Hi, I'm Joe Owens. I'm a designer and a photographer based in New York City. I've worked with Annie Leibovitz Studio, Milk, Sagmeister & Walsh, &Walsh, Colossal Media, and currently, Wieden + Kennedy.
Good choice, I'll stick to the basics.
I was born just outside of Philadelphia, but moved a lot growing up as my family grew larger and my dad sought different jobs. At some point along the way, we ended up moving to Rochester, NY where I spent the majority of my childhood.
I was always a creative kid and loved making things with my hands— art was always my favorite subject in school. As I grew up I began to spend a lot more time on the computer, and during my freshman year of high school, I took a Media Arts class. It taught me the basics of photoshop, web design, and animation. This is where I really began to recognize and apply my interest in art and design. Photography became a big part of my life around this time as well, and I ended up picking up an internship at Tammy Swales Studio. I was pretty young and inexperienced, but Tammy brought me on and taught me the ins and outs of event photography.
My first two years of college I spent in Utica, NY at the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute, a satellite campus for the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn— where I spent the latter two years. During my sophomore year, I landed a summer internship at Annie Leibovitz Studio, so I moved to Brooklyn early and lived on campus for that summer.
After Annie’s, I went to work at Milk Studios, designing motion graphics for Milk.xyz. During my time there, I also began picking up freelance photo gigs, shooting the parties that they hosted in the Milk Gallery and the Jamroom. This opened my eyes to nightlife photography, which has since become one of my favorite subjects.
During my senior year at Pratt, I received an invitation to intern at Sagmeister & Walsh, and after I did a few trial rounds of freelance work, we put the job on the books to begin immediately after I graduated in May. In the meantime, I had to finish my senior year.
Once I graduated and got settled in with S&W, it was revealed to me that the studio was working on a top secret project that was already in the works to be launched later in the summer— &Walsh, Jessica Walsh’s new creative agency. We worked all summer gearing up for the launch. Once things were in full swing, there was a Studio Administrator role that needed to be filled and I offered to fill it myself. I was glad to have had the opportunity to use the role to explore different avenues from production, to strategy, to studio management. However, as time went on, I missed the design work.
I found a designer job at Colossal Media and jumped on the opportunity. Although my time there was cut short due to Covid-19, I made some spectacular work that I hope to see used by them in the future.
Currently, I’m taking time to figure out what it is I actually want to be doing with my life. That’s been something I’ve never given myself the true honest time it deserves to get worked out. And so far, the fruits of this reflection have paid off— I feel reinvigorated and excited to see where my life takes me in the coming weeks, months, and years, and I’m looking forward to the new opportunities that the next year will bring.
Alright buckle up, this is exceptionally long.
I was born just outside of Philadelphia, PA, joining my older sister and parents in a townhouse they had moved into around when my sister was born. I don’t remember as much about the inside of the house as I do the outside. I have memories of laying at the foot of the hill in our backyard, watching the clouds float by and the birds flutter in and out of sight. Entire works of art would reveal themselves in the leisurely shifting puddles of steam in the sky, parallaxing with the families of birds flying over me much lower. It was like getting a lesson in harmony, watching these objects in the sky dance around each other like players in a ballet— hypnotizing and untouchable, almost divine.
A few years later my brother was born and some time after that, the townhouse grew too small for our family of five. We moved further into the suburbs of PA, to a split level house with a sunroom on the upper floor. While we only lived there for less than a year, I remember the more-than-occasional *thump* of birds flying into the sunroom windows and dropping two stories to the earth beneath. My dad would go outside and dispose of the carcass in our trash bin— a ritual which began to knead the divine world of the birds into the mortal world I was accustomed to. These once effervescent birds instantly became inanimate objects thwarted by this new world that I was living in. I remember wondering why they never learn; why they seem to be unable to comprehend something so rudimentary to me as a window.
Not even a year after we moved in, my dad picked up a new job in Rochester, NY and we moved again. Not long after there was another brother on the way, and Rochester is where we all grew up. We moved a few more times but stayed local. The majority of my education took place there, and it’s where I took my first real art classes.
I spent a lot of time on the computer as a kid. I used to love using Microsoft Powerpoint to build local websites that I would try to get my family to click through. Or, even before that, doodling landscapes and mystical creatures in Microsoft Paint. My favorite colors to use were always the brightest, most saturated ones and I made some of the gaudiest, tackiest, drawings you could possibly imagine.
During my freshman year of high school, I took a Media Arts class which taught me the basics of photoshop, web design, and animation. This is where I really began to recognize my interest in art and design— and also began making more tasteful choices in color. In my free periods I would design posters for school plays, t-shirts for events, and even the yearbook and our daily planners. I was a wealth of free labor and the school ate that shit up, but at least I got to work out all of those new-designer kinks and cliches.
Photography became a big part of my life around this time as well, and I ended up pursuing an internship at Tammy Swales Studio during my junior year. Being in highschool, I was pretty young and inexperienced, but I somehow convinced Tammy to bring me on and teach me the ins and outs of event photography. And she did— I had the time of my life being a pack mule for that first summer, and I learned more than I ever could have expected. The following summer, before I went away to college, I came back and shot alongside Tammy as her second shooter– and we have continued to work together on projects ever since.
My first two years of college I spent in Utica, NY at the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute, a satellite campus for the Pratt Institute. When I visited the main campus in Brooklyn during my senior year of high school I remember falling in love with it. I wanted to be in the city, but I also really value open air and green space, so the grassy campus with towering trees right in the midst of Brooklyn really enchanted me. However, about a week before move-in, the funds got to be a little too much for me, and I switched to the campus in Utica.
At first I was a little disappointed, I won’t lie. It took a long time for me to become acquainted with life in Utica, but once I accepted my fate for the next two years, things began to look up. Not to mention, I ended up having plenty of open air and green space.
The entire school had only 200 students, and that number dropped every semester, so everyone got pretty close while we were there. It was a blessing and a curse as you can imagine— but it made for a homey and tight-knit environment that fostered collaboration and community.
My dorm room was a fourth floor walkup in the attic of an old hotel. The rooms were suite style, but previous to that year, my suite was not intended for student use, so it had some rough bits here and there that gave it some character. For example, the ventilation in the bathroom was basically just a gaping hole in the wall, with a large jet-engine-caliber industrial fan in it. On the outside, there was some chicken wire and blinders to keep the birds out— and if you turned it on in the winter you would get out of the shower and your feet would freeze to the floor. You also couldn’t turn the lights on without turning the fan on, so do the math it sucked either way.
On the plus side, however, I was on the top floor and I could see for miles out my window. The only other building to the West that stood over 2 stories was the Saranac Brewery, and it highlighted the tree line as the sun would set behind it every night. There was a ledge on the roof outside of my window that I could sit on and enjoy the view without too much fear of being scolded (you couldn’t see me from the ground). I would sit out there for hours, falling into a similar trance as I would laying in the grass watching the clouds and birds as a kid.
One of my favorite memories of that rooftop was one night, my friend Claire and I were admiring the setting sun, and in the clouds we spotted the most picturesque beach scene. It was like the sky was a mirror reflecting the full landscape of a beach from miles away. It was incredibly vivid. Of course, when I was typing this I asked Claire to send me the photo we took of it and neither of us could make out the scene anymore.
People used to say Utica has beautiful sunsets due to its history of pollution and heavy industry, but maybe that was just something we told ourselves to make those sunsets seem that much more special in such a meager little city.
My favorite nights were the nights with heavy snow. Utica had incandescent street lamps throughout the entire city, and when it snowed, the orange hue of the lamps would reflect off of the falling snow and everything would glow as if it were hovering above a bed of embers. It was a unique experience because it was actually cold as shit. The snow would muffle the sounds of the city and it was like the world was put on pause. Some nights I would walk about a block off campus to a bus stop that was on a side street. I rarely saw anyone there— I would sit and watch the snow, listening to the cars crunch by, packing down the fresh powder. I was at ease.
In the dorms, my friend Becky lived directly below me, and we could climb up and down the fire escape to get between each others’ rooms. The fire escape for my room however, opened up into my bathroom, and so on many occasions it ended up being easier to just use the inside stairs to avoid any awkward interactions with my roommates. Becky had a car, so we would go on adventures all across Utica, always searching for the best spot to get away from the rush of Utica city life (if you could call it that). I think that helped me maintain some sort of composure during my time there. Being able to get far away from school and just take the day to go explore whatever Utica had to offer helped me gain some admiration for the place.
My sophomore year, Becky and I worked on a project together with the help of a couple of other classmates called Utica Proud. It was part of an AIGA competition where the premise was to do some sort of “design for good.” I can’t remember the full details of the brief, but we ended up working with the City of Utica on a campaign to improve the city’s public image, and boost hometown pride. Unfortunately, the City of Utica’s mayor was “a bit of a designer himself” and derailed the project enough that we ended up having to kill the partnership. In the end however, we won the competition and were awarded the 2017 AIGA Emerging Designers Award.
I received a couple of other awards that year, one being a Communication Arts Award of Excellence, and the other being the PrattMWP Graphic Design Honors Award— designated to the top graphic design student in the class. My work was also featured on Packaging of the World and GDUSA, and I received the best in show nomination for a large scale screen print I had entered into a show at The Other Side gallery.
My time in Utica taught me that beauty has nothing to do with appearance, and everything to do with experience. I learned to appreciate that place for what it has to offer, and I still find myself wanting to go back and feel that same sense of stillness that those streets brought with them.
I left Utica when I finished my sophomore year and moved to the Brooklyn campus. I had landed an internship at Annie Leibovitz Studio for the summer, so I had a matter of days to get moved out from Utica and settled into New York City. During the summer months, the campus was quiet and I spent most of my free time alone, exploring the city and adjusting to a much faster paced world.
Working with Annie's studio was an entirely new ballgame. My previous photo experience set me up with the groundwork to be able to find my bearings on set, but the caliber of the work we were doing at Annie’s was tenfold and everything put me in a state of awe. We worked at locations all over New York City. From Bushwick lofts with Cindy Crawford, Joan Smalls, Imaan Hammam, Kendall, and Gigi (along with a dozen other supermodels), to working with Joan Didion in her Manhattan apartment. We shot Chelsea Manning in Coney Island, and we shot Jennifer Lawrence on a tugboat under the Statue of Liberty in the Hudson river.
When the summer ended, my time with Annie’s studio also came to an end. I was sad to leave, but I had another internship lined up at Milk Studios, where I would be designing motion graphics for social media to accompany blog posts on Milk.xyz, Milk’s (now defunct) online editorial platform. During my time there, I began picking up freelance photo gigs, shooting for the parties and events that they hosted in the Milk Gallery and the Jamroom— Milk’s (literal) underground, anything-goes space. These really opened my eyes to an entire new world of photography that my event photography knowledge lent itself to beautifully— nightlife has since become one of my favorite subjects.
The summer before my senior year at Pratt, I returned to Rochester to give myself a bit of a break. I had been pushing myself incredibly hard over the previous few years to keep gaining experience, so I felt I needed to take some time off. I ended up teaching an event photography workshop that summer, and working at a Sherwin Williams paint store— a job which I had prior to going away to college. It somehow grounded me in the same way those snowy nights in Utica did. It could have been the hypnotizing nature of the different tints dripping into the glossy white paint, or just a general overarching feeling of stillness. As you can imagine, we didn’t have many overwhelmingly busy days at the paint store.
I went back to school that Fall for my senior year at Pratt. I realized it was about time to start looking for actual post-grad jobs, so I put the pedal to the metal and emailed a bunch of people. Sagmeister & Walsh was one of them. Mind you, up to this point in time, I had sent probably 5 or 6 applications to them already— some being cold emails, some being in response to job postings. I never heard much back aside from the polite “thank you” notes after my follow ups.
They had always been a big inspiration for me, and Stefan’s work at Sagmeister Inc. really inspired me to break out of doing the intensely geometric illustrated work I was doing prior to getting to Brooklyn. I decided to sweeten my most recent application a bit by sending over some cupcakes and a little note. A few weeks passed, maybe even longer— until one night at around 2AM, I got an email from Jessica Walsh. ‘Hey Joe, are you still interested in interning with us?”
After I did a few trial rounds of freelance work, we put the job on the books to begin immediately after I graduated in May. In the meantime, I had to finish my senior year. I worked on four thesis projects that year, and picked up an internship at Chandelier Creative. Never before had I worked anywhere that had such wonderful smelling soap in the bathrooms— they also had matching lotion! My hands were so moisturized all the time because my desk was also coincidentally the lunch table, which coincidentally backed up to the bathrooms (where the soap and lotion was). And when you’re socially awkward like me, and don’t know what to do with your hands, applying lotion is a great way to occupy them. Just make sure the participants see you actually putting the lotion on your hands, otherwise you may just look like you’re scheming. On that note— if you are actually scheming, applying lotion in front of people seems like it would be a good way to hide the fact that you are scheming.
So where were we? I graduated and started working at Sagmeister & Walsh. Once I got settled in, I was taken out for coffee and it was revealed to me that the studio was working on a top secret project that was in the works to be launched later in the summer— &Walsh, Jessica Walsh’s new creative studio. In the ensuing weeks I helped with design, concept development, production, sound design, experiential design, and the list goes on.
Once the new studio was in full swing, there was a Studio Administrator role that needed to be filled, and I offered to fill it myself. It took some convincing, but eventually they let me give it a go. It was much less design work, but it let me explore more avenues in the studio from producing, to strategy, to studio management— all things that had piqued my interest in the past. And I organized the hell out of their closets. I love to organize things!!! However, as time went on, I was glad to have had the opportunity to explore different points of view, but I missed the design work.
Through a connection at the studio, I found a designer job at Colossal Media and jumped on the opportunity. Although my time there was cut short due to Covid-19, I made some spectacular work that I hope to see used by them in the future. If you don’t know, Colossal is a media company that owns wall space on the outside of buildings all around the country. Companies rent these walls from Colossal, they submit designs, and Colossal hand paints the designs on the walls. I was one of the first designers they hired for their new in-house team, with the goal of making Colossal even more of a one-stop-shop for custom painted advertising— allowing clients to hire us to design the murals as well.
Since Covid began, I have been privileged enough to have a quiet space in CT to stay safe and secluded. It seems dark to say, considering all of the horrible shit that has gone down this year, but I needed this time of rest. All throughout 2019 I remember wishing the world could be put on pause, just so I could gather my thoughts. I felt like my body was ten steps in front of my brain and I just couldn’t catch up. And then 2020 happened, and the world sort of did get put on pause. My world at least. I lost my job and I was finally forced to take a break. I spent the entire summer sitting on a porch swing and listening to the trees and the birds. A family of bumble bees built a hive just off the back of the porch and I could sit on the swing and watch them all day. Bumbling in and out of their hole in the ground. Did you know bumble bees live in holes in the ground? I didn’t.
On cloudy days I would go to the beach. I remember one particularly dreary day, not long after losing my job at Colossal, I was perched on the edge of a tall boulder that hugged the Long Island Sound. The water lapped onto a smaller boulder that was resting in the water about two meters below my feet. The surface of the stone was perfectly flat, nearly horizontal, and very dark. Almost black. I couldn’t see any detail in it when the waves pulled inward, but when the waves receded I could see what I’m sure were once jagged and harsh fractures on the face of the stone. However, time and the continual lathering of the brackish water smoothed out those features, and they were now nothing more than soft, rolling ridges not much unlike the waves in the water itself. I sat there wondering how many other people had also sat there over the years, and how different the rock below my feet must have looked to each one of them, as my brain rewound the effects of the erosion.
I looked out into the sound and saw two birds of some sort tranquilly bobbing over the waves in the distance, far beyond the whitecaps, where the water was calm. They sat quietly, but present with one another. “Birds don’t lose their jobs,” I thought to myself, as I watched them slowly drift out of sight.
I thought back to the sunroom in our second home, and to the birds meeting their demise as their glide was cut short by some unforeseeable barrier. At that moment, it finally occurred to me that it was never part of the bird’s experience to dodge the window. They eat, sleep, and care for their young— then they die. Their job in life is to live, and then to die. They don’t assign purpose to themselves like humans do, their purpose is in what comes natural to them. Whether that is floating aimlessly in the cold dark waters of the Long Island Sound, or fluttering joyously in the cloudy blue skies of the Philadelphia suburbs. So, when they find themselves flying full-tilt into a sunroom window, their purpose is to die— and that’s okay because that is what they do. They live, and they die. As long as they were acting to the tune of their own instinct, you can’t argue that their life wasn’t a success, regardless of what ended it.
This put me at ease as I went back to mulling over the recent changes in my life. I, too, had come face to face with a window, and I began to analyze the path I was on. I asked myself if I felt as though I was acting instinctively, to my own nature, but I didn’t have an answer. To be quite honest, I still don’t know the answer. The more I think about it, the more I realize that by seeking an answer, I’m really just dismissing the essence of this entire lesson. I don’t need to define my purpose in order to define my success. My success should be defined by whether or not I’m acting in true faith with my instincts.
Now I see the path ahead of me staying true to the direction it was going, but getting increasingly wider. I’m allowing myself to explore the tributaries of my interests and talents, and I’m not defining my success with those new explorations based on how good I am at it, or how much I enjoy doing it, or how long the interest sticks around. I just ask myself what the purpose is of what I’m doing, and if I have no fucking clue what the purpose is, then I know I’m on the right track.