Hey, I’m Rob Woodcox

Bodies in suspended animation float mid-air. Each one an expression of jubilee: an arabesque, a grand jeté, an attitude derrière. In every hue, a collection of dancers defy gravity in an aerial ballet, filling space and taking peculiar shapes—in the foreground of a sand dune, scaling the walls of a cathedral, or referencing Leonardo DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man doing barre work before stairs that lead nowhere. These are not merely abstract descriptions of dancers in motion but of images of photographer Rob Woodcox. They are a fantasy. Rob calls his artform realistic surrealism. This is because the images that comprise his dance series are engineered both in the mind and body—and at times aided by nifty software. Photoshop, primarily. 

Tree of Life
Time Travel
Unity
The Mountain
The Tower
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Rob has created a genre all his own of naked and barely clad bodies in flesh-toned outfits that curl, swirl and pile up, typically in stunning landscapes that show harmony in the juxtaposition of the deliberate arrangements of the models in the foreground and the breathtaking, natural scenery in the back. In one image, aptly named The Mountain, bodies are stacked like a pyramid of cards, echoing the surrounding mountain peaks. In another, called The Tower, Rob’s subjects form a sort of human Tetris, balancing on point and in handstands on others’ body parts. Their surrealistic feats exclaim our potential as human beings, our inherent ingenuity and what we can accomplish when we work as a collective.

Rob also does other types of photography, including fashion, that incorporate a depiction of life that is playful, dreamy and queer, using movement and color more as character than adornment. Having recently been ghosted by a date, he created a series of images to depict the disquieting experience. Surrounded by several floral arrangements, he along with another model curled up on his living room floor to create the montage:

“It’s a three-part image,” said Rob. “In the first image, we’re embracing each other, and the flowers are full of life. In the second image, they start to wilt. In the last image, the flowers are all black. The other model is drifting out of the image. It’s kind of simple but you go on a date with someone and then they just disappear, or you have a crush on someone who has become a friend but then the moment they realize it, they go ghost on you; that rotten feeling of like, ’What did I do wrong?’ or ‘Why is this person choosing not to communicate with me during this time?”

He says his creations come to him in visions or patterns and can be triggered by vista or lyric. They often carry a narrative or make a statement, such as displaying racial and human interconnectivity, representing queerness with verve and vivaciousness, or fostering body positivity. These he calls conscious photography.

Miss Fame
Michelle Hebért
Nike x Arena Martinez
Interconectivity Series
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Ghosted 3
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“There’s a photo I created years ago called All in Our Boxes, and it features nude bodies in boxes that are hanging in a forest. I remember that I was sitting in my living room and it was freezing in Michigan. It was probably like -15 degrees, just like inhumane outside, and I would just remember thinking, ‘Wow, all of us are just trapped in our boxes.’ Then my mind started wandering to a broader idea. In general, people really stay in their boxes. They’re told, ‘You should be a lawyer.’ ‘You should go to this school.’ ‘You should marry this person’ and they just follow this checklist of life or society. They always try to stay in the safe box, they don’t take risks. So, I created this photo of everybody and most of their poses are curled up, kind of like fearful in their box, and there’s just one person poking their head out of the box like he’s thinking about leaving that bubble of safety.”

All in Our Boxes

It would have been a shame to have lost Rob’s unique perspective in the canon of photography, as he nearly called it quits. He struggled to make ends meet until he hit his stride the last two years more compelled to be self-employed than to be constrained by somebody else’s vision as an employee. Aided by a few projects that allowed him to travel and gain more exposure, he ultimately published a well-received coffee table book of his works in March of last year called Bodies of Light. The reality of the economic uncertainty of a profession as a photographer is one he thought he overcame much earlier when his adopted parents thought his career decision was too risky, but his love of the craft was unrelenting.

He grew up in the Midwest in what he describes as a “Christian bubble,” where he had no reference points for queer culture, high fashion or the magazine editorial world that have become fodder and a resting place for his art. It was not until he attended Washtenaw Community College for photographic arts that he discovered personal heroes Richard Avedon, Salvador Dali, Annie Leibovitz, René Magritte, Eugenio Recuenco and Tim Walker, whose work helped to inspire his young imagination. 

These days, Rob lives an itinerant life in between New York, Los Angeles and Mexico City, teaching and doing commercial and personal shoots, creating art that is a kind of tethering of dreams, memory and reality, contributing his unique vantage point to a legacy of artists with killer instincts and a discerning eye more acute than a camera lens.

We wanted to get into Rob’s head to learn about his upbringing, understand how he comes up with his imaginative creations and see how he’s been weathering the pandemic.

What is your earliest memory?

My earliest memory is actually from preschool. I must have been three or four years old and my parents would take me to this sort of daycare school situation. There was this giant castle playground, but it was inside a church. It was really cool for me as a kid. Who knows? Maybe my initial fascination with fantasy and things like that was growing up playing in a castle. I just remembered how weird that a church had this castle inside for kids to play on. It probably stands out too because I think most people can’t remember being three or four years old once they’re older. 

You’ve been public about being an adopted child. Can you talk a bit about being adopted and growing up? 

I feel very fortunate that I was adopted within my family. When I was six weeks old, the cousin of my birth mom, adopted me and basically rescued me from a pretty unfortunate situation. My birth mom struggled a lot with mental illness, had bipolar [disorder] and schizophrenia, and just wasn’t able to raise me. I was lucky, first of all to have been taken care of by my family because a lot of kids in foster care don’t get that. They end up in more abusive or in alienated situations. My family was very honest with me from the beginning. They told me my history; they didn’t try to hide that I was adopted. They told me about my mom. I even got to meet her a few times when I was a kid. Unfortunately, she lives in institutions, so I haven’t seen her in years, but I just always remember feeling so fortunate. 

A really funny story: I was in second grade and the class bully came to my lunch table and he had found out that I was adopted, and he goes, ‘Hey, man, I feel really sorry for you. I heard that you were adopted.’ I looked at him and I was like, ‘Well, actually I feel sorry for you because my parents got to choose me, and your parents were stuck with you.’ I was so proud of being adopted because my parents really gave me that gift of knowing that they chose me and loved me.

What were your childhood dreams?

I went through phases of wanting to be different things: I wanted to be an urban planner, a pilot, a park ranger, a world traveler. It’s crazy because I’ve made that dream come true. I’m only 30 and I’ve been to so many places. I swear, when I was a kid, I literally drew maps for fun. I would study maps and study different regions of the world as a pastime. It’s funny that I live in Mexico City because in the second or third grade, we had a project to research an Indigenous culture and I chose the Aztec people of Mexico. I literally built a 3D version of Tenochtitlan, which was the capital city of the Aztecs that became Mexico City. Now, I’m living here, and I’ve been to the part of the city where there are still canals and you can take boats and stuff. It used to be like Venice – in the middle of a lake – the Aztec city. Most of the lake is gone now. I think what’s cool about photography is that it sort of combines a lot of my different interests: I get to be a location scout, I get to be a set designer, I get to talk about fashion, most importantly, I get to interact with people.

How did you get your start in taking photographs?

When I was a kid my mom would send me to summer camps with a disposable camera. The first time she did that, I literally just took pictures of leaves and plants because I loved nature and she was like, ‘No. Next time you go to camp. You have to take pictures of people. I want to know what you did at camp. I don’t just want to see pictures of plants and stuff.’ She basically would tell me like at least 50% of the pictures have to have people in them. She started giving me these assignments when I was a kid. Ever since then I just liked the idea of taking pictures, but I didn’t take it very seriously. But, coming to the end of high school, it was like, ‘What are you gonna do for your job? Where are you going to go to college?’ All those things were happening, and I was like, I don’t want to do anything typical. I just want to be an artist. That’s all that it kept coming to my mind. I didn’t know why. I just knew that was the only thing that was ever interesting to me was tapping into my imagination and creating stuff. 

My senior year I was on yearbook and I started using a more real camera (a DSLR) instead of a point and shoot. Something in me was like, “You need to do photography. You just need to try it. You need to go to school, learn everything you can,’ and I told my parents, and they were like, ‘No, you’re never going to make money. Do a year of basics and then decide what you want to do.’ So, I did that. I went to a local college, did a year of the basic stuff that you have to have for any degree. I didn’t give up. I was like, ‘No I want to do photography.’ Some friends had told me about another local school that had a really good photo program, sponsored by Canon — Washtenaw Community College in Michigan. My parents agreed, finally. It took a year of convincing. I started on film. I spent a year doing 35-millimeter film, developing in the darkroom and I just started falling in love. I’ve never fallen harder for something.

How has your early life influenced your work?

Always being the youngest and always being pushed to embrace my imagination as a kid has definitely influenced my work. That inner child, I’ve tried to never let go of that. I’m still really imaginative. I still go backpacking for inspiration. I spend weeks in nature every year, which was a big thing when I was a kid; we went camping as a family all the time. I think being the youngest and learning from my older brothers and sisters has given me this outlook on life that I should always be listening and watching and learning from other people. In my work I include a lot of diversity. It’s just what’s natural for me – to be always interested in what other people have to say and how they live. I remember when I was in first grade, we had a foreign exchange student from Romania in our class and she could barely speak English. I remember she was the most interesting person to me. I didn’t care about anyone else in the class. I was like, ‘She’s going to be my best friend’ and she was. We became best friends.  We practiced English together when I was like six years old. I just remember that was the most interesting thing to me; someone that was different from me in whatever way. I think all of that has stuck with me, as I’ve become a photographer. I guess you can see it in my photos, I suppose

A theme in some of your work is showing these amazing landscapes, even though the human subjects are in the foreground. What’s the message you are evoking by their juxtaposition?

We are nature—humans. We are an extension of nature and we rely on nature heavily to survive. So, until we start seeing ourselves as part of nature, I don’t think we’re going to take environmental crises seriously. The planet is a whole living organism. In the early nineteen hundreds, we still had about 65 percent of wild spaces left. At this point, we only have 30 percent left. A lot of animals are becoming extinct. The thing is nature will repair herself eventually, but we depend on her. We depend on her for clean air, clean water, for sustainable temperatures to live in. My hope is that people will see my photos and see how beautiful that juxtaposition of humans and nature is and want that for themselves and want that for all of us, so that we can continue to live a symbiotic relationship with the planet. 

Why focus on what we are at risk of losing and not what we’ve done? In other words, why not show our own ugliness?

I think we see our ugliness every day. That’s all we see on the news. I want to give people hope with my art. I want them to see what I experienced when I go into nature, that beautiful relationship. I’ve spoken with kids from the inner city, I’ve spoken with other artists, I’ve spoken with people from all demographics that live in cities, and so many people have grown up in urban environments. I think the majority of humans alive today grow up in urban environments and they don’t even know what’s out there. Being at one with nature; so many people have lost that connection. The thing is, if you live in a city and you’ve never seen a mountain, you’ve never seen a glacier, you’ve never swam in a clean river, you don’t know what is at stake because all you’ve seen is an urban environment. So, I think people see the ugliness every day. We see the mess that we’ve created all the time, and I can talk about that in words and I can write about that in the captions of my photos but the art itself I want to show what is possible. 

There’s a show on Netflix Abstract: The Art of Design. It’s a show about design, architecture and art. There’s a really interesting graphic that talks about how art inspires design, which inspires infrastructure, which inspires science, which inspires art. So, it’s like this cycle, and each part is equally necessary. I think for humans to progress and for us to create solutions to a lot of the problems that we’ve created in the world you need the thinkers and the dreamers that are artists to come up with new concepts of how to solve those problems. 

You’ve described your interest in using dancers as subjects in your work this way: ‘It’s like tasting food from a chef and trying to go back to microwave dinners⁠—there’s no comparison to working with dancers.’ What is it about dancers that moves you so?

I think the first time I worked with a dancer, I vocalized an emotion that I wanted to convey, and they immediately captured that with their movement. In my work, it’s important to work with all bodies, with all types of people, but specifically when I get the privilege to work with dancers, it just moves so smoothly. You can convey what you want, and they’ve trained their whole life to be able to move in specific ways. Working with anyone who’s a specialist at what they do is just a really thrilling experience because you get to witness all of that training and all of that work that they’ve done, and it truly becomes a collaboration. I think when I’m working with someone who hasn’t trained their body to move in specific ways, it’s just a totally different experience. I’m playing much more of a directing role because I have to try to get them into my vision, whereas a dancer, 90 percent of the time I’m just capturing what they’re giving me because they’re already giving me something that tells a story. So, it’s just two different ways of working and I find it really fascinating to work with dancers because of that.

Given that we have been in a global pandemic have you continued to work and how have you been accommodating to keep your subjects safe?

For the first few months of quarantine, it was really important to me that I set an example and take that seriously. So, I only ever worked with one or two subjects at a time, socially-distanced, all of those measures. I did some self-portraits to document how I felt during the time. As a lot of people can probably relate to, as the pandemic progressed, I feel like people started developing their safety bubbles of people, because we’re social creatures—I’m sorry, but even in a pandemic, you cannot be totally isolated all the time. And also, there’s a level of privilege in being able to just stay home 100 percent of the time. For someone that’s an artist, who works freelance, that’s not a privilege that I have. I have to keep working, I have to keep creating to have an income. I started finding safe ways to create, keeping it small, keeping it just the people in my bubble. If I was going to work with people, I would get tested, I would ask them to get tested. In the U.S. it’s a lot more accessible. I actually did produce my first dance set out in the desert in October since quarantine started. It was a little difficult for me. I asked everybody to get tested. Most of the posing was either spaced out or in partners with people who had been together throughout the quarantine. So, even in the new photos, there was never a moment where everybody was on top of each other all at once. I strategically made the photos so that people were spaced out.

A subtle detail in your work is the inclusion of diversity in shades, shape, ethnicities. It seems to be a deliberate choice. Why?

I think as creators, especially visual creators, we hold the power for how society progresses. You can watch countless interviews with young people who were plus size or Black or Latino in the U.S., or queer for that matter, who didn’t see themselves in media. Then you see those first icons that did it: Naomi, Ellen, the people who became an icon for queer people, for plus size bodies for, Black people, and those moments matter. Those changed everything for people. Those told a young person, ‘You have a place in the society, and you belong, and you can achieve your dreams if you want to.’ So, it’s really important to continue that narrative and to make sure that when I’m putting work out there, I’m including everybody because everybody belongs in this world, everybody belongs in my world that I want to create. 

There’s a level of surrealism in your photographs with the suspended animation and hyper real positioning of your human subjects. But it also has a sense of order and symmetry as well. Have you created an entirely different artform, you think?

For about five years I was traveling the world teaching workshops and I would refer to my work as ‘realistic surrealism.’ I had never really heard that term before but I just kind of made it up and was like, ‘This is how I see my work.’ I want people to be able to see something beyond what they see every day. I want to inspire people to think of that next level of possibility. So, on one hand, you have these humans juxtaposed in nature and that connection is beautiful. But also seeing humans create these structures by depending on each other is also a beautiful aspect of the work that is important to me; the importance of how relying on a community or investing in the community can raise your abilities to the next level. If it weren’t for my community, I wouldn’t be here today. 

What’s the overall message you want people to take from your work?

That’s a hard one because there are many messages, I suppose. I think if people can just feel encouraged or inspired to do something when they see my work, that’s success for me. Whatever it is. Something that I’ve also been learning this year is the more we are ourselves, the more we are encouraging other people to be themselves. It’s a symbiotic thing; the more I see people who are just trying to be themself, trying to share reality with who they are and what they want and what they see, the more I’m encouraged to do it and vice versa. I want that to be like a domino effect. So, I just want to put out what I see and how I see it, I guess, and hope that it connects to other people. Whether it helps them, whether it encourages them, whether inspires them, that’s all like a cherry on top. 

What advice would you give to a young queer person who hasn’t yet had their ‘aha moment’ or know how to recognize it?

Get out there and explore. I think getting out there and exploring is really important because you don’t really know. In my experience, I was living in a bubble. I didn’t know about the fashion world, I didn’t know about the queer community, I didn’t know about drag, I didn’t know about other cultures. There’s just so many ways to experience life, and I was sheltered from a lot of that. I think getting out into the world, exploring whether it was through going to a gay club or creating with other queer artist or traveling to another country or even state for that matter or city, all of those things have contributed to opening my eyes to the possibilities of the world. I think just exploring who you are by having new experiences is a really great way to figure it all out. 

What's the best piece of advice you never got?

To trust my gut. I’ve been meditating, taking into account astrology and different belief systems and exploring that. Everything talks about intuition and trusting your intuition and all that stuff. I think that people are taught to fulfill expectations instead of fulfilling what you want to do or what feels good to you. My advice is to always follow your gut, always follow your intuition. We have that power within us. Our minds are really powerful, and we react naturally to the environment around us. If our mind is telling us, ‘No. This is not good for you.’ You should trust that feeling. And when it tells you that it loves something, follow that instinct as well. Follow the things that really drive you because you only get one life and if you end up at 80 years old never having done anything that you loved, it’s a little bit sad. I think it happens and I think it’s never too late to just start investing in what you love no matter what that looks like whether it’s just a hobby, whether it’s your entire job. None of those labels matter, just do things that you love, and I think that it makes life more fulfilling.

If you didn’t have to worry about being successful, what would you do with your life?

I would definitely go to live in a nature preserve. I would probably get involved in some sort of environmental stuff, and I might do that anyways. My dream is to live in a hobbit house in a forest and have a flat in the city where I go occasionally and invite other artists to create in nature. I want to create a whole retreat center where the kids from the city can come learn about different art forms and be trained by different professionals and genres and stuff. That’s a good dream of mine.

Know a Freshfruit of the Week, send us your nominations and reasons why they should be selected to contact [at] freshfruitinc [dot] com with “FFOW Nominee” in the subject line.

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