Boston based photographer PJ Couture tells me that he’s a sucker for being put in strange situations with his camera. His mostly black and white photographs ring with the truth of artists’ aphorism attributed to David Mamet: come late and leave early. As a viewer, you get the sense that you’ve stumbled into something that’s been going on long before you arrived and will continue to spiral or blossom or explode long after you exit the scene, impervious to outside forces. There’s a compelling vulnerability in his images that left me wondering of their beginnings and ends. A recent series of his chronicles happenstances in a Boston subway, capturing its subjects as steadfast in their isolation, but at the same time, united against the same dubious force that seems to keep them captive in something more than just a subway tunnel.
Can you talk a little bit in-depth about your subway series—what inspired it and what were you hoping to capture?
The subway series came about really just in interest of a train station in Boston called Park Street. It’s the meeting place for a lot of trains and has a lot of interesting long walking tunnels and such. Initially I was photographing everything in the station trying to get traction on what it was that fascinated me about this place. The work that was coming out was not very successful and one day my friend Michael asked me what about this place was interesting, and I said “the people.” Then it was really off to the races photographing only the people.
I’m always curious about how different locales influence their artists (and vice versa)—we hear so much about New York City, but not enough about other cities. What’s one way you feel that the city of Boston impacts and informs your work or aesthetic? What has been your experience in Boston’s creative scene?
I think the city of Boston informs my work or aesthetic, at least in the subway series, in a dark sort of way. That place is underground and all concrete and pretty unwelcoming. It was also mostly shot in the winter and Boston during the winter is a cold, dark place. I think that darker, more profound energy is evident in a lot of my work. I am involved in a small network of photographers that I trust and can show work and bounce questions off. I think it is important to stick together in that sense because we are all in the same boat. It is a small scene and everyone kind knows of everyone else and I think that is cool. Some of the people I went to school with have hired me to work for their publication which is cool. There are also a lot of great book stores, schools, and opportunities in Boston to learn about photography and I am always excited to come across a photo class working outside somewhere.
Can you talk a little bit about your artistic process? You shoot a lot in black and white—what speaks to you about it in particular?
I am constantly shooting and processing work. Basically, I begin to work in a place that interests me on some level, return, and shoot again and again and make contact sheets. From the contact sheets, I then make 5×7 prints. From there I edit out the pictures that don’t work, and continue to do this until a large edit is made. This is a place where good pictures and ideas can live and be explored. Sort of like honing your vision, but not too tightly. I will show other photographer friends this edit and eventually when it is ready make some selects to be printed. As far as black and white, I like it’s simplicity.
What are your feelings on “formal” versus “informal” educations in photography? What was your own experience like?
Today you can learn a lot of the technical aspects of it online. I think photography books are the greatest investment anyone can make involving education on the matter. Obviously there are great benefits on studying under masters of the medium, but I think you learn a lot from working and, in particular, failing. I went to The New England School of Photography in Boston and it was great. I still go there to print and TA, and the community of photographers and friends I made there is invaluable.
If you were to compare your first photos to the photos you’re taking now, how do you think your style has changed? Are you still inspired by the same things?
Yeah I think I am still inspired by a lot of the same stuff. Wandering around with a camera is still my favorite thing to do. I think I take more pictures now, and am more interested in moments and things of the everyday rather than the moments that one would be expected to photograph, but I still take those too. Simply put, I think my pictures are more sophisticated now. Photography is a very generous medium.
What do you think makes an impactful photo? What do you think makes a photo linger in a viewer’s mind?
For me, an impactful photo has me asking more questions than getting answers. I think that is also what makes it linger. Like what is happening in this picture? Who is this guy and why is that written on his bag? You don’t really know what happened before or after, all you have is the picture and that is also the magic of photography.