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through the eyes of fine art photographer & journalist susan burnstine

On The Walls: Josh Sanseri @ Santa Monica College


Last weekend my good pal Polly Chandler visited Los Angeles and introduced me to her longtime friend, Josh Sanseri. Josh is an accomplished commercial and portrait photographer, teacher and he has also created a number of wonderful personal projects.


This Saturday March 10, Josh’s exhibition “Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Not Dead, It Just Smells Funny” opens at the Santa Monica College Photography Gallery and features portraits and live photographs of musicians and bands who are both established and “up-and-coming” in the indie music scene. Included are images of The Flaming Lips, Little Dragon, Deadmau5, Built to Spill, The Avett Brothers and many more.

The opening reception is from 6:00-8:00pm and the exhibition runs through March 30. For details and directions here


Josh was kind enough to chat with me about his work yesterday. Here’s an excerpt from that conversation. 


SUSAN BURNSTINE: What were your beginnings as a photographer and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?

JOSH SANSERI: My first memory of picture making is from when I was about nine years old. I convinced my mom to buy a roll of 126mm film for this old camera I found at a garage sale. She paid to have the film developed at the local Fotomat, and saw that I had wasted the pictures on things like chimneys, doors, and mailboxes. She swore that would be the last roll of film that she would purchase for me. She later failed to keep her promise by helping me pay for college where I studied cinema, photography, and fine art.


I first realized photography was going to be a large part of my life in high school. I was a bit of a trouble maker as a teenager, but my teacher, Jeff Stanek, was very charismatic and inspirational. He knew how to relate to and reach students like myself. He was great at redirecting energy into productive activities like photography. It wasn’t long after processing my first roll of B&W film that I was skipping my English and math classes in order to work in the darkroom processing film and making prints. When I saw that first image magically emerge in the tray of Dektol, I was hooked for life. I soon got a job at the local camera store and have since worked in many areas of the photography business.


SB: Who were some of your early photographic influences and who inspires you now?

JS: My list of photographic influences is incredibly long, and it’s difficult to nail down just a few. Arnold Newman was the photographer that I identify with most. His portraits are amazing on every level. He had an uncanny ability to organize the frame while illustrating his subjective point of view about the people he photographed. His acknowledgment of subjectivity in documentary portraiture had an enormous influence on the way I approach portrait making. I’m also drawn to the classic documentary and portrait photographers like Walker Evans, August Sander, and Lewis Hine. They all had an honest but underlying dramatic approach to how they photographed people. Most importantly, they were careful about maintaining their subjects’ dignity while bringing sociological issues to light. They were great at making the viewer care for the people in their photographs. I also really enjoy Garry Winogrand’s sense of humor and prolific nature. The stories you hear about Winogrand are fantastic.


I’m also a fan of several photographers working editorially today. While I was in graduate school, I was fortunate to spend my summers managing the studio at the Santa Fe Workshops in New Mexico. This unique opportunity allowed me to spend a week at a time with some of my favorite photographers like Dan Winters, Frank Ockenfels 3, and Paul Elledge while picking their brain for all things photographic. Those three specific photographers are the ones I learned the most from and had the greatest tangible impact on my photography, but the whole Santa Fe experience was priceless in my development as a photographer.


SB: How did you come about photographing musicians? Do you have a music background or was it just one of those things you fell into?

JS: I’ve always been a huge fan of music and even played the drums in high school, but I first began photographing musicians in college. I worked for the daily newspaper and found that many of the small record labels were more than happy to give a photo pass to a college newspaper photographer in exchange for a little PR. About five years ago I began photographing portraits of the musicians. A great friend and early career supporter of mine, Gretchen Vater, introduced me to her sister Johanna who works for a big San Francisco concert promoter. Johanna soon began hiring me for the two big festivals they produce, Outside Lands and Treasure Island, as the official portrait photographer. If it weren’t for Gretchen and Johanna, most of my musician portraits wouldn’t exist. Those festival portraits have since led to several assignments including a couple of book and magazine covers, as well as a handful of exhibitions.


SB: Did you curate your upcoming exhibition, Rock ‘N Roll’s Not Dead, It Just Smells Funny? Can you discuss the images included in the show?

JS: For better or worse, “Rock ‘N’ Roll’s Not Dead, It Just Smells Funny” was curated by me. I had a few friends look at my selections for the show, but I ultimately put it together myself. Many of the pictures are portraits of my favorite bands, which made it difficult to look at them objectively and critically. Several of my favorites didn’t make the cut. Most of the portraits were photographed at the two festivals in San Francisco. Since the festivals take place in the same location annually, it becomes more challenging every year to create original portraits of the bands. There’s very little time and limited space to shoot, so you really need to be aware of the surroundings and flexible with your ideas. I love the challenge of looking past the obvious and trying to create something new for each shoot.


SB: I’m extremely fond of your series Individual Dignity which focuses on small business owners. What was your impetus for this series?

JS: Individual Dignity is a project that I began in the late ‘90s documenting small business owners around the United States, and later Australia. The inspiration for the series came from my family’s furniture store, Carlson’s, in Southern Oregon. As a child, I would spend vacations in Klamath Falls and very much enjoyed working with my uncle and grandfather at the shop. They would put me to work dusting the tables and delivering furniture to customers. I found it remarkable that they were able to build a business from scratch, support their families, and be a vital part of the Klamath Falls community. Carlson’s is now the oldest furniture store in town with the 4th generation of family members helping to run the business.


SB: How did you seek out your subjects for this project? Is it ongoing or complete?

JS: This project really began as a way to celebrate and pay homage to endangered small businesses. I was living in Carbondale, Illinois at the time and was noticing that big box stores like WalMart were a serious threat to mom and pop stores on Main Street. As I continued to photograph for this series over several years, I noticed that the portraits were beginning to function as a document for these businesses and towns in addition to celebrating their owners. Many of the proprietors included in the series have been pushed out of business since being photographed. I truly enjoy finding and photographing these people, so I doubt I will ever complete the project.


SB: Is there one image in this body of work that speaks to you more so than others?

JS: The portrait of my grandfather and his brother Gene in our family’s shop is one of my favorites, largely because I’m so close to the subject matter. However, the portrait of Ganelle Bedokis of Rissi’s Bakery means a lot to me for several reasons. Her portrait was the one that helped me discover what eventually evolved into my style of photographing. When I make these portraits, my main goal is to protect each subject’s dignity similar to the way Hines, Sander, and Evans did several decades ago, while celebrating their individuality. At the same time, I hope to add interest and an element of humanity to the portraits by introducing a very subtle sense of humor. Sometimes it’s a difficult balance to strike between humor and integrity without appearing like I’m poking fun at the subject. In the portrait of Ganelle, I feel like I struck that delicate equilibrium, which inevitably set the tone and style for the rest of the series.


My methods for choosing who to photograph for the series are generally pretty intuitive. I’m often a customer of his or her business or just driving by the shop and decide to come in to take a look. In some cases I find the business through referrals of people who have seen the work. Ganelle’s daughter was a friend of mine, so I knew her for several years beforehand. Ganelle’s father was a photographer who ran a studio in the space that was at the time being used as her bakery. In fact, the two portraits behind Ganelle are of her mother and father and were shot in the same space as Ganelle’s portrait. I’m always looking for these subtle visual connections between the subject and his or her background to help relate them to their space.


SB: I’m particularly fond of the image you shot of Ron West. You shared a bit of his story with me personally and I found it fascinating. Can you tell us a bit about that image and Mr. West’s history with the theatre?

JS: I was studying art in Australia in 2004 and continued working on this project while living there. I had heard from several people about this silent film theatre called The Majestic north of Brisbane that showed films a couple of times a week. I found the website for the place and read in its bio that Ron West and his wife Mandy bought the theatre in 1977 and have been entertaining patrons ever since. The theatre opened in 1921 and continued to operate as the last silent film theatre that began as a silent film theatre in Australia. Ron dressed up in his tuxedo several times a week and provided the films’ soundtrack on his beautiful Wurlitzer organ. This sounded like an amazing place, so I sent Ron an email explaining my project and asked if he and his wife were interested in participating. He immediately replied enthusiastically, but explained that Mandy had passed away a few months before. He expressed sadness that she wouldn’t be there to participate, but he would still love to be included in the series. I was ecstatic that he agreed, but felt bad he lost his life partner. A week or so later, I arrived to make Ron’s portrait and we shared some amazing conversation that has stuck with me ever since. There’s more to this story and our specific conversation that I find is best told in person and over a pint of beer…


Two elements of photographing this series that I cherish greatly are the people that I meet and the stories I come home with. It’s truly amazing how people open up and share their stories when you show a little bit of interest in their lives. Photographing these business owners has introduced me to people I never would have met otherwise. I’ve been invited over to their homes for dinner; I’ve been offered jobs; I’ve been offered a place to stay while traveling; I’ve even been introduced to one shop owner’s daughter. Looking back at the photographs, they serve as personal mementos of these experiences, stories, and most importantly the people I met along the way.


SB: You are an accomplished teacher and workshop instructor. Can you tell me a bit about that part of your life and how one can find out about workshops you may be teaching this year?

JS: I currently spend the bulk of my time teaching (and grading) in the Photography Department at Santa Monica College. I absolutely love working with the students there and learn just as much from them as I hope they learn from me. I teach a wide range of topics including beginning photography, introduction to darkroom techniques, a digital asset management and printing class, portrait photography, commercial lighting, and a portfolio course. I’m also teaching an upcoming class at the Julia Dean Workshops in Los Angeles on how to achieve the most out of small and limited lighting equipment. I also teach periodically at the Santa Fe Workshops, UCLA Extension, UCSD Extension, and even a class in Venice Italy. For current course and workshop dates, you can visit the “Workshops” section of my website.

To see more of Josh’s work or find out about his workshops pop over to his website  

And if you’re unable to come to the exhibition in person, Josh has some catalogs for sale here

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