Joseph Webb

Where are you from/based now?

I grew up in southern Oregon, in a town called Grants Pass. I went to art school and got my start in commercial photography in Portland, Oregon. Altogether, I was in Portland for about seven years. In June, 2014, I moved out Philadelphia, so Philly is my new headquarters.

What is your background in Photography? What keeps you interested?

I became interested in art and photography when I began to appreciate cinema, just at the end of my time in high school. Right before I went to college, I got a cheap digital SLR and played around with it for a while, but it was just like a toy for me, not serious. During my second year of university, before I transferred to art school, there was a very short and intense period when it felt like a door opened in my mind. When I crossed the threshold of that doorway, art objects, artistic performance, and art’s weight on history all became visible to me with a clarity and seriousness that before did not exist in my mind.

In the fall of 2008, I transferred to the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA), in Portland, Oregon. The environment at PNCA was right for me to change from a person who appreciated art to a person that communicated most clearly in the visual language, especially photography. Since then, art and image making has been my preferred way to express myself, so staying interested just happens along with that.

What equipment do you use?

It really depends on the situation, because I use all sorts of different digital and analog imaging equipment. Whenever possible, I like to shoot color film with medium and large format film cameras. I feel like medium format cameras with a frame 6x6 or larger consistently and most easily make very aesthetically pleasing, painterly images, especially in natural light. The medium format camera I have right now is a Bronica GS-1, but I will probably try a few more medium format cameras before I settle on one--maybe a Pentax 6x7 or Mamiya rangefinder. My 4x5 rig is a Sinar Alpina with a Nikkor 150mm, which is a simple, quality setup that I need to shoot with more often.

Recently, I got a small, full-frame Sony digital camera with a Voigtlander lens that renders decent images, but it takes substantially more work to create a digital image with the same sort of life and sense of space that film provides. Also, the mental pressure of shooting film and the lack of instant visual feedback that digital can deliver makes me shoot differently. It is like what Ansel Adams describes as visualization, using your mind’s eye, which is something that digital photography can really undercut.

What do you look for when you are out shooting?

In my observational images, I usually look for something hidden. Some scene or object that most people look past or something that is seedy, dark, or absurd. So, when I wander around making observational images, I try to find places where I don’t exactly feel welcomed, like an outsider. Photography is a very voyeuristic undertaking. Unlike painting or writing fiction, photochemical photography, as Sontag and Barthes viewed it, is physical evidence of having been witness to something. Conversely, though, photographs and images generally can be very deceptive and malleable, so I also find many interesting images while playing with the ideas of a given image’s limited ability to deliver context, and how the viewer’s interpretation of an image can be manipulated through the title or caption that a photographer gives an image. To make an image that keeps me and any potential viewer coming back to reexamine it, like its meaning is a puzzle that can be solved, that type of image is always a goal I have in mind.

In the studio, I really like to explore how far I can push an image into an uncanny, hyperreal direction before it breaks down and looks like an illustration or collage. Finding an area of tension between faithful and unreliable photographic representation is very interesting and satisfying to me. Unlike being out on the street or in a landscape, the studio provides any photographer the opportunity to create a world completely from his imagination. Since every single minute detail of the final image is a decision that I have to evaluate and make, I feel like what I create is exactly what I want to say and nothing else.

How often do you go out shooting?

I try really hard to get out with one of my medium format cameras camera once a week or every other week, but I wish it was more often. If I engage in a studio project, I usually work on production during weekends, and retouching at night until it is done. I can be involved with studio projects for weeks at a time.

Do you find it hard to balance personal work with commissioned work?

I thought that working in commercial photography would make me more likely to get overwhelmed or too saturated with photo-related tasks in my life, but it has actually made my personal practice stronger. I work with other photographers and artistic people who keep creative discussions going. The access to photographic gear, lighting equipment, and studio space is a very practical yet important advantage that comes with working in the commercial photography world. However, it has been my experience that creative industry jobs require a lot of time from the people who hold them. The lack of time that I can devote to personal work is the only downside of my current personal-professional balancing act. Ideally, my schedule would be half personal work and half commissioned work, because I do enjoy commercial work, as it presents me with technical and creative problems to solve. Also, working under another person’s creative direction has made me more fluent in how to successfully communicate concepts and emotions visually.

Is there a particular photographer, site, set of images or a photo book that you keep coming back to for inspiration?

There have been so many influential artists in my life and I feel guilty about leaving any of them out, but the artists and curators that first inspired me are still some of my strongest influences. Andreas Gursky is a photographer who really opened my eyes to how the Sublime could be manifested visually and emotionally in a contemporary manner while still evoking many motifs of Romantic painting--the scale of his prints, the situation of the human form in a vast scene, his ability to create scenes that are both tranquil and overwhelming. The way Gursky employs digital manipulation and compositing into his images also spoke to me. My early attempts at digital manipulation of photographic imagery were very garish and kitschy. Discovering Gursky’s images showed me that using these tools with purpose, intentionality, and restraint is the way to make art that can communicate something more intense and human than, “this picture looks cool.”

However, the most interesting contemporary photographer that has managed to stay relevant for a long time is Thomas Ruff. His work is so eclectic but he has been successful in many different modes. His JPEGS series was so well timed and said the right things about the nascent ubiquity of digital photography and how it might erode, amplify, or distort the type of imagery society was used to since the advent of photochemical photography. More recently, Ruff’s ma.r.s. works and his photograms series has expanded his reach into appropriated imagery and digital rendering. In terms of what work a contemporary photographer can make, Thomas Ruff is definitely a guide for me.

When looking for photography that is less conceptual or less technical, and more narrative, I look to the curatorial efforts of American Suburb X. They do such a great job bringing to the table so many important figures in photography’s recent past, especially artists who are underappreciated or fringe.

Are you working on a project at the moment?

Right now I am working on a large studio project. I am finally undertaking a large series of works for the first time in my life. The style will be in line with two pieces I made at the end of 2013 called Intermaterial Love no. 1 and no. 2, but the subject matter and style is going to be a little more expansive--beyond mannequin parts. The project is going to explore the forms of mass produced bottles and liquids, like soaps, lotions, and foodstuffs. There is something very interesting about these ubiquitous sculptural forms (bottles and containers) and the sameness of the liquids and gels that we willingly, and sometimes fetishistically, apply to our homes, clothes, and bodies. It should turn out to be creepy and delightful.

Are you planning on exhibiting any work in the near future?

I have no plans for a show right now. My art had to take a break while I spent time getting the ball rolling on my career. Now my commercial photography gig is well established and my current employer is more supportive of personal artistic endeavors, so 2015 will be an important year for me in terms of getting my artistic practice jump started. Wish me luck in pulling it off.

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