Travis Jensen, SF Hipstamatic Street Shooter
An Interview with Travis Jensen by Tony Butler
When it came time for me to write my first interview for Juxt, Travis Jensen was the first person that came to mind. I had only recently discovered his feed on IG and almost immediately his photos began to stand out for me. I’ve always been into street photography and often times come up short when it comes to getting the kind of shot that makes you put the breaks on and pause for a closer look. I was wondering what it was I was doing wrong and I figured he’d be a good person to ask. I’m also a huge B&W fanboy, so whenever I see a great example of black and white photography, I’m curious about the process used to achieve the end result.
So, armed with a list of questions and a couple of emails between Travis and I, it was time to make that phone call. I figured I’d simply write down the question and then type the answer much the same way most folks do when writing an interview. I mean, after all, that is the way it’s conducted. Come up with a list of questions you feel will spawn good conversation, while getting all the answers that you, and hopefully all of your readers, are looking for. Maybe even get a bit Jedi and drop some Q’s you never thought of. It became obvious almost as soon as the conversation got started, however, that it was gonna end up more like a story than a straight up interview similar to the ones some of you read in your fathers Playboy magazines.
Travis, who’s originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, moved to San Francisco fresh out of high school about 15 years ago to get in on the thriving skateboarding scene. After a rough start and a number of years under his belt, he’s certainly found his way in life. He is now married and has two children. During the day Travis works for a downtown law firm as the records manager for the northern California region. He spends his free time with his family, or out on the street taking photos whenever he can.
One thing I’ve always wondered is how people go about getting such great photographs of people on the street without getting tripped, smacked, cussed at, peed on, or shoved into the path of oncoming traffic. I can handle the occasional stinkeye and being told to perform oral sex on someone of my own gender, but how do you get that connection between yourself and your subject that makes people do that pause thing I mentioned above? After asking Travis this question he gave me an answer I simply hadn’t thought of yet. He stops and chats for a bit with the people in his photographs.
Now there’s a novel idea, right? I mean he actually talks to them. And it’s not to get their handle on Twitter or to link up with them on Facebook, he gets to know them a little and hear their stories. At least as much as you can through a brief conversation on the streets of San Francisco. If it feels right, he takes a photo. Most folks, such as myself, focus too much on the best way to shoot from the hip or otherwise grab that image without the hassle of interaction or getting busted. Don’t get me wrong, you can make some killer images shooting that way, and a lot of people do in the Instagram community, but I love the intimate portrait style Travis puts up on a consistent basis. I also wondered if he ever offers a little money in exchange for a picture but he says he doesn’t. After working at the San Francisco Chronicle for a while he follows the mantra that you “never pay a source.”
Now that I had a better understanding of how Travis goes about getting all these wonderful portraits of folks on the street, the photo-geek in me wanted to know what type of setup he uses to do so. I always try to figure out what apps folks use to end up with the result I see before me on Instagram or EyeEm. Just a short year ago it was pretty easy. Nowadays you have apps like Snapseed, Noir and Filterstorm that have definitely upped the ante in the world of mobile photography and editing via your “mobile darkroom.” I had a hard time putting my finger on just exactly what it was Travis was using to get such great captures. Turns out the answer was pretty easy. He uses Hipstamatic with the John S lens and BlacKeys SuperGrain film, no flash. I had to laugh because here I am wondering not only how he gets all his great shots (through good old-fashioned conversation) but what list of apps he must use to get his end result (that would be one). Proof that sometimes less is WAY more.
I’m always glad to hear that folks are out there still kickin’ it with the Hipstamatic. It’s how I got my start in mobile photography and for some of the same reasons that Travis likes using it. The Hipstamatic forces one to consider their composition with more care because cropping a Hipstamatic shot just ends up looking weird most of the time. It also takes away what little “exposure control” you have by tapping light and dark areas on the screen while using your native camera. When using the Hipstamatic, you have to be in the moment more. There is simply far less room for error.
While looking back on Travis’ IG feed, I noticed that he’s met and/or hangs out with some pretty skilled photographers who’ve been around for quite some time. Two of these would be Fred Lyon and Vladimir Panasenko. Travis draws inspiration from them and has learned a lot by listening to their feedback and what they have to say about the world of photography. Vladimir even goes so far as to send Travis postcards made from his photos with sayings on the back such as, “Film is history. Pixels are Disneyland.” I think that, coupled with his background in traditional black and white film is what makes for a stellar feed on Instagram.
Travis also collaborates with his friend, Brad Evans, on photography projects. In July of 2011 they released a photographic journal of life in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco entitled “Tenderloin USA,” It’s a photographic journey through the neighborhood with a focus on the people who live there. All the photos are black and white and were taken with a DSLR using a 35mm lens by Travis and Brad over the course of a year. The release of Tenderloin USA is also for a good cause. All of the books proceeds in excess of printing costs will go to Larkin Street Youth Services, a San Francisco charitable organization that helps at-risk youth in the area between the ages of 12 and 24. So far, they’ve managed to raise over three thousand dollars. If you’d like to help out and score a killer collection of images you can order the book by clicking your way over here. http://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/213998
Along with the Tenderloin USA collection, Travis and Brad have also just released a book this past October called Nevada Bound. It’s a journal covering a six-day 1,600 mile road-trip Travis and Brad took through the desert of Nevada. The photographs in the book were taken both with DSLR’s and a iPhone. While discussing the book with Travis, he was quick to point out that while shooting during the intense light of the desert during mid-day conditions, the trusty Hipstamatic combination mentioned above really saved their asses a couple of times. Oftentimes images turned out a bit blown-out by the intense sunshine except for the Hipstamatic shots, so they were still able to get usable images for the book. More information and where to order Nevada Bound can be found by following this link: http://www.magcloud.com/user/nevadabound
While closing the interview I wanted to ask Travis for his thoughts on Instagram and what, if anything, bothers him in the world of mobile photography. Travis was quick to point out that he’s not the “photography police” or anything but he could certainly do without all the unicorns and lizards (pop/app experimentation), pictures comprised of four layers and those pictures out there overly blasted with the HDR effect. I must say, I agree 100% with him on that one. He also pointed out a quote I had heard years earlier but had since forgotten. It was a quote by war photographer Robert Capa who once said “If your picture isn’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” That’s saying something considering dude was at Omaha Beach on D-Day in June of 1944 getting shot at while taking pictures with a Contax II camera and a 50mm lens.
I think the overall lesson I took from my conversation with Travis Jensen is talk to people. And don’t be afraid to get involved with your subject. If you want your picture to connect it’s subject with the viewer, you first need to create the connection between your subject and the camera. Do that and your pictures will get better by the minute…
Thank you, reader, for joining me today. And I look forward to many more additions to the Juxt blog in the future. Thanks to Travis Jensen for takin’ the time. Hopefully we’ll meet in San Francisco soon!
**Travis’s Profile Shot Credit to Eva Dancel-Jensen**
Thanks Travis from Juxt.
About Tony Butler
Grew up in the great state of Michigan. Lived in Seattle. Currently reside in Hollywood. Mobile photography addict.