Joe Forney Interview

Introduce yourself to our readers.

My name is Joe Forney. I’ve lived in the L.A. area for my entire life. My personal photographic work tends to be mostly documentary style, but I get a great deal of satisfaction from making a good photo of almost anything.

How long have you been photographing and how did you get into it?

I’ve been interested in photography and filmmaking for as long as I can remember. I started out the way a lot of kids do, just taking photos of my friends skateboarding and screwing around. I started making little movies on my parents’ VHS camcorder with my friends in the early 90’s.

Around 1996 I began taking photos of the graffiti I was seeing around L.A. County – a practice that I’ve continued to this day with varying levels of obsession. I was drawn to photographing graffiti partly because of its ephemeral nature and partly by its wild, youthful energy, but most of all I think I was attracted to it as a way to better understand Los Angeles. It was an attempt to decipher a secret language and the stories it had to tell about this city. That same desire to know Los Angeles has continued to motivate much of my work.

Current film & camera combo?

Lately I’ve been shooting almost exclusively on a Mamiya 645 Super. It’s bulky and heavy and fairly conspicuous, but it has the resolution that I want. It also belonged to my grandfather, so it’s special to me. I typically shoot Portra 400 and T-MAX or Ilford Delta.

Do you have any formal training? If not, how did you teach yourself?

I’m basically self taught. I took a couple of photography courses at community college – mostly just to have access to a darkroom, although I do owe a debt of gratitude to the wonderful professor Mark Takeuchi for his advice and kind encouragement. I’ve learned a lot from friends, from books, and from just going out and doing it. Like so many other things in life, I think that photography can be the most fun when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.

Are there any photographers you admire or gain inspiration from?

So many. Too many to list… Elliot Erwitt, Richard Misrach, Bruce Davidson, Alec Soth, Henry Wessel, Sergio Larraín, Joseph Rodriguez, Katie Orlinsky, Larry Sultan, Enrst Haas, David Alan Harvey, Miron Zownir, Javier Manzano… Friedlander, Eggleston, Arbus, Capa, Shore…

The list goes on and on. I’m always inspired by powerful photojournalism and documentary work. I’m also consistently impressed and motivated by many of my friends working here in L.A. I won’t name anyone specifically for fear of forgetting someone, but they all know
who they are… I hope.

What part of Los Angeles did you grow up in?

I grew up in Sierra Madre, which is just northeast of Pasadena about 15 miles from Downtown L.A. It’s a small community in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, and I spent my youth hiking and exploring the trails there. Just like the rest of L.A., it’s changed a lot since I was young.

I’ve always been fascinated with Los Angeles. I can remember going downtown for elementary school field trips to The L.A. Times, the Central Library, Grand Central Market, Angels Flight, Olvera Street and other places and being absolutely amazed by the city. Later I fell in love with neighborhoods in Northeast and East L.A. like Highland Park, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno and Boyle Heights. There have been dramatic changes in those neighborhoods over the past few decades – some good, some bad – and while change is inevitable, especially in L.A., it’s hard not to be nostalgic for the way things used to be.

On your website there is a new project you are working on called Borderville. Can you give our readers some insight on to how this project came about?

The project has been a long time in the making. Over the last decade I’ve spent a lot of time down in Imperial County, in the desert along the border, and I’ve really come to love it there. Last year I decided to make a more serious effort to document the area and the things that make it so special. It’s really an immense project, and I’m sure I’ll be working on it for a long time.

The work on your IG page has shifted from landscapes & graffiti to portraiture. Why the shift? What made you go in this direction?

Honestly, I don’t really see a huge difference between those subjects. Whether it’s graffiti or portraits or landscapes or street scenes or whatever, I try to approach it from a documentary point of view. I’m always drawn to humanity, whether it ultimately takes the form of a portrait or something more candid is of less concern. Even in composing a landscape I’m always more attracted to scenes with a human element. I doubt I’ll ever stop documenting graffiti. It’s responsible in large part for my interest in street photography. I’d be out photographing graffiti and inevitably end up shooting various street scenes and portraits of people that I came across. Those would always end up being my favorite shots of the day.

Any projects coming in the near future that our readers should be on the look out for?

I’m working on several ongoing projects right now, although none are really far enough along to discuss. I’m hoping to make enough progress on the Borderville project this year that I’ll be able to publish some of it. We’ll see.

Keep up with Forney via IG @joeforneyphotography and also check out his portfolio at Lastly check out his latest photo essay on A Sad Flower in the Sand on the website.