“Start with in-focus first and work from there.”
This article was featured in RVAMag #25: Summer 2016. You can read all of issue #25 here or pick it up at local shops around RVA right now.
This is the mantra of Joey Wharton, aka Photo Joe, a Richmond innovator in the field of visual art with an eye for expanding live photography far beyond what’s expected. I first came in contact with Joey around 2014 when our passion for RVA music and photography lent itself to lengthy and spirited discussions while we were both running around the same bands and spaces. That mantra was freely used then and two years later, when we picked that conversation up where we left it, it had become the cornerstone of his approach to his work and the unique methods he utilized.
Before meeting up with Joey to begin that conversation though, I ran into Michael York, the multi-instrumentalist member of Sleepwalkers and resident music whiz kid, almost completely by chance. After executing a proper parallel parking job, I exited my car only to be greeted with congratulations from York himself. I had unknowingly parked in front of his porch on my way to chat with Joey, who would be leaving town in a week for a tour alongside Sleepwalkers themselves, serving as the opening act for The Lumineers in the May leg of their cross-country tour.
The timing was not lost on me as I offered York well-wishes and hurried off to catch up with Joey in one of his last days in town before hitting the road. It would have been great to stay and chat with York, but knowing the many topics I wished to cover with Joey, time was of the essence. We chatted about his goal with image making, his take on visual composition and craft, our mutual love of drag shutter photography, and even the influence on Jenn Kennedy’s live show drawings on his methods. Most fascinating though was learning just how Joey began his career as a photographer here in town and how it led to creating his own signature method for visual art.
Graduating out of VCU’s School Of The Arts with a focus in graphic design, Joey spent a few years as the Creative Director for four lifestyle magazines where he leaned on his education for support while simultaneously developing an eye for compositional layout. As he states, this led to “working with whatever was there. An article has to have a picture to it. You don’t want to read it like it is a newspaper. It’s a lifestyle magazine. Bright, colorful, cool, edgy! What ended up happening was I went, ‘Okay, I need to buy a camera! I need to take this into my own hands.'” Luckily, that’s where local musician and friend Emily Skidmore came to the rescue, offering up her own camera for Joey to utilize — that is, if Joey could supply a battery and learn how to do things himself. “[I] looked up a couple of YouTube tutorials,” he remembers. “I wanted to put it in either aperture priority or manual mode. Didn’t want to sit with it on auto. If I’m going to have this really powerful DSLR in my hand, I’m going to want to open up its capabilities as much as possible. Right when I got the camera, the Good Day RVA Fest — the very first one — was happening.”
Having a full day of great bands and beer at Hardywood was great motivation for Joey to get out and start making images with the newly acquired Canon 20D. Knowing a few bands on the bill, he had a place to start seeing what he could do. “I wasn’t really as familiar with camera raw so much at the time,” he reveals. “It was [about] finding what was in focus. Focus first for me and hope for the best with these pictures cause I didn’t know what was going to come of this. I just heard about a cool event.” For Joey, it was his first time seeing Sleepwalkers and he admits their placement on the bill, along with The Trillions, was the primary factor in his decision to visit Hardywood, a venue he would become well accustomed to, but was pretty unfamiliar with at the time. “It was weird being at Hardywood,” he laughs. “I didn’t know any of the crew there then. [It was] probably my third or fourth time there and I just circumnavigated the stage.” Just the night before telling me this, the two of us had crossed paths at a Lady God set at Hardywood, which had quickly become a regular nexus point for us to meet and converse about our mutual interests — mostly live music. Just years earlier in the same exact spot, Joey was a new face in the scene just learning the ropes, and getting his first taste of what Good Day RVA was all about.
No BS Brass Band
Years later, Joey would cite the Good Day RVA, as well as his friendship with collaborator and videographer Craig Zirpolo, as a resource for constant support, encouragement, and inspiration, but it’s not something that came about from that initial introduction. It would be the 2nd Hardywood takeover in 2015 where Joey’s connection with Good Day RVA would really take off. “Last year was where I met Craig for the first time,” he explains. “From that festival, I really started making all the connections. Chris [Damon], Will [Weaver], Matt [Cowan], and the whole Good Day house. They started looking at my work saying, ‘We like this! Do you happen to shoot video by any chance?'” Sadly, Joey hadn’t at this point and told them just as much in that initial introduction, but Joey’s shrewd eye more than made up for inexperience in their eyes and they quickly invited him to join them in Charlottesville at a farm to shoot footage for an upcoming Clair Morgan video. “It premiered on my birthday,” he stops. “I forgot about that! I made the poster for the event with all the animal masks. The song was ‘How To Set Your Bed On Fire.’ That was the first time I used the DSLR for video — I asked Chris a million questions then.”
From there, Joey found himself fully ingratiated by not just the Good Day RVA crew, but also other photographers in the local scene. He began to spend his time comparing notes with them on anything from live music shots to Richmond landscapes. Around this time, he began to establish a pattern of capturing excellent band and event shots, all of which were released on his social media accounts. From there, he began to see his work used to promote music in town and also began receiving feedback on his work, something he found extremely gratifying. All the while, he was still becoming familiar with the tool of a camera while utilizing his design training. “That was the biggest thing,” he says, “Transitioning from a keyboard mouse to handheld DSLR. I have one shot to make this happen cause I couldn’t fiddle as much [as in software]. That taught me to compose in the camera and focus on everything I was looking at. It was a whole new way of looking at the world honestly.”
While enjoying the Clair Morgan music video release with a room full of friends and peers, a random text Joey had sent to Austin York weeks earlier had begun to pay off. “Where is the application to be your tour photographer?” read the text and it had been sent around the time news broke that Sleepwalkers would be hitting the road with The Lumineers. Shortly afterwards, Joey ran into Austin while visiting his brother and he recollects Austin mentioning their desire to get a trailer attached to the van for their gear, allowing some extra room for Joey to tag along after he had expressed that interest so nonchalantly. Joey instantly showed his dedication to the opportunity by clearing his schedule instantly before anything was ever finalized, though that formalization would come at the Clair Morgan video premier when Michael York informed him they were good to go.
“Best birthday present I could have ever asked for,” Joey exclaims. “Not only was my name on the video and the video looked phenomenal, because of Good Day, [but] Chris [Damon] brought me on stage. They sang me ‘Happy Birthday’ and Michael presented me with, ‘You’re coming with us!’ [I was] almost at a point of tears from enjoyment. I couldn’t contain myself. I never ever thought just picking up that camera would take me to this point of people asking me to document their tour.” Being on the road with Sleepwalkers, their social media accounts quickly became full of Joey’s take on tour life. Thanks to a terabyte of hard drive space and innumerable memory cards, there will be even more documentary images for Joey to process and share in the coming months, all a reminder of what just picking up a camera can lead to.
On the road though, Joey’s contribution would mostly be business as usual, due to his unfamiliarity with the venues and local scenes they would be travelling to. “It’s going to be different,” he says. “I am very comfortable with all the venues around town. I know where the best angles are and I know where the shots are going to happen.” But clearly that wasn’t going to be the case when he would be out trying to document Sleepwalkers. “I might have a little bit of extra access,” he explains, “but I’m not going to be comfortable on a larger stage like Red Rocks for instance. I don’t know if one of these [Light Spin] images will come while I’m on the road. Maybe I’ll dive into some other weird experiment – who knows where things are going to take me?”
Back in town, the Light Spin series has made Joey’s name even more prevalent in local art discussions. This colorful and exciting take on photo art not only allows Joey’s work to stand out from his peers, but it also highlights live musicians in a way many have been constantly trying to accomplish. “The composite images that I’ve been doing recently still blow me away,” he responds. “It is nice to be able to focus in-camera when I’m trying to do this now. It makes me rely on the technology that I have in my hand. Rather than take a thousand photos and hope for the best.”
My Darling Fury
Having dealt with some of the issues faced by digital photographers and juggling a fight with complacency, Joey started to play with photo manipulation in the digital playground of Photoshop. “I have a folder called Light Spins from various venues,” he details. “I’ll take camera twirls of lights. Any of the venues around town — every one of those light spins is going to look a little different. I would take this photo of [No BS! frontman] Reggie [Pace] for instance. Let me get the photo of someone with a lot of energy and then I’ll take one of the light spins and layer them in Photoshop. The light spins vary 100%. I try to use my wide angle for the lights to get the most of everything and then spin that around a little bit. I keep these trails, a constant archive of all these little spins from around town. If I’m going to make one photo, I watch the band for a few songs and see who is the most emotive and take a small series of images, and check and see I got it and then I’m done! Maybe get some light spins at the venue, go home, and try and create a center focus of everything.”
From there, this remarkable post-production take on photography took on a life of its own as Joey continued to test its boundaries to see how far he could take what was deemed photography. “I started just using the lights from the venue where I shot the photograph,” he continues, “but have started molding different lights with different subjects. Does it cross the threshold into what people would consider digital art and not photography? I leave that open to interpretation. It’s really expressing how I feel about musicians and bands through art. I just want to create a memento, a keepsake. Something people will come to love.”
With my own photo documentary compulsion being so familiar with flash, drag shutter, and time based experiments, there were so many moving pieces in Joey’s Light Spins series that it was hard to figure out exactly what was occurring. Because these images are not possible in-camera, it made me challenge my conceptions of what is Digital Art and what is Drag Shutter photography. Luckily, Joey’s background was still fresh in mind leading to an “aha” moment when I realized it was the perfect marriage of the designer and photographer. It’s a beautiful thing to overlap several styles and techniques, to combine software and lens, and to self-source compositional elements in order to make stunning images and portraits. It’s all led to some of the most fascinating work in town of late, whether you wish to call it Digital Art or Live Photography. As he states so often, “start with in-focus first and work from there.” In-focus, Joey stands tall as an innovator in the local scene as both a designer and photographer. Working from there, he’s become a constant source of inspiration to the scene as we all continue to learn how Joey will utilize the lights, landscapes, venues, and tour stops to bring to life all these beloved local musicians.
Keep an eye on Joey’s various social media feeds for more recent Sleepwalker tour images, the continuation of his Light Spin series, and more as he continues to grow as a true artist here in town.