For quite a while now, we have been following the amazing portrait and street photography work of Jon Siegel. Time to get some hands-on experience and meet the photographer himself.
Jon is a creative director from Walpole, Massachusetts, currently living in Tokyo and Singapore where he shoots most of his stunning photos. On his profile page, he describes himself as an “American creative director residing in Tokyo, Japan, frequenting the Singapore scene. Chasing light and color, finding that “moment.” I never leave home without my camera, much like I never leave without my shoes. Photography has given me a means to express myself in ways I never could through other creative mediums. Through photography I try to weave a loose narrative that tells the tales of my travels and life. It is the story of complete strangers, dark alleys, neon lights, the dim glow of the late hours, and anything else that catches my eye.”
Have you always been an avid photographer or was there some trigger?
I grew up in a family of artists, my mother an art teacher and my father a professional photographer. My childhood was peppered with warm memories of developing black and white film in my family house’s basement with my father, the odd smells of developer fluid and the dim lights. Like a lot of kids I wanted to do something different from what my parents did, and pursued, after college, a career in communication design. Photography was always something my father did, I never thought of it as something that I did.
It was in 2003 that I made the decision to try living abroad and set out for Tokyo, Japan, to try a new life and look for new inspiration. I sold everything and packed a suitcase full of the bare essentials, including a fairly crappy little digital camera which was probably quite expensive at that time. I never thought I would stay longer than six months or so, yet, I have since lived in Tokyo for over eight years, and Singapore now for almost two years.
For how long have you been into photography?
As I mentioned, I grew up with photography, but at the time, it was not an art form that really had my attention. It was not until a year or two into my stay in Tokyo that I started to realize that my photos really sucked. I mean, they were the kind of shots you take more as “evidence” to send to your parents for assuring them of your general safety, not the kind of shots you take to tell any sort of story. It was not until my girlfriend, who is now my wife, and I decided to take a trip to Bangladesh where her sister worked for a non profit called Hunger Free World. That little digital camera was just not going to cut it for this kind of trip, and the more I researched Bangladesh leading up to the trip, the more I came across stunning, moving photos that had such impact. I wanted to try my hand at taking shots like that.
The timing was almost uncanny, I was gifted a small sum of money and decided to invest it in a Nikon D80. I remember consulting my father on this before buying it and to this day I really love and respect his advice. He said, “Go to the shop and pick up every camera on display, buy the one that feels most comfortable in your hand, the one with the best grip. You will be carrying it around all day and you don’t want to be holding something uncomfortable.” For a beginner, that’s excellent advice, and the Nikon had the best feeling grip for my big hands. So it was not until about 6-7 years ago that I really started on this path of serious photography.
What did get you started on portrait and street photography?
The story of my life in Japan is a complex one that had frequently brought me to crossing paths with many wonderfully talented individuals. One of whom’s name is Alfie Goodrich who I feel is one of the finest photographers I have ever met. It was his style of photography, the way he treated his camera and the way he approached street photography that deeply inspired me. It was through him that I began to look at the world around me and to consider what kind of story I wanted to tell with my photographs. He was also the one who taught me the techniques I have been building on to this day.
Another important person who greatly influenced my photography is Alvin Yeung, a phenomenal designer who is now living in New York. Alvin introduced me to wonderful world of classic glass. One of the most useful aspects of shooting with a Nikon is access to their vast library of lenses dating back to the ’70s. Alvin opened my mind to exploring the odd and unique characteristics of classic glass and how that would affect the style of my photos. He and Alfie were the ones who showed me how to get very close to people for portraits and to experiment as far as I could go with the medium.
From your profile page I can see that you are a Creative Director. Do you think your work has a strong influence on your photography or vice versa?
Yes, absolutely. During my career I cannot even begin to express my frustration with how crude and thoughtless more than 90% of stock photography is. There is simply no avoiding having to buy stock at one point or another for an advertising project or website design due to time constraints. Often the cropping is very poor, or the subject of the photo is great but the angle is absurd and renders the shot useless in any design. I could write paragraphs on the shortcomings of stock photography, but most every designer is already well aware of the pains of researching a stock photo for a project that really deserves a properly conducted photo shoot.
It’s not that I shoot with the intention of using every photo I take for a design, but I find that I am always thinking about it to some degree when I am shooting anything. The thought that there should be ample space around a subject to permit for good typography, or that a background should not be so complex that it becomes impossible to decipher the subject from it’s surroundings. There are times when I am out shooting, thinking that I will take a few extra shots to put aside if I ever need them for a design project. Understanding and appreciating photography has also played a strong role in the way I manage creative projects. Being able to communicate clearly with professional photographers for projects is one of the big advantages of being familiar with the subject.
You live in Japan, and we’re sure a lot of people are curious about your life as a foreigner in Asia. Can you tell me a bit about this aspect of your life?
My life in Japan was a humbling experience. Everyone can greatly benefit from spending a part of their lives in another country, even if for a short period of time. I find though that you can only truly see Japan if you live amongst the people of Japan. They are the true culture and beauty of the country, not the skyscapers or the efficient train system or the any other marvel you might read about in a guidebook. The Japanese way of life is utterly beautiful and that alone had a deep impact on my own way of life and thinking. It was by pure luck that I was able to build and manage my own creative agency there and meet my wonderful wife.
Living in Japan also means you are surrounded by the latest consumer and professional technology, and have easy access to it all. I would spend endless weekends digging through the electronics shops in Akihabara or playing around with second-hand lenses at Map Camera in Shinjuku. I could never have this experience in a place like New York or Boston where I am originally from. Not to mention Japan is very, very safe. You can, without a second thought, walk around at night in a darkest alley in a really dodgy part of town with a shining new D4 and a big 70-200mm f2.8 lens and no one will so much as bat an eyelash at you. That made street photography in Japan an absolute joy.
This concludes part one of our interview with Jon. Continue reading Part II, where Jon will tell us about his move to Singapore, the gear he is working with and share a few photography tips based on his experiences.
Photos from Jon Siegel.