Rob Woodcox Discusses His Boldly Energetic Conceptual Photography of the Human Form
January 13, 2020
Our editor Christopher Jobson conducted this interview with photographer Rob Woodcox via email.
Christopher: Can you first take a moment to tell us how you picked up a camera and eventually turned it into your career?
Rob: It’s the year 1997 and baby Rob is running around summer camp with an assignment from his mom to capture photos of his experience using a single disposable camera.
I knew I couldn’t live with myself doing something I didn’t love, and that stubborn voice really pushed me through part-time jobs and societal expectations to the point that I’m now a self sustained artist of 7 years. — Rob Woodcox
The only rule is that at least 50% of the photos have to be of people. I remember always being super imaginative and wanting to capture the environment as well as the people. I dabbled in drawing and painting throughout the years, creating my own dreamscapes on paper, and eventually decided to focus on photography in college. I had no other reason than this wrenching feeling in my gut that it was for me.
I didn’t have the patience for the other more secluded art forms and enjoyed the process of engaging with models, locations, etc. I knew I couldn’t live with myself doing something I didn’t love, and that stubborn voice really pushed me through part time-jobs and societal expectations to the point that I’m now a self sustained artist of 7 years. I honestly can’t believe I’ve made it this far—I’ve never really had support from my immediate family, however my found family and artist community has been overwhelmingly supportive over the years!
Christopher: The story about your mom and the disposable camera was charming. Did this eventually lead to formal training or art/photography school, or did you just dive in?
Rob: I did go to a photography school local to Detroit and got an associates degree learning the basics of photography. From there I learned many of the techniques I currently use on my own. From tutorials and sharing techniques with friends to simply practicing, I taught myself a lot and eventually just dove into client work and teaching workshops.
Christopher: One thing that strikes me about your work is that some images are partially composed digitally, while others clearly aren’t. Yet looking behind the scenes, you still go to great lengths to achieve certain effects practically instead of digitally. How do you know where to draw the line between wanting to capture something in-camera versus trying to achieve something similar in Photoshop?
Rob: I suppose having a strong focus on conceptual photographs for 11 years now, I’ve learned where those lines are—where something will start to look fake if the light doesn’t match between the background and model(s), or where a composition becomes too overwhelming. I’ve learned that matching the subjects to the environment makes for a much more successful end result, and so I go to great lengths to produce imagery in surreal locations as well as the studio when that is called for.
Between backpacking as a hobby since I was 14, and my love of practical effects in movies, I’ve developed a particular skill for combining bizarre landscapes with performance art and styling techniques that surprise my audience and usually garner a lot of questions. It’s quite entertaining to field questions on which pieces are completely real vs. slightly enhanced with Photoshop. Usually people can’t figure out which is which and that is the biggest compliment.
I also have to give a HUGE thank you to my collaborators—the dancers, models, makeup artists, body painters and stylists that enhance my visions dramatically. I started out painting and gluing things to models myself, but I usually work with collaborators these days.
Christopher: You’re a master at capturing bodies frozen in motion. Without knowing anything about your background, I assume you have some deep familiarity with dance. Is that true? If not, what would you attribute it to?
Rob: I’ve actually never taken a dance class in my life, but I suppose my fascination of theater, film, and performance art pushed me to start working with dancers initially. After my first shoot with a dancer I remember being stunned by their ability to move effortlessly and create shapes I’d never seen before. I didn’t even need to direct much. I can express an emotion or story-line, and dancers use their inherent awareness of their own bodies to deliver stunning shapes for the camera. Its like tasting food from a chef and trying to go back to microwave dinners—there’s no comparison to working with dancers.
Christopher: You seem extremely busy commuting between LA, Mexico City, and New York. Do you have studios in all three locations? What are your reasons for selecting where to work from?
Rob: I suppose I’ve built the biggest creative communities in those three cities and with those being some of the largest creative hubs in North America I find the opportunities to be the most satisfying for my visions. On some level you have to go where the work is as an artist. While I prefer being in nature and taking inspiration from those experiences, I also thrive around people and action. In 2019 I was traveling the world basically the whole year and now I’m taking 6 months to be in one place. I’ll be traveling again mid 2020, but I’ve realized I need to find a balance as with anything in life. I don’t have my own studios because much of my work is location based, but I work closely with artists that have studio spaces in each city and typically rent them out for client work.
Christopher: At the core of your work is a strong heartbeat of social awareness. You’ve worked on numerous projects relating to queer identity, diversity, adoption, and body positivity. Outside of your personal work, are these aspects also important when selecting commissions? It seems like it might almost be a prerequisite to working with you?
Rob: Absolutely, social awareness is extremely important to me both in personal and client work. I have to admit I’ve been extremely lucky to attract 95% brands that want my vision because of that social awareness. From magazines to festivals to ad agencies, most people that contact me want exactly what I’m putting into the world via social media.
Every opportunity to pick up a camera is an opportunity to practice and learn as well—the learning never stops with this craft. — Rob Woodcox
There’s still that 5-10% that just want a product, and I still accept some jobs just for the paycheck—I’m still a self-sustained artist and my perspective on earning a living is that whatever the source, we as artists can use that funding for our own personal missions.
Every opportunity to pick up a camera is an opportunity to practice and learn as well—the learning never stops with this craft. There is no shame in doing work for a paycheck. However there are lines I wouldn’t cross, like supporting hate-driven causes or companies that actively are destroying the environment. There are plenty of conscious brands where I’d rather invest my time.
Christopher: Are there any artists or photographers that have influenced or inspired your work?
Rob: I’ve definitely been inspired by the likes of Tim Walker, Eugenio Recuenco, René Magritte, Leonora Carrington, Annie Leibovitz, Salvador Dali, Richard Avedon and more. I love all visual art forms and certainly pull inspiration from paint and performance arts often.
Christopher: Tell us about your upcoming book, Bodies of Light.
Rob: I’m SO excited for my book to come out in March of this year 2020. What a big year! My book encompasses all my most surreal work to date, a few of the images even date back to 2011. A whole decade of my life work, it’s hard to believe! I shot exclusive new work for the book on a road trip through the desert, and all my dance work is included as well. It’s 180 pages of vibrant, conscious photographs and writing from my travels. Its mostly visual but there are 10 short form writing pieces that follow the thematic journey as viewers flip through the pages. This will be a beautiful coffee table style book with some metallic detailing on the cover, which features my first viral image “The Tree Of Life” in a gorgeous wrap around cover courtesy of the design team at Thought Catalog. Anyone interested in ordering their own copy can find it here.