Jordy Rabinowitz: Showing Us Beauty, Humanity, and Intensity Through Photography

Jordy Rabinowitz: Showing Us Beauty, Humanity, and Intensity Through Photography


Jordy Rabinowitz entered this image as part of our summer project. During the voting period, we watched as reader reactions poured in from around the world. All of the artists were greatly appreciated, but Jordy’s work stood out as the clear winner. We asked Jordy if we could interview him about his life and his work. The results were inspiring. We’re very proud of this interview and proud to have Jordy as a part of the Nonsense Society. Below you’ll find our interview with him. Read on and be inspired.

Can you tell me about your history in art and photography?

In 1976, when I was 13 years old, and in 7th grade, I was part of a group of high school students who, in conjunction with the American Chinese Friendship Association, were slated to go and visit China. We were to be the first NGO group from the United States since Nixon opened up the doors. All through the year, we studied Chinese History, we spent weekends and nights fundraising. We also worked in connection with a local NBC affiliate to learn how to use video and sound equipment so that we could memorialize our trip. Also, because I had an interest in it, took lessons from my high school art teacher in cameras and film. I planned to be the trips unofficial photographer.

What made this trip evening more … surreal … for me, was that the group was made up of primarily 17-18 year old, hardcore, black inner city kids. As a somewhat privileged white boy going to private school … well, it was a dual cultural experience for me. The intensely stark differences in China. And, the world right at home that I was not really all that privy to. In the end, it was a life-changing trip.

Coming back to photography. Years later, I believe that some of the pictures I took on that trip are my best ever taken. Even 35 years later. Here is my set of the ones I have posted on Flickr. And, even years later, it is the people, the faces, the personal moments that drive my photography.

Finally, to more succinctly answer your question. I am largely self taught. I did a 365 project on flickr (of which I am almost too ashamed to link), but that which taught me how to use the camera that I had long since put down except for family vacations. In the last 5 years since that ended, I continue to try to teach myself new tricks and I keep on shooting.

I would like to know about your career. I read that you are a lawyer. Is that true? Does that mean photography is only a hobby for you? How do you have time?!

Yes, I am a lawyer. For the last 15 years I have worked in-house for hospitals, generally specializing in labor negotiations and employment litigation. This means my 1960’s hippie communist party parents are rolling their eyes (not yet spinning in their graves) at what I do. Still, I have enough of them in me that I try to do good even while representing “the man.” :)

I am also a husband and parent of 3 kids (19, 16, and 11). My wife (who is also a photographer) and I met in law school, although she has been a stay at home mom for the last 20 years.

So, yes. Photography is a hobby; but one that I take quite seriously … I read an interview with someone the other day and they stole my line before I had a chance to use it: Photography is a hobby only in that it is not a career; but in reality it is a passion. And, even more than that, it has become an almost central theme in our lives. We plan vacations for photography. We plan weekends trips. We have our cameras with us everywhere. We have both delved into wedding and event and portrait photography; but only because we enjoy the art, not the commercial enterprise.

As for time …, well, we find it. I am lucky enough, working in-house rather than for a law firm, to have evenings and weekends to myself. And, because we live in NY, we have constant inspiration all around us. Combine that with a wife who enjoys photography and kids who will tolerate it (and even join us in our excursions), well, that’s how I find the time.

I’m wondering what your favorite things to photograph are. Do you find inspiration in people? Places? I love that you and your wife take your cameras all over with art in mind.

I wish I had a million people to photograph, and of course I do … but I also am too scared to ask them. Yes. People. I get inspiration from people.
I know this can be insulting depending on how it’s read; but, to me, the only true original picture is one with a human subject. Yes, you can take fantastic pictures of flowers, or buildings, or pets, or landscapes, and if you are very good you can imbue these subjects with their own story, you can make them somewhat “original.” But, with people … each person’s face contains a thousand different stories. If you look at my flickr stream, I have a set called Portraits of Strangers. Some of them are good, most are over processed (I used to think that originality came from post-processing … ahhh how we grow). But, it is this set, good and bad, that I am most proud of. When I carry my camera, I am always looking for the moment where I can see a story in someone’s face. As a quick example, we were out at a duck pond last weekend. I saw this young couple. They were laughing and talking. And, then, in one moment, they both got quiet. I got this shot:

I have no idea what these two were thinking. I titled it “The Day Before,” hoping to impart some kind of ambiguity. Did something happen yesterday that she was suddenly sad about? Was the moment caught the day before something happens tomorrow on which she is reflecting? I like the stories that I can capture in people. Truth and Fiction.

Let’s talk about the artistic relationship you have with your wife and family. Do you feel like you are an artistic team? Do you collaborate? How does photography fit into your family life? Have you encouraged your children to be creative?

Yes. We are a creative team, although how we create and work together has evolved and continues to evolve. When I was done with my 365 of self-portraits, I wanted to try taking pictures of a model. Through cajoling, I was able to convince my wife to let me use her … often in ways that she was initially not entirely comfortable with. I have a set on flickr called “All that she is” These are shots of my wife:

Slowly, My wife (Debbie) realized that she wanted a piece of the action, and after a flickr-friend encouraged her to do her own 365, she picked up the camera. In case you’re interested, here is her stream on Flickr. During this phase, we continued to think of ideas. We continued to work together on pictures both for her stream and for mine. We rarely model for each other any more; but again … almost all of our trips are based on finding a spot to take pictures. We have also made numerous friends on flickr and I consider that to be part of the creative process — knowing and hanging out with other photographers.

As for my kids … well, yes. They are also, at times, reluctant and even sometimes not so reluctant models. My youngest daughter (now 11) has grown up watching and being part of what we do. She is now quite the artist.

I see many young people exploring photography these days. It seems to be the most popular art form of this generation. I’m wondering what you, as a more mature photographer, think about the art form and the abundance of young people deeming themselves professionals in photography. What is great and what needs to change?

I am continually amazed at the extraordinary talent I see from young photographers. It seems that there are so many many young photographers who have an almost intuitive grasp of the camera, light, and post-processing, and create some unbelieveable images. Images that both exceed my imagination and technical know how.

But at the same time, I am continually amazed and disappointed at the nature of the images that are being created. I see fantasy. I see magical places. I see eroticism, but eroticism not as a form of art, but eroticism as a narcissistic exercise. More and more I see young photographers wanting to be “popular” and gearing the nature of their images to be “pleasing” rather than thought provoking. I wish that I saw more … content.

And, of course, I blame social media, Flickr, and Instagram. Over the last few years, the young photographers that have made names for themselves are all about … audience. I think the thinking is that if I create a “pretty” image I will get 10,000 views, whereas if I create an “ugly” image or a “political” image or a “disturbing” image, I will get far fewer views. My super nice picture will get “Explored” on flickr. My thought provoking image will not.

And, of course, all of this also comes from the prevalence of “fashion” in photography. I think many of these young photographers hope to become involved in fashion, rather than becoming journalists or documentarians. If I take a picture of myself semi naked I may get discovered, whereas if I take a picture of the homeless, sick, or of Ted Cruz and the Tea Party, I will not be discovered.

Young people are the avant garde. Young people with cameras should be showing us our world with all of its flaws.

Do you have a self portrait that you can share with us? If so, can you tell us about how this photo represents who you are? Are there imperfections that you want us to see? Particularly important, how do you feel about yourself when you look at this picture?

I have taken over 400 self-portraits. Most are … silly. Most come from the desire to learn the camera or a post-processing trick or to play in a Flickr game. I am not sure that many or any spring from a need to represent who I am or what I was going through at a particular time. All of that said, here are two that can fit into a “theme,” and also fit in well with what I was talking about above.

I titled this one: “I would have written him without a conscience.” The subtitle is “who here doesn’t think Raskolnikov a bit of a wuss.”

First, photographically, I was very pleased with this.

But, I also like how this is also somewhat “not appealing,” somewhat disturbing. From my hairy fingers, to the anger evident, to the extended middle finger. There is a duality that somewhat ties into what I was discussing above. Not every picture should be pretty — while at the same time I clearly wanted people to be drawn to me. In this picture as well:

I am not looking to be “handsome,” but I do want to be … interesting. And, I am not sure that interesting is not narcissistic, indeed I know it is, but in a slightly different way.

Finally: What does the future have to look forward to when it comes to Jordy Rabinowitz? New work? Exhibits? New projects? Travel?

This is, of course, the most difficult to answer. Or, perhaps it is the easiest. Yes. I would like to continue to create. Yes. I would like to have a gallery show. Yes. I wish I had the time to start a meaning photography project. Yes. This would include travel.

And, yes … despite all of my ranting above that “popularity” should not be a driving factor in creating art; at the same time I cannot help but think that I would like people to see my work and be moved by my work. And, I am also enough of a realist to understand that it likely will not happen to the scale that I would like or dream.

So, as time goes on I cannot promise that I won’t despair of my own lack of creativity or talent. As time goes on I don’t know what kind of new works I will create. But, I hope that this part of my life continues to bring me joy, and that I can continue to share it with at least a small audience of people who think it worthwhile.

Work © Jordy Rabinowitz