These ethereal images explore the ecstasy of coming of age
Rising photographer Joe Puxley on curating his experimental photo gallery and capturing the emotional tensions of adolescence
image Joe Puxley
words Lucy O'Brien
“Listening to happy songs at a funeral, growing up just outside the city, being single on Valentine’s Day, seeing a crescent moon, there’s beauty everywhere.”
Finding fleeting glimpses of hope in the face of gloomy, monotonous daily life is a condition that, for 21-year-old photographer Joe Puxley, helps to define modern adolescence. Transitioning into young adulthood is a time filled with tumultuous emotion: from euphoric highs to overwhelmingly low lows. It is this emotional experience that inspired Joe’s latest digital photo gallery, the-dark-room.
The gallery presents a series of images that, much like the feeling of adolescence itself, are oversaturated, blurred and enigmatic. Joe’s lens is both empathetic and invasive: his portfolio invites us to find beauty in moments of mystery or despair.
Fusing the mediums of photography and music, the London-based artist listened to eight different songs on repeat while curating the-dark-room. For Joe, tracks like Beach House’s Space Song or Short and Sweet by Brittany Howard foster simultaneous feelings of hope and despondency; an emotional package that is no stranger to himself or his generation. “the-dark-room is an experiment to see if those feelings can be explored with photos in an online gallery, in something just as accessible as Spotify,” he told woo.
Taken together, Joe’s collection of intimate portraits and photo realism present a refreshing illustration of young Brits today. Bright, alluring and mysterious, the-dark-room beautifully captures this hazy and transient time. Reflecting on how it felt to create a portfolio that mirrored his own coming of age, woo sat down with Joe Puxley to discuss how he fell in love with the medium of photography and how he's harnessing its potential for healing.
What drew you to the medium of photography?
Joe Puxley: Inside, I feel like one of those creative people that says they’ve been playing piano since they were like three, but in reality, I probably didn’t take photography seriously until I was in Year 9, in 2015.
Photography makes me excited to be alive. I can keep what I feel and share how I see; that always felt like magic and still does.
How would you describe your photography style?
Joe Puxley: Someone described me as a ‘boho Brighton analogue photographer’ once, which I thought was very funny and not wrong I suppose. I don’t really know how to answer that question; it feels like someone’s asking you to sum yourself up in one sentence. I could probably give you a different answer every day.
I would urge photographers to not be fazed by the question of 'how do you describe your work’. As artists, we are expected to reduce ourselves into a simple line, which is so hard as a young person because we don’t even know who we are yet. Just follow the ideas that resonate with you emotionally, so you can trust that they will always be authentic.
Can you recall your creative inspiration for the-dark-room?
Joe Puxley: I had a mutual break-up last year, and the feelings were just really pure and made me feel very present. I wasn't upset because of guilt, regret, or hatred; as I get older, less of these extreme emotions seem to surface, unlike when you’re a teenager, and I miss them - they're very sobering and grounding sometimes. I used music to access them and wondered if they could be felt differently with images.
I listened to eight songs when curating the gallery, and they’ve kind of guided the selection, [see below]. They all perfectly hold the feeling of optimism and darkness. the-dark-room is an experiment to see if those feelings can be explored with photos in an online gallery, in something just as accessible as Spotify. I’m interested in how we use art to store, access, and explore our emotions, and this idea excited me because imagery has the power to raise the most indescribable feelings, more than any other medium I think.
What did you set out to explore in the photo series?
Joe Puxley: The collection is about making everyday dark, British reality into something fantastical and beautiful and unexplained. Photography has the power to make us see our own lives differently because it’s rooted in the idea that what we can see is real. I did some reflecting on what my favourite images were last year and found that they all have this darkness or sadness, with a moment of hope in them. To me, it's an interesting insight into my life.
I hope this gallery format creates a snowball of narratives and emotions with each image, making this overall complex and beautiful emotional package. I am still naive to concepts like love and self, and I want to see art that contradicts these black and white ideas I have fabricated to try and grasp life. I find this is healing.
Why are you drawn to photographing young people?
Joe Puxley: I discover myself sometimes with photography, and that comes mainly from seeing myself in my subjects and exploring their reactions to me. Being 21 is funny because we’re all understanding different things about life and have so much to learn from each other.
Is there any advice would you give to other young photographers making a start with the art form?
Joe Puxley: Have fun with it and be kind to yourself because it’s hard to experiment and grow otherwise. You can’t experiment when there’s too much pressure, because you’ll end up relying on what you know already works, like work you’ve already created in the past or somebody else’s already ‘successful’ ideas.
Just enjoy photography and make it accessible to others. Only be in competition with yourself. Zoom out, and be purposeful.
You can explore the-dark-room gallery in full here.