Billy Joe Hoyle describes himself as a “documentary street photographer.” In fact, he has travelled far and wide to capture street scenes and people www.billyjoehoyle.com all over the world. What drives him and what does he believe is the future of contemporary photography? Read on and enjoy …
MICHAEL: Hey Billy Joe, Your work is great. I see it as documentary meets art meets National Geographic. It's clear that you like people and culture. How do you see the work? What's your motivation?
BILLY JOE: I believe my love for people and culture ties into my love for history. Prior to photography, my two loves were history and painting. I've always said that if I could paint, I never would have become a photographer. Anyway, yeah it's true. I love photographing different cultures. I consider myself a documentary street photographer, the documentary part records history and the street part is life's canvas where my camera paints.
MICHAEL: And so, what you capture today becomes history tomorrow. Our culture seems to have less and less respect for what happened last year, let alone history. What do you think about this?
BILLY JOE: I don't necessarily agree with that in terms of photography. The photographs we tend to treasure the most are those that document our past. Most of the photographers we celebrate we do so because their photographs were of another era.
MICHAEL: What's your earliest memory of taking photos and when did it actually become "art" for you?
BILLY JOE: Well, I don't have one of those stories where I was a little kid running around with my plastic camera. LOL. My "discovery" didn't happen ‘til I was in college and one of my roommates came back from a vacation in Tennessee with a roll of film he shot with this new black & white film (400CN) that could be C41 processed. He wasn't a photographer, and didn't aspire to be one, but the pictures (all landscapes) were pretty nice. It was at that moment that I decided to take a photography class, so I kind of went into photography looking to create art.
MICHAEL: For you, what's the difference between a great picture and art? I ask this because everyone seems to have a camera and many people think they can take great photos. When does a great photo become art?
BILLY JOE: Does a great picture ever become art? I guess it depends on what side of the fence you're on in the "Is Photography Art?" debate. There are different ways you can create as a photographer- for example, Arnold Newman created beautiful portraits, Cartier-Bresson created amazing street compositions, and David LaChapelle created surreal studio scenes. These three photographers are obviously extremely different in their styles, but I would consider all three artists. With photography, there's a level of talent, passion, consistency and success one has to have, I believe, before the artist label can apply. Everything else is up to each individual to decide what they consider art.
MICHAEL: How do you determine whether or not to go with color, black & white or even sepia tone? What are the differences for you? Also, what's the difference in quality between old film and now digital?
BILLY JOE: The majority of my personal work is black & white film. I shoot very little color, but when I do, it's all about the color. I'm more apt to shoot color in Haiti or India, for instance, than I am in New York or London. Haiti and India scream color and you just can't ignore it. I usually make a conscious decision before I venture out and stay pretty focused on the mission. But I wouldn't turn away from a great color shot if it presented itself. When I do shoot color, it's digital and I definitely stick with film for black & white. I love the graininess and look of film that you just don't get with digital. I tend to cringe when I look at digital black & white photos. They’re too clean on the surface & too muddy in appearance. Those same characteristics are great for color work (crisp & saturated). That's just my personal preference. It's funny, some of the comments I get from other photographers when I'm out shooting and they see that I still shoot film. They think I'm crazy to put in all the work that comes with film (developing, printing), but I love it.
MICHAEL: What have you learned through photography about people and cultures that you might not have learned otherwise or something that other people miss?
BILLY JOE: Pretty much everything I've learned abroad has been because of photography. It's been both a vessel and door opener into other cultures. Would I have been able to meet and speak with the Taliban if it weren’t for photography? Probably not. Or eat and sleep with villagers in Calcutta, India? Probably not. I've learned little things like sitting across from someone with your legs crossed where the bottom of your shoe can be seen is considered degrading and rude in Pakistan. I also seem to be more approachable when I have cameras around my neck & shoulders. I always have people coming up and wanting to speak with me when I'm taking pictures. This dialogue produces great insight into what everyday life is like for them.
MICHAEL: Where are you based? What role does your current environment play in influencing your outlook and work?
BILLY JOE: I work mostly out of New York & Florida, but as you'll see in my upcoming book, “Decade,” I travel quite a bit. New York City is a photographic mecca for street photographers. If you don't get inspired by the size, the energy and the culture of New York City, then you're probably in the wrong business. LOL.
MICHAEL: Yes, I'm a native New Yorker. I definitely know. Tell me more about the book. Why did you want to do a book? What do you hope to achieve with it?
BILLY JOE: The actual title is, “Decade: Ten Years in the Life of a Street Photographer 99-09” and it consists of 100 black & white photographs from various regions of the world. The photographs are sequenced to compare and contrast similar street scenes from different cities or countries. I don't believe any genre of photography has benefitted more from the world wide web than street photography. In the last 20 years, we've seen contemporary photography pretty much dominate the art world in terms of gallery exhibits, but I believe that will change soon. You look at the number of street photography agencies that now exists and internet groups like the ones on Flickr & Facebook and it's a testament to its rise in popularity. The London Street Photography Festival which happens every July has enjoyed much success. The biggest news story to happen in recent years was the discovery of thousands of images from an unknown street photographer named Vivian Maier. With many photo galleries struggling financially, I believe they'll begin exhibiting more & more traditional street photography.
MICHAEL: I'm amazed by how photography has really risen in recent years. It's almost, not quite, but almost on par with painting at shows like Art Basel Miami Beach, The Armory Show, etc. Finally, Billy Joe, your work is intriguing to me because it captures the dignity of people. What do you think about this and what are your hopes for the future?
BILLY JOE: I try to be as invisible as possible so there's nothing contrived about my work. You'll see it as I see it. If my subjects realize that I'm photographing them then everything changes (their mood, their demeanor, etc.) and the photograph is no longer real to me. I look forward to continuing to do my little part in the world of street photography. I believe the future is extremely bright and I expect to see new icons emerge as street photography once again plays a vital role in the art world.
MICHAEL: Fantastic. Rock on Dude!
BILLY JOE: Enjoyed it Michael, thank you!
Check out Billy Joe Hoyle’s work at www.billyjoehoyle.com.