New York-based Jonathan Higbee has made a name for himself as the street photographer with a keen eye for detail, a quick hand, and a wicked sense of (visual) humour. Today, Jonathan agreed to tell us a bit more about how exactly he became this artistic triple threat, what brought him all the way from New Zealand to New York, and how he managed to write a love letter without words. Oh, and the love letter in question is completely public, just out there, in the world, waiting for someone to read it. Curious? Then grab yourself a copy of his first monograph, Coincidences (Anthology editions). You know, if you’re into looking through other people’s love letters and that sort of thing.
Let’s start at the beginning. You’ve talked about your first ever photograph, first professional photograph, first camera, first glimpse into family photo albums, etc. What ‘first’ put you over the edge and drew you into photography for good?
You’ve done your research! I appreciate that. As you mention, it’s a lifetime of experiences that has led me to photography, but the tipping point is distinctly placed in my mind. While living the dream as a travel writer for Instinct, a print magazine for the LGBT+ community, I found myself in New Zealand for a story. Though I had typically traveled with photojournalists for these features, the budget for this feature afforded only enough space for myself. The sudden mission of communicating the mesmerizing otherworldliness of the country through still images effortlessly charmed me into photography for life. So, you can blame it on New Zealand!
It’s cliché, but it needs to be asked. Any advice from today’s Jonathan to the other, smaller Jonathan running around his hometown with his first camera? “Ditch the theatre, go look at the real spectacle on the street”?
(Laughs) I would have lots of advice for smaller Jonathan (especially when it comes to theater), but abandoning any of my many ephemeral dreams from childhood until now would not be it. These experiences – from acting to my time spent as a nimble (and quite good!) dancer, to the various bands I played with, to writing professionally – forced my perspective of the world to grow and widen. Each pursuit is an invaluable piece in the puzzle of how I look at life unfolding on the streets, how I edit my shots, which projects to pursue.
Your venture into professional photography began as a travel photographer on a trip to New Zealand. What stuck with you from that trip? And do you think your career would’ve gone differently had you not been given such a double-edged sword on your first day at work?
[Well done!] I visited New Zealand at a transformative time in my life, not just in regards to my career. I had just turned 30 and was coming to terms with what that meant – the relationship I had been in for a year had blossomed into something fuller than I could’ve hoped and, of course, the country was so far from home and bursting at the seams with beauty that I felt transported to another world. There were several moments on the two-week visit that dropped my jaw, including an up-close experience with a wild fur seal colony in the Red Rocks outside Wellington and a bush survival course where I learned how to spot various medicinal plants like Kawakawa (which numbs toothaches when its leaves are chewed).
Unlike other assignments or personal travel, I still look back at my time in New Zealand and feel as if it was a dream. But the unique combination of all these forces, and my newfound task of recording the experience while it happened in real time, permanently altered my brain chemistry and locked it in place with a passion for capturing stories that can be told for a lifetime.
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You’ve spoken quite extensively about your anxiety, tendency to overthink things and briefly mentioned having some sort of issue with melanoma. How, if at all, have these things affected your career and working process as a street photographer?
Well, for starters, my tendency to overthink things has manifested itself in this very interview as I spend an irrational amount of time editing and rewriting my thoughts over and over again – extra time that could be spent shooting (laughs)! As with my other life experiences, anxiety, depression and my short but terrifying time spent dealing with skin cancer all contribute to how I see the world, and therefore what I photograph. They are the yins to the yangs.
Anxiety, in particular, affects shooting the streets in obvious ways, especially when it comes to photographing strangers. On those days when anxiety is raging and disquieting my mind, I tend to find myself subconsciously shooting more still life and abstract street work. My better days see me more comfortable with photographing the people of the city as they go about life. So, there is a real, tangible, acute influence in my work that you can see that is largely owed to my challenges with anxiety.
Your images are often described as vibrant, bold, and humorous. How do you capture dynamism and energy in a completely still image?
There’s nothing I can say that would help anyone capture more dynamism and energy, specifically, in their street photography. I do often suggest (and practice) stopping in place while on a photo walk, taking a breath, relaxing, and being as present as possible to let life reveal itself. It’s outrageously easier to say than to actually do, unfortunately, but when all the stars align and one can live fully in the moment, it’s like opening the door to a surreal new world. Here, in this world, it becomes instinctual to observe and anticipate beautiful moments invisible to nearly everyone around.
After you’ve practiced achieving this mindset and forged your own shortcut to the world that nobody else can see, making street photographs becomes more authentic and representative of everything that makes you you. Benefits of training this major street photography muscle include capturing dynamic, energetic still images in addition to a long list of other qualities that can make a photo successful. But dynamism and energy is really a result of tight editing. That’s my secret. Being an over-thinker, I’m my own worst critic and don’t let myself off easily.
I’m notorious for reposting on Instagram once in a while (though I have a rule of not posting any images that I’ve shared within six months). They all have to be dusty, last posted more than six months ago, and hopefully, new for a lot of visitors to my page. Though I try to the best of my ability to stay true to this golden rule, I still dislike reposting. But, it’s a function and reality of the competing interests of staying active on social media while keeping a tight edit in the work I share.
Let’s talk about a book you published a few months ago. How did Coincidences come about? And who is it for?
The series came about unexpectedly. As I first moved to New York, the inescapable sensory overload hit me with an intense storm of anxiety. I had lived in Los Angeles prior to moving, but there’s no comparison between the sprawling, car-oriented, sun-sprayed city and one of the largest, densest cities on the planet. It was a big change for me, but a change I had been determined to make ever since I was very young. I had dreamt of living in New York as far back as I can recall, my desire to be a part of one of the few world capitals growing stronger each passing year. So, to ease my nerves and forge ahead, I used a camera as a psychological buffer between me and the beautiful chaos of the city. Behind the lens I felt safe, and it allowed me to more easily adapt and familiarize myself with life in New York.
Though I was just shooting general street photography while I got to know the city, once in a while I would pause for a beat and take a break shooting a street scene for a while. As I worked on shedding some built-up anxiety and strived for mindfulness, I would photograph here and there, mostly led by my gut. I never thought the photographs I made in these situations would be any different than the dozens of others I had shot along my walk. For the most part, they weren’t special. Here and there, however, I’d come home with a photo that seemed to be saying something more authentic and true than the rest.
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So you compiled these images into a book?
I liked this work but didn’t think much about it as I soon found myself comfortable – even addicted – to the wild and famous energy of New York. But when I went through my archives months later, with refreshed eyes and no more emotional connection to the scenes in the pictures, the work I had made in those moments when I took breaks from walking to find some presence stood out. I realized the process and the resulting images were something special and began to focus solely on finding as many stories as New York could show me.
So, there is something for everyone in this book. It’s for those who love New York, of course. It’s for those who’re hunting for signs of beauty in the otherwise banal moments of life. It’s for those who appreciate details and enjoy books they can return to time and time again and find something new with each read. So it’s for everyone with a pulse, really, especially those of us who sometimes need to be reminded that the world may be unpredictable, out of our control, frightening even – but that no matter what, life is still beautiful.
You’ve described it as a sort of photographic love letter to New York, yet you’re not originally from there. Do you think that such love letters can really only be penned by expats, by the ones who actually look at the murals, the cornices, and all other grooves and bumps of their beloved city?
Love letters penned by expats and love letters from natives are equally valid observations of a city. In fact, I don’t think a city can be fully understood unless all of these perspectives are presented. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that the art produced by these two groups will contain elements and narratives that may be invisible to the other group. As someone who enjoys reading, and photography and fine art and performance art and theatre, we’re so fortunate to have access to all of these varied experiences from people who are connected by one thing: a love for New York. Our global understanding of this city thorough the art depicting it – or love letters to it – would be incomplete if it didn’t have storytellers from both of these camps.
What was the most challenging part of Coincidences – choosing what goes onto the page, editing it back down, adjusting that based on the extra criticism from the publishing team, dealing with the reception of the book… just not going mad?
Your list is already so accurate that it’s giving me flashback anxiety! But truly, every step of the way I was so absolutely grateful just to finally live an experience I had dreamt of for decades that even the challenges were thrilling. But each one of your suggestions became realities along the way and presented their own unique tests. Sequencing/editing remains particularly salient in my mind because it’s not really my wheelhouse. For something as important as my debut monograph getting this right was stressful, but by some miracle, I was able to work with Jesse Pollock at Anthology, who is seriously a sequencing and storytelling prodigy. He saw through lines in my body of work that I was oblivious to, and really transformed the series into a coherent experience. Before Jesse entered the picture, I found sequencing very challenging. My head was simply too into individual photographs, my emotions too connected to random and disparate narratives, to produce a singular vision on my own.
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How important were all of the technical nuances of printing – paper quality, ink boldness, font, heft, etc.?
Man, I knew that bookmaking was a complete art form itself, but I got a crash course in just how refined, specialized, difficult – and vital – the process of designing an art book is during the production of Coincidences. The lead designer on the team, Bryan Cipolla, was able to articulate my ideas through the esoteric (to me) language of publishing in a way that felt like he was tapped into my mind. At certain points, I became overwhelmed when decisions about all the nuances I didn’t anticipate or consider had to be made. There were just so many! Font weight? Pinpoint-specific paper type and weight? On top of the many obvious design choices that had to be made such as cover design, font type and presentation, I began to stress a bit because I do understand just how important these elements are. But once Bryan shared his cover concepts, I completely relaxed.
I fully believed in Bryan’s talent and ability to execute on my confused desires along with his seasoned solutions, so thankfully, I was able to not only learn from him the seemingly-arcane art form, but also to have a lot of fun in the fascinating process. I never imagined long deliberations about paper weight would be so exciting but I’m here to vouch that it’s a truth!
Many people argue that good films – and even good paintings – have a sort of ‘replay value’, a reason to come back and look at them again, look for more. Does photography have this quality as well, or does its value lie elsewhere?
(Laughs) We seem to be on the same wavelength! Personally, I’d say that it can make a work stronger if it has replay value, but not all art (in fact, in my opinion, most of it) does not. Maybe I’m jaded after a decade of social media and streaming content overload, but it does seem more difficult than ever to not only capture and keep the attention of the audience but to invite them to return for more later, too. That’s really going the extra mile in our age! And with photography in particular, our attention spans have been shaped and diluted by the lure of an infinite scroll of visual candy on our screens.
As a fan of photography, I subconsciously expect more from artists now. And as a photographer, it’s more important than ever to have both a ‘show-stopper’ image as well as one that has replay value. There’s no mastermind in the world who could churn out enough hit photographs to feed the social media beast and larger art community, so it’s unrealistic to expect that each image we make be a hit single. Like musicians, we photographers largely work in a way that produces albums of work with overarching themes, and they hopefully contain one or two pieces interesting and fresh enough to spark curiosity and thirst in others. These hits help with replay value both in music and photography.
While replay value is vital in modern photography, it’s definitely not the point. Just as it has been for time immemorial, good storytelling is where the true value in artwork can be found. If work has that going for it, then replay value in our Internet age would be the icing on the cake.
Your most time-consuming shot took four months to come together. What’s the story behind it? Has it been topped yet?
The photo that took four months to come together is a unique outlier. There’s some amount of pride and honor in it, of course, but I’m mostly relieved that I walked away with the specific image (Wall Street) and that it was a fluke. There’s no question that I would fearlessly devote myself to the production of a work that called for that inordinate amount of time or even longer anytime in the future, but I’ve learned that the amount of time each shot requires adds nothing except for bragging rights.
I love Wall Street – yet it’s difficult to know if that love is more from the relief and emotional connection or is an appreciation of the work as a whole. But there are several photographs in my portfolio, in Coincidences in particular, that were fortunately discovered and made within seconds that are just as strong. The beauty of New York’s infinite amount of stories is that I’m sure Wall Street’s gonna maintain its distinction for the imaginable future.

You’ve mentioned David Sedaris as one of your literary inspirations. How has he influenced your understanding of comedy and sense of humour?
I started reading Sedaris as a young teenager, right around the time I was struggling severely with coming out as gay in my Missouri town. So there’s a personal and emotional connection that can’t be denied. Reading Naked in what was so far the most tumultuous and unsure time in my existence provided a lifeline. I didn’t feel so isolated or alien after finishing Sedaris’ book. I felt part of a tribe, a quirky tribe, sure, but found a sense of belonging that had been unavailable to me before I opened those pages. I had been dealing with a lot of serious and violent and terrifying situations in this period, but Sedaris’ satire and dark humor helped me find rare moments to laugh about the absurdity of life.
My relationship with Sedaris’ work has evolved over the years, of course, and I remain a big of a fan as ever. But one thing has remained true the entire time: my utter envy and appreciation for Sedaris’ ability to transform what would otherwise be the most forgettable, mundane thing into something of value, something fascinating. His peerless sense of humor and wit – America’s finest, I’d say – is pitch-perfect, and is the most important tool he has to tell a story that really, really invites us to look a little closer at these moments that we all take for granted and miss. His artistry is one of the main influences in my appreciation for and never-ending desire to search for the value in the moments we all normally consider the chaff.
Who or what else inspires you from other art genres, from outside of the art world? How do you channel that inspiration back into photography?
My shitty ability to focus on one dream at a time in my younger years carried with it the benefit of exposure to extremely diverse worlds and their unique iconoclasts. I’m not sure this has ever come up, but one of the best periods in my life was spent as a go-go dancer for one of Jason Lavitt’s famed early-00s LA nightclubs, Club Synthetic. At this time in my life, I became aware of artists like Jack Cole, Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, who forever impressed upon me the importance of punctuation, layering, isolation, and thinking outside the box. I’m obsessed with all three!
As a child of the ‘90s rave scene, I can’t ignore the degree to which Deee-Lite and club kid culture forever shaped my perception of New York City. As a hobbyist musician, David Byrne and Björk reign supreme in my mind, but lately, it’s been wunderkind Jacob Collier keeping me on my toes by a total lack of fear in the production of his work. His music has helped remind me that the concepts of phrasing and cadence are just as essential to making a successful street photograph as it is to a musical composition. Wes Anderson also needs mentioning as his seemingly organic combination of humor with bold, colorful and stunning visuals kept me unafraid to use humor in my own work.
You’ve done a variety of interesting projects, been featured in a number of magazines, won some international awards, and published a book. What now, what’s the five-year plan?
It sounds like quite the notable achievement when you put all those things together in one sentence – which, in blunt, purely human terms, feels satisfying. Though superficial, the highlights you mention, and of course the work that they’re associated with, makes me feel as if I could stop everything right now and still feel like I truly made the most of my life whenever it is I find myself saying goodbye. After the recent few years of devoting my entire being to the making of Coincidences, the birth of my daughter, the deflating, sobering reality that comes after a book’s promotional period has ended, and the general lack of clarity that we all share on what life will look like after the pandemic, I nearly do feel like setting down the camera to focus on the huge changes ahead. But not a bone in my body would allow it.
So, right now, I’m taking it day by day, recording life in New York under quarantine for several magazines. I’ve enjoyed being unexpectedly thrust into the deep-end of editorial work and would be ecstatic to continue pursuing it in the future under brighter conditions. I have high hopes for the success of a feature-length documentary about contemporary street photography that I co-star in, made by the marvelous Tim Huyn. I hope that once that’s released, it opens up more opportunities for me to promote the changing face of street photography in mediums that will reach different audiences – and, of course, I love working in front of the camera as much as behind.
In a completely different direction is the apparel line made in collaboration with design prodigies Lone Elephant. They reached out to me with the most unique invitation I’ve ever received and couldn’t resist giving it a shot. Two years later and we’re just starting the launch, already selling out, and planning for future fashion lines in the seasons to come. Who would’ve thought that would be a thing? I’m also in the early stages of a new book with a big publishing house, which is still a few years away from release. Though I can’t say much yet, it won’t be anything like my first book, which has been exciting to work on so far.
All of these endeavors that may consume my next five years will be rooted in photography, of course. And it’s in this art form that, if I’m brazen enough to admit, I have a goal of grabbing the attention of MoMA, releasing more monographs, continuing gallery shows and licensing deals, and even maybe leading a production company for fashion/editorial projects. Lofty goals, I know! But those are what got me here, talking with you, in the first place. And they’re what help me keep my head above water whenever anxiety about the historic moment in history we’re witnessing threatens to keep me in bed. After all, I really do believe that art will be our best way to make sense of it all and move forward as a society when we’re on the other side.
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