Joseph Romeo is a highly renowned architectural and fine art photographer based in Virginia. A Sacramento, California native, Joseph graduated from Brooks Institute of Photography with a bachelor’s degree in commercial/industrial photography. For more than twenty years, Joseph has been photographing fine art and architecture. He has received numerous awards for his work at the local, national, and international levels. In addition, Joseph was recognized as one of the top 10 “Best of the Best” emerging Fine Art Photographers by BWGallerist in 2013. This week Joseph speaks to atlas about his distinct approach to photography, his views on how the photography industry has changed, and why photographing barns and abandoned buildings resonates with him. (Editor’s Note: We are showcasing some of our favorite features from 2016, including this beautiful series on barns. Enjoy!)
How did you get your start in photography?
Joseph Romeo: I got started rather late in life. A few years after I got out of high school, a friend of mine was taking a photography course at his high school and asked me to pose in some of his photographs. After an afternoon of taking pictures, we went to his house where he loaded the film into a canister, then poured these chemicals through a small hole in the top. I was intrigued. Once we got into the dark room and I saw an image come up in the developer tray, that was it. I’ve been obsessed with photography ever since that moment. That was back in 1981. I knew from that point on that I wanted to be a photographer. A couple of years later, I enrolled at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Brooks was the launching point in my career. Once I left Santa Barbara, I was on my own. It is the commitment and perseverance that allowed me to do this for so long.
In a way, I feel like I am self taught. I mean, yes I got a very good technical education, but learning how the business works and refining photography skills is something I had to do on my own, nd will continue to do throughout my life. Once I graduated from Brooks, reality set in, and I needed to figure out a way to make a living in photography. Being a fine art photographer seemed to be a path to dependency. I started shooting architecture and that’s what I specialize in today. Of course, I set out as often as I can to photograph what appeals to me.
Which genre do you enjoy shooting the most and why?
I have many varied interests, and I find myself being pulled in many different directions when it comes to different genres of photography. Over the years I have collected a rather eclectic array of images. In my earlier days of shooting, I wanted to do what Ansel Adams did especially after seeing his work in person. I read all of his books and taught myself the zone system. I am even more impressed with his work knowing he did what he did without the use of the latest digital tools. I love black and white photography, but not every image works in monochrome. I love color as well. When I set out to take pictures, I don’t plan in advance whether I’m going to shoot in black and white or color. Once I decide to set up the camera and focus on my subject, I try to make that decision at that time.
Your barn images are striking, skillfully composed, and have an element of quiet beauty. Can you tell us more about your barn series? What inspired you to photograph barns?
Thank you. I started photographing barns and abandoned buildings by chance. I am drawn to abandoned places. Like many others, I find a certain beauty in decay. My objective is to make beautiful photographs out of subjects that may be perceived as unattractive. I often wonder: what happened and why? This may be rooted in my love of history.
I do not really think of these structures as a series. Sometimes I feel that if I think too much about photographs as a series, it may force me to compose or interpret a photograph to match an existing body of work for the sake of consistency. I think that may compromise the strength of some of the individual photographs.
Most of the barns are shot in Kentucky. What is your connection to Kentucky?
I do not have any specific connection to Kentucky. I first visited the state while I was on a photographic assignment a few years ago. When I travel, I always allow for extra time to explore once my original assignment is completed. While in Kentucky, my aim was to drive down as many back roads as possible and let serendipity play a role. I really do not like to plan too much. There is something very peaceful and relaxing about driving down country roads (without someone tailgating you). The Kentucky countryside is just so beautiful and bucolic. The prospect of finding something interesting to photograph around the next bend is pretty exciting.
Did you encounter any challenges while shooting this project?
The biggest challenge always seems to be the weather. When I am on the road searching for something interesting to photograph, the issues of lighting and weather play a major role in whether the photograph will be a successful . If it is not “right” at that time, then I have to decide — wait for the conditions to be favorable or forget it and move on. Usually, I wait.
The photography industry has changed quite a bit over the years what with digital dominating the field. Do you think it has changed for the better or the worst?
I feel very fortunate to have had a lot of experience in photography before the digital revolution. It gives me a perspective that I do not think I would have if I started out shooting digitally. Back in the early days, I shot almost exclusively with a 4×5 view camera. It is a difficult camera to master. If nothing else, it teaches you patience and persistence. It is a very deliberate and slow process, which forces you to really study your subject matter before finally setting up the camera. I now carry that experience and work ethic with me when I am shooting today with a digital camera. It is easy to just shoot like crazy today with your digital camera without the worry of film and processing costs. In today’s culture, people want to see their results right away. I think it is detrimental in a way because it is important to “feel” and absorb what you are photographing.
Making the transition from film to digital was a bit painful for me and required a lot of time and commitment. I think the best thing about digital photography is that you have so many more tools to work with. The worst thing about digital photography is you have so many tools to work with. What I mean by that is when it comes to post production, your options seem infinite. You need to develop vision in order for you to make your photographs work. The biggest challenge is to pre-visualize while working with the camera and decide at that time what you want the image to look like in the end.
One thing that has changed shooting digitally is how I and others approach the actual shooting process. Bracketing for expanded dynamic range, focus stacking, shooting over a period of time, while your subject moves and changes, are some of the things I plan out in advance. My approach to photography is that I do not let circumstance dictate what my images will look like. In other words, I will use the digital tools available to get the look I want if I have to. Making consistently tasteful decisions during the post processing phase of the creative process is paramount to creating successful images.
How do you see your work evolving over the next three to five years?
I am not sure how my photography will evolve in the future. I know this, however, I’m always learning and growing and I feel that I’m a better photographer than I was just a month ago. I need to work hard on the pre-visualization process so that I do not feel as compelled to change my images as time goes on. I have a tendency to want to reedit some of my photographs which I find a little concerning. I also plan on doing a lot more traveling. I want to go back to China and Cuba. One thing that I am also hoping to get is gallery representation.
Do you have any words of advice for aspiring photographers?
If you want to get into photography professionally, you must be incredibly passionate and persistent about taking pictures. Work hard and have a thick skin. The competition is fierce. If you are getting into photography for the fun of it, then do just that — have fun. Look at a lot of photographs — as many as you can. I know some photographers who do not think that is a good idea because you may be too influenced by other people’s work and your images will not be original. I could not disagree more. All artists — no matter the genre — whether it is photography, music, painting, acting, you name it, is influenced by someone. Just be aware of this and try to find your own way. One more thing: take a lot of pictures. Back in the film days, someone once said something like the difference between a good photographer and a bad photographer is a thousand rolls of film.
Thanks for being our featured photographer of the week, Joseph!
For more information about Joseph, visit his website. All images © Joseph Romeo.