interview by mo
"Whittle it down to something that no one else does but you."
- 18 minute read
- Published Jan 1, 2016
- Portrait by Mo
- It was a pleasure getting the chance to meet Joe and his studio manager, Delia, in person. I was surprised and unwaveringly grateful when Joe invited me to see him and his team work their magic during a shoot at Milk Studios in Los Angeles. Joe is incredibly attentive, kind, and a great model. He should be in front of the camera more!
From clients that range from The Hollywood Reporter to ESPN The Magazine, Joe Pugliese’s work captures an intimate perspective on some of the most disruptive creatives of the 21st century. Armed with a sense of awareness, Joe shares a notion of compassion with his subjects that allow him to frame them in a vulnerable manner. In this interview, Joe and I talk about integrity, the creative community, and the purpose of his work.
Jump to a topic
Joe: I'm curious about how you started Emmazed.
Mo: I started it two-and-a-half years ago with the initial impression of publishing only my own work. I had an HTC phone and took pictures of a trip in Denver with it. I shared it on Twitter thinking nothing of it, and HTC responded and they wanted to share the images. And from that point, I slowly grew the confidence enough to do a project with them, which they shared. Through that I ambitiously thought that maybe I could get a review unit from Google, and when I contacted them they said yes. After that, I slowly realised that I wanted to share [other peoples] work. So I started doing Q&A's, but quickly realised that I didn't like the monologued structure of them, so I started calling people and soon did in-person interviews in New York, and got hooked after that.
Joe: That's cool, and it looks like you've found photographer's off of Instagram as well. Like, Jake Stangel is someone I know and I feel like he's a well-known editorial photographer. How do you find photographers?
Mo: I find most of them through other photographers. I pay attention to what’s going on with agencies and look at who may know who. Now, when I reach out to people, there's a likeliness that they know at least one of the people I've interviewed on the site.
Joe: It helps.
Mo: Oh, definitely. It took two-and-a-half years to have that ability.
Joe: I can see that you're tapping into the sense of photography community here [in LA]. We sometimes feel isolated in what we do. We know each others' bylines; we know each others' work; we know each others' clients; we share crew and resources. There might be somebody I know very well here [in Milk Studios] shooting today, but I wouldn't even know if they're here. So, we operate in our own bubbles and I think part of that is the fact that the model of photography is now digital.
Joe: When I started, every day ended at the equipment rental house or lab, or both—or even the darkroom where you would see your peers and contemporaries. I spent some time in New York and I felt a little bit more of that community because people more naturally got together. People would go out and have a drink after work. People would see their clients on a daily basis because most of the magazines are in New York. In LA, when I started working for magazines based in New York, I felt disconnected from my clients. I only knew them by phone and email. I didn't get face-time with them except for the three or four times in the year when I would go and try to do meetings or see them on set. A few years ago I felt that building a sense of community, either passively or actively, was really important for the LA photo scene, because the one thing that we all have to do is support each other. Because that way we don't get taken advantage of by editorial contracts that aren't fair, or crew and clients that don't have a good reputation. We have to keep that conversation open and support each other even though, technically, we're all going up against each other for the same jobs. I just feel like it's much healthier for all of us to start knowing each other. I've reached out not that differently than you've reached out to photographers whose work I know but have never met.
Mo: We're basically in this together. You don't realise how close you are to each other in terms of social vicinity. I'm honestly a person away from 10 people that I've always wanted to meet.
Joe: Yeah, and what I've found out as my career progresses is less of a sense of competition with other people. I'm not saying that I'm better than anybody, it's just that I'm being called for the thing that I do. People aren't asking me to do fashion. They want me to do portraiture, which is what I love. And within that world, am I shooting conceptual portraits? Am I shooting high-key lighting portraits? All of a sudden you start finding that you have a niche within a niche within a niche. You whittle it down to something that no one does but you.
Joe: When I look at other people's work that are established, I realise that they do their thing every time out. It makes it a lot less stressful to realise that you have to concentrate on what you like to do, and you won't have that sense that someone could steal a job away from you. If I lose a job to someone else, 9 times out of 10 they were better suited for the job. I do my thing for the clients that want that thing. It makes for more room to have colleagues who are friends, because you won't have this sense of competition with them and you'll want to share information with them and help them. We have all become resources for each other. I can't tell you about how many email exchanges going around of, "What gear do you use on this?" or "How did you accomplish that?". I haven't met anyone who keeps their cards close, and if they do then they usually end up staying isolated. If that's their attitude then they're welcome to have it.
Mo: How did you find your specific style of portrait photography? And what fuelled that?
Joe: It whittled itself into that just from sheer volume. I've tried a lot of different approaches and I've tried to first and foremost please the client, and I did that for many years and that never built my voice. I was just basically seeing to it that the client got what they first and what I wanted was secondary. I think I found myself getting excited when there was no client pressure, when it was up to me to create something that I felt was the best approach. I started in newspaper work, which is like being a jack of all trades—shooting sports, news, and features. I got out of newspapers and got into the editorial world by assisting Art Streiber , who's a great mentor and friend of mine. He was the first photographer that I saw had a great vision all the time and he always, always wanted to help people who were enthusiastic about learning and who had the right attitude. When he saw that in somebody, he would do anything you needed to get to the next level. And, for me, he introduced me to his clients, which a lot of photographers would never do for assistants. He wrote emails for me to introduce me to clients; he critiqued my work; he explained the business to me on countless phone calls and emails. And so that's part of the reason why I want to give that back to people who reach out to me.
Joe: The portrait work came from my experience with Art showed me that I wanted to be in magazine work. Through all that, I found my own voice that was different than the type of photography that I learned from Art. It took a long time for me to be confident enough to approach it my way. I think it’s only been in the last two or three years, with the help of my agents at Bernstein & Andriulli, of saying yes to the right things and passing on the things that don't utilise my voice or point of view. Trying to take the right jobs for the right reason is a huge part of how I found my niche.
Mo: Was it transparent realising your perspective? How did you filter through knowing what people were looking for?
Joe: It was a lot of trial and error. A huge part of it, for me, was editing my own work. But what happens when you start getting tearsheets and magazine work, is you're so happy to have this proof that you can accomplish the job, that you show that work above the work that might've been your favourite. You might have your favourites and the magazine might have what it needs, let's say a cover which absolutely demands that there be eye contact or brightly lit, and your favourite might've been [the picture that's] a quiet moment with more subtle light. What I've found is that I always edit my portfolio and website to showcase my favourites from the shoot. And what happens there is that it creates a world where your potential clients are looking at your ideal work and that's how they're pairing up with you. For me, it's very important to edit my own work to be the work that I want to continue doing and be the work that I want to be called to do. That builds and builds over time. Some of my heroes in photography, such as Nadav Kander... if you look at his website, it's all his edit; it's not the published image. It's his best image, in his mind, from every shoot that he does.
Mo: It's easy to have the approach of giving people what they want just to justify you getting something in a monetary sense. If you nurture your creative integrity then you'll get what you want, even though it might make for a harder, longer road to travel. It's good to see your attachment towards creative integrity.
Joe: It takes a long time. There's work in my archive which is very valuable and has lead to me being confident in the way I want to shoot now, but there was work that I was doing to solve a problem for somebody. I think there's merit in that and there's a work ethic there that I learned under very strong examples. Don't be above the job that someone is hiring you for. A strong part of my career now is the collaboration between me and my clients. I can be on set with any client where I feel like I have the communication and diplomatic skills to sort of elevate my aesthetic, and usually the client is very appreciative that I'm there to add value to the process and not just take orders.
Mo: Dating back to your childhood, how supportive were your parents in terms of a creative career?
Joe: I'm the youngest of three and my sister and brother have great careers. My sister is a judge and my brother is an engineer, so they have careers that are very dependent on scholastic learning. I think being the youngest, I had the advantage of not having the pressure to perform that way. I always wanted some creative outlet. I did everything from drawing to graphic design all through my childhood. When I found photography, it was actually a means to get images for a self-published zine I was making with my friends on BMX bikes when we were 16. I got the first camera I could find with a fisheye lens and a motor drive so I could take pictures of bike tricks. And, almost immediately, it took over as my favourite thing to do. My dad really was supportive. My parents loved that I was doing something that I was consumed by. I made a darkroom in my bedroom! [smiling] I taped down the windows and put toxic chemicals in my bedroom. I had room to play.
Joe: I feel like any support, whether it's from your parents or people from the industry, is a game changer. I think that anyone who is interested in photography, It could make or break you to have a mentor or someone to show you that it's something that is possible.
Mo: And through that tunnel of support from your parents, through an accumulation of instances, what gave you the amount of trust to inject yourself into photography as a full-time career?
Joe: I think I just combined my desire to create things that were graphic with my interest in meeting people. I found newspaper work because the only published pictures I ever saw were in newspapers. We weren't really a magazine family; we always had newspapers around, and I thought that's what you do if you're a photographer. When I was in high school, I just picked up the phone and called the local newspaper and asked the local photographer if I could ride along with him on his assignments. I don't even know what got into me to make that phone call, but it seemed right at the time. As you know, people are very open to those kind of things but aren't asked a lot. I think sharing knowledge is one of the best parts of having a career where you've tackled the difficulties of it, so the best thing to do is give back. I have a lot of people in my life who were mentors along the way.
Mo: There's such a small bubble of people who are actually pursuing it compared to the big bubble of people who want to pursue a creative career. The reason why there's such a big bubble is that there's not a lot of encouragement from the smaller bubble. It seems very daunting to really throw yourself into this. Not as many people are encouraging creativity as they should. Through these conversations, I try to tackle these things, because when people reach you at least you have a reference pointing back to this conversation, so that we can continue that encouragement.
Joe: Yeah, and for me, photography, just like any creative endeavour, really benefits from a diversity of voices. The more pictures you can see by more people, the better your work gets. I feel like when I started out maybe I lived in a bubble, but no one ever told me that this wasn't possible. They may have not said that this would absolutely work out, but nobody scared me. That isn't to say that I wouldn't have been scared if someone told me that this is one of the most competitive industries in the world. I probably would've been turned off by that and found something else. Part of the conversation now, because of the way we share photos and see photos, I feel is really negative. I feel like people get hung up on equipment; people get hung up on copyright infringement. Those are all super important things, but I don't think anyone should ever feel like it's not possible for them to create something very unique to their own voice and something that's absolutely necessary.
Joe: Every voice should be heard. I feel like it's very important for anyone who's coming up in photography to feel like their voice is needed, from established photographers, from established magazines, from beginning photographers. I mean, part of what I love that's happening in photography right now is all the disruptive moments. Photography started being studio only. You couldn't take the camera out of the studio. And then it got put in the hands of people with a Kodak Brownie. That was very threatening to studio photographers. They thought their business model was going away and in a lot of ways it did. That was 100 years ago, and photography is still here. And, right now, a lot of photographers are not excited on the fact about people making a living, or at the least, a name for themselves with cellphone photography. For me, it's like if you have a vision and you can point that thing in the right direction at the right thing, then who gives a shit what the device is? I think voice counts above everything else. I've never considered myself a technical photographer, I never had any classes and was self taught. I only learned as much as I needed to do at the time and even right now I'm still learning. I never felt like the photography that I do is so proprietary that I couldn't share how I do it with anyone else.
Mo: A lot of people are hung over a lot of things except for creating art.
Joe: Writers don't sit around and lament the fact that people can type on a computer. There was never a disruptive moment in writing, you know. Painters were probably more freaked out about photography. Your voice lives on and there are plenty of painters who paint like Dutch masters now who are fantastic. Abstract art didn't ruin painting. No camera format or sharing mechanism will ruin photography, it'll just add to the pot.
Mo: It moves everybody forward. For lack of a better term, it pushes the traditionalists forward to expand their comfort zone. And on the other side of the spectrum, it allows [more] people who are just starting to get into photography. It's contributive to both parties.
Joe: Yes, and I've been very happy to see the point of entry to photography get to so low that basically anyone can do it. I was always uncomfortable with the fact that so many voices weren't being heard around the world because of the difficulty in taking pictures and getting them developed and presenting them to somebody else. I got out of newspapers before we even started shooting digitally, but what I saw was better reporting around the world once digital became the standard. You can find coverage on almost anything now, even if it was taken on a phone.
Mo: What are a few things that you advocate for people who are just getting into photography?
Joe: Take as many pictures as possible. I feel like a lot of people get ahead of themselves and they're in it for six months, they're in it for a year, they've had some great results, and they feel like they've earned a spot at the table. And honestly, some can because their vision is so strong, but nothing can make up for raw hours spent at doing something.
Joe: I've had some shoots that were mediocre at best, but there was never a shoot I didn't learn from. I was hard on myself and that's what kept me going—the idea that I can do a better job next time was huge. I never beat myself up to not try again. There are a lot of deep-seated reactions to other people’s success, but that's not your problem. Your job as a photographer is to make work. That's all you have to do. If you make a folder of images on your desktop that no one ever sees and there's 10,000 images in there, then you're going to be a much better photographer than if you hadn't.
Mo: What do you find the purpose of your work to be?
Joe: Coming from photojournalism, I idealise my work as being a lasting record of a person that I've photographed. That sort of informed my work in that I don't take assignments that involve models. I don't shoot people just because they're in front of a camera. I only photograph people with a story to tell. I feel like when I photograph actors, I'm not trying to take a snapshot of this moment. I'm trying to take a photo that reflects their entire career. I want to get into them as a person, not as a character that they're playing. I think about what the defining moment of somebody’s life would be. What would be their obituary photo? If somebody, 40 or 50 years from now, passes away, would one of my photos sum up that person? That's impossible to ever get to, but that's the bar that I sometimes set in my head.
Mo: How do you mentally approach that?
Joe: I listen to my subjects more than I direct. I want to hear them talk to me. I want to let them present to me their mood. They're allowed to have a bad day and not want to be here. They're allowed not to be inspired to do what I want them to do. They're allowed to ask to do something differently, but I do want to know where my subjects are at and I want to get a handle on if they're nervous or need a lot of direction. And I can't come in with the same approach every time. I have to actually talk to them to know where their heads are at and let them know that they're in good hands.
Mo: What has been one of the most important things you've learned from your subjects?
Joe: I think a sense of compassion where I can try to put myself in their shoes. A lot of photographers don't ever get their picture taken and I think it's very important as a photographer to get in front of the camera, even when you’re testing your light. If you can get in front of the camera and look down a lens, you're going to have a lot more compassion for what you are doing. I think compassion for my subjects is something that I learned through shared experiences. Some have been bold enough to tell me that they don't want to stand over there or do something particular. You should take the subjects’ criticism of your shot not personally, but actually as a helpful tool to learn that you can't ask the world from all your subjects. That's a huge part of portraiture.
Where can we follow you?
- Website, Instagram, and agency profile
I notice myself listening to a lot of ethereal music as I get older. I love Beach House, Grizzly Bear, and Little Dragon, and things like that. I love Tame Impala, although they are a little bit more upbeat than the others. I really love Beach House. I think I get obsessed with bands when I love their music and then I see their cinematic visuals. I'm a lifelong Morrissey fan. That's my number one most wanted subject that I've never had the chance to photograph. I'm still holding out hope that someday it'll happen.
What are your hotspots?
I'm definitely big on the third wave coffee thing. I love Portland. I'm obsessed with Stumptown and Heart coffee. I just went to a restaurant in London called The Restaurant Story with my wife. It was one of the top three or four meals I've had in my life.
What gear have you been shooting with lately?
On a personal basis, I like taking pictures on an iPhone. My carry-on camera for the past few years has been a Fujifilm X100, but I felt like the file size is a bit small to make big prints, and so my new personal camera that I just got is the Leica Q. It has a proper lens that doesn't distort and it's a 35mm format. I also have an M6, but I feel like this Q is the camera that is the no brainer that I want it to be, and small enough that I could have it with me all the time.