Nathan: I have been following your work for quite a while now, Joel, so I already have a few insights into when and how you first became interested in photography; nonetheless, so that we have a reasonable place to start from, I would still like to hear about what first drew you to photography.
Joel: To be entirely honest, I can’t remember when or identify exactly what first drew me to photography. It’s definitely something that grew over time. Maybe it’s better to ask– what first drew me to art in general— because, in my mind, photography is largely a form of artistic expression. I never had the intention of merely recording things. I wanted to create. The fact that I now do that with a camera is almost coincidence. I say almost because it was a matter of deduction: I’m not extremely good at drawing or painting, nor am I good at any other form of artistic expression, but I have always had a need to create, to express. That I chose to to do it with a camera is coincidental.
Nathan: For much of this interview, I’d like to specifically focus on both your sources of inspiration and your various approaches to cultivating your vision and processing your images, so I will begin with one of the most identifiable qualities of every image you take: the light. If I recall correctly, you list Vermeer as a major influence on your work. What other painters have influenced you, and, if you wish, how have they influenced you?
Joel: Yes, Vermeer is an important influence. I adore his work; in fact, there was a time when I studied his work intensively– reading all about his work, his life, the way he created his paintings. It’s all because of the way he used light. I’m very sensitive to light, not only physically (I always wear sunglasses because my eyes hurt when the light is too bright) but also mentally: my mood is largely influenced not only by the way light is present or absent, but also by the way light falls. And that sensitivity to light is the reason I have always felt very attracted to Vermeer’s work. However, I’m not exactly sure how Vermeer’s work has influenced my art. Perhaps it has done so subconsciously but absolutely not in any conscious or deliberate way.
As for other artist painters: I’ve always loved Salvador Dali’s surrealism– and, perhaps, my appreciation of his work is one of the reasons I like to infuse a surreal atmosphere into my work. I could name many more painters, but, in particular, I have to name Rembrandt and Caravaggio for their use of light, their use of contrasts, for the chiaroscuro effects. It’s an element that’s quite prominent in my own photography. I love to use very harsh contrasts in my photographs, so I place bright whites adjacent to dark contrasting elements.
Nathan: Yes — and it is that attention to light that has always drawn me to your work– especially how deftly you handle its relationship to shadow through the contrasts you yield so beautifully. I can guess for myself that you carefully calculate how you capture light, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on how your process works– from the choices you make before you press the shutter to the choices you make in the digital darkroom.
Joel: First and foremost: I want to create a thing of beauty. Beauty comes first– all the rest is just filler. Unlike many other artists, I am not trying to convey a particular message. Beauty in all its forms, physical or metaphysical, is everywhere and it lights a fire within me, one that makes me want to create things that move both myself and others.
“I call architecture frozen music. ”
— Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, in a letter to Johann Peter Eckermann, Mar. 23, 1829 —
Second: I have learned to work on particular projects, on series with a theme, because this focus forces me to operate within a fixed framework and eliminate all other possibilities (or even distractions). I feel it is necessary to come up with a body of work that is coherent, one that visualizes a thought, one in which the only freedom you have is to find ways to use the light, contrasts and B&W to support the theme and enhance it. If I don’t focus in this way, then, even though I could come up with many images that I find interesting and my portfolio might look eclectic, it would lack the depth and coherence I find important. So I restrict myself to a theme. As you know, for the last two years, I have limited myself to only shooting architecture– and within architecture I have restricted myself to a few themes like Goethe‘s quote about frozen music or Le Corbusier‘s quote about forms assembled in the light.
“Architecture is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light.”
— Le Corbusier from Vers une architecture, 1922 —
These are the fundamental foundations of my photography, of my vision, and they are always on my mind when I’m out shooting and composing an image. One of the many approaches that best expresses beauty, in my view, is minimalism, but, unlike many other photographers who strive for minimalism, I don’t begin with a subject and then gradually remove other unwanted elements out of the frame. I start the other way around: first there’s the empty frame, and then I gradually move the object that I want to capture, a building for example, into my frame. I add the necessary. Of course capturing the scene is only just one part of my artistic process. The other part is the real artistic process: (a) my interpretation of what the camera objectively and without emotion records and (b) how I translate it into my personal vision. Although a large part of this process takes place in the (digital) darkroom behind my computer– the physical process of pressing all the buttons and moving all the sliders– the actual artistic process is of course a mental one. What I’m trying to say is that you can’t just play with the sliders randomly– well of course you can– but the result will occasionally be fantastic, sometimes bad, and most of the time nothing more than average. No, you have to observe; you have to stare; you have to analyze and evaluate. You need to do that to align the image with your vision. When I say that I have worked sixty-plus hours on a single image, I have spent most of that time sitting behind the computer, staring at the image, and thinking about it. Yes, I do a lot of staring and thinking. When I first started, I also had to overcome some technical issues: I would have something in mind but I did not know how to realize it, but I no longer have such issues. I can create anything I have in mind, and if there’s no tool in my toolbox for a specific effect, then I just create it.
The biggest challenges I face these days are:
- How subtle should the tonal transition be in this part of the building?
- What is the balance between sky and subject?
- Is the sky overpowering my subject?
- What is the visual and emotional effect when I change the ‘tonal pitch’ and shift from a zone 5/6 domination to a zone 2/3 domination?
These are all questions I raise and options I try out in the digital darkroom to get to the final result, to the realization of a vision. And, of course, with every new photo I take, every piece of art I try to create, I always try to come up with something new, something I did not see before or have not done before. This is the only way to stay creative and be innovative.
Nathan: I am very interested in what you said about “the message” of an image … namely that you don’t simply want to convey a particular message. I’d like to think of this in terms of meaning … and what we might mean about an image, or a piece of art in general, having a meaning. I understand that in your recent series you are unifying your search for beauty around the words of Goethe or Le Corbusier, but what, if I may ask, do the words of this poet and this architect mean to you– and how do they weave into the various tapestries of your series? Or do you wish to leave such conclusions and understandings entirely up to the viewer?
Joel: I have done quite some thinking about this, especially since I have always been fascinated with why I like a specific photograph, why I like a specific building, or why I like a specific work of art in general– and, of course, why I started to create art myself. It’s intriguing. I think that, in art, whatever we create is predominantly triggered from the subconscious mind. Perhaps describing our conscious and subconscious actions in terms of meaning instead of a message would be the best way to put it. When I stated that I create something without the objective of conveying any message, this doesn’t mean that I don’t want to convey anything at all. Of course I convey something; it is, after all, the essence of communication, the essence of human existence. Saying that I’m not conveying anything is like saying I’m the only living being in this universe. Which I highly doubt. But it is never a message in terms of the, for example, political, the sociological, or the economical; rather I am trying to convey an emotion, a primal urge. And that, I believe, has a meaning that comes from myself. I could be sad; I could be confused; I could be exuberant or I could simply be inspired by the beauty I just saw and want to express that. I can’t create anything if it doesn’t have a meaning. So, yes, when I created my architectural series Frozen Music and Shape of Light, they both had a meaning. If I did it right, if I created art the way art should be created – from a strong inner drive and channeled and expressed through the the intellect (the perfect marriage of heaven and hell to quote William Blake) – then any perceptive viewer should recognize it, should feel it. And in some cases even describe it.
I don’t know if I can accurately and fully describe it, but I will try.
The themes I used for my series, Frozen Music or Shape of Light, were just a framework that I felt comfortable with, a set of rules, a set of boundaries that I imposed upon myself so that I would not get lost. And within such boundaries, one’s heart is what rules, what dominates; in other words, every highlight in the image is an act of desire, every shadow an expression of love, every mid-tone an act of despair. I can’t say anything that makes sense when working within those boundaries. However, the boundary itself and the theme are more concrete. Frozen Music, for example, had everything to do with the search for lines and shapes that reminded me of music: those lines that were dramatically curved, but also smoothly swirling. If a building did not instantly remind me of music, then I carried on and looked for another architectural subject that did. My Shape of Light series was all about the importance of light revealing or obscuring shapes and spaces. Light, or the absence of it, was the dominant factor in that series, and I tried to emphasize its drama by molding the light in post production and giving the architectural subject more presence.
However– and, for me, this a very significant however– does the framework I work in reveal the true meaning of what I create and want to convey? No, it’s just a package, a beautifully designed one intended to draw attention and to seduce. And what’s in it? The part that is ruled by the heart … that’s where the real meaning is. And that meaning is nothing more than a desire to be loved, to feel, to be immortal, to be seen and heard and to be meaningful– and not just be an insect on the face of eternity. That’s the true meaning of all I create: the unbearable lightness of being. If I like a work of art, then it’s because I see and feel this in it.
Nathan: Keeping in mind this intense focus in both your own work and the work of others that you admire, what exactly do you think fine art photography is? Is there really such a thing– or is it more of an umbrella of sorts that one can fit many types of photography under?
Joel: I’m happy you ask this. Not that I think I know the definitive answer– in fact, I doubt I ever will know. I think, in a sense, it is a sort of an umbrella, but the same applies to all the other photography categories such as news or documentary photography as well as art movements in painting, cinematography, etc. That’s the difficulty with all art: it’s very subjective even though there are always certain objective criteria as well. Let me try to come up with my own definition of what I think it is because even though whatever it might be will always remain subjective, I do believe that there is such a thing as fine art.
Let me start with a definition from Wikipedia: “Fine art photography refers to photographs that are created in accordance with the creative vision of the photographer as artist. Fine art photography stands in contrast to photojournalism, which provides a visual account for news events, and commercial photography, the primary focus of which is to advertise products or services” (wikipedia.org).
So how do I decide if a photo is fine art or not? To me an important part of fine art is the personal vision of the artist. The more personal and unique the vision is, the more it approaches the ideal of fine art. In my view, this can be achieved by moving away from the reality of the subject itself: the more you move away from reality, the more you get to the essence of the artist and the more you get to something authentic inside of the artist– to something that Minor White, in his essay “Equivalence: The Perennial Trend,” and Alfred Stieglitz, in his essay “How I Came to Photograph Clouds,” called equivalence. It’s a known state of mind, a known feeling that is expressed by the artist and recognized by the viewer: it’s something very authentic and at the same time indescribable. Inspired by this, I like to move away as much as I can from reality in my photographs by using B&W and long exposure techniques and then ‘molding’ the light and contrasts, according to my vision, into something (very) different from reality. Other important elements are of course the aesthetics (which is very subjective) and the question of whether the image evokes an emotion. Quality and proficiency also play an important role (e.g. technical aspects like correct exposure, composition, etc.).
The following are my highly personal criteria:
a. Authenticity: While I cannot describe when something is authentic, you will know and feel if you are looking at something authentic because the photograph mirrors something in yourself, the viewer; it evokes an instant emotion.
b. Vision: It must reflect a personal vision and have a personal look and feel to it. Perhaps this is the same as authenticity. The more the photo doesn’t reflect reality– the more it tends to be originating from a personal artistic vision– the more it can be considered fine art.
d. Quality: What is quality? I can’t answer that but you can read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig … it’s a good read! But quality definitely has a technical component as well. A fine art photo must reflect that and should be executed in a technically correct way.
So, yes, I think there is something called fine art and that it’s more than just an umbrella covering all photographs that we like but don’t want to categorize as documentary or news photography. And it definitely is more than a beautiful photograph that merely follows some universal, aesthetic rule such as the golden ratio, complete coverage of tonal range, good subject matter and/or composition. What we often think is truly beautiful is nothing more than something that we recognize, something that, in some way, changes us after encountering it. I was, for example, changed by the great works of Bresson, the fine art of Ralph Gibson and Jeanloup Sieff, the amazing portrait work of Karsh and Penn, and the beauty of Mapplethorpe‘s flowers, Newton‘s nudes, and Adams‘ landscapes. And this is what I’m trying to do myself: to photograph shapes and forms, usually architecture, and render light and darkness in such a way that it mirrors something inside of me– even though I don’t necessarily know exactly what it is that I am trying to express. All I know is I’m expressing something inside of me in the hopes that someone recognizes it.
I hope I’m creating fine art.
Nathan: Building off of your thoughts about fine art, meaning, and process– why long exposure photography? What is the allure? I was recently thinking about my own attraction to it and the words, “frozen silence,” came to mind because, among many other things, a long exposure, for me at least, freezes the silence that lives in the spaces between the seconds that tick away in our perceptions of life, freezing those passing seconds and revealing a single, thin slice of what was once reality. Those are some of my thoughts, but I am far more curious about what you think.
Joel: There are many reasons I’m attracted to long exposure photography. First, there is the visual attraction. The very first long exposure photograph I saw was from a relatively unknown photographer whose name I have forgotten, but I vividly remember being mesmerized. It was so entirely different from everything I had seen before; it was so surreal, so mysterious. Long exposures have such a great visual appeal. And then there’s the time element, which I find especially intriguing; after all, time is an intriguing concept in and of itself. Like many, I’ve always had some sort of obsession with time, and, in my specific case, I’ve always been searching for some sort of lost time, just like in Marcel Proust’s famous novel [In Search of Lost Time]. This, of course, has nothing to do with photography, but it does illustrate my personal sentiments regarding the concept of time– and that I had to do something with that no matter what form. Furthermore, as I already explained, I always try to move one or more steps away from reality. The more you move away from reality, the more you get to the essence of the artist. As an artist moves away from reality, he leaves a representation of things that are not based on the reality of the subject, but, rather, what the artist wants us to see and that only exists in his mind.
When one uses black and white, one already has deliberately moved a single step or more away from reality– and when one leaves that shutter open for as long as a few seconds to many minutes (or hours), one moves away from reality at least one more step, thus getting closer to a more personal vision of reality. I try to step even further away from reality by also molding the light and modifying the tonal relationships: it’s one of the fundamental characteristics of my work … light can be dark and dark can be light. Finally, time, when it comes down to it, is not something visual; rather, it’s both a continuous cumulative experience and a singular one-off experience. Such things are hard to grasp and they intrigue me. With long exposure photography, we can get some grip on it by recording a slice of time in a way that averages time over a longer period. David Fokos put this in more beautiful words in one of his interviews on Sprayblog:
“I believe that our sense of experience is built up over time – a composite of many short-term events. I will often suggest this analogy: Suppose you meet someone for the first time. Your impression of that person is not a snapshot in your mind of the first time you saw that person, but rather a portrait you have assembled from many separate moments. Each time that person exhibits a new facial expression or hand gesture, you add that into your impression of who that person is. Your image of that person — how you feel about that person — is formed over time, rather than upon a single expression or gesture. Likewise, I believe that our impression of the world is based upon our total experience. For example, the ocean has always made me feel calm, relaxed, and contented. If I were to take an instantaneous snapshot of the ocean, the photo would include waves with jagged edges, salt spray, and foam. This type of image does not make me feel calm — it does not represent how the ocean makes me feel as I stare out over the water. What I am responding to is the underlying, fundamental form of the ocean, its vast expansiveness and the strong line of the horizon, both of which are very stable, calming forms that I find relaxing. So, I had to find a way to brush away the messy, “visual noise” of the waves to get to the essence of my experience. I have done this by using my camera’s unique ability to average time, through the use of long exposures. In this way I am able to quell the visual noise (e.g. the short-term temporal events like breaking waves or zooming cars) to reveal a sort of hidden world. It is a very real world to be sure – the camera was able to record the scene – it is just not one that we normally experience visually. Our bodies respond to many types of stimuli. What we see – the visual information – is just one type of stimulus, though it is often the most overpowering of the senses. However, due to the short wavelengths of visible light, this information is presented to us in an infinite series of frozen snapshot moments. Our bodies also react to other types of stimuli on longer time scales – our sense of touch, smell, hearing, etc. The wavelengths of sound waves are much longer than those of light so it takes our body longer to capture a “sound snapshot”. Our skin reacts to sunlight, another stimulus, but how long does it take for us to get a tan or sunburn? The point is that the world exists as a time continuum, not just a frozen snapshot. Our bodies respond to the world in a cumulative way, averaging our experience as we pass through time. Using my camera’s ability to average time through long exposures, I can reveal what our world “looks” like based on a longer time scale. My photographic process acts as a translator – translating from the “invisible” world of non-instantaneous events, into the visible world as a photographic print. In a way, it is like peeling back a page to reveal a world that, while very real, is not experienced visually. We feel it. We sense it. But in general, we don’t see it.”
Fokos’ observations express perfectly why I love to use long exposure techniques in my photography: reasons that are visual, conceptual, and philosophical.
Nathan: For the purely selfish reason that I love the sea, I have always been curious: why did you switch from long exposure seascapes to primarily long exposure architecture? Do you have any plans to revisit the sea as a subject?
Joel: I don’t know why exactly. I used to think it’s because I love architecture, and I do– I love it with all my heart. But do I love architecture more than a beautiful seascape? I don’t know. What I do know is that, at this time, I can express myself better and in a more authentic and original way by photographing architecture rather than seascapes. These days there are so many great seascape photographs and photographers: and the majority of these images are most certainly technically well executed and beautiful. But only a few look authentic to me and even fewer are original. But I suppose that’s not really a problem because there’s no such thing as originality anymore: everything has been done already; however, the lack of authenticity is a more serious issue. Many of these perfectly-executed seascapes, although perfectly executed, don’t evoke any emotion within me. This probably has nothing to do with the quality of the photograph or the photographer but more with myself: but time and time again I see the photo, yet I don’t see the photographer behind it. This is quite probably because long exposure seascapes don’t mirror something inside me anymore. I feel disconnected from it right now.
For some unknown reason I have this connection with architecture, and I feel I can express something authentic, and, more importantly, I might be able to do so in an original way as well. Let’s just face it: there was hardly any good fine art architecture until a few years ago. Most architectural work was a clinical and technical perfect recording of an architectural object. There was no fine art look and feel to it although many already used long exposure techniques to achieve a fine art look. This work hardly evoked an emotion. This has changed over the last few years with artists like Kevin Saint Grey, Marc Koegel, some of the work from Cole Thompson, Irene Kung, and quite recently with Giles McGarry and Julia Anna Gospodarou, who are both paving the way for a new movement in architectural fine art photography.
I saw this opportunity a few years ago in my quest for originality and authenticity and I attempted to come up with my own voice in fine art architecture. While I do feel that I have succeeded, success was never really my criterion. What’s more important is that I can completely immerse myself in architectural photography and give my work some authenticity. Something I didn’t feel any more with seascape and landscape photography.
All that said– I do not have any plans for revisiting the sea as a subject: no specific plans, that is, but there’s always a chance. If I feel I can once again express myself in an authentic way with seascapes then I will go back.
Nathan: I think it is safe to say that your success with finding your own voice in architectural photography has inspired a movement– so, based on what you have already just said, I would love to know more about your general thoughts on fine art architectural photography? What initially inspired you to pursue it and what is your overall vision and approach to it?
Joel: I have to confess that, in general, I’m not very impressed by most fine art architectural photography. Let me make it clear that I’m not talking about non-fine-art architectural photography, which is quite a different discipline, one in which a clean, objective and technically-correct representation of an architectural object are the primary objectives. I don’t have anything to do with that. I love architecture– and I think both architecture itself and fine art architecture originate from the same inspirational source. For me, the primary thing that is wrong in many architectural fine art photographs is that many people are missing the whole point. Many see the ultimate goal as only capturing the dramatic streaks of clouds, and, as a a result, the architectural subject gets degraded to the background while it should be exactly the opposite. Any architectural subject, due to its nature, is the perfect object for playing with light and shadow and suggestive forms; it lends itself perfectly for an artist’s interpretation, for an exercise in luminosity and presence. It’s something you see very rarely. If I present an architectural photograph then it should present my state of mind– although I’m never quite sure if I have succeed. The worst comment I could receive from someone is that my image lacks soul and emotion because I work very hard to put just that into my 40+ hours of work on a single photograph.
Nathan: Ah yes … the many hours that you put into a photograph! I’d really like to hear some more about your approach to processing. I do believe that you have spent up to eighty hours on a single image. I am very curious about your transitions from seeing the image before you even click the shutter to post processing and then, finally, to the finished image. Are you more or less aware of exactly how you want the image to look as soon as you have chosen the composition and pressed the shutter– or is there still some process of discovery as you work on your images for those many hours?
Joel: Currently, I’m working on two architectural images at the same time, both of which I have been working on for more than two months already, equaling probably 60+ hours per image, and I’m just half way done. It’s not that I spend so much time post-processing, but that I spend so much time trying to really SEE the picture I’m working on as I also try out different things. It’s like I try to hypnotize my photo, hoping it does what I want. In many cases I already have an image in mind; well, actually, it’s a concept I have in mind … but it’s a very clear concept. It’s not that I see a specific mood and treatment for a specific building or even that I have an entirely specific concept in mindin mind. I try to see how light and shadow play their important role. And if I don’t have the light and shadow in my photo when I get home then I just start molding the light until it matches the concept I had in mind. And while doing that, while trying to process the image, while playing with light and shadow, I sometimes stumble upon something interesting that looks good but I did not expect beforehand. I like to surprise myself. So, yes, there’s still a process of discovery and that’s good because it means I’m still learning, still discovering. If photography did not allow such discoveries, then I’m sure one day a robot could be built that could do the exact the same things that I can and do it even better. Would that be exciting? No, not at all. If you can’t surprise yourself anymore, you shouldn’t expect to surprise others.
Nathan: Speaking of discovery and growing, which most certainly implies expanding to other subjects, I recently read that you are interested in pursuing portrait photography this year– and a short while ago you shared some images of classic cars. I’d love to hear some more about these new directions and where you plan to take them. Will you be exploring these subjects / themes in addition to your architectural work or are you planning on shifting the majority of your focus to pursue only new directions– and are there any other directions that you are interested in pursuing as well?
Joel: Yes, that’s correct. For the past two or three years, I’ve been saying that I will start pursuing portrait photography. Portrait photography is my first love in photography: not landscapes, architecture or still life. That said– I think it’s probably the most difficult type of fine art photography. To best explain, I need to turn again to my definition of fine art, to the authenticity, to the moving away from reality so that one can reveal the essence of the subject, or if you wish, the emotional possibilities of both the photographer and the photograph. I can certainly emphasize specific elements depending on the type of subject, but the difficulty with fine art portraiture is: how can one express one’s artistic vision authentically when the subject itself, a human being, already suggests a meaning itself in the facial expressions and body language, both of which express emotions inherent to the subject, ones that can possibly obstruct and interfere with one’s vision?
This is not an issue with a landscape or architectural object: they are still, or, if you wish, static, and aren’t influenced by the artist. On the one hand, you can use that subject to reveal your vision and express something inside yourself without the interference of a subject’s human emotions. On the other hand, I think that a model, the one being portrayed, is usually someone the artist has chosen based on his or her specific requirements, requirements that can be conscious or subconscious, ones that can be driven by something the artist wishes to express, something that can amplify and support one’s vision. But you have to know what you want as an artist, and the model will need to follow your directions exactly. This explains why there are many great portraiture photographers who have a favorite model, one that seems to almost know what it is inside the artist that needs to be revealed. I’m still in the process of identifying the shapes I want to use to express that something inside of me as well as how specific human emotions can support that. But to do this, I have to know what I wish to reveal, and I’m not sure if I discovered this for myself yet.
As for the cars, that’s largely commercially driven and something I love to do as well. The challenge here is of course to maintain artistic integrity, and, fortunately, I have a client from the automotive industry who insists that I photograph his products and cars according to the “Joel Tjintjelaar style and vision.” This helps to keep it fun (and make money at the same time)! The fact that I have always loved cars helps too! But there’s no specific artistic goal in my automotive photography other than revealing the essence of the car in my specific style for commercial purposes. Portraiture is here definitely to stay and will make up for the majority of my work in the future. The same goes for architecture, landscapes and still life– but portraiture and architecture are my core artistic interests.
I have also always loved cinematography and that’s one of the reasons I’m working closely with Armand Dijcks— who is a very talented cinematographer. I believe in exploring the intersections of artistic disciplines to progress as an artist. The intersection of cinematography and photography is one of them– and I have this secret dream to one day be a Director of Photography for a motion picture.
Nathan: I have a BA and an MA in English Literature and make my living teaching college level writing, but, truth be told, I know even more about movies than literature even though I have never formally studied film. I have been addicted to cinema since childhood. A few of my obvious favorite cinematographers are Kazuo Miyagawa (worked on films by Ozu, Mizogochi and Kurosawa), Sven Nykvist (most famous for his work with Bergman), and Giuseppe Rotunno (worked with, most famously, Fellini and Visconti). I am curious: who are some of those cinematographers that first inspired you?
Joel: In most cases, I only remember the visual impact the movies had on me as a young kid, not the directors: but Stanley Kubrick is, of course, someone I have to mention– even if it only was for the fact that he was a photographer himself before he pursued cinematography. His films show us that every frame can be a photograph. I also appreciate Tarantino. There are so many I remember visually, especially specific scenes, but not so much the specific director.
Nathan: Even though you already briefly touched on some of them earlier, I’d like to shift gears a bit and ask you again about your influences. Who are some of the classic photographers that you admire the most, the ones that initially inspired you to pursue your own photography and the ones that you still turn to?
Joel: If I am being honest, I’ll have to admit that I wasn’t initially inspired by any photographers to pursue photography. I was inspired by the great cinematographers. Yes, it was cinematography that led me to photography, and then I found the art of the great portraiture and still life photographers who still inspire me more than anyone else, most of whom I mentioned earlier: Karsh, Penn, Avedon, Newton, Mapplethorpe and one of my all time favorites, Jeanloup Sieff. These were the people that made me fall in love with B&W photography. After that, people like Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams and Michael Kenna followed. Some might find these influences strange since I predominantly shoot black and white landscapes and architecture. When it comes to B&W technique almost everyone will refer to Ansel Adams, but, for me, the great portraiture photographers have influenced and continue to inspire my love for B&W photography the most significantly.
Nathan: How about contemporary photographers?
Joel: I like Michael Kenna, but, of course, who doesn’t? I have to admit, however, that sometimes I have a hard time liking parts of his work– but that almost seems like blasphemy. I like the way Michael Levin approaches his seascapes and landscapes. His almost clinical style, which has been copied by many, has influenced many people, including me. But I personally think Cole Thompson has more depth and his work is timeless. He will never bore me. At this time, Thompson and Ralph Gibson are my favorite contemporary photographers, the ones who inspire me the most, but there are certainly many more.
Nathan: I’d like to shift in a different direction before returning to more questions about composition and process. You mentioned the photographers who have influenced you, but you have reached the point where now others are influenced by you. Of course, many photographers begin the process of finding their own vision by emulating, mimicking, and even copying the photographers they admire the most as a way to learn, to grow, to progress. I’d like to ask you what your feelings are about photographers doing an homage to another photographer versus a photographer who just out and out copies, or if you wish, plagiarizes? Most certainly it is, in the end, difficult, and maybe even impossible, to do anything truly unique and original, but is there a point where one is really just truly copying another photographer? Where do you think this line should be drawn?
Joel: Recently, I discovered an image posted by another photographer, apparently a fan of my work, that looked exactly like my Empire State Building photo (ESB). So much so that I initially thought he stole my photo and posted it as his. Upon closer examination, it turned out to be a replica of my work but with a few differences. To be entirely honest, I was angry when I saw it and then that he didn’t even mention my name. And then I thought that I would probably be just as angry if he had mentioned my name. Why? It is, as you say,very common for photographers to be inspired by other photographers and then try to copy them. As the saying goes– imitation is the sincerest form of flattery— but I was not so sure about that when I saw that copy of my photo. I have also been inspired by some of the great photographers– especially in my earlier work. Finding inspiration in the work of others is the best way to learn photography, but I have always tried to come up with my own version of any photograph that inspired me, never an exact copy. If you want to be a serious photographer, then you have to follow your own path and stop copying other photographers’ styles. I’m not saying that you should stop being inspired by others; that is something different. You can be inspired by one of the great names in photographic history and still come up with original and authentic work. That’s another one of the significant reasons that I left seascapes; I felt that anything I did looked like something out of Levin or Kenna‘s trashbin. The long exposure power station series I did was just a poor copy from Kenna’s masterful work. My minimalistic seascapes with the white water were all Levin-inspired. It was a phase, a necessary phase in my growth as a photographer. So there’s nothing wrong with being inspired and copying a certain style, and if you should happen to consider copying a certain style a goal in itself, that is also fine by me. But I think the more similar a specific work is to something already in existence, then all the more directly and specifically the original artist should be credited.
So when is something that is inspired by and clearly derived from another artist considered plagiarism? To answer this question best, I’d like to begin by deconstructing a fine art photograph (as opposed to a news or documentary photograph):
- Subject matter
- Style/genre (e.g. color or b&w, minimalistic, long exposure, etc.)
- Concept (why one uses the style, composition and subject matter they have chosen)
- Artistic interpretation (how does one use the style, composition, subject matter and concept they have adopted)
These, in my view, are the ingredients that constitute a fine art photograph and help determine whether it is authentic. I want to avoid the word original because I think a photograph doesn’t have to be original to be authentic. Authenticity is what matters the most, especially since complete originality is almost impossible. When I try to be true to my beliefs and my artistic concepts, I can still come up with something that doesn’t look original in terms of composition, subject matter, style and even concept, but it is authentic; its underlying meaning– formed by the specific artistic interpretation in a photograph– can be quite different.
Photographs can have the same subject matter, but same subject matter only isn’t enough criteria to classify a work of art as a copy of or inspired by. The same can be said of all other separate elements that are similar. Even same subject matter, composition and style don’t necessarily result in an image that is derived from another photograph and, as a result, plagiarism. However, if you add to this the same artistic interpretation and concept, then we are almost surely talking about an image that has been inspired by the original image, maybe it’s even an exact copy and a sure case of plagiarism. And that’s exactly what I saw when I was confronted with that almost exact copy of my ESB photo– and, if I’m being honest, I have to say I was simply furious that he didn’t mention me. I have seen so many architectural images that use the same elements as my work but I don’t mind that at all. I am flattered when I see something like that– even if they don’t mention my name. But I have to admit, the more elements used that are similar to mine, many more question marks will be raised if they don’t mention their source of inspiration directly or indirectly.
The ESB imitation was similar in all aspects down to the (a) artistic interpretation, (b) tonality, and (c) tonal relationships in specific parts of the photo. The very individual placement of highlights in the photo was also very much the same. The creator of the photo didn’t do anything to make it more authentic. It was almost an exact copy of my photo. I was irritated. He used something that was highly individual: my artistic interpretation. He stole a piece of my individuality– the what, the that which makes me, ME. When you take that part along with all the other elements and use them unchanged, then a definite line has been crossed if you don’t mention the original artist. In fact, you have already crossed the line even if you do cite the source of inspiration when you have only altered the elements . I think the bigger and even more important question is: what was the use or point of bothering to publish such an exact copy even assuming he didn’t have a malicious intention?
Nathan: Before I move on to some more general questions, I’d like to return to the subject of your overall process. You tend to favor the square format in much of your work. Are there any particular reasons why? I know that you take a long time to walk around and study a subject and think about the composition before you even set up a shot. In other words, you always take the time to look for the exact composition … how does the square format work into this process, especially knowing that you will have to later crop the RAW image?
Joel: I don’t have a specific reason. It was just a choice I made at some point in time for reasons of efficiency. I have experimented with different formats many times– and those experiments tended to make the choice of composition even more difficult and time consuming– especially since I had to choose the format first and then compose around it. Or should it be the other way around? Such choices made it even more complex than it already was. The beautiful, classical format of the simple square is so elegant and timeless. The choice of composition is now simply a matter of efficiency.
Nathan: I am drawn to your photography for many reasons. The tones, the technical perfection of your lines, your attention to light and shadow, but, in the end, I am especially drawn to the mood. This may have a lot to do with the fact that this is something essential to me in my own work– and, by extension, has everything to do with my enjoyment of the works of others. In other words, it is quite likely that I am imposing my own aesthetics onto your image– and bypassing your extensive effort to infuse your work with your emotions. How important is mood to you? And, maybe, more importantly, do you think mood is something a photographer can really hope to express– or are such things really out of the photographer’s hand and more in the eye and mind and soul of the viewer of the image?
Joel: The funny thing is that, most of the time, I’m not looking for a mood, nor do I even want to express it. But what I always express is what I see in my mind. And, apparently, I see dark things in my mind, and maybe I even feel strong emotions … but … no … wait … I surely do feel very strong emotions, and I willingly let them take over when I’m processing my images. So here it is: I’m not trying to create a mood in my work, but I can only create work that I believe in when my emotions take over. What I process is almost always done in a highly emotional state and probably that’s what you see as mood. I’m, therefore, not deliberately trying to express mood, but I am deliberately trying to create something that originated from a passionate drive. If I don’t feel anything during the process of creation, then I might as well be a robot. I think that someone deliberately trying to create mood will come up with something that can look moody, but it isn’t necessarily authentic because I believe that real mood is created when you try to put your emotions in it. Another strange thing is that the photos which I’ve put the most of myself into seem to express little or no mood or emotion to others. I don’t care if people don’t notice. The thing is: you only recognize it if you have the same emotions as I have– well, some people have them and others do not.
Nathan: Okay– now that we have discussed your thoughts, processes, and sources of inspiration, let’s turn to your work helping to teach others to cultivate their own vision. You have recently started a new venture with Vision Explorers. I’d love to hear more about this.
Joel: Vision Explorers (VE) is a new teaching collaboration that I have developed along with Sharon Tenenbaum, Daniel Portal and Armand Dijcks. Sharon is an international award winning photographer who has won the IPA several times. Daniel has a lot of experience organizing workshops in remote locations. Armand is a very talented cinematographer. The genesis for this new venture first began when Daniel approached me two years ago to do a workshop in some of the most beautiful places in Argentina. I asked Daniel if I could invite another photographer to help me teach the workshops. That was Sharon. My decision was purely based on a gut feeling because I only knew her from some email correspondence we had exchanged. After working on the Argentina workshop for some time, we decided to cancel it because we felt it would be hard to sell out this quite expensive workshop. We thought it might be more successful to set up one of the very first fine-art architectural workshops in the world. In fact, I don’t think anyone ever set up something like that before us. And besides that: both Sharon and I have won fine-art awards in the architectural category. It was our forte. But I wanted it to be even more special, so I invited Armand Dijcks to our VE core team. He made it possible to bridge the gap between photography and cinematography, both art forms, as I have already said, that I love very much. Moreover, Armand could record the event in fine-art style. We also invited Marc Koegel as a guest speaker. Marc is someone who can jump in any time, talk about anything without any preparation at all, and do a great job.
We held the first one in New York City, and it was a big success. We are now doing more workshops this year in Chicago and in NYC one more time– and, for next year, we will be doing even more exciting workshops in other special locations. For each workshop, the core VE team will work with special guest stars and speakers ranging from Julia Anna Gospodarou and Jeff Gaydash (Chicago) to Cole Thompson. I’m not going to say too much about the latter because that’s something that we’re still working on, but it’s going to be something really very special. The basic idea behind the VE workshops is to focus more on the vision part than on the technical skills part. We are also focused on hosting our workshops with a variety of top artists as opposed to just one or two. For each workshop, we want to represent the best of each discipline and sometimes that means five or even six different teachers/guest speakers/instructors who are the best at what they do– which, I do believe, sets us apart from the rest.
Nathan: So I’d like to shift gears one more time and ask some general questions that I ask everyone who agrees to an interview. First, we have already covered a few painters, some photographers and filmmakers that have influenced you artistically: but are there any other influences that you would like to mention? For example, specific films, specific images, writers, poets, novelists, philosophers, music, etc.
There are too many to mention, but literature and philosophy have always been there with me. I could name the great American and British writers that have been part of my life, but there are also so many great French, Dutch, South-American and Russian writers like Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, Dostoevsky and Gerard Reve (Dutch) that I have loved reading. Their work has always been piled up alongside my bed. I have to give Henry Miller a special mention though. His writing style has strongly influenced my own. I’m currently reading a fantastic book about Michelangelo’s life, The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone, a very inspiring read, indeed! As for philosophers: I’ve read everything from and about German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. He is my favorite philosopher, and years before I ever considered myself an artist, I had spent much time exploring the work of this philosopher of artists as he was referred to by many. Then there’s Nietzsche and the many other philosophers that I studied when I was still at law school studying criminal law: Rousseau, Montesquieu, and many others. I have always been interested in constitutional law, it’s knowledge still very useful to me now. I love to read and think about what makes a society and how its rules are formed and why they are formed. For the outsider, it may look boring, but in fact it touches on the fundaments for why we do what we do in a society, how fundamental rights and human rights are formed, and why they’re so important for any civilized society.
Nathan: Do you listen to music while you process your images? If, yes, what music do you prefer and do you think it has any influence on how you see, on how you create, while you are processing?
Joel: Oh I love music– and I love to work while listening to music. If I am not listening to music when I work then I think of music. The last thing I hear before falling asleep is the music in my head. Music is everywhere. And yes music has a big influence on my behavior and on how I see and feel. I don’t have a specific preference since I listen to all sorts of music– from classical to jazz, from blues to rock, and from soul to Latin. But I have a weak spot for jazz and Miles Davis. And every time I listen to Keith Jarret something happens to me.
Oh and did you know I’ve always been a very talented Latin percussion player? The first time that I ever played congas I outplayed all my friends who had been playing for years … true story … I mention this just to show a different more playful side of me and to illustrate the fact that I can’t live without music.
Nathan: Do you have any interest in pursuing film photography?
Joel: Yes, but purely out of curiosity. I just wonder what it would feel like to shoot film again after so many years of digital photography– but absolutely not because you can only be a serious photographer if you shoot film. I think that is pretentious nonsense. If I shoot film, it is simply because I like to do it, not because it makes me more an artist than someone who shoots with a digital camera. It’s not the medium or tools you use that determines if you’re an artist; it’s your attitude towards what you create that makes you an artist.
Nathan: What equipment and software do you primarily use?
Joel: I am currently using the following:
- Main cameras: Canon 5D MK III and Canon 7D
- Cameras for street and other non landscape/non architectural: Fuji x100
- Gitzo and Manfrotto tripods
- Wacom Intuos 4 Medium tablet
- Canon L 17-40 – I use this lens all the time (99% of the time) and by the time this interview is released I will also be using the Canon 24mm T/S lens, which I will use for not only architecture but also portraits, trees, and still life work.
- Software: Adobe Photoshop CS6, NIK Software Silver Efex Pro2, onOne Perfect Resize and Topaz Software.
Nathan: What are your thoughts about trying to find the best gear possible versus working on making the best possible image with the gear you already have?
Joel: I won 2nd place at the IPA 2010 and was finalist at the Sony World Photography awards only using a cheap Canon Rebel with the cheapest kit lens. I can’t stand photographers with the most expensive gear looking down at other serious photographers with lesser gear and not taking them seriously just because of that. I have personally met these types of photographers and they ignored me after they saw me with my cheap DSLR and kit lens, but while they were ignoring me, I shot some photos that were eventually published by literally thousands of websites, magazines and every newspaper you could find on this earth through the worldwide BMW 6 series campaign in 2010. Yes, the mighty BMW bought and used my photos shot on the cheapest DSLR for their expensive worldwide advertising campaign. Can you imagine that? Nothing is impossible, not even with cheap gear, as long as you believe in what you do and you are driven by a passion that ignites your imagination. I’ve never seen those other photographers again, but I’m sure that they have seen my work somewhere without even knowing they were taken by that guy they completely ignored. It’s not that I don’t appreciate great gear. I do because it can inspire and motivate you, but you won’t take a better photo with it. Great gear will make your life easier, but it won’t make creating art any easier. But passion, real passion, makes anything possible.
Nathan: I’d like to thank you for doing this interview, Joel. I have known you and your work since 2009, back when I had no path, no direction, for my photography whatsoever. All I knew was that I wanted to make black and white images. In fact, at the time, I was only making jpegs; I wasn’t even using RAW files or doing any processing. You were very encouraging back in those days– and when I started to pursue my own long exposure seascapes, you always had a kind word for me, which I still appreciate. And, of course, you have never stopped that kindness and generosity, so I would also like to take this moment to thank you for that as well (and I know that there are many, many others who feel the same way). In that spirit, do you have any advice for photographers who enjoy your work?
Joel: I think that it is okay to be inspired and that it’s okay to emulate a style. Nothing wrong with that. I also think it’s great if you want to take advice from someone more experienced or maybe even one of your heroes. But once you start believing in your own work, in the art you create, then I would advise you to never ever take any advice again or to ever start doubting your own work if you haven’t asked for any advice. I believe that if an artist isn’t asking for any advice, that you have to respect the artist’s integrity and never offer any advice. What truly comes from the artist’s mind and soul is a reflection of his spirit; it is inalienable; it is sacred.
Nathan: And, finally, If you were to sum up yourself and your thoughts about photography into a few simple words, what would those words be?
Joel: I’m Joel … I try to make something beautiful out of a primary need to create and be accepted and recognized … out of a deeply rooted passion … out of a need to be more than an insect on the face of eternity.
Frozen Music Series
Selections from Shape of Light Series
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