The Photographic Journal

Josh Wool

Interview 026 • Mar 19th 2015

Foreword

Sitting down to interview and photograph Josh Wool was an absolute pleasure. His personality matched the quiet elegance and seriousness of his portraiture, and he surprised me with the depths of his passion for and knowledge of American cuisine, particularly seafood. His warm hospitality and openness made the intimate setting of his apartment feel very natural.

He even took the time out to show me his book of tintypes, his cameras and speak to me about forthcoming work. In understanding his interest for the Civil War period of history, and American history and culture in general, I gained a new-found understanding and respect for his tintype work, and for his portrait work in general. Josh's bedside manner as a photographer is impeccable, and it extends to his personal life as well.

Interview

You set out in life to be a chef, but you were limited due to surgery, correct?

I was actually…I spent 12 years as a chef, owned a restaurant for a little while, but then yeah I had surgery on my hands and elbows about 5 years ago, and I worked for another year and a half or so, and it just became too much, I couldn’t do the work, I was starting to have problems again. And in that time I picked up a camera, after I had surgery, just as a hobby. But yeah the surgery definitely limited my career as a chef. I could’ve taken a clipboard, executive chef job somewhere, but it just really wasn’t that interesting to me.

Why did you need surgery on your hands/elbows?

I had surgery to due to carpal tunnel and ulnar tunnel syndrome in both hands. It was a result of 15 years of beating the hell out of my hands in the kitchen. By the time I got around to actually having surgery it was so bad that I couldn’t use a chef’s knife and could barely hold a pen. The surgery was a big help, but I ended up with some permanent nerve damage that eventually led me to look for other career options.

Interview 026: Josh Wool for The Photographic Journal

Would you then say that photography is, in a sense, bittersweet for you?

Not really. I was kind of ready for a change. Definitely. After 12 years of 80 hour weeks, I was kind of ready to do something different. I really didn’t, I didn’t know if photography was gonna be the next step. It just sort of happened. I moved to New York and kind of took a year off just to decompress and shoot, and things just slowly happened, and gave me the inclination that I might want to explore this a little bit more seriously.

What was it drew you to photography, to the point you saw it as a viable alternative when you left…cheffery? What do they call it? Chef Life? The Chefing Biz!

I got a really late start with photography at 32, so I really didn’t think it was a viable option until about two years ago. I was really ready to get out of the restaurant business, I worked 70–80 hours a week for 10 years straight and needed a break. I’d picked up photography as a hobby after surgery and decided to take a year off and move to New York to decompress and just shoot as much as I could, solely for myself. By the end of that first year there was some interest in my work and I decided to stay and see where it would go.

I never could have imagined that photography would become a career for me, and it’s still a struggle at times, but to have accomplished so much in such a short time really blows my mind. It’s been a big experiment for me, a huge risk in the grand scheme of things, but one that’s been really rewarding despite the struggles of changing careers in my mid 30’s. The real draw to photography for me was that it’s given me a creative outlet and voice that I had been looking for my whole life. There’s so much more I want to explore with photography, beyond just what makes me a living, and that’s what I love so much about it. There possibilities are infinite.

Interview 026: Josh Wool for The Photographic Journal
Interview 026: Josh Wool for The Photographic Journal

And what was it that made you pick up that camera and point it at people, as opposed to landscapes, or still life?

I have always been drawn to portraiture, when I was a kid my parents bought this house that had been owned by hoarders and there was probably 20 years of Life and Nat Geo magazines stacked in the hallways and I remember pouring through them while my parents renovated the house, fascinated with all the faces. Seeing photos from Dorothea Lange and Steve McCurry just blew me away, to be able to tell so much of a story with a single face, that was what I wanted to do, even if I didn’t know it at the time I think that’s what initially drew me in. I tried my hand at landscapes, but found it to be terribly boring. I love looking at beautiful landscape photos, but I much prefer making portraits, the interaction and challenge of getting someone to open up, and taking what I want from them in a photographic sense. I don’t know how to explain it, but portraiture just makes sense to me and it’s something I’ve really grown to love.

So what led you to being a chef?

I started working in restaurants when I was in high school and through college to support myself. I really enjoyed the frenetic pace and the work. I started cooking at 18,was studying history and in my junior year realized that I didn’t see myself going into law or becoming a professor and the excitement and less than conventional schedule of restaurant life appealed to me. I took a semester off and at that point decided I wanted to become a chef. I love working with my hands and being a chef allowed me to do that, and it turned out that I had some talent. I also love food so it seemed like a good fit. I enrolled in culinary school in Arizona and started working at a high-end restaurant, which was the real education. I was really drawn to the sense of craftsmanship and the challenges of being a chef, but it’s a young person’s game. It’s a highly challenging job, physically and mentally demanding, and while I really enjoyed it in my 20’s, by the time I was in my 30’s I started realizing that I’d missed a lot of life, spending 70 hours a week at work doesn’t leave much time for anything else. I’ll always love food, but I don’t miss the restaurant world at all.

In that way, does the comparative solitude of photography feel like a much better fit, where you are now?

I’d have to say yes. Going from those crazy hours to working a few days a month has been a welcome change. And working in a much more intimate environment is nice as well. Though I do enjoy the energy of a busy studio during bigger commercial jobs. Its also really nice to be able to work from my home office, it’s a luxury I’m enjoying a lot. I do like the pressure of high profile shoots for clients though, I thrive in that environment, but it’s nice that it’s not a 6 day a week thing.

Working a few days a month, what do you do with the rest of your time?

I spend a lot of time planning and working on personal projects. I have really enjoyed delving into wet plate collodion in the last year, so I spend a lot of time making tintypes. It’s a bit of a process so there’s quite a bit of management of chemistry involved as well. I also spend a lot of time marketing, trying to set up meetings with potential clients so I can work more. Recently spent a big chunk of time reworking my website and reworking my portfolio.

With the level of attention required to manage the actual process of a tintype, how do you, during a shoot, keep the subject engaged? Does the mechanical/chemical process of the camera ever get in the way of connection with your subject?

Most people are pretty interested in the process because it’s something they’ve never seen. I get them involved with the process as much as I can so they stay engaged. It takes between 5–10 minutes per photo, so it allows me to talk with my subject be it about the process or just about life etc. and because each photo has to be developed as soon as it’s shot they get to see the magic of the chemical process as it happens. Most people are really tickled seeing a milky white negative turn to positive in the fixer. It’s a slow process, but you have to be fast at the same time. I like that it slows down the making of a portrait, it becomes much more deliberate and with the longer exposures I think it brings out more in my subjects. I think that in today’s digital world people are drawn in to things like this. It’s a process that creates a tangible object, which as you know is becoming rare. I saw a young kid pick up a tintype recently and had his mind blown, he’d never seen a photograph that wasn’t on a screen.

Interview 026: Josh Wool for The Photographic Journal

How do you balance these different formats, 4×5, digital, Polaroid?

Digital takes precedence for my commercial work. The 4×5 and tintype work, it’s more personal work for me, if somebody came along with the right project, you know, I’d be happy to shoot tintypes or 4×5, it just seems more and more people don’t have the patience to wait for film jobs, to get the film processed, even the time for shoots, studio time, when you shoot… For me to do tintypes, I can shoot… If I’m shooting fast, I can get, maybe 5 done in an hour, so 5 shots an hour as opposed to how many ever you can do on a film camera, or digital. It’s a much slower process. I think if the right project came along I’d be interested in doing it, but I fully embrace the digital side of it too.

Do you feel a pressure to keep your work cohesive across all the different formats?

Not necessarily. Digital’s one thing, and I’m always trying to explore, and push into new boundaries. I think that’s part of the journey we all have as photographers, to try to keep pushing the envelope and try new things. Aesthically, I think I found a niche that works for me and I really like it, so I try to stay in that to some extent, but I’m also trying to do different things. I mean, my digital work is completely different than some of the 4×5 and tintype work, because of the limitations of the analog side of it.

Interview 026: Josh Wool for The Photographic Journal

Are the tintypes something you do for the sake of keeping process alive, or do you like the aesthetics of it or…?

I like tintypes partly for the historical aspect, but I also like the aesthetic of it too. I really like that it’s tangible, you’ve got a one of a kind photograph when you’re done, and you can scan it. But you can’t, it’s just there, it is what it is, it will stand the test of time. I definitely enjoy the process, it’s a challenge, it makes me think in different terms, and it carries over to my digital work, and I try to take that, the intention, I think you really need to have intent in each photograph. I try to take that into my digital work too and not shoot 100 frames a second, and really take my time and make the right photograph each time.

And I don’t shoot a ton of 4×5, I shoot Polaroids here and there, again, more for my personal work. It gets me, I think it makes you think about photography a little bit differently, in that when you’re shooting large format, you really have to take your time, and you’re looking through that ground glass, and everything’s upside down and backwards, and it makes you look at the picture a little bit differently. You see it in your head, and you see it when you’re looking at it, and you see it in the camera, and it’s a completely different thing. I mean yeah, I like the process, but it’s also something that challenges me on a daily basis.

We actually interviewed someone recently, and we were talking about different formats, how we’ve both found that digital is great for catching a brief, fleeting moment. With something like the wet plate process, what is it you’re looking to capture from your subject? You’ve chatted ‘em up, got them relaxed, you look through the viewfinder, what are you after?

I agree, digital is amazing for capturing those quick moments. With tintypes I’m after what’s underneath those moments. I think when you have a subject sit absolutely still for 10–20 seconds the guard goes down a little more. I think there is an intensity and stoicism that comes out, but it depends on the subject. I’m not trying to do period reenactment, but as it’s so stylized I like to blend the old and new. But at the end of the day I’m just trying to make honest portraits.

Interview 026: Josh Wool for The Photographic Journal

Interview 026: Josh Wool for The Photographic Journal

Why is it you think you’re drawn to those honest, intimate moments?

I think a lot of it comes from me finding beauty in simplicity. Also the world has become so loud or rather noisy, a million distractions via social media, the internet, tv, it’s nice to shut all that out for a little while. Portraiture is an intimate thing, it takes trust between photographer and subject even if it’s just for a few moments and I like trying to find that.

Do you have specific methods for creating that trust?

I think it comes down to being genuine with my subjects. I usually try to have a conversation while I shoot, and in many cases I’m utilizing natural light so there’s not the distraction of flashes popping every few seconds. I do use lights for some projects but I find that it can be intimidating at times for portraits. I like to streamline and keep the subject’s focus on being present. It’s not always an easy task, but it’s a challenge I enjoy.

And what’s the conversation usually consist of?

It depends on the subject, but I try to get to know a little about them, try to get them to talk about things they’re interested in. Sometimes I ask questions about their lives, sometimes it’s them asking me things. I don’t have a set in stone formula, I just try to go by instinct and perception and go from there. Doesn’t alway work, some folks just don’t want to open up or are difficult in that they aren’t comfortable in front of a camera. And with high profile people (actors/musicians etc) you have just a few minutes so you just have to dive in. I tend to work pretty quickly to minimize their discomfort and people usually appreciate that. I’ll then see if I can get a few extra shots at the end and the subject knows they’ll be done and they tend to relax and I end up with good images.

Are there things you still want to work on, photographically? do you feel comfortable with where you are now?

There’s so much more I want to work on. I’ve really just scratched the surface with photography. I picked up a camera for the first time 5 years ago. It’s a bit of an anomaly that I’ve made this much progress in such a short period of time. I’d like to be able do commercial and editorial work in order to fund personal and art projects. I’d love to travel and make portraits along the way. Am I comfortable where I am now? Absolutely not. I feel like I’m confident in my abilities, but there’s always more to learn. There’s always the next hurdle to overcome. There’s always more to explore. As a career so far I’ve managed to build a decent client list, but haven’t quite broken through yet to a point where I’m comfortable. I’m still figuring out what exactly I want my work to be about in an artistic sense in my personal work. I’m also never satisfied with where I am, I’m always looking forward to the next job or next project. I’ve always been ambitious and taken risks, so being complacent has never been an option. The hardest part right now is figuring out how to navigate this new career landscape. I basically just jumped in the deep end and am figuring it out as I go.

Interview 026: Josh Wool for The Photographic Journal

What kind of risk do you feel like you’re going to take next?

I think it’s a continuation of the current one. Trying to make this grand experiment of making a career with photography sustainable. Photographically the next big risk is moving up in format to 8×10 and eventually 16×20 as well as delves into the printing process. I fully embrace digital photography, but I can’t help moving backward with technology. I think making photos and prints by hand is an important thing to help keep alive.

Is there any food that you miss in New York, that you would add to it, anything that’s missing?

That’s tough. I’m from the south, there’s some things, there’s some places down there that I miss, just local food, local, regional cultural food, that I can’t find a lot up here, but there’s so much else, in New York, there’s even decent barbecue here.

Do you think there’s any misconceptions that people have about the south, where you’re from, that you would like to change, maybe people think of it a certain way, and you see it a certain way…?

That’s a pretty broad question. It’s… I have a love-hate relationship with the south, and there are so many things that are still so backwards… And, you know, it’s just such a beautiful place, and there are a ton of really great people down there, and with the day and age that we are know, everything’s become globalized, a lot of those stereotypes are starting to diminish a little bit, I don’t know that there’s too many misconceptions, everything’s sort of based in a kernel of truth anyway. There’s good and bad, just like there’s good and bad here. It’s really interesting to see. I almost see more segregation in New York, by neighborhood, you know? You have the Hasids who live in one neighborhood, the Haitians and Dominicans live in one neighborhood, there’s African Americans in certain neighborhoods and white folks in others. It’s a little bit more plain here, a little bit more in your face here than it is in the south.

Interview 026: Josh Wool for The Photographic Journal

Would you go so far as to say New Yorkers could look to the south as a model to be replicated in a certain sense?

I don’t know about that. There’s so much cultural and socioeconomical issues that I don’t even begin to pretend to understand. I’m not a politicianlaughs at the end of the day, I take pictures. I think the south gets a bad rap in some cases and in some cases it’s justified, I take people on a person by person basis, either you’re good or you’re not, and I try not to let race, culture be a factor.

What is it that draws you to the people that you photograph? At this point you have a good degree of control over who you photograph?

It’s sort of an intangible, for me. There’s something, whether it be someone’s- a lot of it’s personality, it could be their facial features, it could be, you know, a whole host of things. The further I get into it the more selective I am. It’s sort of, I go on a gut feeling, where somebody’s face just looks interesting to me. I don’t know how to exactly quantify it into words. It’s more just what I find interesting.

Is there a certain look, or emotion that you like to have in people when you photograph them, do you give any kind of direction, or how much direction…?

A lot of my portraits tend to be somber, quiet, things like that. It’s sort of a reflection of my personality too. I give a little bit of direction, but I also try to go, the direction is not so much emotion, it’s more giving direction in how to position their chin, face up or down, things like that. A lot of it is just based in quiet work. There’s some that’s a little bit louder, but I tend to prefer these quiet, intimate moments.

Interview 026: Josh Wool for The Photographic Journal

So you just fine-tune what people already have?

Yes.

Would you say you consume a lot of other people’s photography? Are you more concerned about your own work?

I’m aware of stuff. I don’t spend a ton of time looking at other people’s works, I do look at photographs, I spent a ton of time looking at photographs before I ever picked up a camera, and I think that’s part of what makes me think what a good photograph is supposed to look like. We moved into a house when I was a kid and the people had been hoarders, and there was 25 years worth of Life and Nat Geo just piled up, so I just remember poring through those magazines as a kid and I think some of those things sort of stuck in the back of my head and sort of subconsciously come out in some of my work. I look at other photographs, I try not to let it influence what I do. There’s certain photographers obviously that I love and that have been big influences, I think at this point it’s almost detrimental to see who’s popular, and you end up chasing it, chasing somebody else’s vision, rather than continuing on your own path.

In the world of contemporary photography, is there anything you would change, or take away, a change that you could make…?

I always hate to kind of talk badly about other photographers or things that are out there, I’ve seen a lot of this heavy on camera flash…

Like nightlife photography? Or Terry Richardson?

Kind of yeah, it’s permeating into fashion. There’s a whole host of other people who are doing it too and it’s just, you see it in some pretty big publications recently, in the last few months, where it just seems like things are going to the lowest common denominator rather than trying to be elevated. I know people need to sell publications or sell their product, but…

Interview 026: Josh Wool for The Photographic Journal

Interview 026: Josh Wool for The Photographic Journal

You emphasize light a lot, both in your photographic work and in your conversations… it just seems to be a big theme for you. What’s your go-to lighting setup, if you have a model here, in the studio, or whatever, what do you like to use?

I like to use natural light. As much as I can. At the end of the day, using strobes you’re just trying to replicate natural light anyway. I’m familiar and comfortable using strobes and things like that but I much prefer, open shade, or window light, things like that. There’s so many things that you can do, dynamically, with even just the light, with these three windows gestures towards windows there’s 5 or 6 different ways you can light someone even with just the window light. Open shade is what I go to most, it gives nice, flat, even light, which I really like, but, you know there’s times where you want something more dynamic and you sort of find shadows and things like that. But as far as in the studio, strobes, I tend to use a beauty dish and a softbox. I try not to go more than three lights, because I just feel like you end up spending more time trying to figure out the light than you do sitting with the subject.

The other thing too, I think, with portrait work, if you’re blasting someone with light every three seconds it really puts them out. At least for me, I know when I get photographed, flashes going off it really will tense you up. For me, the fewer distractions the better when it comes into making a portrait.

So you like to have a very intimate session with the person?

Mm-hmm. I try to keep the set pretty quiet. Even in my commercial work, I’d rather not have distractions there, so we can focus on the work, and not whether somebody needs coffee, or there’s somebody playing on their phone, the phone’s ringing… To cut whatever distractions down, that’s how I like to work.

I notice you have a distinct focus on America. You like to photograph the American west, I’ve seen that you like that one photograph I believe of Avedon in the old west and the Blackjack dealer, your work arcs back toward it I feel like. Is there a particular reason for that? Are there other countries you’d like to shoot?

For me, I studied history in college and I’ve always been fascinated with America as a country and there are so many people that haven’t seen the bulk of the country. In my early 20s I did a road trip and I was on the road for quite a while and I hit pretty much all the lower 48 and, it’s just such a vast, diverse landscape. The people are different, the cultures are different. You can go and drive 8 hours out west and be either in the desert or the middle of the mountains. You know, it’s, partly that Americana feel, that nostalgic Americana feel is definitely interesting to me. I’d love to go to South America and check that out, parts of Asia, I’d love to go to Japan. But I think it’s important to know where you come from, at the end of the day. It’s just such, there’s such diversity in America, with immigrant life, with people who’ve been here for generations, there’s so many stories to tell and I think that’s why I’m kind of drawn through the American landscape.

Beautiful.

Interview 026: Josh Wool for The Photographic Journal