When Joe Wigdahl got his first professional photography assignment, he didn’t just jump in at the deep end; he dived off the highest cliff. His first client was the creative giant Leo Burnett and the shoot was for Marlboro, one of the biggest global brands around. Not bad for someone who describes himself as an, “accidental photographer.”
But it’s no accident that Joe has become an award-winning portrait and landscape photographer, with clients in advertising, editorial and design that include, Qantas, Subaru, Nikon, Pampers, Ikea, Vodafone, Monocle Magazine, and OPSM, the largest retailer of eye glasses in Australia and New Zealand.
Joe was born in a small town in Iowa, Midwestern USA, in 1975, and started out studying engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. But he found himself gravitating towards the arts, and switched courses, eventually taking an arts course that included design, painting, illustration and photography – he left with a degree in glass-blowing and glass sculpture.
Joe left university with no clear sense of direction, “There were a couple of months, when I was sleeping on my parents’ couch, waiting tables in a chain restaurant and being totally miserable,” he says. Joe’s parents lived outside New York and Joe would travel into the city, looking for work. “One day, a friend living in Chicago said I should I try photo assisting,” recalls Joe, “I went through a work book of top photographers and sent around 150 faxes asking, ‘do you need an assistant who doesn’t know anything?’ I got about three or four responses.”
After working as a photo assistant in NY for a short while, Joe moved to Chicago in 2001, eventually working as first assistant to the renowned advertising photographer Andrew Martin. It was here that Joe experienced an epiphany, “I accidentally discovered that all this photo stuff came really easy for me. It connected to the part of my mind that was analytical from science and engineering, and the part that was artistic.”
Joe explains why photography appeals so much to his nature, “What I personally get out of photography is that it’s very immediate - I really like being in the moment and trying to get what’s happening in that moment. I’m taking everything in and that’s really stimulating for me – it elevates my senses. What really clicked for me is how photography and glass-blowing are very similar.”
Joe had only been working as a photo assistant for around three years, when he got his first big break, “I’d started a record label with friends, and I would take photos of the bands. I was in a studio silk-screening a band poster, and had the band’s contact sheets with me. A guy working next to me saw them, we got chatting, and he asked for my number.”
Two weeks later, Joe received a call, “It was from the same person, who was one of the head creative directors at Leo Burnett. So, the first paid job I had as a professional photographer was to shoot various music bands for a Marlboro campaign.”
Joe felt the pressure, but was confident he could deliver. “Because I had worked for an advertising photographer for a couple of years, I knew about the business side of what I needed to do. I knew about production, pre-production and working with crews. What I didn’t know was what my photographic style was, but I knew how to make everything happen.” The shoot went well, and Joe got more and more assignments through word-of-mouth, “I’ve been fulltime professional photographer ever since,” he adds.
Joe’s main influences are movies rather than other photographers, “Apart from photojournalism, I look at movies and cinematographers. For me, photography is always about story-telling, so I’d rather consume movies and see how they solve visual problems.” There’s another reason for Joe’s reluctance to study the work of fellow photographers, “I don’t want somebody else’s work to accidentally creep into mine, and nor do I want to go into a shoot and be afraid of shooting something because it’s too close to what somebody else is doing.”
Joe loves the collaborative nature of advertising photography, “I don’t like creating in a vacuum. What I really love about advertising photography is that you get to work with other people – it’s a bit like making a movie. You’re sharing ideas with others like, designers and creative directors, and getting new insights.”
He really enjoys the social aspect of photography, “One of the exciting things about editorial photography is that I get to meet people I wouldn’t normally meet, like architects, innovators, CEOs and big ideas people,” says Joe. This explains why Joe insists, “I could never be a studio photographer, working in the same studio for 8-10 hours a day. That would drive me crazy – why not just get an office job?”
Even a cursory glance of Joe’s portfolio reveals the vast range of his work, from portraits to landscapes; and children to sports and action shots. In 2014, Joe won a major photographic prize for a moving portrait of a desperately ill young girl (months away from death) and her family. But his portfolio also includes a zany image of a pigeon resting on the foot of a sunbather.
Joe thrives on variety, “I’ve had agents who’ve wanted me to narrow down my work, but I just couldn’t do that. If you can shoot lots of different things, you can solve lots of visual problems, which I’m often asked to do on big campaign shoots.”
When it comes to the technical side of photography, Joe tends to alternate between Nikon and Canon cameras (and occasionally, Sony) and is a big fan of Sigma Art lenses. He’s not keen on medium format, “I move around a lot and shoot fast, and rely on auto-focus to be working while I’m shooting. I’ve yet to work with a medium format camera that is fast.” Joe also minimises the post-production side of his work, with few images retouched, “I started off shooting with film, and you had to get things right in-camera. Now we have digital, but that discipline has stayed with me.”
Joe is not a fan of “spray-and-pray” photography, where you shoot first and fix later. “I hate sitting in front of a computer – I’d rather be on my feet and moving. So, I would rather spend half an hour in the field getting the lighting right, than spending six hours in front of a computer fixing it.”
There are also practical issues, “Many clients want to see their images within 48 hours, and some even want you to hand over your hard drive after the shoot. So, there isn’t time to edit 2000 images, and you don’t want to give client lots of post-production work to do.”
Today, Joe lives in Sydney, Australia and is as active as ever. He offers some advice to photographers, “Shoot more than you think you should, and edit more than you think you should cut. I always shoot to get the images in the brief, but I also try to get something that’s accidental and even better, so I shoot a lot.”
Editing is crucial, adds Joe, “Editing is part of what makes movies great, and photographers should be constantly editing and curating their work, whether it’s your website or the images you show to clients.” Joe also thinks, “People get hung up on gear or technique, and while that’s important, if you don’t understand the story-telling of your image, and how to make an image compelling, then none of that really stuff matters. When you look at a film or a painting, it has nothing to do with the gear, but how the big problems got solved with telling the story.”www.joewigdahl.com