Joshua Zucker is a 21-year-old, Los Angeles based photographer and videographer. Before graduating high school, Joshua won three national awards for his documentary film work. Since then, he has been employed full-time by Vans, Woodward Films, and Flip Skateboards. Along with documenting the top skateboarders in the industry, Joshua is also known for shooting street photography on the streets of Fairfax, Los Angeles. Fairfax is presently a cultural mecca, home to celebrities such as members of the hip hop collective Odd Future including Tyler the Creator. Joshua has an optimistic personality and finds much enjoyment sharing his photography with the public. Below, he opens up about his relationship with photography and skateboarding.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: I feel the best way to describe my work is an expression of storytelling. I entered high school as self-taught videographer in 2008. By the time I graduated, I had a full time position at Vans, assisting filmmaker, Greg Hunt. Working with Greg trained me to analyze my creative thought process in a way I had never before. He pays such close attention to every detail — you can’t help but take something away from it. When I look at my photography today, I naturally use the same mindset that I was taught while working with Greg. My goal has always been to successfully share a specific moment or emotion with the viewer. I feel very enthusiastic about progressing my storytelling and photography work in the future, as living in Los Angeles gives me a blank canvas to shoot whatever I put my mind to.
Q: You said, “the best way to describe my work is an expression of storytelling” and that “my goal has always been to successfully share a specific moment or emotion with the viewer.” However the images in your portfolio do not comprise a cohesive narrative documenting a specific subject, place, or theme but are, in effect, individual vignettes, each of which suggests a possible story that that is to be filled in by the mind of the viewer. Do you agree, and did you have any overall effect or constellations of emotions in mind when you created this portfolio?
A: I completely agree with that statement. Each image selected for this interview was captured over a short period of recent months in Los Angeles. Presenting the viewer with a snapshot into my life is the closest relation to an overall effect of the images together. The photographs were selected as completely unrelated moments. Due to the fact that the photos are individual vignettes, my storytelling is found in each image, whether it is a positive or somber message.
Q: How were you first introduced to Leica Camera?
A: The most inspirational person in my life is my grandfather, William Zucker. After surviving the Holocaust he moved to the U.S. and opened a photography store in Buffalo, New York. He owned his store for 50 years as well as pioneered the use of incorporating flashes in school, wedding, and group portraits. He recently told me his Leica is his prized possession and has been fascinated with Leica cameras since he began shooting photos. There are many other reasons I personally prefer shooting with a Leica, however I feel very comfortable knowing that my grandfather was shooting with the same company, half a century ago.
Q: Can you tell us about your work with Flip Skateboards?
A: I was recently hired as the team manager, content creator, and social media head for Flip. Although this requires many different skill sets, it allows me to be creative and always on the move. Fellow Leica enthusiast and skateboard icon, Arto Saari has become a great mentor for me. He proposed the idea of working for Flip when I was living in Pennsylvania and employed as the head video editor at Woodward’s Digital Media program. My life has been turned upside down since I was hired by Flip. Due to my current surroundings, I feel my creative boundaries have completely been reset. Also, I am very grateful for the opportunities they have given me in the skateboard community.
Q: How have skateboarding and photography influenced each other in your life and work?
A: I fell in love with skateboarding when I was eight. I feel very fortunate that I found a creative outlet at such an early age, as it eventually introduced me into videography and photography. At a certain point I realized that I was even more passionate about pursuing film and photo than I was for anything else. Once I figured out the path I was on, it became much easier to take the steps necessary towards succeeding. If it were not for skateboarding, I most definitely would not be where I am today in photography.
Q: What camera and equipment do you use?
A: I primarily shoot with a Leica M9 and a 50 mm f/1.4 Summilux lens.
Q: What particular features of the Leica M9 do you find especially useful in your type of work? Also, many street shooters and photojournalists favor using a 35 mm or 28 mm lens for most of their work. What is it about the classic 50 mm focal length that you find especially attractive, useful, or conducive to your style?
A: There are many features of the Leica M9 that I find useful while shooting. The feature that convinced me to sell my 2005 Honda Civic and buy an M9 was the camera’s unmatched uniqueness. The way an image is captured with this camera comes so naturally to me. Prior to purchasing the M9, my entire experience in photography was shooting with film. To obtain a tool that functions with the same features as a 35 mm camera, yet gives you the highest quality result, continues to astonish me.
I have also always been attracted to everything from the handling, to the final image that a 50 mm lens produces. The beautiful Leica M9 matched with a Summilux 50 mm f/1.4 lens is an incredible combination. My Leica fuels me with the confidence I need, as a photographer who is constantly pushing to progress their work.
Q: Given your attraction to and adept use of black-and-white, have you given any thought to acquiring a Leica Monochrom, a camera said to be the ultimate in digital black-and-white image capture?
A: I would absolutely love to shoot with the Leica Monochrom as well as all of the new photographic tools that Leica continues to produce. To potentially improve upon a incredible photographic tool such as the M9, is very exciting to me. I am positive that my relationship with Leica will be a lifelong experience and I look forward to growing alongside the pioneering advancements in photography that Leica is famous for.
Q: This image of the homeless man is fascinating because while he is clearly destitute and in dire straits, he seems alive, very human and it has a hopeful quality of defiance in the face of disaster. Partially this is communicated by the color and bright sunshine and also his enigmatic hand gesture. What is your feeling about this image and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: This is one of my favorite images from the archive that I have compiled while documenting life in Los Angeles. I was recently working on a video shoot in a decrepit area and decided to wander to the train tracks in hope of finding a beautiful LA cityscape. A few moments later, a man lying in the debris spotted my camera and pulled together enough strength to lift his head while holding a peace sign. Immediately after I hit the shutter, the man collapsed into his original motionless state on the ground. As I was walking away from the train tracks, I was in disbelief that I had captured such a bright and optimistic moment in a man’s seemingly dismal life.
Q: Your black-and-white of a lady lighting a cigarette has a completely different feeling. While it is matter-of-fact and non-judgmental in the photojournalistic tradition, it is far more somber and conveys a feeling of resignation quiet desperation that is somehow emphasized by the bright little flowers in the background. Where did you shoot this image and why did you include it in this portfolio?
A: The black-and-white image of the woman lighting her cigarette was taken in a very interesting setting. Following in the footsteps of my favorite photojournalists, I bring my camera with me everywhere. Being aware of the key storytelling moments in the ordinary lives of others is very important to me. Frequently I walk around Los Angeles simply searching to capture these opportunities.
On that particular day there was a long line for a free clothing drive. Despite the morning rain, the spirits were high and hundreds of Los Angeles residents were searching through mounds of donated clothes. This woman caught my eye as if she was acting in a film. The contrast of bright flowers beside her to the struggle she was experiencing while lighting her cigarette, immediately compelled me to look through my rangefinder. As many street photographers speak of, if you truly observe other’s lives around you, for a brief moment, you cease to exist. I adore street photography for this reason and including this type of authentic street life in my portfolio gives me great happiness.
Q: This powerful portrait of Gilbert shows a young man whose expression conveys the pain of a hard life, but also defiance and a kind of inner dignity. Do you concur with this characterization and can you tell us something about him and provide the technical details of this outstanding image such as the exposure and ISO you used?
A: The portrait of Gilbert is a very prominent image in my portfolio. I concur with your characterization, especially the statement regarding an “inner dignity.” I believe everything from Gilbert’s slightly tilted hat, to his tenacious expression communicates a strong characteristic of self-respect. Although Gilbert is simply an acquaintance, I am honored that I was given the opportunity to shoot such a genuine portrait of this individual.
Another reason I am fond of this image is because of the lighting. I am unsure if the month of November in Los Angeles is prone to amazing lighting; however, this image was shot at an ISO of 320, at f/5.7. Although there is nothing unusual about these technical details, I feel the lighting perfectly reflects the message being communicated in this portrait.
Q: The portrait of Errol Chapman holding up his bandaged, broken hand is scary, funny, and sad all at the same time. Clearly the subject is not happy, but he is also assertive, and there seems to be an inner calm behind his almost menacing expression and defiant gesture. Who is this guy and am I reading too much into this?
A: I truly enjoy photographing big personalities. This portrait is a perfect example of simply allowing the subject to channel their current mental state. At some point in my experience shooting, I realized that a subject who is unafraid to present their untainted emotions, are the easiest to photograph well. Errol is a person whom I often document, as he works a few blocks away from my apartment. Although every occasion that I shoot with Errol is different, he never disguises how he is feeling that day. This photograph represents that Errol is not simply a subject that is having their portrait taken. Instead, the image of Errol raising his mangled cast, while looking directly into the camera illustrates a glimpse of his much larger personality.
Q: This image titled “Taco and Domo Car Portrait” is a fascinating and ironic image because in concealing their faces the subjects are actually reveling more of their identity and emotions than if they faces the camera directly. The hard-edged macho lines of the Jeep in the background emphasize their expressions, which are an almost humorous combination of bravado and furtiveness. Have I got it right, and what are your feelings about this image?
A: As I previously stated, I aspire to shoot subjects with enormous personalities. Taco and Domo are two well-known artists from a popular hip hop group called Odd Future. I am unsure if my camera acts as a catalyst to their hilarious antics, however I am delighted to document these young men. I concur with your characterization and could not be happier to know the humor of this image, was successfully communicated to the viewer.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years or so, and do you plan to explore any other genres such as commercial photography, classic portraiture, fine art abstractions, etc.?
A: As this point in my life, shooting photographs is all I want to do with my time. I believe the near future will present many opportunities that I aspire and work towards. As long as I am fortunate enough to surround myself with creative and productive personalities, I will always strive to explore new genres of photography. Skateboarding has taught me that there is never one correct way to express individualism. As much as I enjoy street photography or photojournalism, the last thing I want to do is limit myself to one genre of photography. I cannot truly be content with my work unless I am originally terrified of the mountains that I will have to climb, prior to accomplishing my goal.
Thank you for your time, Joshua!
– Leica Internet Team
See more of Joshua’s images here.