Interview with Joshua Farr
Joshua Farr is a photographer, curator, graphic/web designer, photo-printer, furniture-builder, and Gallery Director at the Vermont Center for Photography – a position he has held for 7 years. He is responsible for curating the center’s monthly photographic exhibitions as well as organizing regular photographic workshops, artists talks, photographic publications/catalogues, & portfolio reviews.
Joshua splits his time between VCP and the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center where he has been a staff photographer and exhibitions installer/art-handler since 2012.
Graduating in 2011, he received his BFA in Photography from the New Hampshire Institute of Art, where he held a 3-year work-study position for the photography department.
Visit Joshua's Website to see more of his personal photographic work.
First let's get to know you. Can you tell us a little about your story and how you got involved in photography originally?
Growing up in Maine, I got my first camera, a Kodak Instamatic, when I was probably 5 or 6 years old and inadvertently became the family documentarian of sorts. Pictures of my sister, parents, pets, house, tree forts, sand castles - it all needed to be documented - for reasons I was not quite sure of at that time. I always had a camera nearby. I took several photo-classes in high school - even creating my own independent study (which I thought made me super cool!) - but it wasn’t until I reached college that I had any vague notion that photography would or even could become a primary focus of my life.
I had started my freshman year of college studying film production (I think because some part of me at that time felt that “film production” was a more practical/realistic career than being an “artist”) and it wasn’t until I met a friend that was transferring to a small art school in NH that I began to consider the idea of actually going to school for photography. I literally applied to the school the same day that I got an informal tour from a friend - and found out very soon after that I would be attending the New Hampshire Institute of Art for the next 3 years. For those next 3 years, I ate, slept, & breathed photography 24/7 and I suppose, as they say, the rest is history.
You are currently the Executive Director of the Vermont Center for Photography. What part of your position at the center you find most satisfying? You bring in to the center amazing artists and create diverse exhibitions, can you tell us about the process of creating these shows? What is your main goal and expectations?
I half-jokingly say, with some frequency, that my position at VCP very well may be the best job I’ll ever have! I feel very grateful to be where I am and have had a lot of support along the way. Working for a small non-profit organization as the sole employee, I am provided the unusual luxury of autonomy. Though I understand the merits of working in a team format where the group dynamic allows for diversity of opinions, I deeply value the independent nature of my work at VCP and how it has allowed me to curate a consistent vision and direction over the past 7 years that I have been in this role. I am supported by a group of volunteer board members - and I am thankful for the level of trust they have bestowed upon me.
With this freedom of vision, I thoroughly enjoy moments when, stepping back in the physical space of VCP with fresh eyes, I can consider new and engaging ways to use the space to create an environment where individuals will not just fleetingly meander through for 30 seconds to check out the latest exhibition, but instead, come to VCP as a sort of social “photo hub” to see the exhibition, interact with other visitors, sit down for a few moments and crack open a photo-book or two, and really engage with the work - and each other - on a much deeper level.
Laying out each coming year’s exhibition schedule has become one of the most challenging as well as one of the most rewarding processes I am faced with in my job. There are so many moving pieces in this curatorial-puzzle and I have found that this task has become the one area where I have to conjure everything I have seen, every article I have read, ever Instagram account I have followed, ever artist I have reviewed...and attempt to assemble a schedule of exhibitions that covers all photographic genres, mediums, and subject matter - that supports local, regional, and at times national artists of all experience levels, ages, race, and genders. In a relatively small community, such as Brattleboro, which has an unusually high density of creative individuals, I find it to be particularly important to support and showcase the talents in our own backyard, while also introducing our community to the work of other world-class artists from more distant reaches who they previously may not have been as familiar with - adding a new ever-changing dynamic to our community.
What is the most challenging part of your curation process? How do you think being an artist yourself has helped you in these curation paths?
Inevitably, particularly in the realm of non-profits, deciphering where the funding will come from to make these exhibitions and educational programming possible quickly becomes the keystone factor as to whether or not we can carry out our mission fully as an organization. We are immensely grateful to be celebrating our 20th anniversary this year - and I try to keep that fact in my back pocket as a little pick-me-up when we are experiencing any sort of financial woes. However, though it sounds great on paper to think that the sheer enthusiasm of the community alone is enough to sustain us, reality does eventually kick in that you must maintain a deep vigilance and focus - and that the only way some tasks are going to get completed is if I decide that it is integral to the future of VCP and make the time to see it through.
I feel as though my background as an artist has given me a perspective whereas I am actively seeking ways to try to make the process as seamless and stress-free as possible - while also trying to minimize as much financial burden on the artist as possible. I realize that exhibitions are almost always a costly endeavor for artists - and there is certainly room for VCP’s available resources to grow in the future, but I do attempt to seek out every possible opportunity to alleviate some of that burden with the resources that we have available to us.
As someone involved with new and emerging talent, you get to see new work, new trends and the ways things are shifting in the photo world - how would you describe the photo scene as it is now?
I feel as though the medium of photography is in a curious state of contradictions. There’s the steady development of newer and better digital technologies, embraced by many, while simultaneously, we are seeing a striking resurgence of once antiquated and analog processes such as tintypes, platinum printing, photogravure, or even the traditional silver gelatin print - thought to be obsolete by many - now becoming more and more a standard practice.
We see Instagram accounts with more followers than a gallery may see within their four walls in 5 years. We see some artists abandoning the context of galleries and museum altogether to share their work solely in book format. Perhaps, rather than contradictions, we are simply gaining diversity - a diversity that would be much more difficult to achieve if not for the onset of modern digital technologies as well as social media.
In your personal work I found that many of your projects to be on the typological side. It seems that you have a concept and you explore it from various angles - for example your project ‘Things That Are Orange’ which by the title says it all. Can you talk about this photographic process from your point of view?
I very rarely begin a photographic series deliberately. A new practice I tend to follow is to simply notice what I notice. In the series “Things That are Orange”, it started with a brightly glowing orange shrub in a neighbor’s front yard which I passed daily on my way to and from work. For weeks I thought to myself, “I should just stop and snap a photo of that...how often do you see orange shrubs!” I did stop one day, shared it on Facebook, and - after a few moments of failing to think of a caption to put with the post, I simply typed “From the series Things That are Orange…” and it just kind of stuck from there. Once I started thinking about orange things - ALL I could see day to day was orange things.
This project is less about the individual image standing alone and more about the cumulative ensemble all presented simultaneously - ripping these otherwise sparse occasions out of their context and placed into a new and unnatural setting. From there, it becomes a psychological game I play for my own amusement!
Your ‘Street Portraits’ capture people on the street while you are posing them in the center of the frame, and they are engaging in the photograph and with yourself. This reminded me of August Sanders type of photography. How was the experience photographing these people and engaging with them? You say you choose these people for their unique characteristics - could you give us an example?
Admittedly, this series began as a one-time outing to give myself an opportunity to become more comfortable with approaching strangers and to become more technically proficient with a large format 5x7 view camera. All too often, I find there to be this distinct disconnect between passers-by in public spaces. I feel as though we often see one another as a foreigner, of sorts. We live so much of our lives internally that I worry that it will become more and more difficult for us to break that shell open to connect with one another on a human level. I was consistently surprised by the candor and genuine interest I received from these subjects - and thoroughly enjoyed the process.
The man with the flute, for example - was relaxing outside a music shop - and was very actively observing his surroundings when I came upon him. The interaction was easy - and he was more than willing to humor my request. It wasn’t until I was packing up that he told me he’s never played flute before and was simply pretending to play for his own amusement.
In your project ‘Welcome to Oxford’ you go back to your home town of Oxford Maine to document it and it’s changes over the years. Can you tell us more about this project? How was it to experience it as a photographer and not only as a resident of the place?
I guess you can say I’ve always been the nostalgic type. I was born and raised in the same home my entire childhood, until leaving for college at 18. My hometown is a personal oasis and place of refuge when life gets stressful. In the 11 years since I’ve lived there, much has changed - some for the better - and some not so much. This project depicts my personal grappling with these changes. It also interests me the way that one gains a fresh perspective of a place after stepping away for some number of years. I began to notice things that I had, for many years, taken for granted. A new light was shed on the homes, businesses, people, fields, corner stores, campgrounds, that ultimately led to a more precise and mature understanding of my own upbringing.
This project did come with its own challenges, in how to make the work relatable to a wider audience without being nothing more than personal therapy with a camera in hand. But whether or not it reached a wider audience or not, it was simply an exercise that I needed to complete.
Who is your biggest inspiration as a photographer? What work do you always go back to to get inspired and motivated from?
I find that the work that most inspires me is work that seeks out the emotional complexities and beauty of raw human nature. I’m interested in photographs that show human relationships. We are astoundingly complex and multifaceted beings - and ultimately, are all simultaneously seeking safety & connection. One photographer who I’ve always felt has hit this existential nail squarely on the head is California-based photographer Lucas Foglia.
For me, his work strikes a deep emotional chord that resonates even long after viewing. In his 1-sentence bio statement, Foglia makes reference to the “absurdly comedic juxtapositions of human technologies and the natural world”. This style of photographic work requires a perfect blend of observancy, technical-readiness, and pure luck!
What would you consider your biggest failure as an artist? How did it shape you?
The area where I feel I have failed myself creatively is in simply allocating the time, through sheer will-power, to commit myself to making new work. No one wakes you up in the morning, taps you on the shoulder, and tells you to jump out of bed, grab your camera, and get your butt out the door to make new work. For me personally, I tend to have extended lulls in my creativity which are usually followed by intense - though short - periods of creation. Once I latch onto even a notion of an idea, it absorbs me entirely and I feel personally obligated to see it through to some level of completion.
Though I am not as active in the creation of my own work nowadays, I have my photographic experience and background in the arts to thank for my new career trajectory in curatorial and arts-management endeavors. My position as Executive Director and Curator at the Vermont Center for Photography would not be as complete without my personal experience as a photographer and the many challenges that one all-too-often faces. As I mentioned previously in the interview, I feel like I’ve played for both teams, so to speak - and this only enhances the relationship I am able to achieve with the artists and exhibitors with whom I interact.
Finally - what advice can you give young artists reading this interview?
One small bit of advice I received from a professor was simply to photograph what you love. I shrugged it off at the time mostly because it felt like it goes without saying - or that it was overly simplistic, though I feel like it is often overlooked, especially early in one's career. If you pour your heart and soul into the work you create - not just on a superficial level - it will show in your work and elevate your creative process to a place where you can tap into those territories of raw (and relatable) human experience.