The next Artist Interview Project installment features photographer Stephen Olker. The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by an interview summary.
Learn more about the Artist Interview Project course assignment in Dr. Jenkins’ introduction to the series. You can follow the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook, Twitter (@phishedu), and the course’s public website.
Stephen Olker is an up-and-coming photographer who has had a passion for the visual art since he was a child. Olker’s photography ranges from taking wedding and event photography to a more photojournalistic and storytelling style. Striving to take on the perspective of a fly on the wall, he takes captivating images that people all around are able to enjoy. He is doing a fantastic job! Olker’s interest in photography started when he was twelve years old. He could often be found in the dark room processing photos for the school yearbook. His camera was always with him. His Sony camera was small and inspired him to transform his hobby into a career. Our interview introduced me to the importance that artwork has for an individual and how that artwork can affect the lives of others. Three main themes emerged in our interview: beauty, emotions, and experiences.
Beauty can be described as a collection of qualities that come together to create an aesthetically pleasing tone. But what makes a photograph beautiful? For Olker, the answer is capturing an emotion from a unique perspective; this is what makes a photo different and beautiful. He loves to push the limits of his sensor to capture the facial expressions of emotions such as smiling and crying. He strives to make sure his artwork is one of a kind, showcasing a unique eye behind the lens.
Photography also has an emotional aspect for Olker. Emotion is defined as a strong feeling catalyzed by an experience. Emotions drive us. They contain our likes and dislikes, our passions and fears. Emotion is music itself. We wouldn’t have music if we didn’t have emotions. As philosopher Jeanette Bicknell notes, people often have very strong emotional responses to music. Olker captures these responses when photographing live music events.
When asked to describe his experience of a Phish show, Olker said, “different, definitely different.” He doesn’t consider his first Phish concerts to have been life-changing experiences, but in 1998, he walked out of a Phish concert all bubbly and knew that this was exactly where he wanted to be. The Phish scene isn’t just a special place where he can escape reality; Phish tour, for Olker, is a way of life. Olker has arranged his life so that he can experience live music as much as possible. Experiences are the things that you go through in order to create your life and establish your individuality. Without experiences, there would be no living, and there would be no meaning within your life. In Why Music Moves Us, Bicknell writes, “when the experiences differ, they tend to differ in specific respects.” Olker’s photography captures unique experiences; his attention to often unnoticed details distinguishes his artwork.
I very much enjoyed the opportunity to interview Olker. Our conversation helped me understand the connections between beauty, emotions, and experiences in art in new and helpful ways.
[The following is the student’s summary of a telephone interview with the artist.]
I have noticed that you focus on a variety of categories with your photography. Do you have a favorite, or one that you find the most joy in shooting? Which category would that be and why?
Stephen really enjoys taking wedding and event photography due to the fact that it creates a very photojournalistic style and somewhat of a storytelling aspect. He likes to be behind the scenes. He also enjoys doing portraits because he can really capture the activity and interact with his clients. Real estate photography provides variation in his work. His overall favorite is to be a fly on the wall and take the image that he sees in his head.
What makes a photograph beautiful? Do you strive to create beautiful images? Or do you have a different goal?
Stephen’s goal is to capture the emotion from a unique perspective and highlight what makes a photo different. He loves to push the limits of his sensor to capture human emotions like smiling and crying.
How long have you been involved with the Phish community? What provoked your involvement with this group?
Stephen has been involved with the Phish community since about 1997, when he started out as a fan. Since then, he has been to 246 shows. In 2009, he started a podcast where he would talk about the group, and that later led to interviews, media, and press access for various artists and concert series. He has a Masters in Psychology and ended his podcast after that. In 2014, he started photography at concerts. In 2018, he chose to focus all his attention on photograph and make it a full time job. He jumps back and forth between crowd shooting, pit shooting, and behind the stage shooting.
Why are you a photographer? What joy do you receive from taking a photograph?
Stephen started his interested in photography when he was twelve years old. He was always in the dark room processing photos for the school yearbook. His camera was always with him, and his Sony camera was small and inspired him to catapult his hobby into a full time gig. His camera sparked an ability to push technological limits and challenge himself further as a photographer. He continued to push himself year after year in creativity and he loves that fact that different moments are created in different things.
How would you describe the overall experience at a Phish concert? What emotions arise as an outcome from the performance?
His first word to describe a Phish concert was different, definitely different. When he first was seeing Phish concerts, he said that he wouldn’t describe it as a life changing experience, but in 1998, he walked out of a concert all bubbly and knew that this is where he wanted to be. There was a click in his head and created a cemented experience of what made everything so special. He later described that you could escape reality in a Phish scene. He traveled for about to year to be apart of every single tour and concert, and now he feels that this is a way of life for him.
Sharing your art with the world must be a very vulnerable process. What provoked you to want to share your work with the world? Is there a particular piece that exemplifies a deeper meaning than what is perceived?
He definitely feels that sharing his art with the world is quite exposing, but it is also a confident boost for him to keep going. At the Magnaball, he took THE Picture, and he sold a ton of prints. The popularity of this photo also got to the point where people were trying to buy it second hand. That moment, he felt confident to continue and to share his work with the world.
Has the growing age of technology helped or hindered your artistic abilities? Do you think that you would continue with your artwork if you didn’t have the use of technology?
Stephen grew up using analog cameras, they have always been around for him. He uses digital, but vintage is where his heart is. He is constantly buying and selling vintage lens and his favorite is a 1976 Russian portrait lens that he puts on a high resolution camera. The image results are unlike any other picture. No one else can get that same photo, and he loves to see what he can do with his equipment collection. His eye and combination with his work makes him stand out in the photography world.
Who and/or what is your inspiration to take photographs? Do you have an idea in your mind of what you want to achieve before you take your photograph?
His push to achieve a greater shot is what helped him achieve sustainability. He is just finding his groove. He shoots all day for clients right now, and creativity is on the back burner. He believes that there is his creativity aspect and a business aspect, and he is working out the logistics established with each.