We had the good fortune of connecting with John Wagner and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi John, why did you pursue a creative career?
When I started in photography, I was most interested in the camera as a tool… the way it felt in my hands. I enjoyed the feel of the dials and levers used to advance the film and control the amount of light entering the camera to expose the film. I didn’t have any grand plans of being a photographer, it was more about he mechanics of it all. It wasn’t until much later that I learned the power of framing and capturing a single moment in time, a moment that reflected my point of view. I am a mostly quiet person… I keep to myself… I like to observe the people and places around me. I found that I could communicate using film, the camera, and the darkroom. I pursued it because I felt like it let me speak.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
When I left the University, I moved back home to Chicago and started working as a freelance photo assistant for a handful of photographers in the city. I would call studios trying to get in to show my work in hopes of procuring steady work with them. It was a crash course in the world of advertising photography since I was coming fresh out of a “fine art” program. I mostly worked with an architectural photographer, an editorial portrait photographer, and a lifestyle photographer. It was a great way to see what I was really drawn to and more importantly what I wasn’t drawn to. Eventually I had to go out on my own. I found myself mimicking styles that were popular at the time to get in front of various creative directors and designers, trying to get whatever work I could. It wasn’t until I moved out to Arizona (in 1994) that I really was able to slow down and get back into doing photography for myself, which I think allowed me to develop my “style”. I am still working with film, and spending most of my time in the darkroom, and really enjoy being totally involved in each part of the process, from exposing the film all the way to building the frames for the final print.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
We’d probably do an early morning ride on the motorcycles, maybe up South Mountain. Then stopping for a coffee or iced tea at Lola Coffee on Roosevelt, or maybe breakfast at Mels Diner. Next we may visit some friends studios, like the Megaphone studio and artist collective, run by painter Andy Brown… or Hector Ruiz’s space, The Chocolate Factory (a great mix of sculpture and works on paper). A couple of my favorite places where we could eat include; Chula Seafood (in the up town plaza), La Piñata on 7th ave, and Glai Baan (on Osborn and 24th street), and for a great sandwich… McGurkees (on 15th ave). I’m sure there are several more places that I am forgetting. Some of my favorites spots to have drinks would include the patio at The Main Ingredient (ale house), Gracies Tax Bar, Chopper Johns, and for swanky cocktails… the new Lux Salon.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I was fortunate to have a group of amazing professors when I was studying photography at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale… Charles Swedlund, David Gilmore, and Daniel Overturf. The three of them really opened a door for me, as far as showing me the potential for what could be done in the medium…. and exposed me to many of the “masters” who would later inspire me (themselves included). Our classes were mostly critique based. We’d bring our work in and pin it to the walls, then discuss our intentions (which as a quiet kid, terrified me). During these classes they would bring in actual prints made by photographers the likes of Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Lee Friedlander, and Gary Winogrand… and we would discuss their work. It was an amazing experience that I don’t think I really fully understood until much later in life.