The Philly-based photographer on what it means to be a photographer today and how to build abstract worlds within a frame.
Could you tell us a bit about who you are and what you make?
Hi, I’m Ian! I take pictures of things for a living. Commercially I photograph a lot of food, alcohol, cannabis, and cosmetics out of my studio in Philadelphia. My work focuses on building abstract sculptures within a frame that tell a strong narrative and convey emotion. I’ve been told a lot of my photographs are“organized chaos.” When I’m not shooting for money, I try to collaborate with other artists as often I can. As part of that, I’m in the process of launching an editorial publishing platform called Iota Editions that releases art books and objects.
What role does creativity play in your life?
Yikes. I mean, it plays every role. The things that excite me the most in this world are new ideas. Making work is what gets me out of bed, what makes me feel good about myself. Creativity is what ties me to the world, and helps me make sense of it.
How would you define what it means to be a photographer?
Ha, other than "to capture light"? I don't know; art-based careers are such tricky things to define. Am I a photographer because I take pictures, or am I a photographer because I make a living taking photographs? Because if it's the latter, then logically, I'd be more of a photographer based on the amount of money I made, and I don't particularly like that idea. It seems like more and more these days hobbies are disappearing and being replaced with"hustles," as if all of our time should be for sale. I get pretty lost in the "art versus commerce" thought process when making work. So for me, I guess being a photographer comes down to intentionality. The camera is the tool I use to explore, to question, and to define. I'm thankful that I also get to do that for a living, but I never want to put too much stock into that as a defining point.
Do you remember when you first identified as a photographer?
Externally? Probably on my Myspace bio, honestly. I've been taking photographs since I was a teenager in one form or another. I started out photographing punk concerts when I was moving to different cities a lot to make friends and be a part of the culture. But it's honestly only in the last two years that I've started to have the confidence to define myself as a photographer internally—partially because I've always dealt with terrible imposter syndrome—this feeling that I'm a fraud and everyone is eventually going to realize it. But more importantly, I think(well, hope) that I'm a bit of a polymath. My main interest is ideas and asking"what if?". Photography is often the tool I use to explore those ideas, but I want to try everything and do everything, making it hard for me to want to define myself as anything. In my photography practice, I'm often playing the roles of art director, prop stylist, food stylist, pyrotechnician, etc. And I love that. If all I was doing were taking the picture, then I'd get bored super quickly.
"So for me, I guess being a photographer comes down to intentionality. The camera is the tool I use to explore, to question, and to define. I'm thankful that I also get to do that for a living, but I never want to put too much stock into that as a defining point."
How is creative expression helping you during this time?
Honestly, making work has been the only thing to get me out of bed many days. I've made more personal work in the past few months than I have in the past few years. In the past, I've gotten depressed when I'm not creating, so it's been especially important in recent times to stay busy. I'm lucky to still have commercial shoots, but going about business as usual feels a little strange given the state of the world. I've been spending a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a commercial artist in the current world and what responsibilities come with creating images that help shape the visual language of advertising. I've been dedicating as much time as I can to doing free shoots for artists and small businesses to do whatever tiny part I can to help my friends and community through the multitude of things that are happening in our world.
You recently shot a few photos for us. Could you tell us what enjoyed most about the working with our products?
All of the Open Spaces products are so sculptural, and they respond to light and shadow really well. I love that everything you make can be used with everything else you make. It allowed me to combine pieces in ways that would normally seem unnatural, but instead felt really seamless. I love that level of thoughtfulness.
What language would you use to describe your process as a photographer?
“Okay, but what if we tried this instead?” But really, my process involves creating anchor points—consistent aspects that don’t change—and then ideating around those anchor points. When I’m shooting still life, I’m often building entire worlds from scratch, and with that much freedom comes the ability to have an overwhelming amount of ideas or starting points. By creating anchor points, I’ve given myself some constraints that ultimately focus my thoughts and push them further.
What role does light play in your work? How about color?
Light is one of the most significant defining anchor points for me. I chose a type of lighting early on in my career that I thought was impactful(and honestly, one I could understand when I was still learning), and I’ve mostly kept a version of that consistent throughout my shooting career. I think the best way to explain how I use light is that I use it to create contrast. I think about every scene as if the sun is hitting it and what time of day the photograph should look like—it's an important part of the narrative to me. Similarly, color goes a long way towards conveying emotion. I want the viewer of my photo to have an immediate emotional reaction.
What tips would you give for experimenting creatively?
Make things that are only for you, that you don’t plan to show anyone. Build something the wrong way on purpose. Find a different use for an object. Allow yourself the flexibility to be okay with something ending up differently than you intended. Turn your phone off.
What meaningful advice have you been given that you would like to share with others?
Be genuine, against all odds.