An image from the "Workspace" series, by Joseph Holmes.

Joseph O. Holmes: Workspaces, Interrupted

Hardworking photographer Joseph O. Holmes has been posting images daily on joe’s nyc for five years running, picking up a “Best Photojournalism” award at the Photobloggies in 2005 along the way. More recently, Holmes delved into the “quasi-private spaces people carve out of their public work lives” for his gritty Workspace series, which features the warts-and-all workbenches of mechanics, stonecutters, shoe shiners, antique restorers, and bartenders, among others.
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iven our own fixation on organization, we were fascinated by the breadth of these images, which capture workspaces in medias res, in states ranging from full disarray to decaying orderliness. As Holmes puts it, “Such spaces represent a tug of war between personal expression and comfort, on the one hand, and the unyielding demands of work on the other.” We chatted with him via email about the impetus for the series, what he learned in the process, and how the pictures found their way into Rag & Bone’s new Mercer Street shop.

Where did the idea of photographing these workspaces come from?

It all started with one workbench. In the summertime here in Brooklyn, the small industries and bakeries and repair shops often open their doors to the fresh air. And as I walked down the street one day I glimpsed the repair benches at the back of Ganmar Electronics on 16th Street. The work areas were dense with equipment and tools and paperwork, all spotlighted in yellow pools of light, and it immediately conjured childhood memories of TV and radio repair shops.As soon as I got home I grabbed my tripod and headed back to the shop, where I asked the owner, Tony, if I could photograph his desk. He was completely baffled by the idea. Why would anyone possibly want to photograph his dingy, cluttered desk, a mass of business cards, invoices, and empty paper coffee cups? But he was happy for the company, and I ended up returning several times over the following months to shoot the workbenches and Tony himself, until he retired and the building was torn down to make way for condos.

That was the first. But within a few days of discovering Ganmar Electronics, I spotted another terrific workspace through the open door of an auto repair shop, and at that point I realized I wanted to create a series.

My favorite workspaces have been built quite naturally and unconsciously by people trying to do an impossible amount of work in an impossibly small space.

What makes a particular space interesting to you?

I’m immediately drawn to a workspace filled to the brim, dense and layered, accumulated over a long period of time. I like to believe that a workspace reveals much about the person who works there, but honestly, that aspect doesn’t interest me. My main criterion is how it looks – the lighting, the colors, the repeating details. I’m drawn to the odd symmetry, to the overall shape of a space. And of course the things – the photos and tools and notes. Everything else – the usefulness, the organization – is secondary. I don’t consider the project documentary or typology work; it’s about the strange beauty of these accidental sculptures. But of course I’m happy if people take more from the images.

What have you learned about the way folks organize their spaces? Is there a method to the madness for their owners?

My interaction with the worker is typically about everything but the desk or bench itself – people put down their work when I arrive, and it’s usually the last thing they want to talk about. And since my goal is to capture each workspace as it exists at that moment, I have little interest what happens before I arrive or after I leave. Once I’ve photographed the space, I’m satisfied and ready to move on. I leave everything else up to the viewer.

What does your workspace look like? Did you apply anything you picked up from these shoots to your own spot?

I was inspired by the project to accumulate my own inspiration wall, filling it with tickets, photos, handbills, things I find on the street, buttons – a messy record of everything I’m doing and everywhere I’m going. It’s already building up to two layers deep, and it’s fun to look at. But it turns out to be nothing at all like the spaces I photograph. My favorite workspaces have been built quite naturally and unconsciously, usually by people trying to do an impossible amount of work in an impossibly small space, with no thought to ever being examined as some kind of artistic creation. It’s like keeping a diary – if you write it with the idea that others will eventually read it, it’s not really a private diary is it? The more consciously a workspace is built, the less it’s going to appeal to me.

It’s like keeping a diary – if you write it with the idea that others will eventually read it, it’s not really a private diary is it?

Many of these pictures highlight spaces that are the antithesis of the minimalist, everything-in-its-right-place offices that many creatives inhabit. How would you define the word “creative”?

I’ve actually found the workspaces of most creatives to be too self conscious – or too neat – for my project. But I also have mixed feelings about the term “creatives.” Certainly it’s a handy word, a quick way to refer to a certain category of worker, but I’m not sure it’s fair to take the term too literally. I’ve known machine shop workers and carpenters and repair people, for example, whose minds are constantly confronting deeply creative issues, whose work challenges them intellectually every day, requiring novel approaches to problems of design and function. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many sculptors and painters  have day jobs in the manual trades as contractors, carpenters, electricians. So I hesitate to label certain jobs creative or not creative.

How did the exhibit make its way to Rag & Bone here in New York?

I don’t really know the details – I’m lucky to be able to leave these things to the people who represent me, in this case Jeffrey Teuton at the Jen Bekman Gallery on Spring Street in Manhattan. He’s regularly approached by designers who select and buy art for various clients. In Rag & Bone’s case, I assume the Workspace series spoke to the whole Rag & Bone look – they picked the most industrial and gritty of the Workspace images.

We originally hung nine prints in the Rag & Bone shop on Mercer Street in Manhattan for the store’s opening; at 3 1/2 feet wide they’re tied for the largest prints I’ve ever made, and to emphasize the gritty nature of the work, they literally nailed the bare prints to the walls. But at the opening one of the owners came to me and said, “We want them bigger – much much bigger.” So I had my printer, Eric Recktenwald in Minneapolis, run a test print at 6 1/2 foot wide, and it looked so amazing that Rag & Bone immediately decided to rehang all the prints at that size. We’re working on it right now. They should be installed in the store by the end of November. I can’t wait to see these images blown up to that scale.

View Holmes’ full Workspace series here.

More insights on: Interviews, Workspace Design
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