James J. Robinson
James J. Robinson
James is an analog photographer and filmmaker (@james.pdf) from Melbourne, Australia, who is currently based in New York.
To what degree, and in what way, do you think being from Melbourne has impacted you, as a person, and your work? How has being based now in New York changed that? I’ve read you answer this in terms of the community of artists in Melbourne, and I can imagine that being similar in New York, but I’m more curious from the perspective of the landscape and types of living in each respective area.
Melbourne’s isolation from the rest of the world is its biggest benefit by far – we’re able to operate away from the commotion of Europe and America which means people here tend to be a lot more supportive of each other. As a city, Melbourne is a lot newer than New York so it’s not as clustered and the city is much more spacious. This provides me with so many disparate places to shoot my work – in thirty minutes I can be in the middle of the country or along the beach. New York is a bit more of a challenge because I feel like everywhere I want to shoot has been shot before. I like the challenge though – there’s so much energy in the city that I thrive off, and reimagining places people have already shot but from my own perspective makes it so exciting. The main difference is cost of living – I’m forced to work a lot harder and be a little more money focused in New York than I ever was in Melbourne.
What were some of the most valuable lessons that you learned at Swinburne University of Technology?
To be honest I didn’t learn too much at Swinburne from actual coursework. The full time contact hours held me back from a lot of projects I wanted to do, but I was on an amazing full scholarship so I wanted to take advantage of it and get a free degree. I studied film and television and I found the theory classes to be the most educative – being able to discuss films with a classroom and hearing the different ways people can interpret art was so intellectually enriching. However the more creative classes where teachers told you how to write or direct films were a bit of a joke, my approach to creativity is all about finding ways to make things different, where the teachers tried to mould people into making certain types of films. What I really learnt from these classes is what criticism to take on board and what to forget – people are going to try and change your unique vision when it doesn’t suit their personal taste, and it’s important to filter out what you really believe in and what will genuinely improve your work; but sometimes the difference isn’t so clear.
You started AEVOE in high school. Looking back on it so far, do you feel proud of where it’s gone since then? What have been some of the biggest surprises you’ve found from doing it?
For sure, AEVOE grew so much quicker than I could handle – trying to juggle a part time job, full-time university and working on my own art was really challenging. It became an umbrella for publishing books, running cinemas, and getting my friends paid work. I suppose the most surprising thing was seeing how quickly it grew from an idea to a fully-fledged business. I’m in the process of stepping down and putting AEVOE in the hands of my trusted protégée Sarah Lay, as my personal career takes off I don’t have the time anymore to give AEVOE the attention it needs. I’m excited to see where Sarah will take it.
Being Creative Director at AEVOE, how has that changed how you looked at your own photo work?
Having to be selective about the work we were submitted gave me a curator’s eye. It made me filter out work that was doing things by the book and not offering anything new. Of course there’s room for that kind of work and I celebrate anyone pursuing a creative path, but from a curator’s perspective, work that stands out and has intricate subtext reminded me why this is the industry I want to be in. I know how to make my work stand out now.
I really enjoyed the concept being your After Hours project for several reasons. And I’ll break this out into a couple different parts..
One, it promoted the idea of sustainability. Our world is very politically charged right now and people are trying to figure out ways to do their part or show their support behind certain causes, sustainable energy being one of them in regards to the environment. How difficult do you find it to work concepts like this into your work? Do you think photographers have a responsibility to try to achieve this in their work if they can?
I don’t think artists have a responsibility to inject political ideology into their work to be honest. I think it happens naturally a lot of the time, but I don’t believe in logical positivism – that absolutely everything can be explained or justified in an artwork. It’s just as valid to create something that is governed by emotion and feeling as it is to create subtext behind everything. My work tends to lean into political territory just because the times are so politically charged and I’m feeling so motivated to change things. I’m a queer person of color and I’m constantly reminded of how difficult it is for people to have intersectional identities. Photos and videos are ‘sculpting time’ (in the words of Andrei Tarkovsky), so for me it’s important to reflect my opinions on global warming and oppression that are so ingrained into culture right now.
It also simultaneously tackles the idea that you don’t have to have all these fancy lights and so forth for a shoot. This speaks to the DIY attitude of the internet, which I feel is particularly relevant to you because of AEVOE and in general getting exposure to your work through online platforms. How do you feel about the democratization of the internet on photography? How do you feel about easier access to the technology itself (iPhone cameras and cheaper equipment in general), the platforms (Instagram and Tumblr etc), and knowledge (being able to watch YouTube tutorials or read articles to learn)?
I think it’s incredible that everyone has avenues to express themselves. It’s easy as a photographer to get caught up in the argument that iPhones are ruining artistic integrity but if you have confidence in your own work and vision then I don’t see how it’s damaging anything. I taught myself photography through online tutorials and the fact that people can now get access to that kind of education that otherwise would not have is so exciting to me. Everyone can create art, and now more than ever people can exhibit it online in any form they want too. It’s empowering to see the myriad ways people can interpret the world around them, I’m excited for the future when we can look back at iPhone photos and see how well we captured this age.
You have a very specific look to your work in terms of the colors and tones you use. What is the balance for you between scouting out locations for that ahead of time or just look for it while you’re in the midst of a shoot?
It’s a mix, sometimes I have specific locations in mind and other times we’ll be driving between locations and I’ll see somewhere that has interesting tones and textures so we’ll stop on the way. I don’t look for places that are colorful and have character necessarily, I’m more interested in locations that play with light – different colors being emitted, weird textures and shadows. Lighting comes first for me – before models, locations and cameras. My work is so mood-based, and lighting is key to building a mood.
How much do you direct your subjects for shots? Over your years of shooting with people, what are some things you’ve realized on the best process for you and a subject to communicate to get the best shots possible and have both sides be comfortable?
It depends on the brief of the client but in general I like to see how the model moves naturally first. Casting people goes beyond how they look, you cast people based on how they move, what their personality is like and how they like to fit in clothes. I used to be quite directing in how I get people to pose but since shooting I’ve learnt it’s more important to make everyone comfortable and try and capture my subject’s personality. Considering my background in filmmaking, I’m more interested in movement than in getting people to stand still.
When working with clients, how do you personally balance maintaining your own artistic vision with fulfilling the clients needs?
That’s a tricky one and it differs for every case. It can be frustrating when a client hires you and gives you a mood board that is really different to the kind of work you do. As much as it sucks, I have to take jobs that pay me well since I don’t have any other avenue of income. I have to learn to separate more commercial work from the work I think belongs in a folio. I try as hard as I can to make clients trust my own vision, but in some cases they have an idea of what they want, so it becomes my job to do that and nothing else.
What's your favorite and least favorite aspects of creating music videos?
Creating films that capture the rhythm of a certain song is such a fun experience. I’m a very musical person so when an artist trusts me enough to let me interpret their work it’s such a compliment. The most exciting part for me is digging deep into the song and coming up with an interpretation of the artists’ work – what are they trying to say, how are they doing it through musical composition, and how can I appropriate that into my own work through visual tools. I’m a huge fan of poetry so I’m used to interpreting work in that manner. The worst bit is when clients expect you to do something someone like Rihanna (my no. 1) did in her latest video. The music videos people see from huge artists often have tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of dollars put into them. So it’s literally impossible for me to recreate that with a thousand Australian dollars and free lunch. Filmmaking is such an intricate process and it’s difficult for people from other backgrounds to recognise – lights, locations, casting, lenses, cameras, catering, petrol, styling, art direction, hair, makeup etc. – it all adds up real quick. I can make things I love on small budgets, but it’s not as easy convincing clients that they’ll have to scrap some of their huge ideas.
What was the process like for you for learning to shoot on Super 8? Did you find that you picked it up fast?
I had to create a documentary in my first year of University, and they told us we could use our own cameras. I didn’t want to shoot on a DSLR like everyone else, so I asked my teacher if he thought it would be a good idea to shoot on Super 8. He told me, I remember very vividly, that many first years want to shoot on Super 8 but end up giving up right at the end of the semester because it’s too hard. Motivated by wanting to prove him wrong, I filmed three rolls of film, teaching myself the process on YouTube and asking around where to get things developed. I made the film and my teacher loved it – shooting on film is so ingrained into my work process that I picked it up pretty quickly. It’s the same as shooting stills except the film is a different size and it’s often twenty four frames per second.
Being that you use analog so heavily, what are your feelings on how the idea of nostalgia plays into art and into our emotions? I’ve read that you started out shooting it to make your work different, and ended up keeping with it for the technical advantages, but is the (nostalgia) element at all something you consider or enjoy about how analog looks or feels?
I wouldn’t say it’s much of a nostalgia thing for me. I was born in 1995 so I was never alive when Super 8 or Super 16mm was a thing, and I only vaguely remember the routine of dropping off 35mm rolls to the chemist. Nostalgia is a big part of the art I love – interpreting memory and the way it influences artists of any discipline is so interesting, however I’m still too young to feel like my memories are valid of reinterpretation. My friend Hugo Costin wrote this poem that opens with the line “Like the marks our clothes left in our skin we live most in memory”. All my work is influenced by what I’ve learned and experiences I’ve had, but for the moment nostalgia isn’t a huge part of my work – I’m too focussed on making statements about the present. But I know in the future it will be.
Q+A by Jack Sommer