from human tetris to dancers suspended in space: a look through rob woodcox's imaginative lens

Apr 01, 2021

it takes a vivid imagination, careful creative execution and community collaboration to realize the powerful and poignant photography of rob woodcox. here, in this dreamlike expanse that blends reality with fantasy, landscape, nature, and intimate human connection, woodcox seeks to tell a meaningful story to each individual that views it. the artist has become widely celebrated for his work with dancers, particularly in the painstaking assembly of their bodies to form elaborate and fantastic scenes. with an emphasis on exclusivity, human rights, environmental change and personal identity, woodcox explores the beauty of humans living in harmony with others, and the world around them. ‘my creative work focuses on exploring the intersections of human and environmental interactions,’ he tells designboom, and ‘discovering how those relationships can be elevated and celebrated to create a more inclusive and sustainable society.’

currently living between mexico and the US, the artist has taken his lens to from pink salt flats to deep blue mountain lakes and the recesses of a burnt orange canyon to capture intimacy, communication, and human connection. each concept is a declaration of his experience, and his passion for photography has developed into a dedication to advocacy — he has produced projects that range in topic from the US foster system and adoption, to racial equality and environmental justice.

in a conversation with designboom, rob woodcox delves into the aspects of his childhood that shaped his creative principles, discusses his work with dancers and how their collaboration enhances the story being told, and shares the fascinations currently feeding into his work.

designboom (DB): what aspects of your background and upbringing have shaped your creative principles and philosophies?

rob woodcox (RW): we are never alone; embracing a communal mindset and practice has launched my creative endeavors higher than I ever imagined they could reach when I began. I was adopted and raised the youngest of five children, so by nature I learned to create space for myself while also absorbing the wisdom and actions of my older siblings. from a young age, I felt comfortable in a room with any kind of person, in fact I generally felt more inclined to talk with people when they were quite different from me. foreign and expensive trips were a luxury, not readily available for a family of seven, so alternatively we took many vacations to nature based locations — camping and hiking instead of lounging at hotels. I’m extremely grateful for the vast amount of time spent connecting to wild spaces as a kid. I think it’s what united my love of human form with landscapes, now very present in my work. from my early fascination of travel and exploring other cultures to my current reality of living abroad, my creative work focuses on exploring the intersections of human and environmental interactions and discovering how those relationships can be elevated and celebrated to create a more inclusive and sustainable society.

DB: what first drew you to photography, and how do you view the evolution of your work since then?

RW: photography began as a fascination of technology and process for me; since childhood, I had disposable cameras in my hand, but I never thought about photography as a craft or art form until my late teen years. it was in my first year of college that I felt drawn to working with a sturdier camera and learning how the settings worked in unison to create an intentional photograph. I began working on 35mm film and developing the negatives and prints myself in the darkroom. as I explored, I started relating my own internally developing imaginations to the process of scenes developing on the chemical soaked papers in the darkroom. I instantly fell in love and went through quite an obsessive phase of creating new work. in the beginning, I had no concept of light, composition or style, I simply had ideas that I felt I needed to get onto paper. the process was catharsis at its finest, and I continued to create with digital SLR cameras, falling in love with the instant gratification allowing me to process my ideas and concepts faster. since the beginning, I attempted to tell stories with my portraits, and eventually they just got bigger, more surreal, and more cohesive technically. when I look back at my first work it almost feels like looking at a different person; perhaps it is.

DB: what draws you to working with dancers, and how does their movement help express your vision?

RW: I appreciate the hard work and training dancers put in over many years to become experts at shaping and moving their bodies. dance is one of the art forms I am most inspired by because it achieves the most innate, human form of expression. when I imagine surreal concepts, they often involve demanding posing and formations from the subjects, and thus dancers become the perfect vessels to collaborate and create the final vision. I work with all bodies and expressions within my art and have thus explored working with various dancers and performers trained in ballet, hip-hop, modern, contemporary, vogue/ballroom, acrobatic, and traditional indigenous dance forms. I love exploring how our visions complement and elevate the storyline being told.

DB: technically speaking, what is the production process like and what relationship do you have with your subjects?

RW: much of my work is personal, so I’m often creating entirely with friends and people from my extended creative communities around the world. when I work on larger or commercial productions, I also hire people from my community, so it feels like a synonymous experience. top priority is that I create safe and supportive environments for all of my co-creators. I conceptualize, produce, direct and edit every piece, bringing in collaborators such as makeup, hair, wardrobe stylists, body painters, installation artists, etc. the most time goes into pre-production — pulling together the cast and location, arranging transportation, and getting equipment/teams to the shoot. I work quickly on set and rely on existing environments or studio arrangements with a crew, so the shoot itself is often the fastest part of the process. at the end of any production, I want everyone involved to feel some level of ownership and pride in the work we created together; in an industry that often focuses on exclusivity, I want to open my creative process to the people that support my work.

DB: you’ve recently had a book come out — how do you characterize the visuals included in ‘bodies of light’? is there a common thread that underpins your work overall?

RW: ‘bodies of light’ is a very exciting moment for me; it encapsulates the first ten years of my work, with photographs venturing as far back as 2012. it is arranged thematically with poetry I wrote to introduce each section. there is a common thread of color, humanity, and imagination throughout the book that greets the viewer into a journey of many characters that seem to come from the same creative universe and narrative. while I can see very clear stylistic shifts in my work over the last decade, my publishing team and I put in over a year of work to arrange a book that flows seamlessly and leaves the viewer in anticipation for more. from pink salt flats to deep blue mountain lakes to the recesses of a burnt orange canyon, the beauty of humans living in harmony with the world around them invites us to consider our own presence on this planet and the nature we all have the power to access and preserve.

DB: what themes do you hope your work provokes discussion about?

RW: I hope that people viewing my work feel validated, hopeful and curious about something outside their own reality. whether that touches on subjects of human rights issues, environmental change or personal care and identity, I hope people feel less alone when discussing these topics. in all of my social media posts and physical showings of my work, I talk about issues currently pressing our society, so for anyone who follows along regularly, I appreciate your contributions to the conversations and am hopeful for change thanks to you. right now I’m the most passionate about discussing the environment and how our involvement must change quickly; black, indigenous and minority issues in the US and globally, often revolving around economic access, education and diversity within those spheres; and LGBTQ+ rights during a time where it is still illegal to exist in 70+ countries and highly stigmatized globally.

DB: what are you currently fascinated by, and how is it feeding into your artistic practice?

RW: I am currently fascinated by love and all of its iterations, whether involving the self, platonic relationships, or romantic ones. I’m fascinated by the boundaries of intimacy, communication and the way that through depriving us of necessary human connection, COVID has potentially opened up a door for deeper contact and affection in all forms of relationships. I’ve been exploring a queer love series amidst various other projects over the last six months and the more genuine, raw settings have been opening me up more and more to pursuing cinema soon. I’ve spent the last few years building bigger and more dramatic sets, and through exploring more closeup/detailed environments recently, I think I’m more prepared to use both skill sets in developing robust moving visuals.

DB: which of your projects have given you the most personal satisfaction?

RW: most of my work involves a personal element, and for that autonomy as an artist I am thankful. some of my earlier series of work confronting my adoption and work in the foster care system, and also my coming out process, give me the most direct personal satisfaction. those two series were foundations of exploring my own identity, which have given me freedom to explore more universal topics that connect us all. I thoroughly enjoy all of my work and the community I am continuously building through the creative process. I think at this point the personal satisfaction in my artistic projects comes from the direct connections I get to make with other people daily and the lifestyle of creation and discussion that consistently progresses change in the world around me. living so immersed in the moment allows me to pay attention to the details, to other peoples perspectives, and to constantly reassess what I know to be true. with that in mind, I get to live through the experiences of others and feel genuinely connected to whatever outcomes we face collectively.