Back to Writing / 8-16-2005

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Against a stark studio backdrop and stripped of color (and often clothing), NYC photographer Joshua Rubin's models animate and electrify his images with their facial and body expressions alone. Devoid of traditional "seduction," his latest black and white series on sex industry workers and burlesque performers offers a fascinating look into the human, quirky spirits of his subjects. We spoke with Rubin about the origin of the series and how he has learned to capture personality with his lens.

Sez G: Your portfolio offers many striking portraits of beautiful, creative, unique individuals. How did an interest in portraiture develop for you?

Joshua Rubin: I think it all really developed for me when I left college and got to NYC. During my senior year I had spent a lot of time shooting ordinary people (because there were so many around) and using Photoshop to turn them into aliens, monsters and creatures.

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When I got to New York, I found people who looked like that sans Photoshop. After a shoot, a lot of models kinda needed a break, so I started shooting the people inside the character, trying to get beyond the costume and makeup. It's kind of a synthesis of those two opposing elements that led me to where I am right now.

EZ: Your subjects have such an extreme and amazing array of expressions! Do you put in a lot of effort into getting them to release this, or are you highly skilled at capturing that perfect moment? Or both?

JR: I think I'm just really lucky. I hate images that are posed… it makes me feel like I'm chewing on aluminum foil while someone scratches a blackboard. For me a pose is just kinda like a starting point, a position that puts the body in more or less the right spot. Once the subject is standing in the light and knows how much they can move around, it becomes a process of getting them to break from both the pose and their awareness of the camera, allowing me to capture something honest. Sometimes it works.

EZ: In your photos, it definitely does! Your latest project (and the one we're featuring in this piece) is a portrait series of sex industry workers. Tell me about how this idea developed.

JR: It started as commissioned story on Burlesque dancers, then dominatrices/ burlesque/ non-mainstream sex workers. Then it morphed into defining "what is mainstream" --which became difficult. Then back to burlesque. Then it started to turn into a series on couples, then sex-industry workers and finally back to a burlesque story. So when this opportunity came up, I jumped at the chance to show all the other non-burlesque photos (don't worry, there is still plenty o' burlesque).

EZ: Everyone loves the ladies of burlesque! Can you give me some examples of the sex industry work your subjects do? How well do you know them?

JR: The subjects range from some of my closest friends to people I had just met at the shoot. We have burlesque dancers, strippers, dominatrices, prostitutes, porn company owners, sex toy store workers, people who work in safer sex education and outreach programs, sex writers, and one subject who does voice-overs for animated porn.

EZ: Why did you choose to shoot this series in black and white?

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JR: I had chosen to do the original burlesque story in black and white because of the lighting and technique... but feel free to make up something more romantic about the beauty and abstraction when you eliminate color.

EZ: It's all part of it! It seems that you prefer a studio environment to location shooting. Why?

JR: Locations have narratives of their own that get deposited on the subject, that's why they are used. Take a guy named John who is wearing shorts and a sweatshirt. On a basketball court he's a basketball player, on a track he's a runner, and on a field he plays soccer. But take off his clothes and put him against a white wall in a studio and he's just John. Give him a little bit of clothing or a prop, and you begin to open up a vast array of possibilities.

EZ: Are you based in NYC? Where are you from originally and how did you end up there?

JR: I am originally from "Lawn Guyland," New York. I went to college upstate at the Rochester Institute of Technology, so after college, NYC was just the natural place for me to start my career. It is both home, and the city with the most opportunities.

EZ: Tell me about the book What is Goth.

JR: Voltaire approached me about doing photos for a book he was writing on the "Goth scene," so I did. It was really a wonderful experience that gave me a reason to open up even more to the costumed world, and it laid much of the groundwork and connections that helped when I began this project.

EZ: What's next for you?

JR: In addition to actively doing more mainstream commercial work (fashion, beauty, etc.) I'm looking for my next group of people to photograph. I've done burlesque, Goths and body modifications, so I'm trying to find the next group to explore… or maybe I'll go into more depth with something I've already touched upon, like strippers, and really see how far I can go with that.

And karaoke, lots of karaoke.

We'll keep our ears and eyes open! You can learn more about Joshua Rubin at

Joshua Rubin - by Sez G.