13th Witness on Photographs, Instagram & Chasing the Unknown

By Stephanie Sporn

NEW YORK – Whether he’s wading into the East River or dodging punches in the subway while attempting to document passersby, Timothy McGurr never shies away from a challenge in pursuit of the perfect photo. Better known professionally as 13th Witness, the born-and-raised New Yorker has amassed more than 700,000 followers on Instagram, where he posts intimate portraits, landscapes from his frequent global travels, stylised commercial work for Nike, Converse and other brands, and concert shots for some of today’s most illustrious musical artists: Kanye West, John Mayer and Beyoncé, to name a few. As the son of legendary artist Futura, 32-year-old McGurr has been surrounded by art and culture all of his life, but he remains remarkably humble. “As much as I’ve been able to accomplish so far, I still look at myself as a student in the grand scheme of things,” McGurr told Sotheby’s. When we asked the self-taught photographer to select some of his favourite works from our upcoming Photographs sale, McGurr noted just how much there is to learn from the masters. “Isn’t it amazing how you look at photos that are over 100 years old, and they’re better than anything today?” Self-assured but always looking to better his craft, McGurr spoke to us about the state of photography in social media, his most inspiring travels and why when it comes to shooting, almost no subject is off limits. 

just released (5) limited prints, all signed and numbered on 20x30" Epson premium luster paper. I won't be releasing another round of prints for a while, so don't sleep! extremely grateful for all the support!!! 🙏🙏 click the link in my profile or go to shop for more info. ***(PHOTOGRAPHY IS NOT A CRIME) stickers ship with all prints orders. ✌️ A post shared by 13thwitness (@13thwitness) on Dec 12, 2014 at 5:53pm PST

You grew up in an artistic household, but were there any particular experiences that drew you to photography?  
I moved to Japan around the age of eighteen, and I stayed there for four years. Japanese culture really inspired me. At the very beginning, I used photography to document what it was like living there. There wasn’t any style. There wasn’t any skill. It was just really basic picture taking. It wasn’t until I left Japan that I really jumped into photography. The more I would shoot, the more I would discover how I could be creative and express myself.  

What was your motivation for going to Japan in the first place?
My father brought on the trip to Japan. He had a clothing brand and store in Japan, so he knew people there, and he organised a homestay for me. I was a young little punk who wasn’t appreciating the opportunity that was being put in front of me, but looking back on it now, it’s the best thing I ever did. My father had the foresight to see what was better for me, and I’m grateful to him for making that choice. 

Speaking of your father, what was it like growing up with one of the world’s most famous graffiti artists as your dad? Besides the fact that you both like to conceal your faces with masks, how has he inspired you?
My dad is definitely a very unique individual, and I have to say it was an amazing upbringing. I was exposed to art from the minute I was born, and it never stopped. One of the best things growing up with my family was the constant travelling and always being exposed to other cultures and ways of life. When you see that at a young age, it helps you mature. You appreciate the world a lot more. 

lots of incredible moments from the recent US leg of the #FormationTour, but perhaps my most cherished moment/photograph was catching this flick of my pops and the queen 🐝 during the last show in Detroit. Photography should be more about eternalizing these beautiful organic moments we get and less about the fluffy sunsets and like chasing. Wishing a super happy and healthy Father's Day to all the other rad dads out there. A post shared by 13thwitness (@13thwitness) on Jun 19, 2016 at 10:21am PDT

You love to experiment with all sorts of subjects and styles, from portraiture to cityscapes. Is there anything that is off limits?  
I don’t discriminate. Anywhere I’m visually stimulated, I’m going to take a picture. The only thing that has kind of been off limits for me, purely out of fear, is heights. But I have learned over the years to overcome it as much as I can just for the fact that I want a cool picture. I’m not one of those kids sitting on the ledge of a building, but then again, I have done a lot of crazy work in helicopters. The reward was greater than the risk. 

Instagram has been such a crucial platform for you. How has it changed your photography process?  
At the very beginning of Instagram, it was a much tighter community. Everybody was shooting with an iPhone, so the playing field was level. It really pushed me to go out, get creative and use my eye. There were a couple years where everything I shot on Instagram was just taken with my iPhone. After some time, I would look back at these pictures thinking, “These look great on a two-by-three-inch screen on my phone, but what if I want to make a book or print something?” Now, whatever I like will go on my Instagram. There is no separation between iPhone and camera. 

#WitnessKashmir A post shared by 13thwitness (@13thwitness) on Feb 17, 2016 at 8:16am PST

At 32, you’ve traveled the world for work and pleasure, and along with shooting many major concerts, you were recently Beyonce’s personal tour photographer. How have you gotten such thrilling gigs?
It’s a combination of luck, skill and timing. Obviously the more you work with people, the more others hear about you. It’s been amazing getting to build relationships with these talented musicians, but even music photography, it’s not something I’m necessarily crazy about. I do it because I enjoy taking pictures, and because you can throw me into any situation, and I’ll put 150% into it. Sometimes for me, the fondest and most meaningful memories I have are things that are much more basic. Maybe it’s just some little road trip. It’s not necessarily the most famous person or biggest job. 

What was it like shopping our Photographs sale and viewing work by photographers who defined the medium?  
When I look at vintage pictures, I think, ‘A hundred years ago, what were people using?’ They had giant cameras, and I really appreciate that process of exposing and developing film. You think of how today, people have all the technology they need at their fingertips. It just goes to show that it doesn’t matter what kind of equipment you have, it comes down to the individual's passion and perspective. 

Can you share any future projects?
There are always things brewing, but I really don’t like to count my chickens before they hatch. I will say I’m planning to do a two-week road trip from here to California. I’ve done the cross-country road trip before, but this time, I really want to go in a completely unknown direction. The unknown has a lot of appeal for me. It’s just me, my camera, and in this case, America. Simple things like that remind me why I fell in love with photography. 

View the slideshow to discover Timothy McGurr's Favourite Picks from Sotheby's Photographs Sale:

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