Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Artist Focus: Jed Tomsula, Photographer

Jed Tomsula loves most about photography “the idea of being able to capture a moment in time, a moment of reality.” I relish the enormous freedom of solitude that being a photographer allows me, and the accompanying creativity,” he says. “Photography enriches my life...I'm never without a camera.”

Since he started taking photographs many years ago, Jed says that he has "been continually motivated to go out and capture what I see. I didn't choose photography, it sort of chose me. An intuitive sense to document and explore has always been part of my character. I've been passionate about [it for] most of my life."

Jed first picked up his parents Canon AE-1 around the age of twelve [and] began with taking photographs of family. "I remember looking at my grandparents through the lens of the camera and focusing in on the image," he says. "I wanted to remember and hold onto that particular moment in time. A passion was awakened."

When photographing, Jed wants most for the viewer "to look inward; to discover new places within things. I hope to communicate not only what somebody looks like, but to get across what it was like to meet them, touch them, and how they made me feel," he says. "I look to capture the essence of different moments...the feelings, the complexities, the sentiments...so that the participant, wherever they are in life, can recognize themselves in the moment.

Jed feels "blessed and tremendously fortunate" to capture the world through photography. "I find it incredible to have [it] as a witness to my life," he says. "It is my hope that [my] images will project the contrasting beauty of everyday life.”

Over the past several months, Blast Furnace communicated with Jed through facebook messages, email exchanges, and telephone to capture the following interview. Many thanks to Jed for his time and for sharing his art and himself with us. 

Although you have mentioned a bit about The Tenderloin, what is it that fascinated you to lead you to photographing homeless people there? What did you hope to accomplish by doing so? In the instances where you did speak with the homeless, was it cooperativea willingness to be photographed?

When I first arrived in San Francisco twenty years ago it was for a short visit. I remember being awe struck with the cityʼs beauty. Itʼs gorgeous topography and diverse culture left an imprint on my memory. I also recall being overwhelmed with the [its] homeless population. It seemed as though on every corner there was a human being begging or asking for help.

When I decided to move to San Francisco five years ago I began familiarizing myself with the diverse neighborhoods. I roamed the streets with my camera in hand, capturing the colorful landscape. One afternoon, I decided to investigate an area I had been warned by many to avoid, The Tenderloin. Described by many locals and tourists as “the worst neighborhood in San Francisco,” The Tenderloin is full of the cityʼs addicts, drug dealers, prostitutes and mentally unstable. It was an incredible experience. I had never seen anything like it. So many destitute people in one place. As I walked the area I felt as though I were in another country. This couldnʼt be part of a city in North America, let alone San Francisco. I was fascinated with the area and its inhabitants.

I remember driving home that evening to a flat I was renting in Pacific Heights. I reflected on my good fortune and I remember feeling guilt. It was a terribly troubling feeling and it was then that I decided to bring awareness to the issue. I chose to communicate the problem through my photography.

I remember speaking with a homeless middle-aged woman one day named Sarah. She wept as she explained to me that she was “homeless, not hopeless.” Originally from Oregon, she arrived in San Francisco two years [before]. After a break up with her boyfriend she soon found herself on the streets. She shook her head in disbelief as she dried her tears and walked away. Her image remains in my memory.

When photographing the homeless, Iʼm always sure to dissect my motives. What is the purpose of taking this photograph? I want to make sure there is a meaning for doing so that becomes evident through the image. I also want to ensure the photograph portrays the subject with depth and honesty. I hope the viewer will question, and hopefully open [his/her] mind to new ideas and possibilities. And as disturbing as some of these images are, [they’re stories] that need to be examined. [Stories] that need to be told.

The Ghost In The Tenderloin
The Ghost In The Tenderloin series images are among my favorites from this project. Although the images are disturbing, I also find them haunting and beautiful. The photographs were shot with a delayed shutter speed using a Nikon SLR 5000D camera. I believe the images convey a range of emotion. Hopelessness,
rage, fright, confusion and madness. Why is this man here? What are the circumstances that led to him living on the streets? What is it that he wants to say?

Although the subject and I never shared words, his face and expressions display a story all their own. He is "the Ghost In The Tenderloin." 

Do you journal when you visit new places or photograph new subjects? If so, what about

I journal sometimes, but not always. I typically take notes on what I was feeling at the moment. I find that I journal more when traveling. I travel a great deal and have been fortunate to have explored over thirty countries on six continents. I love being out at odd times day or night photographing and experiencing the world in fascinating places.

I look to communicate not only what somebody looks like, but to get across what it was like to meet them, touch them and how they made me feel. When writing, I journal about the essence of different moments. What is it that lead me to this moment? What am I feeling? How can I communicate this feeling to the viewer? My hope is to go beyond what our normal eyes see and to use the internal eye; see life with the heart and soul.  

Do you prefer to photograph people? What are some of the lessons you have learnedon a technical level, and possibly on a philosophical levelfrom taking pictures?

I enjoy photographing people but I wouldnʼt say I prefer it. I equally enjoy photographing nature. Some of the most joyous and creative moments in my life have come through photographing nature. The vast awesomeness of it all inspires me.

Since I started taking photographs many years ago, I have been continuously motivated to go out and capture what I see. Iʼm always looking to project the contrast beauty of everyday life. In terms of early influences, Robert Frank, Eugene Smith and Sylvia Plachy stand out. There is a very real and vivid quality to their work which inspires me.

I was trained with film photography at Pittsburgh Filmmakers under the guidance of nationally-acclaimed photographer Sue Abramson. She encouraged me to explore with different exposures and settings and to not worry about capturing the “perfect” image. Sue also encouraged her students to embrace the solitude of photography making, and the accompanying creativity. Those ideals have stuck with me through the years. 

What place that you've photographed could you return to over and over again?

Vietnam. Because I've worked for [a number of years as a flight attendant], it's allowed me to travel anywhere for free. The people in Vietnam are warm and friendly and I loved the food! I was able to see Danang, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City--much of North and South Vietnam, which I traveled by the Reunification Train system. I photographed Halong Bay by boat. There are more than 300 islands in the China Sea.

I've felt very safe wherever I've been...I just make sure I research the places I go first to see what areas to avoid and try to blend in wherever I am. For example, while in Kuwait I tried not to stand out by wearing [the traditional head gear].

Do you use different cameras for different picture-taking scenarios?

A number of photographers still swear by the Canon AE-1, which I still have. Using it, I really learned the mechanics of the camera. It's a film camera, and I love the graininess and richness of film, as well as the darkroom process. The Nikon SLR 5000D [digital camera] lenses allow beautiful images, though sometimes with digital, I feel like I'm cheating!

The Sony Nex 5-N is a smaller SLR compact camera that provides really wonderful results and you can adjust everything [in the picture] right on the camera. 

Many people take pictures, from amateur to professional photographers. What do you believe makes a photograph art”?

An artistic photograph must have substance and must engage the viewer. Art begins with the ability to successfully bring to fruition a concept in mind. In the case of photography, an image. The photographer has a concept in mind and then creatively brings this vision to life through [his/her] skills using the tools of [his/her] craft. How well the final product works is dependent upon the artistʼs ability to communicate [his/her] craftsmanship.

One may have advanced technological skills but lack creative vision, or one may have an interesting perspective but lack the necessary technical skills to bring the image to life. 

Has your work been featured in galleries? Is it available for sale, and if so, do you frame and matte the work as well?

Yes, Iʼve been featured as an artist with Janice Hall [Designs] Gallery in Palm Springs. I also recently displayed a series on my journey through India with Starbucks in San Francisco. Iʼm currently working with First American Title Corporation in San Francisco. They have hired me to install photography in their downtown office space with images of San Francisco and the Northern California landscape. When dealing with corporate clients, I typically send out the images and have them professionally framed and matted.

When working on personal projects, I enjoy using old weathered distressed window frames. I have the images matted according to the size of the frame. I love the look of the distressed wood. In addition to the image, it, too, has a story. Many of my images are available via my website. 

Have you taken an interest in film making? If so, what particular kind of film making most intrigues you?

My involvement with film making is very limited. I was asked a few years back to participate in a documentary film titled, “Alfredo's Fire.” It deals with the battle between faith and sexuality and is being produced by Open Eye Pictures with Emmy-nominated Andy Abrahams Wilson directing. Andy's probably best known for his HBO documentary, "Bubbeh Lee & Me," and his more recent "Under Our Skin," which was short listed for an Academy Award in documentary film-making. "Alfredo's Fire" follows the story of Alfredo Ormando, an Italian writer, who set himself on fire in the Vatican outside Saint Peter's Square in Rome, Italy in January 1998. I was asked by Andy to play the role of Alfredo.

We filmed in Palermo, Sicily and Rome in January 2009. Andy was able to gain access to Alfredoʼs old apartment in Palermo. A photograph of Alfredo stood on his bedroom dresser. He was smiling for the camera wearing a white and blue striped jacket. A happier time in his young life, perhaps.
We followed Alfredoʼs footsteps in Sicily and eventually jumped the train to Rome just as Alfredo did fourteen years ago. It was an enlightening experience and a privilege to be part of Alfredoʼs story.

At the end of filming I was presented with a gift. It was Alfredoʼs white and blue striped jacket from the photograph. I have it hanging in my closet and every time I look at it I think of Alfredo and his story.

Unfortunately, production on the film has been delayed for quite some time while Open Eye Pictures seeks additional funding for the project. Hopefully, it will come to completion in the near future. 

What are some of the upcoming projects you have in mind?

Iʼm always traveling and documenting my explorations, and Iʼm always fascinated by exotic locations and different cultures. Then I began to unravel a fascinating story right in my own very back yard. After my 95-year-old grandfatherʼs passing in February, I began looking into my Hungarian/Scottish ancestry on my fatherʼs side of the family. It grew from there and I began to research my motherʼs Irish/German roots. With the blessings of technology, Iʼve been able to trace our ancestors back hundreds of years.

Itʼs incredible, my ancestors’ stories and the circumstances that brought them to this country. Iʼm so intrigued by it. We were able to locate the birth record of my Great Grandfather (five times over) in Scotland in 1778. His death record was also recorded, and from there it listed the very churchyard he was buried in 1859. Iʼm looking to journey to the towns and cities of my ancestors and document the experience. I want to visit their final resting place and pay tribute. I also hope to learn more about their stories and their journeys across the Atlantic and through Ellis Island. Iʼm looking for my parents to join me on the adventure through Europe.

Additionally, Iʼm hoping to travel to Zimbabwe, Africa in the not-too-distant future with the company of Dr. Steve O'Brien, Vice-President of Medical Affairs at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center. Dr. O'Brien is also the medical director of the East Bay AIDS Center. He and other medical professionals from the area are looking to gain access to Zimbabwe to distribute much needed AIDS medications to the infected population there. Iʼm looking to photograph their experience and bring awareness to this critical issue. 

Explore Jed Tomsula's photography at http://www.jedtomsula.com.

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