Joel Strong is a satirical photographer living in New York. By using forced perspective photography to place little cutouts of celebrity heads on top of regular people’s bodies, Strong has created a playful mashup of Humans of New York meets US Weekly. Strong’s work has appeared in publications worldwide, been shown in galleries in the U.S. and Europe, and earned him a substantial social media following. Strong was one of the few original content artists included in Rolling Stone’s recent article of the 100 Best Instagram Accounts to follow. On that list, Strong ranked just behind Madonna but a few spots ahead of Puff Daddy, which he’s probably a little too proud of.
What do you do best?
Take satirical photos.
What makes you the best?
Well, you can’t do something every day for two years and not get a little good at it. A few things are important to doing what I do well even though on the surface it might seem simple: an ironic sensibility, timing, failure, focus, no shame and a nice manicure. What I find funny seems to resonate with other people. It’s not just about simply putting Kanye on any person on any old street. It’s about putting Kanye on the RIGHT person on the RIGHT street. And that takes timing to find the right moment, spin and move the camera and the cutout and snap the picture before the moment passes me by. It also takes patience to wait out the failures. I’ve missed more perfect moments then I’ve captured. Either the cutout is in the wrong spot or the overall picture isn’t up to snuff. My success rate is well below the Mendoza Line—99% of my pictures don’t see the light of day. And I have to keep going even if I got a picture that I think is okay. I try not to post anything that’s just okay. I’m picky. I want it to be great. I don’t want to post bloop singles. I only want to show the world my home runs. Or at least my doubles to the gaps. Another skill is focus—and not necessarily the mental kind. Because I’m asking the camera to focus on blank space between the body, which is far from the camera, and the cutout, which is close, this can be the trickiest part about making a picture look good, especially in lower lighting. And last, I have to ignore the fact that I look like a real dork holding some little Beyonce cutout in the air while I’m standing on a street corner as really cool New Yorkers stroll by. I do NOT look cool doing what I do.
As my work has gained attention, imitators have popped up. Some give credit. Some don’t and that can be frustrating. But either way I take some pride in looking at their work and thinking that it’s not as funny as mine, they’re not as patient as I am, and they haven’t figured out the focus issue. And I think that’s why people hire me: I do it better. And I have the handsomest thumb in the biz.
How will you stay the best?
To keep pushing the format. Adding multiple heads to images adds a layer of complexity. I’ve experimented with stop motion and I hope to explore that more in the near future. There’s some tricks I’ve been working on that are unlike anything I’ve ever seen or shown before. And I’ve been doing more live events now and exploring other platforms like snapchat, which adds more arrows to my artistic quiver, so to speak. Today content is king so I keep pushing the content and building more series, like #mydaywithcomedianstellingjokestorappers or #manondate where I snap different male New Yorkers obviously on a date. This develops my ability to tell stories, to build narratives and to find new stories to tell. Also, having a large platform helps because it gives me the opportunity to collaborate with other talented artists, which pushes my boundaries as well.
Putting pants on. Or moving to New York after 30 and making it artistically. Or buying the best mattress money could buy after my first big @mydaywithleo paycheck. One of those.
What are your aspirations?
Personal: To become friends with Gary Larson and Bill Watterson.
Business: To make a full music video using stop motion. To make a 30 second branded commercial. And I want to write a picture book.
Most challenging moment?
Sleeping on friends’ couches not too long ago. I don’t tell people this, but I gave up a comfortable career in Portland OR to move to NY. And here I was, two years in making art that a ton of people loved every day. Celebrities and big brands followed me and liked my shit. I got invited to cool parties. I’ve done lots of interviews. But for a long time, people weren’t paying me to do it and I was broke, taking the most menial jobs just to make lunch money. And I turned down lots of branded content since I wasn’t comfortable with some of the offers. Waking up every day, looking at my bank account, and exhausting friendly favors was all so humbling, especially considering the salary and comfort I gave up back home. I knew I was on the verge of making this my sole income but… it was very difficult to not just call it a day, move back to Portland and return to my comfortable, former career. There was a lot of depression in there. A lot of second-guessing happens when your mom calls and says she’s worried about you. But I think I’m a better person and artist for having stuck it out and doing my best to put smiles on people’s faces during that whole time.
What fascinates you?
The fact that over a hundred thousand people like what I do. Never ever thought I’d have an audience like that.
“If you ever accidentally drop your keys into a river of molten lava, let ‘em go, because man, they’re gone.” —Jack Handey
Demetri Martin and whoever is the creator of my new favorite TV show.
My inner child.
X-acto knives, dad jeans, and the traditional blue and orange New York Mets hat that I’ve been wearing on my head since I was 8.
Man, I’ve really been enjoying this Mets’ season. I’ve been going to a lot of the games with my brother. It’s probably my favorite season being a fan of any team ever, no matter how it turns out.