JOEL ROBISON: IN WONDERLAND
“Why is a raven like a writing desk?” the Mad Hatter asks in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This unworkable riddle is dropped in a conversation, inspiring the reader to imagine a quirky world filled with the impossible. For fans of such impossibilities, the appeal often comes not just with the story itself, but with the evocative interplay in its telling. For photographers, the perfect light can be fickle and inspiration fleeting; however, when the image is realized, that single work of art is said to be worth a thousand storyteller words. This statement can certainly be applied to Joel Robison’s photography. But perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves. After all, a story is best started at the beginning.
Robison grew up in Cranbrook, British Columbia, a small town nestled in the southeast corner of the Rocky Mountains. He spent his childhood playing on the doorstep of some of the most spectacular natural scenery the world could offer and takes much of his inspiration from those dramatic Canadian canvases and their wide-open spaces. “I’ve always been a visual person,” Robison admits. “Since I was young, I’ve interpreted my world through images.” As a child, he loved coming up with stories, but it was through photography that he eventually found his voice. He shares, “With photography I feel as though I’ve found an avenue to express my thoughts.”
Robison’s process differs from shoot to shoot. Experience has taught him to spend his time carefully choosing the perfect location and to never settle. He wanders an area looking for the perfect spot and light before setting up his tripod, framing the space, and beginning the shoot. His shots are often layered in post-production like a puzzle, showing the viewer an ethereal, fantastical world that seems so perfectly irrational it can’t help but spark the imagination.
“My photographs are interpretations of conversations, fears, dreams, and goals. Often they mean something different to me than to my audience, but they help give the viewer an opportunity to really see the world in a new light.” Robison openly admits he likes to hide messages in his pictures, intending that everyone sees the picture differently. The result is a personal experience unique to the viewer.
Today, Robison is a conceptual portrait photographer with a fascinating resumé. “You can never predict what people will like,” Robison says, regarding the astounding number of Facebook followers he has acquired. “I think Facebook is one of the easiest ways for artists to connect with a large audience.”
The turning point in Robison’s career can be traced back to a social media project. Robison’s objective was to photograph a well-known brand, and in a moment of inspiration he took several bottles of Coca-Cola, dropped them in a pristine snow bank, and started shooting. Satisfied, he uploaded his best shot and moved on to other projects. However, as with any good story, the beginning layers often act as catalysts later on. Such was the case with that picture, which came to Coca-Cola’s attention nearly a year later.
“An employee messaged me to ask if they could tweet the shot. They also noticed I liked using their brand in my other work,” explains Robison. That led to contract work with Coca-Cola and eventually to an offer that was so fantastic it might have come from the Mad Hatter himself. “I got this call one day at lunch. Coke is the biggest sponsor of the FIFA World Cup, and they wanted me to join their global tour. Essentially, I would be using social media to help bring soccer to the world.” Robison accepted the offer, and over the following nine months he travelled with a small group to all the countries that had a sponsored team, 85 in total. “It was crazy. We had a private jet, and almost as many stops as Lady Gaga’s tour. I definitely learned a few things.”
One of the things Robison learned was that owning stuff can weigh you down. For almost a year he lived on the road, taking only what could fit in an overhead bin. Before leaving on the tour, Robison gave away clothing, furniture, and knick-knacks, paring down his life to a handful of boxes. “I felt like I was transforming into a lighter, cleaner version of myself,” he admits.
On his December 22, 2014, blog post, Robison reminisces over the artists that had come into his life in the past year. He states, “I truly believe that to be the best artist you can be, you should surround yourself with artists and other creatives that share their passions and talents.” He discloses some people to watch in 2015: Robert Cornelius, who Robison calls a “god of Photoshop”; Matt Hayton, a.k.a. Fawnlorn, a whimsical painter; and Jen Brook, the writer-model who convinced him to move to the United Kingdom when the FIFA World Cup tour ended.
Today, Robison can be found haunting the back alleys of London and the fields of southern England. He’s working on a new series called Stories of the UK, which seeks to interpret some of the U.K.’s most famous literary works through photography. He has 20 photo shoots planned, with inspiration coming from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and more. Robison has some great stories to tell. Watch out for the next chapter!
See more of Joel Robisons work at: joelrobison.com
This article originally appeared in our Spring/Summer Issue in 2015. Get the TELLING STORIES issue HERE.