When art and design sophomore Jo Anna Edmison decided to pursue photography, it was because of a feeling. When her dad gave her an old hand-me-down film camera from his high school days, she realized she wanted to chase the “sublime feeling of art.”
Edmison found a supportive community within the Cal Poly Art and Design Department — a department she said she feels deserves more attention. For Edmison, Cal Poly created an environment much less competitive than at other art institutions. She learned to develop color film from upperclassmen who discovered a neglected machine in a storage room.
“She reminds me of when I was in college and after,” art and design professor Julie Sample said. “I couldn’t get enough of shooting photos and getting my hands wet in the darkroom.”
To her, film is special because it gives pictures a nostalgic sense. Laughing, Edmison added, “even though it happened just yesterday.”
Moments “stuck in amber” is how Edmison describes photography.
The magic of Edmison’s photos is their ability to make a time and place you are so familiar with look so far away. While it may seem effortless to the observer, this is her very intention. Heavily inspired by the 1970s, her photos transcend time. In each of her photos, she aims to create a feeling of belonging.
Her friends are the main subjects in her photos. Each composition is centered around the person, almost always candid.
“You can’t cast people in a moment,” Edmison said. “They are just going to be there and my job is to capture it in a beautiful way.”
One of Edmison’s most photographed faces is Izze Victor. Victor said she gets more than a photo from the shoots.
“It always gives us an excuse to go out and explore a new place, whether it’s a little alley with perfect light or big, open spaces like the hills around [San Luis Obispo] that always make for a gorgeous photo,” Victor said.
Now, her photos will live on in a book.
Why Are You Never Home
Edmison will release her first book this month. It serves as a yearbook to a group of friends who were never connected by the typical means of high school. Instead, Edmison said, they were united by a love of creating art. The coffee table book is a collection of film photos and doodles — illustrated by Maddy Brooks — and a lasting time capsule for a summer of pop-up photo shows and concerts. It inspired more photos and set the entire community into a cycle of never ending creativity.
“It created a chain reaction in the community,” Edmison said. “People were saying, ‘Look at what they’re doing.’”
Through the book, Edmison hopes to ensure the art created in this time of her friends’ lives does not get lost.
“It’s an attempt to preserve the culture,” she said.
A culture so unique to them, but so accessible to a mainstream audience. Unlike the cheap thrill of posting a photo on Instagram, Edmison said she hopes that by printing a book, these memories are never lost.
The Van Project
Why do people want these old machines?
This is the question that started her Van Project, which is the starting point of what she said will be her second coffee table book. She said she hopes to blur the lines between subculture and mainstream, while providing authenticity to the culture. In photographing people and their vans, the response Edmison has gotten has been surprising.
She noticed how many van owners share this desire to adventure — to not be stuck to one place. Through finding just a few people with vans, Edmison was then able to find a few more, and then a few more, until the project she thought would only last a few months turned into a year.
While she knows how to capture her subjects’ faces, Edmison struggled to find a way to incorporate their voices.
“I want to preserve the way people speak about their experience,” Edmison said.
Unlike Why Are You Never Home, this book will be accompanied by vignettes about the many van owners.
As we walked out of the coffee shop where we were talking, we encountered an old Volkswagen van parked right in front of us. The ease of this discovery appeared to equal the ease with which Edmison takes her photos. Struggling to identify the owner within the crowded coffee shop, Edmison decided to look past the almost comedic gift of coincidence and let that story go untold.
There is much more to come from Edmison, but her goal remains the same.
“Preserve this time, but [evoke] that feeling of nostalgia, even when it’s not nostalgia, even when it was last weekend — the feeling of the good old days,” she said. “But I am making the good old days now.”