Street Photographer Jonathan Bernheimer Puts Color in the Spotlight

All images by Jonathan Bernheimer. Used with permission.

“For example, a well-placed light pole that creates an interesting shadow can be really valuable,” explains street photographer Jonathan Bernheimer. “And I don’t think there is any harm to include the light pole in the photo.” I remember days where I’d sit with street photography collectives who complained about little things like this. They didn’t focus enough on the moments. And quite honestly, the work of Jonathan Bernheimer doesn’t either. But his use of colors are entrancing. You can stare at his images all day and be lead around the scenes. Jonathan credits it to the specific type of light that he’s looking for. And he explains all about it and being a minority amongst people of color in our interview.

“I always wanted to have my camera with me. Cycling is another passion of mine and I would strap my camera to my back and ride around taking photos (it’s always cool to combine two hobbies at once!).”

The Essential Gear of Photographer Jonathan Bernheimer

Jonathan Bernheimer says to us:

“I have mainly used Canon and Fuji equipment. I started as a teenager with Canon film cameras. My father gave me his to use. It was an enormous camera and I think it weighed 5 pounds. When digital started I had the original Canon 5D which I thought was an amazing camera. However, I then tried the Fuji X100 when it first came out and I was hooked – it fit in really well with my style of photography. It was small and I could be discrete when photographing on the street. I have used Fuji cameras since then – X100, X-T2, X-H1, and X-Pro3. The colors are great and I really like the film simulations. For my street photography I either use a 35mm prime lens (like the one on the X-100) or a standard zoom lens. I use Lightroom to process my photos. I think I’m a “minimalist” when it comes to post-processing. Aside from perhaps increasing contrast, sharpening and cropping, I don’t do a lot to the photos. I do not use Photoshop to alter the content of photos – if there is a car or a pole in the way of a scene it stays there.”

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Jonathan Bernheimer: I took a photography class in middle school and really enjoyed it. There was something about capturing a moment or scene that I thought was really great. I loved being in the darkroom and seeing the image emerge from the developing bath like some kind of magic. It was mesmerizing and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. In high school, a friend helped me build a darkroom in our basement and I would process everything myself. I always wanted to have my camera with me. Cycling is another passion of mine and I would strap my camera to my back and ride around taking photos (it’s always cool to combine two hobbies at once!). In college I continued studying photography, taking numerous classes as part of my fine arts major. I became interested in night photography at one stage and would lug my camera and tripod around campus trying to find interesting things to photograph.

Phoblographer: What made you want to get into street photography?

Jonathan Bernheimer: In 2010 I was living in San Francisco after completing my medical training and working overseas for a few years. My work schedule had eased to a degree and it was nice to have time outside of the hospital for other endeavors. I started walking around the Mission District in SF taking photos, however, I did so without much direction or intent. I then started taking a tutorial at the San Francisco Studio School – a great place with excellent teachers – and saw works from Alex Webb, Joel Meyerowitz, and Saul Leiter. I hadn’t given much thought to street photography in the past – I had always concentrated on portraiture and landscapes – however, I was blown away by their work. I quickly needed to see if I could do that – take interesting photos of people who are just going about their daily business and routines. I wanted to see if I could create beautiful images of people like they did using the components of the urban landscape as a backdrop.

Phoblographer: Your use of color is incredible! What photographers have influenced you to create the way that you do? What do you credit your use of color to?

Jonathan Bernheimer: Saul Leiter and his use of color has influenced me a lot. To me, it’s not just the colors in his urban photos that are beautiful, it’s the way the colors are used within his photos that I find so interesting. His ability to use color to focus attention on the subject matter makes the photos, well, simply incredible. I certainly cannot take a photo like Saul Leiter, however, I try to use color in somewhat of a similar way – to enhance the subject matter and draw in the viewer’s eye. At least, that is what I am trying to do….Another photographer that has influenced me is Alex Webb, in large part for his complex compositions. After looking at his work I tried for a long time to take complex photos like his. I found it so difficult! I’ll never quite understand how he is able to incorporate so many people into one photo and have the photo work well. Lastly, I really admire Joel Meyerowitz’s photos, especially the high contrast street scenes. I love his use of strong shadows and the overall feel of the photos.

“When anyone did notice, I would smile and sometimes strike up a conversation. Sometimes I would offer to email them the photo if they wanted.”

Phoblographer: I did a bit of Googling on you before I decided to interview you. You’re an MD (as you state in your email). And you specifically seem to be attracted to photographing people of color. Why? To be candid, how do these people react to a doctor trying to photograph them? Have you ever gotten into verbal spats with folks?

Jonathan Bernheimer: Yes, most of the people in my photos are people of color. I think the main reason for that is the location of where I took the photos. For example, my latest series of photos is from Cape Town, South Africa. While Cape Town’s population is diverse to a degree, I happened to take most of those photos in the Bo-Kapp and Woodstock areas of town. My decision to photograph in those areas had a lot to do with the lighting and interesting signs and urban art that is found there. These areas have predominantly black and Cape Malay populations, so the overwhelming majority of people walking on the streets are of those ethnicities.

Despite being in the minority as a white person in these areas, I never really had a problem with anyone. Most people were just going about their business and didn’t notice me when I was photographing (or if they did they didn’t seem to mind). When anyone did notice, I would smile and sometimes strike up a conversation. Sometimes I would offer to email them the photo if they wanted.

Phoblographer: Why did you leave fine arts in college?

Jonathan Bernheimer: I actually didn’t leave fine arts while in college. I completed my BA with a major in Fine Arts. However, you are right – I did decide not to pursue a career in the art world. After graduation, my thoughts were in fact on something completely different – my squash career. In college, I had played squash (the sport, not the vegetable) and had done quite well. After college, I decided to play professionally. Then, after 2 1/2 years of playing for a living, I decided it was time to move on. I thought about entering the art world at that time, however, it all seemed too subjective to me. I thought back to my photography courses in college and getting one grade or another and thought I just couldn’t deal with such subjectivity for my career. So, I started thinking of other avenues and decided on medicine. I mean, what could be more objective than medicine, right? A person was either sick or not, a disease could either be cured or not. Problem solved! Certainly naïve thoughts, but hey, it seemed better to me at the time…..

Phoblographer: It seems like you mostly photograph with harsh, direct sunlight on your subjects. You like dark shadows and straight lines with bombastic colors. So when you’re out shooting, what sort of emotions or feelings typically trigger you to push the shutter?

Jonathan Bernheimer: I think there are different scenarios when I get excited to push the shutter. One would be when I have been “staking out” an area for a while waiting for good lighting to come about and for a person to enter the scene. By the way, in those situations, the person is really secondary. There just needs to be someone to occupy the space and complete the scene. While photographing those types of scenes I feel excited for the possibility that the scene I have “constructed” may actually work. Usually it doesn’t, but when it does it is really satisfying. Another type of situation is more of a “spur of the moment” one when you are just reacting to a developing situation on the street and quickly raise your camera (or shoot from the hip). Again, I feel excitement for the photo that could be created. Yet another situation occurs when I see a person who looks interesting whom I would like to photograph. These “street portraits” make me more anxious, because I know I will need to engage with the person to get a good photo.

“Currently, with COVID raging, street photography is a challenge, and I’m not so sure how interesting portraits of masked people are.”

Phoblographer: By looking through your portfolio, it seems like you mostly go for colors instead of genuine moments of human emotion. Do you feel that’s true?

Jonathan Bernheimer: I suppose that is true to an extent. As I mentioned above, in many of the photos I take, the person may be one of the focuses of the photo but not the only focus. I really try to find interesting and many times high contrast/colorful backgrounds that the person then fits into. It’s not the other way around. Moreover, it’s not just a textured wall or a piece of urban art that I am looking to use for a scene. I try to use whatever is available -either in the foreground or background – to enhance the photo. For example, a well-placed light pole that creates an interesting shadow can be really valuable. And I don’t think there is any harm to include the light pole in the photo.

Phoblographer: It seems like you’ve done a few street portraits. Have you ever considered getting into doing that more than capturing candid moments?

Jonathan Bernheimer: I have been interested in portraiture since I started photography. I would definitely like to do more street portraits in the future. Currently, with COVID raging, street photography is a challenge, and I’m not so sure how interesting portraits of masked people are. However, hopefully, things will get better soon…

Phoblographer: When you go about shooting, do you feel like you’re more of an introvert or an extrovert? Why?

Jonathan Bernheimer: I am an introvert by nature. I much prefer to be “invisible” when photographing on the street. However, I force myself at times to engage with people when I think there is the possibility of an interesting photo. It’s anxiety-provoking for me, especially if I haven’t photographed for a while. However, once I start talking to people it really is great. I have found almost everyone to be ok with getting their photo taken, and when they say no, I just say ok and walk away.

Phoblographer: Where do you want to be in a year with your work?

Jonathan Bernheimer: In terms of future work, I have started a project in my hometown in California. While there are some street shots, there are also landscapes as I am now living in a semi-rural environment. The challenge will be trying to create landscape and “rural” photos that don’t look generic. I have also just launched my photography website! For a long time, I have wanted to take my photography more seriously and make it a bigger part of my life. While I do not foresee leaving medicine any time soon (I enjoy my work as a pediatrician), I would like to engage more with the photography community and get my name out there a bit.

You can see more of Jonathan’s work at his website.