If You Don't Know Who Joe Photo Is
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Interview with Joe Photo

Mark: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your background so that our readers can learn more about you.

Joe: I was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1967, December 22 and I lived there for a year and we moved to Ohio We moved to a couple of homes in Ohio. I moved around a lot so we lived in Ohio for awhile, then we lived in Milwaukee, we lived in Georgia for a year, moved and back to Milwaukee, then to Chicago and then California.

Mark: What did your dad do?

Joe: He works in HR. He was working for Miller Brewing Company when we were in Milwaukee and Georgia. We got here in 1985 when he was working for First Interstate Bank and so anyways, we moved to Mission Viejo. I was a musician and played the drums. I was into heavy metal and long hair and so the friends that I hung out with weren’t the most reliable people. The band fell apart when the neighbors started complaining.

Mark: Were you a photographer when you moved here?

Joe: I wasn’t shooting at that point. I was just drawing and painting. In my senior year at Capo Valley, my art teacher Mr. MacIluee said, “Why don’t you take a photo class?” So the first semester of my senior year I took a photography class and I loved it. I started photographing people. I loved photographing people as opposed to still lifes or landscapes.

That sparked my interest in photography. I finally found a medium that I could express myself artistically because with my drawing and painting, I wasn’t a realist but I was always drawn toward realism but I just didn’t have the abilities to do photo realism with my drawing and painting. So I found that in photography I could capture reality but then it was a lot easier to manipulate reality through the use of different filters, lenses and things like that. That’s how I really found my medium to express myself.

Mark: So you were shooting film at that time?

Joe: Yes.

Mark: Did you do your own processing?

Joe: I would shoot 35mm film and I loved being in a darkroom, I loved it! So then, right after high school I started taking photo classes at Saddleback College.

Mark: Any particular teachers?

Joe: I had classes with Ron Leighton and with Jerry Burchfield. Ron was the head of the program then and so he’s the teacher I had the most frequently.

To back up, I started taking classes at Saddleback and I got a job working at Olan Mills Portrait Studio for a year in Lake Forest. They said my portfolio looked good. I started working for them and doing really well. I realized wow, I’m making them a lot of money and I was only 19 years old making but I was making $300+ a week. I was stoked! I had really good salespeople as well. So it was a busy studio. I did a lot of family portraits. You absorb their technique for family portraits in really a couple of weeks. You figure out how to do it and then it’s just a matter of doing the same formula. I got bored with that and so I decided I was going to start taking classes again. I finished my AA from Saddleback College in 1991, graduated in 1991 with an Associates Degree in Photography. I transferred to Cal State Long Beach where I started in their Fine Art Photography program. In my first semester the densitometry class instructor, the head of the photography program there Neil Chapman, told the class of 60 students that the Fine Arts processes that we were going to be learning as Fine Arts photographers were going to be outlawed and banned by the government because of the chemicals. There was a big controversy about the chemicals being flushed down into the water system. So he recommended in his thesis that year ((he was working on his Masters thesis), that by 2000, film was going to be obsolete and that everything was going to be digital

I got really shook up. I’ve got two more years of Fine Art processes and I’m like, "what am I going to do after that?" and then film is going to be obsolete, it’s going to be all digital and everything is going to be done in PhotoShop. So I switched into the motion picture film department and video production and I ended up getting my degree in radio, television and film. I started studying film history and cinematography and thought cinematography is cool and that’s an extension of my photography and writing. I got into that program, I graduated in 1994. When I graduated, two significant things happened. One, my wife and I had our first daughter, Mikayla. She was born May 3, 1994. Second, I was working so hard that last semester on a lot of different student film projects, I realized that I was frustrated because I didn’t feel I had enough say in the final product. I realized that I didn’t like to work with a lot of other creative people who had all this other input in the product.

Mark: So the Director of Photography was calling the shots.

Joe: Yes, but even at the student film level, it’s like the Director has a vision, I was a camera operator really, much more than the cinematography kind of switched that around and everybody had a little bit of a hand in it but, I was really, really frustrated. We were living in Dana Point at the time and I felt like, I have this degree now but I don’t want to be going to LA and working 10 and 12 hour days on motion pictures as a second and third assistant to the camera operator for years until I developed this career. So I was also doing video production at Calvary Chapel at the time and I was doing some really cool things with artists who displayed their work at Calvary. I would film interviews and apply different styles and techniques like on MTV, so I tried to incorporate some of that into the video production stuff that I was doing and one of the guys that I was doing video with at that time said, “Why don’t you do a photography business instead of doing this film thing?” And my wife also at the same time was kind of hinting at that same thing.

So that kind of revolutionized my thinking. It was like a paradigm shift and I then began to start to pursue getting family portrait and children as clients, that’s what I was familiar with. Stuff like weddings, still so traditional that I hadn’t recognized the fact that photojournalism was being done at that point in weddings. So I said I’ll start my business but I don’t want to be doing weddings, I’ll just do family portraits and kids.

Mark: And you were still shooting film?

Joe: I was shooting film and I was picture framing at the time. I had been picture framing all through my college years. For eight years I picture framed at frame shops and then in 1995 or 1996 I went and saw a program over satellite broadcast Wedding Portrait 2000. I don’t know if you remember when that came out but they satellite broadcast these movies. You paid $60 for that 8 hour day; you sat in an AMC theatre. I went down to San Diego and they gave you a workbook as you came in and then you got to see like 8 or 10 different nationally known wedding photographers speak for about 40 minutes or so, show their work and then answer a few questions. I realized wow, these are people that are making a great living doing wedding photojournalism and I could be doing that. So that’s what really sparked the idea in my mind.

Mark: Who were some of the speakers on that presentation?

Joe: Gary Fong, Dennis Reggae and Calvin Hayes. Andy Marcus was also a part of that project and I was like, wow, he’s got a killer set-up and he’s doing really well in New York and then there was a gal in Colorado, Wendy Saunders. She had some really cool work too and I thought, OK, all the presenters have ideas that I could incorporate. There wasn’t one person I said, Ok, I want to be exactly like that, but I drew from all of their collective information and took little bits and pieces and molded it into what I wanted to do for myself.

Mark: What were some of those factors? Was it black and white, was it Dutch angels?

Joe: Yes, definitely tilted angles and spontaneous images. I love what Dennis had to say about being a quiet observer and my personality is definitely much more of just quietly observing and moving around the clients on their wedding day and creating images with whatever the light factors are and the spontaneous moments. The challenge of me moving around and finding those moments and capturing them as opposed to setting them up really appealed to me. However, on the flip side of that, I am very idealistic so there are times when I have the couple 15 minutes together, I like to place them in an environment, have them interact with me in a way that makes it look like they’re the only two people around. I really try to focus on them, with the backgrounds blown out. So I picked up some of those techniques from what these photographers were doing. Marketing myself as a Fine Art photographer doing wedding photography as opposed to turning out several weddings a weekend. So, I wanted to be more exclusive.

Mark: When clients came in and saw your work, what was their response?

Joe: They loved it. It was a blessing for me to shoot a wedding as a journalist. I photographed a wedding with a bride and groom that were really good looking and it was great because they gave me a lot of freedom to do whatever I wanted to do. They trusted me. Then I created a sample album from that wedding and I was able to show that style to all my new potential clients.

Mark: Do you still have that album?

Joe: I still have images from that wedding but the album was dismantled and refilled because when you’re starting out your business, you don’t have very much money. I kept refining the style of the images. Now, I continue to refine and I continue to grow which is amazing to look back even a couple of years and think, wow, I was doing so good then but man, my images are smokin’ now. So what can the future possibly hold? How can it get any better?

Mark: Are you still shooting film?

Joe: I don’t shoot film at all any more. I haven’t shot film in two years.

Mark: And when you made that conversion from film to digital, what were the stepping stones, what carried you in that direction? What told you you had to try it?

Joe: That was a huge step. Initially it’s a huge investment. $10,000 easy and a bunch of camera bodies. I went out on a wedding with John Barber and I said I just want to come out and assist. Let me be your second shooter (he couldn’t find an assistant for this wedding). So he gave me one of his camera bodies and I shot it and I was like so thrilled. It brought me back to the days when the excitement that I had when I was in the darkroom in the very beginning and I was creating images and watching them come up in the darkroom, except this was immediate. You shoot it and you immediately see what the image looks like and I was thrilled! I was just so energized by that prospect and being able to share the images with guests and with the bride and things like that at the wedding, although I didn’t do that so much at his event, because I didn’t want to step in and do that, but I was just thrilled. So then I bought a camera, started to incorporate it into my reception photography which I felt was the weakest link in my whole wedding day. I felt like I wasn’t very creative with my flash use and I was just very safe. I wasn’t shooting wide open anymore, and I would back it up to F5, F6 or F8 and just blast the flash to make sure that I got it. I wasn’t doing bouncing off walls and things like that, dragging the shutter, because I wanted to be safe. I didn’t want to miss it. At a buck a proof it was expensive to experiment with stuff like that. But once I started experimenting with digital and I could see it right away I began bouncing flash, dragging the shutter and doing all kinds of cool stuff to get more exciting images and it wasn’t just stale anymore. It became fun. I would shoot 90% of the wedding with still film, for four months I did this. From September to December in 2001 I was shooting a little bit of reception coverage with digital. And then I would give the clients a CD. I didn’t even print those images. I would edit, give them 100-200 extra images on CD and say, “Here you go, take this. I’m not going to print them but this is some extra stuff you might want to have.” I still fulfilled my contract with the paper proofs, and get them into a package. So that was just a bonus to allow me to experiment and play with the digital.

Mark: So it reignited the flame you had when you were working in the dark room?

Joe: In every way. And in additional to that, it also allowed us the freedom to just shoot like crazy. I’ve got my editing down so that I don’t edit out the bad shots, I pull out just the good shots. Subjectively, if you’re taking out your bad shots, you’re going Ok that’s a bad shot, that’s a bad shot, over and over and over again. The client will see like 1 out of 4 or 1 out of 3 of my proofs. So 2 out of 3 or 3 out of 4 times your saying that’s a bad shot, that’s a bad shot subjectively attitude. I’ve flipped that around psychologically and go, that’s a killer shot, I want that one.

Mark: That’s great perspective.

Joe: So, that works out very well for me and takes me so much less time now to edit out my, or to bring out my good shots, put those into another folder as opposed to pulling the bad shots out.

Mark: Great suggestion. Do you have role models today that
you look at their work and you say great stuff.

Joe: I love Mark Seliger and Greg Gorman. There are some awesome women photographers. Women have an advantage. They have more connections between the hemispheres of their brains and are able to move much more quickly between the two and that also gives women an advantage to be able to capture weddings both romantically and technically.

Joe: It’s all about the bride. It’s not really about the groom at all, he’s just there and a lot of time doesn’t really want to spend a lot of time doing photographs. But the bride has dreamed of this day for like all her life and I find that I have such a great and easy way with brides and am so comfortable around them while they’re getting ready and interacting with their bridesmaids. I’m much more comfortable in that environment than I am with the groom and the groomsmen when they’re getting ready and so, I really focus on the bride and the attention to all of the details that she’s going through and the preparations that she’s making and I think that puts them at ease but I’m sure that it’s a personality trait that I have that makes it really comfortable for them to be around me. Where I would suspect that a lot of male photographers, perhaps its not as easy for them to be there, around the bride while she’s getting ready and maybe in their nervousness, perhaps talk too much or concentrating on different things, or something, I’m not exactly sure. I haven’t pinned that down yet; I haven’t really put a lot of thought and effort into it until yesterday when I was talking to this wedding coordinator. We were talking about female photographers and how I really admire their sensitivity towards the approach toward the day.

Mark: How did you get the name Joe Photo?

Joe: When I was working at Olan Mills, we had a breakfast one morning with all the local photographers in the Orange County area. There were 8 or 10. Jokingly at that breakfast they called my Joe Photo and everybody laughed and it kind of stuck and then the rest of that breakfast they were referring to me as Joe Photo. I was like, that’s really cool and then I got Joe Photo license plates on my car.

Mark: Lastly, you’re sitting in front of a photo of a bride and groom running through a Plaza in Italy and the pigeons are being blown away by their dashing toward them. That’s kind of become a signature photo for you hasn’t it?

Joe: That was the first wedding that I did in Italy and I was in Venice at Saint Mark’s Square. When I shot that shot I just remember it was like it was happening in slow motion. We’re in Saint Mark’s Square, it’s the first time I’ve been in Europe and I thought, Ok this is the place. We have to do photographs of the bride and groom in the most famous square in Europe and it’s known for the pigeons. There were a good amount of tourists in the Square. You know, I explained earlier I don’t like other people in my images so I told the bride and groom, I have this idea of you guys running through these pigeons and we’ll kind of see what happens. Celeste, you can see her veil is really long and her heels are really high. I said, Celeste, are you up for running through these pigeons holding hands? She said "sure whatever you want me to do." So we bought a couple bags of bird seed and we dumped them out in Saint Mark’s Square. I had them hold hands and I said run through the pigeons. I’m shooting and I kid you not, as I’m shooting, it was like slow motion. I’m shooting and I’m like boom, I shot that shot and in my head I just shot an insane image. And in the 1/25 of a second whatever that that image was captured, I knew that there was a killer image from that little series. So they ran through one time, I shot 8 frames and then they turned around and I had them run back through before the pigeons ate all the bird food. They came back through and that wasn’t as successful as them coming back toward me but I got back from Europe and had that film processed and I couldn’t wait.

I created a promo, modern postcard of that to start promoting myself with that image and then I also entered that into print competition for my first year that I started entering prints at WPPI. I shot this in October of 1999 and started entering in March of 2000. I entered three images and that shot got 2nd place for wedding photojournalism. I didn’t even enter the premier category. I didn’t even know about the premier category. I’m sure I could have gotten the grand prize for the premier category for that shot but I met a lot of great people at WPPI.

Mark: Any last minute advice to our readers about getting into wedding photography or portrait photography? Digital, film or otherwise?

Joe: For those starting a business I really, especially if you fall into the more artistic category, I recommend taking business classes at Saddleback or your local community college. Get some business courses and maybe marketing courses. I also recommend networking with other photographers in your area that you can get to know. Get to know whose doing what. Get involved and start sharing ideas and you’re going to grow exponentially once you start sharing your ideas with other photographers and you start getting their ideas. That can really increase your growth. Find your passion and the clients will find you. There is still a market for traditional wedding photography. So if that’s where your heart and your passion lies, then follow that route. If it is for wedding photojournalism, or for portraits, or for whatever it is, find what makes you happy so that you’re thrilled to be doing each job.

Mark: Nobody’s going to promote you better than yourself.

Joe: You really have to do that and go after what you want. There’s got to be somebody to shoot celebrity weddings. There’s got to be somebody getting published in Martha Stewart. Somebody’s got to be doing it. Why can’t you be that person? So go after your dreams.

Like wow. I mean I’m encouraging people for sure to start networking with other photographers in your local area and develop referral networks and groups. I can say over and over, that we assume that everybody does that but I don’t think that’s the case for a lot of the rest of the country. So I’m hoping that I can be a beacon of trying to promote that sharing that we’re so blessed to enjoy.

Mark: Well thank you Joe. We appreciate it very much.

Joe: Thank you.

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Saturday, July 20, 2024