Interview and Story by Kimberly Christoff
Though street photographer Jason Paul Roberts began his career in the densely populated areas of Chicago, he unabashedly shoots among Denver’s smaller locale.
“It’s a new city. I think it is still finding its character. There’s not a lot of people, and the light is a little wonky. I’m not knocking Denver. It’s just challenging,” Roberts explains in a CRAVE magazine interview.
His vast skill telling unexpected stories through his lens has culminated in a first series zine titled, ‘Cotton Rag’. Within its pages lies his masterful, mysterious and at times, somber portraits.
Ironically, sitting as still as a portrait himself, Roberts’ calm and reticent veneer mirrors his Leica Monochrom, resting on his lap. His sensibility is immediately noticeable. His eerie ability to read the pulse of a room is the dominant skill pervading the zine. He intuitively knows how to capture a person’s feelings.
For 18 years, Roberts’ sharpened his talent traveling throughout the United States, West Germany, Japan, and West Australia. He photographed and studied with well-seasoned photographers from the Magnum Photos cooperative, co-founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson and including Thomas Dworzak, known for covering the Kosovo crisis, and the Afghanistan war; and Trent Parke a 4 time World Press Photo Award winner. Parke inspired Roberts to compile this first zine. When asked what these accomplished photographers both have in common, Roberts replied, “They just do it. When they have an idea in their head, they don’t talk themselves out of it.”
Roberts’ multifaceted style is hard to pin down. He doesn’t consider himself a political or a social commentator yet he spent weeks photographing the Aurora site of the Shooting at the Century Theater Memorial. His eye gravitates toward controversial subjects. In a photo of a Denver school bus, its back end is painted to resemble a prison transportation system. The school’s director, who stands near when the photo is taken, tells him the bus is upsetting to the students and him self, but the district had no choice. The school agreed to the painted bus in exchange for well-needed scholarship funding.
In another photo, Roberts snapped a worker removing a “Lance Armstrong” sign from a “24 hour Fitness Lance Armstrong Sports Club” in Denver. Armstrong was selected as their celebrity endorser. Roberts’ said the worker assumed the removal resulted from the government’s suing Armstrong on doping allegations.
Roberts looks for the image that will make people ask questions, a characteristic of the portraits within the pages of Cotton Rag. It’s a way for him to communicate and relate to the people he photographs.
“I mostly like to tell stories, usually my stories. I do it because I feel it. There’s a bit of me in my pictures. I see some of the sadness I have in the people I photograph. They are a little bit vulnerable, like me.”
Roberts’ portrait “Mary,” was recently shown during Spark Gallery’s juried photography exhibit on the Art District on Santa Fe. He photographed her on the streets of Indianapolis.
“She has a rough life and a bit of sadness about her. We met a few days before Thanksgiving while I was traveling across the Midwest. She gave me an angel ornament that she had crocheted earlier that morning. ”
“Host Boy,” a photo Roberts took while traveling in Tokyo with another Magnum photographer, Jacob Aue Sobol. The hair of a “Host Boy” is fixed for the evening within the Kabukichō area of Tokyo. Roberts explains that, “‘Host Boys’ are paid to lavish women with attention. They make money from drink sales and usually have 40 to 60 regular female clients.”
The last of the three portraits Roberts shared is titled “Street Portrait – Nashville.” The man walking on Broadway is wearing a hoodie and sunglasses. Roberts captured the reflection of the sun mirrored in both lenses. He said the man was in a hurry, so he quickly snapped a couple photos. His effect is like the making of an unintended rock star. No doubt the beautiful Japanese bound pages of Cotton Rag will be full of many surprises.
Jason Paul Roberts’ work can be found at jasonpaulroberts.com Stay tuned for updates on the first issue of Cotton Rag Zine!