Josh Wool interviewed by Jon McKenzie 7.21.2012
Josh Wool ladies and gentleman: a fellow Southerner. While I grew up in the much more refined and well mannered state of Texas, you were plagued with burden of thriving in Virginia. A quick Google search found one expat describing his hometown in Virginia as, “toothless, low IQ, belief in creationism for the morbidly obese”. Certainly, you don’t share this dejected individual’s animosity and ego-maniacal negativity and you wear the Southern badge proudly. How did growing up in Virginia Beach mold you into the Josh Wool we know and love today?
Growing up in a Southern beach town was great, surfing, fishing, bike rides on the boardwalk, it was a pretty laid back lifestyle. I never felt completely at home there though. I moved back to Charleston, South Carolina, where I’m originally from, for college and immediately felt at home. I think it’s there that really shaped me as a young adult. There’s so much history and culture, and it’s pretty cosmopolitan for a small Southern city. It was also the first time I’d been exposed to the darker underbelly of life in the South, there’s great wealth in Charleston, but also a lot of poverty and seeing those two worlds be so close in proximity, yet totally segregated really stuck with me.
Describe when and how you came into the affinity and, ultimately, the study of art and when did you realize your were an artist?
I was interested in art from an early age, but never really found an outlet for visual art until just a few years ago when I picked up a camera. I wanted to build boats when I was a kid, the beauty of shape and form really appeal to me, so I guess that’s what started it all and still resonates to some extent in my photographs. I don’t know that I’d call myself an artist, I feel like that word should be reserved for those who paint, sculpt, draw etc. I’d say I’m more of a craftsman, I have a particular set of skills to get a job done, but there are artistic elements involved in that too.
You have are now a New York City transplant. Describe the juxtaposition of the South to New York, which is known the world around as a melting pot as it were. Do you think your Southern roots tend to help you in the Big Apple or hinder you?
New York is a totally different world; it’s fast paced and can be unforgiving. However I think the idea of NYC is much more intimidating than the reality of it. It was definitely overwhelming at first, but getting a feel for the city came easily for me and I adapted to the pace surprisingly well. It does demand that you be at your best, there’s no tolerance here for sub par anything. There’s nowhere else that offers the kinds of opportunities that NYC does, but nothing comes easy, you really have to work. I’ve also found that it’s the world’s biggest small town. I run into people I know here all the time, in the city as well as in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. The main difference I see beyond the obvious between NYC and the South is cultural diversity, there are so many different cultures here and it’s really exciting to see that. The trade off for all the opportunity is people stacked on people and the cost of living is borderline insane. The jury is still out on whether or not being from the south is a plus or a minus, but I can say living here makes me appreciate where I came from.
When I first met you, you were a big fan of the culinary arts, and arguably more recognized as an artisan of food than a photographer. You recently mentioned to me that cooking has taken a back seat to your photography. Now, unless you are McDonald’s, a creation in the edible arts is subject to the biological demise of decomposition, or hopefully digestion, leaving itself little time to be enjoyed. Did photography offer a more timeless form of expression to you? What inspired the transition?
I never really looked at cooking or food as art. While there are artistic aspects to it, it’s more of a trade or a craft. It takes a solid foundation of technique and knowledge to manipulate raw materials to reach an end product, the artistic aspect comes in on how it’s presented, but at the end of the day that presentation isn’t going to change the taste. Function must come before form. Even more so I think style comes into play more than art does in food. It’s that style that sets people apart. Any asshole can make a mess on a plate and call it art, but more than likely it won’t taste good. Photography is definitely along the same lines for me, but to answer the question, it does seem to be a more timeless way to express myself; the images don’t get eaten…hopefully.
I picked up a camera as a way to keep myself from going stir-crazy. I had surgery on both hands and both elbows three years ago as a result of carpel and ulnar tunnel syndrome, I was out of work for 6 weeks and during that time bought a camera and started taking photos around my neighborhood. Once I started photographing people I got hooked and realized I had some raw talent, and the rest as they say is history.
Many photographers choose to explore elements of the human condition and (speaking broadly) sociology. What facets of character do you find most curious, and what facets of personality do you find most enjoyable to interpret?
I like exploring what’s real. A lot of times when you point a camera in someone’s face they put up their picture persona, freeze, or get embarrassed, in some way they put up a wall. The real reward for me is getting past that wall and capturing some real element of their personality, be it serious or silly or anything in between. Sorrow, heartache, longing, and angst are also big wins for me, there’s a certain beauty to those things that’s less than typical, but no less valid. There’s an intimacy that comes with photographing someone and that’s very important to me that I convey that in a photograph.
You’ve expressed that it is important to you that a part of you gleams through in your photography. How much of Josh Wool is in a photograph of a model, and what would you like the viewer to understand about you in your work?
I think a lot of my personality comes through in what I shoot. I’m more about subtly than being in your face. Someone told me recently that my photos are really quiet, and that makes total sense as I tend to be a quiet person. I am an observer, much more comfortable not being in the limelight, and it’s pretty amazing what you see and hear when you actually take the time to look and listen. There’s a particular intensity that I think, or at least hope, comes through in my photos and again that’s a reflection of my personality. Finally, there’s always some sort of beauty be it tragic or conventional, I’m a hopeless romantic at heart.
An underlying chorus in your process is noticeably darker themes and you mentioned targeting “honest and real life portrayals”, and you show an interest in the musings of dynamic characters like Hunter S. Thompson and Henry Rollins. Would you say you feel most at home among the avant-garde and individualistic?
I’m a loner Dottie…I’m a rebel. Seriously though, I’ve always been an outsider, fiercely independent, sometimes solitary, and had shall we say had a slight aversion to authority. I’ve always identified with counter culture, but never wore the uniform. I have a really low tolerance for bullshit, so guys like Thompson and Rollins resonate with me, they tell it like it is and aren’t afraid to be honest even if it isn’t popular. With the advent of social media I feel like people put these false or inflated versions of themselves out into the world and do it for long enough that they start believing their own lies instead of just being themselves. So yeah, I tend to relate to the individualists, the weirdoes, the eccentrics.
Ps. Get off my lawn hippie.
Much of you final products are shown in black and white or muted color palettes, often in high contrast lighting. How do these techniques lend themselves to your objectives as a photographer?
I’ve loved black and white photography since I was a kid, some of the most iconic, dramatic images to me are in monochrome. For me it adds an element of drama and starkness that you can’t get with color photographs. I think its part of my personality too…I’m not about bright and flashy. I like things to be understated at times and muted colors or monochrome allows me to do that. I’ve recently been getting away from the high contrast lighting in favor of softer ambient light and have a lot of exploring I want to do with that. Not every image is good just because it’s black and white though…I shoot a color photo completely differently than I would a black and white, it’s not about just throwing it in photoshop clicking desaturate.
What can clients expect when they work with Josh Wool?
A reaaaal good time. All kidding aside, if someone hires me they can expect to reach their creative goals in a timely professional manner, and know that I will do everything in my power to give them the best possible product I am capable of. I bring creativity, a unique perspective, and skill to the table.
A common understanding amongst the Process Atelier artists is a mutual respect and admiration for fellow artists’ direction. Certainly, you are no exception and I hope to see great things become of this talent that seems to be so inherent in you. Where would you like to see yourself in 5 years?
Oh man…this is tough, right now it’s tough to know what next month holds. Five years from now…hopefully paying my bills through photography. My ideal five year plan…shooting enough commercial and editorial work to afford me a dedicated dark room and the time to explore my personal projects. I’m dying to start shooting large format and doing wet plate photography.
I need headshots to pander to b-grade Dallas based talent agents, so I can get on “America’s Got Talent”. I can do this thing where I flick my cheek and it sounds like a leaky faucet. Is this beneath you?
Money talks my friend. I’m not above shooting anything, especially if it’s paid. Just like anything else in life, every once in a while you have to take a bite of the shit sandwich so you don’t starve.
Thanks for speaking to me with such candid fervor and not doing that weird photographer thing where they make eye contact for too long and then ask me what my soul smells like.
I see what you’re doing there…trying to use the reverse psychology on me…not going to work this time Tex.
It’s been a pleasure and I’m humbled to be included in this fine group of artists. To view my work you can visit my website: www.joshwool.com or my blogwww.joshwool.tumblr.com for bookings and general firstname.lastname@example.org and if you want to follow my ramblings on twitter its @JoshWoolphoto