Joe Greer's Decisive Moment
How the pandemic inspired a street photographer’s cross-country move, first book, and return to competitive running.
Words by Jon Gugala
Photography by Maddie Greer
It’s mid-pandemic, 2020, and Joe Greer, a street photographer who has made a name for himself as the head of a new generation of film shooters, is running the singletrack trails at Radnor Lake State Park near Nashville, Tenn. He stops, and suddenly, like a burning bush, he sees it. “One of the most insane photographic moments of my career,” he says, “and I wasn’t able to take a photo.”
Flanked by 70-foot-high oaks, green light filtering through the canopy, a group of eight or nine nuns are walking down the trail towards him.
Without a camera, without even a phone to document this anachronism, he panics. Known around the world for his ability to capture unplanned, otherwise unseen moments, this may be the greatest, and it is passing him by.
There’s a tension, a tearing.
And then he lets go.
Futility, maybe. Fatalism, or a Saint Teresa-like ecstasy. But he relaxes, lets the absurdity of the scene swim around him. He focuses: their sneakers. Whispered jokes, laughter in response, the rustle of robes and leaves underfoot. “I got lost in that moment,” he says over a mimosa on a Thursday morning. “It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve experienced on a run, to date.”
Greer, 32, wears a vintage ringer T-shirt, polyester pants, and beat-up boots. His corduroy trucker cap reads “Country and Western.” The nuns were a sign, maybe. He is not supposed to be in Nashville yet, by his own admission and manmade plans. But as the Yiddish proverb goes, 'We plan, God laughs.' What began as a two-week road trip through Texas in March of 2020 turned into a scrambling relocation, an abridged timeline, and the reason why he and his wife – the photographer and fashion blogger Maddie Greer – found themselves living in a two-bedroom, one-bath house near the Nashville airport with two in-laws and three dogs for eight months.
“Do we move? Do we stay in our apartment [in New York] and re-sign our lease? If we try to move, can we even hire movers?” Greer says. Manhattan was a ghost town, he remembers, “like I Am Legend.”
On November 4, 2011, Joe Greer downloaded Instagram on his new iPhone. As a college student in Spokane, Wash., and far from his Florida friends and family, he wanted a means of posting photos of his life on Facebook. He’d never taken a photography course and had not previously been interested in art. But it quickly became an obsession, changing the way he looked at the world and commanding his free time — and more. “When I should be studying Greek or listening to my professors, all I’m thinking about is making photographs,” he says. Instagram “suggested” him to new users; his follower count jumped from 10,000 to 60,000 seemingly overnight, and for the next five months, he averaged a thousand new followers every day. He was a juggernaut of the platform, and after graduation, he applied for a job with the photo filter and rival posting platform VSCO. He was shocked to be hired.
While much of his work was captured through his iPhone, Maddie gave him a present minutes before their Icelandic destination wedding in 2015 that would go on to change his life: a Canon AE-1 film camera with a 50mm lens and three rolls of film. Despite the fact that two and a half of those rolls of film came back blank, the images captured, including one of Maddie on their honeymoon in Paris which he still calls one of his favorites, hooked him on the medium. “I owe it to [her] for spending thousands and thousands of dollars on film, film processing, and film cameras,” he says. “It’s her fault.”
Greer’s switch to film photography hit at the exact right moment: More photographers were rediscovering the medium, and film sales, which had regressed since a peak in 2003, began to turn around, with double-digit increases year after year. (Eastman Kodak General Manager of Film Ed Hurley, in an interview with NBC’s Left Field in 2020, said the company was making twice the amount of product in 2019 as it had in 2015. He credited this to the rise of its popularity on social media.) While not the first (a claim not even he makes), Greer, with his influence and skill, arguably emerged as his generation’s biggest and most influential example of film photography. And it was in New York, where the couple moved in 2017, that he did this.
New York wasn’t just another place to Greer; it was the first with which he fell in love. It enchanted him from the initial visit, a four-day layover at the end of his honeymoon. “The energy, the pace, the movement, everything about it just captured my imagination,” he says. As a photographer, it nurtured him and taught him; as an artist, it inspired him. He would wake in the morning to the sounds of the city, grab his camera and five rolls of film, and walk 10 miles, crisscrossing its length and breadth; shooting, watching, anticipating what street photography godfather Henri Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment.”
“Sometimes I’m seeing beautiful moments. Sometimes it’s shit and I don’t see anything,” Greer says. “But that’s the flow of the street. They’re going to give you what they give you.” He says, “You find that dance in the streets, and it’s like poetry. It’s moving. It’s fluid.”
New York was important to both him and his wife. “New York gave both of us the opportunity to grow,” he says. It was the first time Greer had worked full-time for himself. It stretched him; it stretched his young relationship with Maddie, a whirlwind courtship that has withstood cross-country moves and changing careers. New York also taught him there would always be someone better, someone who would out-hustle him, out-work him, someone who was better with a camera or knew the streets more intimately. It was like running, he felt. The first sophomore from his high school to ever qualify for state, as a senior he thought he was something — until he toed the line with eventual Division-I mid-distance runner Joe Franklin, who would break the Florida state high school 1600-meter record that day in 4:08.84. Greer would finish 10th in a personal best 4:31.
From the Greers’ 400-square-foot apartment on the Upper West Side, two blocks from Central Park, he started running again, joining what felt like the whole city jogging morning laps. “I was waking up with the city. I was seeing the city come alive, and I was hearing the sounds, and I was seeing potential photographs as I ran,” he says.
He saw the world through frame lines, everything as a potential moment in time. There — what was it about that moment? Was it the interaction between people? The light? Its movement? The space, the lack of space? Detail? Layering? Something else? He would still be analyzing hundreds of strides past.
“My mind just runs,” he says. “I wasn’t able to take the photos, but that’s how I learn and I grow.”
While an IT band injury — the first running injury of his life — derailed that routine, he remembers those miles vividly. “I just wanted to be a part of the energy in the mornings of the city in Central Park,” he says. 'It was just electric, and I could feel it.” Running became one more way to know the city better.
After three years, the last two of which were spent in Brooklyn, Greer says he and Maddie planned on moving back into Manhattan, where they would remain for two more years before eventually settling in his wife’s hometown of Nashville. The COVID-19 pandemic abridged those plans.
Maddie was also outside of the city when New York went dark and introspective. Greer, from Marfa, Tex., discussed it over the phone with her, in Florida. The pair decided to end their lease, leave the city, and push ahead with their long-term goal. They left two years earlier than planned without a goodbye.
“We mourned our exit,” he says. “I felt guilty, like we were giving up on the city. We didn’t stick it out.” They were just two of estimated millions who left the city’s metro area in 2020.
The situation in Nashville, at first, did little to assuage that guilt: Greer’s in-laws were out of their home for a renovation, and so the two couples, with their three combined dogs, shared a two-bedroom that was filled with the sound of airplanes making take-offs or landings. Social distancing meant that he couldn’t get out and meet people. All commercial work was canceled, and he couldn’t even resume his street shooting — as a street photographer, his milieu was locked inside its home.
With pressure building two things happened:
Joe Greer published his first photo book, and,
Joe Greer started to run.
In close quarters and battling canine dander, Greer began trawling his archives, which he’d built up over the years but had largely shelved for a future date. His focus in New York was always more: more creating, more shooting. Develop, file, move on. In Nashville, with months of pandemic social distancing, he took his figurative loupe and examined the body of work he’d created. There’s something here, he realized.
nyc, i love you... began as a collection of 10,000 images taken over three years. It was whittled down to 2,000 images, and then 1,000. When he’d cut it down to 200, he made prints, staging them around the house, arranging them for flow and theme, culling more. He settled on a final 68.
“[nyc . . . ] was a beautiful love letter to a city that has left a massive impact on my life as a photographer, as a husband, as a man, as a creative, as a human being,” he says. “I would not be where I’m at in my life and my career [without it].”
With a pre-order announced in June 2020, he sold through a self-published run of 3,000 copies. He says that with the number of emails and messages he gets inquiring about any remaining books, he could have sold a few thousand more.
And the other thing: with a respiratory virus encircling the world and some unnamed gut issues he says were flaring up, he decided to start eating better, taking care of his body more intentionally, and, yes, resume running after almost two years off. “I got back into running purely out of boredom and health,” he says. “It was not about times; it wasn’t about being fast. I wanted to feel good.”
The first six weeks were rough, as they always are. But, slowly, he started to gain fitness. “It’s like riding a bike,” he says. “I know how to do it. I know how I feel when I run.”
While it started out as a desire for a few easy miles and better “health,” it has since taken on a life of its own.
“[Now] I want to run fast, and I want to push myself,” he continues. “I took running off for eight years, and so I feel in a weird way I’m chasing time. And that’s been a beautiful thing with my photography. With photography, I’m chasing time.”
It’s around 7 a.m. when we meet on an inexplicably cool morning in a Southeastern summer. The maroon track sits on a hilltop looking down over the crane-covered Nashville skyline to the north, and the whine of tires from the nearby interstate is low as the city starts its commute. Greer walks to the infield’s benches wearing slides with crew socks and a black-and-white Adidas kit screened with the Tinman Elite logo on it. Today’s workout is a classic: 10 by 400m at mile pace, or 70 seconds, with two minutes between each lap.
Despite his years-long layoff, after a year of training Greer looks like a runner: lean-muscled, all legs. After a mile warmup and a few strides, he and a college friend — another recent transfer to the city — start in earnest, each lap between 68 and 70, every subsequent completion deepening the sucking breathes, asterisk eyes, the hands on the head and the weight in the feet. “Last one, fast one,” Greer says for number 10, and, with a rolling back of his shoulders, bracing, he hammers a 64 to the wall.
After the cool down, the guys stand around and jaw on the Olympic 1500m heats — Matthew Centrowitz, 2016 gold medalist, had just been eliminated in the semi-finals the day before. Cole Hocker, an Oregon collegiate, auto-advanced with a kick. “I’m Team USA all the way, but . . .” Greer says, trailing off. American distance fans know how it works, and sure enough, that’s how it will work out.
Later, over breakfast, with his Leica M6 camera on the table between us, Greer enumerates on what running is giving him as an adult and a creative. “Running has cleared my mind and allowed my thoughts to be more meaningful and fluid,” he says. With five miles in the bank, he is “locked in . . . razor sharp.” He’s even begun thinking about next books, though he demurs on them when pressed: “You’re not getting that out of me, nice try.” A Harper-Collins memoir will be announced shortly.