Far from crystallized – Joe Calleja’s photographic Flightscape

By Sarah Beck
Queen's Alumni Review
Volume 81, Number 3: August 19, 2007

Many people – no matter where they went to university – can relate to the challenges of moving. Students move from home to residence, from residence to an apartment, from program to program, or from university to the work force. Joe Calleja, Artsci’91, has drawn on those journeys in his first photography exhibition, “Flightscape”.

The exhibit, which ran April 1 - May 13 at Guitar Girl Studio and Gallery in Toronto, included 14 abstract and ethereal-looking digital prints. The images evoke feelings of movement, fluidity and flight. But they came from something much more concrete: crystal.

The photographs in the collection are extreme close-up shots of carefully lit crystal objects, such as tea lights, that Joe has owned for years. “During and after university, I moved around a lot,” he says. “For five or ten years I had to move every year or two, and these objects came with me. So not only have I had some of these things throughout my moves, dear friends gave them to me as gifts. Really, they mean home to me as much as anything else.”

Joe came up with the idea of photographing the objects while looking around his apartment. “I started looking at them closely, got the camera and started exploring them visually. That’s where it all started.”

But the images soon took on a deeper meaning.

“When I was photographing them I didn’t have a specific goal in mind,” he says. “As I got more into it, I found that I was connecting emotionally with it. Then when I went through the whole process of producing the shots on the paper, other people started reacting in similar ways. One of the gists that I’ve been getting from people is that when they see the works they have an immediate connection with them, kind of like a discovery or a journey.”

For many viewers, making sense of the abstract images is all about discovery. In some shots, people see sunsets. In others, movement. One woman told Joe she felt a healing energy from his work. For Joe, these reactions all tie into the theme of the exhibit, flight. “Flight means a few different things,” says Joe, referring to the exhibit’s title, “Flightscape”. “You want to move away from pain or you want to move toward a goal. It means the act of moving through air or space, the act of escaping, or the act of imagining extraordinary things.”

And that act of imagining extraordinary things is where the success of Joe’s exhibit lies, says freelance art critic Andrea Carson, publisher of www.viewoncanadianart.blogspot.com. “He is taking the commonplace and readily available, and injecting a real sense of grandness, depth and beauty that you wouldn’t normally see. That comes from the photographer’s eye. He is the transformer, and that’s what makes his work interesting,” she says.

The idea of transformation is one Calleja knows well. As well as moving frequently, at Queen’s he transformed himself from scientist to artist. “I originally enrolled in life sciences and then switched to drama. It was really a turning point for me,” he says. But, he notes, all his studies have flowed from one idea to the next, like a journey. His studies in lighting and set design at Queen’s helped shape the sensibilities he brings to his photography, as well as his other endeavours. “After university I was in the publishing industry and quickly got into graphic design, which uses a similar approach but is a different medium from the stage. From graphic design I got into photography. So it all does lead from one to the other.

“For me, any artistic pursuit is always more about the journey than the particular outcome,” he says. “When someone else gets an emotional connection to the images, they may not know what it is, the object itself, but they’re reacting to it at an emotional level. I think that indicates there’s a connection there, whether it’s spiritual or metaphysical. And that’s really what I’m getting at.” ❖