| Interview with staff photographer of Cadence Clothing and contributor to Rapha’s Survey series |
John Reiss. Part documentarian, part time contributor to Rapha and staff photographer for Cadence. Many would call John Reiss the epitome of a jack of all trades. Not only that, but he also happens to be a hard working cog in the machine that is TCB Courier.
TCB is one of San Francisco’s largest messenger companies and San Francisco’s only late night delivery service. I’m talking cigarettes, condoms, pepto bismo and a bag of dorito’s delivered right to your door at 2am. Sound like a weird job? No shit. If there’s one universal truth, it’s that when things get weird, they also get fun. Lucky for us, John regularly puts his army of film cameras to good use by documenting a lifestyle that very few comprehend.
After deciding on a meet time, we grabbed beer and sat high above the Mission District at a micro park located off to the side of a spiral walkway. As our beer cans lightened, the sun set and pedestrian commuters wandered by; we discussed where his love for photography was bred, how he began documenting the messenger culture, and what he’s truly passionate about capturing on film.
GC: So for our less informed audience, where are you from and why have you made San Francisco home?
JR: I moved from Virginia, Harrisonburg, which is sorta like central Virginia. I kinda just did it on a whim.
GC: So I was able to meet you for a few minutes during the Breakers to Bay alleycat race a couple years back and you were holding a camera then. A few months later there was a sprints race being held at the docks and you had a camera on you then as well. Was your current project of shooting alley cat’s already in progress or was I witnessing the start of something?
JR: I had already been taking pictures for a while. My dad gave me an old Canon AE-1 for christmas one year and it’s been a big part of my life ever since. After some time living in SF I just started meeting people, working on bikes with people within the community and getting involved. I’d raced in alley cats before moving out here, but never to the frequency, pace, or nature of being in a metropolitan city. You know, coming from the country. When I first came out here I’d race a few and noticed that no one was taking pictures. I knew nothing else, but to document my surroundings so it all came about naturally. It’s a function, it’s a habit, it’s instinctual.
GC: Is there ever a goal, quality of light, or compositional element that you try to incorporate into your photos? For instance, in an alley cat you usually know where checkpoints will be when you get the manifest. Do you ever plan things in order to get specific shots?
JR: People race at all times. Sometimes night, sometimes day. It’s fun to play with the lighting and continue to learn. A lot of times I’d be working checkpoints so it’d be a weird mix of how I wanted to take a picture or set it up so I can sign peoples manifests and take a photo as they’re running by. To be honest the alley cat project has kind of lost focus or lost fire because of time constraints. Its more or less become something it was always destined to be. An archival process. It’s just showing up when I can and being there. From 2009 on there’s a race almost every weekend from the spring throughout summer and it provides a lot of opportunities to go out and take photos every weekend. What was the question again?
GC: You basically answered the question. It sounds like you specifically focus on the documentation process of photography by capturing the real world as it happens.
JR: I always try to soak up as much as I can, but you know it’s always dependent on the race. Stuff like if it was a big deal or just a small holiday thing that no one shows up to. Sometimes I’d just take a few photos of the beginning and just hang out and not do anything. Not too long ago I was able to go back to Richmond Virginia for the NACCC [North American Courier Championship]. I actually raced more than I shot, so I came back with far less photos, but a lot of fond memories.
GC: So what’s your basic setup? I know you like to collect cameras and have a lot of them, but is there one in particular that you like to shoot with the most? If so, what’s the combination of gear you like to use?
JR: Well what I’ve been doing for most of the time up here is shoot two cameras. First the Canon AE1 Program that my dad gave me. He used to be a photographer. He did it mostly as a past time, but got a little into developing and made some cool prints that I was exposed to growing up. He eventually passed his camera on to me. I still keep it with me wherever I go. It’s been everywhere that I’ve been as far as traveling. I used to shoot just like 50mm and keep it all kinda tight and focused. There was actually a time before I moved out here where I was really into music photography. When I graduated college I picked up a DSLR and I began to shoot that a lot more at shows. And that kinda taught me the benefit of having a wide lens when shooting crowds or bands, uptight and fast. Now I really enjoy carrying a wide lens and that’s better helped me absorb the world around me.Actually, I’ve always been drawn to urban environments and open countrysides. You know, big plain environments with very few human beings.
GC: As a working messenger for one of San Francisco’s largest messenger companies, you have a far more intimate relationship with your subject matter than most photographers would. As a guy that likes to record the world around him with a camera, have you ever been in a situation where you wished you could have taken a picture, but could not for whatever reason?
JR: God… there were some really weird moments, but nothing I saw as picturesque. I mean if I could have segway’d from the awkwardness and said, “Hey may I please, photograph you right now,” to just get away from the weirdness, I would have.
GC: What about if you had a floating camera behind you?
JR: You know I always make a super strong point to have a camera on me, so I never don’t have the opportunity to take a photo. It’s more of choosing not to.I mean I’ve had some weird people…I don’t know, maybe not come ons, but some very forward social interactions when delivering things. Like you’re in your bathrobe right now, or not in your bathrobe, or not wearing anything. It’d be cool to take a picture of that, but… yeah I can’t. It’s cool when you go downtown and you go to the offices and you get up to the 25 or 30th floor and get this view that you would never have because you’re not making the figures these people are.
GC: How would you define your style?
JR: I enjoy shooting recklessly. I don’t think about the technical details much. I suppose the content dictates the style. If it’s a building, I make it large and wide so you have to look for the details. When it comes to portraiture I like a lot of Bokeh or a tight focus with a lot of information in the back. I’ve had some people tell me that I have a lot of warm fuzziness in my work. I mentioned earlier that photography is a function. I never call myself an artist, but photography is something I have to do. It’s how my creativity pours out. When looking through the viewfinder I feel like I’m looking forward. I’m trying to create an image of infinite nostalgia. I want to remember the conversation, the theme, the words. It’s a very exact day for me. All this will pass, all things will go, it’s necessary in that way. It’s the idea of creating a memory. An image that can remind you of a person you loved, or a place you used to be. I hope that there is some sort of loving or honest quality in all my photos because they represent things that I will always remember.
GC: Besides the subject of messenger culture, what else are you shooting these days?
JR: In the past I’ve done some freelance stuff for Rapha. Portraits I’ve shot for them taught me to think more about keeping a very close focus on things. I’ve been going out a lot on fridays during the days, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone to photograph things I find more out that way [points towards the GG bridge]. You know just putting 40-60 miles on the bike, seeing what’s untapped a long the way.
GC: What do you think of San Francisco?
JR: It’s a lot more intense here compared to where I came from. There seems to be more professional and personal expectations that are forced upon you by peers and society. In Virginia, things seemed a lot more free, a lot more loose. I think that probably has a lot to do with the cost of rent and you know the physical nature of being in the city vs the countryside.
[A large rat the size of a cat runs by]
JR: There’s, a fucking rat. There are rats everywhere. I guess we’re not that far from the country.
GC: [Laughs all around]
JR: I just feel honored to be a part of this project. Someone that you chose to be featured in the first issue of GC. I know you could have picked from a lot of other people that I feel make incredible work. I’m lucky to be here sharing the city with these people, but in the end of the day it’s competition. You’re not fighting against anybody, but you’re not fighting with anyone either.
GC: Thanks a lot! [We clink our beers together]
Keep up with John and view more of his incredible work:
photos courtesy of John Daniel Reiss
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