Photographer Joel Strong Can Turn Anybody Into Any Celebrity In 2 Minutes
If you saw Joel Strong on the street while he was working, you might think he was crazy. Between his outstretched arm dangling a tiny, cut-out of a famous person’s head into space and the look of intense concentration on his face as he lines up the perfect shot, you’d never guess that photo he was taking was about to get 2,000 likes. However, take one look at his Instagram account, My Day With Leo and suddenly Joel Strong will look like a genius.
The self-described satirical photographer (he hates the term Instagram artist) has made a name for himself by cutting out pictures of celebrity heads and putting them where they don’t belong: namely, on the bodies of regular people doing regular things. As far as Strong is concerned, the greater the juxtapositoin the better. As he explained to me, “Putting Cara Delevingne on like some guy wearing a smock outside some shop in Chinatown, to me that’s way better to think of her there as opposed to getting somebody in the West Village or Chelsea that’s dressed really nice, you know because Cara Delevingne is probably two blocks away dressed really nice, for all I know.”
When I caught up with Strong, I found him on the cusp of having one of those moments when you allow yourself to believe that you’re really making it. At that very moment, 150 copies of one of his photos (pictured below) was being printed for an upcoming Art Book Fair. It was a first for him. Despite all of his followers (160K) and pictures (447), this was his first flirtation with the IRL art scene. Naturally, there were a lot of questions on his mind: should he sign the prints in gel pen or pencil, what would happen if he messed up the numbering, would anybody buy them…but for now, we start with the most important one: should we go with hot or iced coffee? Caffeine in hand, we sat down and talked about Portland, the flawlessness of Beyonce’s face, and how it feels to be the best in the world at what you do.
Like photography’s not a background of mine. But I…but you can’t help but do something every day for like a year and a half and you’re gonna get a little better at it.
What was the best part about going up in Portland?
JS: Um, well, I’d say the best part about Portland is it’s an easy place to be a little weird, or quirky, and a lot of that stuff’s really embraced – like odd hobbies or interests are completely normal and par for the course. There’s a total leisure lifestyle about that city, where people like, work three days a week and then finger paint on the weekends and like sell them at little street fairs and stuff, and that’s normal.
What made you want to decide to move to NY?
I was at a point in my life where I was like, I could stay in Portland and I’ve got a career path and I could do something, or sort of like, the last chance to go somewhere and make a splash? So I came to New York just to see if I could…make it big.
And when did you start getting interested in art?
I think as a kid I’ve always had various projects – I’ve drawn a lot, I’ve written a lot. I think it’s taken different paths throughout my life. Like I was an English major with a total emphasis on film, so I’ve always had a visual way of explaining or thinking about things, but I never…I mean I took it seriously, but it was never anything I thought I’d get paid for, or people would be interested in what I was doing on a large scale. I never took pictures seriously until I started this. Like photography’s not a background of mine. But I…but you can’t help but do something every day for like a year and a half and you’re gonna get a little better at it.
I felt like a band who’d had a successful first album that was like, “fsfgjdlksjfe” trying to figure out what their second sound sounds like without alienating your fan base too much
Where did the idea to start making cutouts and manually placing them over people’s heads come from?
It started just crudely with a single picture, and then full page pictures of Leo from like 90’s Hunk magazines, and stuff like that. And at some point I started like cutting out and then putting Leo’s heads on people’s bodies and I really liked the effect and it was something I’d never seen before, and yeah, so then it kind of evolved where I was like I really like the idea of putting celebrity heads on strangers bodies, and I realized that that joke had total legs and could go a long ways.
Yeah, because realistically, how long could you really have kept just doing Leo?
My one regret about the project is that I didn’t start doing other people earlier. But last summer I kind of retired Leo, and I’ve only done him twice since then. And for a while there were growing pains with that, where my fanbase was like, “what the hell, we don’t want Kanye.”
I felt like a band who’d had a successful first album that was like, “fsfgjdlksjfe” trying to figure out what their second sound sounds like without alienating your fan base too much, and I think there’s growing paints with that. And at this point, I think my followers now are pretty happy with the look, and a lot of them – when people e-mail me they call me Leo, so I imagine they haven’t looked back and don’t know the origins of the whole project. SO I get that more and more. Like, people just assume it’s my name.
Like My Day With Leo is just our figurative day with you?
Well, that’s kind of cooler, in a way.
Yeah, it’s kind of funny. Half the e-mails come in that way. And I’m like, my names right there above the e-mail address.
There’s an interest I have, or an intrigue I have in whatever every celebrity I use. Like it doesn’t necessarily mean I really like them, but I find them to be an interesting persona.
Who’s your favorite celebrity to “work with”?
Like the cutouts?
There’s an interest I have, or an intrigue I have in whatever every celebrity I use. Like it doesn’t necessarily mean I really like them, but I find them to be an interesting persona. And there’s – to select a single favorite is kind of difficult, like I get a lot of joy out of putting Kanye in just like, any situation because to me it’s just so funny to think of him in everyday situations. But I also just really love doing cutouts of Beyonce because her face is so just like, so flawless and like, when I’m looking for different expressions it’s really fun because she’s –
She makes really big, theatrical faces
Yeah, so cutting her out is kinda nice, because then it’s like I have a printout of ten of her heads and I’m just like, I’m gonna spend an hour cutting out Beyonce’s head, this is great. So there’s just different favorites. Like, I kinda have a crush on this person and I’d like to meet them or with Kanye, where it’s like, in the final product I get the most joy out of like, putting him like, on a water slide or something, you know? So I wonder if he’s ever done a water slide or when the last time he did a water slide was.
Probably a very long time ago. Although you never know, he’s got a daughter now.
And he might have a water slide in his backyard for all we know.
It’s a little easier to approach somebody, and be like ‘Do you want to stand next to this hot girl for a second?’
So what’s your creative process like, for either determining series, or making the heads?
That’s a – that’s a tough question to answer. As far as figuring out the series, I think some of it’s just from reading gossip magazines and looking at People…like I have no idea how I thought to put rappers and comedians together, whether it was maybe listening to Chris Rock talk about his favorite rappers, or what, like I don’t know, but at some point, I thought this would be really funny to put Larry David with Ol’ Dirty Bastard and imagine them sitting around telling jokes. And I liked that idea, so I kind of just ran with it.
As far as like, how I make the cutouts, like it originally started with just old, archival magazines and stuff like that, but more and more those became tough to work with because the paper’s so thin, and the light shines through, and the wind blows, and so they’re difficult to work with. at one point I just started printing them out on like 8 1/2 by 11 so I can get like 10, 11 heads on a single page. And then I just send them to Staples, and I still like doing that. Like I could totally buy a printer, but it’s kind of like the first social part of my job. like when i’m creating something, I show up at the Staples, they know what I do, and they’re laughing about the heads that I have. They’re like, “Oh My God you’re gonna do an Oprah video today.” And I’m like, “Yup, gonna do an Oprah video.” And it’s good feedback because I can tell by their expression how excited they are about what I’m about to go do.
And then going out, more and more I’ve been working with models, just because it’s kind of nice to meet up with somebody and then walk around and you can get like 3 or 4 photos in an afternoon, it’s a little easier to approach somebody, and be like, “Do you want to stand next to this hot girl for a second?”
Is that really how you phrase it?
No. Ummm…I kind of have a little pitch, it’s just like, “I do this thing – I hold celebrity’s heads over people’s bodies and I take pictures of them,” and for the most part people are fine if you approach them in the right situation. But like I hate shooting in Chelsea because everybody’s just “mmmhhhhh” over there – like just a little…I don’t know, I just hate that neighborhood and I’ve had terrible luck getting people to pose.
It’s embarrassing to bring girls back to my room right now, because there’s just so many celebrity heads…and they’re like, ‘Why do you have 52 Beyonce cutouts in your bed right now?’
So when you leave the house, do your heads always come with you?
Sure. Yeah. I almost always leave with, I don’t know, 4 or 5 ready to go, and it’s kind of like a rotation – when I get one, then I leave it back home. But today I was thinking about doing another in like the Oprah on a date series. SO I have Oprah and I’m not sure if it’s gonna be with Nick Cage, or Chris Walken or Steve Buscemi, but I think it’s gonna be one of those.
Wow, what a lucky lady. Those are great options.
I think all three of those guys will end up being in the Oprah on a date series, it’s just a matter of which one we do today. But yeah, so I’ve got all the Oprah heads I did for the video I posted the other day, and I usually have one or two Caras just because she’s fun, and I have a donald trump I’ve kind of been waiting for the right spot and just the right person – but I usually try to only use a head once for a picture, and then it’s retired. and that way, I have to keep finding new cutouts.
But you keep all the old heads, right?
Yeah…bur it’s embarrassing to bring girls back to my room right now, because there’s just so many celebrity heads.
You’re like “I’m not a weirdo, I promise.”
Right? And they’re like, “why do you have 52 Beyonce cutouts in your bed right now?”
Wait, has that actually happened?
Well, yeah, ‘cause i didn’t want to leave them on the floor! That’s not the place for them.
If you’re on Tindr in New York City, you’re probably willing to meet up with people.
How did the My Day With Leo Tindr project come about?
Well, a lot of my friends have been using Tinder, obviously, and I didn’t think it would be easy to meet people using that because the photos on my profile are all from my work, it’s not pictures of me or anything. So when I set it up, I kind of figured that my goal would be to go on 14 dates and make the date a supermodel and like actually the response was really high and I was kind of surprised it was kind of easy to meet people and be like this is what I wanna do, do you wanna meet up for 30 minutes?
And I think the nice thing about Tinder is that people on there are willing to meet up, like if you’re on Tindr in New York City, you’re probably willing to meet up with people and it ended up being a totally positive experience because i think the people that are willing to meet up with you and willing to have their face covered up probably have a sense of humor, and are probably like kinda fun to be around so I made some good friends from it. And it’s a profile I’ve kept up, but less like, I don’t really use it, now i use it more now to post an image of a moment of an image to see what the response is sometimes as a little teaser to see you know, if it’s between two images I’m thinking about using, I’ll post them on back-to-back days to see which one people like more, or respond more to. so it’s like a smaller audience, whereas with Instagram I kind of like that to be final. So yeah, now it’s like a teaser, tester audience for me.
You know I don’t have the benefit of being a like a cute, twenty-something-year-old fashion blogger where it’s like I can just look into the camera and talk and people are happy to see me do that
So what are your plans for the future?
I know, that’s kind of an awful question.
Yeah. Well, first: just ride the wave. I’m hoping to do a full music video and I’ve had some offers, but the budget just hasn’t been what I could, like what i’d need it to be to spend a month or two doing it, which is what I wanna do, but i think it’ll happen at some point. I’ve shown that to a few people and you know, you know some decent acts are interested…but it’s hard to create a video that’s like…like, you know, it’s like when I watch Wes Anderson movies, I know I could walk into a theatre and have no idea it’s a Wes Anderson movie and within like five seconds I’ll know I’m watching a Wes Anderson movie, right? And I think for a director, or any kind of cinematopgraher that’s very difficult to do, and in a weird way, I’ve backended into a visual aesthetic where somebody could watch it and be like, that’s A Day With Leo video.
As far as the photography…I just want to keep putting that content out there for the people that like that. I can see putting it together in a book, a collection…I think there’s a lot of options for it. You know I don’t have the benefit of being a like a cute, twenty-something-year-old fashion blogger where it’s like i can just look into the camera and talk and people are happy to see me do that, so I have to figure out other ways to set up jokes and do things, but the more I do it, the more comfortable I get . So yeah I hope those are all things that happen within the next year or two.
In a weird way it’s like, I’m the best in the world at this and it’s a weird thing to be best at, but there it is. So that’s kind of a cool, weird feeling.
What makes you happiest about the project?
The thing that, you know, the thing that always makes me happy though is when I look at other people trying to do it, like I kind of think they’re doing it poorly because they’re using an iPhone or you know, there’s just focus issues that I’ve kind of figured out…and when people start doing it it’s like, I’ve got a year and half experience of doing it every day on you, and so I usually look at their images and kind of think that mine are better. I don’t know if that’s just me, but I do that and so I feel like it, and it makes me a little happy when I see somebody trying to do it and I don’t think they do it as well.
Well, obviously. Yeah, you always want to be the best at what you do. That’s human nature.
Right. And in a weird way it’s like, I’m the best in the world at this and it’s a weird thing to be best at, but there it is. So that’s kind of a cool, weird feeling. But ultimately at the end of the day just to know there’s people who get a kick out of what I do. Like, the project itself is kind of funny and silly looking, and it’s humorous so I can’t, you know…I’ve got a dark, cynical side, but with this project I can’t be really dark. Like my outlet with this has to be silly and fun, and I like that. I can’t really make it like a black humor thing – like I can juxtapose things, but for the most part it’s just gonna be funny and people are gonna like it and I like that my voice out there’s like that.
All photos belong to Joel Strong, except where otherwise noted.