James Petrozzello is a New York based photographer currently residing in Brooklyn. He is a full time photographer and has shot portraits of Mick Jagger, Bill Clinton, Wane Gretzky, and Shaquille O’Neal, among others. He took a different approach to shooting with the Petzval Lens and tells us of his unique but interesting series of photographs in this interview.
Name: James Petrozzello
Location: New York City
Gear: Petzval Lens
The Petzval Lens creates one of the most distinctive and special bokeh effects that is perfect for portrait photography. Instead of shooting just portraits however, he took an alternate route and used the lens to create an entirely different set of images.
Hi James, tell us more about yourself.
I live in Brooklyn. I shoot freelance work for the New York Yankees—I’m one of their official team photographers. I do portraits and stories about their current and ex-players, as well as some game action photography. I’ve worked for them in that capacity since 2008 which is when I finished transitioning from assisting into shooting. I shoot commercial and editorial work for other clients, most recently I’ve been shooting advertising work for Fila. I also make time for personal projects. Currently I’m working on a long-term project exploring Caribbean Carnivals.
How did you get involved in photography?
I earned a BA in history, and the role of imagery in pop culture and propaganda was a specific interest of mine. My very last semester I took an intro to black-and-white photography course. As soon as my first image revealed itself in the developer I was hooked. I started carrying a 35mm camera everywhere and I was shooting or thinking about shooting all the time. I tried to learn as much as I could about photography by reading books and going to museums. After graduation, when I came back to New York I took full advantage of the museums and galleries here and I spent hours at the Strand looking through the photo books. I was working for a publishing company as a copyeditor and I spent too long lunch breaks and most evenings after work walking Manhattan and shooting in the street. I was really inspired by Gary Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz and that era of street photography. Growing up in New Jersey, New York street life was only experienced at a distance—either through bus windows on school field trips, or on the occasional family trip. I was completely fascinated by all the people scurrying about on the streets. Finally walking those streets with my camera and getting to know the iconic city was really exciting. I was also shooting friends’ bands and the occasional headshot, but I really didn’t know what I was doing. I was considering grad school, but a friend who was assisting encouraged me to try that first, and in an incredibly fortunate bit of luck I landed a full-time job working for one of my heroes, Arnold Newman. Assisting became my formal education where I learned the craft and business of photography. I got the opportunity with the Yankees and things have evolved from there.
What was your first impression of the Petzval Lens?
When I heard about it, I was really excited and curious. I feel very fortunate to have learned photography when I did. I was able to experiment with a lot of beautiful processes and materials that are slowly fading away or becoming extremely difficult to utilize. The creativity offered by all those options in format, lenses, and film went a long way in defining photographers’ individual styles. I still experiment with old equipment—flea market bought barrel lenses are some of my favorites—so I was excited to see what this Petzval might do on my DSLR. When I first got my hands on it, I thought it was beautiful. The brass and the construction are solid. Even the box and the suede pouch are beautifully made. It pays respect to older times when things were made to last. I like that.
Please tell us more about your experience with it, and the series of photos you shot.
I anticipated using it for portraits, but I quickly became interested in using it for landscapes and street photography. It is fantastic for portraits and a lot of people are making stunning images with it. I’m very happy with some of the portraits I’ve made with it, but I’m really more intrigued by what it does for me when the image is out of focus. I shifted away from portraits and I started looking for tones and textures that I thought would photograph well, and I experimented with throwing them out of focus to varying degrees. It feels great to be shooting in such a different way. I’ve been carrying the set up with me to try it in different situations. One of my favorite images in the series is the handball player, I shot that at West Fourth Street where I went to shoot basketball, but I found that the solitary handball player was more interesting to me.
What did you like most about the lens?
The characteristics of the out of focus areas in the images it creates. It’s very unique. Nothing else I use in my digital work has the qualities of this lens. It also slows me down. I like twisting the focus knob. Overall, it feels more like shooting film where I’m conscious of every frame. It is still new to me so there is some surprise to the way the lens renders scenes and that is refreshing.
Where do you usually draw your inspiration from? What inspired you to shoot these photos?
Inspiration comes from all over. Film, art, music, travel, everything and everywhere provided I can keep myself open to it. When I first started shooting, I was just trying to understand what was around me by taking the time to observe my surroundings. There is something very relaxing and educational about slowing down, even a half-step, and looking around with a camera.
Shooting this project the way I did was completely unintended. I went to Prospect Park thinking I would approach strangers and make portraits, but instead I started shooting these out of focus images and thinking they were beautiful. I stuck with that and I’m very happy I did. It’s very different from what I’ve done in the past. There’s less direct contact with the subject and I’m enjoying that. When I’m shooting a portrait or a story on someone, I’m very conscious of them, every detail and nuance of how I’m representing in the images. When I’m working with the Petzval in this way and people are rendered merely as forms, if they are in the scene at all, it is very liberating.
If you could photograph anyone in any place, where and who would it be?
When I first started shooting portraits I imagined my ideal session would be going for a walk with my subject, having a conversation, and stopping intermittently as images presented themselves. A lot of possible answers to this question come to mind, but I’d photograph my father. He passed away some years ago. We would go for a walk on the boardwalk down the shore.
Do you have any advice for current or future users of the Petzval Lens?
Put in the time to do the work to learn how to use the lens, and allow yourself the freedom and confidence to find what is right for you.
What else do you like to do beyond photography?
I surf, but not nearly enough these days. Travel is important to me, but mostly I’m a photographer.