Watching New York through Johnny Cirillo's Lens
Janset: Hey Johnny, thank you for agreeing to do this interview. How are you doing? What did you do today?
Johnny: I'm great! Thanks for having me. My day starts at around 6am when my 3 year old bursts though my doors and shares with me his volcanic energy! I love it. Today we made breakfast together, had a bath and going to farm class where he learns about nature and animals. After that my Mom and Dad come over and I head out to shoot for the day. Have you always lived in New York? What does this city mean to you?
I was born in Queens and then moved to Long island where I went to high school. After I graduated I moved to Brooklyn where I've lived for 18 years. My life has been pretty terrific with a great family and friends. I have all these big memories of gatherings and celebrations, laughing and growing and NY has always been the backdrop to those which is really special. This city is its own character. You can be alone and go for a walk and not feel alone. The lights, the horns, the smells makes you feel like you're apart of something. But more than all of that, what I love about New York is that it's home and it's where my family and my friends are. How did you come up with the idea of photographing New Yorkers' style?
I was a big big fan of the late great Bill Cunningham. On the day he passed I decided to do what he did as a way to honor him. That was 6 years ago. So it definitely wasn't my idea, I just continued what somebody really marvelous had been doing for the past 50 years. While photographing so many New Yorkers I imagine you’ve met with very interesting people with different backgrounds. What kind of conversations do you have with people that you photograph? What was your most remarkable anecdote?
Lots of amazing fun beautiful people I have met over the years and some wonderful friendships too. I would say the most profound for me was photographing Rikke. It was 3 years ago, my wife was 9 months pregnant at the time and I was about to be a Father for the first time. I was waiting for the subway to head into Manhattan to shoot Watching New York. As the train was barreling down the tracks I saw a girl tumble forward and fall in front of the train and get run over. It was a horror. She lived and I was able to talk with her about what I had seen and what she didn't remember. We've been buds since. How do you think photographing people’s style differ from photographing something else? Are there some things that you have to pay more attention to when you’re working with people as subjects?
The difference is that I have no control over it, which I love. People are so creative and wildly talented. Just when you thought you'd seen it all someone turns the corner and melts your brain. Since the subjects are candid, the position is tough to nail. There is definitely an aesthetic that I look for in someones body language. I will often times run ahead a block after already shooting the subject for a second chance or even a third to get the vibe the way I feel will do them and the photo justice.
What does fashion mean to you? Is someone’s style telling of their personality?
Style is a way of saying, I'm different and thats ok with me. I think it's hard for people to break the mold and have the confidence to be creative with their style. I have no idea if this is technically accurate or not but I have always felt like style and fashion are two different things, fashion is the gear and style is what you do with it. I think there is an aspect of style that certainly invites others to join them and in a way is offering up at least a small portion of their personality. Do you have a style icon or do you just take inspiration from the people who walk down the streets of New York whom you photograph?
Does my wife count? Kristin is a big part of Watching New York and is easily the most sylish person I know. We collab on everything. She inspires me daily, not just with her knowledge on fashion and thirst to stay ahead of the trending curves but also as support. She pushes me daily, and encourages me more than my inner voice allows myself. She's the biggest driving force behind Watching New York. If I had to pick someone in the public eye that I think has impeccable and thought provoking style it would be Harry Styles. What was the thing that you’ve realized while photographing people that you didn’t know before? I have been photographing people since the 90's but only have been shooting street for the past six years. And the biggest take away about photographing people on the street is that its a fleeting moment that will vanish as quickly as it appeared. I get so mad at myself when I watch someone whisk into the subway before I had the chance to capture them. I have learned that you really really need to keep your concentration in check and always be ready. What I love the most about your work is the fact that you capture the moments that are very real indeed. We see people from all sizes, colors with different styles which is something that we don’t see much of on mainstream fashion publications. What do you think about the lack of of diversity within the industry and what can people in power do to better this situation?
I can't understand for the life of me why excluding any size, religion or ethnicity would benefit a publication. Powerful people in the fashion industry need to do a better job of having diversity on every level of their operations. If there isn’t diversity within the company designing, developing, creating campaigns and everything in between they should rebuild. I’ve seen your “Quarantined Window Project” and absolutely fell in love with it. What did you suffer the most with during quarantine concerning your work?
To be honest the work took a backseat real quick. I have a little Son and a wife and I was concerned for us and everyone else’s well being. It took a little time adjusting to being locked in the house but after we got into a little routine I had the idea to safely photograph my friends by flying my drone from my apartment to theirs. It was a nice release. Do you have any tips and tricks for people who are just starting out with photography who wants to pursue this job?
Never stop photographing what you love. I shot Watching New York for 4 years before anybody ever noticed it. It’s something I have enjoyed doing for a long time so the followers was a nice bonus on top, but when your doing it for the passion you do it for yourself. Find what you love to shoot. Thank you for being with us. Have a great day!
No YOU have a great day. I’ll see you on the streets!
Article cover art: Ana Felix