1. Why did you decide to join Etsy and how long have you been a member? I was looking for a good solution to the problem of conducting monetary transactions online. More than that, though, I saw selling on Etsy as an opportunity to broaden my audience and put my art in front of thousands of people who may not otherwise happen upon my website or wander into a gallery to see my work on display. I opened my Etsy shop a little over three years ago as a convenient storefront for selling my limited edition photos, and other products that have evolved over the last couple of years. Etsy provided a super easy solution to providing shoppers with a safe and secure way of making purchases.
2. Can you give a brief bio? I grew up in Alpine, California, obtained my degree in Computer Science from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and worked for a good long time in high tech developing all kinds of really cool software. I’m completely untrained in the arts. No MFA, no art classes, no photography training. I did, however, grow up around art. Both of my sisters have degrees in art, and my mom was an accomplished painter and art instructor. I currently live in an 84 year old home in La Jolla, California that was once owned by a descendant of President Grant (who frequently makes appearances, in plastic form, in my photos).
3. When did you realize that you were an artist?
Hmmmm… I’ve always made art on one level or another since I was a little kid, whether that was building things with Legos or designing software applications for computers and cell phones as an adult. I suppose I started thinking of myself as an artist about 5 years ago when my photography began to gain recognition and I realized that—from a conceptual standpoint—the images I was creating had a lot in common with the type of art I admire and collected. Over the past 10 to 12 years I’ve built a nice little collection of paintings and drawings from the pop surrealism movement, and I see my work as fitting that same conceptual model, but I use a camera to realize my visions rather than paints or pencils.
4. Is photography your main medium? What other mediums to you experiment in?
Photography is the main medium. I do have a set of paints, brushes, pencils and canvases but I suffer from a bad case of Meticulosis, which is the desire make every single pixel perfect; a curse amongst many engineers. I doubt I would be able to execute the visions I see in my head with a paintbrush. I like photography—especially digital photography—because it allows my creative process to be iterative (as we’ll get to in a couple of more questions).
As an extension of photography I’ve ventured into making short films and videos using a variety of techniques to create the illusion of a photograph “assembling itself” from nothing. So, from that standpoint, film has increasingly become a secondary medium for expressing my artistic vision, and I’ve included video installations in my last couple of gallery exhibitions. The videos are a fun and inventive way to take the viewer into another narrative realm to better understand the three dimensional aspect of my work, and to learn more about the recurring characters you see in my photos. Most recently, I spent two months working on a stop motion animation version of my latest photograph, “Lola and Lexi ditch Biology, and never return to the Eleanor Roosevelt School for Wayward Girls”, which can be seen on my YouTube channel:
Lastly, and again to reinforce the no-it’s-not-Photoshop aspect of my work, I frequently include large, elaborate installations at my gallery shows that allow the viewer to look beyond the frame and see firsthand how my staged dioramas are constructed.
5. What is your inspiration for the work you create?
I’m probably most inspired to tell really good stories and present an image that invites the viewer to wonder what’s going on now, what happened before, and what might happen next. I’m a big fan of film and literature, so I see my art as a way to tell a story. But it’s just one scene in the story, so a lot is left to the imagination of the viewer to dig into what they see and fill in the gaps.
There are all kinds of elements of pop culture that have a heavy influence on my work, and no doubt play some kind of subconscious role in inspiring the images I create in my studio. I love old toys, irony, campy monster movies, really good satire, clever lyrics, overlooked indy bands, and just about any kind of vintage advertising—as long as it features fabulously glamorous girls selling ridiculous products like white wall tires or automatic blenders.
6. What is your creative process? Where do you begin?
All of my work for the past three years has ben created inside of a light tent, so I begin inside a stark white empty void. :)
Actually, I usually start with a broad concept tied to either a record album, a book, or a toy figure that I believe has narrative potential. I’ll then try to develop a visual relationship between that object and other source material to establish the basic composition of the piece. Quite often, this means setting up a few quick objects—maybe a record cover and a couple of figures—for a concept photo. If the concept works, I’ll start constructing a stage inside the light tent using records, books, and alphabet blocks set in front of my background source material (usually a record album cover or book). Onto this stage I’ll place the primary objects that establish the storyline, then begin filling in with other figures and objects as the details of narrative begin to emerge in my mind. Along the way, I’ll start taking reference photos that I can analyze on the computer, checking for compositional feel, character relevance, and positioning of each and every object captured in the frame. I take a lot of notes, then go back into the light tent to swap figures in and out, move things around, and make fine tuning adjustments so that every object is right where I want it. This process can go on for quite some time until I’m finally ready to turn on the heavy duty flood lights and capture the one and only shot.
Except… I don’t snap just one shot! Because I’m shooting very small objects spread across a wide target area from fairly close range and want to achieve deep focus throughout my scene, I usually take the same shot at a variety of aperture settings or pointing the autofocus at a variety of objects, and capture a dozen or so candidate images. In post production I select the single image with the best range of focus, and go about making my image adjustments, brushing out unwanted text, retouching scuffs and tears in the vintage album covers (many over 50 years old!), and generally improving the color, vibrancy and image tone to achieve a particular look.
7. How long does it take from beginning to end to create one of your pieces?
Way back when each photo took anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes. I’m not kidding! This was back in 2004 when I first developed my style of combining record covers and toys into a single three dimensional image. I’d set these up quickly without any thought, snap a picture with my 3 megapixel point’n’shoot, take it down, and move on to the next. When I started editing these first photos I began to realize the visual and narrative potential behind the images, and I realized that I had hit on something very unique.
As my work has evolved and the stories and stagings have become more complex, the time I spend on each piece has grown. Today, I’ll typically spend two to three weeks on the physical side of each photo, developing the composition, building stage set, adjusting the placement of the figures in the frame, and shooting reference photos. Post product usually adds another four to six days, and coming up with a fitting title… THAT can take weeks!
8. Favorites: book, movie, artist, food?
Oh, now this is too hard! But, I’m game…
Book: Job: A Comedy of Justice by Robert Heinlein (which probably explains a lot about my photography)
Movie: For today, it will be North By Northwest, but tomorrow it will be something else, like Dr. Strangelove or Mulholland Drive.
Artist: Mark Ryden
Food: My mom’s stew with homemade dumplings
9. What is your website/blog so people know where to find you?
@johnpurlia on Twitter
And of course you can buy, see, and purchase one of John’s oddly unique and beautiful portraits on Etsy!