Joe Gemignani has spent three decades shooting high-end commercial assignments but had a late start. The Brooklyn native was 26 when he bought his first camera. He snapped some pictures of his girlfriend with a cheap, plastic Kodak. He was hooked.
He gathered together $50 and upgraded to a 35mm Kowa (an early competitor to Nikon, Pentax and other Japanese cameras) on hock at a pawnshop. On weekends Gemignani and a shutterbug pal would take photographs of Coney Island, Central Park, Manhattan and the people that called those places home.
Two years later Gemignani was ready.
He moved to Miami. By this time he was an accomplished photographer. He spent the next 35 years shooting commercial work. “In the ’80s it was smoking,” says Gemignani, recalling the heyday of advertising photography. Typical assignments included architecture and automobiles (both notoriously difficult subjects) and travel destinations.
That was all before the digital era but Gemignani doesn’t romanticize the good old days of film. “Heck no, I don’t miss it at all,” he laughs. “It’s amazing what you can do now. It’s all at your fingertips…it’s instant gratification because you get to see what you’re doing as you’re doing it.”
But it’s not about the latest technology. He says the photographs of Ansel Adams, the most classic of old school photographers, were his first inspiration. His favorite artist is another classicist, the painter Edward Hopper. Reproductions of several well-known Hopper paintings including Nighthawks at The Diner hang in Gemignani’s office. “This guy is my absolute idol,” he says. “I love his simplicity and his sense of light. Also, I’m really an urban guy.”
The unmistakeable cadence of Gemignani’s Brooklyn accent makes this easy to believe, as does his confession to reading The New York Times regularly. “I will always love New York City,” he says.
Gemignani’s urban sensibilities are reflected by the photographs of skyscrapers printed onto canvas that hang on the walls of his apartment. The vibrant pieces could almost be mistaken for paintings and were produced using a technique for which Gemignani became well known: using instant photos from his (now extinct) Polaroid SX-70 camera as an artist’s palate, Gemignani would burnish the emulsion with implements ranging from chop-stix to dental tools to produce painterly effects.
These days, the recently retired Gemignani (and, since 2008, Asheville resident) works with a digital Canon SLR but, like his experiments with Polaroid, relies on old school basics to pursue his artistic vision. His latest photographs, the Brushstroke series, utilize shutter manipulation to achieve their abstract effects. “I could do all this in a program like [Corel] Painter but I don’t. I just love the challenge of getting that effect inside the camera,” he says.
Working off real life objects — such as the grill of an automobile — Gemignani randomly adjusts the shutter and allows fate to run its course. Depending on the time of day, bolts of light appear as scratches in some photos; in others the colors blend as softly as pastels. Many of the images in the series were taken at a car show. “I was having a blast that day,” he laughs. “I can’t tell you exactly what all of these photos are of — not because I’m being coy but because I was just going around shooting stuff!”
Another of Gemignani’s experiments involves the use of a large format portrait lens (used with 8×10 and 4×5 studio cameras) positioned and shot through the front of his camera. Soft glowing arcs, orbs, and reflections are produced this way.
When he was photographing cars for a living, there was less room for personal artistic expression. The creative director at the agency often called the shots. Using the same subject matter today, Gemignani allows himself the luxury to be — himself. “I tell all my friends I was in detox from the commercial world for the first year I lived here, and I’ve been in rehab for the last two years.”
For a look at Joe Gemignani’s work visit www.joegemignaniphotography.com.