Joe Greer is a New York-based freelance photographer who specializes in film photography. With his Leica M6, Joe artfully composes analogue images that he shares with a global audience via social media. In our interview, Joe talks about his love of analogue, the unique perspective he gets from shooting on film and how he sees its rise, specifically with younger people, as a logical consequence of our digital lifestyle.
What is your name and where are you from?
My name is Joe Greer and I am currently living in Brooklyn, New York. I was born in Michigan, but was raised in Florida. I’ve lived on the West Coast for eight years in three different states, so I’m a bit of a vagabond type. For me, at least in my 20s and now in my 30s, home has always been wherever I am at the moment. And wherever my wife is. *laughs*
If I would ask you to describe your photographic style in one word, what would it be?
Hmmm, great question. I would say: Honest. It’s hard to put my work into a box, but I think that’s one of the main things I want to portray. Honesty is what I look for, what I find stepping into the world in any context – on the streets, in nature, on a trip with my wife, on a job for a client. Whenever I am close to myself, taking images, I try to capture the honesty of a situation in order to bring it across to the viewer.
Do you have a preferred genre?
No, I love all of them.
You mentioned seeing yourself as a photographer of life…
Right. A few years back I had a friend that I really looked up to give me advice. He said in terms of photography, it is important to find your lane and stick in it. I wrestled with that because I enjoyed so many different genres of photography. I thought; if this is something I plan to do for the rest of my life, why on earth would I pigeonhole myself into one lane when the highway is massive? I encourage people to try and explore as many genres in photography as they can. And that’s why I say I consider myself a life photographer. As long as I have a camera with me around my neck at all times, I want to be capable, ready and able to take a photograph in any situation life brings to me.
Is there a specific message that you want to convey with your photography?
I think, like with every photographer, there is always a message that we are communicating, because every photographer has a different background and upbringing. All these stories affect what you do behind the lens and how you see the world. For me, a major theme that comes out of my work is emotion. If I can evoke a feeling with the viewer, I feel I’m doing my job. Some of my biggest inspirations came from looking through photo books, when I got stuck on an image that brought me to tears. If I can have that effect on somebody in the age of Instagram, making them take in that image for a few moments, being touched by it, I feel like I’m doing something right.
How do you decide what to take pictures of?
I’m drawn to colors. They are a huge part of my photography and how I compose an image – how certain colors are playing in a given scene. Knowing the time of day, the amount of warmth that the sun is bringing into a specific scenery, that’s kind of how I go about the majority of my work. But on a deeper level, when I am encountering an image I want to take, there is this deep sense of balance. That’s how I know what to photograph. It’s a gut feeling.
Where did your passion for photography originate?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. Photography came into my life when I was least expecting it. You know, I was a competitive athlete growing up, all throughout middle school and high school and well into college. After pursuing athletic goals for over ten years, there suddenly was this new thing that brought me joy, that brought me excitement, that brought me happiness and peace. It started off as a hobby with my pals at Washington state. We would happily neglect our studies and things we needed to get done to go catch a sunrise and take some photographs. That soon turned into an unbelievable desire of wanting to get better, to grow and to master this craft of making photographs and trying to tell a story.
You just said photography brought you peace. Do you connect that to shooting analogue specifically?
Absolutely. I think it is connected to the way I discovered photography, which was via Instagram. I didn’t go to photo school or art school. Being a very fast-paced individual all my life, very extroverted, very outgoing, analogue photography was the best thing to happen to me – personally and artistically. It slowed me down, made me stop and have a look. I also shoot digital and enjoy it, but there is something that shooting film provides that digital cannot.
How would you describe the difference?
It’s in the way a negative “sings”. I can’t say it any other way. It simply doesn’t happen the same with digital photography. With digital, it will always be binary, bits and bytes, mathematical order. Film, due to its chemical nature, is in a way organic, it’s chaotic. It’s beautiful and imperfect. Analogue photography is radically different. It was a huge challenge for me in the beginning. And I love a challenge! There’s still a lot about analogue photography that I don’t know. But what I can definitely say is that my Leica M6 has helped me to unlearn unhealthy habits that Instagram and Smartphone photography have taught me early on. Like pressing the blast button, shooting 100 photos in six seconds. Today, that just feels like a cheat code to photography.
What does it do to a person, knowing that you’re limited to 36 frames?
It changes everything! You go out on the streets differently when you know you have only three rolls of film in your pocket. And once you’ve gone through those, that’s it. It makes you think much more about what you want to shoot, which stories you want to tell. There is no decisive moment when you’re shooting burst mode. You’re not there, there’s no artistic decision making in that process. You’re not watching while a scene develops. With analogue photography, you have to slow down, breathe, open your eyes, watch the world pass you by. You have to take your time, wait for that one moment and go for it.
So, shooting with the Leica M6 taught you to slow down?
Yeah, my analogue Leica definitely taught me to slow down – personally and artistically. In this increasingly fast-paced culture that we live in, it has taught me to take my time and watch life happen from a different perspective. My M6 allows me to see the world in such a simple and beautiful way, and I am eternally grateful for that.
Why is analogue photography on the rise with young people especially?
I think this younger generation is seeking analogue photography because they want something tangible, physical, something they can touch. Digital does not offer an experience like that. We’re separated physically from making photographs nowadays, as long as we are talking digital photography. It’s different with film.
What’s your favorite part of the analogue process?
I’m obsessed with the whole process, from start to finish. To grab a roll out of my fridge, where I store at least 50 rolls at any given time, to put it in my camera and enjoy every single one of those 36 frames. After I finish a roll, to take it out of my M6, writing my little notes on it. The whole process is so tangible. You go into the lab and drop your films off, excited, wondering when your scans will arrive. Browsing through the scans, you rediscover every shot, you remember your day, the scenes you witnessed. All that feels different with digital. I guess that’s why the younger generation loves it too and why analogue photography is exploding. It’s direct, it’s experiential, it’s been around for such a long time – it works as a counterbalance to our modern, digital lifestyle.
Would you say that analogue photography is superior to digital?
Well, I wouldn’t go that far – they both have their place. But film just sings differently and I can’t explain it better than that. There is something in the way that the colors render. How film reacts to light. Also, you can choose from this huge range of film stocks to try out and experiment, exploring their characteristics. With film, you often encounter small imperfections, elements of chaos, film burns, that contribute to its unique charm. For me, it’s exactly those imperfections that make analogue images even more beautiful.
Where does that come from, this fascination with little imperfections?
Because life is literally packed with these beautiful, unlikely, forgotten about imperfections. And that goes the absolute same with analogue photography. Small imperfections are all over and you just have to appreciate them for what they contribute to the bigger picture. They are a part of the journey.
Do you think there is a future for film photography?
Definitely, yes. I think film is going to continue to rise in popularity. The buzz is not limited to young people alone – I have a lot of older folks talking to me about wanting to get back into film. Digital photography came out only two decades ago and everybody switched over. And now, many people decide to go back, or at least shoot both digital and analogue.
You also shoot medium format. How do you decide when to shoot with your Leica M6?
When I choose to grab my M6, it’s purely out of a gut feeling. And honestly, I’m grabbing it almost every day. Whenever I go out for a meeting in the city, I take my phone, my wallet – and then the M6 right after that. It’s become such an honest extension of myself and how I see the world. It might sound corny, but it’s the one thing that I want to have on me at all times. But there are definitely times where I choose other cameras for certain specific moods or jobs.
If you would have to choose one lens and one camera for the rest of your life, what would that be?
If I had to choose only one camera and lens for the rest of my life, it would be the Leica M6 or the Leica MP and a 28 mm focal length. You know, I see the world in 28 mm as soon as I walk out of my door.
What would be your best tip for someone starting with analogue photography?
I think generally, no matter if analogue or digital, it would be about experimenting. About going to new places you’ve never been to before. That gives you a perspective on things, which is incredibly rewarding. Don’t be afraid to try out new stuff! If you break your photographic routine and step into a space that’s unfamiliar, that’s unknown, to pursue things photographically, if you go beyond the familiar to follow your passion – beautiful things will happen.