It's often interesting how a photographers work enters your orbit. Occasionally I've seen images from a certain artist one or more times without thinking about who had taken them, and then later rediscovering and connecting the photographer with the images I'd remembered so vividly. Justin Borucki's images of the band Clutch (yes, I'm a fan) came to me this way. His name and work were mentioned to me by an art director who is the friend of a friend, and someone I was having a conversation with about using historical processes in making photographs. As it turns out, Justin was doing one of the things I always recommend to people who want to enter the realm of paid photographic work. He had developed a personal project of using the wet plate collodion process to photograph storefronts in NYC, and was promoting it to help set himself apart from the throng of other photographers out there. Seeing this personal work had brought me around to the discovery of the images I mentioned before. The fact that they were wet plate collodion images promoting a band showed me that he had crossed over into merging personal and professional work. I wanted to talk to Justin, discover more of his work, and see just how this worked out for him.
Native New Yorker and veteran photographer Justin Borucki has been photographing music since 1994, and his work has appeared on dozens of album covers and in countless books and magazines.
He has recently revisited his roots in fine art portraiture and street photography through the wet plate collodion process. Wet plate is a completely handmade process with origins dating back to the 1850s. Metal or glass plate negatives are sensitized, exposed, and developed all on-site using a custom built portable darkroom rig.
Justin lives with his family and gang of rescued barn animals on a small farm in South Jersey.
Michael Kirchoff: The majority of your work is portrait based. How did you come to the conclusion that this was to be your area of expertise?
Justin Borucki: I can’t say it was intentional. When I started taking pictures in high school, I wanted to shoot everything and anything. When I wasn’t working on my skills with street photography, I was shooting my friends in our natural environments. I ran with a big crew of kids who were all part of the same NYC hardcore/punk music scene in the early 90s—I was in the audience while a lot of my friends played in the bands. My camera went with me everywhere, so naturally I had it at all the shows. My work started getting around—in DIY ‘zines and on show flyers. After a while, the bands started asking for portraits for their records. As they grew, I grew with them. My work ended up in glossy magazines and I got work with labels. The editors wanted portraits for features, so I honed my skills on the job. Eventually, it became something I was known for—skilled studio lighting technique and portraits. I was happy to keep getting called for work.
MK: More and more photographers are delving into wet plate photography these days, and I’m curious what it is about this type of imagery that drew you in?
JB: There are so many layers to why I love wet plate photography. I first saw a tintype made about 7 or 8 years ago at a Renaissance Fair in rural New Jersey. The setup was totally cheesy—period costumes, silly backdrops—but the process blew my mind. It was like magic. The only exposure most people get to wet plate is the finished product, the tintype. But I was drawn to the handcrafted aspect of the process: mixing the chemicals from scratch, pouring the plate, developing the image in a hand-built custom darkroom. There are about a million different ways to fuck up a plate, but there are equally as many opportunities to make magic. It’s like the film/darkroom experience on steroids. I get a rush every time I make an image.
MK: What exactly is the “Snake and Camera Tintype Photo Booth”, and how did it come about?
JB: I was spending a lot of time in my garage, mixing chemicals, testing my new equipment. The photo booth was actually my wife Rebekah’s idea. I was wrapped up in perfecting my process, so she challenged me to just get out there and start shooting people. She called a local winery and booked a spot for my “Snake and Camera Tintype Photo Booth” at their next event. Neither of us knew what we were doing, but it was fun playing carnies. I made hand-painted banners, and Rebekah designed signage. Shooting the general public was exciting. They were super engaged with the process, and we met some interesting characters. We spent the next two seasons setting up at local festivals and occupying a weekly spot at the Hester Street Fair on the Lower East Side. Plans are hazy as to whether or not we’ll bring the photo booth on a regular basis, but it’s important to me to keep offering something like this to the general public.
MK: Working with collodion is not exactly an easy task, and you don’t necessarily make it better on yourself by taking it out on the streets to make your photographs. Do you feel that this extra challenge has shaped the images you create?
JB: With great risk comes great reward. A lot of preparation goes into a single shot—scouting the perfect location, tracking light (UV light is an essential element to the process), and researching what the foot traffic is going to be like in the area at the time I’m there. Typically, when I set up the camera and darkroom on the street, I’ll need to invest about 2-3 hours to guarantee a good image. So that’s me and my giant darkroom on wheels, filled with chemicals, sitting on the street in post-9/11 New York City. I’m basically praying the whole time that I don’t get shut down. The city doesn’t love photographers just setting up on the street. Add the crazy chemical element, and I’m lucky I haven’t had my stuff confiscated. Another obstacle is the sometimes very long exposure time. Depending at which F-stop I’m shooting, my exposures could be anywhere from 6-45 seconds long, making it nearly impossible to get people in the shots. I would say 50% of the people in my plates are people that stopped to see what I was working on, and I recruited them as impromptu subjects. So yeah, the process of getting a good image is tricky. I have to be intentional, mindful about every shot. But that makes every image even more special. There’s no question that this is art.
MK: Your wet plate images of storefronts in New York City celebrate a city that is slowly disappearing. How important is it to you to document these places before they become a distant memory?
JB: I do have a sense of urgency to shoot old New York and the few remnants of its days past, but I try not to let that drive me too much. This work isn’t about nostalgia. I want to create an accurate representation of what’s happening now—the mix of old and new, the changing neighborhoods, the changing faces. I shot a 90-year-old hardware store owner in front of his shop right before he retired. Soon after, I took Vinnie Stigma’s portrait on the street on the Lower East Side. What’s happening now is what I want to capture. The fact that NYC is changing so rapidly makes the project even more exciting for me. The contrast of old and new is more dramatic than at any other time in my career.
MK: Looking at your photographs, it is quite clear that you have a deep love for New York City. Is this your hometown, and does the attitude of the city drive you to keep pushing the limits of your photography?
JB: I was born in the Bronx and raised on Staten Island. I went to school for photography in Manhattan and got my first apartment in Brooklyn where I stayed until I got married and moved to New Jersey to start a family 8 years ago. I felt disconnected from the city and needed a way to be inspired again. I started this project specifically to reconnect with New York. I didn’t expect it to turn into such a huge focus for me, but I’m glad it did. To my surprise, it’s reignited my passion even for digital photography. I’m experimenting more, trying new things, pushing limits. It was a good move for me.
MK: Any crazy stories of shooting on the streets of NYC?
JB: I think New York’s reputation is more exaggerated than reality. My biggest concern when shooting on the street is getting shut down by the police, but as long as I stay away from touristy areas, they don’t bother me. I had an elderly man walk up and touch the front standard during an exposure, in spite of me telling him, “please don’t touch.” I’m shooting on the street in the middle of the day, so there aren’t a ton of opportunities for anything much crazier than that. But I do meet a lot of interesting people as well as bump into old friends.
MK: You have so many wonderful images connected to music and musicians. Do you see a correlation between the art you create, and the art that they create?
JB: I discovered photography at the same time I was coming of age in the NYHC/punk scene. While my friends were expressing themselves through music, I spoke through my images. The modality of expression was different, but we were coming from the same place, saying the same things. That’s what art is—a reaction to our environments, our experiences. So yes, there’s a correlation. We were telling the same stories, just using different mechanisms. And it’s good I had a talent for taking pictures, because I can’t play an instrument or sing to save my life.
MK: Be honest now...is it still sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll?
JB: It’s more like Netflix, wine with the wife, and bed by ten. With a side of rock ‘n roll. The scene will never be like it was. We had community, and now everyone is stuck in their phones. I enjoyed the time I had shooting in the thick of it all, and now I’m glad to be in this next stage of my career.
MK: Film, wet plate, digital. Transitioning between working in these different mediums must be another challenge you face. How do you decide what to use, and when?
JB: Once I switched to digital, I never looked back to film. If I’m shooting film, it’s just because I miss using the camera. My favorite film cameras are my Hasselblad, Rollieflex 2.8E3, and Nikon F2. It’s not hard to decide between digital and wet plate on a job. It really depends on what the client wants and how fast they want it. Modern deadlines don’t really allow for film and almost never for wet plate, and it’s always a challenge and unique opportunity to use either for a gig. But when the choice is left up to me, it’s not unlike a carpenter choosing one tool over another. My cameras are tools, and I use whichever one that gives me (and the client) the desired result.
MK: As a working photographer, creatives are often looking at the personal images one might create. Do you feel that this has helped you get the type of paying work you want?
JB: Sure, and that’s why I love social media. It’s a constant opportunity to get the images I care about most in front of the people who are hiring me. Everyday, I’m shooting my kids, my animals, my woods, local landscapes… My wet plate work started solely as a personal project. I had no idea it would become something I could do commercially. As a source of revenue from gallery shows and private portraits, sure, but I certainly didn’t foresee shooting Mick Mars for a magazine feature. And the behind-the-scenes of the wet plate process adds dimension and interest to the images. It tells a story that creatives seem to really get into.
MK: OK, is documenting the images in your “Snakebite” body of work as much fun as it looks? Those kids definitely kick ass.
JB: Those images mean a lot to me. Those boys are my stepsons, Calvin and Jack. I shot them over a few years when they were first discovering music. They really got into performing and loved being in front of the camera—easy subjects. Most of those images were shot almost 10 years ago, but they’re still playing music today. Calvin has turned out to be an amazing guitarist, and he’s making his own music videos on Instagram now.
MK: Photography is not as easy as people on Instagram try to make it look. Do you have any advice for the aspiring photographer?
JB: Number one: Shoot. Shoot every day. Shoot stuff you like, stuff you don't like--just keep working the muscle. Talent is something you're born with, but to be a good photographer, someone who gets consistent work and books shows, you have to develop skill.
And now, honing that skill is so easy. Cameras are smaller than ever, and even our phones can create amazing images. I make it a habit to carry a small point-and-shoot camera everywhere I go, sometimes just to capture a location to return to later with my pro camera. I love the Canon G Series, which I actually used to shoot some of the images in my Snakebite project.
This practice of constant shooting also keeps things fresh. It allows you to experiment without consequence and reinvent yourself often.
Two: Be easy to work with. Make photo editors' jobs easier, make the talent feel comfortable, and show respect to everyone on set. The art intern might be the creative director in a few years. Don't be a dick to an ambitious art intern--they'll remember you.
I've seen a lot of people with big attitudes come and go in my two decades in the business, and it's no coincidence that some of the biggest artists I've worked with have also been the most gracious.
MK: What’s next for the photography of Justin Borucki? Any new projects you have in the works?
JB: My next big project is to take my wet plate on the road. I’m flying the rig out to LA for a client job, so I’ll probably shoot some local stuff while I’m there. If I play my cards right, maybe I can convince the wife to be my assistant on an extended road trip… maybe head down south, shoot some rural landscapes and odd characters. I’m working on getting the street photography into more gallery shows, and I have one coming up in SOHO in December. The goal is always to keep shooting, staying challenged and inspired. As long as that’s happening, it’s all good.
You can find more of Justin's work at his website here.
This interview originally published in Issue 51 of Blur Magazine, October, 2016.