Archaeology of a Bay Area Town
Bay Area-based photographer Josh Marcotte walks for days to find rare scenes and urban artifacts not yet scrubbed from San Jose’s insistently evolving face. His work captures storefronts, people, signs, and houses that are not what most people conjure when they think of the city today. For Polarr, Emily von Hoffmann spoke with him about the project.
Emily von Hoffmann: Can you describe the concept of Lost San Jose for our readers?
Josh Marcotte: Lost San Jose is an ongoing photography project documenting my life, the things I see day to day, and the things that I feel are lost or overlooked in my hometown of San Jose, California — also known as the Capital of Silicon Valley. The project also occasionally roams further afield as I explore the places that have become home to my friends and family that have since left San Jose. It did not begin as a photo project but as a writing project. I began documenting the city — what I saw and experienced— by writing a series of short stories, poems and memoir pieces.
EvH: How did you become interested in urban preservation?
JM: I am a fourth-generation resident of San Jose. Growing up, my grandfather would tell me stories about the history of San Jose and his life growing up here. When I began to explore the city on my own, I found that many of the places and things my grandfather spoke about were gone or simply abandoned.
As time passed, the places and things that inspired the stories began to disappear in the name of redevelopment or reuse, or because they fell victim to arson. It was then that I began photographing them with disposable cameras to have a record of what had once been. As I took more photos, I became more interested in photography and decided to teach myself.
Change is a part of San Jose’s past and a part of its future. Because of this, things here can disappear in the name of progress. Preserving a sense of place through the preservation of its interesting and unique buildings can not only strengthen the community around it but also the small businesses that are located within them. I wanted to do my part and help save a bit of that past, the places that make a place like San Jose so unique.
EvH: Sprinkled among the signs and structures pictured — on your Instagram account, for instance — are intimate, uncluttered portraits. Can you tell me about one or two people you’ve photographed as part of the project? How did you approach people? How are they artifacts?
JM: Several years into the project I realized I hadn’t photographed a single person. So much of the writing project had been about the people I met and the interactions I had with them, it felt like that piece was missing from the photos.
It wasn’t anything I had done on purpose, it just happened that way. San Jose, like many cities in California, is very much about the automobile. I could walk for hours, having hundreds of cars pass me, but not see another person on the sidewalk. The issue was compounded by the fact that I am a very shy person and usually keep to myself. Asking strangers to take their photo went against my entire being and took some real intestinal fortitude. I was lucky that the first few people I asked said yes.
This is a photo of Mark:
I was photographing some cars in various states of repair in front of a body shop when an employee came out to ask what I was doing. We had a great conversation about cars, growing up in San Jose, and the cost of trying to stay afloat in California. I was invited back to take photos anytime. I stopped by the shop several more times after that for more photos and conversation. On one of those stops, I was introduced to Mark, a friend of the shop, who happily agreed to let me take his portrait.
EvH: What is your process like when you’re out on a photo crawl? What kinds of things catch your attention? How do you decide where to go?
JM: When I’m out, I pick a destination. It can be something really specific, like a sign I saw, or as vague as a neighborhood I’m heading for. I prefer to do it on foot — it clears my mind, slows things down, and lets me see the details I miss when I’m in a car. Sometimes I will walk the same stretch of road for weeks, forcing myself to look harder each day. Other times I’ll make a wrong turn and try to get lost.
I always have things in mind that I like to photograph, like neon and hand-painted signs or cars, but I am always looking for the happy accidents — the fleeting moments and things you find along the way — the discarded object, the unique building, the curious cat, the friendly stranger … I think those photos always end up being more interesting than what I set out to shoot.
I can walk for hours, sometimes an entire day. If I walk home with one photo, it’s a good day.
EvH: Do you feel that the project is more an act of nostalgia or activism?
JM: Can it be both? Through my photography, I aim to document the changing landscape of my grandfather’s youth — of my life — while simultaneously inspiring others to rethink what may have since become mundane; to value, preserve (even celebrate!) and enjoy that familiar landscape and the things that make a city. I feel there is so much to see in our own backyards, so much beauty in the ordinary, and so much we overlook every day.
EvH: What was the first camera you ever owned? What do you prefer to use today?
JM: Besides a multitude of disposable cameras purchased over the years, the first camera I ever bought was a 35mm Canon Rebel GII. It was made of this cheap, thin plastic and felt like it would disintegrate in my hand if I squeezed it too tight. It felt more like a toy than a camera. When I made the move to digital, I bought a “clearance” display model of the Canon 20D. It was still chained to the display counter with the security wire rubbing the metal raw when I bought it. I beat the hell out of that camera, and eventually passed it down to my son. My current camera is a Canon 5D Mark III with most shots being taken with a 50mm f1.4 lens.
EvH: Who are some artists or storytellers in any medium who inspire you right now?
JM: I look to everything around me for inspiration and am constantly looking to learn and experience new things. From the music I blast at ear splitting volumes while I edit, to movies, to books, to other artists — I feel something in all of it. The person who most inspired my writing was Raymond Carver. I even named my son Carver. His minimalist prose, and beauty and clarity in the most pedestrian of moments continue to inspire me. The first photographer I discovered and the one I find myself constantly looking back at is Jeff Brouws. I first saw his work at the San Jose Museum of Art.
Just a few of the many others I’ve devoured over the years as I’ve been doing this project are Mark Cohen, Bruce Davidson, Troy Paiva, Henry Rollins, Alex Harris, Saul Leiter, Todd Hido, Stephen Shore, Zoe Strauss, Christophe Agou and William Eggleston.
I’m also lucky to be in a community full of wonderfully talented and dedicated artists and people who inspire me. Lacey Bryant, Kori Thompson, Cherri Lakey, Brian Eder, Troy Holden, Georges Monceaux, Empire 7 Studios, Jai Tanju, Emonic, Mar Cerdenola, and Stefanie Poteet all make me work a little harder every day.