Jonathan Sherman is a photographer based in Toronto.
JS: I have no idea why it took this long but I finally have decoded your handle.
BA: It's a Serbian term describing a small squirrel native to that region. At least that's what Google tells me.
What a coincidence. It’s your name spelled backwards as well.
Oh wait, is it? HOLY CRAP!!!
How's the pandemic in Toronto?
It is what it is I guess. Collectively we're handling it well. Flattening the curve as they say, but still it’s pushing forward and times are troubling. How’s Eugene?
Same as ever. It's a pretty quiet city in normal times. But even quieter now. How is the pandemic affecting your photo routine?
It’s affecting it significantly. I haven't left my house in about 6 weeks. No new pictures in that time. I’m excited to make more once things become less worrisome.
Is 6 weeks a big gap for you?
Yes, quite a big gap actually. I typically make pictures on a regular basis. Whenever I feel like going outside.
Do you ever shoot photos in your house?
I have in the past but I haven’t had the urge to make any lately. I rely a lot on chance encounters and those just don’t happen at home often. The rest of my "photo routine" has stayed relatively consistent. I’m processing a lot of film and catching up on printmaking.
I think there's a certain level of raw familiarity which is tough to overcome at home. That said, chance moments are everywhere. Everywhere! Including home. So there is material if approached with the right mindset. But I think this pandemic is fucking with everyone's heads. Me included.
Yes definitely. I’m sort of treating this period like abstinence.
Abstinence sounds too much like celibacy to me. Depressing!
If not at home where do you find most of your photos?
Very close to home actually. Mostly around my neighbourhood in the west end of Toronto.
Have you traveled to other cities or countries to make photos? Or just Toronto?
I don’t travel much so the vast majority of my pictures are made in Toronto. However when I do travel I make it a priority to photograph as much as I can. Photography alone has never brought me anywhere. It’s always something like a destination wedding, visiting relatives or road trips for a deal on equipment that will provide me with opportunities to make pictures abroad.
I don't know Toronto at all. I was there once for a day like 30 years ago. What is the west end of Toronto where you shoot? How would you describe that area?
The areas are very dense as well as culturally segregated. The side streets are all visually similar, up until lately it’s been all mid-century semidetached housing. Recently a lot of property has sold and new homes are popping up. The main streets are basically just strips of coffee shops and clothing boutiques. There are 5 coffee shops on my block and it’s not a particularly coffee driven neighbourhood. I wish I had something exciting to say about it but I don’t. Toronto is supposed to be the New York City of Canada but to me it’s fairly slow and unexciting.
The photos you currently have on Instagram. Were most of them shot in that neighborhood?
Oh yes, a stone’s throw from my apartment actually.
How long have you lived there?
I’ve lived in this area of Toronto for a little over 10 years.
Where are you from originally?
A small suburb of the city. About a 5 minute walk from the sign that welcomes you to Toronto actually. I got into skateboarding pretty young and would spend most of my free time coming downtown to skate and hang with friends. I was already well accustomed to downtown living before i made the move down here myself.
Skateboarding was a gateway into photography for some others like Matt Stuart and Ed Templeton. Do you there’s any overlap in the skillsets between skateboarding and photography?
It’s not uncommon for skateboarders to get hooked on other creative practices, but that could be anything from music, painting, sewing, wood working etc so long as its repetitive in nature. Photography is just one of them.
How'd you first get into photography?
There is no romantic beginning to this story. I was pretty much just looking for something to do with my time. I had other creative pastimes but I lacked control over them. After a while I stopped enjoying the process and more or less quit. When I was in my teens I made skate videos with my friends and through that got accustomed the optics of the camera. At that time I didn’t have an interest in still photography. One day I just decided to give it a go. I’m not really sure what propelled the decision, but I did have an instinct that I could trust my eye or learn to develop it. It’s been a long and bumpy road. At the time I really underestimated how difficult it is to make a good picture.
When was this? What year and what age?
This would’ve been around 2014 at age 25. I’m not sure what was driving me for the first year or so of making pictures to be honest. It was just something I thought I could try and was interested in learning.
You said with other hobbies you were "lacking control". Do you think photography gives you a feeling of control?
To some degree, yes. But not complete control. I like pictures that are taken from real life moments and there is little control over those, but I feel comfortable behind the camera. It’s familiar and interesting to me.
Do you generally interact with the people in your photos? Or how do you navigate the real-world relationships?
I interact with them in the sense that I am photographing in a shared space, but other than that not so much. An odd thumbs up or a smile, but I typically keep to myself. I really enjoy the mathematics of it all.
What do you mean the mathematics?
Just the calculations for flash lighting relative to ambient light. It’s like a puzzle which I enjoy trying to solve on the fly as opportunities present themselves.
That flash stuff can become heavy math if you get into it. I tend to let the camera do my thinking. But I'm only using simple on-camera flash. Your flash is like Zeus level! I can see it bounce off people 50 feet away. Not to get too much into gear talk but what's your basic setup?
Hahaha, well I have 5 different flash units which I use for different applications.
It's already getting mathy...
I’ve built a variety of diffusers for them for different types of situations. I even wear a white t-shirt so I can use myself as a giant reflector. The most powerful strobe I use can get f/4 exposure on 400 speed film over 500 ft away. It’s fun to experiment with the possibilities.
So when walk out the door you're carrying 5 flash units?
I pick and choose depending on what I feel I might encounter. A slimmed down version is one camera and one thyristor flash like a Metz 40 mz or Sunpak auto 124. But when I feel I will need a lot more juice I use a battery pack powered studio light. The ones with a dish. Sometimes I leave the house with two cameras. It really all depends on how I’m feeling and how much weight I want on my shoulders.
How do you take something like that out in public without becoming a big distraction yourself?
Visibility helps in making my pictures. I think it helps a lot actually! Also my demeanor with the camera. I think I must be friendly looking or something. I seem to be accepted.
You mean you want to become a distraction?
In a perfect world I would be entirely invisible, but in the reality which I live, visibility seems to render me invisible. People notice me, I linger, then they no longer notice me. I’m not sure exactly how I manage this but I seem to be able to blend in to my surroundings.
How did you learn lighting? Did you teach yourself or did you have some training?
A lot of experimentation. Also many of the photographers whose work I look up to use flash lighting, so I’ve spent a lot of time looking at their books with a critical eye.
Tunbjork, Parr, Jokela, Reas. All of whom used color film, 6x7 format with press flash lighting. Sort of the staples for the genre of pictures I enjoy most - new color wave photography. Mostly Nordic and British documentary with a twist. 1984-2001 was the era for that stuff.
Do you know Michelle Groskopf’s photos? She’s from Toronto originally, shoots street portraits using powerful daylight flash. She’s in LA now.
I do know of her work actually. I’ve seen it on the Internet. I had no idea she was from toronto. I’m not particularly a fan of the pictures but I do respect her as a photographer. My window of interest is quite small. I tend to either dislike the work or obsess over it and not so much in between.
What about Otto Snoek?
Give me a moment to Google Snoek…
So you basically taught yourself photography, just guided loosely by what you found?
Yeah that’s fair to say. I’ve never had a formal lesson or training or anything.
Photography is still just something to do with my time. I never know what to expect and I don’t put too much pressure on myself to produce, even though my life totally revolves around it in some way or another now.
I only just found you on Instagram a few months ago (hat tip to John Sypal). Were you sharing photos in some way before that platform? In shows, zines, prints, or anywhere?
I’ve had a few pictures in group shows over the years but nothing I’m particularly proud of. In the summer of 2016 I made a few zines but then sort of stopped putting my pictures out there to see. I also stopped using Instagram. I just spent my energy looking at books and trying to make new pictures without worrying about where they'd end up. I built my darkroom in 2017 and just sort of kept my photography to myself from then on. I only recently started using Instagram again as a platform to share pictures.
Wait, you built a color darkroom?
Congrats. I know how finicky those things are. I used rental color darkrooms for a brief period back when I was shooting color film (late 2000s). I was glad that someone else handled the chemicals.
Haha, yeah they can be a bit much at times. Luckily I’ve rigged up a decent ventilation system and never had to deal with much open chemistry to begin with. I started with Jobo tanks and now I run an old Cibachrome RT processor which I modified to work at RA4 temp/speeds. It started quite small and bare but as equipment comes available it’s been able to blossom into a fairly productive workspace.
Is it just yours or do you share it?
Its just mine! All from home. It has taken over my kitchen. I haven’t cooked anything but film and paper in that room in years. Now due to the pandemic I have a hotplate in my living room so I can cook from home again. Up until recently I had just been eating out.
What else can you tell me a little about your photo lab?
It’s basically just a way for me to feed the beast so to speak. To keep me active behind the camera and a means of exploring the medium at a subsidized cost. I started processing film for friends of mine to have steady throughput and to keep my chemistry working strong. The word spread quickly and before I knew it I was receiving packages from all over the country. It’s been my full time job since 2017. I only really offer process and scan services though. I tend to keep the print aspect of my darkroom just for my pictures.
Did you ever shoot digital, back when you were starting out? Or even now?
I used a digital camera for one night in 2016. i lost interest very quickly and made very bad pictures with it.
Do you think your photos would look very different if you weren't using analog processes?
I would assume so but I wouldn’t know until I tried. To be honest the process is what has kept me going. I enjoy it and haven’t felt a need to change it.
The darkroom process?
Yes definitely. I love print making. Developing the film is a bit of a bore but the rest of it is quite interesting. I enjoy the process of going through the contacts and blowing up what I think could be a winning frame and then playing with light to get the print just right. It’s such a rewarding feeling when it all works out.
Well I gotta say, you sent a print here and I had no idea what process you'd used. I kinda figured you'd outsourced it through a lab maybe. But I had no idea. I just knew it was a solid print.
Haha, thanks. I’m glad you enjoy it.
I'm a hardcore darkroom nerd too. But b/w, not color
I’ve only used one black and white roll in my 5-6 years making pictures.
I feel pretty competent in a b/w darkroom. I can get what I want usually. But the color darkroom was tough sledding for me. Very difficult to pinpoint colors and get the tonality the way I wanted. Maybe I just wasn't patient enough.
I’ve never really had the need to use a b/w room personally. I had my first go at b/w printing in late 2018 I believe. I started with color making my first prints in my kitchen.
What do you usually listen to in the darkroom?
I went through a big Sonic Youth phase in there, but then it quickly shifted to my comfort music like ‘90s hip hop, disco and RnB. Lately a lot of Dusty Springfield and Shangrilas. It really depends on my mood and what I’m printing!
I wonder if music comes through in the prints somehow. For example if listening to Sonic Youth you’d make off-tone prints with colorcasts and light leaks or something? Prints made with hiphop would be more polished in appearance? I dunno.
I usually have an idea on how I want to print something before I turn on the radio.
If I need to do a lot of dodging/burning I can’t have music playing. I have to pay close attention to the metronome on the timer. Well, I do like all the references to "getting that paper" in 90's hip hop. Makes me laugh every time.
Do you find yourself listening to things in the darkroom which you'd never listen to outside it? I like to play a lot of reggae/ska in the darkroom. Which I almost never listen to outside it. Something about the backbeat helps with agitation maybe? I also tend to listen to more long, jammy stuff in there. Where I can just turn my brain off and vibrate.
That’s pretty funny. I don’t think the darkroom really dictates what music I play. I just like to have fun while I’m working so I typically listen to good time music. Side note - I’m not sure if you already do this but you can set your iPhone screen to emit only red light so its safe to use in a b/w room.
You know that the period of color analog film is winding down. In 5 years there will probably be few color darkrooms anywhere. Is that part of attraction for you, do you think?
It was dead here when I began actually. Since then two schools have sort of reopened their spaces. Ryerson university and OCADU. Sometimes I have to sneak into OCADU to use their automatic paper cutter. I use Kodak paper which only comes on by roll now so instead of cutting it by hand I cut my sheets there and lug all the boxes home. I try not to think about the future of analog photography to be honest. I just take things one day at a time and try and enjoy what I’m doing while I’m doing it.
Good pandemic advice.
Apparently the color rooms in New York were getting busy again before the pandemic. A new one even popping up.
Let's step away from the analog thing a moment. What are you trying to express with your photos?
Hmm, that’s sort of a multi faceted question.
I know, big question. Sorry.
I don’t know if there’s any one particular thing that I’m trying to express. The pictures are just the result of my desire to try and make an interesting picture at that moment in time. I think my main goal is to twist a narrative and I like to see if I can do it with the camera. It’s not so much an intellectual process at the time of exposure, but it is right beforehand when I have to crunch numbers.
It seems like math equations and photographic seeing are pulling at two opposite corners of the mind. How do you balance both at the same time?
Photographing has become a way for me to escape my mind and my thoughts. when I’m out with my camera it feels like I’m drifting in space, quite surreal. The technical aspects have sort of become second nature now. I rely on instinct and lessons learned from past experiences, and since I use film, there is a huge margin for error so long as I err on the side of caution (over-exposure).
I understand the motivation to tweak reality. I think that's pretty fundamental to a certain branch of photography. I'd probably put myself in that camp. But then the question it raises, what is the "fictional narrative" about? What is it trying to express? I'm just throwing out the question. I don't have a good answer, and I've been asking it for a while.
I think it may be self reflective. It’s not so much just creating fiction per se, but rather finding a form of truth in reality that is desirable to the person creating it first, or at least more desirable than what is offered simply by just being present.
Hmm, well what about a more direct version of reality. Like a straight Robert Adams photo of a cottonwood, for example? Wouldn't something like that be a more direct path to self-revelation? Or is there something about fiction, or about tweaking things, which gets more fundamentally at the self. For you, at least?
The latter is definitely the case for me. i’m less interested in a straight document or recording of a place or event. To me the power of the medium is in its ability to change, enhance or create anew. Like turning lemons into lemonade, so to speak.
So maybe you're creating this photographic scenes? And on some level you want them to be real? To enter them and take part or something?
Well they are real of course but I view them from the perspective of a person with a camera who’s trying to making pictures, not as a participant. Maybe there is some longing for inclusion to some degree. I had never thought about that before.
There's a recent photo you posted of some people near a house with a tree in the foreground very brightly lit. And some people are on the roof. what's going on in that one?
Oh. the one with the guy in the tree?
That was a university's homecoming. I asked a friend who was going if I could come and make pictures. It was in a small town a few hours outside of Toronto. There is another picture on the feed from that morning as well.
Yes that one. I wasn’t able to go back last year, and this year will likely be cancelled to some degree, but I’d like to return. I saw so many things that weekend that were unbelievable. I had never seen anything like it before.
What was unbelievable? Can you elaborate?
Everything. I wasn’t prepared to witness what I had seen. I had never experienced anything like that with regular human eyes let alone photographer eyes. It was electric. There were thousands of kids climbing onto roofs of houses at sunrise, hundreds of them painted purple head to toe. Strange unique-to-this college traditions I had never heard of. At one point a group of maybe 50 students removed their leather varsity jackets and started whipping them in unison against the ground as if they were putting out an imaginary fire. For what reason I couldn’t tell you.
What's your philosophy regarding Instagram? How do you decide what to post, and what/when to delete?
For a long time I really disliked Instagram. I’ve lately been opening up to it. Every once in a while I will delete a picture if I feel it doesn't mesh well with the rest.
Do photos there get the reaction you expect?
I don’t really have any expectations for responses from others. That aspect has very little merit for me and I tend not to pay mind to it.
Maybe that's why I was an IG skeptic too at first. But still I find the reactions thought-provoking. They almost never conform to expectations. No matter how IG-savvy I feel I am they often surprise me.
I just like to make the pictures that I like so that aspect is entirely self serving. I can’t expect for people to like what I like since it’s such a specific taste. There isn’t much progressive photography on Instagram. It’s mostly just safe pictures. Books are really important for me.
I don't think Instagram reflects tastes that are much different than what you'd find outside of it. I mean, photography is no different than most creative arts. Generalized taste centers around the average, by definition. So Instagram is sanitized in that way, and also with the nudity and violence restrictions.
I mean that sort of stuff definitely makes it onto Instagram anyway. I’d be remiss if I said I didn’t enjoy nudity, but the implication of it without showing it is much more interesting as photography. One of my favourite photography books is Larry Sultan’s The Valley. It gets away with showing almost everything without actually showing anything. It’s a masterpiece. Contrary to nudity, I don’t like violence in real life and so I certainly don’t want to see it in pictures. If you can make a picture feel violent without showing a violent act then that’s pretty cool.
You say books are important. Which ones?
Everything Tunbjork put his stamp on. I Love Boras was the first book of his I found. I went to sleep with it the first night I had it in my possession. I had never seen anything like it and it completely opened me up to what was possible with this medium. I discovered him the day he passed, quite early in my attempt at making pictures.
That's weird. Pretty cosmic actually. Where did you come up with the name normalandboring?
Ha! Well there are no ties with that and my pictures. There was a female influencer-type whose name I forget now, but her bio section read "sporty and rich”. Normal and boring was just a spoof on that.
Oh wow, was she serious?
Very serious. Mostly selfies in expensive athletic gear.
Hmm, lack of self-awareness or ability to laugh at yourself. Not good. Very Trumpian.
That’s Instagram for you.
All photos above © Jonathan Sherman
All photos above © Jonathan Sherman