Jonathan Paragas is a Bay Area street photographer. His Youtube Channel, kingjvpes, focuses on the artistry and technique behind film photography. I sat down with Jonathan in Benicia, CA to discuss street photography, his relationship to the Bay Area, and his mission to keep film alive.
How were you introduced to photography?
I started photography in high school. I never really took it seriously. I shot mostly digital and I would take pictures of friends. I ventured into film when I started watching some YouTube videos and saw some skater who shot with a Minolta. I picked one of those cameras up, and from then on, I continued to do portraits but more on film. It wasn't until late 2016 when I decided to take things more seriously. After that, I got into street photography and that has just taken over my life. Everywhere I go I got the camera with me.
What photographers have inspired you?
Gary Winogrand, I want to say, is my favorite photographer. There are just so many amazing photographers that I look up to and admire but when you ask me that question, he was the first person that popped into my head. I'll probably never get to his level of skill or anything. He's just—he's amazing. Have you seen Alex Webb's work? Dude, it's insane. The way he utilizes his layers, composition, and color as well. So Winogrand, Alex Webb, Henri Cartier-Bresson because, you know, Bresson is Bresson. There are also some modern-day photographers that I really admire. Craig Whitehead, Six Street Under, he's a photographer based out of the UK. I like the fact that his photographs are more unique to what you would see. I feel that his is a new style of street photography. He isolates certain features like somebody opening the door, or it might be the hand peeking out of a mysterious-looking crack. So it's the way he interprets: his view on the world and how he transfers that over into a photograph.
Your website says, “a millennial’s view on analog photography.” How do you think young people, like late Millennials and Gen-Z, relate to film photography considering that they are introduced to the digital aspect of it first?
For me growing up, my childhood photos were taken on film. My mom didn't really have a choice. I mean I was born in 98. Film was dying out; digital was about to come in. She didn't go over to digital until I was at least nine or ten. So even then, she still shot on disposables. I still have her original Canon Sure Shot point-and-shoot camera that she took all of my childhood photos on. Even Polaroids. My mom was huge on Polaroid. I was in junior peewee football and every mom was on the field with their little point-and-shoot cyber shots and my mom walks out with a Polaroid Camera. She's the only one. she tells everybody wait, she take the photo and the film comes out and I was sitting there thinking “dude you gotta upgrade.” So, film was already introduced into my life, but I never really thought anything of it. I guess you could say the younger generation see film now as more of a novelty instead of it being a medium of choice for taking a photograph. They might see it as as an aesthetic choice. Basically, the people who are born into film, like myself, probably have that connection with it because it brings a kind of nostalgia to their childhood and there's also that group that maybe they just want to shoot film for the look anyway.
When did you start noticing your inclination towards street photography?
My inclination towards street photography started out with me just going out to take photos. A lot of the time, I was testing cameras because I was still getting into film and I wanted to know what films and camera combos look good together. I would just take photos of random things and people and I thought it was pretty fun because not always was I able to set up portrait shoots or sessions. I started doing that, going online and doing research and I realized I was very attracted to this genre called “street photography” where you can photograph anything and make it your own. It was that idea of making it your own and putting your own personal twist on it that really interested me.
You mentioned on your website, “my love for analog photography is fueled by passion for street photography.” Can you tell how the two go hand-in-hand for you?
Well film is just my medium of choice and I feel that film greatly affects the way I approach street photography. It's a limitation not being able to see your photo after you take it but it actually helped me improve because I didn't look at the back of the screen every time and you think more about each photograph; especially if you're paying almost a dollar per frame. From my personal experience when I take photographs with a digital camera, 90% of the time I'm actually looking at the screen as opposed to being in the moment and actually photographing, it's almost like being on your phone.
Have you seen that photograph that I took of the lady in red in the bike? That photograph was actually an accident. I remember I was shooting Sunny 16 film, F-16, one five hundreds of a second. It was a super sunny day and I saw the lady in red right in front of the Ferry Building in San Francisco. My initial idea was, okay, let's just go take a photo this lady. I was having a really bad day. I couldn't make any photographs that I was actually feeling good about and of course being on film you have to pay attention to all of the technical details because you don't see the photo right away. You just have to nail it right now and worry about it later. So, I framed the camera and as I was pulling the camera to my face, there's a blur coming out of the corner of my eye and just being there I snapped a photograph. I thought nothing of it and after I pulled the camera off I realize it was a dude on a bike. I thought he completely ruined photo honestly. I was like, okay, that's kind of disappointing, but it's fine. I just followed up with two or three more shots and it wasn't until I got home and got the scans back from that I realized that's probably the most important photo that I've ever taken and it had no influence on it. It kind of just happened in front of me.
How do you see the relationship between photographer and subject?
Well for photography in general, you should take care of your subject. Whether you're shooting portraits or you're shooting landscapes. There's a certain kind of respect that you have to give these subjects no matter what. That also ties in with ethics to me, especially for street photography, because sometimes there's some photos where you look at it and you ask yourself “was that really ethical?”, “Why did this photographer took a photo of, maybe, the homeless man suffering on the street?” That's probably not as ethical as taking a photograph of something that's happening where everybody's kind of happy and fun. Personally, when I photograph, I try my best not to disturb the peace. Especially the way I want my photographs to look. There are points where I’ll influence how the subject will act and the composition in frame but I don't think of myself as being one to ruin someone's day or upset them over a photograph. It’s just maintaining that level of respect.
How do you choose which streets to photograph?
I photograph what moves me personally. Growing up in a smaller city, there are things that you don't see that happen in bigger cities. For example, somebody pulling their dry cleaning out on a big rack and walking it back home. We don't see that out of here where I live. So that's what I'm drawn to and that's what I tend to photograph. But specific streets I really don't pay attention to that. It’s more like, I wander and if I find something that's the direction I'll go. Especially when I travel to places where I don't know where I'm at; like Seattle. I love photographing in Seattle, but there was a day where I went out with my camera and I got lost because I just kept going you know? It's almost like a dog following the trail, smelling where to go next. It becomes a cycle and it's a flow in a way, but it's not a conscious flow; It's improvised almost.
Where do you like to photograph in San Francisco?
Market Street is definitely one of the places. It’s a very busy area because you got tons and tons of business out there and Westfield mall. I will walk up and down to the Ferry Building. I like to stroll through Chinatown. Chinatown is always one of those places that’s just packed. There's always something to photograph. I usually put myself in high traffic situations purposely because of the population density. When there's more people around, especially in a city like San Francisco, and you're seen with a camera, it's just normal. People feel more at ease with cameras. High traffic situations just make street photography a lot easier.
You recently published a Zine based on San Francisco crosswalks. why those specific aspects of the city?
I just always tend to find myself photographing at crosswalks. Crosswalks are a great source for leading Lines so it's naturally an element of composition that will draw attention to the subject. It’s, again, putting myself in a high traffic situations. When you put yourself in that sea of people walking across the street. It's a transition from one side to the other. Some people are reaching into the bags. Some people are eating ice cream. There might be kids running around with balloons in their arms. It's always a source of traffic and action and when you combine those two things it's kind of what makeup my style for shooting. I like to be on the fly and I like those high traffic areas. So crosswalks were where I found myself naturally.
There's two photographs specifically that had the idea and they were, I guess you could say, the baseline for moving into that direction. There was one of a young girl running across the street with a balloon and then there was also one of a gentleman who was like leaning on one leg kind of rushing towards. I never realized until those two photos that a lot of my photographs were at crosswalks. After that, I formulated a plan to just plant myself at crosswalks in the city and photograph anything that I thought was interesting.
Do you feel that growing up in the Bay Area has influenced your photographic eye?
Absolutely. I feel that the area in which you grow up in greatly influences what you're interested in. Like I was saying earlier there's things that I see in the big city that I don't see out here and if I ever lived in a rural location, like if I was ever born in Ohio, I'm sure that I'd get used to the landscape around me and I’d see that as the more normal for me. So growing up in the Bay Area I grew up around so many ethnicities and diverse groups. It's come to a point where it's like everybody here is cool with each other, you know. One thing that really stands out to me is when I when I travel back east to visit my sister who lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As diverse as it is there, it's not as diverse in the Bay Area. And, sometimes it is a little weird to see maybe just only white folks in a store or Asian folks. It’s different to see and you know, that's something that I photograph as well because it is different for me. but I guess it just comes with the territory, just because we know more from the Bay Area.
You’re from Vallejo. How has photography changed your interpretation of the place you grew up in?
It made me realize that I've only really seen about 10% of the entire area that I've lived in. When you're growing up, you kind of make note of landmarks. This is the store, this is the park, this was my elementary school, this is my high school. If you're not always out going you don't really see the rest of it. With photography I realized there's so much out there to photograph. Especially in cities that are smaller, you have to work ten times harder to get a photograph that somebody hasn't taken. That that kind of drive pushes you into going to new places and experiencing new things. We have a waterfall down that way (Green Valley Falls) and I had no idea. Where was this 10 years ago, you know? photography is great in that sense. You find new, interesting perspectives on place that you already knew.
What are some challenges of living as an artist in the in this area?
Living in this area I feel that there's more things to be happy than to feel challenged about. Since there are so many photographers, It's really easy to just go, “Hey man, you want to go shoot today? Let's go.” In these interactions you learn new things so I wouldn't be the photographer that I am right now if it wasn't for all the connections that I've made in person or from the people that have taught me. So challenge-wise, I mean, I don't really see a challenge. Because, the Bay Area, were pretty photo happy, so there's a large community of photographers.
Do you have any places in the San Francisco Bay Area that you feel are underrated?
Walnut Creek. Weird to say but some of my favorite photos I've taken have been in Walnut Creek. There are also locations that are still touristy but they're not as populated like Battery Spencer, and Point Bonita. Areas that aren't necessarily streets but generally have a lot to photograph because it's a different setting or scene. But I always try to tell myself it doesn't really matter where you photograph it matters about how you view the scene and make something of it. Street photography is basically just improvisation and being resourceful. that's why I really like it too, you know, you don't need any lights; you don't need anything special except your camera,your film, your lens, your eyes and some way to get around.
You mentioned how things like composition are not active conscious efforts to you. Do you think you developed a sense of composition and the techniques perhaps just out sheer practice?
When you're photographing you don't really think of that stuff. I feel that the more you think about it, the more headaches are that are going to present themselves so it’s practice and exposure. Let's use a parallel in music. I play guitar and I've been playing for about 10 years now. When you learn guitar you learn chords. After that you learn chords, maybe learn a couple of riffs and licks, but you always have this baseline of chords and scales. When you get those two down, you can start to experiment with scales and improvise. So, we're on a key of A, I'm going to play a major pentatonic scale and then kind of just jam on then you do what you want. That's how I see it in photography as well. You practice composition, you practice leading lines, you look at Golden ratios, you study other photographers you look at their work and then you kind of expose yourself to all of these things and then over time, once you've practiced enough, They’ll start to become second nature. It’s applying what Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” I think the idea behind that is, as you photograph, you build a sense of momentum and after you've gotten those very basic techniques it starts to come to you and then it just becomes part of the way you photograph. There's a lot of process that, thinking about it now, maybe I am doing but just not consciously acknowledging.
I have some questions regarding YouTube and social media. Do you feel that Instagram and YouTube has influenced the way you take photographs in any way?
To be honest with you I think it has. Though, I try my best to stay away from that influence. If you're on social media and YouTube, you have a following and you're influenced by what people tell you. As a creator, you have to learn to distance yourself from those influences; to pull your own taste away from those things. Something that I had to learn early on with YouTube is that I can't read every comment. They’re painful, and you eventually conform to what others want you to be. When you're a face on YouTube and you're putting yourself out there you want everybody to enjoy your videos of course because you want to grow, but there's a certain point where once they start to influence your decisions and what you should and shouldn't photograph. Then it's not you anymore.
My first film camera was Minolta HTsi Plus. Then I got the x700 and I said to myself “dude, these are dope. I love these cameras.” But when I went online everybody was talking about their Canon AE-1s, Nikon F3s or the Leica m3 or m6. Minolta got no love even though they made cameras just as good as Canon or Nikon ;maybe even better. So I decided that we have to build a following for Minolta and grow it strong and, even though they're completely out of business, let's get Minoltas at the top rankings for film cameras. That was my intent and little by little more people started to get Minoltas, and now you go online and then you type in #Minoltagang there's about 45,000 tags. So it's grown and I'm happy that it's grown. My love for Minolta will never Stop; even if I shoot with different cameras.
Your YouTube channel didn't start as an analog photography Channel. How did this change come about?
Well, it started with a lack of content for analog photography. There was definitely content on YouTube but I had trouble with things like loading film into a camera or how to shoot expired film and there weren’t really any videos on that. If it's not on there, I'll make one. I'll learn it through somebody, I’ll give them credit for teaching me, then I’ll make something to help other people.
There’s also the fact that, you see people explaining things on their videos and maybe they had formal education on photography so their use of vocabulary can greatly influence the way the other person is digesting the material. So my idea, especially because I have no formal education in photography, I like to make it as digestible as possible so that anybody can understand.
You take photos and shoot video. So why photography over say cinematography? What is the value of a still image versus one that is moving?
Well, video is more continuous. So when you're taking video you have to pay attention to everything all the time. Compare it to photography. When taking a photo you look at your frame in the viewfinder, you look at the edges to see if anything's poking up, You don't want a pole sticking out of your subject’s head. Now imagine doing that for 20 seconds but add more variables on top: Audio, camera stabilization, frame rates, color grading, etc. Photography, while it's still very complex, it's a lot easier to photograph something that's in front of you rather than videotaping something. Especially because video is very intentional, you know, you have something you want to take a video of and maybe write a script or maybe you plan something for it. Whereas photography, it can be anything, anywhere, anytime.
What's in store for the future?
I want to work on myself first. If I have nothing to present or nothing to give, I'm going to work on myself. Maybe I’ll attend a workshop myself. I want to learn more about color and how to match and play with that in your compositions. I also want to just travel and photograph; just get more practice in. I'm thinking we might do a couple of workshops next year but it's not a guarantee. I just I want to progress forward with photography for now. Let's keep it like that for now.