A series devoted to photographers working within music.
Jessica Lehrman's photos aren't just snapshots of a story, but a step into an experience. The NYC-based photographer's shots are the kind that feel mid-motion, whether that be crowd surfing through wild flailing arms, or the easy act of daydreaming on a Brooklyn afternoon. They don't just show you, they tell you. The subjects of her portraits always feel caught mid-conversation, and after a minute of talking with Lehrman that comes as no surprise; she's brimming with energy, the kind that's palpable.
Most of your work surrounds underground scenes, whether political or artistic. I'd love to start with your background and how you started taking photographs.
I began taking photos because I was a horrible painter. I went to RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) for a three month program. I signed up late, also because I was really bad [laughs], so I ended up in photography. I've literally been a photographer ever since. I didn't grow up wanting to be a photographer- I wanted to be a belly dancer, an herbal practitioner, a midwife, make my own cosmetics, work for the peace corps. Normal stuff. But this is a great career I'm happy I ended up in.
How did it pivot from being this second-hand interest into a career?
Once I got to art school, that experience made me not want to go to art school. I don't come from wealth, and it kind of seems like it's set up for people who had money, and to kind of become a starving artist. I couldn't afford to do that. Once I left I went and lived in LA for two years and got a job at the Santa Monica Mirror, the local newspaper, and that's when I realized that could be a career. My first experience had been art photography, but I realized I could be a documentary photographer; this could be my life. I took a year off and went to Central America and volunteered and realized I could bring my camera and document it. I could tell everybody about what was happening through photographs. I didn't really think of that as a possibility before then. I didn't grow up with Instagram.
Your photos feel so packed with motion, it’s almost like you can hear them. Do you think that style stems from a background in documentation, or is it more of your own personality coming through?
To be honest I'm not that calculative. I'm trying to think before I take an image, and really be a little more purposeful in the way I take it. I'm so all over the place, and my images kind of convey that; I'm just running around and taking pictures at different angles. I also think I'm crooked, all my photos are kind of tilted. I'm pretty loud, it's hard for me to not insert who I am into my images because so much of it is my connection with the people I'm shooting. Most of my images are people I love, so they tend to be pretty passionate. When I'm taking [photos], I'm really just thinking about the moment and what's coming next. A lot of the photos I take are in situations where I need to be really aware of what's happening around me. Especially at protests, or even rap shows, there's so much happening — sometimes, someone lands on your head, which has happened to me numerous times. I'm thinking less about my images and more how can I be in the right place at the right time.
You'd mentioned in an interview you only shoot your friends, even if you didn't know them beforehand. Does that mean you take time with your subject first, or friend first to form a connection, or that you seek it out during the shoot?
I wish that I had the time, but a lot of my assignments are with people that have limited time to give me. It tends to be almost like speed dating, speed friend-dating, where I have five minutes to get to know someone and crack their shell open, to have a real connection, and hopefully get one photograph where you can really see who that person is. Sometimes it feels like being a therapist where you're trying to figure out what makes this person tick and get to that in the quickest way possible.
So it sounds like rather than step back and observe, you kind of insert yourself to crack that shell.
Yea, I'm not very good at not doing that [laughs]. I try to think of anything to put that person at ease. I'm so uncomfortable and have so much anxiety; I empathize with people who don't like being photographed.
A lot of your photos of musicians are from the hip hop community in Brooklyn. Is that something that started because you were passionate about hip hop so you started taking photos, or you started taking photos and became passionate about hip hop?
It's one of those things where I wish I had a better memory to remember how it all started. I didn't grow up listening to hip hop at all. I kind of fell into a friend group of people that ended up being rappers. I tend to photograph my friends. I don't really shoot all hip hop, or all of New York hip hop — I really just shoot my friends in Brooklyn. I don't really have too much of a connection to the music itself as much as these particular people and their story, which has made me listen to a lot more music I didn't grow up listening to.
I know you mentioned you're still trying to hone your aesthetic, but when you're choosing which photos make your final cut, are there key elements you're looking for to keep your aesthetic cohesive, or is it completely subjective of what jumps out?
It's more of a feeling I always look for. I'm not really sure how to describe it. Loud? I'm always looking for this multi-layer chaotic experience, which doesn't always work when I'm doing portraits, but I love photos where it feels like so many things are happening at once. There's not one storyline. When I'm looking through images to edit down, I try to pick the images that tell the story of that person or that instance in the most authentic way. Even though I say I insert myself into my images, I only do that with my interaction with people, but when it comes down to the actual story, it should really be that person's story.