Odd Couplings
Lou Jones' Surreal Moments

"A film company gave me a batch of their new 35mm film and said, `Create images that have to do with emotions.' I saw the gargoyle in a shop in Boston and bought it; then I thought about how to incorporate it into an image that to me said `emotion.'"
Photos © 1999, Lou Jones, All Rights Reserved

About a year ago I was talking to commercial and industrial photographer Lou Jones about the "personality" of a photograph, and how the photographer's point of view is absolutely necessary in order to make images that are more than merely record shots. During the conversation Lou talked about photographs in which, he said, "the subject matter may be quite normal, even pedestrian, but interpreting the idea in creative, unique, or even odd ways makes for a powerful image."

"Wait," I said, "say that again." He did, pretty much word for word, and I wrote it down, thinking, there's a story here.

"In the beginning of my career," Lou Jones says, "it wasn't as if I were trying to do anything remotely like that--to take pictures with odd or quirky angles, strange combinations of things, or unusual compositions. But as my career progressed, I became less and less fond of the straight shot of a subject and more interested in the environment of the subject. Then a writer saw my work and said that some of it was `surreal.' I had never looked at it that way before. `Surreal' had always meant sort of Dali-esque--you know, molten clocks and a platypus coming out of the sand."

One in a series of photographs documenting the last year of the Orange Line, one of the oldest of Boston's elevated trains. "As people got off the train I photographed them moving through this passageway at the Dudley Street station." The only light is sunlight coming through the red-painted window. "It's disorienting, and at once beautiful and scary."

While there weren't literally any melting clocks in Jones' work, there were plenty of surrealism's odd, often unnatural juxtapositions, incongruities, and dreamlike references.

"Sometimes it was as direct as the juxtaposition of two buildings," Jones says, "each built in a different era; maybe that's not quite surreal, but it was certainly quite startling. Other times it was just that instantaneous happening, where two or more factors came together, however briefly, in a Cartier-Bresson `decisive moment,' but a decisive moment that revealed a very strange combination of things."

Soon Jones began looking for the odd or unusual view for both his commercial and personal work. "I was just reacting to the power that I think photography has that makes it different from a lot of other art forms. It can record our environment instantaneously, capturing those fleeting and often quite odd or poignant moments and details."

And, after a while, the odd coupling and the puzzling point of view became a bit more deliberate; became, in fact, something of a signature. "Very often," Jones says, "the story being told is an ambiguous one. That's what I think art is about--investigating things and often creating ambiguity. You're not answering questions, you're posing new ones." Because of those questions, and the images' ambiguities, the photographs hold our interest and reward repeated viewing. Why, after all, are we moved to hang certain works in our homes and consign others to the storage attic?

"Everyone photographs the Church of the Sacred Heart at the top of Mount Tibidabo in Barcelona, but the oldest amusement park in Spain is up there, too. It's one of those juxtapositions that reveals something familiar in a new way...and gets you to ask questions."

But for this approach to work in the world of commercial photography, "you've got to have good clients," Jones says. "Most, unfortunately, tend to like to see things they've seen before. Especially in today's economy, they tend not to take as many chances.

"I did a photo recently for an annual report. It's the third time I've done this company's report, and I said to the Art Director, `I'm going to do the shot you want, then I'll do another shot--a different way.' Since I'd worked with them before, I'd earned his trust and had the leeway to do it. It turned out the Art Director chose the `different' shot for the cover of the report, but it still remains to be seen if the powers that be, the CEO and the company's other execs, will approve."

The price of a signature becomes the necessity of producing it: when the subject is ordinary, Jones has got to make it special. He looks for the odd juxtaposition--"it's there, I just have to be aware enough to find it"-- the unusual angle, or strange setting. Sometimes he'll bring props along to help create something different. For a commercial shoot, it can take an enormous effort, he says, to find the right props or location--"the right road, the perfect biplane. There's virtually no limit except the pocketbook of the client or myself. And if a client says, `We can't afford that,' I'll say, `Yeah, you can. If we use our imagination, we can figure out how to do it inexpensively enough to make it affordable.'"

The assignment called for Jones to shoot inside an anechoic chamber. Used for scientific testing, the room can hold a 747; the cones are 10' tall. Aiming for ambiguity--"I wanted that feeling of, what is this place?"--Jones avoided picturing the entire room and called for two cherry pickers.

Regardless of the type of photograph being produced--commercial or personal, surreal or straightforward--Jones reflects an attitude pros and amateurs can easily share: never settle. Where some photographers stop at the first view, which may indeed be a perfectly fine photograph, the really special happens when you strive to make it happen.

For a pro photographer, that makes good business sense. "I'm in competition with a lot of people," Jones says. "Why would I want to do yet another handshake photo? Another photo everyone has done? Stock agencies send out wish lists, but I don't use them, I don't respond. They're needs, but they're not creative. Everyone will be shooting them, and people make good money from them, but I can't photograph clouds."

Fortunately there are plenty of things he can and will photograph--the business and his personal vision requires it. And there's no end of inspiration and ideas. Visual energy is everywhere. "I have friends who are film cameramen, and I ask them, `How did you do that shot?' I've gotten ideas and inspiration from music videos, too. I don't hold with photographers who say they don't watch TV because it's beneath them. They'll tell you they go to art exhibits to study classical lighting. Fine, but there's a lot of new things happening, exciting things we can learn."

Who knows, maybe someday there'll even be the inspiration to figure out an interesting angle on clouds.