ITW 6 – Joanna Kulesza
We couldn’t spend Labor Day without highlighting the stunning work of Joanna Kulesza, our new favorite American photographer. Darby Mae met her, and we know that you’re dying to learn about this charming and summit meeting.
HEY JOe, you are a rarity in the sphere of photographers…your primary asset is your large format camera. What about this antediluvian (old-fashioned) technological innovation – at its birth anyhow – resonates with you? Can you tell us a bit about your history with photography and your relationship with large format film?
(smiles real big & puts on some Jimi Hendrix…)
I discovered photography around my jr. high school days when my mom bought a subscription to National Geographic. This quickly ignited an obsession, and I took my first traditional film photography class that year in the 8th grade. The romance of photo chemicals and the darkroom continued to enchant me all the way up to college, and I decided to pursue my degree in photography. My courses were steering towards a digitally-saturated curriculum, and I became disinterested and pretty bored with photo for a while. That totally flipped when I was introduced to this new thing called “large-format.” I was loading fat stacks of color sheet film into old, accordion-looking cameras. The product was these vibrant, fleshy, life-like pictures and I fell in love with photography all over again.
At first my excuse for shooting in large-format was that my images just looked better in this medium. The actual reality is that the content became richer. It’s a slower picture-making process that allows for careful subject-to-photographer interaction. To me, it is much more thoughtful than the convenience of an endless digital abyss. And a part of the process feels super theatrical too – feeding off that drama has always been indescribably exciting to me.
What is the creative process you go through when shooting a subject(s) or a scenery? Are most of your shoots pre-planned or do you ever just take your camera with you and let things happen organically? With that being said, large format cameras aren’t the lightest of the bunch, how do you cope with the setup and breakdown?
I usually go out shooting with a general purpose in mind, but most of the pictures do happen pretty spontaneously and organically. When I started the Creek project, I knew I’d be wandering the Austin Greenbelt looking for subjects, but finding them was mostly a happy accident of the cosmos. The energy created by approaching strangers with cameras I believe is something vital to the work of many photographers.
When shooting large-format, yes, there is definitely a lot of schlepping. My first LF camera was this massive metal thing mounted to a rail that I awkwardly hauled around in a trunk. When I started working in areas that required me to hike around, I was throwing out my back every time I went out shooting. I eventually got fed up and invested in a field camera which folds up nicely into the size of a lunchbox. The gear is unfortunately always going to be heavy here. I recommend good shoes and subtle bribes towards friends, for their love & extra arms.
Your images are rooted with such emotion and ethereality. Your ability to capture the essence of a place or the subtle nuances of human interactions are so raw, yet so inspiring and visceral. You seem to depict even the breath of an individual or the still enigma of an environment. Will you describe your personal aesthetic and some of your greatest inspirations as you’ve honed your craft?
Capturing the nuances of humanity is something I don’t think I’ve gotten totally down yet, but hope to see in my work one day. I’ve always described my style as being rooted in contemporary color imagery, while heavily drawing inspiration from classical portraiture. I like shooting with the mindset of an anthropologist, exploring themes related to cultural identity and the complexity of relationships. A few of my favorite photo legends are Alec Soth, Nan Goldin, and Joel Sternfeld, but my number 1 photo crush is this Dutch photographer, Rineke Dijkstra. Her style of portraiture is so minimal and bare-boned yet has so much emotional weight and drama behind it. It’s incredible. I also have to give a quick shoutout to Stacy Kranitz, who’s documentary work and presence on Instagram I’ve become mildly obsessed with. I think what she is doing is phenomenal.
One of my favourite projects of yours is The Idea of You. Can you elaborate a bit on what your aims are/were with this project and any setbacks or triumphs you experienced as a part of it? Do you plan to continue this project into the future, and if so, what would you change about the process (if anything)?
The Idea of You is something I made as an exercise of self-reflection through capturing the essence of moments. They may be stupid and small, or emotional and profound, but they are all fragments of you. I wanted to bottle up these blips and really remember who I was or where I was going mentally at certain points in time. I started snapping photos with my cell phone, because life happens even when you don’t have a camera to prove it.
I would like to continue the project for my own sake, but maybe find a way to connect with people more directly. It’s all super vague and personal at the moment. And on that note, I’d say the biggest challenge for me with this project is giving it any merit at all. Like, am I even allowed to call it a project? It feels a little presumptuous believing that my diary could be interesting or useful to other people. It’s challenging for me to be vulnerable in this microscopically vain way. I ultimately just hope it will push me towards doing more in the realm of discomfort.
Finally, I have a special request: will you create an acronym for your name that gives us a wider perception of who you are not only as a photographer, but also as an individual?
Joanna, you are the perfect storm of forgetfulness and clumsiness.
“Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.”
Nearsighted. (Literally & otherwise.)
Know when to be proud. Know when to be humble. If in doubt, go with the latter.
Unapologetic and unafraid (in progress~)
Life is a very serious series of jokes; embrace it all.
Spirit animal — I want it to be a panther, but it’s probably a chameleon.
y’All make me sick, and I love you.
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