“I’m always a little afraid that I’ll come off kind of boring” Says Patrick Joust, a 32 year old photographer who was born and raised on the west coast, but now residing in Baltimore. Whether or not Joust comes off as boring in conversation is beside the point. His photographs tell a fascinating story of American desperation on the streets of one of the Rust Belt’s foremost cities. Shot on film in murky black and white, heavy on gray and white tones, these photographs portray Baltimore‘s streets and their denizens in a gothic splendor that is both stark and soft, realist and dreamy.
I caught up with Joust on-line about his photography, the advantages of TLR cameras, and a chance run-in with John Waters.
Americana Magazine: Okay, so let’s get down to brass tacks. The first thing I wanted to ask you about is that you’re based in Baltimore, which features heavily in your photos.
Patrick Joust: Well, I’ve lived in Baltimore, off and on, for about 5 years, so not that long really. I was born in California, moved to Pennsylvania when I was a teenager, then moved to Baltimore is 02/03, then moved out to San Francisco for three years and came back to Baltimore in 06,
AM: I see looking at your Flickr profile you’re originally from Oroville, California. Tell me about that.
Patrick Joust: Yeah. I actually only lived there until I was 5 and then lived in Grass Valley/Nevada City, which is about halfway between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. Oroville has a special sort of nostalgic place in my heart and I’ve been back there several times as an adult, but I didn’t spend my formative years there.
AM: It’s interesting that your main thing with photography is urban documentary and street photography, but you’re actually from a really different kind of place.
Patrick Joust: Yeah, I basically grew up in small towns and mostly rural areas. When I was a kid, I played in the woods a lot and that sort of thing. I always wanted to live in a city, any city, but my dad hated cities, so I never had that experience. Of course now I think I had a pretty good time out in the country. Even though I don’t take a lot of those kinds of pictures, I really admire a lot of people who do. Missy Prince is someone in particular that comes to mind. Her photos remind me a lot of living in Northern California as a kid.
AM: so how did you come to start shooting street scenes?
Patrick Joust: Well I only started getting into photography in around 02/03, when I first moved to Baltimore. I came here as an Americorps Volunteer working for an AIDS organization. I mostly tutored the kids of former drug users. These kids were spread out all over Baltimore and I got to see a lot of the city that way. I had never previously taken photography all that seriously, but I started to then. I basically got into photography with the idea of capturing the world around me as a way for me to understand better what I was seeing. I was very familiar with Baltimore before I moved here, but I wanted a better way to experience things and photography seemed to be a logical choice.
Of course, I don’t think I really reconciled the difference between what I wanted to capture and what I actually got out of my camera until 2 or 3 years ago.
AM: In a lot of your photos it’s clear you have a real eye for the surreal. Was this part of what you set out to capture, or was that sensibility something you developed over time?
Patrick Joust: That’s neat that you say that because I definitely have had a strong attraction to the surreal ever since I was a teenager. I started watching the movies of Luis Buñuel around that time and I guess surrealism has always intrigued me. I’ve never really liked the word, but there isn’t really a better choice. I think I like images that show an aspect of reality that seems off or strange, even though it’s as real as anything. I prefer it if it comes off in a somewhat subtle way.
I don’t know if I really set out to capture things that way every time, I guess it just kind of fits with my mentality.
AM: on a related note to the surrealist thing, a lot of your street portraits are of subjects who are, for lack of a polite way to put this, kind of weirdoes, like characters out of some bizarre work of fiction… In particular, I want to ask you about this guy
Patrick Joust: Yeah, that was a fun shot and definitely one of my favorites. He said he was a member of a first nation, but unfortunately, I can’t remember the name. This was taken in my own neighborhood. He was working in a co-op that was using some empty lots to grow vegetables and stuff like that. He was definitely a character. My friend Mike was with me and took this picture as well.
I think Baltimore has a lot of original characters or at least attracts a lot of them. People are not always friendly towards cameras, but you get lucky sometimes and this guy was very friendly and willing.
AM: so this was just a random encounter? It wasn’t like “hey a friend of a friend knows this hippie who grows vegetables in a vacant lot.”
Patrick Joust: Yeah, this was completely random. Just about all my portraits have been that way.
AM: Do you get the “hey mister, take a picture of us!” thing a lot?
Patrick Joust: Not all that much actually. To be honest, most people in Baltimore are kind of suspicious of a guy with a camera. I do get a more positive response when I use a TLR [Twin-Lens Reflex camera], like I did with the above portrait. Somehow an older looking camera seems more friendly. I do sometimes get random girls who ask me to take their picture, but they all seem to strike the same, somewhat suggestive, pose, so I haven’t posted any of those.
AM: I was just talking with some people about the old camera advantage for doing street: range finders work better than SLRs. You shoot with both range finders and TLRs, so you’d say TLRs are better still in this department?
Patrick Joust: Yeah, definitely. Using a rangefinder can be good too, but I think a TLR is great because it’s super quiet and when you’re taking a picture you’re looking down and you might even come across like you don’t know what you’re doing… just some guy playing with an old funky camera that might not even have film in it. I love using TLRs for their own sake, but they are definitely great for street work, even though their operation is not as smooth as a 35mm SLR or rangefinder.
AM: This by the way will be the extent of gear talk for this interview.
Patrick Joust: Oh, that’s fine.
AM: So, second to last question… you saw John Waters in a diner, did you not?
Patrick Joust: Yeah, it was back in June. I wish I had been a little braver and asked to take his portrait, but I was feeling kind of shy. The funny thing about it though, is that he had an article that month in Playboy and one of my photos was used in the article. I had the perfect in, if I wanted to talk with him. He was with a bunch of friends though and I was also using some badly expired tmax 3200, and I wasn’t sure if anything I took would come out all that well anyway. I live in Hampden, where Pecker took place. Waters pops around this neighborhood fairly often, which is kind of neat. People that I know who have talked with him, say he has always been very nice.
AM: I was actually really impressed by that photo, more than I might have been by a posed portrait. Something about the symbolism of just John Waters standing around in a diner at kind of a cool remove, shot in this very Robert Frank style
Patrick Joust: Thanks!
AM: so last question, and this is very open ended: what is it you would like people to take away from your work?
Patrick Joust: That’s a hard question. I like it when people can draw their own conclusions about the pictures I take, it’s often fascinating for me to hear their impressions, especially when they see something that I didn’t see at first. I hope that my images of Baltimore show the city in different types of light. I worry sometimes that some of my images just reinforce stereotypes that some people have, and so I hope that my images show something different. I am somewhat obsessed with photography. I take pictures all the time, but while I’ve gotten better over the years and I’m much more satisfied with my production, I still don’t feel like I have the clearest idea of what I’m trying to do. I guess I hope that people can take away a lot of things from my photos. That they can see a place like Baltimore as a complex mix of good/bad and whatever else; that there are contradictions that can’t be explained away easily or pigeonholed.
AM: wow, good answer
Patrick Joust: Thanks!
AM: I think that about does it, thanks for taking time to do this.
Patrick Joust: This was a lot of fun. Thanks a lot for the opportunity.
All photographs are copyright of Patrick Joust