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Photos Of Coincidences So Perfect, They Feel Staged

Photographer Jonathan Higbee spoke to Co.Design about his series on urban serendipity–and the immense patience it required to complete.

Jonathan Higbee’s series Coincidences is an exercise in spotting the surreal, impossibly perfect serendipity of everyday life in New York City daily life. Sometimes, Higbee’s subjects align with their backgrounds in the funniest ways. Other times, the effect feels almost fantastical. The photographs are so amazingly coincidental, they feel staged. They’re not. Higbee’s images are the product of instinct and patience–seemingly infinite patience, in fact, as I discovered when I asked him about his work.

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[Photo: Jonathan Higbee]
Jesús Díaz: I read here that you sit for hours and hours in front of a spot waiting for the perfect photograph to happen…

Jonathan Higbee: Yes, it’s true! I spend a lot of my time standing outside on the street or a corner waiting for something special to happen. The best advice I’ve ever received from another street photographer so far is to wear good comfortable shoes. Man, they were not joking!

JD: Now I’m just curious, what was the longest you have been there?

JH: The longest I’ve waited for one of the photographs in Coincidences is about 4 months! Not every day for that time period, but definitely at least returning a few days a week for a few hours at a time. Thankfully all the time spent waiting paid off. Sometimes it doesn’t, such as when an advertisement I’ve been shooting gets taken down and replaced with something new before I got my shot.

[Photo: Jonathan Higbee]
JD: What drives you to those spots?

JH: My gut is what typically drives me to the spots in this series. Only a couple of these “coincidences” materialized immediately before my eyes while on a photo walk. That’s always nice but so rare!

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Usually what happens is I’ll come across an element while strolling the streets, something that sparks a hard-to-describe and subtle physical sensation, an experience that’s mostly subconscious. I take a moment to investigate what my body is telling me about the scene. Is what I’m intrigued by visually interesting? I focus a lot on simple and large advertisements, it seems, though bold, minimal street art and graffiti pique my curiosity, too. How’s the foot traffic in this spot? Are there enough people passing through to increase my odds of a great subject and serendipity? Are there too many people passing through (which can often happen in Manhattan!), which will make it more difficult to direct the viewer to the story the city is telling? Finally, what’s the light like? That should be the first question a photographer typically asks! But shooting candid street photography in the skyscraper canyons of Manhattan makes that a complicated query. If enough of the answers are positive, I’ll return to the spot for as long as it takes to capture a coincidence–or until the original element is no longer there.

JD: So is there any planning on the final image? I know it’s all based on coincidence, but do you have a particular final image in mind? Maybe sometimes or always or never! Like in the mural with the fire and the smoke–was there any previous intention to capture someone with a head or a hat burning?

JH: It’s impossible to prevent my mind from visualizing what the final image of a scene could look like. When I first start shooting a scene I’ve found, several potential narratives flash in my head. It’s knee-jerk. This especially happened in the photograph with the man in the black suit whose hat is on fire. Upon finding that background, I gauged the height of the advertisement and the necessary camera angle to combine it with a subject. The only thing I could imagine would work was a shot with someone’s head or hat on fire.

Envisioning what the final photograph might turn out to be can be a hindrance, though. If I’m not careful, the concepts flooding my thoughts could ultimately limit my ability to remain open to the wealth of other meaningful coincidences that could unfold. Sometimes my imagination can put blinders on when I really need to keep an open mind to make this work.

[Photo: Jonathan Higbee]

JD: Now I’m thinking of the virgin and the kid dressed like an angel–is everything just coincidence or do you introduce elements?

JH: Everything in this project is a candid coincidence, the kind that can only be found in New York, I feel. When someone asks if a photograph in the series is staged I genuinely take it as a huge compliment! It makes me feel like the work has perhaps left the viewer with a new perspective of life and the world, or at least more curiosity about reality. That’s one of my primary mission statements for Coincidences. We could all use a moment of escape from our own realities from time to time, I think.

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JD: Which are your favorites–if you have any–and why do they strike a particular chord in you?

JH: Actually, the photograph you mentioned before–titled “Morningside Heights”–is a particular favorite of mine. I made it at the end of the Marian Festival, an incredible event that happens every October in upper Manhattan. Members of the local diocese spend weeks decorating their cars and trucks and preparing elaborate costumes that celebrate the religious figure Mary. They then parade their festive and ornate creations along several blocks of Broadway, where crowds of hundreds of people watch, cheering them on in exaltation or falling to their knees in prayer or otherwise having transcendental religious experiences. The year I made that photograph (2017) was my first time attending anything even remotely like it. Being around a huge number of people who are overcome with ecstasy and experiencing a communal trance-like state was an experience I’ll never forget. I’m so honored and humbled that I have that photograph to remember it.

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About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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