Interview with Patrick Joust

Patrick Joust was born in Oroville, California in 1978. He has lived off and on in Baltimore, Maryland since 2002, where his interest in photography began. The people and places of Baltimore are central to his work, influencing how and where he points his camera both within and outside the city limits. Photography appeals to Patrick for the connections it can create. It is a medium that feeds his curiosity and provides a way to engage with his surroundings.

Q: Hi Patrick, when and why did you start taking pictures?

I started about 15 years ago but it took a while to get consistent results. I had no grand expectations. I like to walk and, at the time, rode my bike quite a bit, so bringing a camera along with me just enhanced that experience. I think my progress in expressing myself through photography benefited greatly from the fact that there was no pressure associated with it. I didn’t have to perform. I was doing it for fun.
Sometimes people ask me on the street why I’m taking pictures and often my first response is “for fun” which a lot of people don’t get, and it’s admittedly not the most sophisticated response, but that’s still the fundamental reason for why I do it. Over time though it’s become a much more meaningful and almost meditative exercise. A lot of photographers I admire seem to describe it the same way. One of the brilliant things about photography is that it’s so easy. It might not be easy to be consistent, but it’s easy to pick up a camera on a whim. Even with the clunkier medium format film equipment I use, it’s possible to respond quickly when I feel like taking a picture.

Q: What’s behind the camera? I mean, more than what we can see through your technique. What about the subject who’s shooting?

Well I’m a pretty normal guy, I think, but I guess that’s what they all say. I’m married, have a kid, I work as a librarian. I’ve always been a curious person, which influences a lot of what I do. I enjoy travelling. I enjoy reading. Photography has been right at the center of my life for the last 10 years. It allows me to investigate the world and show a little something about what I find beautiful or meaningful. I really like what Saul Leiter said here:
I don’t have a philosophy. I have a camera. I look into the camera and take pictures. My photographs are the tiniest part of what I see that could be photographed. They are fragments of endless possibilities.
That might be a little cryptic but it’s as good a summation as any of what’s behind the camera.

Q: We do believe that every artist shows a part of their own personality and character in his photographs. What do you want to show in yours?

I don’t so much desire to emphasize some aspect of myself in my photos but I completely agree that when you are approaching photography as an art, however that might manifest itself, you can’t help but reveal a part of yourself. The pictures you take are choices you make. Photography has become so central to my life that it’s hard to imagine what it would be like without it. I’m looking at pictures all the time because I love doing so. I like looking at my own work and that of others. I want to create a new world through my pictures. They deal with reality, but they embrace subjectivity. We can really only focus on a particular thing at one time, so I don’t attempt to do otherwise. I also try not to constrain myself with any rules that might be associated with documentary photography even though I’m sometimes called a documentary photographer. I’m fascinated by the wide range of possibilities that there are when you sequence or group photos together.
The above paragraph doesn’t really get at the heart of the question though. It’s hard to give an honest appraisal of yourself. I tend to prefer to leave interpretations to others, though that’s not always true, since I sometimes cringe at certain responses to my photos. In some ways when it comes to what I want to show, it’s more about what I don’t want to show. I don’t want to provide fodder for preconceived notions. When it comes to the people I photograph, I want viewers to perceive them with the same sense of respect that I feel. Beauty is something I’m always chasing. Not that every photo is about being beautiful, but I am trying to find beauty through the pictures I decide to take.
At the risk of sounding delusional or foolish or both, I often have this feeling that I’m just on the cusp of some greater understanding through my pictures. It’s not something that I can articulate and it’s not something that I really think is real, it’s just a feeling. I have a need to unify everything, the disparate threads/formats of images, into a larger whole. I know a lot of writers, artists, composers, scientists, etc. have tried for something like that. In reality, if I could somehow look down on myself with true objectivity, I would see just how narrow my focus is, just how far away from any theoretical notion of universal truth I am but, nevertheless, I get a sense of comfort chasing this kind of notion, even though it’s really just a kind of exercise that could be visually described as a cat chasing its tail.

Q: Many of your photos show up a deep American suburb surrounded by a slightly decadent atmosphere. Was it intentional or simply aesthetics? (arid trees, cemetries, cars parked on the grass like nobody has driven them for a while, industrial landscapes and many suburban houses on empty streets, places that look like they have been abandoned, and this instill a feeling of loneliness.)

Baltimore, the city I live in, has somewhere around 16,000 vacant buildings. I literally live within a stone’s throw of some of some of those vacants so, for me, they can be difficult to escape. That being said, I do have an attraction to them, which is definitely not uncommon among artists and photographers in general. Ruins have long been a common theme in art. I feel so many contradictory emotions. Ruins naturally give us a sense of loss and a sense of time. Those are powerful feelings. At the same time, these aren’t completely vacant places. People live and play in these places. Also, the ruins aren’t ancient and they often stand that way because of racism and classism or because of the caprice of capitalism. It’s not such a slow process. It’s ruin by design or neglect. So, for me, even though most of these photos have a sense of emptiness, I can’t help but think of the human presence that is or was there and what came to pass to make things this way.
I also photograph a lot outside of Baltimore and when you do that you find things are not all that different. The lack of social infrastructure and the disparities between rich and poor really show in this country. You can see it in the landscape. A jump over the border into Canada really demonstrates that. However, many of these more run down parts of our cities and towns are some of the most interesting. Because of the neglect you can find beautiful buildings, churches, old signs, etc. that remain because no one cared enough to take them down. That can change quickly though. There’s a precariousness. I have many photographs that now serve as documents of what once was. Old buildings get torn down or fall down, newer and less interesting structures are put in their place or just an empty lot is left behind. Much of what I photograph is fleeting, which does give me a sense of urgency. I know that if I don’t take the picture there’s a chance it won’t be there when I return.

Q: Years ago I was into night photography too. Searching for tips and night pictures on Flickr, I discovered your stream and immediately felt in love with that gloomy, quiet, silent scenario. How did you get into Night Photography?

Thanks! Searching on flickr did much the same for me as well. While I had been photographing for years, I didn’t do night photography seriously until 2009. I remember photos like this one by Steve Harper had a big impact on me. I actually just did some reading up on him and learned that he died last year. It was interesting to find out that he had had such an impact on the practice of color night photography in California and beyond. His work definitely influenced me.
Other photographers who encouraged me to pick up a tripod and cable release include Mando Alvarez, Kurt Manley, Glauco França, David Schalliol, Andrés Medina, Harry Kaufmann and Sander Meisner. Later I discovered the work of Greg Girard and Joel Meyerowitz. The volume and variety of work on flickr was by far the biggest motivator for me to produce my own work. While thinking about this question I browsed through some of my favorites from that time and it was a real pleasure. I can’t overstate the positive influence that the photographic community on flickr has had on all my work.

Q: On your website, there is section called 'The photographer as hero', can you explain in what way a photographer is a hero?

That title is kind of a joke. I like the loftiness of that phrase. If a piece of art is doing its job the first thought that enters your mind isn’t usually the technical work that went into it. You don’t necessarily think about who made it, at least not right away. I’ve always found it interesting to see pictures of the photographers I admire at work. I love Vivian Maier’s clever self-portraits, for instance. When I go out shooting at night, and often in the daytime, I usually shoot with a friend or two. I’ve found that I enjoy creating “making of” photos at night. There are times when having a figure in the photo makes all the difference. The fact that I take street portraits in daylight probably influences this. It’s not something I set out to do every time I go out, but if an interesting composition comes up, which might include a friend I’m taking pictures with, I’ll go for it.

Q: Do you have any upcoming projects?

I’m always working on something. I just finished traveling to Buffalo, Rochester and Niagara Falls for the first time. I love mid-sized cities and it was great to explore new places. I’ll be visiting parts of the south in August. I’m also continuing the work I’m always doing in Baltimore. In recent years, since my son was born, it’s been a lot easier to do work at night than during the day , which has been fine, but I feel like the balance of images I want to create has been a bit off. One of my favorite things to do is street portraits. They’re harder for me to do but they’re always really satisfying when I get it right. So I guess one of my “projects” is to push myself to do more of that.

Q: That’s all, to conclude the interview can you recommend us a book and an album?

One book I’d recommend is The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. An album I really love is the Beethoven Symphonies (1963), Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan. It was given to me when I was in middle school and I’ve probably listened to it more than anything else in the last 25 years. I especially enjoy listening to it now with my 4 year old son, imagining what it’s like to hear such amazing music for the first time.

All images © Patrick Joust