One of the most respected members of the new Baltimore school of photographers, Patrick Joust has influenced many of the current American Elegy-type shooters. His brilliantly effective photographs of Baltimore denizens, urban landscapes, and aging automobiles are not only visually satisfying, but emotionally charged. A prolific photographer with a prodigious output, the quality of Patrick’s work stays strong in style and substance. –RF
What brought you to photography?
For some reason I never took photography very seriously as an art form until after college. My attitudes began to change when I realized just how powerful a good photograph could be and that it was no simple process to do it well. I began having a growing interest in the classic street photography of Robert Frank and others, and while I wasn’t really sure what I hoped to achieve, I wanted to create something along those lines (even though my pictures now are mostly quite different).
What spawned my interest further was when I moved to Baltimore for the first time in 2002. I came as an Americorps volunteer and worked as a tutor and mentor for adults and children throughout the city. While driving and walking around I developed a growing desire to try and capture my surroundings, so I bought a Canon Rebel 2000 SLR and picked up a couple of cheap rangefinders, including the excellent Canonet QL17.
After my first time in Baltimore, I spent a couple of years in San Francisco as well. During this time, photography was kind of an on-again-off-again hobby for me, which was largely influenced by the fact that I didn’t have a lot of money for film and processing. In 2005 I bought a Canon Rebel XT and went the digital route for a while, thinking I might never shoot on film again, but while I took a handful of pictures during that time that I was happy with, I didn’t have a great sense of direction and the overall quality of my work was pretty low.
I would say things didn’t really develop in a strong way until 3 or 4 years ago, which was around the time that I started participating on photography sites like pbase.com and flickr and then meeting some local photographers who became my friends (this was also shortly after I moved back to Baltimore in 2006). Once I started really looking at what others were doing, I found myself inspired to get outside and shoot more. I also tried to simplify my process for taking pictures, forgoing zoom lenses and auto everything cameras for the simpler designs I used when I first got started.
There seems to be a crop of individuals from the current “Baltimore school” of photography, whom, while individualistic in approach, are similar in scope. Would you consider that accurate and, if so, is the environmental influence of a city like Baltimore the likely culprit?
That’s an interesting question. The city definitely plays a role in all of our work. Living in Baltimore and trying to understand/interact with the city is what brought me into photography and I think it has been an inspiration to others as well. It’s a complex city that shares some of the best and worst aspects of American life, and as such, it provides a lot of material worthy of being captured.
Another factor that influences the similar scope you mention, is the fact that a lot of us know each other and shoot together. I’ve been lucky to shoot with TimCastlen, MichaelWriston, ChuckPatch, AndrewMangum and several others over the last few years. These photographers not only have fun with what they are doing, but take it seriously and are producing first rate work which has helped to improve the work of all of us here. I might be biased, but I think Baltimore is especially blessed with a lot of talented photographers. I started a group called FilminBaltimore and we have regular get-togethers at various Baltimore watering holes to casually talk about photography, the city and our various adventures. So we all kind of compare notes and are influenced by each other, even though we certainly have our own ideas for where we want our individual projects to go.
What draws you to your more common subjects, such the inner city environments, along with its inhabitants, and older American automobiles?
I am a huge fan of cities and I’ve always been fascinated with their evolution, their problems and what they have to offer. I feel like some of the more “marginal” neighborhoods in Baltimore, and other “rusty” cities, are in certain ways healthier than what you might find in many middle and upper class suburbs because people tend to know their neighbors, interact, sit outside, etc. Obviously I wouldn’t want to stretch that notion too far in a city with some neighborhoods that are so full of crime and poverty, but it’s a quality that shouldn’t be overlooked and often is. I could walk for hours in the suburbs without seeing or interacting with anyone and that would be pretty unlikely in many of Baltimore’s neighborhoods, whether they are considered healthy or not.
I’m actually a pretty shy/reserved person, but I’ve found the camera to be a social instrument that allows me to meet and interact with people. Even when I’m not taking pictures of people specifically, I often find myself striking up a conversation with someone about a car, architecture, the weather or just about anything. It’s an aspect of photography that I never really considered before I started doing it, but it’s one that I value a great deal and I think it’s gotten me out of my shell a little bit.
My interest in older automobiles is kind of a strange one because I’m not really a car person in general. Though I do have some fantasies about buying an old Karmann Ghia or Porsche 912, and driving it around on weekends, I prefer to save my money for travel and photography. Sometimes people ask me about makes and models and I rarely know much of anything. My wife and I share a nice cheap little Toyota Yaris and though I love going on road trips, I prefer to walk, carpool or take mass transit on a daily basis. I would love it actually, if I didn’t need to have a car at all.
I think I have a particular fascination with older American cars from the 60’s and 70’s because they stand out so much on the street. These cars seem to represent a national belief in never ending abundance and while the SUVs and large cars of today represent the same thing, somehow the big outlandish nature of the classic large American car of the 70′s is more compelling. These vehicles had a degree of built-in obsolescence even when brand new. There is something about their designs that comes off as archaic and I think this is why I’m drawn to them so much, even though I would never actually want to own one. More generally, the automobile represents a sense of freedom and exploration and yet they are also partly responsible for the destruction of our great cities and the creation of unsustainable lifestyles. So I have a love/hate relationship with the car and I guess that makes them interesting to photograph.
With all that being said, I also have a fascination with movies like The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Le Cercle Rouge, etc. There is just an aesthetic to the 60’s and 70’s that I’m attracted to that old cars often embody.
What are you trying to convey or capture in your images?
Well the short answer is that I don’t know exactly. I guess it kind of depends on the type of picture I’m taking. In a lot of my night shots it’s all about capturing or creating an atmosphere that’s both realistic and slightly fantastic/magical. When capturing pictures of people on the street, I’m hoping to get something that corresponds to what I saw/felt at that moment, though this isn’t all that easy and I have a lot of near misses to show for it.
Even though I’ve produced a lot of images over the last few years, I still feel like I’m not entirely sure where I’m going, particularly when it comes to classic street photography, which I enjoy a great deal but I find to be difficult to do well. I think it’s going to take several thousand more photos before I develop a better sense of what I’m doing, but I’m enjoying the process, so I’m not too worried about it.
Is your work consciously political?
That’s really interesting. I don’t think I try and convey something distinctly political. I usually don’t give my images titles anymore, largely because I’ve run out of ideas, but also because I don’t want to influence the perception of the viewer too much beyond the confines of the image. I don’t think I’m trying to make any overt political statements, but I know my sensibilities can be seen in a lot of my images.
I think the political influence of photography is somewhat limited anyway. There was a time when pictures of suffering people in Life Magazine would be enough to galvanize people towards some kind of action and even legislation. Unfortunately I don’t think the photograph has that same degree of power today. I also think that photographers and artists in general, shouldn’t give themselves too much credit when it comes to the influence of their work on the political sphere. Art has an important place and it would be wonderful if that place was more prominent, but I don’t think taking a picture, at least to the extent of my ability, is the same as getting involved and making a difference.
Something I ask myself when thinking too much about my own work – do you find hope in your subjects or are you simply connecting to and with the situation at hand?
It depends on the situation. I feel that there is so much potential that is wasted in Baltimore, and when you look at crime rates, the horrible school system and the cycle of poverty that exists here, it’s often a challenge to be hopeful. I find it very frustrating that we live in a time where the poor are almost completely ignored. Politicians and voters today don’t want to talk about “the poor” and just want to pretend that we are all part of one big middle class and that everyone starts from the same place and therefore should take care of themselves. I don’t think we have a good concept of community and the larger society in which we live. This is why you have the richest country on earth possessing the equivalent of a large and stagnant poorer country within.
I think my pictures of abandoned rows, empty lots and the discombobulated nature of a city racked by decades of poverty are obvious indicators of neglect. It should be a national shame, but it’s not on the radar screen of most Americans. Since I don’t see us, as a country, veering our sentiments in the direction of social responsibility and activism, it is hard to see anything hopeful in these pictures. At the same time, I do find hope in this city all of the time because individuals and communities are making efforts to improve the city and make it more livable. I hope I’m capturing some of that. Baltimore, and other cities like it, have the advantage of an infrastructure geared more towards the individual rather than the automobile. This was a disadvantage in the age of the interstate, but now I think it’s becoming an asset and so I do have some hope that things will change for the better, even if it is just a sliver.
Of course my hope comes from a perspective of someone who lives in relative comfort, has a great job and a stable life and the time for things like photography and travel. I think that my point of view can’t be seen as a stand-in for the reality of others. I’ve said this before elsewhere, but to a certain extent, I am just a tourist in this city and only momentarily connecting with many of the subjects I capture. And of course sometimes it’s all just about the light and composition and I don’t necessarily find myself considering anything else anyway.
Could you talk about your influences, past and present?
I have undoubtedly been influenced by many of the “great” photographers, past and present. Of course I already mentioned the work of Robert Frank and there were a couple of excellent retrospectives including his work and that of William Eggleston during the past few years in Washington that had a lot about their process for taking, editing and developing photos, which I found to be very helpful and interesting. The work of Vivian Maeir, Gordon Parks and Milton Rogovin are also big inspirations for me.
Still, I think I have been most influenced by my contemporaries and by fellow photographers that I’ve met online and befriended. I would say my two biggest influences have been my friends TimCastlen and MichaelWriston. My photography improved much for the better since I met them. I met Tim through pbase.com in 2006/7 and since he also lives in Baltimore, we got together to shoot and chat about photography, gear, etc. He’s actually the one who encouraged me to join flickr. He also helped plant the seed for my interest in M mount rangefinders and taught me how to develop my own film and make prints.
I had actually never shot with anyone before meeting Tim, and I think it was incredibly beneficial to see how another photographer approaches a situation. Tim is great with people, and I learned a few things from him about approaching people on the street as well as how to take a good picture. The two of us have conversations about gear, film, developing, etc., that I’m sure would bore a lot of people to tears, but it’s fun for us and I think we’ve been able to bounce things off each other that has led to better work from both of us.
I met Mike through flickr and we hit it off right away. I think he’s the only photographer I’ve come to know who has even more energy than me, when it comes to just going out to shoot. We’d be out late shooting, and I’d be ready to get home knowing I’d be very tired for work the next day and find out that he actually had to get up hours before me and was still energetic enough to take more pictures. When he got the word that he was being transferred to California, we put in even more days and nights of shooting all over Baltimore and a lot of my shots from that time are among my favorites. I had a much better idea of what I wanted to get out of photography when I met Mike, but our similar interests helped both of us to develop and improve the quality of our work.
Of course there are many others that I’ve met in person or online via flickr that have influenced me as well, like ChristopherHall, DanWetmore, MandoAlvarez and others. I look at other people’s work as much as I can and I think it’s all been a big help in improving my own over the years. I have been very happy with my output lately, but whenever I feel my ego growing to an unnatural proportion, it’s easy to take a look through all of my friends’ and contacts’ photos to put things in perspective and inspire me to get better.
There’s so much good work going on all over the world that I really find it difficult to keep up. Whether it’s a 15 year old kid who’s just getting started or someone with decades of experience, I have found a lot of inspiration online.
After discovering Robert Frank and becoming a photographer, was there a moment of realization that Frank’s America didn’t really exist anymore or was it the opposite?
For me the most important characteristic of Frank’s photography in The Americans was his uncovering of the contradictions between who we really are and how we like to see and portray ourselves as Americans. Frank excelled at capturing the sense of alienation that exists between the vagueness of the American dream and what things are like when our guard is down. While locales and aesthetics certainly look different today, I think a revisiting of Frank’s images shows how little has changed when it comes to issues of class, race and our desire to fill voids within ourselves through consumer culture. As a whole, the United States is not generally introspective. We like to keep moving forward, pausing only briefly to celebrate winners, while ignoring the rest of society. It’s an act that is difficult to maintain and that quickly falls apart when a greater deal of scrutiny is applied.
The more I look at Frank’s images now, the more I see similarities between the work of other street photographers working across the United States today. Frank’s America is still here and very relevant because once you look past the old cars, hairstyles, etc., it’s easy to see ourselves in his pictures.
Would you mind telling us a bit about your process and gear?
As a lot of people know, I’m a bit of a collector and enjoy switching things up in my camera bag from time to time. Typically though, I walk around with a twin lens reflex camera of some kind and then a 35mm camera, usually my Leica M3. I’ve found this combination gives me lots of options for the kinds of scenes and situations I like to capture.
I do shoot digital from time to time, but the vast majority of my work now is on film. Digital can be great (especially the quality you get from a full or large frame sensor) but I find shooting film to be easier as I can choose an emulsion and stick with it without having to worry about doing a lot of post-processing afterward. The restrictive aspects of film photography allow me to be more creative because I’m forced to prepare and think about each frame. Also, you just can’t beat the quality of medium format film (except with large format film, of course) and ever since I first started shooting with a medium format TLR (the Super Ricohflex) about 3 years ago, I’ve been hooked.
I don’t want to sound like I’m putting down digital though. I really don’t think of film and digital in opposition to each other. Shooting digitally has helped improve my photography as well because the instant feedback reduces frustration and makes the learning curve much easier. When I do shoot digital, it’s usually with my Canon 5D and some classic manual focus Nikkor or Takumar lenses in AE or Manual mode. This arrangement is pretty similar to my analog style as well and makes the transition between shooting digital and film less radical.
I’ve had mixed feelings about the importance of gear because I do think that someone can take great pictures with just about any kind of camera, but I do find that the process of taking a picture can be a lot more enjoyable if you find the type of camera that is right for you. For me a TLR just feels right and I enjoy looking at the world that way. For 35mm, a good quality rangefinder works best for me. Of course I enjoy shooting with SLRs, point and shoots, and other cameras as well, but I believe the tools you use can have a big influence on your output and make the whole process more fun.
What are you currently working on and is there anything cooking for the future?
At the moment I’m in the process of developing and scanning over 40 rolls of film that I shot on my recent trip to Buenos Aires and Montevideo. I am going to be tied up with that for a long time.
Otherwise, I don’t have anything specific that I’m focused on other than to try and improve my work and create a larger pool of photos from which I can hopefully extract something worthwhile and lasting. I especially want to do more street portraiture and convey a broader sense of the character of my city.
Where is the best place for our readers to find your work?
© 2011, American Elegy. All rights reserved.