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Photographer Interview: Jesse Wright

Photographer Jesse Wright
It's no surprise that scientists make great photographers. Folks like Jesse Wright with the tenacity to research how things/life work could only naturally gravitate to using the camera as a discovery tool.

Engage with Jesse Wright's photography online and follow him on Twitter @jessewright.

D&B: Where are you from?
JW: I was born and raised in the blue-collar city of Allentown, PA. I currently reside in New York City.

D&B: How did you get started in photography - any "formal" training?
JW: I have absolutely no formal training in photography or the arts. I have a Ph.D. in Microbiology from the University of Virginia and I spent half a dozen years studying bacterial communication as a postdoctoral fellow.

I loved making things as a kid – I would draw or build things with Legos – and I liked art class. I really enjoyed the process of starting with an idea or vision and trying to realize it. But, I discovered photography only recently, about 4 years ago during my postdoctoral fellowship.

At the time, my girlfriend and I got a camera together - just a little digital point and shoot. I thought maybe I could use it for work, photographing my experiments with bacteria communities. I found that to be very satisfying, because the images I took told a story that couldn’t be explained in words, graphs or tables. That’s when I realized that photography could be creative, powerful means of communication.

Of course, it didn’t stop there. I got obsessed with taking pictures. I would fiddle with the settings, try various techniques, and I began shooting outside of the lab. Like a scientist I was using the camera as a means to explore and understand my environment. The camera evolved from a tool into a vehicle of expression. That’s when it struck me that photography could serve as a way to show how I see the world.

D&B: What cameras or techniques do you use?
JW: I photograph with a Canon 5D, but believe it or not, most of my favorite images are taken with a little point and shoot or iPhone. I love the ultimate control of all elements of the camera’s operation. But, sometimes the lack of control can actually be a blessing – allowing you to really be creative and explore the spontaneity of the moment. Though I can be very deliberate about lighting and composition, some of my favorite images have been taken when I didn't have time to consider these things and I just acted on instinct or whim.

I love shooting manually and I love the effects one can “manufacture” with a lens. Like creating or compressing space, using shallow depth of field, shooting in focus, or out of focus. I especially like the ambiguity of shooting things out of focus. The resulting images are abstract and dreamlike – you can kind of see what’s going on, but the details are blurry. It makes the photo more interpretive – anyone can look at it and find in it what they want because it’s more like a memory than a reproduction. Shooting this way allows me to focus on the moment and not be distracted by the details.

When I choose to shoot in focus I tend to use the camera to extract meaning from a fragment. I’m consciously trying to eliminate distraction and focus on one subject. I’m attempting to elevate the subject to another level. I'm trying to take an Oreo cookie and make it more than something you shove in your mouth.

This is a very scientific approach, in a way; In science you can't control every variable, so you try to eliminate the things you can't control. You can't study a whole system en masse – you just study one part, and ask “what does do?" or "how does it work?" You isolate it and examine it apart from the other pieces. For me, that's when i realize how elegant that one part can truly be. There can be beauty and elegance when you take in the whole vista, but it doesn't always resonate with me personally. Instead, I find myself wanting to subtract things to get down to something essential.

D&B: Who are your mentors (in photography)?
JW: Even though he was not a photographer, my graduate school mentor Bob Kadner had an enormous influence on me. I was free to find my own way, come up with my own ideas, make every mistake in the process, and develop something that was truly my own. Not once did he force me into any particular project – instead, the implication was, 'come up with your own project.'

I floundered in this state for a couple years because I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I thought I needed to be taught how to do science – how to design an experiment, how to ask the right questions, how to go about solving problems the proper way. It was a lot like learning how to swim by being tossed into the deep end of the pool. I find myself replicating that approach now in everything I do. For instance, instead of relying on a template, I taught myself HTML so I could build my flickr, jpgmag, tumblr, and via twitter.

I also find contemporary art inspiring: Sol Lewitt, Mark Rothko, William Eggleston and Andy Warhol have had a profound influence on me. I like learning what their influences were, the “why” behind a piece or a series. That resonates very strongly for me as a photographer. My decision to take a picture means there's a story behind every photograph I take – sometimes I think taking a photograph is just a means to that experience. That's why I really like to know the stories behind these artists' works.

D&B: When did you realize you could make a living at photography? Describe your journey towards becoming a pro.
JW: I am not a pro, yet. Being paid to photograph in a steady way – that’s how I define being a pro. Once I started to receive complements on my photographs from friends, family, and colleagues it dawned on me that a career as a professional photographer was attainable. I can’t overstate how important that feedback was because it reinforced the fact that my perspective holds value.

At the same time, I really tried to be objective about my work and my progress, asking myself if I was really offering something different and unique with my photography. I knew that even if I was pretty good at it, if I was incapable of offering something new or innovative as a photographer, I wouldn’t want to do it.

As a person, I need that challenge. I need to know that I am entering uncharted waters. That’s the kind of risk that excites me, and that’s what I’m seeking in a career in photography. I hope at some point that someone wants to hire me or collaborate with me because they appreciate the risks I’m willing to take, and they like my vision.

D&B: What do you hope to achieve with your photography?
JW: I want people to stop and linger. I love those pauses in between the moments we are all conditioned to remember. I love in the movies, when a shot lingers longer than is necessary. I love when you just stand there at the refrigerator with the door open, staring inside. I enjoy those quiet pauses within conversations. Those are the moments I want to capture, because although they are easily erased from our memories, to me they stand out as powerful and moving.

Taking photographs to me means stopping. Someone stopping to look at my work means they’re doing just what I did before I pressed the shutter. That is how I think my work connects with the viewer. I don’t really take a lot of pictures of exotic stuff – I shoot stuff that’s pretty mundane, things you may come across every day and don’t notice, like bus logos, a street sign, or a trash can.

So in a way, the most flattering thing for me would be for others to stop and ponder what I’ve made. I want them to get stuck on it. Maybe they’ll find in it the same meaning that I do, or maybe they’ll find in it something meaningful to them, or maybe they’ll just think it sucks. The outcome is irrelevant to me, because, if they linger, it means that somehow I’ve drawn them into my world and that’s what I’m really trying to achieve.

D&B: What's your dream photography project?
JW: I'd love to go on the road with truckers, and just take pictures of them and their trucks. Truckers, to me, seem like modern day cowboys. A dream project is to be like Hunter S. Thompson – to be able to both document and experience a situation – really be a part of it and not be an outsider.

I’d like to be with these truckers, ride with them, go to the truck stops with them, eat and drink with them and become part of their circle. And then I wouldn’t be shooting as an outsider, but as a member. I could achieve something genuine and organic because I had their trust.

I traveled to India last fall, and it was there where I learned the importance of building a relationship with my subject, no matter how fleeting the moment. I was traveling with my brother and we would wander the streets of Delhi at night. There were a lot of street vendors near where we were staying, and they got used to seeing us in the neighborhood.

One night I asked this one guy if I could take his picture. He became embarrassed when the other street vendors started to make fun of him a little while I was shooting. Even though he was smiling, his discomfort was captured in my photo which made it better. I wouldn’t have gotten the same effect were it not for his relationship with those other guys and their relationship from seeing us around.

D&B: What are you shooting now?
JW: I’m developing a photo essay of Allentown. On the surface, Allentown seems so much less interesting to shoot than New York, but that’s why it’s so interesting to me. Because I grew up there, I know where to find the elements in Allentown that are much more raw than New York.

Here in New York, I find myself working very hard to scratch and pick and peel away all the layers that hide the city. New York also has a different feel because it is a destination – millions of people come here to work, or visit and see the sights.

Those things are absent in Allentown which makes it ready-made for the type of photography I like to do – the kind in which I extract things. In New York it can be tough to extract things from the surrounding clutter. In Allentown, I can focus on a subject without having to work as hard to extract it. I guess it may be part of some larger personal journey that I don’t quite understand yet, but through taking photographs there I eventually will.

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