Jason Fulford is the guy who shot "Gypsy Eyes" for this year's Photo Issue. Saying his images are hypnotic would be an understatement. When he sent us his submission we poured over the photos for days (maybe weeks?). We lost track of time and found ourselves debating layers and themes in his work that he might not have even known were there himself. Needless to say, when it came time to make our final selections, picking the best ones wasn't an easy process.
In addition to being a full-time freelance photographer, Jason also runs a non-profit publishing company called J&L with his pal Leanne Shapton. J&L puts out all kinds of books—everything from photography to short stories to illustrations... even a few short films.
We called Jason up to ask why his images make our brains work so hard.
VICE: From what I understand, you’re pretty hands on as far as design is concerned with everything you do. What’s your background with that? Did you start out as a designer?
Jason Fulford: I got a photography scholarship to Pratt in the early 90s, but I ended up studying design because my parents told me I should study something with job skills.
Have you done much design work outside of your own stuff?
I worked in design for about two years after college until I quit and hit the road. But I’m glad my parents persuaded me to study it because I like being able to come at a medium from a different place. It allows you to bring something else to it—you’re not just perpetuating a train of thought that’s already going in circles within that medium.
Let’s talk about your book, Raising Frogs for $ $ $.
That book was kind of an exercise in editing. Before Frogs, I was experimenting with the ways pictures speak to each other. I was also thinking a lot about books because I was publishing other people's work through J&L. Making books and working with other artists helped reinforce my interest in editing and how editing can shape the meaning of something.
There are many reoccurring themes in your work, but eyes seem to stand out. Why is that?
It’s an organic transition form theme to theme. Toward the end of The Mushroom Collector project, the optical illusions started coming out. It started with an op-ed I did for the New York Times a couple years ago that involved me using an old optical illusion to tell the story. Then illusions started to play a role in the pictures I was taking and wove their way in without me realizing.
Have there been any other subconscious influences on your work?
I took a trip to Greece with my wife two years ago. We went to the Oracle of Delphi, Crete, and the cave where Zeus was born. Reading all of those ancient stories and being in that landscape made me feel like I was charged by the supernatural. The optical illusions started to work themselves in with this other theme.
I want to ask you about the first image in "Gypsy Eyes." I have it set as my screensaver, and it’s caused a few people to almost lose their lunch. What is it?
That is a reproduction of an old optical illusion.
What about the signs in some of the other work you sent me. What's going on with them?
I’ve always taken pictures of signs, but I’ve never been able to use them. They’re too direct. Like in a portrait, your eyes go straight to the eyes. In a picture with words, you go straight for the words. You say that word over and over again, instead of looking at the picture.
I have a lot of pictures of signs in my archive. I threw a couple of them into this mix and they started to tell a story, so I began looking for more images involving signs. They all kind of pick up on the same theme and, in a way, guide you through the visual sequence.
What are you working on now?
We have a new book of short stories by Adam Gilders out on J&L. He was a good friend of ours who died from a brain tumor in 2007. We found almost 300 unpublished stories on his computer, and over the last four years we edited them down with some friends of his. We had release parties in Ottawa and Toronto for that book, then I had to teach a workshop in Rochester, and I’m heading to Korea on Saturday.
You travel to Seoul frequently?
I go there about twice a year. We print a lot of our books there.
Why is it important to visit the presses? What are you looking for when you go there?
There are many reasons. One is that I love watching the process—the smells and the machines. Also, I think when you’re there, the printer and the pressmen pay closer attention to the print quality. We often make last minute changes or we find a material at the printer that we hadn’t thought of and switch it out. It’s the last chance to customize our books a little more.