Joe Pugliese and the Responsibility of the Artist
Over the last decade, Joe Pugliese has photographed some of the most familiar faces in politics from all points in the spectrum. With that comes a responsibility that not all photographers heed but one Joe has taken to heart.
Whenever he sits down with a subject it’s Joe’s job to take photographs but more than that he’s a proxy for his viewer. To responsibly take a photograph he must understand the person sitting in front of him and have a point of view about them to see how they fit into the world. But if he’s going to come back with an honest portrait he cannot let those opinions color the outcome. “I’m meeting these people on behalf of the people who are looking at the photo. I do still give a lot of thought to the idea of bias and authorship as a photographer. I don’t want to take advantage of that,” explains Joe. “I don’t want to overtake the viewer’s experience of the subject with my beliefs on that subject. I want to present and not skew. Everything is way more heightened than it was even 8 years ago. I think now it’s even harder to stay neutral.”
Last year, Joe was able to spend an entire day with Donald Trump soon after he announced his candidacy. Over the last 18 months Trump's public image has been solidified, but when Joe tailed him public opinions were still shifting. Joe had his own opinions of Trump but walked into that day with a fresh pair of eyes to translate the experience in the most honest way possible. “If I’m sitting across from somebody in a portrait session I’m going to read their attitude and I’m going to have a human response to the energy that they’re giving off,” explains Joe. “At this point as a portrait photographer I don’t really even know what it is I’m reacting to and how I’m shooting it; I don’t have any preconceived notions. The camera fires when what I’m seeing matches the way I’m feeling with this interaction. So it becomes autopilot.” Joe removes himself from the process in such a way that it becomes purely reactionary. We end up seeing images that are not only unplanned but were captured through a visceral process. It’s not that Joe is revealing hidden moments, but is instead taking out the manufactured ones. He’s not removing a mask, but showing a mask for what it is when he sees it. “I try to show what was happening on the day.”
Just recently Joe was able to photograph Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton and her Vice Presidential nominee, Tim Kaine. It just so happened that this duo was having a good day so the photographs represent that. But Joe’s not going to force them into a different energy just because he has an idea of what the images should look like. “This was pre-pneumonia. They were on the campaign trail, they were doing a lot of press, that day they were opening up the plane to outside press. She was happy to do this round,” says Joe. “It was easy for me to do one of them cheery and laughing but it could have also gone the other way where they’re very, very stern and focused and I would have had to portray that as well.” As an artist, all Joe can offer is what shows up in front of his camera on that day.
Obviously, all photographers deal with these same challenges and they all solve them in their unique ways. When he’s looking for guidance he looks to Richard Avedon who he calls the “Gold Standard” of portrait photography. For every successful shoot that Joe has, he has another that doesn’t go as well. Case in point, just last month he had a sitting that he anticipated would turn out much better than it went. It was especially shocking after a few weeks of great shoots. His subject just wasn’t feeling it and there was little Joe could do to shift that. It was what it was. “It doesn’t matter who you’ve photographed in the past or all your successes, it all comes down to that one interaction on the day. So it was suitably humbling after this run of subjects liking my pictures,” Joe says. But everyone has those days.
“I also see inspiration in someone like [Avedon] because he had a lot of duds and it’s kind of like the Babe Ruth strikeout stat,” Joe says. “If you really delve into the non-curated world of someone like Avedon or [Irving] Penn, and you see their advertising work or their in-between editorial work, the stuff that never made it in the monograph as a photographer you have a little sigh of relief that it happened to everybody.” Joe points to a disastrous shoot that Avedon did with President John F. Kennedy and Jackie Onassis. The images are stilted and posed. They’re cold like a mall portrait session. Avedon knew what he was getting wasn’t working so he presents it in his book as a contact sheet, showing us all the photographs. In a way it’s Avedon tipping us his hand, showing us everything he got. Everything. Even when the photographs aren’t great, even when the connection isn’t there, it was Avedon’s job to be our proxy and bring us into the room that day.
The only way a photograph can be more successful than the ones that Avedon got with JFK is by cultivating trust with a subject. To Joe, that’s one of the most precious elements. “I always want somebody to feel safe while they’re being photographed,” Joe says. “This is a personal endeavor as an artist and you’re not going to get it right every time.”