While his style has changed dramatically since his days as an art-school student, Grimes’ view of who he is and what he does has not. He’s an artist, a point he often returns to in workshops, lectures, interviews or casual chats about how he makes his living. By not allowing the tools he uses to define the kind of imagery he creates, his willingness to experiment has never left him.
"And that," he says, "is how you stay relevant in a business where one of the few constants is change."
Grimes likens his early embracing of composites to when he began shooting portraits in the field using portable strobes with a softbox bank in the mid-’80s. "When I first started working with strobes, it was outdoors," he says. "Back then, you would rarely find portraits taken with strobes outdoors, and people would sort of call me out. But I was never trying to hide it in the first place. And then slowly, more and more photographers started using strobes outdoors. The same goes for composites. There was some resistance at first, and now they’re everywhere. I just dove in earlier than most other photographers, and my clients have really responded. If you say, I’m going to dig my heels in and not change my approach, you’ll be left behind."
He’s quick to point out that he’s not into chasing reality; rather, his interest lies in creating a place that straddles an imaginary line between two worlds, one that could be real and the other with a touch of fantasy.
Coloring With Light
Grimes doesn’t see color. For years, his specialty was black-and-white, but that all changed upon converting to digital. His signature look now is a blend of black-and-white and color, a style that was born out of his color-blindness, which is something that he once perceived as a weakness. There are some colors, like green, that he doesn’t see at all. Once he was driving down a road with a friend who pulled over to admire a field full of purple flowers. They "screamed" at him, Grimes recalls, but for the photographer, nothing. As a result, work that involved a lot of subtle color balancing wasn’t his specialty. So out of that came the idea to take color and black-and-white images and blend the two together.
When he’s shooting, Grimes isn’t swayed by color at all. That his style reflects a quality unique to how he captures images is a lesson he tries to impart on young photographers who are just figuring out how to make their mark.
"If you create from your uniqueness, people will take notice. The greatest compliment anyone could ever give me is to see an image in a magazine and say, ‘That’s a Joel Grimes image,’ because then I’m coming through the photograph," he says. "Uniqueness is your greatest single asset because it drives you down a path that no one else has gone down. Color-blindness has driven my uniqueness as an artist."