Joe Gall, aka Camera Jesus, fearlessly captures Detroit in all its gritty, gorgeous glory
By Patrick Dunn
Photography by Joe Gall
Joe Gall spends his days doing freelance commercial photography for international brands like Adidas and Ford, sometimes jetting around the world to do so. But whenever he’s got downtime, he heads into Detroit and gives himself an assignment just for fun.
“There’s always something to photograph in Detroit,” says the 35-year-old, who lives in Royal Oak (but says he’d live in Detroit if not for his 14-year-old son attending school in the suburbs). “It’s a great place to practice and try out different things.”
Gall’s nearly 100,000 Instagram followers know him as “Camera Jesus,” a nickname that references his long, wavy, dirty-blond locks. It was bestowed upon him by regulars at Royal Oak Music Theatre, where he once worked as the house photographer. Gall’s profile — which serves as his professional portfolio — is a testament to the fact that he’s been living his dream for the past 12 years, with a resume that’s pivoted from event photography to commercial projects. (He recently shot a TV pilot for a national show based in Detroit, but a non-disclosure agreement prevents him from sharing details.)
A scan of Gall’s Instagram reveals high-profile shots of skateboarding legend Tony Hawk in Palm Springs, California and supermodel Karlie Kloss in Brooklyn. (There are also breathtaking nature and wildlife shots, from fall foliage in the Upper Peninsula to bats soaring over the skies of Sydney, Australia.)
But Gall, who grew up in Romeo, has also been documenting people, places and events in and around Detroit long before the social-media era. He says he got “hooked” on photography during a family trip to the Grand Canyon when he was 12 and honed his skills by shooting his friends BMX biking and skateboarding. “You have to capture the action in an exact moment,” he says. “To me, that was the fun part of it, to capture that one split second of a BMX trick where the guy is doing it at the peak moment.”
Some of the friends he photographed also had bands, and through them Gall became involved in the Detroit music scene. One of his first jobs was, in his words, serving as “rag photographer” for the now-defunct entertainment magazine Real Detroit Weekly. “It wasn’t something you could make a living at,” he says. “But to me, a music lover and a music-photography lover, it was just really cool to all of a sudden be shooting Madonna or Jay-Z or Eminem.”
At 18, Gall got a job as a video editor for a marketing agency, and he took classes in videography at Specs Howard School of Media Arts in Southfield. But he eventually decided that the traditional path of college and a desk job wasn’t for him. Gall says he disliked the “formalities” and “discipline” of school, and he tired of toiling away in a video editing bay. He never finished school and quit the agency after five years, striking out as a full-time freelance photographer. “I just wanted to go out and create things that were mine,” he says.
His formative experiences in photography turned out to be a selling point for clients like Adidas, who requested he bring the aesthetic of his skate photography to a commercial shoot. Gall ended up photographing runners modeling Adidas shoes from the back of a moving pickup truck, an approach that contrasts starkly with the more traditional approach of shooting static images in a carefully lit studio. “You only need so much equipment to do what I do and get the look,” he says. “It’s not overproduced. It’s more authentic and I think that’s where brands are going these days.”
Gall describes his style as “gritty” and “run-and-gun” — modest descriptors for an approach that his friend Chad Nicefield calls “fearless.” Nicefield, who’s known Gall since they were teens, rattles off a series of over-the-top stories: Gall sneaking into Detroit’s Eastown Theater to take pictures as it was demolished; Gall hanging off the side of a helicopter to get photos of downtown Detroit; Gall continuing to click away in the pit at a Wu-Tang Clan show even after frontman RZA poured a bottle of Champagne over his camera.
“I don’t think there’s a greater visionary or person to capture our other visionaries and creative folks than Joe,” says Nicefield, who’s also hired Gall to shoot events at The Crofoot in Pontiac, where he’s the talent booker. “I just trace it back to that fearlessness and curiosity, when you’re not afraid to learn, when you’re not afraid to take the chances, when you’re not afraid to listen, because that’s what he’s doing, ultimately. He’s listening to the sounds that reverberate in our city.”
Gall’s artistic process is highly spontaneous. He says he prefers to keep his plans loose and “let the universe take over” — an approach he’s especially championed since the COVID-19 lockdown settled over the state. Just before the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order took effect, he set out to photograph Detroit skyscrapers but got sidetracked shooting church steeples for five hours instead. He compiled the photos into a striking surrealistic composite of countless steeples rising as one into the sky.
Gall responded to fan requests to turn the steeple image into a jigsaw puzzle (which he’s now selling through his website) — something he says he probably never would have thought to do if not for the pandemic. Despite the challenges it presents, Gall anticipates the outbreak will prompt “some of the best work yet” from Detroit creatives.
“Going through something as big as this lockdown is going to inspire so much,” he says. “This is your time to explore other things that you might not have had time to do.”