• US@UO: Joseph Webb

    Our US@UO Artist Series Candles are a one-of-a-kind collection of candles for your home, adorned with photography from UO’s very own in-house creative team. We talked with each artist about their creative practice and the image they submitted for the series. 

    Working in everything from documentary photography to still life, US@UO artist Joseph Webb captures the world in vibrant medium format film photos. He is driven by art critic John Berger’s idea that “seeing comes before words.”  
    Photos by Colin Kerrigan 

    Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background? 
    I grew up in a small town in southern Oregon called Grants Pass. As a kid, I spent a lot of time outside, hunting and fishing with my family, exploring the woods by myself, riding my skateboard around with my friends, but I did not have any thoughts about art, society, culture, all the stuff I care about now.

    How long have you been working for UO? What do you do here?
    June marks three years at UO for me. Most of that time, I have been a photographer for Men's, shooting a lot of our e-commerce, marketing, and editorial imagery. Recently, I moved up to an Associate Art Director position in Men's, but I still get to shoot often which makes me happy.

    Did you study photography in school? Where did you go to school? 
    I got my BFA in printmaking and photography from Pacific Northwest College of Art, in Portland, Oregon. Most of my studio classes were intaglio and lithography printmaking. I took several film-based courses because I have never had my own darkroom, but a lot of what I know came from learning on my own. Most of what I know about lighting I learned from my first industry job. After school, I worked for two years at this big studio in Portland called Iridio. I have yet to work with better lighting and camera technicians than the photographers at that studio.

    When did you get your first camera? What kind of camera was it?
    My first few rolls of film I shot on a Pentax P3 35mm SLR that I borrowed from one of my grandparents during my first year of undergrad. After I got the prints back, I was hooked and started saving up for my own camera. My first real camera was a Mamiya 645 Pro with the 80mm f/1.9 lens.

    What sorts of things are you drawn to when you’re taking a photo? 
    For me, there a strong, almost bonded relationship between banality and the uncanny. I am drawn to subjects and scenes that are common or commonly overlooked but have something strange, beautiful, or unsettling about them. It is hard to explain.

    Is there a philosophy or worldview that runs throughout your work? 
    I am concerned with showing what unsettling and beautiful things can lie just beneath the calm surface of banality. Especially for the unwittingly privileged among us, including myself, there is so much we overlook or avert our eyes from, hidden by the comfortable, unquestioning gaze with which many people navigate daily life. Ideally my images function to elicit questions from viewers, rather than attempt at imposing my own shaky and feeble beliefs on them.
    I use photography because photographs allow me to push reality and fiction together. They allow me to create an experience that is both real and misleading, simultaneously making a declarative statement to viewers while letting them find their own world in my work. Each negative I create is a material artifact of a moment, but there remains the innate ambiguity of still photographs, denying viewers temporal and spatial context. This is much more of a “real” experience--in that the world itself is ambiguous and poorly interpreted by people--rather than images that shallowly champion or patronize their subjects and viewers.

    What are your goals for the future when it comes to your photography practice? 
    A major goal I have is completing a color photography project using a fully analog process. Presently, I have a hybrid workflow, where I shoot film, scan it, work with that digital file, then make an inkjet print or digital C-Print. Optically printing negatives is something I really miss from school. Once you start producing prints that way, the printmaking aspect of photography takes on an importance you didn't know was there. Most people who take or appreciate pictures right now don't ever see them as a print, an object. In a time where photography has become a screen-centric medium, the print as an object takes on more significance than it did before widespread computer usage.

    Do you have any particular projects you’ve been working on lately that you’re excited about?
    Shortly after moving to Philadelphia, I was overcome by the city’s strange yet beautiful aesthetic, atmosphere, and people. This led me to use photography and audio recording to capture and explore as much of the physical and human landscape as possible. The working title for my project is Greater Philadelphia. Three years after the start, I am still working on it. In that time, I have documented many ordinary people in the city confront insecure housing, senseless violence, and profound vulnerability to extent that is difficult to comprehend. My work can feel trivial against the institutional and personal struggles that exist in Philadelphia, but my subjects--most of whom are my friends by now--have become remarkable champions of the project. Their humor in the face of adversity, unsolicited generosity, genuine friendship, and sincere appreciation of my photographs leave me humbled and keep me motivated to document their lives.

    Can you tell us about the photo you submitted for the US@UO Artist Series candle? Where was the image captured? 
    The image that UO decided to use for the candle artwork is some b-roll from my Greater Philadelphia project. It is an image of a dogwood tree in full bloom that I took last summer. Dogwoods are probably my favorite flower and the tree in the photograph was exploding with blossoms, so I was naturally drawn to it.

    Are there any particular photographers or other artists that have inspired your work the most over the years? 
    There are many but I will keep the list short. My biggest influences are probably David Lynch and Werner Herzog. The first time I saw Lynch's Blue Velvet, I swear I was a changed person. And the same goes for Herzog's Lessons of Darkness and Little Dieter Needs to Fly. I still find myself reflecting on the imagery and themes in those films. Others include Andreas Gursky, Gregory Halpern, Alex Webb, William Eggleston, Paul Graham, Bruce Wrighton, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, William Christenberry, Martin Parr, Jeff Wall, Viviane Sassen, that's probably good enough.

    What advice would you give an aspiring photographer who’s just starting out?
    Take your time. Most of us have 40-60 years to make photographs. If you spend the first 10 years learning and assisting instead of pumping out projects or scoring social media likes, you will be a better technician, you will see how established photographers work, and you might even have some original ideas that are true to your values and worldview instead of making a lot of derivative, trendy crap. I was really eager to establish myself or stand out in school, and I thought I was hot stuff because I was a good technician. Once I started working in commercial photography, I was quickly humbled--and that was just about my lighting! Mindfully carrying that humility with me has been a great asset and I reflect on it often.

    Shop the US@UO Artist Photography Series Jar Candle