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Justin Wolfe: Photographer

Interviews

Justin Wolfe: Photographer

Noah Rosenfeld

 

JUSTIN WOLFE’S WORK WITH 35MM PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWS HIM TO EXPRESS THE REALITY HE SEES THROUGH FILM. HE’S THE IN-HOUSE PHOTOGRAPHER FOR PHILADELPHIA MENSWEAR AND SNEAKER BOUTIQUE UBIQ, BUT HIS TRUE PASSION LIES IN CAPTURING THE ESSENCE OF THE PAST. HIS JOURNEY INTO PHOTOGRAPHY BEGAN WITH A LOVE FOR CLASSIC CARS AND A DESIRE TO CAPTURE THEIR SPIRIT. HE SAYS PART OF THE ALLURE OF FILM PHOTOGRAPHY IS TRYING TO FIND “SOMETHING THAT REALLY COMPLIMENTS FILM SO THAT WHEN I GET THAT PHOTO BACK I FEEL LIKE WOW, SOMEONE COULD LOOK AT THIS PHOTO AND FEEL LIKE IT WAS TAKEN 20, 30 YEARS AGO.” YOU CAN FEEL THIS PASSION FOR CAPTURING SCENES OF THE PAST WITHIN OUR MODERN WORLD BY TAKING A LOOK AT JUSTIN’S WEBSITE OR INSTAGRAM. BOTH PLATFORMS SHOWCASE HIS EFFORTLESS COMBINATION OF OLD-SCHOOL FILM TECHNIQUES WITH ELEMENTS OF THE MODERN WORLD. WE SAT DOWN WITH JUSTIN TO TALK ABOUT HIS APPROACH TO PROFESSIONAL AND PERSONAL PHOTOGRAPHY, HIS VIEWS ON THE CREATIVE COMMUNITY IN PHILADELPHIA, AND WHAT INSPIRES HIM ABOUT THE CITY.

How long have you been shooting photography?

 

Professionally I’ve been shooting about 3 to 3 ½ years, but in general I’ve been shooting maybe 6 or 7.

 

What caused you to first take up photography?

 

It’s funny, I was really into cars when I was younger so when I sold my car I figured if I wasn’t going to have a cool car I should take pictures of cool cars. So I took that money from selling my car and bought a camera. It was solely so that I could take photos of cars. I didn’t think it would expand into anything like this, and even when I owned it for years I didn’t take it as if it was about to be my career. It was always just something I did and excelled in. I’ve always just been a creative person in general.

 

What about film allows you to create something unique?

 

From beginning to end the entire process of film is an entirely different mindset. With digital it is all very face-value, it’s very what you see is what you get. It’s very instant, you have that instant gratification with digital. Whereas with film you really have to think through what you’re shooting because it costs money, for one, but also because you can’t see what you’re shooting. You can shoot it and not even develop it for a week and you have no idea if that shot came out or not. So you have to be a lot more conscious about your settings, your surroundings, your lighting. It really allows you to think fully and, I don’t know, take a step back really. I think when you’re shooting digital you’re just rifling off shots, you’re not even thinking about what you’re doing. You’re just doing it because you have the ability to, whereas with film you definitely have that limit that you can’t surpass.

 

So you shoot two separate genres, you shoot for UBIQ but you also shoot on your own. Is that second part a personal project, is it freelance work, or is that part of your job?

 

So it’s tough being a professional photographer to have that drive to do personal work too. I shoot really only film for personal, it’s what keeps it fun, it’s what keeps it interesting for me. It’s definitely a separate thing. I do it just personally, just because it’s what I love to do. It gets me out of the house, it gets me to see new things. I also do a lot of freelance work too. I always try to continuously collaborate with other people, just have an opportunity to do something new and refreshing.

 

I’m sure that there are different mindsets that you have while shooting in each of those realms. What is the vibe that you are going for in each genre?

 

For UBIQ I definitely want to maintain a high level of quality, clean, crisp, photo-realistic. You know, we have to sell this product at the end of the day and so I want to keep things true to what they are in reality. I don’t want to trick our consumer, but there is definitely that fine line of making something look better than it does in reality, but that’s just life as it is. So, for me, with my professional work for UBIQ it’s definitely how can I best represent this product. How can I sell this product to the consumer? How can I make it look good and show it in a way that someone else hasn’t already shown it? For personal, my mindset is just getting out and being excited about what I’m shooting, just something that excites me personally. When I shoot on film, I love to find something that is age appropriate to film, so I love shooting old cars, I love shooting scenes that take you back in time. Something that really compliments film so that when I get that photo back I feel like wow, someone could look at this photo and feel like it was taken 20, 30 years ago.

 

When you go out shooting personally are you looking for the photo to come to you as you are walking around or do you have a specific location or set of locations that you plan to check out?

 

That’s a good question, those are definitely two different approaches to photography. I am one to go out looking to just stumble upon something. I have no real agenda when I go out, sometimes there are places or general areas that I will like to go, but for the most part I take what comes to me. I don’t really have a shot in mind that I’m trying to get. So, for instance, some people could sit and wait around to map out a shot. I typically don’t do that. For me it’s really hard to sit in one place with a shot in mind and wait for that moment to happen. I feel that if that moment is going to happen it’ll happen as I’m walking by. That is what a lot of photographers will do though, just post up at a spot, they have a shot in mind, maybe steam is coming out of a grate and they want a certain person to walk by. They might wait an hour for that shot. For me I can’t do that, I just can’t sit around and do that. I might get that shot later on in life but I’ll just stumble upon it. I’m not worried about it right this second.

 

Specifically for someone who shoots mainly 35mm, have you explored other avenues of film whether that be Holga or even pinhole?

 

The farthest I’ve explored is 120mm film, medium format. That’s a totally different beast. That’s in a genre of it’s own. For me, for my street stuff, it doesn’t suit my style very well. That film has a very specific place in photography. It’s very good for portraits. It’s very good for still life. It really helps to bring that type of photography out, but it doesn’t really help me in street photography. It gives a different feel but I’m better off just shooting 35mm. It’s wider, it’s cheaper. Medium format is a lot of fun, it’s definitely a totally different way to look at shooting. Even the camera itself, having to look through, look down, is a totally different process. It makes it fun, when I get bored of shooting 35mm I’ll bring that camera out. It’s not a practical camera though. It’s not a camera that I’ll bring out every day, that would be a headache.

You moved to Philly when you were around our age, right, around 17 or 18?

 

Yeah, I came to Philly for Temple. I’m originally from Virginia, I came up to Philly for Temple and I knew after graduating that I would stay. I knew that I wanted to live in Philly.

 

What about Philly now that you’ve lived here for a little while continues to inspire you?

 

Having lived in Philly for 7 years, I definitely feel like I’ve seen most of Philly. For me, I love the diversity and the culture of Philly. It’s not very cut and dry comparatively to DC. DC is very, you know, government buildings, blue collar, it’s pretty straightforward. With Philly there are so many little pockets of unique qualities of life around here. The further out you go the crazier it gets. You know, downtown is pretty cool, downtown is fun to shoot, but I’m pretty much sick of shooting downtown. I like going to the hood. I like going to places where I’m probably really not supposed to be. Those little moments really get me excited about the city. Also, Philly is up and coming. It’s growing, it’s building. It’s becoming one of the best cities in the country by far. It already is, there’s a good young base here, a good night life.

 

Does going to places outside of more upscale or gentrified areas compliment your vintage shooting style?

 

I think that those parts of town are naturally stuck in the past, whether it’s the homes, whether it’s the people, the cars. The way of life on the outskirts of downtown definitely compliments what I’m looking for and what I’m interested in. It’s tough though, you have to walk to a lot of these spots and they’re out there. For me that’s what I like to shoot, that’s what I get excited about, but I have to be conscious about where I am and who I’m shooting and what I look like out here shooting. For some people when they see me out here shooting with a camera they begin to ask questions and get curious about what I’m doing out here because I don’t really fit.

 

You were talking about the youth culture in Philadelphia. What about that do you feel really embraces your style of photography and photography in general?

 

There’s a nice little community here. There’s definitely a good push for film, I’m definitely not the only film shooter out here. I’m maybe one of the more dedicated film shooters, but there’s definitely a nice, young community that embraces film. Indie Photo [Lab], that’s really a nice place to go to get my film developed because they are about the same thing. They really appreciate the love and art of film. I think that small, niche scenes like that... the gallery scene in Philly is huge. There’s a ton of spaces to be able to showcase your work. So I think that there is a community that’s around the age of, you know, 18-30 that really embraces the art and culture. You know, Philly is a big scene in art comparatively to other cities.

 

Is your work at UBIQ your full time thing, your 7 days a week, or 5 rather?

 

Well it is like 7 days a week. Not only do I do photography but I run the entire social media. So I do our Instagram, our Twitter, our blog stuff. I’m constantly working whether I’m in the office or not. This is what I do, this is my 7 days a week grind. This is how I make my money. This is where my full commitment is.

 

What is your involvement with the special projects on the UBIQ blog, like the Dissected series?

 

I’m not physically writing copy or anything like that but I am working with my team to build these little stories and backgrounds, things that are bigger than just product based photoshoots. This is something that I didn’t start out doing, it’s been more in the last 8 or 9 months that I’ve been taking on that role of taking on that part [of the operation].

 

In those projects I would assume that you have to design the image that you want, how do you approach that differently than your street photography?

 

So, with that being said, I have to have the mindset of this is the vibe we’re going for or this is the mood we’re setting and this is how I want this to feel because people will really latch onto that. If there’s a mood or setting that upsets somebody or makes them feel a certain way they might not be gravitate towards that product. I have to be very conscious that what I’m shooting kind of fits that vibe of what that brand is trying to give out. So definitely pairing people with certain looks, so I wouldn’t pair Sudan with one brand but he would fit another. I have to be very conscious of how this looks to other people because I have to sell this stuff. So if this guy looks weird in this outfit, it really hurts the UBIQ brand. I just have to be conscious of that. It is still kind of a free for all though, I have parameters for what I want to capture. Trying to find a location is a big thing for me when it comes to shooting models for UBIQ.

 

It seems like you shoot a lot of your work underground in train stations, I know you did one of the Dissected shoots there. What about those environments attracts you?

 

Those spaces are really interesting. In generally I’m drawn to the underground of Philadelphia, it just a really unique, gritty space that I don’t think is utilized as much as it should be. I think people just walk past it and don’t take a step back to appreciate those spaces. I mean they’re dirty, they’re nasty, you don’t want to stay down there, but for me, I’m the total opposite. I want to be down there. But it all depends what I’m shooting too. Like you said, the Dissection for the Shadow Project for Stone Island, that fit, I thought, very well. It was very muted, all black, it had that gritty, just futuristic type of feel that made that space fit it very well.

 

For someone who shoots film and also runs social media accounts, how do you feel about the ability for so many people to become “photographers” because they have access to platforms like Instagram and Twitter?

 

Yeah, Instagram is a blessing and a curse. I can’t even knock it because that’s how I got my start, through Instagram. It does feel that it gives everyone the entitlement to call themselves a photographer, which, at the end of the day, it is what it is. I can’t say who is and who isn’t, but, for me, having to make a living out of it, it definitely hurts a little bit because everyone does feel like they’re entitled to be a photographer. It definitely takes away some of the opportunities that maybe I could have had but don’t anymore. It is hard because there are so many people out there that are gravitated towards photography and take good photos. So it’s a blessing and a curse.

 

Advice to the kids?


Man, my advice, as cookie-cutter as it probably sounds, is just to shoot for you and shoot what you’re drawn to and what you gravitate towards. I think it’s very easy to get drawn into this Instagram, or any other type of social media, push that’s happening right now. I think it’s very easy to want to shoot those things because that’s what you see people gravitating towards. I just encourage someone to shoot for themselves. Try shooting film, try something that not everybody else is doing. See how that works for you and just have fun with it. If you’re not having fun with it then, really, what’s the point. If you’re able to express yourself creatively through photography, as long as you’re creating and feeling good about what you’re creating that’s what you’re meant to be shooting.

 

Instagram: @jvstinwolfe

Flickr: Justin Wolfe

Website: justin-wolfe.com