Executive Creative Director and Conceptual Photographer about life as a photographer (Part 2)
With so many follow-up questions, it was undeniable that we would not have another interview with Josh S.Rose. (Click here for Part 1) From selecting what new projects and themes to choose to what truly influences Josh's style, let's delve right into this interview!
1 | Do you have any regrets during your life as a photographer? Is there anything you would change about your journey to being a photographer?
I interviewed a photographer recently, he is a remarkable car photographer. I asked him when he knew that photography could be a career for him. His answer was revealing. In a nutshell, he said that he simply didn’t give himself any other options.
To me, any great, rewarding career - especially in the arts - involves at least one (and probably more than one) moment of great sacrifice of this nature. Some kind of full and utter commitment. It’s about what you decide not to do and limiting your options. This goes against a lot of human instinct and nearly every piece of advice I ever got from parents or counsellors, who all pushed me toward well-roundedness and keeping my options open.
But something happens to the person who dedicates wholly. It makes you hungrier, more focused and more motivated. And that gives you an edge on 99% of the world. My regret - at no point did I ever try that. I grew up scared and fearful that the ground was going to disappear underneath me, so I have glommed onto things that were stable. Which is not to say you can’t get there down the path I’ve taken, it just takes longer. In retrospect, it would have been interesting to see what would have happened to me if I’d been as focused in my twenties as I have learned to be in my forties.
2 | How do clients who want you to take photos, go about the process?
I don’t have an agent or a rep, so people normally reach out to me directly via Instagram or email (which I list on my website), through word-of-mouth. It’s a mixed bag. Some people want to do collaborations - where no money changes hands. Those are fun and a bit freer and it might be an actor or personality who wants images for social media. I may take some lifestyle photos of them if I feel it helps my book, too. Quid pro quo. Others are start-ups, companies that need corporate headshots, event shooting, portrait work or some “influencer work.” Every kind of client is slightly different, but the process is relatively the same.
In most cases, you want to give an estimate for what a client is asking for. So, you need a good handle on what your pricing structure is for different things. How much for a half-day shoot, a single headshot, a full day shoot, etc And then you need to understand what things are outside of your skills that you’ll bring onto the assignment with you - do you need a photo assistant? Hair and makeup? A stylist? Do you need to rent equipment? Stuff like that. And then you need to factor in things like location scouting, post processing and the intangibles that add time to your job. I like to break that all out for a client. I use a software called FreshBooks to create these kinds of detailed estimates.
Sometimes I’ll also present a treatment, which is a written and visual description of what I’m proposing, with examples (they don’t have to be things I shot, just reference art of the kind of look/idea I’m going for). If I’m going to bring a backdrop to a portrait shoot, for example, I’ll show a number of different backdropped portraits - with the lighting I’m thinking of doing. If I’m shooting at a location, I’ll have photos of the location in the treatment. Or I may just put some images together that convey a feeling. This helps clients get an idea of what the end result is going to be like. If it’s a more formal presentation I may do the treatment in InDesign and send a PDF. For something I have to get out quickly, I’ll do it in Google Slides, and then just send out a link. Sometimes you’re competing against other photographers, so telling the client how you’d approach it with a treatment is their way of making the decision. Those treatments are an art in and of themselves. It’s basically a pitch. I like that process - I like refining my idea there in the quiet of my own imagination.
3 | What do you love capturing with your camera? What do you like to take photos of?
When left to my own devices, I tend to shoot conceptually-driven, or narratively-driven, images. These are the kinds of themes that you start to fully grasp when you see them as a group of images, rather than one nice shot. One image is usually a moment, but over a number of shots, you start to understand something larger going on, like a story, or a theme. My favourite concepts involve a theme that I am very intimate with, but still allow me a lot of exploration and freedom when I’m out shooting. So, for example, in The Standouts series, I am going out specifically with the purpose of shooting people in a situation where stretching them is going to be interesting and where the background adds to the narrative. But I may not entirely know what that background is when I go out. Or I may like a building, but don’t know how I’m going to frame it - and I certainly don’t know who’s going to walk into it.
More recently, I’m shooting an L.A. Noir series and I have an actor in costume and we pick a spot to go shoot in, but then it evolves when we get there.
So, it’s this combination of research and purpose with a fair amount of on-site improvisation and creativity. That mix is exciting to me and I think it creates a kind of photojournalistic honesty to my conceptual work.
4 | How do you decide if you have taken a "good" photo? How do you choose which photos to select for projects you are working on? What techniques do you favour?
There’s three stages. Stage one is that I know I’m someplace interesting, or looking at something interesting. That’s about subject. I need to be confident in that before I shoot. Stage two is having that feeling that I captured it in a dynamic way. You can sort of feel that while you shoot. And stage three is when I get it into the computer and actually look at it.
Choosing a photo, or set of photos is a process of narrowing down. I employ a grading system that has two parts: first is to mark the shots I like and then special code those images that seems to be at a much higher level than the others. A client will usually get the full set of marked images. The special coded ones are the ones I’ll recommend and possibly use for social media posting or put in a portfolio.
5 | What inspires you when you come up with projects? The Standouts project you have worked on is an eccentric but truly remarkable set of work. What influences you with starting a new project and how do you choose a theme?
I grew up in an environment where there were these interesting artists and characters in the house all the time, and until late into the night, drinking and God knows what else. People from Warhol’s Factory, directors, musicians, pornographers, drug dealers, psychologists. It was the 70’s. Both my mom and dad just seemed to know strange but creative people and so it was a constant barrage of interesting anecdotes, often hilariously told. This, to me, has always been the crux of what appeals to me - the edge of humanity. When I have ideas, the first thing I ask myself is how the description of it would sound to this cast of characters. What would Chuck Wein think of my idea? What would Richard Chase say? Would Mike Hynson think it was cool? It obviously has to also appeal to me, but I run it by those ghosts all the time for approval. If I think, yeah, they’d dig that - then I get excited to go make that story come true.
6 | How would you describe your aesthetic?
First, I shoot in a style I call, “essentialism.” That’s the idea of having only the things you need and nothing you don’t. When I compose an image, I’m extremely careful with what’s in frame and what’s not. If it doesn’t need to be in there, I crop it out.
Second, I use the principles of Gestalt constantly. Gestalt states that objects that are close to each other start to have a relationship with one another and the mind interprets them together. So, knowing that, I’ll use architecture or landscape elements to draw your attention to an object, often with extreme perspective. Other laws of Gestalt apply to photography, as well - symmetry, flow, tension, etc. Being intimate with those principles creates images that have a more dramatic effect.
Third, I like black and white photography that leans a bit toward the darker end of the spectrum. If you looked at my tone curves, they are like a slight J shape - plugging up those blacks up just a bit. High contrast imagery has an emotional effect on the viewer as it makes things simpler and more immediately understandable. That initial impact of a shot is very important to me.
7 | What influences your style and concepts?
My style is largely influenced by the Magnum and Life Magazine photographers, which is to say high-contrast black and white images that are well-composed and capture a moment in a timeless way. My entire goal with my style of shooting is to create images that still look and feel powerful a hundred years from now.
But while my style is influenced by photographers, my concepts rarely are. I’m trying to make connections and commentary on culture. But that creates a bit of a challenge with photography, which is just so literal. You have to add yourself and your intention to the image in some way - there needs to be a story to how or why or when you shot it. Something that, once the viewer gets it, has them realizing something. An “a-ha.” In painting, your paint strokes are your hand on the image - you see the artist in those strokes. A photographer doesn’t have that. But where you stood and what your choices were when you shot the image becomes your paint strokes - this is your intent, your concept. One of my more popular shots is one of people moving in a perfect relationship to some playground rings above them on Santa Monica beach. I think what you feel in that image is my purposefulness with lining that up. That’s not entirely different than the experience of seeing my City Bugs and realizing that I shot those buildings with the express purpose of reflecting them to create an animal. In most of my ideas, there’s this “artist’s view” that you’re experiencing.
So, my influence on conceptual work is varied - I saw an exhibit called High/Low when I was young that featured all the major Pop Art figures: Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Oldenburg and the like. I was fully engrossed in what they were doing and that probably had a profound influence on me. But throughout my life, I’ve been at different times enamoured with many different artists: Salvador Dali, Chris Burden, Auguste Rodin and Paul Cezanne, to name a few. I know that’s all over the place, but in all cases, these folks drew deeply from the human condition and were compelled to create art that had impact. I’m trying to catch up to these giants, always pushing the work to go deeper. I work with the belief that there’s some universality deep down in our darkest truths. I’m driven by the hope that one day I will capture it in an undeniable way.
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