The streets of Boston are empty, with COVID-19 Stay at Home orders, but the interwebs remain a space for creativity and connection between us all. In an effort to showcase the exhibitions that we all cannot visit in person, we are bringing them to you online. Today’s view is the city streets as viewed through the lens of Jim Lustenader. Jim’s black and white photographs have the ability to bring us all together to celebrate humanity in its diversity, humor and uniqueness. On view (through windows) at the Griffin @ SOWA, Jim’s work reflects the view of the street he seeks to capture.
We asked Jim about his process and his images for his series, City Streets.
Street Photography takes patience, yet also a sense of immediacy of capturing the moment. How do you balance the waiting with the spontaneity? How do you find your subject or do you believe your subject finds you?
In most cases, my subjects find me. While I sometimes haunt a location because the setting is interesting (e.g., large poster or wall art) or it relates to a series I’m working on (e.g., people in museums), I really prefer to react instinctively and intuitively to what’s happening around me. Sometimes the results really surprise me, as with the photo “Sniffers.” On a trip to London, I noticed this elderly couple walking behind St. James’s Palace; they were dressed up and out for the evening, figures from another age. I turned away to look for another shot and when I turned back they had stopped to admire the Queen’s roses, seemingly kept behind bars in their window boxes. They leaned in to take a sniff and I managed to grab one frame. Because I use film I didn’t see the result for about three weeks, so I was delighted to find out I had caught a moment that told a story.
What are your favorite places to photograph? Is it a mood, or a certain consistency in the creativity that draws you there?
I most enjoy working in cities like New York, Boston, London and Paris but I have had good luck in much smaller environments. It’s really the mood of a place that draws me: the heat and bustle of New York, the poetry and romanticism of Paris. Being consciously open to that particular mood gets me into the rhythm of a location and its people. Another photographer told me years ago that having a tune in mind when shooting helps keep him in the moment; now that has become something of a ritual for me: Piaf for Paris, Gershwin and Porter for New York!
As an observer of the quirks in the everyday, how has this measure of capture changed your routine and how you look at life?
When I started shooting street, I tended to stay back from my subjects, using a zoom lens that allowed me to capture (some would say spy on) them while being uninvolved. In many cases, this resulted in shots that were often cramped, narrow and one-dimensional. To freshen my perspective, I took a street class with photojournalist Peter Turnley, who insisted I get into the midst of the action and use nothing longer than a 50mm lens, preferably a 24mm. I was petrified: now I would have to get close to people if I wanted to get the shot. However, I quickly found that the normal or wide format created greater context for my subjects, adding interest and dimension by showing them in relationship to their surroundings. A whole new approach opened up, one that seeks out visual tension among elements in a broader scene and tells a more multi-faceted story about what makes us human—and, for me, that’s where the fun of street is. I view life as bits of theatrical business and am aware of potential shots even when I don’t have my camera.
What do you want us as viewers to walk away with after seeing your photographs?
I think my most successful photos are those that are somewhat open ended, inviting viewers to pause and decipher possible meanings, to exercise their own imaginations. I also hope that viewers would share the same sense of amusement that I get from catching human nature at work, the serendipity of coincidence, the irony and absurdity of daily life.
What has it meant to work with the Griffin and to show your work through the museum?
Showing at the Griffin has meant a great deal since it has been a goal of mine for a long time. I became familiar with the museum about thirteen years ago when I visited to see an exhibition of Arthur Griffin’s photos. This great facility dedicated to photography totally impressed me and I wanted to create work that was good enough to be shown there. Later at Houston’s FotoFest, I had the first of what would become several photo reviews with Paula Tognarelli, whose constructive critiques guided me in refining my vision and producing a more cohesive portfolio. I consider being on the Griffin’s walls a true career highlight.
What is next for you creatively? Since travel is restricted, for the time being, how will you fill your creative needs?
A number of galleries (including Soho Photo Gallery in New York, where I’m a member) are running virtual exhibitions on the theme of isolation so I’ve been able to submit work from my archives that reflect a sense “alone-ness” akin to what we all feel right now. Living in a small town in New Hampshire where things are pretty quiet anyway, I certainly miss being able to get to the big cities. That said, I drive around looking for ways to capture the pandemic experience from a rural perspective, which is definitely challenging and requires using those longer lenses that I put away years ago because I can’t get close.