the magical realism of james j. robinson's photography
The Australian photographer and filmmaker's beautiful, prismatic work is unlike anything out there.
Photography James J. Robinson
From rising stars to industry heavyweights, i-D meets the photographers offering unique perspectives on the world around them.
Some photographs are more than just visually stimulating, they give new appreciation to what’s possible within the medium. In the case of James J. Robinson, this feels especially true. His work -- often shot after dark, against an unremarkable urban backdrop, drenched in a soft, neon light -- offers new possibility of what qualities a photograph can convey. It’s not simply variegated colours and beautiful characters, it’s the details you can’t see, the atmosphere, the mood, that nascent possibility of nighttime coupled with the idleness of youth; all dressed up with nowhere to go.
The first camera James picked up was his Dad’s Canon T90. In hot pursuit of Tumblr content, he began shooting things he thought might be popular online. “I took photos of my friend in a floral dress with a Diana F+ camera around her shoulder and a Penguin classic in her hand because they seemed to be the correct ingredients to gaining a Tumblr following. My dreams of Tumblr fame never came to fruition, but my love of shooting film developed instead.”
Growing up in Melbourne, James believes he owes an element of his photographic perspective to a conservative upbringing. “I attended an all-boys Catholic school for 13 years. In retrospect it was a really toxic environment: very heteronormative sex-ed -- there was literally a religious class in ‘how to be a man’ and compulsory weekend sports, daily misogynistic and racist humour.” As a gay, half-Filipino man, this invariably led to bullying as a teen and periods of identity crisis, but, the result was a vested interest in empowering his subjects. “It provided me with a clear objective for my work: to fight for acceptance and provide solidarity with others experiencing the same prejudice.”
A lot has changed for James since he spoke to i-D’s Australian team two years ago. He’s moved from Melbourne to New York, contributed work to some of the biggest style publications and brands in the world, and honed his dramatic, exhilarating style of photography into something unlike anything else being made right now. Here, we asked him about how he’s developed this aesthetic, his advice for those looking to pursue photography and filmmaking, and where he draws inspiration from.
Do you remember the first time a photographer’s work had a profound effect upon you?
It wasn’t actually a photographer but a cinematographer who made a first lasting impression on me and opened my mind to taking my hobby more seriously. I saw Post Tenebras Lux, a Mexican film by Carlos Reygadas when I was 17 and it blew my mind. It just showed me for the first time how direct lighting and camera angles could evoke emotion from the viewer, leading to my experimentation with lighting setups and appreciation of magical realism.
Did you study photography at university?
I’ve never had any formal photography training, but I studied film at university which incorporates similar skills. To be honest, I don’t think formal education in either film or photography is helpful, unless you have open-minded professors. If anything, I felt like my whole university experience was me fighting against teachers that tried to shape my style.
In an industry saturated with imagery, how do you keep your ideas new and fresh?
I actually don’t draw much inspiration from the photographic industry. My moodboards always consist of film stills over photography. I’m much better versed when it comes to cinema and my taste is broad that a shot from (the iconic) She’s The Man can inspire me as much as one from a Kenji Mizoguchi film. I also draw a lot of inspiration from things that aren’t visual at all: music, books and poetry. Literature can be so descriptive and because I visualise whatever I’m reading in my head it encourages me to come up with ideas to compose a shot. Along with music, it can also be so evocative of a certain mood or feeling which makes me think how I can create an image that has the same feeling? What would the lighting, casting, location look like? This process is great because I can draw from the emotions of another artist’s work but reimagine it visually under my own terms.
Film or digital? Do you have to spend huge amounts on equipment to make it?
I shoot everything, both video and photo, on film. I see this conversation raised so frequently but people don’t have a technical understanding of the differences. I’m not closed off to using digital for the right project, just at the moment film is still superior to digital in a number of ways and it has nothing to do with nostalgia or aesthetic. Film is the only way to shoot a photograph totally uncompressed. You can shoot ‘raw’ on a digital camera, but you’re still shooting on to pixels, over cellulite which captures these colours as layers over one another. You’re losing two thirds of colour information by shooting digital. Film is also able to capture details in shadows and highlights better than digital can, and as scanners improve in technology you can continue to upgrade your negatives to bigger and bigger files that suit future standards -- whereas with digital you are restricted to the resolution you shoot at. You won’t have to spend as much money buying high-end film equipment, than you will with its equivalent digital counterpart.
What’s the biggest challenge you face as a photographer?
The hardest part for me is invoicing. I worked for free for a number of years, so I’m lucky enough to finally be at a point where I can be self-sufficient with my work. But this doesn’t always mean you’ll be paid on time. Developing a way to chase up an invoice that’s both assertive and polite is an extremely handy skill to have. Working freelance is a blessing and a curse.
Do you think photography is an elitist industry?
I think it can be, but it depends on the individual. Inevitably there are photographers that think their work is better than the rest, but that brings the argument to a wider discussion of hierarchy in art overall. These people like to make the industry inaccessible and esoteric against people who aren’t artists, which is incredibly reductive since art has the capacity to come from every single person. I’m not going to consider an elitist photographer’s work to be ‘more valid’ art than my friend uploading a photo of her cool new Minion pencil case: both things are creative expressions of someone’s feelings in that moment.
How do you balance creativity and commerciality?
The two aren’t actually as mutually exclusive as I used to think. I’m noticing now that people want to be more creative with their commerciality -- the internet has saturated the market and everyone’s seeking new ways to pique people’s interest. I’m seeing brands get experimental with casting and using exciting mediums like Super 8 or 16mm film. When I’m working on a commercial project, as long as I back up each creative decision with a solid reason, I find clients are generally open-minded.
What makes a compelling, emotive photo?
For me it’s all in lighting and casting, but I’m biased because of my film background. For me a compelling image is one with characters and tone. Character can either be created by their expression, body language, styling, hair and make-up or props. Whenever I shoot a photo I try to come up with stories to characterise them: How are they feeling? Are they confident or reserved? What brought them to this point? Mood can be created with lighting, everything from colour, brightness and harshness can be tweaked to suit any emotion.
What advice would you offer someone looking to pursue photography full-time?
I read a number of interviews with people who like to say ‘just take the risk and do it!’ but that’s a privilege reserved for those with a stable financial backing. It can be a hard pill for some to swallow when recognising your their own privilege (myself included), but I was able to throw all of my savings into personal projects and new equipment because I knew the consequences of that risk weren’t too bad. You can’t cut corners when building your experience, so you’ll need a few years under your belt of free and underpaid work before you can take it full-time. If you don’t have a safety net my honest advice is to hold on to your part-time job until you hit this point.
How much do you take social media, particularly Instagram, into account when making an image and thinking about the impact and distribution of the images?
Instagram gives me a great safety net when producing work because I know I’ll always have a platform to show what I’m working on even if it gets turned down by publications or galleries. When making an image however, I try my hardest to never think about what the response from an audience will be.
Do you think iPhone photography has devalued or enhanced the photography industry?
iPhones are encouraging people to take photos more than ever and I think that only enhances the industry. It’s so crazy to see a medium change so instantly in front of your eyes. Everything from aspect ratio, to composition and colours that traditional photography dictated has been flipped on its axis. With smartphone videos and photos, entirely new techniques are being formed -- the zooming into a subject that people do in their stories, different angles of selfies, the invention of a caption etc. are all only adding to the creative lexicon of the medium rather than detracting. It’s exciting to see so many people using their creativity every day without noticing it. People complain it’s going to drive professional photographers out of a job, but in my experience the more people get desensitised to iPhone photography the more a professional photo stands out in their presence.
Photography James J. Robinson