In Conversation with NYC Street Photographer Jonathan Walker

By Eli Diker

New York City, New York

From the series "remembering lou" (Photo Credit: Johnathan Walker)

Jonathan Walker is a photographer and poet living and working in New York City.


The Iris: Thank you very much for sitting down with me today. Could you tell us a little bit about your background, your motivation, and how you got into photography?


Jonathan Walker: I think pretty early on I had this fantasy about living in New York City as an artist. And then when I went to school, I was doing theater, and then I realized I wasn’t really cut out to do it. So I left school and kinda bummed around for a while. I worked for a year, and then I started auditing classes at a university in New Jersey. In my off day there, I started taking photography classes at a community college, and then eventually I got so interested in photography I stopped going to classes at all except for photography. We’d go on these field trips up to New York. I’d take photos in the Met and then I’d develop them in New Jersey. The real magic for me at first was working in the darkroom because I had never experienced something like that. It really made me smile just watching my images appear in that tray of developer. When you first start taking photos, it’s a rush, because you’re putting yourself out there in the world in a way that is totally uncomfortable, and you’re having interactions with strangers you’ve never had before. You become hyper aware of your environment and that sensation of being so rooted in that spot and what you’re doing just becomes something that you want more and more of. Over time, your ideas start to become something more worth chasing then blindly going out there in the streets. Your practices evolve over time and matures.


TI: What are you looking for when you’re out there in the street?


JW: The main thing is: you can’t look for anything, you gotta just be out there. When I talk about what I’m looking for, that starts with having a body of work already that you can look at and think like “What am I missing? How can I still push this forward?” and really that comes down to what visual language aren’t you using yet. At one point I realized that I don’t have any photos with compelling shadows. This is when I started going up to the Bronx. The light there gets much longer then anything you can find in Manhattan. Again, with my theater background, I used to think about the set as somewhat determining what kind of story can play out in that space. So I sorta thought about photography in the same way, in that you’re not gonna see stuff in Midtown that you would see in Jackson Heights, or the Bronx, or in Bed-Stuy. Everywhere you go there’s something different and something new you can work on. You can really take it anywhere. My assignment this fall was finding frames within a frame. When I look at the work I made I can tell when I recognize that and I jumped on it. Again, being surprised by what you see in the moment kinda triggers the photo.


TI: When you give yourself that assignment, say frame within a frame, where is the inspiration coming from?


JW: This is where you’re borrowing from other people. There are some things that are truly original, that you can’t anticipate, and those are the really magical photos. But those only come from being out there so much, and working through like, walking down empty streets, and realizing that the vast majority of any good photo is a lot of time out there feeling like: “well… shit.” But yeah, the frame within a frame specifically came from looking at all the great photographers and realizing they have some work that incorporates the environment and isolates people in a way that makes you feel something. And that link between the visual language you’re using and a mood you’re trying to evoke is what makes it go beyond just geometry and filling a frame.


TI: How do you know where you’re going when you go out to shoot? Is that dictated by people you want to shoot, or the light, or something else? Do you have a gameplan?


JW: You try not to. One of the problems I’m having now is like wherever I go, I make a real effort to be somewhere I haven't worked before. When you’re still working up your confidence, starting in Manhattan is a pretty good place to just get comfortable taking photos again. And for a while, sometimes it would take me a whole hour before I was in tune with the street enough to create a rhythm. But it depends on the quality of the light. Jackson Heights this time of year, the sun doesn’t line up with Roosevelt Avenue, so when you get there there’s really not a lot of light to work with on the busy corners. It can sort of eat up a whole day because you made a decision and it didn’t work out, and now you’re stuck there. Summer you can do anything. You have all the time to do anything. Winter, you make one choice, you get two hours, and that’s it.


TI: So does your workflow really change in the winter?


JW: Yeah. I started going to East New York a little bit, because you really get the lowest angle of the light there. The problem is, when the sun is that low it’s really hard to take a photo that makes sense, because the shadows are so fucking long. I tend to go to the Bronx or the Lower East Side. I used to shoot in Bushwick a lot because I lived over there. I kinda just go and I have a map in my head of where the light is and when, and that sort of helps knowing where I want to go.


TI: It’s been a wild year. A crazy year all over, but especially here in New York City. How have the events of the past year informed and changed the way you’ve made pictures?


JW: Back before 2020 I was working on a different project, and I wrapped it up in December [of 2019]. My camera was falling apart, my lens was broken, everything needed to be repaired, so I started using other cameras. Then I got into a confrontation, I got my ass kicked, and I was in the hospital and on the low for a little bit. I went back out a few days later just to be like “I’m still going.” I had one of the worst experiences you can have as a photographer right before 2020, and after that I was in so much pain that I wasn’t really making work. I left New York in February, and kind of stopped taking photos for a few months. When quarantine hit, I just watched the news. I wasn’t really thinking about photography at all. I didn’t know when I was going to come back. Then, at the end of May, when the George Floyd protests were happening, I was in New Jersey with my dad, who’s getting treatment for cancer. I wasn’t really going out, just to protect him, and I was watching everything on a TV. By the time I got back to New York it was August, and at that point I had so much of a sense of urgency to catch up on all the lost time, and I think everyone around me sort of had that energy as well, and it made photography really compelling, even though everything was so different. Manhattan was essentially gone, and it took a minute to adjust, like “how do I do this?” Everyone’s in a mask and that’s half the photo sometimes, what people are doing with their face. I switched to the Rolleiflex because shooting my Leica wasn’t working. So I started using my Rolleiflex and all of a sudden I became interested. Also, it was different with the people around me, because I think seeing that kind of camera is a little bit disarming, and it kind of sparks curiosity. It really telegraphs “I’m an artist. I’m not trying to fuck up your day.” I started to realize I could get away with a lot more, like using a flash and stuff. Everyone has handled the Pandemic differently, so when you’re out there on the street, some people are really having a terrible, terrible time, and other people are like “Oh I’m going on a first date. Oh I’m going out to dinner.”


And reading articles about places where you photograph. I remember reading something about public housing in the Bronx, and how COVID was just sweeping through those buildings because everyone was living so close. Or walking past Elmhurst and Jackson Heights and seeing those refrigerated trucks filled with dead bodies. It’s just like “this is where we live now.” Meaning in life right now is compounded by the fact that there’s a climate crising and a healthcare crisis, and a pandemic. We have to overhaul everything in this country so there’s an even playing field and hope for a more harmonious future. It’s interesting to me, thinking back to the first photos I was taking seriously, because my entire portfolio is shot in the age of Trump, and now, we have Biden. What is going to be different? But alas, I ramble.


TI: Do you anticipate a change in both this city and your work documenting it? Do you have any idea what that change will be?


JW: I was outside when the election was called. The ten minutes after people found out, people were running out into the street, and it was like this blanket of despair was lifted. I remember also the protests when Trump took office. Fifth Avenue was swarming with thousands of people just looking ahead at four years of that. And it changed the city. Things got really serious. And now, I think, there’s this lingering trauma of everything that people have seen and witnessed, and read too. So you’re going out on the street, and someone spit on me a couple weeks ago, and I was like “well shit, what am I going to do now?” But then you think about someone like Daniel Arnold, who’s been out there like every fucking day, and then it’s like “what excuse do I have?”


TI: Shooting film seems like a really important part of your work. Could you talk about why you choose to shoot film still, and also perhaps take us through a little of your process there.


JW: I think film is kind of a young person’s game, simply because unless you have enough money to pay for developing and scanning, it really is time expensive. Especially if you’re using black and white film, and you only have a two reel tank and like ten rolls of film to develop, that just going to take five hours, and there’s no way around that. But I think coming from getting a new phone every year, and losing my photos, and having lost shit on laptops and not really paying attention to having good digital hygiene, just having something physical, a negative that can fit in a binder, was more attractive to me at first. Before I really fell in love with the medium, I was just like: “Yeah, I’m gonna shoot film because why not try it?” But then, you get used to seeing the negatives, and the feeling of, when you first start learning and you’re doing black and white, unraveling the wet film and you just see it for the first time in this row, it’s magical.I think that darkroom and making prints is also very important, as opposed to just scanning film. If you really want to fall in love with film, you’ve gotta spend time in the darkroom.


TI: Final question. You mentioned before we began that you had a new project coming up. Do you want to tell us about that?


JW: I have no idea, but it’s something. It has to be something. In multiple different ways, my last body of work ended, and then the world ended and changed, and now it has come back to life but is teetering on the edge of total destruction. And with everything in my life too, especially as I’ve gotten later in my 20s… I’ve always been a bit melodramatic. With every stage in life I’ve had this super serious moment, and now I’m on the fence about how to put my work out there. In one sense, zines are great. They’re incredible, they’re great for the community. They help inspire other people to make their own. But they’re also really stressful, and they’re not that profitable. And now, because I didn’t graduate college, I don’t really have a sense of, in the way a lot of people do, one period of life ending and a new period of life beginning. But for me, I have this feeling in the places where I like to work, I’ve been there four years. I’ve been working where I like to work in the Bronx since 2017, and Queens since 2017, and Manhattan since 2015, and at this point you sort of have explored the problems there you want to find. For instance, I took the photo at Radio City and now when I look at that corner it’s just like “I’ve done it.” And there are places in the Bronx, like right of the four train on 167th that I just know. I’ve photographed them so many times. I want to find something else. I’m putting myself further and further into places that don’t have a lot of traffic, just to see what happens. A lot of the time nothing does, but you’re changing the sense in your head of what you want to do, and what kind of photos you want to make when you’re not right by a subway stop. And people are coming down the stairs or moving to a bus stop or going into a deli. You’re starting to look for different things. There was this one situation way up in the Bronx. This couple climbed up this rock face by this overpass that had a highway over it, and I was like “that’s unusual,” so I climbed up behind them, and I put myself in a situation where it was just me and them. And that can go really really badly, but it can also be really interesting. So finding ways to challenge yourself, push yourself, make yourself uncomfortable, even if you never want to do it again, takes me to different places all the time. And now, I don’t know if I’m going to do a zine. I’m sort of in a place where I want to think about my work on a larger scale than doing a zine every six months or every year. But my thinking pattern is so inconsistent that yesterday I was like “I’m going to do a zine every month.” And now I’m like “No, that’s terrible. That’s gonna be the worst. I’m going to start on making a book.” So you flip flop over and over until you get so exhausted that you’re just like “alright, I’m gonna pick this one,” and that’s what happens. In the meantime you just keep shooting.


This transcript has been edited for clarity and concision.