Insights and ideas from joSon, Adobe® Photoshop® user
PhotographerVisit this innovator's website
An inspiring approach to photography
Clean, spare, and meditative, joSon’s photography reveals a mind of extraordinary focus as well as a deep sense of captivating simplicity. Perhaps these qualities can be attributed to the fact that joSon lived in a Buddhist temple from age 10 to age 18, gardening, drawing, and teaching art to the resident monks. When he turned 18, the temple master told him he was destined for artistry, noting that, “Life chooses us and takes us places.” Here, joSon shares how his experiences played a role in shaping his life as a photographer, and why his images incorporate what he was looking for in the temple—a deep desire for peace, combined with an inspired approach to life.
Photoshop.com: Tell us about your personal journey growing up. Did that journey help define who you are today?
joSon: My Filipino-Chinese mother and my African-American father worked for the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines, where I was born. My grandmother, who lived in Vietnam, introduced me to Buddhist temples when she visited my mother and me in Manila. Inspired by how peaceful I felt within the temple walls—and by the escape those walls provided from the judgment I experienced for looking different due to my mixed ethnicity—I started to visit my grandmother in the summers so I could spend more time in the temples when I was not in school. I began to believe it was my calling to become a monk, and I told that to my mother. I moved to Vietnam to be close to my grandmother, and I lived in a temple from the age of 10 to 18. Though I was not chosen to be a monk at age 18, I feel that my time at the monastery influenced my artistic style today. It is evident in the meditative beauty I find in the simplest forms.
Photoshop.com: While living in the temple, what did you do that cultivated your artistic side?
joSon: I always kept a sketchpad, and I would draw and sketch ideas as I visualized them. I created sketches of better ways to arrange the flowers at the altars, and I showed them to other younger monks to provide some guidance. I was then given the task of arranging the altar flowers—it was a big honor. By the time I turned 15 or 16, I taught drawing classes to the younger monks, helping them to paint everyday things and demonstrating other ways of expressing themselves through art.
Photoshop.com: How did you discover that photography was going to be your primary path of expression?
joSon: I genuinely wanted to become a monk, so when the master told me that I should leave the monastery and follow an artistic path, I was confused and somewhat disappointed. But in Buddhism, we learn to accept the path that is meant for us. I went back to the Philippines and took more traditional classes, some in science—to please my mother, a doctor—and others in art, where I was in my element. In 1990 I moved the U.S., and while living in Lake Tahoe, I took up photography and found that it allowed me to capture what I could not put into words. After that, I moved to San Francisco and got my B.A. and then an M.A. in Photography from Academy of Art University. My path had become clear. I went back to the temple years later and found that two of my teachers were still there. They were not surprised by my journey and decision to become a photographer.
Photoshop.com: Are there specific photographers or artists you admire?
joSon: I like Norman Rockwell’s carefree and innocent depictions of American culture. Edward Hopper’s work is amazing in its ability to use color and light to create a warm feeling in a personal space. Other favorites include Edgar Degas, Yousuf Karsh, Eugéne Atget, Michael Kenna, and Nobuyoshi Araki.
Photoshop.com: What role does Adobe Photoshop software play in your creative process?
joSon: I think of Photoshop as an invaluable tool, much like the tools in my camera bag. It’s like choosing the right lens or selecting the right exposures before you click the shutter. My knowledge of what Photoshop can do helps me plan my shots in a way that enhances my vision. I have an idea of how my final image will look and feel—all before I even pick up my camera. I can imagine the possibilities and feel confident that what I’m seeing in the lens is only the beginning of the creative process. Taking the photo is the data collection phase; the capabilities of Photoshop lead me through the artistic journey.
Photoshop.com: What is one of your favorite images and why?
joSon: I’d have to say the series where I photographed kids with snakes in my “Pets” collection. The concept for the shoot grew from a client project. Once that project was completed, I returned to my original idea and created a fine art series using exotic animals including snakes with children. I cast 200 kids and ultimately hired 10. We also brought on a trainer who knew the animals inside and out. There was an element of uncertainty with so many variables to the shoot. Maybe something would go wrong with kids and snakes—some of them pythons. It’s not a big leap to think someone could get hurt. The kids, surprisingly, loved the animals and had no fear. They were more comfortable than I was. I’m very afraid of snakes. I try to push the boundaries of doing something different with every project I do, but also, as an artist, I want to challenge my sensibility and use art to question my beliefs, values, and fears so I grow as an artist.
I used Photoshop to enhance the lighting and the color of the snakes. Thank goodness, the snakes were gentle and the models were amazing. Everything came together to bring my vision to life and I was very pleased with the resulting images.
Photoshop.com: In addition to your personal work, can you talk about your client work?
joSon: I work with global commercial clients, including Samsung, Claritin, Target, Time Warner Studio, Kaiser Permanente, Sanofi Pasteur, Genentech, and Yahoo!. I don’t really differentiate between personal and client work. Luckily, clients hire me for the same qualities that are reflected in my personal work: honesty, energy, and vision. I’m also making inroads into fine art sales, with people buying large reproductions of my work, so that’s also exciting.
Photoshop.com: How do you share your images?
joSon: I’m very choosy about how I share my images. I’ll sometimes blog about a group of images or share them on Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr. It’s important for me to only share a cohesive body of work when it’s completed and I’m satisfied with it.
Photoshop.com: Can you talk more about what inspired your book on flowers—joSon Intimate Portrait of Nature?
joSon: My book is coming out in June, 2013, and I've been working on this project for a very long time! There are more than 100 flower species represented that I found, for the most part, in neighbors’ yards. I love to take an ordinary flower that someone might walk past every day and transform it into an exquisite, inspiring image. The images in my book are contrasted against a black or white background so all of the attention is focused on the beauty of the flower. My path in life is to portray ordinary things we see every day—beaches, water, grass, flowers, and so on—into something extraordinary, scrumptious, tactile, and memorable. Showing others how gorgeous and magical the seemingly ordinary, everyday things in the world are—that’s the journey the monks saw for me.