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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Harms

An Interview With John Conn

Bronx born in 1949, the streets were my playground. Fast forward a number of decades, and the street are still my playground. For the most part, I’m a street photographer. But my career in photography got started when I joined the Marines from 1968–71. Over the years, my work has appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Time/Life Books, Picture Magazine, Human Rights Magazine, African Report, RangeFinder Magazine, Hasselblad Magazine, Discover Diving Magazine, LensWork Magazine, Dive Travel Magazine, Shutterbug Magazine, British Journal of Photography (online), to name a few.

I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with John Conn for almost the last twenty years. It has always been abundantly clear that photography is both John’s passion and profession, but it recently it dawned on me that I didn’t really know any of the “why” behind what he does or what really makes him tick. So to satisfy my curiosity while getting a chance to pat himself on the back for a few minutes, he was gracious enough to sit down with me and answer a few questions.

M: When did you realize you wanted to be a photographer?

J: When God spoke to me.

M: Was it a he or a she?

J: It was a non-denominal — non-denominal?

M: (laughing) And you’re a writer? I guess you’re a better photographer!

J: (laughing) Yes I am. I never wanted to be a photographer. When I joined the Marines they made me a photographer so I had no choice. That was my MOS or my job. It was that and NBC school — Nuclear Biological Chemical Defense School. So I took photographs for the Marines, and in case of a nuclear attack or a chemical attack I would decontaminate things.

M: And then photograph it?

J: And then photograph it, if I was alive.

M: Not necessarily in that order I guess?

J: No, no.

M: Since photography wasn’t your career of choice, was there ever another path you thought about.

J: Neurosurgery.

M: Well you are a bit of a head case.

J: Oh, that’s a good one. Make sure you put that in the blog so I can sue your ass.

M: I will. Trust me you won’t get much.

J: No, I enjoyed photography. It gives me a reason to just bum around and do nothing with a camera and act like I’m doing something. And that’s been going on since 1968. What decade is this?

M: I won’t even go there. But I am slightly jealous, that’s why I’m asking you these questions. I wish I could bum around and do nothing. With a camera or without. But seriously, how do you deal with the uncertainty of cash flow and not knowing where your next check is going to come from?

J: I don’t think about it. Now that you brought it up, I’m a little worried. Something always works out. That’s just the way it’s always been, one way or another. Over the years, I’ve worked as a Teamster, a substitute teacher; I worked security at a jewelry store and owned a Jujitsu school. So I’ve done a few things over the years — for about 15 years I photographed interiors of restaurants, did that and that paid a lot. And now I sell my work from a series I did on the New York City subways from the 70’s and 80’s and that covers the cost of living and a bit extra. Along with that, I sell other work I shot around the world and sales have been increasing.

M: If you had to pick one thing, what would you say keeps you up at night?

J: TV that keeps me up at night.

M: But worry-wise, nothing?

J: Worry-wise, when money is a little low I worry about what’s happening here, what’s happening there. But then something always pops up and I’m always doing something where I think it may produce or bring in something. Like right now I’m trying to get my second novel published. I have delusions of grandeur of seeing it as an HBO series. And that’s what motivates me to push everything and to get it done. I look at the end product, the end game. And if you think of it like, “I just have to do 50 pages today, or I have to print up all of this stuff” it doesn’t work. When I’m printing up work it’s because I want to sell it. When I’m writing, I enjoy it, but I also have an end game in mind and that’s to get the book published, reissue the first book I got done and then bring it around. It may work, it may not work, but I have to think positive. So I think positive, but TV still keeps me up at night.

M: Well alright, you do have to watch HBO to get some pointers for your mini series.

J: It’s not going to mini series. It’s going to be THE series. It’s going to put Game of Thrones to shame.

M: If you could go back in time and do anything differently would you, and if so what?

J: I would save the dinosaurs. I would tell them there is a comet coming and run for the high ground. Especially the T-Rex, they were cool.

M: They couldn’t really help you make the bed or anything with those short arms.

J: They weren’t good at hitchhiking either. Like was that his thumb? Hmm. So would I go back in time? No, I did everything perfectly. The only thing I would do more of is shoot more of the New York City subways since that is what’s selling the most for me right now.

M: What would you say is your biggest accomplishment? The thing you are the most proud of?

J: Besides meeting you?

M: In addition to meeting me. But thank you, most people usually want to forget that.

J: Obviously my novels. But I would also like to be known for the Americans series that I’m…

M: …still working on?

J: Still working on. The subway work I’m known for, people know it. Oh, you’re the subway guy, that kind of thing. But I shot that in the 70s and 80s. Now, I really want to be known for my current photography and writing.

M: What advice would you give to someone today who is looking to pursue a freelance career, whether it be writing, photography or something else?

J: Play lotto. Play a lot of lotto.

M: I spent $10 the other night on Win for Life and won $2. That’s not going to get me very far.

J: It’s a short life. Advice? Thick skinned and stick to it. Ignore people when they tell you no. As I like to tell people N-O are just two letters after M in the alphabet, that’s it. Yeah, stick to it. Learn your craft. But with these kids today everything is digital, no one wants to learn anything. There are some really great photographers out there, then there’s the rest of the world.

M: Do you see yourself working forever? If not what do you see as your ideal retirement?

J: Lotto? Otherwise, working forever, yeah. I don’t really consider it working. My retirement is the HBO series, “The Devils Angel” then after that it will be “The Society” the HBO series.

M: Not a fan of Showtime, huh? Or Cinemax?

J: I like Showtime; Cinemax not so much. HBO is just — they do good productions. Showtime is good as well. Cinemax — it sounds like you’re going to the movies.

M: Was there ever a point in your career where you just thought about giving up and going to work for someone else?

J: &#$@ no! No! Why? It’s bad enough I have to listen to myself, now I have to listen to someone else? No! It’s like, I’ve had jobs. I was a Senior Photographer for Citibank for 2 years. I shot the annual report for them, portraits of their executives. They were so impressed with the work, at least the art department was, that they gave me an extra week's vacation on top of the 2 weeks I already had. So I went to South Africa for 2 months. Apparently when I came back, I didn’t have a job. And so from that point on I was freelance. If not, when I came into work for the next 20 years I would be shooting the same thing — passports, portraits, check signings, you know all bank stuff. People have been there for 15–20 years and it’s the same thing. At least with the photography I’ve been to Antarctica and the Arctic. I like telling this joke; “it makes me bipolar.” I’ve done underwater photography, been to the Galapagos, been on magazine assignments. Why should I work for someone else? And you never know when these people are going to fire you. Now I’m 68, who the hell is going to hire me? You know, 68? I’m not going to start anything new, no. I will keep taking the photographs and sell my work. The idea is to develop more of a market. So the time I spend working for someone else I can develop my market more and still have that freedom. So, yeah, no, not working for someone else.

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