Finally had a chance to get an interview dropped here on the blog with one of my favorite people and photographers. We’ve had the opportunity to become good friends in our recent moves to the Big Apple. You can check out his website before you read his interview to get an idea of his great work. www.joaocanziani.com I’ve known and enjoyed Joao’s work long before I knew him. His portraits and travel work are great and he has unique eye. We ended up having the same rep and moved out here around the same time. We’ve explored the city by bicycle many of times. The man inspires me to take even more pictures than I already do.
NO: To give us some context, what are a few clients you’ve worked for?
JC: Lately, ESPN Magazine, Dwell, Afar and Glamour. But also some advertising clients like American Express, Nike, and Apple.
NO: How long have you been shooting?
JC: Professionally since I graduated from art school at the end of 2001. But photography was a hobby of mine since I was a kid.
NO: You recently moved to New York. How do you think that’s effected your career and perspective on photography?
JC: It’s really opened my eyes to a whole new world. At this moment in my career and life I cannot praise this city enough. There’s so much going on here in terms of art, photography, music, food, etc., that you have a constant source of inspiration. Not to mention that there’s is a thriving photography community that you can take part in and share ideas and experiences with. All this can be overwhelming as well… This city kicks your ass in a way; the competition never let’s go. So although it pushes you to become a better and more ambitious artist, it’s also necessary to take a break and get away from it every once in a while.
The important thing though is that it’s pushed me to do more personal work. And when it’s not personal, to regard each commission as if it was my last.
NO: One thing I really admire about your work is that you see an interesting composition in every day situations. Is this something you’ve had to develop over the years?
JC: Thank you. I very much think so. I believe an “eye” is something you hone in over the years. I think we may be predisposed to certain talents, but not until you practice the hell out of something you’ll get to discover or develop those talents. So yeah, it’s something that I strive in getting when faced with these shoot situations. In a way I’m very conscious that that’s what I need to get, but then I let go and just shoot. Going back and forth between this consciousness and instinct drives me nuts at times, but it’s through this struggle that I can really “see.”
NO: What are your thoughts on the artistic journey and learning to see?
JC: Like I said above, learning to see is about practice really. And true dedication and commitment to your art. The artistic journey can only be had when you have a rich, fulfilling life. And most importantly when you’re willing to take risks and have the courage to fail once in a while. If you’re always trying to be safe in your photography, your work will be boring and stagnant. I know this is starting to sound like a cliché, but it’s true, and cannot be emphasized enough. We get comfortable all the time, sometimes in our success, or in the thought that we’re “good” or “talented.” Once in a while you have to question and challenge yourself to grow, and at times you won’t be able to help it but have to take a step back.
NO: How does your life experience play into how you see as an artist?
JC: I think the fact that I was introverted and shy as a kid was ultimately beneficial, because I ended up relying on my own imagination to entertain myself and spend my time. It wasn’t necessarily sports, or being popular with other kids. I was in my own little fantastical world. Although it helped me, I’m glad that I eventually grew out of that. Perhaps it was that realization that there was a wonderful world out there that led me to a career in photography. And particularly what led me initially to an interest in travel photography. So funnily enough, it was the combination of both an overactive imagination and a natural curiosity about the world that led me to a photography career. (Which explains my interest in both travel photography and lit portraiture.)
NO: What has been your experience crossing over from Film to Digital? What are the benefits for each?
JC: I was a little rebellious at first in regards to digital. I held on as long as I could! But eventually decided to embrace digital, and I’m glad I did. It has enabled me to be a bit more experimental, try different lighting approaches, different compositions. With digital you’re obviously not tied to the number of rolls or sheets of film you have at your disposal. Money spent on film is not an issue in this case. So you can shoot at your heart’s content. Problem with this is, I find, is that one can get carried away and overshoot. Since there’s not a graspable sense of a limit with digital, you feel as if you just have to cover the hell out of the situation. I’ve always compared shooting digital to a machine gun, whereas shooting with film is like a revolver: you better have good aim.
Shooting digital seriously for a year though has made me realize that you can train yourself in this matter as well. As you gain more confidence in this new medium (because somehow digital gets you thinking differently about your approach), you learn to slow down. At least for me, I now know with a digital camera when I’ve gotten a shot. But I didn’t at one point. It’s a matter of trusting your instincts with a new camera, different way of focusing, new technology, the computer, and the whole process of going about it.
I can go on and on about this subject. I suppose a whole book could be written on the benefits of each… One thing that I’m saddened about is that film is no longer taught in a lot of photography schools. I’m sad because without my background in film I wouldn’t have been able to achieve the look and feel that my photography has with digital now. Film is a physical, chemical process. Film deals with color in discreet increments, for example. At school we used to print in the color darkroom with these little color gels with various increments for red, cyan, magenta, green, blue, and yellow. So if you added twenty points of cyan to your print, you saw the results minutes later, with a print coming out of the processing machine. Nowadays a lot of digital photography is so ugly and gaudy because a lot of people have too many options in lightroom and photoshop, more than they know what to do with it. I don’t think kids are learning color theory in such a physical and palpable way, which is a shame.
So the look I give my digital photography has a foundation in film. It looks as if I shot it with negative film, which to me looks more realistic.
NO: What are the technical differences you’ve seen between the two?
JC: Like I mentioned before, the technical differences are like night and day. (Ha! But I just realized this, it’s like I’m always trying to make the two of them meet in the middle.) Film is a physical substance, an emulsion on celluloid, which reacts differently to light than a digital sensor chip would. One could say the first is organic and natural, whereas the latter is well, digital… non-analog. It’s the little “imperfections” of chemistry and all the variables that we seem unable to control which bring that beautiful organic “creamy” quality to a print made out of film. Digital can be too exacting and precise in a way, that I’m always seeking ways to “break it down” a little.
Other than that another obvious difference I’ve noticed is the difference between cameras. Digital cameras are usually just two kinds: 35mm format, or 645 (or medium) format. You know everybody and their mother is shooting with a Canon 5D Mark II. There’s a real and weird democratization happening in photography because of this. (Or perhaps more like a homogenization…?) But with film there was (and still is) every kind of camera format imaginable: from 35mm to 645 to 6×7, 4×5, all the way to huge, one-of-a-kind polaroid sheet cameras.
It’s kind of an intriguing thing that is happening in our culture right now. Photographers used their cameras as another tool in their language of communication. In the heyday of photography, you could shoot 4×5 black and white film as opposed to color 35mm film, or wet-plates as opposed to color polaroids. But nowadays everybody’s shooting with the same damn camera, so a few are struggling to find a unique voice in a sea of sameness. Isn’t the same thing happening to spoken languages? Languages are now becoming extinct the same way that, say, polaroid cameras have become extinct. I know Russia is a huge country, and this is not likely the case, but imagine the Russian language disappearing from our culture… We would lose Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and so much incredible heritage. I wonder if the same thing is happening in photography…?
NO: How does each one make you see/shoot differently?
JC: With film you can’t see results immediately, so again, you have to trust your instincts and cross your fingers that you got the shot, or didn’t fog the film in the airport’s x-ray machine, etc. With digital you’re too reliant on all sorts of feedback built into the process, from the image immediately popping on the camera LCD to the art director and client being literally over your shoulder editing on the computer monitor the shots you just took. At the risk of sounding cynical here, I want to say I’ve made my peace with digital. I feel it’s more beneficial for commercial photography (fine art photography is another matter), because as long as you develop that confidence I alluded to earlier (the one where you learn not to overshoot), digital has the potential to guarantee the results you, the art director, photo editor, and client are looking for. It’s pushed me, in fact, to get better results in my assignments.
NO: What inspires you?
JC: A broad answer to a broad question, but a bit of everything I suppose. From the banal act of procrastinating on Tumblr or Facebook and seeing an image/painting/art whatever that triggers an idea in me and/or reminds me of something, to the more active task of going to a museum or gallery show. But everything in between is fair game: reading books and magazines, riding my bike through the city. Even going out for dinner or sitting at my local coffee shop stirs my thoughts. All rich life like this is valuable. Even procrastination can be valuable at times!
But I have to mention that I watch a lot of movies. I particularly love getting lost in old foreign films, or lately, certain European films such as “Let the Right One In” or “Revanche” for their lighting, composition, and sense of narrative.
NO: How has the industry changed in the years you’ve been a photographer?
JC: It has changed a lot. Digital, obviously, is now here to stay. Film has been relegated to a very small niche. Budgets have been cut drastically. I remember when I first started being sent to Thailand for only two days because the magazine needed to cover just one small beach resort, and a couple of shots at that. I was so lucky! That is absolutely unheard of, unless you’re – I dunno – Mario Testino.
Then because photographers are not being flown around as much, pick-up photography is more prevalent. Magazines are most times more willing to pay a photographer for a previously-shot story than to assign a photographer to that story and spend lots more money. Because of this as well I suppose stock photography is in a sucky state of affairs, with the market saturated with thousands of decent photographs selling for pennies a piece.
NO: What types of personal projects do you enjoy?
JC: I’ve enjoyed the “personal” personal projects, sort to speak, the last couple of years. Projects that are closely related to my own life, my upbringing, and where I came from. I was working on a couple of projects in my home town of Lima, Peru, with an emphasis on revisiting places I used to hang out as a kid, or had a special meaning while I was young. Next, I want to do a project on a couple members of my family, but I don’t want to reveal details until I have shot it.
NO: I’ve heard you talk about not having fear in photographing people on the streets. Can you elaborate?
JC: I wasn’t quite referring to a lack of fear of shooting people on the streets as much as having the courage to jump on the chance to shoot something as soon as you encounter it and as soon as you come up with the idea to shoot it. Too many times in my travels I’ve seen something on the side of the road that I’ve wanted to shoot badly, but because of time constraints – say, having to arrive to a particular pre-arranged location – I’ve decided to revisit at a later time. I’ve justified this by saying to myself or my assistant, “Oh, let’s get it on the way back.” But 9 times out of 10 this doesn’t work. Maybe the person sitting on the side of the road is now gone, or the light has changed, or who knows? The house you wanted to shoot got demolished in the hours since you last saw it!
There was this crazy huge abandoned billboard in the middle of this highway in Peru. I always saw it every time I drove this highway. But I never shot it, thinking it would always remain there since I knew it had been there for years. So when I decided to do the personal project I mentioned about my hometown, I wanted to shoot the billboard for it. But I couldn’t find it! I kept on driving the same spot back and forth, because they had removed the billboard. Everything is finite. Not sure if the shot would have been any good, but the point is to shoot it if it intrigues you. You can edit later.
NO: You’ve been one of my favorite portrait and travel photographers. So first off, what is your top 3 pieces of advice in shooting a good travel story?
JC: I would say the most important tip is to have courage. The same courage I talk about above. Don’t be afraid to approach someone or something. Of course, being sensitive to people’s privacy, or the environment around you, is important. But that is something that with practice you learn to deal with. With practice you’ll get better and smoother at persuading someone to grant you the access you need.
The second tip I’ve always found valuable from experience is to always make sure you have enough time to flesh out the shotlist you’re given (if it’s an assignment). Obviously it’s important to shoot what is important in the shotlist, but I’ve always found it so pleasurable to roam where you’re at and shoot what interests you and intrigues you. I got hired for my eye and for the images the photo editor and art director saw in my portfolio. A lot of times those images come out of that roaming. The shotlist may indicate you have to shoot a hotel, a restaurant, and a portrait of a chef there, but often the beautiful travel magazines will publish those unscripted spontaneous shots you found on the side of the road (see!). Those images are to me what completes the commission, because it provides a context too. Think about it, if you’re shooting only what the writer is talking about, then why should you shoot it if the writer is already talking about it? Your job is redundant… But if you shoot that and more you’re striving to provide your unique voice and interpretation to the piece.
The third is, do your research! And be prepared. This cannot be emphasized enough. Know what you’re shooting, know the culture and customs. Insist on a fixer or local assistant if necessary. Having someone that speaks the same language and be your liaison in that foreign country can make or break an assignment.
NO: Secondly, In your opinion, what makes a strong portrait?
JC: This is a hard question. A lot of times it is the way that the photographer has engaged with the subject. But sometimes a good portrait can be one where the subject is completely disengaged or absent-minded. Often a good environmental portrait can also be an image that feels more cinematic in nature, or candid in that sort of slice-of-life kind of way. To me a strong portrait is one that has a certain intensity, and in can either be achieved with the subject’s gaze, or the way the portrait is lit (I gravitate towards the more dramatic), or the composition. Irving Penn’s black and white portraits are some of my favorites because his compositions are composed of very simple lines, but are so strong and solid, with very simple tonalities. I can recognize his portraits from a mile away. They’re iconic.
NO: How has biking in New York influenced you artistically?
JC: Ahhh, the pleasurable question. I love biking in New York, as you know so well. On the most psychological level, it releases tension when the stress gets a little high. I can have a crappy day at the office with billing or endless retouching, but then I go for a bike ride and it’s as if I’m instantly cured. And then while you’re out there you get to notice the beautiful women walking the streets with their high heels, you notice the way the light interacts with the glass of the buildings and reflects on the opposite walls, you notice the myriad of colors and the architecture, you notice the chaos and the traffic and the jarring sounds. And then you take it all in and you realize why this city has been such a source of inspiration for so many artists.
You should follow Joao on all his social media entities to see his new work and thoughts. Here it is:
and of course www.joaocanziani.com