Interview: Russell Joslin of Skeleton Key Press
The trajectory of the life and career of photographer/editor/publisher, Russell Joslin, had a much quieter and reserved start for someone known to travel within a more avant-garde style. Growing up in Colorado, the writing was the original creative choice in mind, before a realization that photography was the better way for him to communicate his ideas and speak from the heart. Indeed, Russell’s photographs are steeped in metaphor. From his artist statement, “I see my photographs as visual manifestations of my subconscious mind—images that bypass intellectualization to reveal authentic feeling.” It is this root feeling that has enabled him to further his career and allow him to explore other ways of communicating, not just with his own work, but the photographs of others as an editor and curator.
Centered on self-portraiture, Russell’s photographs are surreal, honest, and revealing in their personal narrative. His self-expression through self-portraiture is instantly recognized and has always presented a bit of an alternative view to what may often be found in the genre. His work has been exhibited and published in solo and group exhibitions both domestically and internationally, most often seen in stunning black and white. A longtime aficionado of photographing solely with film, Russell’s images are lovingly created as traditional gelatin silver prints.
In addition to his work as a photographer, Russell was the owner and publisher of the quarterly photographic journal, Shots. Being a one-man show behind the scenes of production on the publication, Russell handled it all - downloading files, editing the selections into a concise and thought-provoking collection, layout, and even shipping of the final printed copies. He was the creative behind moving each issue into its own form of expression as only someone with a keen eye and specific sensibilities can do. In all, Russell produced the themed copies of Shots from taking over in 2000, all the way through to 2017, before handing operations over to photographer and educator Douglas Beasley to continue into the future. Anyone viewing a copy of the magazine knows immediately the uniqueness found within its pages, much of what can be attributed to the vision of Russell.
During his tenure at the journal, Russell edited the book Black Forest: Four Visible Poems, published through Candela Books, before culminating his time at Shots by editing and publishing Series of Dreams, a final collection of images culled from his seventeen years and 68 issues of work at the magazine. In releasing Series of Dreams, Joslin founded his newest venture, Skeleton Key Press, an independent publisher that follows the same aesthetic established through his years at Shots. As of this writing, SKP is nearing the release of its first two titles of beautifully produced photography and art. Something to look forward to, to be sure.
We at Analog Forever will be watching very closely as the first copies of these new releases become available. Russell’s abilities as both a photographer and a publisher have solidified his place in the industry as someone of notable vision and expertise. With his years of supporting not just photography, but the photographers inspired to create their images, Russell leads by example. It is with these thoughts that we provide this interview to further explore the career of such a leader. Our thanks to Russell Joslin for his mastery of the medium, his perception, and his time.
Michael Kirchoff: Every photographer experiences that spark that drives them into the direction of image making. How did you get your start, and what were your early influences?
Russell Joslin: In my case, it was more a series of sparks, to use your term, many of which I could only see in retrospect. That would be a long story, and even so, it’s likely something I would need a flowchart or diagram in order for me to connect the dots. That said, I’ll provide a shorter answer, and say that one of these sparks was when I began to understand—whether consciously or intuitively—that photography was a poetic language and the art form that I could best communicate and express myself with. I came to that realization late in my college years when, after years of transferring in and out of colleges (with a break in between), I finally arrived at studying art. It was the first time I was truly excited about my coursework and learning. I absorbed everything I could, worked hard, read and studied even outside of classroom assignments, spent a lot of time in the library going through art and photography books, and worked late hours in the darkroom (usually on Friday and Saturday nights when I could have it all to myself). I studied printmaking and photography equally at that time, and needless to say at this point, photography was the medium I chose following college.
My most important early influences were my art teachers during those pivotal years: Robert Trottmann, Dan R. Kirchhefer, and Larry Schwarm—each in their own way, and largely by example. My brother, Jared Joslin, a wonderful painter, was also starting on his path as an artist, and was an important influence on me at that time, and still is.
MK: Are there any other creative pursuits that you engage in, and do you see any influence in them reflected in your imagery?
RJ: I see my work in editing, curating, and book designing as creative pursuits, certainly. More generally though, I tend to think about much of my life as a creative pursuit. Therefore, influences can be drawn from anywhere: conversations, literature, photography and art books, films, dreams, long walks, gazing out the window... Anything may potentially bring about thoughts and ideas that are bound to seep into my photographic imagery, whether directly or indirectly, consciously or subconsciously, decisively or instinctively.
MK: Your work as a photographer most often resides in the self-portrait realm, followed at a short distance by portraits of others. What is it about the human form that fascinates you, and do you ever feel the pull towards other forms of photographic expression?
RJ: I often see it as the most effective and direct way to communicate what I want to, which is most commonly something personal and/or about the human experience. So I think the simple answer is that I photograph what I know and who I know. I feel it often brings something deeper to a photograph, another layer. For example, I’ve been working on a series of portraits with my wife Hanna, and the trust, intimacy, and familiarity that we have together resonates in the best of these photographs. Also, I will say that even in my photographs without someone in them, a human presence is implied.
MK: How would you articulate your photographic vision and style to others?
RJ: With the photographs themselves, and with the context, selection, and sequencing of them. I view photography as a language.
MK: Another interesting aspect of your work is that it is mostly black and white, and I believe, all photographed using film. Do you feel that traditional photographic methods are best, or simply best for you?
RJ: Best for me. I think it partly has to do with how I learned photography and that digital technology hasn’t seduced me enough yet to change. I’ve recently been editing my work from the last 18 years for a book, and every image is shot on black and white film and in the same format. I like that I can pop one negative on my scanner or in my enlarger from 2000 and another from 2018 and technically, there’s no difference between them. I like having that consistency and quality throughout my body of work.
Also, for me, shooting with film is a more engaging, thoughtful, and poetic process—it forces me to pre-visualize my work and also leaves something to mystery and surprise once I develop the negatives, especially in the case of self-portraits where I’m not looking through the viewfinder at the moment the negative is exposed. It engages my brain in a different and more satisfying way than digital photography does.
That said, I’m not anti-digital. I often scan my negatives and, of course, I use digital methods in publishing all the time, and with beautiful results. As photographers, I think that we’re fortunate to be in an age where we have so many tools available to us.
MK: In conjunction to the previous question, I have to ask – with the proliferation of digital technology taking over the photography world, there seems to be some pushback from the analog world. We are beginning to see a trend of more and more photographers taking on historical processes. Do you feel this is exactly that, a trend, or that possibly people have a desire to return to the way we used to create work before the pixel took over?
RJ: I personally would hesitate to call it a “trend,” though it’s likely just that our definitions differ. I think of trends as the prevailing tendencies or preferences of popular culture or in this case, within the popular culture of photography, so in that sense, and certainly when compared to digital photography, iPhones, Instagram, etc., I wouldn’t say it’s a trend at all. But more to your point, I think there will likely always be people who don’t mind getting their hands a bit dirty, and who want to make photographs using historical processes...
Also, while I can’t speak for anyone else’s motivations, I would add that the learning curve, the large, heavy equipment, the space requirements for a darkroom, the expenses, the issues and concerns of working with hazardous chemistry, and so forth, is sure a lot to take on if a photographer is just wanting to hop on a trend. My guess is that this sort of decision must be more personality-based and more deliberately, one that a photographer makes based on what they feel will best communicate and express their ideas and vision.
MK: Along with being a photographer, and until fairly recently, you were also known as the owner and editor of the fine art photography publication, Shots. You maintained this position at the magazine from 2000-2017, working on it while simultaneously working on your own photographs. Do you see any correlation between the work you were editing versus the work you were creating? Did one inform the other at all, or were you preferring to keep the two worlds as separate as possible?
RJ: In some respects, it was all part of the same ball of wax. Seeing all the wonderful work I saw, following the development of certain photographers over the years, and interviewing so many artists that I admired, all surely helped inform my own photographic work. It often gave me new ideas and presented new ways to think about my work, and it also challenged me to step-up my game as a photographer. It was always my goal to pass that knowledge and inspiration on to my readers as well, even if I couldn’t share all the amazing work I saw in the context of a 48-page journal.
MK: Another follow up to the previous question – was it ever difficult or problematic to juggle both aspects of your photographic life?
RJ: I think especially in the beginning I saw it as you suggest in your question—as two aspects to juggle—my editor-self and my photographer-self. Most everything involved with publishing Shots I did on my own, so it took up a great deal of time, including time I would have likely spent to engage more in my personal work. Even so, I took what time I had in between quarterly issue cycles to produce new photographs.
MK: You finalized the exit of your tenure at Shots by editing and publishing Series of Dreams, a compilation book of images from your 17 years and the 68 issues of the journal. Owning a copy myself, I can easily say that it is a wonderfully curated selection of photographs. Editing this incredible amount of work down to a single publication had to of been a nearly impossible feat. What was this process like for you, and what sort of a timeline did you allow yourself to complete it?
RJ: Thank you. In all, from fundraising to shipping the book, it took about 10 months. A number of those months involved the non-creative aspects of the job: fundraising, contacting each photographer to get their permission to use their work, collecting all the high resolution files and making sure they met quality standards, and on the back end of the project, the seemingly endless task of shipping. Of course, there were many more variables and details involved in between which I won’t go into, but it was indeed a very big task, and a great learning experience too.
When I began compiling the book, I counted that in 17 years I had published nearly 1,500 different photographers in the pages of Shots. Thinking of the book with that in mind felt a little intimidating. I also knew from the start that I wanted to make a book that was more than a patchwork “best-of” compilation. But once I started piecing it together, and once a larger cohesive concept emerged, then it all became clearer. It’s hard to describe what it was like—all the ups and downs along the way—but when people look at the book, I want them to see it for what it is and not for all that went into making it.
MK: Noting that Series of Dreams is now the first publication of your latest venture, Skeleton Key Press, what do you feel is the long term goal of the company, and will it remain a photography only endeavor?
RJ: I have goals, and likely some more that will develop along the way, but for now, since I’m in the beginning stages, I’ll just say that I endeavor to work with artists whose work I love and respect. I want to collaborate with artists with the goal of creating beautiful books, where quality is emphasized. Books are an important part of any artist’s legacy, and I want to honor that with each individual I work with. I imagine I will be publishing mostly photography books, but I’m open to other art forms as well, particularly painting. One of my first books, in fact, will be a monograph by the extraordinary painter Chris Mars that will span 11 very prolific years of his work. It’s been an exciting project so far!
MK: In many ways it seems like a natural progression to go from editing a photography journal like Shots to running your own publishing company. Has the transition been as seamless as you might have hoped, or have there been any bumps in the road to achieving the results you are looking for?
RJ: I think it is a natural progression, with differences of course, but a lot of my experience will carry over into what I do with Skeleton Key Press—especially in terms of editing, sequencing, design, and so on. I suspect that most of the challenges will be figuring out certain logistics now that I’m living and working in Norway. Having said this, I’m obviously in the beginning stages of SKP, so there’s a lot that remains to be seen, but I’m excited about the possibilities.
MK: How do you go about selecting work from artists that you feel is a good fit for what you want to publish?
RJ: I think with each project I’ve worked on so far, the context has been different, so first there’s the parameters and framework of the project to consider. From there, it’s what I feel fits the concept, and then developing the narrative or sequence to support it. What I think surprises a lot of people is that as an editor I don’t always choose my favorites or what I think is the “best”—the project comes first, and then it’s mostly about trusting my instincts to see what best serves the book itself. Having said all that, with SKP, I’m planning on making monographs rather than collections like my two books [Black Forest and Series of Dreams] and Shots. But many similar ideas are likely to be applicable as I go forward.
MK: I know you are diligently working on new titles for the publishing company. Is there any sort of sneak peek or scrap of information you can throw our way as to what we may expect to see in the near future from Skeleton Key Press? If not, how about an estimate of when?
RJ: In addition to the Chris Mars monograph I mentioned, I’ve been working on a book of my self-portraits that will be titled Alone Forever Sometimes and should be ready for release later this year. I have several other books that I’m in conversations with the artists about, but they are too early to reveal. In a year’s time, I released Series of Dreams, moved overseas (from Minneapolis to Oslo), got married, and started a life in new surroundings. I hope that by later this year I will be ready to announce some more titles.
MK: Anyone working in an artistic field has matured and grown over time. Is there anything you’ve discovered lately that you’d like people to know about you or your creative process?
RJ: Not specifically, that I can think of, but to your point, I do think that a steadfast persistence and learning from one’s mistakes is important for any endeavor—artistic or otherwise. And to stay true to one’s vision. But I guess that’s pointless to say because for people who have the artistic drive are their own worst critics; making art is all they know how to do.
MK: Through all of these major changes in your career, it is assumed on my part at least, that you remain an image maker at heart. Even as work continues in the publishing realm, do you see yourself finding time and heeding the call of passion to create more photographs of your own?
RJ: Yes, certainly. It’s what I do. I’ve been at this since the 90s and it’s a large part of my identity. Especially now, following my life changes and move to Oslo, I’m looking forward to seeing how my new surroundings influence my work and what the future brings!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Kirchoff is an independent curator and juror for a number of organizations and galleries around the country, including Photolucida’s Critical Mass. In addition, he spent ten years (2006-2016) on the Board of the American Photographic Artists in Los Angeles (APA/LA), producing artist lectures, as well as business and inspirational events for the community. Currently, he is also Editor-in-Chief at Analog Forever Magazine, and has recently founded the online photographer interview website, Catalyst: Interviews. Previously, Michael spent over four years as Editor at BLUR Magazine. Connect with Michael Kirchoff on his Website and on Instagram!