T his post marks the launch of a new column on POP featuring photographers interviewing other photographers. I was challenged by photographer Mathieu Young to find a way to curate content. This came up in conversation with Shaun Fenn and without hesitation he asked if he could interview Joao Canziani. Joao agreed and I’m very happy to share the first photographer-photographer interview on POP. Thank you to Shaun and Joao for their passion, generosity of spirit and all their time on such an inspiring interview.
Joao Canziani is an editorial and advertising photographer currently based in New York city. (Joao is correctly pronounced “Joe-wow”.) He was born in Lima Peru but bounced around between Canada, Los Angeles and New York while growing up. I have admired his work for some time. So when POP asked me if I would like to interview another photographer I jumped at the chance to reach out to Joao. I learned his style has developed from years of international exposure, a natural sensibility, a formal technical education, bad-ass raw talent, and a little assisting experimentation. It turns out we had both just finished large scale-scale portrait projects and were both big fans of Hendricks Gin.
When we were finally able to talk, Joao had just been through hurricane Sandy which hammered NYC. He lives over in Brooklyn with his half Yorki, half poodle named Regina. As I suspected he is just a really down to earth, energized, honest spirit. We were able to talk about comparing some of the large metropolitan cities and their respective personalities. NY seems like a great fit for someone like Joao who feeds off that energy. I only wish we could have done this over in Brooklyn, or in San Francisco, over happy hour.
His work seems to live somewhere between editorial and fine art. (I wasn’t surprised to learn he was an avid gallery nut). His images seem fearless and raw, yet very sophisticated. Joao has such a refreshing style, I especially enjoy his editorial travel work (along with Julien Capmeil). If you love to explore, as I do, this editorial style is so refreshing. His palate and processing seem to come from someone who has had a relationship with large format film, very rich with lots of depth.
Big thanks to Joao for spending the time to do this between assignments, volunteering for Sandy clean up, and marathon training. (Sorry about that cancelation Joao ;)) I hope you enjoy learning a little bit more about this unique artist, as much as I enjoyed getting to know him. And if you are not part of the 69,000 person entourage who follow him on Tumblr, you will be soon. Be prepared to be inspired.
SHAUN: First of all, how did you weather the hurricane?
Fine thanks, I was in town. There were no power outages or anything over here. We were pretty lucky in this part of Brooklyn. People stocked up on water and liquor and stuff before the storm. The day after felt like Christmas, people walking about, stores and most restaurants closed, not much traffic. There were a few felled trees here and there. Quite a contrast from the suffering and destruction in other areas of NYC.
SHAUN: So you were born and raised in Lima, Peru. How would you describe this influence creatively?
I was a little bit of a loner as a kid. I had a few friends, but mostly built stuff with Legos and drew a lot. I was not super coordinated and hated team sports, so I ended up leaning toward creative avenues. I drew and designed things that intrigued me. At 15 my family and I moved up to Canada and this is where I first started loving to take pictures. Years later, after my parents split and my father moved back to Peru, I went back to visit for the first time since I had moved.
The trip was an eye-opening experience. I fell in love with my own country, and was excited about being from Latin America. There’s so many things about Peru that inspired me, but amongst them were: the intense and varied landscape, and in particular, the incredible dry desert coast and the Pacific ocean; the confluence of very distinct cultures, which in the past brought so much violence but now has brought about people of such liveliness and smart sense of humor, such delicious food (the food! I would fly there for the food alone!); and then I suppose the mere fact that I was born there so whenever I arrive there I can smell the distinct air and I get excited.
SHAUN: I’ve read you got a Pentax camera at age 15. Do you remember some of your earlier photographs?
I started shooting with my dad’s Pentax K1000. We used to go camping down south of Lima. My parents’ friends and us had those old Westfalia vans and we would go windsurfing. I really loved some of that part of the country. I also remember shooting some early nature images up in Canada.
SHAUN: You moved to Canada and received a degree in psychology. Why psychology?
I lost my motivation in college, and my marks deteriorated from one semester to the next. I kind of fell into the psychology thing, I felt it was my only option. I had just returned from a backpacking trip through Europe because I needed to take some time off and reevaluate what I was doing with my life. I came back to school and psychology just clicked for me. But that trip to Europe had planted the travel and photography bug in me.
SHAUN: What influenced you to move to LA to attend Art Center?
I was up in Canada and my mother was reminding me at the time that I needed to do something in the US in order to keep my green card (we were fortunate that my grandfather was born in the US, so we were all able to get green cards). I did some research and applied to Art Center. I moved down to LA and got some scholarships and ended up attending.
SHAUN: How would describe the benefit of your Art Center experience to your photo career?
Art Center was an amazing experience for me. It was very competitive, and it broke me down at the same time as it was building me back up again. I have heard it has changed a lot since I was there. A lot of the teachers I had are no longer there. There were some pretty crazy characters there back then. I learned a lot about color theory and composition. It was a great opportunity to meet a lot of talented people from around the world who had the resources to attend. It was also very expensive.
There are two professors I remember distinctly: Jeff Atherton and James Fee. Unfortunately James passed away a few years ago. He was a complex individual and I believe struggled with depression. But I loved him and loved his photography. He was no bullshit, and sometimes I think he died because he didn’t belong in this world we live in. He belonged to another era, where political correctness didn’t exist. He was rude, he was moody, he would make lots of students cry. But he told you straight up what he thought of your work, and your progress. I really appreciated that. At a moment when I struggled with making my portraits meaningful, or at least decent, he taught me that portraiture had to have soul. It wasn’t just about having your subject in front of the camera. It was about something more. Some real human chemistry shit had to transpire.
Jeff Atherton is very much alive, thankfully. That man is a genius, and most of the stuff he taught us went right over our heads. It was complex philosophical stuff about the history of art, composition, color theory. For example, it wasn’t just about that bullshit rule of thirds that they teach you at the better wedding-photography schools I’m sure. I really owe him so much for imparting these theories that have now become like valuable artistic instincts that I use every day I shoot. I’ve always been meaning to get the books he used to read from, so I could explicitly relearn what he taught. Unfortunately, he was laid off a few years ago. I don’t think Art Center is the same without these two.
SHAUN: So I’ve read that you found yourself shooting a lot of “Heavily lit fashion”?
Back then I was inspired by Herb Ritts, Irving Penn, Paolo Roversi, and other artists who were creating these very ethereal fantasy worlds for publications like Italian Vogue. I used the school’s studio a lot, and lots of lights and smoke machines – pretty cheesy stuff, but I learned a lot. Then I eventually abandoned that style.
SHAUN: Did you ever assist?
Yes, after graduating from Art Center. I graduated a couple of weeks before September 11 and everything really took a hard hit at the time. So instead of shooting I turned to assisting, mostly for a photographer based in LA called Matthew Welch. He taught me a lot about the profession, and the business of it. Matthew was a visiting professional at Art Center, teaching a hands-on class for a semester. We became friends and I slowly began assisting for him. I did that for a couple years. But I ended up hating it and I felt I was bad at it. That’s when I realized I was probably better at shooting, so I got the itch to get back to shooting really bad.
SHAUN: I can see how your powerful personal images from Peru attracted editorial work in the beginning. How do you approach personal work?
It’s pretty simple really; I get ideas from all over the place. I will get an idea like I did recently: planning a trip out to Montana to visit family, I thought it would be fun to bring my 4×5 film camera and see where things go from there. I still love to shoot film for personal work whenever I can. I have a Toyo A2 field camera that I’ve used for years, it’s practical and sturdy.
SHAUN: You were part of PDNs 30 in 2005. Did that have an impact on your career? You are often involved in American Photography and other “for publication” competitions. How do you feel about photo competitions?
PDN 30 was a really great jumpstart for me. But in retrospect I don’t think I was ready then for that kind of pressure. My career really ramped up fast and I think I took it all for granted. Some of the early assignments I think suffered a bit, I got a little overwhelmed. I feel like I have different standards now than I did back then. You really should be ready to leverage it correctly. If I’m taking on an assignment these days, it’s imperative that I ace it (barring any extra-ordinary circumstances that may work against you occasionally). Why go shoot something you don’t feel passionate about? Or when you’re tired and over-worked? Sometimes we need a break.
As for photo competitions, damn, are they expensive! But I’m always submitting work regardless. I think it’s so important to expose yourself that way. It can be a healthy form of validation. Even if you don’t win, it’s a good way to get your work in front of a respected jury of your peers and individuals that might potentially hire you in the future. It’s also a great excuse to go to the launch parties and meet these people face to face. Oh, and the free drinks and hors d’oeuvres of course.
SHAUN: I love the portrait project you did of the Occupy participants in Zuccotti Park. I have one of these posters up in my office. I also recently did an editorial project of over 50 portraits which took over a year, and you did yours in a couple of days! Did you enjoy that process?
Oh definitely. I was out on a run through the city, training for the marathon, and I stumbled upon the protest and started thinking about how I could shoot that from my own perspective. I wanted to be involved in this somehow even though I knew everyone else was doing it. I bounced the idea off with a friend of mine, Bryan Formhals, who was kind of an informal consultant for me at the time. By the time I got set up there, the idea had boiled down to shooting portraits of anybody at the protest that was willing to get their portrait taken, whether they were actually protesting or merely witnessing the event somehow. I wanted to take these people out of this context; take them out of this protest because I became more interested in who all these people were. I think this comes from my fascination with psychology and social norms.
SHAUN: You then turned this project into a nice marketing piece/poster. I also saw another well executed marketing piece you produced utilizing some great graphic treatments from signage in South America and chocolate bars. That was so elaborate! Do you work with designers or is this just from the mind of João
The idea came from me. I remembered all these graphic and very colorful posters for a type of Peruvian music called chicha all over the outskirts of Lima. Then while I was on assignment in Florida last fall I saw the same style of posters in Miami. I was hanging out with this gallery curator, and he told me he knew the artists in Miami doing these. So I thought, that would be pretty cool if I hire these guys to do something for me. I tried getting in touch with the curator, but he never got back to me. Always in a rush to do things right away, I attempted doing the lettering myself, but I wasn’t happy with it. So after some research I ended up finding this very talented designer that worked for Nike.
The name of the blog came to me all of a sudden. It’s the combination of the words “Sublime” and “Luminous.” Growing up in Lima, I used to love this popular Peruvian chocolate called “Sublime.” So I got the crazy idea… What if I send out chocolates with the name Subliminous embossed on them, and in a packaging with this chicha graphic treatment. My studio assistant was really help helpful in sourcing this out, and the chocolate she found was actually really good. It took longer than expected to get it all produced, but I think it really ended up putting the blog on the map. I find it important to always be promoting the blog.
SHAUN: How do you approach targeting your efforts to clients?
I use Agency Access to get addresses. I used to rely on my reps to do this but I am not officially represented right now. Before that, I used to constantly look through magazines that I loved and write down the photo editors that worked for them. For my email newsletter I get the addresses from Agency Access and then use Campaign Monitor to send out the emails. It’s a really clean, effective service without any obtrusive logo at the end of the emails; like Mail Chimp but I like it better.
SHAUN: I have to admit I really don’t have a lot of time to spend on blogs but recently I visited yours and really enjoyed it. It has such an honest sophistication to it and a very nice representation of your voice. Given all the channels of social media we have – LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, blogs, etc, how do you prioritize across them all?
Well, I feel like actual long-form blogs are on a bit of a decline. I recently noticed that Andrew Hetherington’s blog, “What’s the Jackanory” had moved over to Tumblr. That’s one sign, I suppose, that things are changing. Subliminous is on Tumblr, which is a platform that lends itself for shorter-form blogs. I don’t have to write a long essay every time, I can just post a picture when I want, or some short commentary, or even reblog something that inspires me and I want to share with my audience. It’s a great community and I get great feedback.
Subliminous got featured on Tumblr’s Spotlight for Photography as one of the photographers to follow and I now have more than 69,000 followers. I’m a little concerned that my Facebook Page is not as effective as it used to be, as I’ve noticed you now have to pay if you want to promote your posts, even to fans that are following you. So I hardly use my Facebook page – instead I always end up using my Facebook personal page to promote myself. Twitter is just where everything lands, when I put something on other channels it automatically goes to Twitter. On the other hand, I really love Instagram, but as long as it remains pure. I don’t like it when people post photos on Instagram that weren’t actually shot with the phone. I really end up spending most of my energy on my website and Tumblr.
SHAUN: Biggest inspirations?
Being in NY, biking, running. I’ve made it a habit to visit lots of galleries and museums often. I’ve been collecting lots of photography books lately. I recently bought Rineke Dijkstra, an amazing Dutch portrait photographer, after I saw her retrospective at the Guggenheim. I also recently bought Philip Lorca DiCorcia’s book of the fashion photography he shot for W Magazine, and Viviane Sassen’s book Parasomnia. I recently went to Picasso’s exhibition at the Tate Britain in London and I was blown away. I am also always inspired by Nadav Kander, Irving Penn and Todd Hido, among others.
SHAUN: What do you find challenging in the industry right now?
The economy and the current budgets. Working with clients who want the world for next to nothing. I try to approach this with an open mind. Being a freelancer with your own business has its own set of challenges – all of the elements that go into that with taxes, legalities, etc. When times are slow you have to keep your head straight and keep shooting. It’s a very psychological thing sometimes. You have to keep on going, keep that muscle working even if it is not the most inspiring thing you are going to do. I run a lot and try to shoot personal stuff whenever I’m not working; otherwise you can drive yourself nuts when the calls for work are just not happening.
SHAUN: I just have to ask you about a specific project you’re doing called “Lover.” The images are very powerful for me. Tell me a little bit about that.
Thank you. It’s good to hear that because I was actually having my doubts about this series. I’m pretty blind without my contacts or glasses. So to see things without them I have to hold things up really close. When I’m that close to things it appears so much differently; with a lot more detail than if I was looking at something with my glasses. I thought this would be an interesting perspective to explore with my 4×5 camera. It turned out that using my 4×5 introduced a whole new set of challenges but I really wanted to present these images large with lots of detail – almost turning them into a landscape.
SHAUN: What are your thoughts on a rep?
You can’t get a rep and get this sense of entitlement, sit back and slack off. A rep is like a marriage. You have to be absolutely sure, and if you have any doubts you have to address those. People so often get stuck in relationships that you know are not right. You really have to make sure the rep is a good fit. I’ve been with 2 different reps in the past. I’m still very close to my last rep and we still have chances to work on things together. I don’t feel any need right now to go out and sign anything, I am very happy the way things are right now, on my own terms.
It’s really more important to hit the pavement, really hustle, and get out there and meet potential clients head on. Meet and align yourself with these Art Directors and Art Buyers who you respect. It’s all about building relationships you can trust so you can work together in a mutually beneficial way, as opposed to working with a rep that may do things half-assed, and that may be detrimental to your name, your work, your career.
SHAUN: Can you touch a little bit on some of your favorite tools? Camera of choice, lighting, etc.
Well, I do experiment a lot with lighting, and I test a lot. So I am always trying different things. I utilize Profoto equipment often. Traveling a lot I also use the Quantum Q-Flash a lot which I can have my assistant move around with very easily. Recently I was experimenting using gels on the Q Flash to get different effects. Very subtle, very natural and I love it. As far as cameras I use my Toyo 4×5, Canon 5D Mark II and the Hasselblad H series for the more commercial projects.
SHAUN: Your imagery feels so raw. What are your thoughts on retouching?
When it comes to digital, I have worked a long time on different processes to get the look I want. I have spent a lot of years tweaking this process down to get it where I want. I use Lightroom to export the RAW images as close as I can get them in that platform, and then I export to Photoshop to do some of the larger curves. That is how I get this very clean, filmic look. I am not really into compositing. I have hired retouchers in the past when clients want something more complicated, but for the most part we do most everything in-house.
SHAUN: What do you do when you are not working?
I like to run and bike a lot. I was training for the NYC Marathon. I love trying new restaurants. I love food in NYC! As I mentioned before, I go to museums and galleries a lot. But I try to shoot often to stay motivated, whether they’re personal projects or simple tests.
SHAUN: How do you find living in NY compared to 10 years in LA?
I love NY. I’m in love with this place. I enjoy visiting LA, but I don’t miss it all. I have been there three times this year for jobs. Some of my best friends are in LA. I got tired of living there, it turned out to be a very easy life. I found myself slacking when I was there, I felt like I was getting out of touch. I came to NY and something happened here. I embraced this whole idea of networking in a healthy and respectable way, and loved the sense of community among artists and creatives here. There’s so many talented people here, it’s a constant source of inspiration and a fertile ground for bouncing off ideas. The food, the museums… I became a member of MOMA for example, so I try to go as often as I can. The culture is just so rich here. I love it. The downside is that time seems to really fly here.
SHAUN: Personal goal with photo career?
I would like to establish myself editorially as much as I can and shoot covers with some of the larger magazines – like Vanity Fair and GQwould be amazing. I would like to publish a book of some kind at some point. And get into films more. I recently did a little piece for a band and I loved the whole process. So ultimately I would love to get into directing more often. Really I just want to keep really busy with interesting assignments. And it always helps to land more advertising assignments.
SHAUN: Alright Joao, in closing I have a little fun exercise for you. I have this little vice of mine which I am going to interject here. One of the only things I set my DVR to record is this long running interview series called “The Actors Studio.” I find it fascinating. Anyway the show always ends with the same list of questions which were developed by Bernard Pivot who is a French television personality. I have taken creative license and changed one of them for fun.
SHAUN: What is your favorite word?
SHAUN: What is your least favorite word?
JOAO: Buddy or Dude
SHAUN: What turns you on?
SHAUN: What turns you off?
JOAO: Tripe (Dish in Peru made from the stomach of cow)
SHAUN: What sound or noise do you love?
JOAO: Ping sound from the phone – sounds like a “chirp” (New email)
SHAUN: What sound or noise do you hate?
JOAO: I’m going to sound like a Neanderthal, but “Fart.”
SHAUN: What is your favorite Cocktail?
JOAO: Hendrick’s Gin, Dolin Blanc (a type of Vermouth), a couple drops of Gran Classico Bitters, and a lemon peel. Served up, and very, very cold.
SHAUN: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
SHAUN: What profession would you not like to do?
SHAUN: If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
JOAO: “Thank you for coming, we could use some help getting organized up here.”