High Tech High School junior Jose Flores had just gotten out of school on Wednesday, March 9 when he saw smoke rising in the distance and hurried over with a friend to check out what was going on. “Arriving at the scene, there were fire trucks storming in and out, and factory workers gazing upon the fire while others recorded the incident on their mobile phones,” he said.
The fire had broken out in an empty construction trailer near Walmart on Tonnelle Avenue. Firefighters spent a couple of hours putting it out, while Flores documented the incident in photos. But it wasn’t really the fire he was interested in. It was the people.
Flores, 16, has been shooting urban landscapes and candid portraits for a few years now, first on an iPhone and more recently on a DSLR camera. Adjusting the images in Photoshop, he began posting them online and building a reputation as a street photographer, which led to him working for Nike, Reebok, Wings Air Helicopters, Grado Headphones, and more.
“I enjoy using a wide angle,” said Flores. “I get really close and use an off-camera flash to get more dramatic. It creates a feel; the photo looks fabricated and also very real. It also has purpose because photographs capture fashion and how people look today. In a couple of decades they will look very different.”
Hitting the streets
“I like shooting people who stand out,” said Flores about how he developed his stark photojournalistic style. Getting into photography only a few years ago, he has evolved his technique considerably.
His introduction to photography was shooting videos on an iPhone in 2013. “At the skate park my friend asked if I could film this line,” or set of skateboard moves and tricks, he recalled. Flores taught himself to edit the videos but burned through a pair of cheap computers so he opted to switch to still photography, still using the phone.
“Street photography just feels like such a natural way for me to express my surroundings, what I grew up with, and my personality as a whole.” –Jose Flores
Expanding his subjects Flores began manipulating the images digitally and compositing them. “Compositing is when you take a cool sky and put it behind a building, plus a flock of birds so it looks poetic, then switch the colors so the clouds are really orange,” he said.
Shooting on rooftops and in abandoned locations, he posted the striking images online and built a strong following of fans. But he quickly felt restricted by the style and content.
Shoveling snow to get money, he bought a Canon Rebel t3i camera from Craigslist. “It’s like a tourist camera, entry level,” he said. “When I bought the camera the colors and how I edited started to change. And then the things I started to shoot started to change. When I found street photography it’s so different. You really put your own style on it.”
Inspired by the documentary “Everybody Street” about street photographers, Flores began focusing more on individuals in gritty environments. At first, “I tried way too hard to be ‘stealthy,’” he said. “It got boring too quickly using a zoom lens. I remember the first time though when I took a picture of someone right across them with flash, I instantly fell in love. I was forced to interact with who I was shooting. I wasn’t hiding anymore. Street photography just feels like such a natural way for me to express my surroundings, what I grew up with, and my personality as a whole, which in a way exudes out of the photos I take.”
In addition to skateboarding, Flores was influenced heavily by music and graffiti culture. A bedroom guitarist who jams to Hendrix and Santana, he listens to a wide variety of bands from jazz to R&B to hardcore and identifies himself as straight edge.
“Hardcore people share the same ideas and have energy,” he said. “The lyrics preach positive mental attitude, PMA. With graffiti I started learning about their stories. It’s people who just like expressing themselves and the thrill of painting on the wall. With photography I feel that same thrill. I went to Jersey City and this guy started saying photography is the new graffiti. It’s democratized; anybody can get their hands on it. Like me.”
A lifetime resident of Guttenberg, Flores was inspired by street photographers like Bruce Gilden, Jill Freedman, Ricky Powell, Jamel Shabazz, Bruce Davidson, and Boogie, who chronicled drug addicts, gangs, crime, and poverty. Nowadays he spends a lot of time in New York shooting the gritty underbelly of the city.
“There are a lot of characters on the street that people turn a blind eye to and don’t want to bother with them,” he said. “I’m kind of like the antithesis of that. I want to tell their stories. I want to find out about their life. I want to document them. There are a lot of crazy characters. You hear all these stories and it’s so inspiring. Every passerby has a life.”
He recalls one incident where he was followed by a questionable character into an alley while shooting. “I didn’t know if I was being robbed,” he said. Instead he struck up a conversation and wound up invited to shoot individuals holed up in a makeshift home made of scrap metal in midtown. “That was one of my favorite photo sets.”
“You have to know how to interact with these people,” he said. “A lot of people get mad at you and you have to learn how to make them not break your camera. I learned how to communicate with people from different backgrounds. I know how to talk to someone from an affluent position. I know how to act with someone who is struggling, and around fashion and addicts. It’s kind of like having a social passport.”
Flores has been working hard to get his name out there, “capturing the human condition,” as he puts it. And his work has brought numerous companies to his door. “I love doing professional work and seeing how my style incorporates in a commercial environment,” he said. “I love fashion stuff because I can get really weird and experimental.”
“I want to do what I love for the rest of my life,” he said. “Just keep evolving. Shooting things that aren’t really captured because people don’t want to take the risk.”
A sampling of Flores’s photographs can be viewed at http://josefloresnyc.tumblr.com or https://www.instagram.com/josefloresnyc/.
Art Schwartz may be reached at email@example.com.