Joe Arcidiacono: Sonic Vision

By Daniel Jumpertz
Joe Arcidiacono is a cinematographer, photographer and musician from Texas, who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York City.
In Houston, Joe attended the same school as filmmaker Wes Anderson (and on which Anderson based Rushmore).  
While his first love is music, Joe has carved out a career as a cinematographer and photographer, working on movies including When We Were Kings and Velvet Goldmine, on promotions for television shows such as HBO’s Game of Thrones and In Treatment, as well as for large corporate clients. 
Joe released the album The Inland Sea in May 2016.

Q: What were the moments that influenced your interest in music?


A: I have two pivotal things that happened to me in terms of musical development. One of them was going to this school in Newport, Rhode Island, meaning we were within the broadcasting range of Brown Radio, WBRU, and I would argue that WBRU was pivotal for American New Wave development. You can imagine Brown had a bunch of progressive kids and their radio station was playing all kinds of good underground American and not American new wave and punk back in the late 70s and early 80s. That was closely tied to Boston, and the Boston scene was really vibrant at that point too. That was a good way to get your feet wet in good music.

Then when I would go back to Houston in the summertime there was one club — which is hard to imagine, just one place in the whole city of two million people that had anything to do with punk and new wave — and we would go there and hang out with a whole bunch of kids who were much older than us, which was the arty Houston scene.


Q: Was there any advantage to having the entire alternative scene distilled into one physical environment?


A: I think there’s a huge advantage to that. It’s so small that you meet a whole lot of different people. For me at that age and for a lot of people in their late teens, that sense of identity was so important. It’s not going to listen to your music, it’s going to be with your people. Outside of the world that doesn’t really get you. You would go there to have the solidarity and connection. It’s a huge part of my musical development and lots of my peers that were into music.


Q: Was your world view informed by that subculture?


A: Absolutely. A lot of the folks there were part of the Houston arts scene, they worked in the museums and worked in galleries. Part of being part of that scene was going to see a lot of art. And being turned on to Laurie Anderson’s art installation in Houston back in 1980. I’ll never forget seeing / hearing her work. As a young person it was really transformative.


Q: Being in Rhode Island put you in the orbit of the East Coast. What was your early experience of New York City like?


A: I was partly drawn to New York because I wanted to be at the center of the music scene in the US, and that was it then and probably still is now, you could argue. 

But certainly in 1982 it was happening right there. It was really exciting to be a freshman in college and being able to hop on the subway and go downtown to CBGBs and see Mission Of Burma play.


Q: Was there a sense that something was happening? 


A: There was, but there was also some sense that we just missed something in New York. 1982 was a year too late. I think I went to the Mudd Club once before it closed down.

There was Danceteria, Peppermint Lounge, CBGBs, Tramps, Maxwells: those were all opening but they didn’t last for that long. 

1979, ’80, ’81, things were really going off. 1982 was the end of a certain era, but then it was  beginning of a whole new era. That era of the mid-80s underground rock — call it what you want, indie rock, new wave, college rock — was a hugely important and influential yet it gets ignored sometimes.


Q: At what point did you tap into your life’s passion?


A: By the time I was 15 or 16 I was really excited about music and interested in art and photography and film. To be 16 and hear the Jam or the Buzzcocks or the Damned, the Sex Pistols, and that music is brand new, and pushing back against the world. It was hard not to get excited by that.


Q: What are your earliest memories of the visual realm?


A: I remember being 10 or 12 and going on field trips and taking photos and coming home and my mom commenting that I had really good sense of composition, saying: “you have a natural way with the camera.” 

As a kid you think 'okay, whatever.' But probably during my early teens I was taking photos casually. By the time I was in high school my mom had her own darkroom at home, she had a career as a photographer, she was showing in galleries around Houston, and I started using her cameras and her darkroom, and teaching myself how to shoot and print in black and white.

She didn’t teach me anything beyond the basics of how to run a darkroom, she didn’t sit down and give me lessons on composition or light or anything, she just showed me the technical stuff.

I don’t think she is somebody who is capable of articulating what she was doing, creatively. There are some people that can analyze it and break it down and give it back to you, but she could just do it. Which is true to this day.

Being around someone who can take pictures that are good, I think you see the potential and that guides you and moves you along. 


"Playing music is hugely important for me as a cinematographer, because you’re dealing with movement all the time. Whether its the movement of the actors or the camera, or usually all these things at the same time.

Joe on location. 

Collaboration is incredibly important to everything I do.
With music it can be me and one or two other people, on a film set it can be me and 40 other people.
Collaboration is totally fundamental.

Q: Describe your aesthetic in 3 words:


A: emotional, connected, simple


Q: Where do you find your inspiration, what fuels you when you are working?


A: Some of my biggest inspiration, visually, comes with music. Some of my best thinking happens when I’m at a show and listening to great music, my mind will spin off in creative directions and I’ll have ideas about my cinematography and photography triggered by the music. 

Playing music is hugely important for me as a cinematographer, because you’re dealing with movement all the time. Whether its the movement of the actors or the camera, or usually all these things at the same time. You have multiple things moving through a frame all at once and learning how to find rhythm and flow to how you respond with the camera, to the movement of the crane, the dolly, the actor, the car; it is like a musical decision. Every compositional decision is like a musical decision — you’re looking for balance, or some change or shift or transition or static. 


Q: When you have an idea, how do you capture it?


A: Most of the time I remember it. I try to talk to someone about it. If I don’t articulate it, there’s a decent chance it will disappear.


Q: Do you think about the ideas that have vanished?


A: All the time! I think about the ideas that have vanished. To me, being where I am right now in my life, there’s not just ideas that vanish, there’s whole ways of engaging creatively and being present creatively that I have had glimpses of the potential of when I was younger, but I wasn’t really able to tap into it.

It’s one of those late night conversations and you have a sense of what things might be. When I was younger I woke up the next morning and thought 'that was a fantasy land, stoner talk', but now that I am older, having done a lot of yoga and meditation and qigong and ecstatic dance, all those things are teaching me how to be more present and how to engage creatively.

I had glimpses when I was younger, but now that I am older and have done these practices for a number of years, I think I can actually control that and achieve that more often and more effectively than when I was younger.


Q: Do you feel you’ve made your passion into your livelihood?


A: Music is my primary passion. If money was no object, I would do more music than photography or cinematography. But I love them all. I wouldn’t give any of them up for the other. I don’t think I’ll ever stop doing all three of them. Cinematography is the way I make my living, and generally I enjoy the work. Part of my identity is as a cinematographer, its part of how I see myself in the world. I love making music but my ego is somewhat tied to my place as a cinematographer.


Q: How did you build your career as a cinematographer?


A: That’s a long, slow slog and it takes years. For most people in my industry, there’s a long series of steps. Start as a production assistant, you’re driving a van, you’re getting coffee, meet some people, move up a little bit, learn a little more, meet some more people, move up a little bit, bounce around a little bit. 

I didn’t come up in this industry knowing I was going to become a cinematographer, I was wanting to go in that direction but I wasn’t sure. And it’s still a long very competitive road to manage. As a cinematographer, theres a lot of people who want your job, its all freelance and there's not a whole lot of loyalty. You might be busy for a little while but then it can slow down. You constantly have to maintain your career. 


Q: How important is collaboration to you?


A: It’s so incredibly important to everything I do creatively. With music it can be me and one or two other people, on a film set it can be me and 40 other people, but closely collaborating with four or five. It’s huge. It’s hard to describe how important it is. It is totally fundamental.

I don’t do well working by myself for long periods of time. I would probably just go slowly crazy if I was working by myself for a long period of time with no other input.


Q: Do you have any advice for your younger self?


A: There’s definitely things I’d love to say to a teenage version of myself, but I’m not sure my teenage self could hear it very well.

Joe says: "That was my college band, Curving Dog, most likely in early 1986. The first gig we booked was opening up for Husker Du and Soul Asylum at Columbia University. We were picked by the Du out of all the college bands to open. We were not so good but I was beyond excited since they were my favorite band at the moment. We hastily booked another gig before the big show to practice. I think that this might be that gig at the one alternative/arty frat at the school, Sigma Nu."

Joe's album 'The Inland Sea, Vol 1' was released in May 2016.