Photography • Inspiration On the Edge of Failure

Photographer Joe Pugliese energizes his renowned professional practice with hobbies that invite mistakes and outright failure.

I'm in Hollywood to meet photographer Joe Pugliese. I walk past star-studded sidewalks and restaurants you've seen a million times on movies and TV, but there are no celebrity sightings, just regular Angelenos going about their business. It's a fitting match for Joe’s photographs, which bridge the gap between stars and civilians by normalizing the celebrity and elevating the rest of us to a hero expression of ourselves.

Today, Joe is known for celebrity portraits of Jennifer Lopez, President Obama, Jamie Lee Curtis, and many others that appear in such publications as Wired, Variety, and Texas Monthly, but what most folks don’t know is that Joe got his start putting out a BMX zine using his mom’s Xerox machine, a starting point rooted in graphic design that continues to inform his practice even now.

Alejandro Chavetta: How did you get started as a photographer?

Joe Pugliese: In high school, I made a Xerox zine of me and my BMX friends. I was having a lot of fun with the graphic design and realized that I needed to take some photos for it, so I picked up a yard-sale camera.

I was still more interested in graphic design as I started shooting. And it was a little clumsy because I would shoot and then I would take it to the processing lab, wait a day or two, get back a print that would get messed up, or I wanted it to be bigger or smaller. Photography didn't click for me until I set up a darkroom. My parents let me black out the window in my bedroom, and I had another yard sale find of an enlarger and trays and caustic chemicals. It was the most rudimentary set-up.

I had a book that showed me how to develop in a dark room. The first time I put that print into the developer and nothing happened, I thought, "Total failure. Why did I bother with this?" And as I'm thinking about the failure, the print comes up, the image appears, and it was absolute magic. I wasn't a failure. I could shoot and be in control of the output from start to finish.

photo of President Barack Obama, photography by Joe Pugliese
Variety magazine cover featuring Robin Wright, photograph by Jope Pugliese

Chavetta: Do you do any design work now?

Pugliese: It still informs my photography in a way. I'm trying to design graphically what goes into the frame of photography. When I was a kid, I thought, "I want to take pictures because it's a really fast way to design. All the elements are kind of in the frame already."  

With digital, I shoot a little bit looser and the design is my crop and edit. I put a lot of thought into crops. I also put a lot of thought into the flow of a story—what makes a good cover and then what leads you into the magazine. Even designing my websites and Instagram page is important to me.

Chavetta: How did you go from BMX to portraiture? You spent time in working for newspapers, right?

Pugliese: I grew up in a household that only consumed newspapers; there were no magazines at all. I saw a photographer in that newspaper and thought that's what photographers do. So I got a part-time job at the local paper, and through college I did internships at big newspapers, and my last year of college, I got an offer to come to LA to be a photographer for the LA Times.

After three or four years of that, I was missing that creative outlet. Photojournalists are very creative, but I wanted to do more experimental things, and with the deadline of a daily newspaper there was no time and I didn't have any kind of lighting support or anything. It showed me that I liked photography, but I didn't want it to be a news-gathering device. I wanted it to be an interpersonal experience.


I left the newspaper and freelanced for Art Streiber, an extremely well-known magazine photographer. He demystified the process for me. I realized he made decisions to say, "I think this would be a good place to shoot." To even know that a photographer does that, instead of having assignments where you're told to shoot here, here, and here was valuable. Seeing that made me feel like I could do it.

Then I went to New York to assist at a syndication agency in New York. That showed me the business side of it: resale, assignment work, advertising work, all of the things a photographer does to make a living. While I was in New York I was doing freelance portrait work for the LA Times. There were press junkets where you had five minutes with Johnny Depp or Warren Beatty. I started to have the volume to realize that I was in charge of making an image but it required me to voice my ideas for the first time.


Chavetta: How did you do that?

Pugliese: I still struggle with it. You're never really on autopilot. Every subject requires something different. Earlier on, I lacked the confidence to say, "If you trust me, the pictures will be good" because I didn't quite know if I could make that deal. Now, later in my career, I can honestly say to someone, "If you trust me and let me guide you, there's a chance for us to make something special. If you don't want to trust me, I will still make a nice picture but it won't necessarily be that special."

It took me a long time to understand what I was asking and what it would feel like for the subject. Some portrait photographers earlier in their career are thinking about the final product and not necessarily having empathy for what the subject has to do to give you that, whether or not they're uncomfortable. I'm talking about photographing non-professionals; if you're photographing models then it's a matter of their professionalism and their willingness to collaborate. But when you're talking about people who don't sit for photos, which is normally what I do, you have to think from their point of view. That's taken me years, and it's still an ongoing process.

“Earlier on, I lacked the confidence to say, "If you trust me, the pictures will be good" because I didn't quite know if I could make that deal. Now, later in my career, I can honestly say to someone, "If you trust me and let me guide you, there's a chance for us to make something special. If you don't want to trust me, I will still make a nice picture but it won't necessarily be that special."


Chavetta: There's so much that goes into a commission for a portrait because you have the needs from the publication, the art director, and you have the subject. How do you go about negotiating all that?

Pugliese: Many of my shoots are 100% in service to the client who needs a cover that will identify the subject in a way that looks new or fresh or on-brand for the title. You know, does this need to fit a 16:9? Does this need to be on a billboard? And then within that, I think about what would happen if we put a little bit of a spin on it, or if I ask for something unexpected—something that takes us out of the obvious graphical needs. I look for something that is surprising. Having done it so many times informs the next time, in that I can anticipate what the subject can give me and go in that direction, and also avoid the things that will be a brick wall if I keep trying.  I'm reading the situation and it's my chance to give voice to what I think of a subject. Advertising work is less so. It involves a product and I sign on for that, so I don't fight it as much.

The really valuable skill set for me is not even on the photographic level anymore. It's reading people—not only the subject, but also reading the art director, reading the crew, and making sure I'm attentive to all of that. It's a mistake to think, "I'm the captain of the ship and everybody else is looking to me." It's a collaboration.

Chavetta: There's a David Letterman portrait that's very different from some of what you've done in the past. I want to know what made you decide to go that route.

Pugliese: For these shots, I was following David Letterman around as he was doing a sound check for an interview show. It was abject darkness.

When I started in photography, some of my most satisfying results were because I was 100% screwing up. I didn't have any formal training—I didn't have a single class—so it was all about book learning and trial and error, and the trial and error was so exciting. I keep that in my mind when I'm shooting and am tempted to say, "We need to stop and fix this." Instead, I keep going just another minute to see what the mistake looks like. I find excitement in the fact that I don't really know how it will come out.


For the David Letterman shot and some others, I wanted to add something on top of the obvious sort of portrait language. I like living in that portrait framing of head and shoulders, but the options are so few in that that I add to those. When I'm in close it gives me a chance to push it a little bit more.

Chavetta: Let's talk about your photos of the Women's March.

Pugliese: That subject matter meant a lot to me for a lot of reasons. One of the early assignments I had as a very young photographer was to photograph a war protest in San Francisco. I was extremely moved by that; the history of protest in America, especially revolving around war, has always captured my attention.

I thought those kinds of photos were about a crowd: Look at the sea of people, look at the size of the protest. But if you dissect that, it's all human stories.


When the Women's March came around, I was so impressed by it. I didn't have any really big ideas; I just wanted to experience it. And I didn't want to interrupt it—I wanted to be invisible as a photojournalist. I used the longest lens I could find so that no one had to change their behavior for a photo. In my personal work, I've been trying to observe and not ask for a change in behavior, just document behavior. I'm seeing that when people are left alone and are comfortable, they're really intriguing and expressive. But when you get in there as a photographer, those things break down. All I'm ever trying to do is regain that natural state.

Chavetta: What drew you to the subject matter of Home Coming at Fort Bliss?

Pugliese: I was lucky enough to be commissioned to do that shoot by Texas Monthly, which is one of the best magazines at long photo essays around portraiture. When they asked me to document the moment that soldiers came home, I was thrilled. We know this story of soldiers coming back from war, but we don't always see the moment—their expressions, their feelings the moment they land. I wanted to take this large subject of soldiers in war and focus on one aspect of it.

When Texas Monthly asked how I wanted to tackle it, I said, "I'd like to remove the setting because it's not that important." It was a hangar on an Army base, and it didn't add anything; it actually distracted from what was happening in their faces. People without the setting is a tradition of portraiture, and I think it's a useful thing for photojournalism, too.

Wranglers and the editors from the magazine were going up to families as they're hugging each other, saying, "We'd love to get a family portrait of you for Texas Monthly if you'd like." I thought, "Who'll want to do that? They've just come home after 16 months or whatever it is." But we had a line of families who wanted it documented.

It showed me that that type of photography is still thought of as a permanent thing. We all have cameras all the time, but photo booths are still a thing at weddings and parties. People want that permanence.


“It showed me that that type of photography is still thought of as a permanent thing. We all have cameras all the time, but photo booths are still a thing at weddings and parties. People want that permanence."


Chavetta: You go on a lot of bike rides, and oftentimes you take photos, I assume with your phone? How does mobile photography impact your work?

Pugliese: There are two different parts of my brain. For me, mobile photography relieves a lot of the weight that I carry with photography. It doesn't even feel like the same medium. When I pick up a camera to do a portrait—I mean, the camera itself is heavy, but I feel like the experience is heavy. I have this obligation to do something that can last.

In mobile photography it's the exact opposite, and it's pure joy. It's color, it's graphic elements, it's the way the light looks. I'm not sure how it informs my portrait work, but it certainly informs the graphic design part of my brain that I want to keep honed. And it reminds me that there's joy in photography. I have a sense of joy when I'm doing a portrait session, but it's a serious joy, it's an endeavor.

Chavetta: How difficult it is for you to maintain your brand?

Pugliese: I really enjoyed posting photos to social media early on. And I felt that people on the business side of photography seemed to want to see the extracurricular work—your journal, your sketches. I think it's morphed into an extremely important part of discovery and promotion, to the point that it's eclipsed traditional websites for photographers. Now you're showing your best work immediately to potential clients and potential subjects. I think they want to see your voice in total, and to show them only your mobile photography work would sell your entire vision a little short.

Chavetta: If you could give advice to an up-and-coming art director of a magazine on how to approach editorial photography, what would that advice be?

Pugliese: Art directors, photographers, we're all becoming the same voices, which is exciting. If an art director has it in them to pick up a camera, that's wonderful. If a photographer has it in them to art-direct a piece, that's helpful for all of the visual aspects of it. Specialization is becoming less important.

It's hard to manage when there's overlap, for sure. But I'm seeing some of the best work come from people who don't pay attention to those old models because they don't have to. If it's a challenging job technically, they hire a crew that can help them. If it's challenging to output the photos, they collaborate with other people who can do that. If you need motion and you're a still photographer, you collaborate. I like this idea that you don't have to have all the skill sets, but you do need a vision and know which people on your team can help you achieve it.

"I had very strong feelings about George Bush's policies, but at the same time he's entered a new chapter of his life. The chance to photograph any ex-President at home is interesting to me."

Chavetta: Is there an instance where you felt like, "I failed, but I recovered?"

Pugliese: Earlier on in newspapers, I may have been interning at the time, I got an assignment to shoot this physicist, and it was Steven Hawking. I went to the hotel and he had no entourage, he just comes in and he's lovely, and I'm 20 years old and trying to do my best to rise to the challenge. I remember thinking, "I'm so out of my league, I don't know what to do." I didn't know how to ask for what I needed and it was a total failure.

It pains me to think about it, but the redemption is that I carry the idea that I only ever get one chance to do a portrait of a person, and none of us will be here forever. I think, what would be a suitable historic portrait of this person? This is the cover of Men's Fitness, but can the portrait last beyond that? I would like to think that some of the pictures I make could be looked back on as a stamp of that person at that moment.

Chavetta: Is there a point where you'll combine your design side and your photography side and design your own book?

Pugliese: I have it in me; I think it just takes starting up practice again. I want to treat design as a hobby, and I'm waiting for the space for it to feel like a hobby. If I treated it like a job I would be frustrated because my taste level in design is something I know I can't achieve.

I do a lot of things as a hobby where I have knowledge of the upper echelon of that thing, but I can't achieve it; for example, I do a lot of amateur baking, things like French macarons and soufflés that are absolutely fail-heavy. But there is redemption in that failure, of thinking I knew how to do it but even following directions I can't do it. It makes me practice self-kindness. It's okay. You'll make another batch and it'll probably be better. I have to take that feeling into all creative jobs because if you feel like you can't fail, then you're probably not really pushing yourself. You really should feel that you're on the edge of failure all the time. Because that's where progress is made.

“If you feel like you can't fail, then you're probably not really pushing yourself. You really should feel that you're on the edge of failure all the time. Because that's where progress is made.”


To see more of Joe Pugliese's work, follow him on Instagram and visit his website.

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