My approach is to take objects from nature and our urban culture and then re-contextualize them on the proscenium stage of the still life

Jo Whaley had earned advnced degrees in Art and Photography from the University of California, Berkeley by 1980.  Whaley originally studied to become a painter and later took a day job as a scenic artist for the San Francisco Opera and other Bay Area theatrical companies. Since the early 1980’s Whaley’s photographs have been exhibited in the United States, Europe and Japan.

Jo Whaley

Jo Whaley. Autoportrait

Bleek Magazine: Does the word “art” have a special meaning for you? What is your definition of art and how did you acquire your understanding of art?

Jo Whaley: Art is artifice. Somewhere along the line, I disregarded the fact that photography can be used to record reality. There is the concept that “Theater is the lie that tells the truth.” By being obvious about the fiction, you can engage the viewer in a suspension of disbelief and present ideas that otherwise would be considered controversial, disturbing or absurd.

Jo Whaley

Photo: Jo Whaley

Bleek Magazine: Why did you choose still life as a creative genre?

Jo Whaley: Traditionally the still life is the most lowly and humble of all the genres. That appeals to me, as well as the fact that I can work quietly in the studio, while listening to music and sipping tea.

Bleek Magazine: In photography, landscape is often considered the study of the relationship between humans and nature, whereas still life is often associated with the relationship and rhythm between inanimate objects. How do you approach still life? How do you go about animating inanimate objects?

Jo Whaley: My approach is to take objects from nature and our urban culture and then re-contextualize them on the proscenium stage of the still life. The arrangement of these discordant elements is done by free association and intuition, with just a vague notion of an idea. By allowing myself to work loosely and subconsciously, ironies appear and new questions are posed—questions about the conflicts inherent in the urban culture and the environment. I see the results as a form of narrative fiction.


Jo Whaley

Photo: Jo Whaley

Bleek Magazine: How did you come up with the idea for the Theater of Insects? Do you remember the first moment of inspiration?

Jo Whaley: In my previous body of work, Natura Morta, I used insects in the still lifes which were composed of fruits, flowers and vegetables.  Their presence alluded to the ephemeral nature of life. One day in my search for a new series, I sat marveling at the ingenious structures and designs of the insects in my collection; really studying them.  I decided to move them center stage and create insect portraits. In the photographs, their size is approximately that of a human head.  The large resulting scale of the insects, reveal their more menacing visual aspects that often coexist with their ornamental beauty.  The scale also implies that man and insect ultimately are equals. Allisnature.

Jo Whaley

Photo: Jo Whaley

Bleek Magazine: Can you tell us a bit about your process of shooting the Theater of Insects? How long did the planning take and did your project change throughout the process of creation?

Jo Whaley: No planning is involved.  I just show up at the studio.  My visual and conceptual ideas evolve, through working physically.

Bleek Magazine: Another artist with a passion for butterflies and mimicry in nature, the Russian-English writer Vladimir Nabokov, once said: “All art is deception and so is nature; all is deception in that good cheat, from the insect that mimics a leaf to the popular enticements of procreation.”Does deception play any role in your Theater of Insects?

Jo Whaley: A perfect quotation and reference! I learned the lessons of mimicry from working with these insects, as well as, from long discussions with the entomologist, Linda Wiener, who wrote one of the essays for my book, “Theater of Insects”.   Deception and mimicry is at the core of this series.   These images are created in my studio, juxtaposing a pinned specimen within a background that I construct, using weathered, man-made materials like rusted metal, mottled glass, and crumpled stained paper. These backgrounds are chosen for the visual poetry written in their deterioration, as well as for their urban references. The insect is chosen, so that it appears to blend with the manufactured environment, as if through mimicry and camouflage.  The images become a mirror for the environmental disruptions we have created.

Jo Whaley

Photo: Jo Whaley

Bleek Magazine: Is there anything, in your opinion, that art can learn from nature and/or science? 

Jo Whaley: Yes, the importance of close observation.

Bleek Magazine: Given that you work with “pinned specimens,”does the notion of cruelty play any role in your artistic practice?

Jo Whaley: No.  They are pinned, but in this state, they will probably last longer than we will.

Bleek Magazine: Do you have any ideas for future projects? Will they be somehow connected with the Theater of Insects or will you be starting in a new direction?

Jo Whaley: Currently I am working on a project involving botanical specimens, chemistry equipment and dubious looking experiments.  Insects are sometimes present in the sets, in their traditional role as pollinators.

Bleek Magazine: What motivates the act of creation for you? Do you ever find yourself discovering a running theme throughout your work? What importance, if any, does the personal play in your art?

Jo Whaley: Art is a preoccupation, not an occupation and curiosity is my motivation. The conceptual thread that runs throughout my work is to question or simply observe the technological, urban advancement of our culture and it’s relationship to the natural environment. This sounds grandiose, but I let this concept color the work rather than try and make didactic statements through the art.

Bleek Magazine: In your artistic statement, you mention that you approach photography as “a theatrical expression.”What is the relationship between photography and theater? Do you still work as a scenic artist, or have you chosen photography as your main medium? Or would you consider your selfamixed-mediaartist? 

Jo Whaley: My process is what I call “the theater of photography,”and I agree with Roland Barthes’assessment when he said, “Photography is a crude form of theater.”Early in my career, I earned a living as a scenic artist, whereas now I am creating theatrical sets for the camera. My studio looks like a scene shop, with painted backdrops, a prop room, lights, gels, and construction tools.  Since I employ many mediums in creating my work, I consider myself simply an artist.

Jo Whaley

Photo: Jo Whaley

Bleek Magazine: Given your interest in the theater, how important is the audience for you? Do you create with an audience in mind or not?

Naturally, I assume an audience.  But when creating the work, I am inside the imagery, as in a waking dream.  The photograph is the by-product of the process, which is then shared.

Bleek Magazine: In your opinion, does society, fashion, trends, or pop-culture influence art in general and you in particular?   

Jo Whaley: We are all in this cultural soup together and I do not want to be exempt from the feast.

Bleek Magazine: How did you discover and develop your artistic style? Is there a connection between your early and present work? 

Jo Whaley: My style is forged from my training.  I studied painting in the art department of UC Berkeley and then painted sets for theaters in the San Francisco bay area.  Artifice and illusion are part of the theatrical tradition, which fuses the imaginary with real. I simply incorporated these practices into photography.

“Theater of Insects” series


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