The photo that opens Joshua Allen’s website is timeless. An elegantly dressed woman appears in soft focus. She smiles knowingly, her face half-shadowed by her oversized hat. Black and white and painterly, the photo is reminiscent of ones taken at the turn of the 20th century. This is Stieglitz and O’Keefe; Steichen and Garbo. This is what drew me in. You don’t see many photographers shooting like this today.
Joshua Allen turns models into sirens. He uses color and focus like a painter, and shoots girls who have a knack for the ethereal (only they might not know it yet). It’s this mix of strange and beautiful that attracts clients both high-fashion (Contributor, Soma, Tush) and commercial (Urban Outfitters, Free People). His personal work, mostly of exteriors and landscapes, is just, well, mind-blowingly awesome. He plays with focus in a way that is both clever and surreal. He actually captures the sublime. I can’t help but gush about it.
I had the good fortune of sitting down with the Indiana native (and BULLETT alum) on the Upper West Side to talk about his work, photography as an art form, the rise of Instagram, and future projects.
How did you develop your style? Do you feel like fashion has made your style evolve?
I really love high-end stuff and I really love classic [looks]. When I started shooting, I shot a lot of evening wear. My wife is slightly older, and she’s a model, and she’s a very sexy, mature person and I think that really influences my view on what’s sexy and what’s appealing. I don’t want it to be shocking—there is a time and a place for really sexy stuff—but I want to have mature feelings in my work. There are definitely a core group of photographers that I really love and respect.
Paolo Roversi, of course. Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin. I never get tired of looking at their work. I don’t think that I necessarily want to be them, but I think their colors, compositions—the strength in every single image you see from them—is really what I strive for in my work. Their work is a little different from the norm, in my opinion.
Do you feel like you try to create something out of the norm in your own work?
Yeah. You know the [model] is so important to me. I feel like that is more important than the fashion in a way—what the girl can give me. I’m not the kind of photographer who goes on set and really sucks things out of girls. I just love to see what happens, and my favorite shoots are just ones where the girl blows me away with what she does, how she reacts to the situation and the clothes.
How do you think your work portrays women and the idea of womanhood?
Hopefully, I feel like it makes them confident. I like to look at girls who are very confident. In my years of shooting, I have done tons of casting and I’ve shot super young girls who walk in, and I can’t believe how young and girlish they look, and then they just have this really amazing presence to them.
What do you expect from a girl when you’re casting? What are you looking for?
I definitely look for the odd girl, one with attitude. There’s just always something that gets me about a girl. I mean, the girl that I used for the Bullett story [Tessa Antifave with Ford] I had worked with just a couple of days before that, and we did some editorial stuff, and she just has this really cool attitude. There’s something about her. She was only 19, and I was hoping to pull out this more mature feeling from her, and I think she did an awesome job.
What is your relationship with color and light? How much post do you do?
Almost all my inspiration is through color. Like color schemes that I see, colors of clothes, background colors, it’s so color heavy. I do a lot of post, but I always know what I want the final output to be, so I’m getting very good at shooting accordingly. My landscapes inspire photo shoots too. The landscape can inspire a studio shoot, the way the colors play out, the mood of something.
Do you ever feel like you have to cater your style to clients for commercial works?
It’s both. I do a lot of commercial work, but it’s good because it makes my technique stronger. I just got off an 18-day job of catalogue stuff, and 5 days into it, I had a million story ideas and I can’t wait to just go and shoot a bunch of cool stuff. I do get hired for my style too, which is ideally my goal as a photographer. To have people who want to use me for what I do.
Going back to color: how do you feel about Instagram and its effect on photography?
I’m all about it.
Do you have it?
Yeah. I Instagram. It’s nice to sum up in one picture and ‘like’ somebody’s photo. I’m a digital photographer, so I don’t think it’s cheating. It’s art. It’s what’s out there. It doesn’t scare me that everybody can take a cool photo now.
But Instagram has these pre-determined filters, and you probably work hard to create a unique effect that can now easily be replicated by an app.
I know what you’re saying, but that hasn’t bothered me yet. I use a lot of filters too. It doesn’t bother me. I think it’s cool. I’d rather see a picture of somebody’s cat with a filter than without a filter.
Do you ever find that you over shoot or under shoot?
I always know when I get the photo, but there’s always that chance that you get on set and the girl isn’t quite who you thought she was going to be.
What do you do in that situation?
You just work. I take that first shot and I just milk it and see where it’s going to go, and just hope that we get a direction that goes further. It’s really cool to edit photos and see where things fall into place. You can get stuck for sure. Sometimes you have to change up your whole game plan because a girl doesn’t move. But I also really love girls that don’t move! The hardest I’ve worked is with girls that don’t feel comfortable being photographed.
That happens with models?
Yeah, it happens. I mean, I don’t hesitate to use a new girl. I don’t pick them for everything, but if a girl is beautiful, I want to shoot her. But sometimes you get her up there and she’s really uncomfortable. Her body language is really like, covering up, so you have to work around that. I love those off moments; it’s just about regrouping.
How would you define the relationship between photographer and model?
It’s the most important thing. I don’t know how to answer that.
Well, for me, there’s a tacit dialogue going on all time.
It’s playing off of each other, for sure. I don’t know if this is a good answer, but I love figuring out where the model is going to go. And then that becomes our path. I like giving direction, but I feel like a lot of the time, unless I know exactly what I want, there’s a big mystery to shooting, there’s a lot of unknown, and so, there’s a lot of magic that happens. To follow what the model is doing, to pick up on where she feels comfortable. It’s amazing how the clothes will change the attitude, the confidence, the energy level. And it’s fun to witness and to play off of.
Are you interested in fashion?
I am, but to me it’s that connection with the model. Clothes are going to look good if I have a beautiful picture of the girl. My relationship with the model is probably more important to me.
What would be the worst or dullest subject?
I assisted on a calendar shoot with dogs and that was pretty terrible.
Any new projects on the horizon?
I’m working on a couple of books. I’m actually working on a landscape book, kind of ethereal epic landscapes. And there’s another I’m working on, only I can’t decide if I’m going to use my wife or use a lot of different girls, but just to go on trips and shoot them. I love to travel, even if it was just a road trip in the US. And I haven’t had a gallery show yet.
What do you feel is very different between your personal work and the work you do for money?
Ultimately, you’re going to see my fashion and landscapes become one. They’re going to come together.