Chances are you’ve seen some of Joel Vannfuller’s work. For decades he ran a marketing and design firm in Miami, Florida, and has managed campaigns for clients like Coca-Cola, GE, Toshiba, and Bacardi. Creating stories to sell to the masses—and solving problems in the deadline-centric world of advertising—made him a pretty big deal. Now, in pursuit of a more “honest life” through photography, he kind of still is.
In 2009 Vannfuller bought a camera and set a goal that within seven years he would learn to shoot, make amateur mistakes, have a couple of shows if possible, and at the end have 100 framed photographs ready to put out into the world. Now, in his fifth year of photographic discovery, he’s not entirely convinced he’s arrived.
“I think luck has a lot to do with things,” he says, “and if you sort of put yourself in that state of mind, good things can happen to you.”
Enter the good things: like having enough work to line the halls at Giant, a combination theatre, gallery, wine bar, and coffee shop nestled in a row of office suites on 23rd Street across from Screen Gems Studios. Vannfuller’s current exhibit—comprising photographs from three previous series presented separately in Asheville, NC—is like W Magazine visiting the National Archives. His photos are bold. Almost all of the digital black-and-white images feature a female nude and are rich with historical context, spanning the Late Stone Age to current U.S. politics. Using only natural light and a meticulous self-crop-on-the-spot technique slows his process down, he notes, but leaves a razor-sharp finish.
Following the advice of an old friend, Vannfuller always yields to his models. Bullet-pointing honesty, trustworthiness and vulnerability as elements he thrives in representing, his fondness for nude study makes sense.
“You expose yourself at that point,” he says. “That’s maybe when were all the most honest with ourselves and other people.” Working as a creative team, he relies on the model’s emotions and attachment to personal experiences as much as his camera to develop a photograph’s story.
His first collection, “13 Stories,” is set in Asheville’s derelict Hotel Windsor, a flop-house for transients in the ‘50s. The interior remains vacant apart from pieces of modern furniture brought in for the shoot. Square stains mark where pictures once hung, and paint peels from the walls like onion skins. Fortunately, the unclad models bring movement to the stale location—scaling stairways, traipsing through halls, and posing sinuously across the modern furniture. They embody the inn’s seedy past per Vannfuller’s vision and make the once unsavory quite palatable. Another juicy tid-bit: The hotel guest log was discovered shortly after the show. Excerpts from the catalogue now accompany the photographs, which places the tenant’s sordid affairs on permanent display.
Vannfuller’s second collection is something out of Africa. “Primal Faces Exposed” explores how primitive and contemporary culture shares the same DNA, and ironically the same ad man. Tribal masks are essentially the earliest forms of branding, Vannfuller explains. Each mask has its own means of communicating identity, social position and beliefs to an onlooker.
“Having spent my life in marketing, design and advertising,” he recalls, “I think the same feelings haven’t changed in 30,000 years. It’s an interesting phenomenon.”
After tons of research, Vannfuller was surprised at how well the mask’s history aligned with the models he chose for each picture.
“Political Rhetoric, the awful truth in black and white,” sums up everything Vannfuller felt leading up to the 2012 presidential election. His third collection challenges the view of conservative and liberal minds alike. Each photo is displayed with juxtaposing bureaucratic, religious and rhetorical statements from world figures. It creates a tumultuous, yet riveting view of American politics. The images mirror the same sentiments. In a side-by-side print, a female in a tattered dress proudly displays an Occupy Wall Street poster on the left. On the right, the poster is in a crumpled heap at her feet with the tiniest “fuck” (also the print’s title) scratched into the space where a movement once resided.
Vannfuller’s photos unfold upon a viewer’s look—the same as his evolving craft. His next project, “The Mermaids’ Song,” ultimately brought him to Wilmington and is currently in the works. It plumbs Earth’s ever-changing coastal environment through the scope of the finned mythological creature, netting current issues like dredging, oil spills and seismic testing. A second upcoming show, “Tattooed: Tales From Beneath the Ink,” seeks models that project the essence of their unique markings.
“It’s those kinds of stories that come out over time and that’s what makes all of this special,” Vannfuller says. “If I can begin to tell a story with my work, then I think there may be a place for me.”
Photographs of Joel Vannfuller
Hanging through August 15th
1200 N. 23rd Street, Ste. 207