Josh Wool is a photographer living and working in New York. In a city where voices and visions are so easily lost, Wool has been able to achieve an honest vocabulary through his portraiture and lifestyle photography. While he acknowledges the motivation and inspiration the city provides, his natural role as a patient observer allows for a more profound connection with his subjects and environment. In the same way a finger stops the vibration and sound of a tuning fork, the time and place Wool captures on film cultivates a necessary visual pause.
JACOB VAN LOON: You have seasoned experience as an Executive Chef prior to starting your career as a photographer. Food, especially in the design and preparation of food as a chef, is an often understated reference to a social/cultural connection with another person(s). Did this aspect of your past career prime you in any way to shoot portraiture?
JOSH WOOL: I’ve always felt that food is a way to connect with people, and when you think about it, you put a lot of trust in the people who feed you. From the farmers who grow the food, to the people who prepare it, that food has traveled a long way to get to your plate. Cooking for people is an intimate thing. It’s also a connection in common experience and memory. Smell and taste are the biggest memory triggers and to be able to take someone back to their childhood with a bite of food is incredibly amazing to me. I think part of that translates to photography, you really have to connect with people to make a good portrait. It’s intimate and you have to get people to trust you even if it’s only for a few minutes. When people let their guard down, when they trust you enough, that’s when the portraits are best for me.
JVL: “Quiet” is a word I’ve seen to describe your approach to portraiture. How is that something you maintain in your work as you walk the line between candidacy and mutual awareness?
JW: I think that quietness is a direct result of my personality. That quiet approach is, for better or worse, how I tend to deal with a lot of things in my life. My father told me as a kid that one should listen twice as much as he speaks, that’s really stuck with me over the years. It’s amazing what you can learn if you actually shut up for five minutes and observe the world around you. I think at times in social settings I may come off as aloof, intimidating, or unapproachable, but really I’m just observing my surroundings and people’s personalities. The other half of that is that I’m assertive and deliberate in my actions. I think the combination of the two in a portraiture setting allows me to perceive my subject’s personality and then approach them in a way that allows me to make the photographs I want to make. I’m not an in your face, flashy kind of person, I’m more about nuance, subtly, and intimacy.
JVL: Is personality an unexpectedly difficult element to truthfully convey in photography?
JW: It can be an exceedingly difficult task. I don’t think there’s much truth to a lot of photography out there, especially in art photography. It’s all about creating an illusion, not documenting a reality. Portraiture on the other hand is all about finding a way to convey personality, which isn’t an easy thing. People generally only show you what they want you to see. Getting past that wall is the challenge and when it happens the reward is great. Photography is in essence visual storytelling, and some of those stories hold more truth than others, but each has a place.
JVL: How much should portraiture tell about a place and time?
JW: I think a great portrait tells you everything about that particular time and place in a person’s life. Physical place/location takes a secondary role in most cases, but it really depends on the situation.
JVL: Cormac McCarthy is one of my favorite authors. It doesn’t matter what he’s writing, every character and idea in his books are clearly influenced by his life in the South. How does your personal background come through in what you choose to shoot?
JW: I grew up between South Carolina and Virginia and have lived in Georgia and Tennessee. My roots are in the South and I tend to romanticize it as a place and I feel like it seeps into my work more often than not. I think it’s an attitude more than anything else, though some of the aesthetic gets in there too. I have a love/hate relationship with the South, there’s so much that is blatantly wrong with the South - the disparity between rich and poor, the racism, the fundamentalism in religion and politics, but that being said, there are a lot of good and progressive people in the South, it’s an unbelievably beautiful place, even though much of it is slowly decaying. There’s this stoicism that prevails down there, a quiet rebelliousness, that people are going to make a life for themselves despite what other people think or what their circumstances are, that I identify with. There’s so much history in the South and there’s a lot of weird energy down there that is almost tangible. There’s this idea of proper society down there, but what really interests me is the dark underbelly of the South, what the real people are up to.
JVL: I recently went on an eight-mile circular walk through Garfield Park and the Kinzie Industrial Corridor, which were two Chicago neighborhoods that made national headlines last year for being some of the most violent areas in the Nation. For such historically integral parts of the city, I felt a strong disassociation between what I normally think of Chicago, and what Chicago might actually be. How do social and economic contrasts both in the South and New York influence your tendencies as a photographer?
JW: What we want to think of people, places, and times are not necessarily accurate of how they really are. We romanticize those things, I know I do that a lot with the South. In reality a lot of places and people in the South are broken down, slowly decaying, poverty ridden and at times dangerous. I’m aware of the contradiction in that reality versus artistic interpretation, but I don’t know that I’ve explored it in a traditional sense, but I’d like to at some point. I’m incredibly uncomfortable with typical street photography, I can’t point a camera at a stranger and snap away. I have to be able to talk to the people I photograph.
JVL: It tickled me to see photos from your apartment on Rog Walker’s blog. How has living in New York most influenced you as a photographer?
JW: New York has been amazing, it’s been tough, but really pushed me as an artist. It’s an unforgiving place and it demands that you put out your best effort, there’s not a lot of second chances here, there are thousands of other people trying to make it as well. If you’re not hungry or motivated, and a little lucky, you’re not going to make it in New York. Living here has made me a better photographer, space is a luxury, and it’s made me understand how important working with what you have is. I shoot mostly from home, and each place I’ve lived has had very different light, and I’ve had to adapt to each situation. It’s also exciting to live here and be surrounded by so many talented people in all different fields. There’s a sense of community that’s starting to form, and seeing everybody make those big steps forward in their careers is incredibly inspiring and motivating. I think we all share the common struggle of trying to make it as artists.
JVL: Tell me about your latest camera acquisition.
JW: I just picked up a Crown Graphic 4x5 camera from the 1950’s. It’s an old press camera like Weegee used. I’ve wanted to explore large format for a while, for what I do in portraiture at least in my personal work, it sort of makes sense. The plan is to eventually invest in a 4x5 developing tank so I can shoot and process 4x5 black and white film myself. For now I’m using it as a glorified Polaroid camera for a possible book project over the next year or two. Also when I have the space to build a dark room I want to venture into wet plate and tintypes. I’m not a huge collector; I try to only buy cameras that I feel that I’m going to use on a regular basis. I acquired a number of medium format cameras, but unfortunately sold them off last year when times were pretty tight. I have an Polaroid Land Camera from the 60’s that I use a lot and just inherited a Canon AE-1 35mm from my late grandfather. Aside from that I have a Pentax K1000 an old girlfriend gave me, a Zeiss Icon medium format from my uncle, and a Canon 5DmkII that’s the workhorse for my digital production. There’s a long list of cameras I’d love to own, but I can’t justify buying any more vintage equipment at the moment.
JVL: What is there to value about traditional photographic processes? A lot of the industrydefining companies I used to purchase from completely ate it in the mid-to-late 2000’s.
JW: The analog process is invaluable. The technology involved is incredible, light sensitive minerals on cellulose acetate stuck into a device that records a moment in time, I’m still blown away that someone figured out how to do that. Analog photography is a completely different mindset than digital, at least for me, and you can take all of what I’m about to say with a grain of salt, because I’ve only been shooting for three years (at this point). Analog is about getting it right in the camera the first time, there’s no luxury of taking a thousand photos and hoping you got something. There’s no preview aside from taking a Polaroid. I got into shooting film about two years ago and that’s when things really started clicking for me. Having a limited number of exposures made me think so much more about what and how I was shooting, is my composition good, is my exposure right, do I really want this subject matter? Each frame costs me money and time, I process black and white at home, so when I’m shooting I ask myself am I willing to spend the time processing and scanning this image? So it slows the process of photography down for me and makes it much more of a deliberate process and I think that’s translated into my digital workflow as well. I will say however that just because something is shot with film doesn’t automatically make it a good image. I think it’s important to be versed in both analog and digital, it’s sort of the old adage of you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. I’m certainly not a purist, but I will shoot film as long as it’s available as a medium. I hope there’s enough demand that film companies will continue making it for decades to come.
Josh Wool has a busy year ahead. He will be working on a project for GQ, as well as a largescale editorial documentation for a collective of independent clothing designers to be featured in a concept catalog. Continuing to photograph musicians and artists, he plans to be backstage at Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. Earlier this year, Josh was in Nashville showing work for the first official time in a show at a Joint Pop-Up gallery event, curated by Susan Sherrick. He was honored to have his work shown alongside some of his long-standing inspirations such as Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Lee Friedlander, Horst P. Horst, Vivian Maier, William Klein, as well as friends Joshua Black Wilkins and Mikael Kennedy. He will be returning for another exhibition with Joint Pop-Up in the fall, and with travel and exploration being a motivator, Josh is also entertaining the idea of an in-depth portraiture series that would take him across the US.
Our sincere thanks to Josh Wool for taking the time to answer some questions for Artchipel, and of course, to Jacob Van Loon for conducting the interview. Jacob Van Loon is a painter and designer living in Chicago. This is his 6th contribution for Artchipel Tumblr Monday.