What started as a way to make sense of chaos has transformed into a tribute. When photographer Jonathan Higbee moved to New York City, he was overwhelmed by the constant action around him. That's when he turned to his camera in order to make sense of it all and embarked on what would become a well-loved street photography project—simply and aptly called Coincidences. Now that project has been transformed into Higbee's first book, which covers his time capturing the small synchronicities that happen daily in the city.
In Higbee's world, people and architecture blend seamlessly, creating a new visual narrative of New York. It was Higbee's street photography that helped him grapple with the city and, over time, Coincidences helped him fall in love with the urban landscape. Suddenly, the work was no longer a coping mechanism but a love letter to the city. Through his lens, he's able to reveal a different side of New York. It's with a wink and a nod that he invites viewers into his work, asking them to decipher the scene and to join him in indulging in its humor.
Rather than be crushed in the fray of the concrete jungle, Higbee has thrived. Since we first featured his work, he has continued to produce incredible imagery that pushes his vision of the world. “If these streets are our prison, Jonathan won't allow us to be trapped by them,” writes award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black in the foreward of Coincidences. “Indeed, he seems intent on turning the crush into something else: a sparkling circus tent, with a cast of characters—the unwitting pedestrian, the ‘ruined' wall, the (still-blue) sky, all of that cotton ball exhaust, the spray paint, the billboards, the trash piles—rammed together in thoughtful, deliberate fashion so that we might inspect, laugh, get angry, dance, throw a thing or two, breathe life, take a walk, take a longer walk, take an even longer goddamn walk…and above all else, open our eyes and observe.”
Coincidences, published by Anthology Editions, is now available for pre-order. Read on for My Modern Met’s exclusive interview with the photographer to learn more about how the book came together and whether or not finding Coincidences to photograph gets harder or easier over time.
What was the first photograph you took that made a lasting impression on you?
The exact photo quickly comes to mind. When I began working as an associate editor for a national print magazine called Instinct, online media was really just starting to take off. So those of us in print had to get creative with budgets to keep up with the changing landscape. So, in addition to writing travel features—kind of a dream job, admittedly—it was decided that I make the photographs for the stories as well.
Sure, I had been obsessed with photos and cameras since I was a child, but it was in a platonic way, simply making snapshots for fun to share with family and friends. Suddenly, I had to approach photography from a more meaningful position, and it all started in New Zealand. My husband and I had been in the country for several days before we arrived in Wellington. I had a chance to lose the jet lag, and, more importantly, fight off the weird and distracting stress of taking photos that had to effectively tell the story of New Zealand as a destination for our hundreds of thousands of readers.
Eventually, the tools and the job and the brief and the pressure of accidentally becoming a travel photographer covering somewhere as storied as New Zealand faded into the background, allowing me to make photographs that clearly told the story of a specific moment in place and time. The image is the first photograph in my life that deliberately tells a story I wanted to tell in an effective way. It was a powerful feeling, and it was intoxicating. This photograph—a landscape photograph of all things—is what rather quickly led me to give up writing in full pursuit of visual storytelling, and the street is where my heart really landed.
What sparked your passion for street photography?
It's New York and only New York that sparked my passion for street photography. Had I remained in Los Angeles, I truly think I'd be covering travel still or maybe even moving onto editorial photography. But once I moved to New York, got the keys to my apartment, and stepped outside onto the sidewalk the very first morning I got to town, I had no choice but photograph the power of the city.
How has Coincidences changed since you first started shooting the series in 2015?
There are so many ways this series has evolved since it first began, which I find fascinating. Most tangibly is the fact that New York itself is so transient and ephemeral—it's always changing. It's even a very different place than it was not too long ago in 2015, and I think that affects the series in several aspects, including aesthetically and narratively.
But it's the evolution of my intention that comes to mind. I began making these photographs to manage what I found to be a very chaotic and overwhelming environment, back when I was becoming reacquainted with sleepless New York. All these years later I'd say I can handle the constant percolation and sensory overload and I haven't deliberately made any work for the series from a place of anxiety in a very long time. Instead, the series has gradually become more about the little New York narratives in the images and less about the attempts of the author to find moments of harmony and meaning.
Has it become more challenging over time to find these moments? Or has it become easier?
Great question! I had hoped making work for Coincidences would have become easier over time but it's been the complete opposite. I've found that as the series has become more well known and found an incredible and passionate fanbase, the production of each and every new photograph weighs more heavily on me.
It should have been obvious before, and, honestly, I should be able to ignore whatever popularity I imagine the series to have gained and just focus on making my work. But, I'm human, and regularly worry that a concept is not fresh enough or will just never be able to match previous images whenever I'm out shooting scenes. Luckily, this anxiety doesn't last and I quickly find my breath and return to the moment, but it definitely accompanies me to every aspect of making Coincidences these days.
What was the process of putting the book together like and how did you go about selecting the images to be included?
It's so saccharine but impossible to avoid saying: every step of the bookmaking process was a surreal adventure. It helps that I had dreamt of authoring a book from like 9 or 10 years old, so the realization of such a long-held goal was thrilling. It also helps that the talented and supportive team at Anthology Editions allowed me as much freedom as I wanted or as much guidance, assistance, and resources as I wanted. Coincidences could not have been as perfectly realized with any other publisher, I'm sure of that.
I'm admittedly too familiar with the work to think too far out of the box, so it was liberating to watch as the talented souls on the team put their own spin on it and end up with gold. Being my very first publication, I really wanted it to be as collaborative a project as possible, so the final cuts and sequencing was very much a team endeavor. There were insights and decisions made in the sequencing of this book that never would have crossed my mind but seem so obvious and brilliant now.
Above and beyond selection and sequencing, we had brainstorm sessions on design and writing and the cover that were just as important. Every meeting of the minds at Anthology reminded me of my experiences jamming with other musicians, free from pressure and brimming with experimentation. Making Coincidences was one of the most artistic experiences of my life so far, and I think the shared love for the work that we all have for it comes across in the final product.
What was it like for you as a creator to see all the images together in the final publication?
My husband and I had a beautiful baby last year, her name is Isabel, and not to diminish her humanity in anyway, but holding the first copy of the book in my hands after so many years of gestation reminded me in some ways of the glowing, disembodied feelings following Izzy's arrival. It’s impossible to articulate the full range of emotion brought on by seeing this dream realized, but I’m unashamed to admit that a feeling of artistic validation has popped up a few times since receiving the final object.
I’m surprised, on the other hand, that there wasn’t that feeling of closure that I had expected once I opened the box and held the book for the first time. But I should have known. Every other project I’ve done, every other work, I am constantly re-working, or editing, or re-envisioning. It’s exhausting. I have a problem with laying off a work when it’s finished, an issue with perfectionism that is related to anxiety.
(continued) As of this interview, the book isn't even released, yet it has already helped me tackle my inability to let a creation just…exist. It helps that so many people made their own mark on the final product—from Dustin Lance Black and Matt Stuart to every single artist I worked with at Anthology—making the photographs themselves more concise and impactful. The work that we all put into my little old Coincidences series elevates the concept to its zenith, allowing it to tell a cohesive and clear story about modern New York that no single photograph could have conveyed on its own.
All along, I simply wanted to share my love for this storied city from my humble perspective, and the final publication accomplishes just that. It'll be the first time that I don't harass a creation of mine in the hopes of achieving an impossible idea of perfection, that I allow myself to just enjoy and appreciate a creation once its existence is on its own in the world. Isabel will be very thankful that I've learned this lesson when she's older!
What has the positive public response to the series meant to you as a creator?
I'd be lying if I said the positive reception wasn't validating, because it is. After the years of blood, sweat, and tears I've put into Coincidences, I need to soak all of that up. Also, ever since its inception, Coincidences has enjoyed a loyal and vocal fanbase online, a community of diverse individuals who have all helped me keep going at one point or another, for which I'm eternally grateful. So the joy of the long-awaited book finally arriving in these folks' hands has felt great!
But I was forced to learn very early on in my career the importance of prioritizing what my gut says over the opinions of others. In the early years of Coincidences, there were a few specific critiques that really triggered my nascent self-esteem for some reason, and could have imperiled the continuation of the series. I had to develop a thicker skin to allow my imagination and self-respect to flow. The process also blunted positive responses as well, but ultimately taught me over the years how to identify and be receptive to feedback that was meaningful and beneficial toward my personal goals while deflecting feedback that was only meant to throw me off my game.
What do you hope people take away from the book?
Man, times are stressful, aren't they? It's inescapable these days, this focus on politics and polarization and differences over similarities that's penetrated every inch of our culture. So I hope people take a few things away from Coincidences: firstly, I hope this book provides an escape, however brief, from our current anxiety-fueled reality. There are so many little fascinating details in every image and word found on its pages, so many mind-breaking moments and scenes that can really surprise people, and plenty of opportunities to sit back and just soak in. If these elements of the book manage to whisk people away to another world, then I'll be thrilled.
And, just like any other artist, I will consider Coincidences a success if folks can pick it up and truly see New York through my eyes, from my perspective. It took an unbelievable amount of time—up to four months for a single image—to capture my love for this city, which holds an infinite amount of stories that deserve to be shared and admired. If this book accomplishes that, my love letter to New York may finally be complete.