Photography and GIFs by Alex Thebez of GIFRIENDS / Interview by Lisa Gonzalez
Geordie Wood does not sit around waiting for things to happen to him. He will make them happen, even if it means giving himself restrictions. Wood’s work as a New York-based photographer and as the photo editor of The FADER both contain a visual preference for substance and purpose. His photographs from Portugal, Nepal, and across the United States are filled with a subtle matter-of-factness, even when speaking to tension and destruction. His work for the FADER is equally direct, whether collaborating with photographers to tell stories of violence in Chicago or to photographing the likes of A$AP Rocky and King Krule. He sat down to discuss his transition from photographer to photo editor, and his appreciation for the young and hungry.
LISA GONZALEZ: You have a background in the craft of photography. Where did it all start for you?
GEORDIE WOOD: I went to Syracuse for photojournalism, but when I first went up there for school, I didn’t start in the photo program. The New House School [which houses the photojournalism program] is a really academically centered program and I started photo editing the newspaper when I was in my sophomore year. When I talk about my schooling, I say I fell out of love with the photojournalism thing pretty quickly. I spent a lot of time getting into the program and then really hated all of the work I was making and the ethos behind it. Not to say there isn’t really interesting documentary work out there but it kind of sucked the guts out of me.
I went to school right on the cusp of digital and no one really knew what was going on, or was really into it. This program was taught as a craft with a right way and a wrong way to do something. It was meant to have people graduate and go work for The Post or The New York Times. I wanted to get more creative juices flowing, so I knocked on the door of the visual and performing arts program. The director of the program happened to be Doug DuBois. After having him shrug me off for half the year, he finally looked at some of my work. At the end of my education, I ended up with a hybrid degree. I had a good experience in school, because I was hungry and I made those opportunities happen.
LG: What happened after? How were you able to make work?
GW: The story is, I was in this photojournalism program and I was upset with my work, so I threw it out. I felt like there was no life. I had hustled for an internship with Steve McCurry in New York City. I had never been to NYC before, so I had a 35mm camera with me and I made rules for myself: shoot slide film, hand-held light meter, fixed 50mm lens… I was young and I came to New York and I was like “I’m going to do street photography, like Alex Webb.” I carried my camera with me all over. When I came back to college, I developed the film and I had these weird pictures and I kind of put a project together. A friend of mine at the time showed me an issue of The FADER and I said, “Holy shit, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. Dude, I have these picture on this website, can you send it to anyone at the magazine?” So he passed it along to Dorothy Hong who was helping Phil Bicker at the time. Phil called and said “This is Phil from the FADER. Who are you? Why is your work in my inbox?” He was a guy who gave Kate Moss her first shoot! I was very green.
LG: What did you say to him?
GW: I have to imagine it was a very immature conversation. I ended up shooting my first magazine assignment before I finished school. At the time it made me feel great. Some guy gave me some props, and I thought I was set. Phil introduced me to Paul Moakley who was then at Newsweek. I graduated and I moved home to Boston. I thought I needed to make some more work before moving to New York.
LG: Is that what led you to Nepal?
GW: I didn’t go abroad during college but I’m someone who has an itch to travel. I grew up in a pretty white-bread town outside of Boston. It was always my plan to move there and make work. I graduated and went home intending to leave for Nepal in the fall. I freaked out and was upset to be home. I ended up moving to New York City immediately and began printing for Steve McCurry for a few months. I brought a bag of 200 rolls of film and I was [in Nepal] for about three months. I walked out the door every morning without any plan and came home at night. But this was something I wanted to do and had a desire to do. It was a lot of walking, and meeting strangers for dinner on evenings, and going to ceremonies. I did come home with some great work, but it didn’t pan out the way I thought. There was a magazine that was going to publish my work but it ended up folding. Maybe this is all to say my start after school was a little rocky. I came home, and edited some of the images I made. I finally moved back in New York in 2008 and worked for Susan Meiselas for the next few years. I was able at that time to make more work and create a foundation for myself.
LG: How did photo editing come into the picture? You were making your own work at the time.
GW: The truth is that it kind of fell into my lap. I’m interested in design, production, and art direction. I’ve always been interested in more than just photography. More or less, over the four previous years, I was shooting a lot and working as much as I could. I basically kept the relationship with The FADER alive. Phil was there for a long time, then John Francis Peters who was under Phil, ended up taking over. He had commissioned me to shoot A$AP Rocky. When [John] decided he was going to leave I was part of a small group of people who were told. They sent an email and asked us to send it around to people we maybe thought would be great as the photo editor. I forwarded it along to 4 or 5 people and then replied with something along the line of, “thanks John, it’s been so great to work with you. It’s really the end of an era. This position sounds great, I even might think about doing it, but gee that’s crazy.” He replied right back and said if I seriously wanted it I should apply. I threw my hat in the ring, and in the spring, I was about to leave for India for a month. Right before I left I sent them an email. I said “Hey, I’m leaving to India for a month tomorrow.” They immediately called me and said I could start the day after I got back.
My history is so intertwined in the publication. I have so much reverence for John and Dorothy. They built the foundation and structure of what this magazine is. I was also completely terrified because I had zero experience as to how to make this thing happen. I was really excited. Almost immediately after, I got on a plane and went to India. I thought about it when I was there. I came back with a statement that I had in mind, then figured it out along the way.
LG: What were some of the first obstacles you had to get over?
GW: As a photographer, at first, I was very naive. I have no idea what went on behind the scenes. I thought photo editors were beautiful people who wanted to do the right thing and hired you to take pictures and go do stuff. At the end, they just picked their favorite picture, which often seemed to be the bad ones. I thought it ran in the magazine and then it was over.
I would like to take this moment to stand up for photo editors. There’s an ethos around photo editors picking the wrong thing. I’ve had the veil pulled back to see what goes on: From production to PR, to dealing with people directly, office politics, to what your editor in chief had for breakfast, what ran in the issue before, or what’s running on the next page.
What I’ve learned is that creating a beautiful, smart, sharp product has a lot to do with how to structure things, how to put people in the right places and how to let photographers do their own thing. Especially how to communicate with people who are not creative.
I do my best. We’re a small music publication; a very, very high-end zine. It’s a passion project for all of us involved. There is only 8 or 10 staff members involved in this. I am the one person in the photo department. I have 15+ shoots an issue to commission. The final lesson I’ve learned is how to multi-task.
LG: What have been your favorite shoots?
GW: I’d say always “the newest thing” is what I’m excited about. Daniel Shea‘s story on Chicago violence that was done for the photo issue last year. Daniel is a friend of mine, and the project came out of being fans of rap music and having issues with the content and the reality of what was going on in the ground in Chicago. That was my pitch to the magazine to do that project and we were lucky to have the support of the staff. We sometimes work with a lot of divas, crazy people. We got to take a step back and show an audience that normally doesn’t see something like this. It has some guts to it.
I’ve met some amazing people, like Le1f. That is one of my favorite shots. It was from my first issue and I got to show I still had some skin in the game. I wanted to show people I should be there.
What excites me is when [the magazine] starts to push the boundaries. For a while, I didn’t want to mess too much with what we already have. I wanted to preserve it in this beautiful form, and I had to do what John would have done. Over time I’ve begun to let go of that. We’ve [recently] done some stuff that are risky and bizarre. Some things have worked great and others have not worked at all — we are trying some new things to stay contemporary and taking new visual approaches. I’m proud of that push.
LG: How are you finding your photographers?
GW: Because of the nature of my job, I don’t have a lot of time to spend looking for photographers. I wish this wasn’t the case. Primarily how I find the photographers is from the internet, or my friends. A lot of the people I’m interested in working with are via this network. I keep lists. I’m a big list person, and I’ve found coping mechanisms. If I see work that’s interesting, I have a list that’s primarily based on location. Our assignments are so proximity based, and we don’t have a budget to send anyone anywhere. It forces me to be very organized. I look at every e-mail I get and if I think the stuff is interesting I’m happy to put it on the list. Joyce Kim is a photographer in Los Angeles. I was having trouble finding a photographer I needed in L.A. – there are good photographers out in California but it’s hard to find people who do what I need done. I looked at her work, I thought it was really strong, so I called her up. I’m very keen on the work and I’m less concerned about experience. I really like working with folks that are young and hungry. I am always really excited to work with young folks.
LG: When you’re photographing, do you set up an image or do you wait and step back before you take it?
GW: My work has been an evolution of not intervening in the frame, to over the years, becoming way more proactive with what I’m making. Nowadays, I’m doing some more studio stuff, with stylists, and art directors, and casting – a whole team. In my personal work and more of the environmental portraiture, there is a combination of intention, and setting it up and positioning people, with a healthy dose of reacting. When I was shooting in India, there was a lot of interaction, I’m really interested in people. I was walking around on the street and trying to start conversations with them and then working with them to make those pictures. It’s a real mix of interaction, working with a situation and moving people around, but some of it is less intervened.
When I photographed Le1f, I walked the block three times and found the spot to take the picture. On some level I am so not interested in being a photo head, and in these moments, I work with a small equipment backpack and I try to be as unobtrusive as possible. While I’m trying to make a photograph I’m trying to make work that responds to those situations.
LG: Did you ask him to position his hand like that?
GW: I knew he is was a dancer so I knew he could hold his body really well. Mainly these days I have photographed creative people; musicians, artists. They generally have some interest in what I do. They are also respectful of my process in making work. That’s an advantage.
LG: From your USA series, you have a photograph of an illustration, a drawing on a bench or something, and an image of a cross. Why did you include those images in the series? They’re iconographic – not of a person, or a landscape, and there are specific connotations to them.
GW: I’m more interested in the intention of people doing those things. One was kids’ drawings on a ferry in Maine, and the cross was duct tape in the back window of someone’s car. Those images respond to the mark of people in those places and wondering their intentions. Why drawing Abe Lincoln? Or, why have a pink cross in the back of your car? I like classic work that has all of the photographic elements fade out of it. Of course a lot of time goes into picking the right people on the street, and the right lens, but its content to speak to you, not what it took to make the photograph.