It was a busy day in Oaxaca, Mexico as I aimed to find my bearings in a new city, get to my photography-shoot location, and prepare for a mentoring session with Maggie Steber. I hurried into the local photo lab, and saw Jose looking over prints that he had just gotten back. And when I saw his photos, time slowed down. “Whoa!” I thought. His vision of the world captured amazing slices of space and time, and his photography pulled me in. I immediately changed my plans and started talking photography shop with him. In the below interview are some of the topics that we touched on that day in Mexico, but he goes deeper to the zen that he finds in street photography.
Bryn: Is there any particular subject that you’d like to start this conversation with? Maybe, how you first got started with photography, because I think you have a very interesting story.
Jose: I’ve always been fascinated with photography. I think I was in second grade when my dad let me use his Kodak Brownie. At the time I took a couple of shots, and that was about it, because I was just in grade school. But that gave me early exposure. So then in college I decided to pick up journalism, and I took a few classes in photojournalism. After college, I came to the U.S. to get my graduate degree in communications at the University of Illinois, and I focused on advertising. At that same time, I picked up another camera. So, from childhood to college, I played around with a camera, and then when I started my career in business, I put the camera aside and gave it to someone who was a good friend of mine. And I kind of forgot photography for 50 years or so.
Then, two years ago, I decided I’d go back to photography, because I could no longer do the physical activities that I used to love, because of my health condition. When I went back to photography, I picked up a Leica. The Leica was the camera of my dreams from 50 years ago, because it took great pictures. It’s expensive, but I use it like a tool. Other photographers ask me why I bought a Leica, since I’m just getting started. It’s because I’m going to be serious. I’m going to really shoot serious images with this. That would be stupid of me to spend that kind of money, and not use it. I went to a workshop almost immediately after I bought the Leica, it was workshop with Craig Semetko.
Bryn: I think you told me about that when we were in Mexico. Because I wanted to know how you learned what you’ve learned.
Jose: Yea, they advertised it and I said, okay, I’ll go to this workshop on street photography, because I’m a city boy, and I love the streets. I’d never been to a workshop before and I’d never spoken with other photographers before, I mean, serious photographers. So, [Craig Semetko] said, “bring us 5 images of your best shots.” I had 5 images of my best shots with my Leica, and they were of architecture and landscapes. He said, “Jose, where are the people? This is street photography.” I said, “That’s why I’m here, I don’t know how to shoot people, because I’m shy, I’m afraid they’ll laugh at me or punch me.” I said, “I’m here because I want to learn how to shoot people.” And from there I met Nicholas Pinto, a Chicago photographer.
He was assisting with the workshop and he was starting to make a name for himself. We hit it off, because he came from the same neighborhood as I live in, and he’s a city boy too. So, he showed me a few tricks, and I said, “Nick, I’ll hire you to mentor me, because you’ve been around. You’ve been shooting for 14 years, and I don’t have 14 years to learn.” So, I said, “You mentor me.” At the time, I was kind of half retired, so I had more time to take photographs, so I kind of transitioned from my business to photography, because this has always been in my heart. Nick started coming like three times a week. I’d go shoot, and he’d review my images. And we worked out a five-star rating system.
Bryn: So, Nick worked up a five-star rating system to help you improve your photography? Was it kind of a rubric that you guys used for him to say what was a good photo and what wasn’t a great photo? What kind of qualifying factors were into each level of the photo and each level of the rating?
Jose: For one thing, he was just starting to teach on a professional level, and I just love his style, his approach resonated with me. And I think my style is going this direction, if you look at his website. So he said, we’ll start this 5-star rating system. I’d take hundreds of shots, and he’d say this is one star, and within a year, I started getting two stars; and shortly thereafter, three stars. At that time, he was also articulating to me his style, and his own personal criteria, which he had not put into paper. After eight months, I said, “okay, I’m going to condense everything you’ve taught me so far. I’ll post it on my bulletin board, so that everytime I look at my own photographs, I can now pick them based on the “Pinto Principles.” First, the photograph should draw the viewer in, so the subject can relate to the photograph, and be part of the moment, be part of the experience. So, it’s got this element of, “Come closer to me.”
Bryn: What kind of themes do you look for when you are shooting a photograph that you learned from Nick? I’m looking at his website right now and I see his influence in your work.
Jose: Well, the thing for me, city life is so helter skelter. But even when you are in the middle of the commotion, sometimes you get momentarily introspective, you delve into that part of your heart where you find solace and comfort, and you look at the unfolding scene in front of you from this perspective and you become part of the whole. Somehow I intuitively try to capture these moments - alive, fluid and dynamic, but with a certain calmness. I’m on the lookout for the gestures, that would be the equivalent to the decisive moment of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Not that I could be Cartier-Bresson, but to take pictures of something that’s about to happen or has just happened. You know, whenever you see a gesture, something just happened, or something’s about to happen, and you’ve caught them in that moment. It’s a slice of time. Second, the image should ask the viewer a question, am I seeing something I have experienced before or wish I could be a part of someday?
Bryn: This is so great to know about your educational process. Because, like I told you, when I first saw your work in Oaxaca, I was so very impressed! Is there anything that you are very happy with that you did as far as learning how to become a better photographer?
Jose: I’m happy with my development, because now I can stand back from an image and I think, it’s my baby, I shot that image. Now I can stand back and say let’s go back to my criteria, and ask does “my baby” meet the criteria that Nick and I have set up? Does it draw the viewer in? Does it resonate with the viewer? It could draw you in, but it may not resonate with you. You might just say, I’m just curious, what’s going on here? But you may not empathize with it, because it’s something that’s alien to your world view, or to your life experience. And so the third criterion: is it replicable by another photographer? If I meet those three criteria, then it’s very fulfilling for me. Like you said, what am I happy about? Well, this is what I’m happy about. That I took a shot that met the “Pinto Principles.” That is very subjective, that is up to the viewer. They don’t have to like it, but it gives me a sense of fulfillment, of satisfaction that it met my criteria.
Bryn: I think that’s awesome that you guys set up that criteria. And it sounds like an easy to remember system that you can keep in the back you your mind while you’re going out on a shoot, that you can refer to the criteria and think, does it meet what the five-point system is? I think that is so smart, and I think that will help a lot of people.
Jose: Yes, but listen, I’m just on three stars right now after two years.
Bryn: Okay [laughs] that’s good to know too!
Jose: Nick has not rated any of my images four or five stars yet.
Bryn: So, how would you get to four or five stars? What do those photos look like?
Jose: I have no idea. For me it’s like choosing a soulmate. You know, I think it’s a combination of both a little intellectual or a cerebral approach to it, and the other part of the combination is intuition. I mean, pretty much similar to falling in love. Like, “Hey, I like this woman, because she’s articulate, she’s lively, and she’s got a sense of humor, it would be meaningful to be with her.” That’s the intellectual part, saying “I think we belong to each other.” I mean, she and I have good vibes. And the other part is you fall in love, and eventually the shortcomings show up from both sides, but you’re in love, so work it out, right? You’ve made that person a special part of your life, and that’s the foundation of your relationship. You are both perfect in your imperfections - great combo!
Bryn: Yeah, so it’s something that’s hard to put your finger on, but you know it when you see it?
Jose: Yea, creating images is a combination of being technical in some ways, but you’re not wrong by breaking rules, by following your intuition. You can break the rules, like I shoot against the light. And I shoot sometimes not showing the feet. You know, I took a picture of Maggie, and I said, “Here Maggie, you’re dancing.” And she says, “No, how could I dance without feet? I can’t dance from my ankles on, or from my knee.” So, I never forget that comment [laughs]. I said, “now I got the point.” I’ll never forget that.
Bryn: Yeah, she said that to me too [laughs]. So, you’ve told me of two photographers you’ve studied under, but I think it’s really interesting to ask people who they admire and follow in the photography world, because it can tell me about where you hope to go, and possibly lead the reader in another direction. Is there anyone that you follow or admire in the photography world?
Jose: Well, I really like Henri Cartier-Bresson, because his images are a microcosm of humanity, being engaged with street life. The most favorite image is that guy jumping over the puddle. It’s out of focus and against the light, but he caught the decisive moment. It’s like, every time it rains, you’ve got half the population trying to avoid getting their feet wet on the street. The irony of Bresson’s image is that the subject does not look like he’s actually avoiding the water, perhaps he’s just shortening the distance that his shoes would be wet. In my humble opinion, the shot is drawing the viewer in because of the underlying shared human experience of prolonging the agony or taking the path of least resistance, the quintessential metaphor of human nature!
Bryn: Mmmhmmm. And you see the great reflection of him in the puddle that it seems like he’s jumping over.
Jose: It says it all. Even if there could be people to the left and right of the subject, that may not be shown in the photograph. But you know he was surrounded by humanity, but somehow he was able just to capture that solitary moment of making a decision to “Oh, this is where I jump over the puddle.” The symbolism is that we’re always trying to go over a hurdle in life. But you don’t know if you’re going to make it or land in the water. In Bresson’s shot the puddle is just imaginary because of the ladder and the man’s body mechanics just as you and I imagine at times that the sky is falling.
Bryn: You really are getting to what photography speaks to in so many of us. Are there other photographers that you think are very inspirational that you would recommend to someone else?
Jose: In my personal development, Nicholas Pinto and Maggie Steber complement complement each other. Nick with his technique in capturing slices of life, Maggie because I share the mystery that she finds in life. Life is a mystery and I live in both the physical and spiritual worlds, in both light and darkness. So, perhaps this mindset or worldview makes me open to all possibilities. To me, it’s very zen-like to become part of all sentient beings. But, of course, there are many other photographers I admire, including Robert Frank and Sebastião Salgado.
Bryn: That is so interesting that you are seeing how Zen Buddhism connects to street photography, and I can really see what you are talking about. What I hear from you is that there is always a very decisive moment within a city scene, and what you really like doing is searching for that decisive moment within a busy scene.
Jose: It happens, because I keep shooting people, and I come across those moments and gestures. I shoot thousands of photographs, that’s what street photography is all about. Because, you are not setting up anything. Anything can happen at any moment.
Bryn: Before I started recording this conversation, we were talking about the different photography festivals that you know about. I know that you’ve been to the Filter Photo Festival in Chicago, and you have also been in Miami to the Street Photography Festival. Do you want to describe what those experiences are like?
Jose: Well, my conclusion going to the festivals is that it’s part of our learning process, because we are all beginners. I think that is very important for photographers at any stage, to have the attitude that we should not stop learning. I compare it to Zen meditation, where there is no endpoint. What I learned at these festivals is that it’s both a humbling and inspirational experience, if you are open to all possibilities.
Bryn: That’s a really good point, and I love how you’ve been able to liken a photography festival to Zen Buddhism. That, be happy wherever you currently are.
Jose: Yeah, I try not to compare myself with others, because that will be degrading. There will always be someone better, or lesser than you. We are always at the right time and place where the Universe wants us to be.
Bryn: That’s such an excellent point. I love that!
Jose: Yeah, because you’d just be frustrated, because you’d be boastful saying, “Hey, I take better pictures than you.” Or, “Oh, you take better pictures than me.” That’s something that would make me want to give up my camera, because I’d never get to your level. It’s also very subjective. Art is subjective. So, it’s important to derive enjoyment and self satisfaction.
Bryn: I think that’s an excellent point to end this interview on. But, is there anything else that you wanted to say?
Jose: Yeah, I would say, like everything else, there are rules of photography. But, you just have to follow your instinct. Follow your heart in what you are doing. If you love landscape photography, then go and travel and take landscape shots. If you love wildlife, go ahead, go for it, just do it --- but know where your core strength lies and focus on it.
Bryn: Well, I am super excited to write up this interview. I’m looking forward to hearing again all of the tips and all of the insights that you gave.
Jose: Well, your questions are so incisive. You left me no choice but to speak from the heart; you’re a terrific journalist, and I wish you the best of luck in your pursuit of photography. We are fellow travelers along the path.
Bryn: Thank you so Jose! I really did enjoy this conversation so much.
As a follow up to all of those who are interested, the Nicholas Pinto Principles that Jose refers to are:
(1) The photograph should draw the viewer in, so the subject can relate to the photograph, and be part of the moment.
(2) The photograph should ask the viewer a question, “Am I seeing something I have experienced before or that wish I could be a part of someday?”
(3) The photograph should not be replicable by another photographer.
Image of Jose D. Flores by Geoffrey Berliner in New York City in 2017
See more of Jose's work here.