Joel Aron: An Obsession for Perfection & a Passion for Portraits

A self-taught independent photographer and self-educated Visual Effects Supervisor for Lucasfilm, Joel Aron had worked for the iconic company for over two decades when he was unexpectedly called upon to cover what turned out to be the most gut-wrenching and intensely creative assignment of his life — shooting portraits of over 400 Lucasfilm staff who were losing their jobs in a massive downsizing. “Shooting this portrait series of departing friends and associates was really tough even though the end result was extraordinarily fulfilling on a personal level” explains Aron.

Here is the first part of our interview with Aron. It’s the story of a kid who took only one course in photography at summer camp and has transformed into a passionate photographer and Leica fanatic, impelled to take pictures for the best of all possible reasons — he simply can’t do otherwise.

Q: Can you describe the story behind the Lucasfilm portraits?

A: Lucasfilm is one of the best families of hardworking artists and production staff in the industry. It’s been my family for 23 years. When the layoffs were announced at our division at Big Rock Ranch, where we produced two animated TV shows, we were the first to be hit. It was a Tuesday, and we were all told that on Friday, nearly 90 percent of the staff at the studio would be exiting the company. I was staying on. The company did everything possible with job fairs that week and putting the word out to other studios that talented people would be in need of employment. There was no bitterness, but for the rest of the week it felt something like the last week of high school.

It was on that Tuesday we were all walking back from the auditorium after hearing the bad news, and I was with a friend as we passed by my office door. Without even hesitating, I wanted nothing other than to take his portrait. He was totally game. With my camera to my face and looking at him through the viewfinder, I told him that I thought I needed to take everyone’s portrait before Friday. I had no idea what post-processing would be, but at lunch, after shooting a few more portraits of coworkers who were within earshot of my office, I took a stab at some black-and-white curve settings in Lightroom.

I then sent out e-mails to the entire studio at Big Rock, “I want to take you portrait before Friday.” A few people showed up, and I shot for the rest of the day. I did the same on Wednesday, but people were not coming to my office. Instead they were loitering in the halls waiting for Friday to come. That night, I posted to Facebook the selects that I had shot so far with the B&W warm tone. The next morning when I got to work, there was a line at my office door of co-workers wanting to have their portrait shot. The power of social media! For that entire day, I shot portraits in my office. It was the same on Friday, and by the end of the day, I was absolutely gutted. I had spent at least five minutes with nearly everyone at our facility. I had made new friends, and said goodbye to friends I had worked so closely with over the last several years. When I got home that night, I collapsed and cried. The following Monday, I was back at work, but it was not the same. The survivor’s guilt was far greater than I had imagined. I was faced with an empty studio that had been a hive of production activity just a week earlier.

I knew I had a series of images that, for the first time in my photographic career, was the most complete series I’ve ever shot — 165 portraits — but it was not over yet. I got a call a few weeks later that the entire LucasArts division was going to be closed down. This was devastating. I hadn’t even thought of taking their portraits, but that call was to ask me if on the day of their job fair, if I would be interested in shooting portraits as I had done for my own division. This was a far more intense. There were people leaving the company that had been there longer than me, and they just kept coming in. It was just me and my M9-P, a single light and lots of booze. I had just shot another 208 portraits, but that was not the end. Two weeks later, a good portion of the small core group of Lucasfilm was the final round to be laid off. Some friends were leaving that had been with the company for more than 30 years. I was there again to shoot 41 more, a grand total of 414 portraits. I had decided early on that these portraits are not for me, they are for all of us to remember the last time we were all together in the same place. In my entire career as a photographer, I have never felt such passion and drive to put a series together. If this is what it feels like, I can’t wait to do it again, but maybe with not so many of my friends losing their jobs.

Q: Your Lucasfilm images were taken with your Leica M9-P and a 50 mm f/2 Summicron. What made this equipment particularly suitable for this project? Is this your camera of choice for most of your work? What equipment do you generally use?

A: Nearly every hour of my day, I have a Leica around my neck or within two feet from me on my desk, and it’s been that way since I borrowed an M6 in 2005. I ended up buying that same M6 with a 50 mm f/2 Summicron Dual Range two weeks later, and a relationship was born with a way of shooting that I had never planned. Shortly after purchasing the M6, I picked up a 35 mm f/2 Summicron ASPH., and took it all with me as my only companion for a quick European tour of seven countries in two weeks in connection with my work. I shot 47 rolls of film on that trip, and produced some of the most memorable street images I’ve captured to date. My bond with Leica was formed and soon afterward I added an M3 to my tool set. In 2011, I sold my M6 to make the crossover to the digital M9-P as a 45th birthday present to myself, and I then added a new 50 mm f/2 Summicron and a 21 mm Super-Elmar ASPH.

It was when my daughter was born in 2009 that I slowed down in my desire to get my ass kicked and started shooting street photography whenever I was traveling for work and had free time to do so. I began taking portraits of people at work, as well as celebrities that passed through our halls at Lucasfilm and were game to sit for me. This led me to work with more clients outside of my job, and I’m now shooting exclusively with a unique corsetry company in San Francisco, a relationship that’s tempting me toward fashion photography. Up until recently, almost all my portrait work was done with a full-frame DSLR and a few prime lenses, or with a medium-format camera, often with a full studio lighting setup or by bending natural light.

For this Lucasfilm project, it all came together so quickly that I didn’t have my portrait camera gear with me, but I did have my M9-P and my 50 mm Summicron f/2. I had to simply use what I had on hand. I never thought that my Leica would be a portrait camera, but it had just become one. I realized after a few of the portraits that I had to stick with what I was using. My faithful M9-P was about to get a serious workout, capturing a total of 414 portraits, spanning the course of a month, and expanding my sessions to other divisions in the company.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: To paraphrase from a Garry Winogrand quote, I often just want to see what something or someone looks like as a photograph. I love when you can feel a composition come together in the viewfinder. I’m somewhat of a perfectionist. It’s because of such madness that photography is my outlet. It’s not that I like to take photos; I actually, and quite literally, need to take photos. To describe my photography, I would say that the images I produce are the product of my obsession of seeing everything as perfectly as possible. Having a Leica with me all the time is the most perfect weapon in my war with being able to remember everything I see.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a way to express yourself?

A: Shortly after returning from Australia where I had been for a year working on the production of the movie “Peter Pan”, I started to take pictures of flowers, incessantly. I began to get abstract, and started printing and selling my work. Then I turned to architecture, and that led me to people. It was not until I started shooting portraits that I made the connection of my personal style. I remember reading a book about Henri Cartier-Bresson in which he described how painting led him to photography, and that enabled him to express more of what he saw. I feel the same way, in that I am a talker, and can sometimes talk for too long about a story. It was that two-week European trip with my M6 that awoke my form of expression. I was able to shoot an image that did the talking for me. Even though the viewer may take away a completely different story, they are still able to extract a story from my images. Having my Leica with me all the time is like having tweezers to help me pluck that one connecting element out of the world as I see it. For this series of Lucasfilm portraits, I honestly don’t think I would have been able to capture the emotions I did if I had used a camera rig as big as my head. My Leica camera hid silently until I took each shot.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught?

A: I’m mostly self-taught. When I was 12, I took an entry-level photography class at a summer camp in Indiana and I fell in love with the smell of stop bath. After camp, I got a Pentax K1000, and I just started shooting. I had no training past that. It was when I met my wife Lisa in 2000 that I was exposed to the art of photography. She had a degree in photography and showed me what inspired her. She handed me a Mary Ellen Mark book, and it was like someone let me taste sugar for the first time. After I returned from Australia in 2003, and had burned out from taking abstract pictures of flowers and buildings in San Francisco for a few years, Lisa busted me looking at used Leica cameras online. She was on the couch reading alongside me, and broke the silence with, “There is no way you are getting a Leica!” then she went back to reading her book. Three months later I sold all of my motorcycles, and got a used M6 with a 50 mm Summicron DR.

Lisa is my biggest critic. She is completely not into photography since getting her degree, but has one of the sharpest eyes (and wit) of anyone I know. She has been the biggest supporter with my photography. She will often drop into my office when I’m working on selects; she’ll rip me apart on the images and tell me what she thinks is working. My biggest influence has been the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and he was somewhat of a perfectionist as well. When I started carrying my Leica everywhere with me, I always tried to do what he did, and make the camera as non-present as possible. I try to imagine everything I see through the viewfinder before I bring the camera to my eye. My only handicap is that I am left eye dominant, so I can’t open my right eye while shooting to take in the surroundings. Over the last five years for my portrait work, my influences have been Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, William Eggleston, the maddening science of Stephen Shore, and every page of the collection of portraits by August Sander. But it’s painters that inspire me even more — Vermeer, Monet, Sargent, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt — and this links together with my photography and my work at Lucasfilm.

Thank you for your time, Joel!

- Leica Internet Team

Connect with Joel through his website or IMDB.