Joe Russo: An Exclusive Interview with A.I.M.O.
After having met Joe at Jonathan LeVine Gallery and watching him shoot for Juxtapoz Magazine, I knew I had to interview him. I had already known of his talent through many venues and knew he'd be a perfect fit for Art Is My Oxygen. He lives and breathes it, too. Joe was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1972. He grew up in New York’s graffiti, music and skateboard subcultures. It wasn’t until after he graduated with his BFA from Marist College in 1995 that he would decide on a career in photography. His girlfriend at the time bought him his first “real” camera and he taught himself how to use it. He relentlessly tries to capture the raw energy, beauty and emotion of each of his subjects. Joe was always into going to see live music…and now he was sneaking his camera into the venues to shoot. Over the course of 20 years, he has shot some of the biggest names in the music business [Aerosmith, U2, BB King, Madonna, AC/DC, Van Halen…]. When Joe isn’t shooting music, you can find him documenting the Arts. As a former graffiti writer, he has always stayed connected to the movement as well as befriending many of today's biggest graffiti and street artists…both on the streets and in the galleries. Celebrity / Red Carpet events, weddings and other assorted events also keep Joe busy. Joe’s work has appeared in many publications both national and international including People Magazine, US Weekly, Juxtapoz Magazine, Live Nation, Premier Guitar, Broken Records Magazine, Jambase, ArrestedMotion and Rolling Stone to name a few. You can also find his work inside many music artists cd’s. Joe currently lives in Jersey City, NJ.
What is your camera of choice?
My camera of choice is the one I haven't been able to buy just yet. As with anything electronic, the technology changes daily. And they're expensive. There's always something I'm going to want to buy or acquire and add to my collection. A medium format camera comes to mind. I haven't used one since I was in college many, many years ago.
My camera bag consists of:
2 Canon 6D bodies
Canon 24-70mm f/2.8
Canon 70-200mm f.2.8
Canon 85mm f/1.8
Sigma 50mm f/1.4
Canon Speedlite 630EX-RT flash
Canon Speedlite 430EX-RT flash
Quantum Turbo SC battery pack
My uncle left me an old Canon film camera and assorted lenses before he passed away recently.
What is your earliest memory of your first flick? How old were you when you started to shoot?
My earliest memory of taking photos was when I was in grade school. I grew up writing graffiti and skateboarding on the streets of Brooklyn. The subway trains were so colorfully adorned with "pieces" by writers from all over the 5 boroughs. I remember "benching" trains with my buddy Frank at various train stations on the BMT lines and shooting with 110 film and those thin disc cameras. Sadly, none of those photos and negatives exist anymore. It wasn't until the end of college when I took another interest in photography and took a few classes. Sadly, the classes weren't too extensive but I learned how to use a darkroom and develop my own photos. I was just at my mothers house recently were one of my first photos hangs...and it was just ok...very safe and pedestrian nature scene. After college, my then girlfriend bought me a 35mm Minolta film camera. I continued to shoot nature and landscape. I've always been into the live music scene since I was a kid. I wanted to marry both of these arts together. I started to sneak my camera into some venues back in the day. Shooting film was exciting...the anticipation of getting your film back, etc. I had mild success with it. I look back on my earliest music photography...and I was terrible...comparatively to where I'm at now.
What is your favorite venue to photograph and why? Music, art, weddings, parties?
Hard to say what my favorite venue is as they are all different in the bands playing, layout, lighting, crowd, photo pit or lack thereof, etc. They each present a different challenge still to this day. Being able to acclimate to the challenges in each of your surroundings helps make you a better photographer...that you can handle anything thrown your way and come out of it with a nice full set of usable images.
Do you have a favorite photo? I am so curious if a certain photo stands out in your memory?!
Photography is the preservation of a specific moment in time. Each photo or photo always stimulates a memory. I remember when I got to see and shoot one of BB Kings last shows. It was in Marin County in Northern California. Seeing this icon, this legend on stage performing and sharing stories with the audience was pretty amazing. He had to be assisted on stage. They walked him out and he sat down the entire show. He was backed by a full on band. At the end of the show, he gave out gold bracelets and one lucky fan went home with a replica of his guitar "Lucille". His handler had come over to him to escort him off stage. He didn't want to leave. He kept sitting down and sharing more stories with us. This must've happened 2 or 3 times. One of my most favorite photos I've ever taken over my career was taken on this night. It was of him pointing up to God or the heavens. I think he passed on shortly thereafter.
Do you show in galleries?
I do show in galleries on occasion. Either I'm asked to show solo or in a group. I also curate my own shows. I'm always looking to share my work with those that are interested in it.
Who are some of your favorite photographers? Do you have a mentor?
I never really had a mentor per se. No one really took me under their wing. I learned a lot on my own. If I did meet someone, I asked questions. I asked for critique and criticism. I learned in college to have thick skin when people critique your work and never take it personally.
There were plenty of photographers I looked up to and grew up looking at their work. Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant began photographing NYC subway trains in the early 80's. Their seminal book "Subway Art" was probably the book that I connected with the most. It showed the world what was happening in this fast paced art movement. It taught kids how to write graffiti and taught them the many styles of graffiti out there. If it wasn't for that book and those two photographers, graffiti worldwide wouldn't be where it's at today and on the level it is today. It is said that "Subway Art" is one of the most stolen books in the world. I remember when I stole mine. Glad to call both of them my peers and colleagues.
Growing up on the music side of photography, I remember all the classic iconic rock n roll and hip hop photos by Danny Clinch, Janette Beckman, Joe Conzo Jr., Jamel Shabazz and Ernie Paniccioli. Those are 2 genres of music I grew up heavily on. It wasn't until some years later and after becoming friends with all of them that I realized just how much of their work was so recognizable not just to me but the world.
Where can my readers learn more about your work?