josh ethan johnson captures the endangered neighborhoods of nyc
Josh started shooting strangers on the local bus for a college art school project. 16 years later, the photographer/musician/graphic designer is documenting NYC neighborhoods from Chinatown to Coney Island for his new book 'Endangered Species.'
There's a mesmerizing slow-mo video on Josh Ethan Johnson's website of legendary street shutterbug Bill Cunningham capturing a passerby on his favorite NYC corner. Astoria-based Josh is more likely to be shooting in the Greek enclaves of Queens or the windswept boardwalk of a midwinter Coney Island than on the corner of 5th Avenue and 57th Street. And his subjects' outfits, while often magnetic, are usually the result of ingenuity bred from limited resources. But it's easy to see what Josh admires about the late legend's complete distaste for pretension and total reverence for his subjects. Cunningham had his favorites, and Josh makes a point of keeping contact with those he captures in the NYC neighborhoods that gentrification looms over. Often, these people are so modest that they don't reply to his emails.
Josh's new book Endangered Species is the result of 16 years of shooting both in New York and further west. The series began as a school project in Minneapolis that made him realize he had a knack for approaching people on the local bus. Over a decade and several coinciding creative projects later — Josh also plays in a quite successful band and works in graphic design, and runs an epic Tumblr of images excavated from the depths of the internet — he's sharing his subjects with the world. Soon after what turned out to be a weekend-long book launch/party in Greenpoint that I stupidly missed because of rain, Joshua spoke to i-D about shooting NYC's overlooked neighborhoods, talking to strangers, and his new extended video series Faces.
Tell me how Endangered Species was born.
I'm from the Midwest. I grew up in Illinois, then I went to high school in Milwaukee, and art school in Minneapolis. I've always been drawing and painting, so I started doing photo classes there and really got the photo bug. I was always drawing people's faces, and I think photography was just an obvious progression to help capture and document the things that I saw. I think I treat these photos more like a form of documentation that gives me the ability to study the people and the things I see at a later date. I have a librarian brain — I've always been saving and organizing.
Have you always been drawn to insular communities and neighborhoods?
I've always been curious about how some cultures can exist for longer than others. I'm interested in documenting these cultures for people who won't get the chance to experience them first-hand. Hopefully they will be amazed, like I am, that Chinatown is still so Chinese, or Astoria is still so Greek, or the middle of Wisconsin is still so German. I've always been blown away by how insular these communities can be despite the internet. I had thought technology would end some of that separation, but I guess we're still too young to see if that's the case. From my experience in New York, it seems to me that those communities are going strong despite gentrification.
Are the communities places you end up in naturally or venture out to with the purpose of shooting?
It's really both. I always have my camera with me, and sometimes I go out to neighborhoods with the express purpose of filming video or photo. But I don't like to just shoot and leave. I'm always interested in eating the food there and spending some time trying to immerse myself in the culture so it's not always through the lens. I like to actually have those adventures and memories that aren't always captured on film. One of the reasons I started doing this was because of a photo assignment I had when I was college at 18 or 19. I challenged myself to ride the city bus and take photos of people. It was really difficult for me to get out of my white bread comfort zone and talk to some real people. Looking back, I'm kind of impressed, because I was really putting myself out there and making myself vulnerable. My friends always point out that I really like to talk to the most atypical person. I guess my thesis is that everyone is cool and everyone is positive.
How do you typically approach people who you want to photograph?
Sometimes I literally just take the photo and leave. Sometimes I sneak the photo when they don't know the photo is being taken — but I like to take the photo with the flash on, so it's hard to hide it. Because I actually do like to talk to people, sometimes I will approach them and ask if I can take their photo, and as I talk to them for five or 10 minutes, I'm taking photos throughout the conversation. So it's never a smiley, posed photograph — I'm always capturing them off-guard a little bit. The natural progression of actually talking to people is what turned into my documentary series, Faces. Are you familiar with that?
I watched a few of the video portraits on your website. I'm obsessed with the slow-mo Bill Cunningham one.
That one was shot a couple of years ago. I got this camera that does really good slow-mo and really good photo at the same time, and it's small and inconspicuous. So for the first time ever I've been able to switch back and forth between these two mediums and really document someone in an interesting way.I would just shoot slow-motion on the street then bring my friends over to my house and play this ambient music that they make while watching these 10-minute single clips in slow-motion. I'm obsessed with slow-motion because it's so different to how we normally perceive things. Humans are very egotistical — we think our perception is reality, but other animals probably experience things like time totally differently.
The video of the man feeding seagulls on Coney Island — David — is particularly mesmerizing in quite a simple way.
That was the first one I did. I've been working in video editing and there are a lot of rules and corporate bullshit you have to jump around. But when I filmed that one I didn't actually get an audio recording of the guy talking, because I didn't have the right equipment at the time. I just said, "Fuck it, I'm just going to make this almost like a moving photograph." It didn't have any music, it just had seagull sounds and waves. It blew me out of the water because it made me realize that that's enough. A photo — which I love deeply - doesn't have any sound effects or any video production.
Are you still in touch with any of your subjects?
Yeah, quite a few. Some of the people in the book I'm literally taking a photo and passing, so our exchange is a millionth of a second. But others — especially the Faces subjects — I'm spending more time with. I always try to exchange information and send them the final cut. Some of them are interested in it, but quite a few I literally don't hear back from ever.
That's kind of cool in a way. It removes any sense of ego from the photographs or videos.
Yeah. I think that's exactly it. The fact that some of my favorite photographs or videos are more spontaneous makes it less about me too. I try to take my own ego out of it as much as possible, to be really fluid and not overthink things. I take a shit-ton of photos — thousands and thousands of photos. When I did this book, I was able to narrow it down to 600 that I thought could work. I gave them to my friend to curate, and help me take those 600 photographs down to 50 or so. I would have never been able to do that myself.
Text Hannah Ongley
Photography Josh Ethan Johnson