Art is hard. Even successful fine-art photographers with an organically evolving aesthetic and a robust client group know that gallery sales blended with advertising work is a tenuous business model. Why do it? Why deal with overpriced studios, finicky advertisers, and editorial assignments whose ROI seems to diminish annually? Without teaching gigs or day jobs, many successful art photographers are a few assignments not gotten or an exhibition that doesn’t sell out away from a career change.
For Joseph Desler Costa, the source of his creative drive is almost inconsequential—even the question seems suspicious. “I’m all in on this. I don’t have a contingency plan, this is what I do. What else am I going to do?” he asks, almost with a quick realization that he had better get back to work on the pieces for his upcoming show. But it quickly becomes apparent that his drive comes from something fundamental to his being, and if I may finish his sentence, perhaps it would be… what else can I do with this anxiety, with this directed looking, with this need to show the world what I see?
Cory Rice and I visited Costa’s studio, in Bushwick, Brooklyn. We met after he dropped his child at school; having kids adds an urgency to all of the reasons to create. Costa could not have been more welcoming, despite our relatively last-minute request to visit. His space blended natural light from a high window with neon light from art he created for an earlier project. It felt as much like the workshop of a high-end motorcycle engineer as that of a photographer—there was a chrome spinner rim, a very old Macintosh computer on the floor, a cordless phone with an antenna, and a Contax 35mm film camera hanging near his desk. Costa works primarily with the Hasselblad H6D medium format system and his work deals in still life and multiple exposure in the forms of objects and products, and seeing through layers. Color is important and exacting and he is not shy about the cross-influence of his commercial work to his art pieces.
“I’ve always been into logos, and that’s also part of my commercial work. I tried to keep the art photography impulses separate from the commercial work, but it felt awkward, like I had to try too hard, so I started incorporating ideas. My images are highly lit, highly produced, my commercial work is about creating want and desire, so I’m trying to create that sensation, but work it in a more contemplative way. There’s also a lot of tongue-and-cheek in this, as well.”
Fortunately for us, Costa was preparing for his March 2020 exhibit at ClampArt gallery, and several of the pieces for that exhibition were hanging on the wall of his studio. These became the focus of our conversation and Costa posited “Is the photo ever just enough? I’ve been trying to find this physical presence,” and indeed, the pieces are thick, with “a double layer where the graphic was actually laser-cut to reveal another layer behind it. I wanted them to look a bit like they rolled off an assembly line. They’re printed on aluminum, you can get them dirty and clean ’em off.”
The reflective screen-like gloss, the layering, and the repeat exposures bring the viewer into the image, you’re there floating “next” to the object within the photo and asked to reexamine these very common subjects—a broken blind, green apples, a shoe, a motorcycle. And then there are the shapes cut out of the image revealing a layer behind and, all of a sudden, you’re outside of the image again, looking in. “It looks machine-made, and strong, it’s like kicking the tire of a car, as you walk around and inspect it. I initially put stickers on my prints, almost like with skateboards, and that evolved into these cut-outs. It’s like making your mark—this feels important to me, so I’m putting a sticker on it.”
“Photography is not just a moment.”
Asked about the evolution of his work, Costa notes that he is still using multiple exposures, which are really re-photographed prints. “I’ve always doubted this idea that a photo is just a moment,” but the “cutting of holes” is new and has to do with challenging the idea of the print and embracing this physicality of the overall piece. It is this development in his work that interests me, and I asked him, what provides that inspiration, or more, the conviction to go forward with this new idea. It’s not only that it’s a new idea, but new work is a risk, artistically, emotionally, and financially. Was it a difficult decision with which to go forward?
“I don’t know if I ever shake off the insecurity. It’s hard, you need to take risks and that brings insecurity. I feel I’m able to take risks because I don’t have any other options. Maybe I’m lying to myself and I do suffer from fragility and criticism, but I have to go forward this way. I think even the most ‘successful’ artists, actors, athletes deal with it. How do you navigate those feelings of being inferior? I do think that that inspiration comes as a way of dealing with a universal feeling of inferiority and I don’t have any other way forward except to deal with it through what I make.”
“Leaving my old gallery freed me a bit and I just got creative for a while, and then I met Brian Clamp and he asked if I wanted to do a show. We set a date and then I had to get busy. With my other shows I always had an insecurity; this time, I’m making the work I like, I feel like it’s ready. The more experience I have the better I get at making my series coherent.”
We pulled up an image on the monitor, of a piece from the upcoming show, one that had not yet been printed and constructed. The subject was the body of a motorcycle floating in clouds. He told me that he passed this motorcycle in front of a mechanic’s garage and finally approached the owner to ask if he could photograph it, with a backdrop behind. After a small payment was arranged, the owner agreed, and I asked Costa specifically about his decision to make this piece, to know this was an idea he wanted to pursue.
“I used to not follow up on an idea and I’d be pissed at myself after. But in this case, I was thinking of the song “Leader of the Pack,” like a motorcycle in heaven, so how do I make that photo and then I saw this.”
“So, I get interested in a thing, let’s say the silly graphics from the ’80s on this motorcycle. I know that I’m going to make a picture out of it, but the fun part, the ‘art’ part, happens in the middle; in between the image I have in my head before I make it and what actually comes out as a final piece. As clichéd as it may sound, that’s where the art moment happens, in that weird misfire between my pre-visualized image and what I actually get, because they never are the same. That’s the exciting, inspirational part, and knowing when it’s done is just intuition. That’s the joy.”
Check out Joseph Desler Costa’s exhibit, Dream Date, at the ClampArt gallery from March 5, 2020 to April 25, 2020 and see his work here.
Original images for this article were taken with the FUJIFILM GFX 100 Medium Format Mirrorless Camera.