly not competing with the models. Instead, my self-portraits are raw and personal and imbued with something deep and meaningful.

What are your motivations?

I am motivated by recording glimpses of the vast, amazing, beautiful world around me, with the understanding that I witness only a tiny sliver of the whole. I’m also motivated each day when I’m​ reminded that we live on a world spinning endlessly around the Sun and I want to experience as much of it as possible, and use my camera to capture it before my short ride is over. And share a little of what, and how, I see with others.

What subject matter do you like most to shoot?

Not all photographs I take are meant to be exhibited or to provide profound insights. Sometimes, I take photographs for practical reasons or to help others.

A few years ago, I presented a series of images that I refer to as “Mr. Magoo Traps” to the Mayor’s Office on Disability highlighting hazards for visually-impaired pedestrians around San Francisco. I was actually contacted and thanked by the Office on Disability and most of the trouble spots were resolved in one way or another. Another example is a set of postcards with images of “peace.” One of the postcards includes the word for peace in 47 languages and has been sent to and from dozens of countries — just my way of spreading a little peace around the world. A selection of my peace images was also included in a traveling international exhibition and books for The Peace Project to raise awareness of, and provide support to, war-torn Sierra Leone.  [See 10. Buddha on Ice]  [See 11. Signs of Peace]

Not unlike every other photographer, I photograph NOUNS – people, places, things, animals, and ideas. Of those broad categories, I enjoy places and things but don’t think my strongest work has emerged from those areas. I see beautiful landscapes or scenes from nature and simply find it impossible to capture the grandeur, and beauty, usually ending up disappointed and resigning myself to just sit and enjoy and not try to capture. Some of my favorite subjects are trees and sunsets as no two are alike. Similarly, no two people are alike. Consequently, portraits of other people tend to be my most powerful images. Probably as a result of my anthropology background, I love the incredible diversity of people and how they exist in the world; the human condition. Perhaps this is why portraits are the most represented in the slideshow accompanying this interview; mostly black-and-white, I included a few color images as well. Readers can see a selection of portraits as archival pigment prints in the 2017 PRIDE Exhibition on view at HMPC through July 23.

Are you engaging with the people as you shoot?

Sometimes I engage with people and sometimes I just shoot and run. Learning more about the subject’s life and story adds richness and depth. Back in the day, before everyone on the planet had a camera built into their mobile phone, meeting someone with a “real camera” was somewhat of a novelty. I would be asked by friends and total strangers to take their picture. Simply by announcing that I was a photographer or pulling out my camera would often be followed by people striking a pose and checking their smile. Obviously, that doesn’t happen as often these days. On an incredible visit to Peru, I imagined that I would be taking endless photos of the scenery and archeological sites. Instead, I enjoyed sitting with people and getting to know them, learning their words, and eventually asking to take their photograph. This resulted in some wonderful portraits, some of which are included here in the slideshow. [See images titled PERU]

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

I have most frequently used Canon AE-1 with 35 mm black-and-white film. However, in the last decade, I finally jumped on board the digital camera bandwagon, still using Canon products; not necessarily because I endorse that brand as the best – just what I’m comfortable with. I’m currently awaiting the possibility of a colleague gifting me a vintage Leica. Despite what industry professionals will tell you, expensive equipment is not necessary to take a great image. What’s important is film choice, technique, and having what they call a good eye. Luck and being in the right place at the right time (with a camera in hand) is also crucial. I’ve enjoyed experimenting with different antique and obscure cameras, such as a Minox spy camera which was tremendous fun.

What other photographers inspire you?

There are so many photographers who inspire me. The previous Featured Photographer on the HMPC website was Dwayne Newton – he’s a tough act to follow and I really respect his talent. I admire the work of Man Ray, Arthur Tress, Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Mapplethorpe, Salvador Dali, David LaChapelle. I’ve always been touched by the photography of Dorothea Lange and her poignant portraits of dust bowl Depression-era families, being able to document the human condition (currently on view at the Oakland Museum of California). Trained as an anthropologist, I have always been intrigued by the study of other cultures and people, and have a fondness for ethnographic photography by anthropologists who venture into remote villages and share images of exotic peoples. In my lifetime, I hope to take at least one photograph as great as those of Sebastiao Salgado. Amazing work!

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

Don’t shake! Nothing worse than thinking I got that perfect photograph only to find out later, in the excitement of the moment, that I jiggled just a little and ended up with a blurry image. I don’t usually work with a tripod, although it is highly recommended. In lieu of a tripod, I look for the nearest rock, shelf, ledge, or something to steady the camera. A shutter release cable or remote is a great thing to carry along.

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

Both. Often something is happening so quickly that there isn’t enough time to think about multiple shots and it’s necessary to make the first one as good as possible. If there is more time, certainly I will explore a concept from multiple angles. One of the key things to remember in making an eye-catching image, in addition to light, line, and contrast, is angle. Photographs don’t always have to be from a “straight on” eye-level line of sight.

What are you trying to say in your work?

It’s been said repeatedly “a picture is worth a thousand words.” If that’s true, there’s a lot to say with one photograph. It varies from photo to photo, subject to subject, and when I’m taking a photograph I’m rarely thinking about what I’m trying to say, at least not on a conscious level. Later, the psychological or spiritual meaning may become more apparent.

What are you trying to capture with your photography?

As we know, the mechanical function of a camera focuses light onto photosensitive film or, these days, on a digital computer chip, mimicking the biology of the eye that funnels light through an aperture, the iris, and lens and onto the retina. For that reason, I consider photography ”the art of capturing light.”

The fact that humans are ingenious enough to invent a mechanical device to replicate the function of a bodily organ responsible for one of the five senses is astounding, yet most of us take it for granted. Certain devices mimic hearing, smell, taste, and touch to a limited degree, but nothing to the extent of what a camera and film achieves.

Our eyes detect only the visible wavelengths that we perceive as color (think rainbows and Pride Flags) which happen to fall right in the middle of a much greater spectrum of light. To each side of this rainbow falls ultraviolet (UV), x-ray, Gamma Ray, Infrared, microwave, and radio/tv, with wavelengths vibrating at different frequencies. In addition to traditional cameras that record objects seen in the visible light spectrum, specialized films, cameras and telescopes can capture objects as seen in the other wavelengths. I find infrared photographs quite intriguing to look at.

Anyone who takes a photograph of anything is merely capturing the light emitted from that object. Telescopic images of the universe seen in these different wavelengths confirms that the physical stuff of the universe we see with our eyes is only part of what actually exists.

Although we consider ourselves creatures of flesh and bone, when photographing people, I am convinced that human beings truly are BEINGS OF LIGHT. A bit metaphysical, I admit. Each person is a unique expression of a particular frequency and wavelength of light. I find that pretty special, and strive to capture that uniqueness in every portrait.

One of the final images in this online gallery shows a family that lives just outside the gates of Arecibo Telescope, in stark contrast to the high-tech facility only a short distance away. So welcoming and friendly they were, which made me wonder how most of us would react to a total stranger taking pictures of our home and family.

The final image entitled Self-Portrait at Arecibo Telescope was taken at the telescope’s viewing platform. Considered the largest radio telescope in the world, this photograph does not do justice to its immensity – equal in size to 13 football fields. Nestled in the hills of western Puerto Rico, the telescope is designed to capture radio waves from distant galaxies, or signals from an advanced civilization outside our solar system. Any type of radio signal, ultra-violet (UV), microwave, and the visual spectrum that we see with the naked eye are simply different wavelengths of the same thing — light. In the foreground stands a tourist binocular, reinforcing the various levels on which we see and capture light.

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

Let your light shine! And endless thanks and gratitude to Harvey Milk Photo Center dedicated staff, volunteers, and members for creating a community of photography enthusiasts and for providing the space and resources for young and old to learn, grow, and share. This is truly a rare gem among San Francisco Recreation and Parks’ many treasures.

Photos by Skot Jonz

Curated by Dave Christensen, Director of HMPC

50 Scott Street, San Francisco

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