Photographer Spotlight Series: Jon Siegel

Jon is an American creative director at Pikkles based out of Tokyo, Japan. He’s had the opportunity to work with a number of Fortune 500 companies and major governmental institutions but his interests rest not only in creative marketing and strategy but also photography.

Every ounce of free time he spends it chasing light, color and that “moment” in the Singapore scene. Jon has been traveling the world since 2003, exploring the design scene abroad. For a glimpse of his experiences, you can purchase his book of travel photography entiteld Polykroma where he visually encapsulates his journey through Japan and across Asia. It offers a glimpse of the environments that have inspired his creative vision and may inspire yours.

1. What or who sparked your initial interest in photography?

Initially it was my father and grandfather who started me down this path, although I never thought too much about it in the beginning. I grew up watching my father develop black and white photos in our house basement, learning about all the chemicals and the enlarger and film.

I inherited my grandfather’s Nikon F and used it through college, although it was still a passive interest as I was more focused on graphic design. It wasn’t until I really started traveling that I began to think harder about photography as a serious hobby. I think it was maybe four or five years ago when I ran into a little extra money and thought it would be fun to have a DSLR.

I had a trip planned to visit Bangladesh to see my wife’s sister’s work there at an NGO so it was good timing for a new camera. I picked up a D80 and that’s what really got the ball rolling. Bangladesh was an intense, eye opening experience, that has to be one of the most photogenic places on earth, and everyone is so friendly, it was a great place to spark the imagination.

I have lived in Tokyo for over 8 years and have met several fantastic photographers who have all taught me important techniques that helped me develop my style. Alvin Yeung, a phenomenal NYC-based graphic design and photographer hobbyist got me into chasing antique lenses. Alfie Goodrich of Japanorama opened my eyes to post processing and entirely new ways of experiencing photography itself.

Alfie taught me my most cherished technique of “shooting from the hip” and measuring the distance of my candid subjects using the meter measurement numbers on my lenses. Kenneth Bamburg also had a great influence on me, he helped me break through the social barriers of approaching subjects who I wanted to shoot and asking permission, he also taught me a thing or two about lighting.

2. On your Flickr bio, you describe your work as being a “loose narrative of complete strangers, friends, family and life and how you imagine them through your lenses.” You obviously have specific subjects in mind so would you say you’re a street photographer?

I would say I’m just a guy who loves his camera almost as much as he loves his wife, but I suppose street photographer might work. I grew up watching lots of Asian cinema, I love Hong Kong detective and police films, the colors and mood of those films really left a mark on my style.

My favorite moment is when my subject lights up or takes a drag on their cig, that little bit of warm light which illuminates their face ever so slightly, I love that. That said, I don’t smoke, I just like watching other people smoke, it’s a moment of such intensity or relief that really draws out peoples expressions. Available light photography definitely comes into play here, I only shoot with primes for this reason.

Alleyways, dark lit bars and clubs, strange spaces, anywhere I can find odd lighting or smokey colors, I chase these places. I feel like I’m telling a story with my subjects, but I like keeping things mysterious, letting my audience guess or wonder at what I’m seeing or feeling when I take that shot. I have a crazy imagination that’s constantly wandering.

3. How do you go about taking photos of people on the streets? In a lot of them, especially your portraits, the subjects are looking directly at you as if they don’t mind being photographed.

It’s really 50/50, half of the time I’m doing my best to be discreet and shoot people naturally going about their business, undisturbed. If I see someone really striking, I’ll walk right up to them and simply ask for their portrait. I don’t have much of a technique for it, if you saw me doing it on the street you’d think how clumsy I must look awkwardly asking. I think people respect honesty though, and if you’re straightforward they generally don’t mind, smiling helps and having small, less intimidating lenses helps too.

During a recent trip to Cambodia I had an idea to shoot a series of permission portraits. I figured everyone goes there and shoots Angkor Wat, you can see all the Angkor Wat you want by searching Flickr. Everyone told me before going that the people are really wonderful and their culture is just lovely, so I wanted to try and capture that. I had a lot of fun shooting that series, and everyone I asked had no problem.

4. People will forever be interested in knowing what type of specific gear photographers are using, so with that said, what does your gear look like?

 Photographic gear of Jon Siegal

I grew up with Nikon and I’ll always stick with them, I love the grip of my D700. When I went for that D80 years ago, my fathers advice was to ignore the specs, since it was my first DSLR, and just choose the camera based on how good it felt in my hand, how is the grip. I think that’s good advice, you can really get hung up on specs, but it really comes down to the fact that you’re going to be holding this thing for hours, days at a time, it should feel good, like a good grip on a steering wheel.

It’s not about the camera, it’s about the photographer and their creativity. That said, I shoot with a D700, I have a full kit of primes, my favorite two are my 50mm f/1.2 AI-S and 85mm f/1.4 AFD, those lenses are pieces of art. Along with those two I’ve got a 20mm f/2.8, 135mm f/2.8 AI, 35mm f/2, and an old 70-300mm for fun. I’ve got a bunch of gadgets too, a remote trigger wired to a Lomo ring flash, a remote shutter for when I want to be super discreet shooting a candid.

5. I know it’s sometimes difficult to just choose one but share with us one of your proudest photographs and tell us a bit about the story behind it.

Proudest photograph of Jon Siegal

That would be “Undercover, Under Neon”, a shot I took last September under a bridge in Shibuya. This cab driver was parked below this array of neon lights, it just set off my imagination, like an undercover scene from one of those HK films.

I took the shot and he noticed me immediately after and drove off. I think it was at that point where I started seeing a narrative in my shots and started pursuing it, started thinking about a story I could tell. The nice comments I got on Flickr really lifted my spirits after that, Flickr was an important factor in my development as a photographer. I have met some truly spectacular people there who have given me advice and encouragement to really push my limits with photography.

To read up more on other photographers in the Spotlight Series, check out the dedicated page.