Joe Ornelas Interview

Introduce yourself to our readers. Who you are and your current film & camera combo.

I have way too many cameras, but the combo that I find myself drawn to the most right now, mostly because I just got it a few months ago is the Canon T90 and Kodak Tri-x.The T90 is the last Canon camera before they switched to the autofocus lenses and the EOS system. So all my lenses from my AE-1 work on the T90 and it’s a rad camera. But I’m sure I’ll be onto something else soon. That is the flavor of the month.

How long have you been photographing and how did you get into it?
I had an inexpensive point and shoot 35mm camera in high school and would used disposables but never had a real fully manual camera. I was taking cinema classes in college and had shot a ton on the Bolex and understood exposure but only really in the sense of moving pictures, not still photography. A gal that was in one of my cinema classes was also a photo major. We started dating and it pretty much jumped off from there. My dad gave me his Pentax K-1000 that he never used and I would shoot with my new girlfriend. She would shoot me for some of her photo assignments and I would shoot her and just learn.

Do you have any formal training? If not how did you teach yourself?
After college I went to grad school and moved to Miami Beach, Florida and was taking more cinema classes and lots of cinematography classes. I was experimenting with a lot of 16mm film. Underexposing and pushing during development, cross processing, black and white reversal film. I spent a lot of time check out gear when I could and playing around in the sound stage. Even spent an entire day in the soundstage during a hurricane. I came out and all these trees were down and I hadn’t heard a thing. I had been in a sound proof soundstage the whole night. I was shooting a bit of still photography when I lived in Miami (not as much as I should have) but I would shoot here and there. I had not really decided what I liked or even what I had hoped to gain from pursuing photography at that point but I was checking out a ton of photography books from the library and started to collect photography book for my own personal library as well. After Miami I moved back to Tucson (my home town) for a few months, then moved to LA. I had a lot of free time when I first moved here because I didn’t have a job yet. So I spent more time in libraries looking at books and going to used bookstores and just started exploring LA as an adult. I tried to bring my camera with me to document some of the things that I saw so I could show pictures to my family in Arizona. Smartphones werent a thing yet and I didnt have a digital camera, so it was really the only way I could have a tangible memory of things I saw.

Are their any photographers you admire or gain inspiration from?
Favorite photographers are probably Sam Haskins, Bruce Davidson, James Nachtwey, David Bailey, Richard Avedon, and Mario Testino (if I had to have a short list)
I am inspired a lot by movies and music. Even if I dont even realize it, if I think about some of the photos that I have taken that I really like, they are all 100% influenced by movies. I have spent a great deal of my life sitting in movie theaters, it’s hard for it to not rub off. I constantly have music playing and anyone that knows me or has shot with me knows that music is definitely a thing for me. I have lots of friends that are photographers, artists, musicians and they all inspire. It’s the energy you feel when you are around other artists. It’s hard to describe but it is a strong feeling

What part of Los Angeles did you grow up?
I grew up in Tucson, Arizona but I have cousins in Pico Rivera and we would come out to California a lot to visit or to go to Knotts Berry Farm or Disneyland. So I had spent a decent amount of time in California before I moved here eleven years ago.

On your instagram page there is a collection of photos where you collage together a nude model. Can you explain this project and how it came about?
The collage work is somewhat based on the David Hockney polaroid collages, but I wanted to something that was 100% life size. Every one of those collages are the same size as the model. How I do them is a bit of a secret but if someone were to think about it very hard, he would be able to figure out how I do them. Back when the fp3000b was announced it was being discontinued I bought 100 packs of 3000b for the project. I got the packs for relatively cheap back then. Now each pack is $70-100 so each collage costs about $300-400 to produce. I started the project with fp100b and blew threw a lot of those packs when I was trying to figure out the process, because I am essentially shooting a three dimensional object and making it two dimensional but trying to maintain the three dimensional look. It took a lot of trial and error and lots of patient models standing around naked while I figured it out.

We have know each other for few years and I’ve always wanted to ask you about the photo-booth. How did you acquire it? Is there a big project attach to this? Give me and the readers some insight on this.
I have always loved photo-booths since forever. Back in high school there was a 24 hour diner called The Grill that had bad food and even worse service, but it was 24 hours and when you are in high school it was a cool place to hang late at night. In the back of the diner they had an old color photo booth that I used a million times. I loved that booth. I had always told myself if I had the opportunity to buy a booth I would. I had seen Brett Ratner’s photo-booth book of guests that had been to his house and Dave Navarro’s autobiography book had photos of his photo booth strips from wild nights at his house and I had read that Quentin Tarantino had one, so I really wanted to get one.

Back then I didn’t know about the place Foto-Mat in Santa Ana, which is where I get my photo booth paper and chemistry, I was just looking online. I saw one in San Francisco on craigslist that I wanted to buy but that deal fell through. A few months later I saw one at a place in Rhode Island called Wonderland Amusements. They deal in mostly coin operated things like pinball machines, old skee ball machines and arcade games. They had one, so I bought it and had it shipped out here to LA from Rhode Island. Fedex literally just left it on the street on a pallet when it arrived. I live in an old walk up apartment from the 1920’s and the booth was way too heavy to carry up in one piece. So me and my buddy disassembled it and brought it up piece by piece. It took me about a month to put it back together. At this point I had found out about Foto-Mat and called them up and asked for a technician to set it up. Technician came and it was up and running.

I knew that this booth is old and mechanical and things will break down. I called up Raul at Foto-Mat, who is pretty much my photo-booth guru/mentor and asked if he could show me the ropes on how to service my own booth. I played around inside a photo-booth for a few days learning and the rest I pretty much learned by working on my own booth over the years and calling Raul when I had questions. The photo-booth project started with just this fascination about how people feel the need to be a different person when they close that curtain. It is hard to explain, but even when you have a long time of people waiting to use the photo-booth when you are at a bar or where ever. Once you close that curtain, you are in your own little world for a brief moment. It is also more of a direction project. The photo-booth strips are directed and choreographed by me. I am also adjusting the flash and aperture for each girl that comes into the booth, so there are lots of photograph decisions involved. Maintaining the chemistry is also a real challenge. After about 35 days it starts smelling like sulfur really bad. I have shot about 160 girls, give or take and over 4000 photo-booth strips. If you think that each strips take three and a half minutes to develop, that is a lot of time spent on the project. The end result of the project is always growing and developing. Right now it has only been a giant cash outlay, but I really want people to see it exhibited. The strips themselves look incredible and I have blown up a few individual frames to 20×24 and they look great.

The work you create with models looks effortless. How hong have you been creating this type of work? Also, what advice do you have on working with models?
Shooting models started out with the gal that got me into photography. She was really patient because she herself was a photographer and I got to experiment a lot in a safe environment to fail. It also helped that she was my girlfriend at the time. I like shooting people and I love to talk. I have always shot girls in one way or another since I first started shooting so it has been about 14 years. My advice is if you are the type of photographer that isn’t the type that likes to give a lot of direction or if you feel weird giving direction then have a music playlist put together that is an emotional journey of music. So when you want to shoot a certain emotion, that type of music is what is playing. You are essentially letting the music set the mood and give the direction. Also, it is good to have a clear idea what kind of photo you want to create or if you have photo references of the type of photos you want to make, that helps a lot. Also realize that sometimes you won’t click with a certain model and don’t take it personal, that’s just how life goes.

What is next for you? Any projects or art show in the near future that our readers should be looking for?
I’ve been experimenting with some cameras from the 60’s for a portrait series I am working on. Still trying to iron out the bumps because it’s pretty involved and required me to find all these rare accessories on eBay over the course of the past year. But once I figure it out, I will be shooting ALOT on the new set up. I am going to be printing back catalog work and always trying to find a place to exhibit.

Keep up with Joe Ornelas via Instagram @mrjoeornelas.