Commercial

Interview by guest contributor John Davidson.

Jeff Wilson is one of the most respected editorial shooters in Texas. While we could certainly provide further of Jeff’s biographical details here, you’ll be far better served by reading the self-penned bio on Jeff’s website. Not only does visiting Jeff’s website allow you to read a photographer bio that could serve as an exemplar of the form, it also affords you the opportunity to take in the full range of his stunning work.

I spoke with Jeff recently at his elegant, mid-century modern styled home in Central Austin.

Was there an image that you shot, or a particular moment early in your life that made you think: Ah yes, photography – this is what I want to do with my life?
Yes, there’s probably one picture— a picture of my daughter. She was in second grade, and she had a day at school where she could dress up as a character from a book that she liked. She picked a book called Stella Luna and the character is a bat, so we made a bat costume for her. I was in my second year of college, and I had already been into photography, but I think that was the first time where I felt like I did something really beautiful, and thought ‘maybe this is possible.’

That was the first time where I felt like I did something really beautiful, and thought ‘maybe this is possible.’

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What were you studying in college?
Well, actually I have a business major and photography minor, but I was studying photography at the time.

Where were you at college?
At St. Edwards University (in Austin). They have a very good photography program – even better now than it was then. It’s much bigger now, and they made a pretty solid transition from more traditional darkroom work to digital. I don’t think I even had to take a digital class to graduate. It doesn’t feel like that long ago (laughs).

When you graduated from St. Edwards you worked in state government and became a forensics photographer. What kind of forensic work were you doing?
Well there are a couple parts to the job and one of them was photographing the crime scene, and it was statewide. It was for any municipality that didn’t have a crime lab facility, so it was usually not a big city; it was the little cities all over Texas.

That’s a lot of ground to cover…
Whenever I go to little towns to do a photo shoot, I usually remember them.  Typically we would fly up or there were pool cars that we would take. It would be me and a latent prints analyst, someone from trace evidence and a couple DNA people. Other than that, the majority of the day to day was photographing fingerprints on objects  – which were usually bundles of drugs. We would use a 4×5 camera on an enlarger column. All of the items to be photographed would be treated with chemicals, and then you would light it with an argon laser to make the treated fingerprints luminesce, photograph it, process and print it one-to-one. That was a lot of the stuff that I shot – like tire impressions and footwear impressions. I’d make prints for court documents…

When you were leaving college and imagining a career in photography, did you want to do editorial work or advertising?
I was thinking editorial. But when I graduated I needed to make money, and it just wasn’t happening fast enough. I got the job with the legislature directly out of college, and then I was only there as a session photographer. I worked there for about eight months and then I took the other job for six years

Was shooting forensics interesting work?
It was a great job, and I was grateful for it because it paid the bills and I was still photographing. The work was interesting until it wasn’t. If I was going to move ahead with my career, the time was right to move on. A lot of times I’d be working long hours at night, so I’d get time off and I would use that time to shoot jobs. That was when I started shooting editorial.  I started to learn digital imaging there – I taught myself—and it worked pretty well.

And from there you went to work with Dan Winters?
I had known Dan ever since I’d graduated from college. One of my graduation presents to myself was to go to a Santa Fe workshop. There were two names that I recognized on the roster. One was his, and I really identified with his work. We became friends, and he moved to Austin a year or two later. I had known his previous assistants, and around the time I was thinking of leaving the crime lab, his assistant was leaving, so I called him and said ‘Hey, I’m available,’ and he took me on. I learned everything I know about what it means to be a professional photographer from him, and I often think that if it weren’t for that meeting I would be doing something else now. Having a vote of confidence from someone as talented as him was pretty life-changing.

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Was it intimidating when you started working with him?
No. Because I’d known him for a while, I already felt comfortable with him. He’s a very pleasant person from day to day, and he was very patient when I started.  But some of the situations that I got into were intimidating. Within a couple of weeks we were in a studio in New York shooting an album package for a band and it was high pressure. Prior to that I’d only assisted for a couple of local photographers, small editorial shoots. It was a big change in that sense, but luckily he was pretty patient.

Did you feel like you had some pretty decent technical chops going in?
No (laughs). I knew the gear he was working with – he shot 4×5 at the time – and I knew a little bit about lighting, enough to fake it, but I definitely learned on the job. There was a lot of grip equipment that I didn’t have any idea what to do with and had to figure out, and then I tried to ask just the right amount of questions to make sure no-one thought I didn’t have any idea what I was doing.

Your career encompasses the switch from analog to digital technology – did digital involve a marked shift for you, re-learning certain aspects of photography technique, or was it a change that happened organically over a period of time?
No, I wouldn’t call it ‘organic.’  It was definitely tumultuous. I think anyone who doesn’t grow up with it doesn’t understand it intuitively and really has to learn it. When I was in high school, that’s when I picked up photography and learned how to process film and how to print. I worked for the school newspaper and we would print the images and paste them into the layout, and it would go to the local newspaper to be printed. Even in college I learned how to print color and was doing all my own darkroom work, so it was weird to start thinking in terms of doing everything on a computer. Even at first when I was still shooting film, but then scanning the film before doing the work and printing, it was difficult. I still find it odd and I definitely miss shooting film sometimes.

But then in some ways I love shooting digitally, and not just for convenience

But then in some ways I love shooting digitally, and not just for convenience. I’m able to do things I couldn’t otherwise do because I can work much faster – things that wouldn’t have occurred to me before, that I wouldn’t have had time to do. You know, it’s strange, I have a light meter, but I can’t remember the last time I used it! Shooting digitally, it’s so fast to do a test exposure and look at the histogram.

I also love not having to go to a lab. I always hated that experience – though in Holland Photo, we actually still have one really good lab in Austin. I don’t really have a darkroom to work in any more. I just haven’t done it in years.

But I do like that (about digital technology), being able to take the work into my own hands. It’s easier from a workflow perspective that I can come home and edit, and do all the work that I need to do right here, in a timeframe that works for a magazine.

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Has shooting digitally heavily influenced your aesthetic?
Definitely. But I think… well, even before digital technology I always thought that if you shoot 35mm your subjects will respond differently than if you shoot with medium format. It’s all about how the equipment functions with the subject and how they respond to your approach with it.

Do you do all of your own processing?
All of it. I’ve never really been in a situation where I needed to hire a retoucher. I never took an actual class on it, so I just learned to do the things I needed. I’ve never really needed to do something like heavy compositing, and if I needed to I could probably figure it out. Most of what I do is more straightforward. It’s done in camera.

You said that it was a ‘tumultuous transition.’ How did you set about learning what you felt you needed to know?
I got a couple of books, watched a lot of tutorials online. I have a big binder full of notes, probably outdated now, Photoshop 2 or something! When I started working with Dan, that was a big part of the job. He had a retoucher in LA, but that was a hard thing to work with because of deadlines, so I had to really quickly bring that. I knew a bit about it already, but I quickly got to a point where I was doing something I was proud of, bringing something valuable to the table.

Let me ask you about a couple of your larger personal projects. The Texas high-school football stadium book that began as an article in Texas Monthly – did you pitch the publisher, or did they reach out to you?

No, UT Press approached me. They’d seen the piece in Texas Monthly, thought that it might make a good book, but then it faded into the background and it was years later before they called me. I think less than a quarter of the images that were featured in the book were from the original magazine piece so I had a lot more work to do. Luckily I had a pretty big lead-time, something like six months. I put together a game plan and as soon as the time of year that I wanted to shoot in rolled around, I hit the ground running, and I think I produced it in a couple of months.

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How did you go about it logistically? Were you familiar with a lot of these stadiums?
Yes. I had become familiar with them because over the years I’ve been to just about every little town in Texas.  I already knew a lot of them when I pitched the story to Texas Monthly.  When they came to me with the book it didn’t take me long; at least I knew the areas that I was heading. There were eighty-some images in the book, and I think I photographed ninety or so in total.

The cool thing was that the actual shooting was pretty easy. I could look at maps, figure out where the school was, figure out where the stadium sat. I could usually see it in satellite pictures, see which way it was facing, figure out what time of day I’d be shooting and how far each stadium was from the next one. I’d know on any given morning that I could shoot at least two stadiums before losing the light.

I made a lot of back and forth trips, because otherwise the cost would have been prohibitive.

These types of books aren’t exactly money-making exercises, are they?
No, you do it because you want to, and because at the end of the day you have a book and that feels really good. I’m really happy to have had that work published and it was a lot of fun. I don’t get to shoot that way very often. I’d find myself out there really early, at dawn, by myself with just my camera, a tripod, and a cable release. It was a really liberating way to work.

How did your UT Football Game Day essay come about?
Those were shot over the course of all but one of the home games for that season. I’m a big UT fan, and I shot a job, a portrait of Mack Brown for the Alumni magazine. We were at the shoot, and they asked me if I had any ideas for a photo essay and so… honestly, I really just wanted to get on the field! But when I realized I had all this access, I thought it could be really cool. I told them I wanted to shoot with strobe, which you’re not allowed to do down there, and they arranged for me to do that – so I felt that I had unprecedented access, and I ended up going to most of the home games and shooting before the game and all the way through it. The idea behind the essay was that I wasn’t going to shoot any football, but what was going on around it. Any time anything big happened in the game, I was looking in the stands.

Any time anything big happened in the game, I was looking in the stands.

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You had one assistant working with you?
Yeah, especially on something like that where it was a small budget and the project was kind of long. But it was fun to be down there, seeing how the sports photographers work. Meanwhile, I’m walking around with an assistant and all this lighting gear…two guys carrying 70 pounds of gear up and down steps, sweating profusely.

How many assistants do you typically work with?
I don’t have any full-time assistants. I just have a small group of people that I’m comfortable with, and I try to keep it within 2-3 people. I typically only work with one at a time on a job, and sometimes I’ll have a digital tech if there’s a big enough budget. Sometimes, if the money allows, and I know people are going to be carrying heavy Profoto 7B’s and battery packs, then I try to get two. It makes it a lot easier if you’re going to be outdoors and have lots of modifiers blowing in the wind.

Do you consider yourself primarily a portrait photographer?
I would consider myself a portrait photographer just because that’s the overwhelming majority of the work that I do. I think if you’re an editorial photographer you have to be able to do a bit of everything, because if you’re shooting a story you’re more than likely going to shoot more than just a portrait – you’re also going to shoot a landscape, an architectural interior, and a still life. You’re trying to put together the pieces of the story.

I think if you’re an editorial photographer you have to be able to do a bit of everything

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Do you have a guiding philosophy in how you go about photographing people?
I wouldn’t say I have a philosophy. It’s really more a method than a philosophy. I’m hoping the philosophy presents itself in my response to the subject, and not something I’ve determined beforehand. I don’t take a lot of action photos.  I really just try to take pictures of people, and let them do their own thing. I will direct people on where to turn their head, how to stand, give me their eyes in the lens; that kind of thing, without trying to direct it too much. A lot of the time, the people I photograph are normal people who aren’t used to being in front of a camera and a lot of lights and they need a lot of direction to feel comfortable, so I try to spend at least five or ten minutes talking to them before we start shooting. Hopefully I have something, a story about them I’ve researched ahead of time that I can talk to them about. Once they get over their anxiety about being photographed, then you can find the moment you’re looking for. Until then you’re just practicing for it. When I shot film I used to always joke that I might as well throw the fist couple of rolls away because there wasn’t going to be anything worthwhile on them… but you had to shoot those rolls in order to get to that moment that you would know when you saw it.

I really just try to take pictures of people, and let them do their own thing

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We’re always reading statistics about Texas being one of the fastest growing states in the nation, with Austin and Houston just two examples of cities that are perennially listed as having the fastest growing populations. It sometimes seems that of every ten thousand people who move here, two hundred and fifty of them are professional photographers. Have you noticed the effect of that in terms of competition, getting work?
Yes, but I feel it was the same way when I first started. Even then I felt that Austin was a very competitive place to be a photographer, which is what made it a good place to be a photographer because there was work here. For a city this size, there’s a vibrant photography community here. It’s not on the scale of New York or LA, but of anything in between those cities I feel like Austin has a really strong scene both in terms of the volume of work available, and of the talent that’s working here. So yes, it’s competitive, and I get emails from people all the time saying, ‘Hey, I just finished school and I’m moving to Austin…’ and I definitely want to write back to them and say ‘Don’t do it!’(laughs)

What’s the key in such a climate to maintaining – or growing – a sustainable photography business?
Learning how to run the actual business! Most people have a hard time learning how to balance the photography part and the business part. If you’re like me, a one-man band, it can be difficult being on a commercial shoot having a conversation about photographer’s fees and then you have to turn around and talk about the artistic aspect of the shoot.

Even aside from that, it takes a lot of effort for me to be organized. Paperwork piles high really fast, so it’s definitely a learned discipline for me. I can do it now, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. It was tough.

Do you expect to work more on commercial projects in the future?
I think so. I would like to. I think if you want to grow in terms of your business and the money that you make, you have to. The work is really satisfying. Editorial is wonderful because you have a very broad set of parameters, and anything within those parameters is fair game. Commercial work is a little more artisan than artist – you’re working on something that was already decided by other people a long time ago. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just a different experience. I haven’t fully gotten there yet, but it’s definitively something I see myself continuing to do – God willing and the creek don’t rise.


John Davidson is an editorial and commercial photographer (M40 Photography), based in Austin, Texas. John grew up in Manchester, England, and moved to Los Angeles when he was young and reckless. He spent close to a decade living in Brooklyn, NY, where he worked primarily as a freelance writer. He landed in Austin in 2008. John is married, with 1.4 children, at the time of writing. Website*Instagram*Twitter

Dallas’ Matt Hawthorne chatted with us recently about his transition from from skateboarding to photography, uses of Instagram hashtags, lighting for action shoots and maintaining an upbeat environment on set.

Did you go to school for photography? How’d you get started?
I was a Radio, TV and Film major in school and also a sponsored skateboarder. My sponsors were always asking me for images of myself skating for promotional purposes. Eventually, I asked my dad to show me how to use his old Olympus manual 35mm camera. I would set up the composition on a tripod and have a buddy snap the shot when I was in the air. Eventually, this led to adding a fill flash to illuminate shadows on my face. The next thing I knew, I had four canon flashes on radio slaves and was changing my major to photography.

In the end, skateboarding is what got me into shooting action sports.

How did you start doing fitness and sports work?
After finishing school, I started photo assisting Dallas-based fashion shooters and really connected with the studio lighting scenarios. Since I was already shooting with multiple lights for my skateboard photography, that type of lighting made sense to me; working with those guys really helped me push myself with mixing in studio techniques with action photography. In the end, skateboarding is what got me into shooting action sports.

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Who were your mentors?
I worked a lot with Jeff Stephens, who has an incredible eye for lighting subjects. With Jeff, I learned a lot about minor or subtle tweaking with lights to make a huge difference. Some professional shooters, whom I have always admired their work and who have been an influence on me from afar, would be photographers: Grant Brittain, Carlos Serrao, Troyt Coburn, Nadav Kander, and of course legends like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and Chuck Close.

What techniques do you like using when lighting a moving subject?
Lighting a moving subject has more parts than can be talked about here, especially if shooting outdoors. However, I mainly use the same light shaping techniques with slightly different strobe equipment. Strobes with higher flash duration are key. I have incredible photo assistants, and we brainstorm together to push technique and are constantly trying new things. I also really love shooting natural light just as much as with strobes.

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Describe your dream shoot?
Oh wow, dream job?!! Geez, I feel like I’ve already shot some of my dream jobs! One of those jobs was a week long Gatorade production in Florida at the Gatorade Sports and Science Institute. Another dream job was  getting to photograph my all time favorite artist Barry McGee! When I think about dream jobs, the thoughts are really just getting to work with an awesome team, on cool concepts, at cool locations, with great talent. With that in mind, the specific client doesn’t really matter so much to me, just as long as it’s creative and fun! I just feel blessed to be doing what I’m doing!

A stale and quiet set is much more intimidating and stressful, a fun upbeat environment is better for everyone!

What’s one piece of gear you can’t live without (besides the camera of course)?
Well, obviously if you forget anything it can be a huge disaster, but one tool I hate not having is my music. Thats why I now keep a mini speaker in my camera case at all times. There is a larger boom box that stays with the gear and is the main music source, but music is huge on set. It helps calm people down and relax, even if its upbeat and loud. A stale and quiet set is much more intimidating and stressful, a fun upbeat environment is better for everyone!

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What do you like best about using Instagram as a professional photographer?
I’m sure there are some photographers who have landed a job from Instagram, but I have not and dont think I will. I just love having a mobile portfolio of my journey of home and work that is so easy to manage. I also don’t really care about followers, I mainly do it for myself so I can look back at everything I’ve done the past couple years. I started posting on Instagram right around when my son Oliver was born, every post of Oliver has an #OliverWilks (Wilks being his middle name) hashtag, and its so awesome to click on that hashtag and see him grow up from birth to his recent 2nd birthday. Those are aspects of Instagram I love! I also know a lot of creatives like seeing professional photographers personal work, so my Instagram portfolio can fill that need. I have a nice tumblr site that grids all my Instagram images linked from my site and blog.

I started posting on Instagram right around when my son Oliver was born, every post of Oliver has an #OliverWilks hashtag, and its so awesome to click on that hashtag and see him grow up from birth to his recent 2nd birthday.

What’s been a favorite campaign to work on? Why?
LifeTime Fitness has been an incredible client for me, and a huge part of my growth as a fitness / sports shooter. They have an in house agency with some extremely talented creatives who are constantly pushing their brand and me with visuals. We’ve done everything from hanging off rock-walls, to underwater swimmers, to triathletes, to creative fitness. Shooting for LifeTime Fitness for a few years now we’ve done 7 or 8 large production shoots including several Dallas shoots, and shoots in Scottsdale, Miami, Minneapolis, Las Vegas and Chicago. They are an amazing client in that they trust my opinions and really listen and mold their ideas to how I can achieve them best. They are the type of art directors every photographer hopes to get to work with and it has been an amazing experience! They also make my work look good by creating award winning print pieces and designing great ads with the images.

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Why have you chosen Dallas as a your home-base?
Family kept me here initially. Then, after considering a move to LA, I realized the market in Dallas was less saturated and would make it easier to be noticed. There are some really great agencies and brands here in Dallas that I’ve gotten to work with on some really cool campaigns including MockingBird Station, Dallas Opera, and several of last years’ JCPenney catalog covers. I do market myself nationally too and have also landed several large clients out of Dallas that either I travel with, or they come to Dallas. I really don’t think where you live is as important as some people think. If you have a style that a client wants, they will figure out how to make it work.

Summer get away spot?
Anywhere I can spend time with my family!

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O. Rufus Lovett, Part 1: Early Days, Texas Monthly and Beauty in Long Term Projects

This is part 1 of a 2-part interview by guest contributor Matt Valentine. 

When I reach O. Rufus Lovett by phone, I warn that I’ve just had oral surgery and might have difficulty speaking clearly. “I might talk a little funny,” I say, “because I’ve got this mouth full of stitches.”

“Well I talk funny because I’ve lived in East Texas a long time,” he says.

His voice is just one component of Lovett’s disarming southern charm—he speaks slowly but with a quick wit, like the narrator in a Mark Twain story. No doubt that charisma has ingratiated him to the many communities he’s documented throughout Texas and the southern United States, on magazine and newspaper assignments, and for personal projects that have so far produced three books.

Lovett’s photography has been widely published and exhibited, and is in the permanent collections at the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin, the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Birmingham Museum of Art. His documentary work for Texas Monthly has been recognized by the Alfred Eisenstaedt Awards, administered by Columbia University. For more than three decades, Lovett has taught photography at Kilgore College, a two-year school in East Texas. In 2005, the Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation of San Antonio honored his work as a photo educator, naming him a Piper Professor.

What’s the “O” for in O. Rufus Lovett?

My first name is an initial. It’s just O, period. My mother was named Opal. My Dad was also named Opal. They named my older sister Opal when she was born. And then they gave me just the O initial instead of the name Opal.

When did you first start taking photos? Or were you too young to remember?

My high school was actually on a university campus, so we had student teachers and so forth. My dad just worked up the hill, in his office at the university. My mom taught there in the English Department. And so everybody kind of knew everybody—you know, small town, Jacksonville, Alabama. I was approached by the English teacher — who was the sponsor of the newspaper — and another lady who sponsored the yearbook. I was asked if I would like to do photographs for those publications. And I thought — yeah, that’d be cool, you know. They thought they had a perfect “in,” because my dad had a ways and a means of getting the work done, since his photography studio was just up the hill at the university. And so that’s kind of where I began getting serious about photography, because I was doing production work from the get-go, and printing with my dad at the university was a major start and major influence on what I was doing.

Left: Opal Lovett. Right: O. Rufus Lovett, age 16.

You included one of your father’s photographs as a frontispiece in your first book, Weeping Mary, and your own photographs seem to share some of the same mood. Do you think your father’s photography influenced your work in other ways, in other projects?

Yeah, quite a bit. He was a portrait photographer as well, and photographed events, and I would go along with him and assist. I used to carry the old blue flashbulbs along, back when he was shooting a Crown Graphic, and I would collect the spent flashbulbs. Or I would stand on a chair or table somewhere with an auxiliary flash to fill in light. So he taught me at the beginning how to master lighting techniques, as guidelines. I learned a great deal from him in terms of good basic fundamental things.

Also, you know, his work was very applied photographic work. It was meant to sell and send out for Associated Press news releases for the university. But occasionally, he would go out and photograph on his own, and those are the photographs I admire most of his work. But he didn’t do that as often—he was consumed with his work at the university and he loved every bit of it. So that work that he did as an applied photographer was his personal work as well. And so it meant a lot to him, and I did learn so much from those early experiences as a child. And watching him print in the darkroom. I can remember sitting on a stool, just barely able to look over the sink, watching the prints come up in the developer, which was always fascinating as a child.

 Your photographs in Weeping Mary are a very intimate portrayal of an insular community, a tiny town that is almost entirely African American. As a pretty conspicuous outsider, how did you approach that project?

I don’t really start out with a game plan when I’m documenting a group of folks or, in this case, I guess you’d call them subcultures within our culture. In the case of Weeping Mary, it was critical that I visited many times without a camera to get to know the folks before I even got a camera out.

© O Rufus Lovett

It was an interesting situation there, because people want to know “why are you taking our picture?” and often times people in a community of that nature don’t understand the beauty an outsider might see within that community. It’s difficult for anyone who lives there to comprehend that. Not due to ignorance — anyone would feel the same way, like “why would you be photographing me?” There was just a certain beauty there that I wanted to document on many levels.

To introduce myself, I just tried to get to know the folks, being from a small town certainly helped my ability to communicate, get along with the people there. I made great friends there. That was the beginning of that—just getting to know the people. Now, in that situation also, it was kind of unique, because a friend of mine over in Nacogdoches, Texas, which is not far from Weeping Mary, was the editor and publisher of a newspaper, and as a matter of fact, he’s the one who introduced me to Weeping Mary. He mentioned the name of the community, which piqued my interest, and he wanted to do a couple little picture page spreads about the community. So we did one called “Children of Weeping Mary”, and another one, “Christmas at Weeping Mary,” and published that in the newspaper, and then that of course gave me some credibility, because if we’re doing a picture story about the children, or about Christmas at Weeping Mary, you can introduce that as a project, and make a purpose for my being there.

And then I continued for years after that. Continued photographing and visiting, and enjoying that community, and then it developed into the Weeping Mary book.

The photos seem really naturalistic. But some of these were made with a little more sophisticated artificial lighting equipment, right?

It’s always the situation that dictates what you’re going to do about lighting in a photograph. Often times, I would use the existing light of course, and many times a tripod. And other times, depending on the situation, I would use an auxiliary flash, often modified by a small softbox, to soften the quality of the light, but still nice and directional, and marry that light with the ambient light in the environment.

I seem to remember a story about one person you photographed there as a child who wasn’t very happy with that photo as he got older.

There were a couple of cases like that. It might have been the swimmers photograph. Two little boys in their underpants, swimming in a little backyard pool. Later, they were kinda teased at school about that photograph. I mean, it was published in Texas Monthly. The teacher brought it in — not to embarrass them, but to show them that Weeping Mary was published. It kind of embarrassed them a little bit, so as those guys grew a little older, they expressed, uh, a disinterest in that photograph. But nothing ever came of that, other than that they didn’t appreciate it right away, because it kinda embarrassed them when they were in school. I have a feeling they’re fine with it now. They grew up to be rather large football players, and so luckily they didn’t hold it against me too badly.

Your second book, Kilgore Rangerettes, grew out of long photo essay you did for Texas Monthly—an unusually long essay, by contemporary standards. Do you think there are some stories that are really best told with many photographs?

This has a lot to do with the economics often times, you know. Magazines have to support themselves, and they have to make room for advertising, and they have only so much space. It is unusual that so many photographs were used in that particular photo essay. Scott Dadich was the creative designer at that time at Texas Monthly, and I think he did a great job of placing as many photographs as he placed in a relatively small space. I was surprised that they used that many, but using that grid format that they used on some of the pages, he was able to introduce numerous images, which was a good idea I think in this case–to define the project well. There was quite a volume of work over a period of time, a decade or so, I suppose.

© O. Rufus Lovett

But you know, space constraints have a lot to do with that long photo essay occurring in publications these days, which is why it’s so important for a photographer, when he’s out photographing a project, especially for a magazine, to make every picture kind of a stand-alone type of photograph. I teach about this in my photojournalism classes. In a photo essay, each photograph is like a paragraph, and then several paragraphs make up the essay. And so, if each photograph can stand alone as a complete thought, and then when put together with other photographs, makes sense, that allows magazines to complete a photo essay with a brief amount of space. So that’s an important issue and always will be, and yeah, I can remember the old days when Life magazine and Look magazine had these really expensive photo essays. It was beautiful to see them. We don’t see that happen much anymore these days, unfortunately. But I’m sure it’s mostly economics.

You’ve published in many magazines and newspapers, but it seems to me that Texas Monthly has really been the best home for your work. Would you characterize it that way?

Yeah I would say so. And there’s some really interesting human condition kind of work — which is my main emphasis I suppose — with People magazine, of all publications. They’ll do these little features on communities and different folks from time to time and they’re quite nice. They’re usually found in the back of the magazine behind all of the celebrity stuff. I did this really neat story with People one time — it was a 70-year-old man who went back to 1st grade to learn how to read, up in Missouri.

It was a wonderful little photo essay as it turns out. And then I’ve done stuff for Gourmet up in New York. I did this whole thing on Dominican culture and Dominican food. As a matter of fact that’s how we got this barbecue project going — a story I was doing for Gourmet with Robb Walsh (acclaimed food writer). That’s when we first met. Then later we did something for Saveur Magazine on barbecue, and we decided to carry it on and do that BBQ Crossroads book. Magazine editorial work sometimes influences you in a variety of directions—you never know how that’s gonna snowball and what it’s going to bring next. It’s kind of an interesting aspect of my career. The magazine work I’ve been able to do, I’ve been privileged to do it. Starting with Texas Monthly and going from there. People usually just call Texas Monthly to get to me. I don’t even have a website.

One of the things I love about the Kilgore Rangerettes book is that there are several photos of the Rangerettes using cameras. For me, the cameras locate the photographs in time, because the uniforms don’t change that much, and the setting doesn’t change much, and these black and white photos could really be from forty or fifty years ago—except we’re reminded that this is actually contemporary, because we see one of the Rangerettes using a  little point-and-shoot camera or a digital camera. Was that your intention? Including that little detail as sort of a time stamp?

I’ve always been a little fascinated, for some reason, with tourists taking pictures of scenes. When I travelled to Asia I enjoyed photographing the tourists that were photographing the monuments, or their friends in front of the monument. I just found something delightful about photographing photographers photographing what they’re interested in. And so that kind of carried through, because the Rangerettes constantly take pictures of one another, whenever they go to an event or even a rehearsal or whatever the occasion, they’re constantly taking photographs of themselves. I just find an interesting irony in those kind of photographs. But you’re right, that is a key that kind of illustrates a timeline for those photographs. Otherwise they’re pretty much timeless, unless you look real closely at the type of bleachers that are in the stands, or the kind of pavement that’s more contemporary than a 1940s or 50s type pavement, you may not know what decade some of those photographs were made in.

Your new book, Barbecue Crossroads, is a significant departure from the first two. The most immediately obvious technical difference is that these are color photographs, whereas your previous work is predominantly black and white. Can you talk about the decision to use color?

Originally, Rob Walsh the writer — he and I travelled from Texas to the Carolinas and back, including Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, a little bit of Georgia and the Carolinas, and a couple places in Texas as well — and we originally were gonna do the book in black and white. It was gonna be, you know, kind of an edgy black and white kind of thing. But as I started photographing this, the color played such an important role in these little joints, and with the food subjects themselves, so I made the decision to request the change on that and just do the whole thing in color, which I think fit that project well. That was a decision based on the environment and the circumstances, which I felt were best interpreted in color.

However, one other difference between that book and the other two is that I was working with someone else, a wonderful, very knowledgeable food writer, and a lot of those photographs dealt with illustrating his points of view about the places that we went to. My point of view was also teased in there as well, in some of the other maybe more pictorial type images, and some of the documentary work. A lot of auxiliary lighting was used, however not always–I used a lot of window light when it was possible. There’s a lot of variety of techniques that were used in making that photographic documentary on the Barbecue Crossroads book.

I learned this from Mary Ellen Mark years ago, that circumstances dictate everything in terms of how your gonna light it, what medium you’re gonna use. It was all done digitally, instead of film. That played an important role, and the fact that I wanted to use color, so that made some of those difficult circumstances a little more convenient to photograph in, just in terms of the equipment alone. There were a lot of technical influences that dealt with the reasons why we decided to go with color on that.

(Editor’s note: Join us tomorrow when we publish Part 2 of this interview. Lovett talks with Valentine about how teaching photography is changing, and what he sees as the future for his students.)


While completing his MFA in Creative Writing at NYU, Matt Valentine worked full time for the Department of Photography and Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts, designing and maintaining their “digital darkroom” facilities. He continues to pursue simultaneous careers in writing and photography. Matt’s short stories have won national awards, including (most recently) the 2012 Montana Prize for Fiction. His portraits of writers have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Men’s Journal, Boston Review, Outside Magazine, O (the Oprah Magazine), and on dozens of book jackets. A Lecturer for the Plan II Honors Program at the University of Texas at Austin, he teaches two undergraduate courses: “Writing Narratives” and “Photographic Narratives.”

 

Justin Clemons, a University of North Texas alumni, is an editorial and commercial photographer based out of Dallas. Some of Justin’s clients include Texas Monthly, NY Times, and American Airlines. While Justin travels some for work, he says he is most inspired by Texans!

How did you get started in photography? 
I started taking some photo classes in college, and enjoyed the classes so much that I just kept taking more and more until I decided to make it my major. Strangely, I never really considered myself very creative growing up. I was actually an embarrassment in high school art class, but I absolutely loved the process of creating. In college, I learned to loosen up and not to be so controlling, and I  also learned about design, composition, textures, concepts, etc.

The biggest component that pushed me into pursuing photography on a professional level was my professor Dornith Doherty.  She saw something in my work and told me that I could make it in the real world doing photography. I interned for a summer putting together kitchen appliances and cabinets to be photographed by a JCPenney’s photographer and loved every minute of it! During this time, I learned about lighting techniques, business strategies and dealing with clients, and I finally started to make the leap toward having my own business. From then on, I worked on building up my portfolio and started pursuing editorial work.

I think it’s really important to have your business and brand spread out like fingers in lots of different areas instead of just one single promotion tactic.

How do you manage the business side of photography? How do you promote yourself to potential clients?
Oh my gosh! So much time and energy is put into getting estimates together, producing jobs, managing assistants and crew, dealing with clients, billing, TAXES, post-production, promoting, updating websites, updating blogs, updating work on other websites and being active on social media. I am forced to do the business side. Business isn’t my strong suit, but I make it happen.

I think it’s really important to have your business and brand spread out like fingers in lots of different areas instead of just one single promotion tactic. I have both an editorial and an advertising list.  I try to do a printed piece about twice a year.  I am working on a magazine size promo piece at the moment. I am on some websites that show photographers and their work in order for creatives to go and find good shooters.  Some of these have a monthly fee and some are free like: PhotoServe , Wonderful Machine , and FoundFolios. Hopefully, I Love Texas Photo soon too, haha. Carissa (my rep) sets up lots of book showing at ad agencies and I try to stay pretty consistent with updating my blog.  Social media is playing a decent size role in promoting these days as well.  It’s just a good way of showing that you are busy shooting cool stuff and helps keep your name and work on people’s minds. I mostly use Instagram (@justinclemons).

What would your ideal/dream assignment be?
I recently shot a job for a publication called Whiskey Advocate. The piece was focused on a small whiskey distillery in Waco, TX called Balcones.

It was one of those jobs where at the end of the day, I got in bed thinking, “Today was a really amazing day!”  And then I thought, “I actually get paid to do this!”

It was just so much fun walking around this whiskey plant having Chip (head distiller and owner) explain the whole process while showing you the storage of old wood barrels and letting you taste all of their amazing whiskeys  (After I got my shot of course)! I love learning new things and experiencing new things. I love people that are specialists in what they do and love doing it – people that had a dream and followed it. So, maybe my dream job would be traveling around shooting people that are creating something they love and learning about their process while I’m there.

Justin Clemons ©

Why have you chosen Dallas as the place to work and be?
It’s pretty simple really… family. Dallas is where both my wife and I are from, so we have a huge web of friends and family around here.  It would be difficult to leave that behind.  And since graduating college in 2003, I have had 10 years of making connections and relationships in the Dallas photo world, connections that continue to lead to jobs. It would be really hard to start that whole process all over again somewhere else. I really like the people in Dallas. I just wish we had better weather and terrain.

Who have been or are your influences and mentors?
Like I said earlier, my professor Dornith Doherty was a huge mentor for me. I share studio space with Andy Klein, Scott Slusher and Matt Hawthorne, which is an amazing privilege. All three guys are extremely talented in different areas, and we all get along really well.  It is so helpful putting together a series or promo piece and being able to get them to come look at it and get their opinion. Specifically those who Influence my work and style, I would have to say people like…  Eric Ogden, Peter Yang, Dan Winters, Chris Buck, Chris Crisman and Julia Fullerton-Batten to name a few.

Where do you find inspiration in Texas?
I find inspiration in the people of Texas rather than a location.  There are some extremely talented and interesting people that are doing really creative things that I am challenged by.  If I were forced to name a place, I would have to say my backyard.  Just sitting back there on a nice day smoking a cigar and sipping on scotch relaxes me to the point that my mind can wonder.      

Justin Clemons ©

Do you feel that social media (twitter, facebook, and instagram) has impacted or changed the way you do business? Has it helped more than hurt?
For better or worse, it has changed things somewhat. Negatively, it adds another thing for me to do.  I always feel like I’m not Instagraming, tweeting or on Facebook enough.  I always feel behind in those areas, and when I do make time for it, it seems it’s when I’m at home or at dinner with my wife and daughter and should be paying attention to them. On the positive side, it is a way for people to see that I’m busy and I’m shooting interesting work.  Social media is a good way to keep on the front of job giving people’s minds.  I do have some art directors and creative directors I know that follow me on Instagram. It just raises their perception of you. When you are posting images from shoots or BTS shots from locations or you are just able to make everyday life look cool in photos, they put a higher value on you and your work.  They feel they can trust important shoots to you.

Who are some of your most recent or notable clients?
Some recent clients include: Texas Monthly, D Magazine, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur Magazine, Inc Magazine, DFW Airport, and Walmart.

When you are posting images from shoots or BTS shots from locations or you are just able to make everyday life look cool in photos, they put a higher value on you and your work.

What is the must have item in your camera bag aside from the camera? Most interesting thing in there?
Wrigley’s Doublemint gum is a must.  No matter how cool or good you are, if you got skanky breathe nobody wants to talk to you.

Justin Clemons ©

What goes into setting up a portrait shoot for you?

 I just like to be as prepared as possible, because I don’t like surprises.

I’ll answer this as if I was shooting an editorial portrait….

I want to shoot in a place that describes what they do visually, but isn’t cluttered or boring.  If people will give me the time, I try to show up at least an hour and a half before I am supposed to shoot the portrait.

When I get there, I meet the contact person and get them to give me a tour of the facility in order to scout where I want to shoot.  While I am doing this, my assistant is unloading all of the equipment from the vehicle.  I’ll pick out two locations (minimum) where we can shoot.  I explain to my assistant what lighting I want to use and where we will be shooting first, and we get to work putting it all up.

Once the lights are up and placed in the area I feel is good, my assistant stands in as the subject, and I photograph him. We make tweaks and changes until I’m excited about the image.  We will do this at the two or three locations I have picked before the subject arrives.

The subject is sometimes in a hurry and doesn’t have a whole lot of time to shoot, so we are as prepared as we can be.  If the subject is in a hurry or doesn’t like pictures, we still get good shots, because we have everything set. They can just walk up, shoot and they are done.  If the subject is cool and doesn’t mind pictures, its even better.

We can take our time, try different things, add in some relevant props, have him move around some, and get amazing shots. So much of it depends on the subject. But even if you have a boring, crabby subject, if you have cool composition, great lighting and interesting background, you can still get a good photo for your client.  I just like to be as prepared as possible, because I don’t like surprises.

 

Jonathan Zizzo is a commercial photographer based out of Dallas. His social media bio reads “Conceived in the backseat of a Chevy Nova at the Dinosaur Valley State Park. Mother was a gogo dancer and father was a trucker. I’m a great photographer.” So we sat down with him to find out more.

How did you decide or know photography was what you wanted to do?
I started out as a Fine Art Major at Kilgore College. I was very interested in art, so I studied graphic design. The graphic design program did not inspire me though. I was completing projects before other students and didn’t feel challenged. While at Kilgore, I was required to take a photography class and began to shoot for the student newspaper. I loved the responsibility of creating pictures for a story and fell in love with the program.

Who have been some of the influencing mentors you’ve had?
Rufus Lovett is the reason I got into photography on a deeper level. His sense of humor made it fun to show up to class. Rufus, the photography instructor,  is a Texas monthly contributor.  Rufus was also a Assistant to Ansel Adams at one time.

I know a lot of people ask you why you don’t move to LA or NYC with the type of portfolio you have. Why Dallas?
Dallas is where it is happening for me. Dallas is home to 18 Fortune 500 companies. We have major advertising agencies here that hold the keys to some of the most extraordinary brands of all time. If I did move to LA or NY, I would be starting over.

For me there is always the opportunity to do work for companies and agencies in both of those cities. By the time I’m 50 or 60 years old I don’t want to be in a city that is for the youthful entrepreneur. I don’t want that midlife crisis to be happily unmarried and be begging for a transition to the simple life. I’m a country boy at heart.  Moving to NY or LA is so cliché’ Like this is Texas we are supposed to be the big bad and the ugly. Those places are only “cool” by a popular opinion. There’s a lot of opportunity in this City and I’m proudly an ambassador to change the mentality or preconceived ideas that people have formed about Dallas.

How did you get into photographing celebrities? What do you enjoy most about it
I was a Staff Photographer at Envy Magazine a publication that was here in Dallas for a few years. I don’t think people ever realized all off those celebrity covers were shot here in Dallas.

What are you currently working on? Do you have anything big happening for you in 2013?
I’m working a portrait series for Zodiac Watches.  I am shooting professional athletes & celebrity personality’s people who most would consider legendary types. Starting 2013 with a project like this is great!

Jonathan Zizzo ©

What inspires you or what do you look for when shooting portraits and fashion?

When I’m shooting a portrait of someone. I’m interested in creating an image that shows a likeness of the person. The moment that I come into contact with this individual I am studying their body language. Looking for nuances, things that might make the picture more interesting. I like saving room for spontaneity. When I’m shooting fashion i’m looking for models that can take direction well & move well. I’m inspired by guys like Lee Clow and George Lois. Life is so inspirational, I’m interested in a broad spectrum of things. I like to wonder around 99 cent only stores and look at everything on the shelves and take a mental image of things I can buy as a prop for only a dollar. I think it’s important to not lose your sense of wonder. Stay as curious about all things as possible.

Jonathan Zizzo ©

What is #iamthezizz?
It’s basically just a user name!  Coaches and friends growing up started calling me the Zizz, so I embraced it! I’ll eventually have to switch it up as I get older, I am sure. My middle name is Buck. I’m really looking forward to changing my name to that when I’m much older. Buck Zizzo is pretty bold! I don’t think I’m quite there yet.

Do you have any hobbies?
I’ve been riding BMX since I was 14. Unfortunately, all of my friends (my age)  have real jobs and I don’t get to spend as much time with those guys scootin’ around the skatepark as I would like.

What are your thoughts on Instagram?
Instagram is a basically digital pollution. That is highly addictive and everyone is contributing to it. I know a lot of photographers who take it really seriously. They are probably out there right now kneeling down pointing and clicking trying to find that artistic angle. It’s even worse when they use the phonto app, throwing typography over their photo like it’s as popular as a Taylor Swift album cover. Shooting pictures with your iPhone, worrying which application or filter to use, is for the consumer you guys. Listen, NO Art Director should give a rat’s ass about  what you’re doing with your iPhone. I understand mobile technology is on the rise but I use the internet as a form of dialog to draw people in, form a likeness, and build relationships with people who “like” what I’m interested in. Trying to prove to everyone that you’re such a badass with your iPhone makes no sense. Stop already.

Favorite place for drinks?
Cosmos, I go there because I want to have a drink and be around folks that are there for the same reason. It’s no glitz, no glam. Just a place to divulge into adult beverages!

BBQ?
Peggy Sue’s in Highland Park of all places. It has this mom and pop type vibe to it. They haven’t changed the price of their menu items based on their zip code. I’m a patron and whoever is reading this should be too!

What’s in your camera bag right now?
I’m currently shooting with a Nikon D600 24.3 full frame HDSLR. I’ve had shutters go out on previous bodies, so I don’t see the point in dropping 7 grand on a body. If I was making payments on a camera like that I’d be really ticked off at Nikon and Canon right now. This camera is terrific. It does exactly what I need it to. There are so many rental houses in Dallas, which is very fortunate. It’s easy to get your hands on something with more resolution like a Hasselblad or a Phaseone camera  if you need it. I also use Speedotron Lighting equipment. My 2400 packs boss hog electricity and trips breakers watch out.

Jonathan Zizzo ©

Austin-based editorial and commercial photographer Matthew Mahon recently took time out from assignment work and cycling to talk about how Instagram is changing the rules for photographers, dish on Phoot Camp and explain the dangers of riding a bike at 30 miles an hour.

I hear you just got back from Phoot Camp. What was that like?
Phoot Camp is the brainchild of Laura Brunow Miner, who I met when she was the editor of JPEG magazine.  Unfortunately JPEG couldn’t survive – it was a beautiful magazine – but Laura, steadfast and true to the component of great photography, decided she was going to start Phoot Camp. And what she did was she hand-selected 50 photographers throughout the world who had been submitting to JPEG and she invited them to come out to California. Thirty people showed up to the original Phoot Camp. It has since turned into one of the most creative, wonderful photo communities that exist today.

Explain how the selection process works.
The way you get in is you have to do a self-portrait and you have to write a 500-word essay on why you should be there. Nobody is guaranteed – not even the alumni – to get back in. You have to bring it. If you look at the self-portraits from four years ago to last year you can see how the level keeps improving. But the interesting thing is Laura sometimes understands that a certain photographer might work well in the community and pushes them through. It’s her vision. She’s like a John Szarkowski [the legendary Director of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art].

I understand the Phoot Camp participants collaborate with one another. Photographers are typically more competitive than collaborative, so how did that work?
Right, it’s the antithesis of how most photographers work. And that’s what’s so amazing about Phoot Camp. It’s this community that all of a sudden comes together, embraces one another, brings costumes, lights. You need a tripod, you need a camera, you need a model, whatever…

The typical attitude is, “Let’s celebrate photography. We’re here just to take pictures. We don’t care. We’re going to shoot with Holgas, we’re going to shoot digital, we’re going to shoot with Hasselblad, we’re going to shoot 4×5.” It was wild. After that, I was convinced this was the community I wanted to be plugged into.

Visually I’m like a mathematician. I like to have a problem, and take the different pieces and put them together and try to figure it out. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes it fits magically.

Why is being part of a photographic community so important?
Because when we stopped shooting film, when we stopped seeing each other in labs all the time, and we all started sitting behind computers, we stopped communicating. We still communicate through email here and there, and now with text messages and on Facebook. But we used to actually see each other; we used to be physically there. If Wyatt McSpadden didn’t live across the street from me I’d never see him. But I used to see him in the lab all the time. When we were all shooting film, we were busy photographers and we’d see each other and we talked. Now we are all sitting in front of computers editing and retouching, removed from each other. The community has disintegrated.

You’re not from Texas originally. What’s your story? What brought you here?
I grew up in New Jersey right outside of Manhattan. I went to college at Rutgers. When I graduated in the early ‘90s, I had a bunch of friends that moved to Seattle. I moved out there 10 minutes prior to the grunge explosion, and lived through that whole scene. I always wanted to be a photographer, because that was my education. But at the same time I had this idea that I wanted to be an artistic photographer. So what I did was I tended bar, and I would invite bar patrons to these shows at underground galleries. We used to have these shows in this artist collective I was involved in where 500 people would show up, a lot of them people I’d given invitations to at the bar.

One of the women I’d given an invitation to ended up being an art director at an ad agency and she asked if I could come in and show her creative director a portfolio. Her name was Jo Dixon. I had no idea what an art director was. I had no idea what a creative director was. And I’d never heard of an ad agency, but I walked in and showed my portfolio. The creative director started gushing over this 15-picture book that I brought in. She was like, “Where did you find this guy?” They were talking about me like I wasn’t there. They thought I was perfect for this ad and offered me $2000 plus expenses. This was something I normally did for free. She asked if that was enough. I thought I was going to throw up on myself. I was a bartender because I wanted to maintain artistic integrity and all of a sudden I was just like, “Fuck it. Sell me out.”

My advice to any young photographer is to figure out for yourself how you want to be creative and run with it. Find what your passion is and just go. Don’t be traditional. Tradition will more than likely stymie you.

So why did you leave Seattle?
The girl I was with at the time was from Austin. She moved to Seattle for me. She hated it. It was grey, wet and rainy. She lamented leaving Austin.  After seven years in Seattle I agreed to go back with her to Texas.

I came here, it was 1999. The economy was crazy. The high-tech bubble was expanding. I got in with a lot of the West Coast magazines. Zana Woods [longtime director of photography at Wired magazine] was the first person to ever hire me at Wired. I started shooting regularly for Wired and then all of a sudden Industry Standard, Red Herring, all those cool West Coast magazines that I thought were so much cooler than the Northeast magazines, because they had a different look, they embraced me. And because so much high-tech was happening in Austin, all these little Austin-based ad agencies were hiring me to shoot their ads, and it just exploded. That was one of my best years.

So did Zana give you your first big break?
Zana was definitely a part, but more so it was a woman here in town named Jennifer Taylor. She worked at this satellite office of Leo Burnett. She hired me to do a bunch of advertising. I was shooting for Wired. These high tech companies were advertising in Wired. It was a perfect marriage. For 12-14 months it was non-stop. I think I made $170,000 that year as a photographer in Austin, Texas, and I was 33 years old.

How did you learn to handle yourself on these big ad shoots, having not really learned that in school?
I had no idea. But at that point in time, the way the dot-com industry was working, there was so much stuff to be shot. Jennifer held my hand through it all. She’d call me three days before a shoot and say I needed to have catering, this, this, this and this. These are the people you need to call. Back then, when she would hire me to do one of these jobs, I wasn’t doing estimates like I do now. It was just like, “You’re it. We’re hiring you. Let’s talk money. This is what we can afford.” At that point I was shooting stuff for Newsweek and Wired for like $400 a day, so $3500 for a day of work – it was the most money I’d ever made in my life.

At first I was a photo assistant and I didn’t have a computer, so I was hand-writing invoices. That’s what we did back then. She said you CANNOT give them a hand-written invoice. So she did my first letterhead for me. Because, here’s the interesting thing at that time: there was so much need, and it was important for people like her to find talent to fit that need. If she could find someone who was unique it was all the better for her; it made her look better, even if she had to hold my hand and wipe my mouth because I had chocolate on it.

Is the key takeaway then to just focus on having a unique style and look and trust that the business side will come along in time? Is that the Matthew Mahon lesson?
No, do what you love. Period. If you don’t love it, don’t do it. Because if you don’t love it, you’re going to end up not liking it. Bottom line is you got to want it but you can’t be guaranteed that people are going to want to buy it. It’s cyclical. There’s no magic button you can push. Take Neil Young for example. He has had an undulating career. And what Neil has always done, is Neil has stayed true to who he wants to be. He has never sold out to anybody. He never did anything he felt like didn’t agree with who he was inside. I live the same way. If there are weeks I don’t want to be creative I don’t do it. If I want to watch movies and sleep all day that’s what I’ll do. But when I am inspired I dial it and I get in it.

So what gets you really inspired? What is your perfect assignment?
That’s hard to say because the majority of my career has been magazine work. I show up and photograph people I’ve never met in places I’ve never been. However, as difficult as that can be at times, it can also be remarkably surprising and rewarding. Because what happens sometimes is you walk into a situation and everything is working. You’re dialed and you figure it out. Sometimes it’s a bad situation and you figure it out but those times are usually not the greatest pictures.

The thing is, when anybody calls me to go take pictures I’m excited.  It sounds ridiculous but if Texas Monthly calls me, if Time calls me, if People calls me, regardless of what it is, I get excited to work. When I show up, each time it’s a different situation.

Visually I’m like a mathematician. I like to have a problem, and take the different pieces and put them together and try to figure it out. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes it fits magically. Sometimes you work really hard at it and it fits together in some way you didn’t anticipate. I’m so sad that magazines are going away because I would shoot magazine photography for the next 50 years. I would die doing it.

Do you see any potential in websites taking on some of the commission work magazines have traditionally supplied?
When Martha Bardach was still at Time, she hired me to shoot specifically for the website. ESPN hired me once to shoot specifically for the website. Same pay. It felt different though. There wasn’t the possibility you’re going to see this double truck in the magazine. It’s going to be on the website. It’s not even going to be a quarter page of the website. It sucks. I don’t have an iPad but I have looked at some iPad magazines where they put additional photos in. It’s interesting. It’s different. Do I think that’s where it’s going? I don’t know.

Photography is always going to be relevant because people like to look at things. But are we still going to be getting paid? I don’t know. Look at Instagram. People can create amazing images with an iPhone now. And people get paid to do it. There are social media people at major companies that hire Instagrammers with big followings to do Instagram events. And they’ll pay them $700. They’ll pay better than Time magazine for a day rate to shoot a portrait, or to go photograph something with your iPhone. Think about that. Photography then becomes a vehicle. It becomes a very specific vehicle at that point to just reach the masses.

Instagram has totally changed the game. It’s like the new Facebook. It’s so hot now. That generation of Facebookers that got on at the very end don’t even know what Instagram is right now, that’s how hot it is. That’s how technology works. The older generation has no idea what it is. And it’s just this juggernaut that moves and it’s going very quickly. And it’s happening constantly but at the same time it’s going to spawn into this next thing. Where does this put us as professional photographers who try to hone our craft and light things? I don’t know. I have no idea. I’ll tell you one thing: If I could sync into an iPhone with a strobe, I’d do it. I’d do it in a minute.

What do you like best about being an Austin-based photographer?
I like being in Austin. I like not being in New York. I like that there’s a car parked right outside my front door that I don’t have to jockey for a parking position. I like living in a simple place. I almost brought my career back up to New York at one point and I’m glad I didn’t. I might have done better up there. But Austin’s a great city. Dan Winters is somebody that came here after he was Dan. Someone like Randal Ford became Randal out of Austin but at the same time Randal works harder than I want to work. I don’t want to work that hard, and that’s being honest. I like to work and I like to be creative. I like to be obsessed with photography in a healthy way but I also like balance. I don’t want it to dictate everything that I do.

I know fitness and biking specifically are big interests of yours. Is cycling your number one passion outside of photography?
I’ve always been a cyclist, but it was five years ago that I was riding and a friend of mine suggested I take up racing. I tried it and I really enjoyed it. I dedicated three years to it. The races I was good in are called criteriums – they call them crits. They’re inherently far more dangerous than road racing because you’re going around a circuit, you’re in a pack that’s constantly traveling at speeds upwards of 30 miles per hour, you’re bumping each other. So you have more potential to get taken down.

I crashed three times in my last season, and it was always other people crashing into me and taking me out. After the third one, I went down going 37 miles per hour right after I’d crossed the finish line. Someone actually crashed into me after we finished and took me down. I said, “I’m done. I’m not doing this anymore.” It was the most painful thing. I had road rash from my ankle all the way up to my elbow. You slide across asphalt at 37 miles per hour wearing the equivalent of pajamas for the reward of bragging rights. You tell me if it’s worth the risk. I was a Cat 3 racer when I stopped.

So I started touring, which is the greatest thing because you get to climb mountains, you get to see oceans, you get to see lakes, you get to see farms. You get to see parts of America that people don’t go to. That’s what I do. I choose parts of America that most people don’t drive to. And you find the most remote roads to ride on because you don’t want to ride with cars. And it’s amazing. It’s actually magical. I have a good buddy who goes out and joins me in the summer. It’s a great thing.

© Bruce Davidson

Which photographers have most inspired you?
The original inspiration for photography was Bruce Davidson. My very first photography class I was taking at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. My mom had signed me up for it. She was an administrator there. The teacher saw that I had a rather significant attraction for the medium. The class was like 30 people. It was about the 9th class of a 12-week course. My instructor’s name was Herb Edwards. And it was a three-hour class we went to. We’d get there a 7:00 and leave at 10:00 at night. I loved it and he saw that I loved it. It was 10:00, class was disbanding, and he grabbed me and this girl and said, “Hey, I want to show you two something. Will you stay after class?” So we went to this back room and he put up a slide projector and he showed us Bruce Davidson’s East 100th Street. We stayed there until 11:30 looking at this work. I just remember looking at that work and thinking, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. This is it.”

How old were you?
22, 21 maybe. I even went up to East Harlem and shot with my Pentax 1000 and did not get the same results, because you know Bruce Davidson was shooting with 4×5 or 8×10, whatever he was shooting. It was amazing though.

© Dan Winters

Dan Winters is another inspiration?
Yeah, once I started shooting commercial jobs and lighting things, I got clued into Dan early on. He was still in LA. I’d seen some of the celebrity stuff he’d done. I was always a New York Times Sunday subscriber, so I’d get the magazine. One of the greatest photographs I’ve ever seen was the Helen Mirren photograph on the cover when she won the Oscar that he shot for The New York Times Magazine. It’s beyond photography. I can’t even explain it. You look at it and you think to yourself as a photographer, I want to be that good. That’s what I want to do. I want to create things that look this amazing.

Harry Benson was somebody else who I was really inspired by. You could not have two more polar opposites. Harry literally walked in and shot. Dan walked in and very methodically built, and so I have these two different schools of thought about how I want to go about things. When I work I move fast. I exhaust assistants. I don’t exhaust them in a bad way where I’m mean to them, but I work them. I work a situation, and we move and we’re fast. I don’t build things. I sometimes am slow but once I get off tripod, and I always try to get off tripod, I move. That’s where I feel free.

What advice do you have for young photographers just coming up? You worked as an assistant. Is that a good way to go?
Sure, that’s a good way to go. But honestly in this day and age I have no idea. At Phoot Camp there were five different people that had over a million followers collectively that get paid to go Instagram with their iPhones. If I could show up to a job with my iPhone I would do that. If camera phones are going to become that good, that you can do it that way, why not? My advice to any young photographer is to figure out for yourself how you want to be creative and run with it. Find what your passion is and just go. Don’t be traditional. Tradition will more than likely stymie you. There was definitely a way to do it for a long time, but the game has totally changed in the last 10 years. It changes momentarily. We live in a world of social media now and it is constantly changing.

I have this friend who just started Instagramming three weeks ago. She’s already has 110 followers and she’s a commercial real estate sales person. She loves it, and she’s now getting her commercial real estate people to pay her. She actually shot a job today, one of her commercial real estate friends had seen some of her stuff on Instagram and he offered to pay her $600 to photograph one of his commercial properties. She’s doing it with her Blackberry and putting it on an iPad and her Blackberry is from 2004. It’s a totally different game now. My advice is, figure it out. It’s a weird time.

Are magazines saying you can’t put pictures from the shoot on social media before the story is published or does that go without saying?
For me, the era I came up in, I’d never do that. There’s been a few occasions when I’ve done that but it’s so removed there’s no way you can figure it out. I was shooting a job in Panama for Smart Money. On my Facebook I posted I was in Panama but I never mentioned what I was doing. People want to see that you’re shooting in Panama. But I would never mention I was there for a specific client.

But here’s an interesting thing. I recently did a shoot for Circuit of the Americas, the new Formula One racing track that’s opening here. They called me to do their first print advertising campaign that came out in the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. As we were shooting it, they had these guys that brought the car there. They were all Instagramming and they were Facebooking. I was as well and the art director was in support of me doing so. It was weird because this is not how it normally goes but it was smart. I got so much attention from that and so did they. Every one of those pictures – I took three that day – every one of them had 80 likes. For 80 likes you got to think other people are looking at it. Huh. That’s a different way to approach it. Just throw it all out there the moment it’s happening.

People in this day and age want to see things now. And it’s that fleeting too. When you Instagram something and it gets 100 likes in a day another few likes might trickle in over the next week and then it’s dead.

It’s just buried in the avalanche.
What does that mean for imagery? I don’t know.  There was an interesting article written by a guy named Nate Bolt: Why Is Istagram so Popular: Quality, Audience and Constraints. It was very intentional the way they built the application and why they did it that way. You can’t shoot five pictures with Instagram and then go on your phone and edit. You have to commit to it at that moment. If you commit to it you have to upload it and if you don’t like it you have to delete it. They did that intentionally. They wanted it to be that way. They wanted you to not be able to create portfolios. That’s why it’s Instagram and not Latergram.

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Follow Matthew on instagram: @mahon_

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Jay DeFoore (@jdefoore) has served as an editor at Photo District News (PDN), Editor & Publisher, American PHOTO and Popular Photography & Imaging.

Blake Gordon is a landscape and adventure photographer, who trained as a landscape architect at Auburn University and Design at The University of Texas in Austin.  He takes a modern approach to landscape photography, exploring how people fit into the picture.  He splits his time between Austin, TX and central Colorado when not traveling.

So, how’d you get started in photography?
I started shooting as a way to explore place during site visits for our studio classes in landscape architecture. During my education we spent extended time in a wide variety of places: southern Utah, New York City, the borderlands of southern California among others. Our first larger outing was a 3 week canoe trip to Algonquin Provincial Park north of Toronto after an intense readings class on ecology. I borrowed my mom’s camera for the trip and never gave it back.

Photography can be part of the design process. It facilitates a deeper reading of the site where a design intervention occurs. You’d go back and forth from the studio to the field, but it’s that initial exploration in the field that grabbed me.  That’s when I realized the camera gets you out into the world. And I wanted to explore place, so the camera facilitated that.

The bulk of landscape photography that I initially found is pretty pictures of national parks and while that is appealing, I found it didn’t really fuel me creatively or add much to a cultural dialogue. What is communicated 95% of the time is, “this is beautiful and I wish I was there.” I’ve always been interested in a deeper understanding.

I’m interested in the idea of landscape, how that continues to change, and what that says about culture. Landscape has been described as the meeting point between culture and physical terrain. I find that intersection fascinating.

Do you have any mentors?
I don’t know if I would say that I have any mentors but there are a few photographers I’ve worked with that have been good learning experiences.

Working with James Balog, an amazing National Geographic photographer/artist/conservationist was influential. I helped him design/build some remote time lapse camera systems in 2007 for his Extreme Ice Survey Project. I went to Iceland for the install of the first camera systems. With Jim, it was very much a working relationship but to be with him in the early stages of such an enormous project was very insightful.

I connected with Balog through John Weller, a friend and incredible photographer/conservationist in his own right. He received a Pew Fellowship and has been doing a lot of work for the Pew Foundation as well as continuing to work on a conservation project for the Ross Sea in Antarctica – something that he has been pursuing for 5+ years. We talk a lot about the structure of a journey, learning from the natural world and trying to communicate those profound moments that seem just beyond the boundaries of language.

Brent Humphreys is a friend in Austin who I’ve worked for in Austin and Brent’s work is editorial/commercial oriented. He’s very meticulous and detail oriented as well as constantly pushing to create a better photo. Brent is very design oriented in his thinking and is as interested in project development as much as he is the singular photograph. I find that similar to myself and so enjoy watching how he thinks about photographs.

…the camera gets you out in the world.

What influences and inspires you?
There is a lot of music, art, and ideas out there that inspire me, but experience is the ultimate teacher. I try to keep a creative distance from produced work because I think the best stuff comes out of the process. I do enjoy hearing about how other artists approach their work and work through their process. That is more relevant to me than the work itself.

 You have a wonderful body of work from the Nature Conservancy for the latest issue on The Edward’s Aquifer, in San Antonio.  Tell me more about the project and how you got involved?
The assignment came through Wonderful Machine.  The photo editor, Melissa Ryan, contacted me several months before the shoot.  They liked some previous work I had done, namely the Nightwalks body of work.  We got to talking about doing a little more of a conceptual shoot rather than the typical illustrative editorial images and I spoke about my interest in how people and landscape interact.

The focus of the story is on the Edwards Aquifer and how The Nature Conservancy is protecting land to protect the aquifer. One inherent challenge in photographing that story is that it is an underground body of water, so I started to look for signs of moments in the landscape where culture and the flow of the water intersect – the recharge zones of ranchers, water table signs along the interstate, sinkholes, spring-fed pools, pumps for the city water supply, etc.

It was a great assignment that I shot for about a month.  I stretched it out, but I really enjoy the continued focus and refinement of a longer exploration. I was engaged with the all the way through into the design and layout which is a rare treat. I proposed shooting on medium format square as it would help convey the. We were able to run the images large and on their own page with a consistent pacing which allowed the subtleties and complexities of the situation to come out. The story wasn’t inherently a strong visual one and this really worked well. The layout is beautiful. It looks like a journal.

You shoot  some amazing landscapes. How does TNC’s latest issue relate to your personal work?
I was excited to put a lot of resources into the assignment as a commissioned work. I have to push personal work to the point where I am tired of dealing with the idea I am exploring or else the questions will continue to lure me. Melissa came to me wanting my personal vision to come through in the assignment. That was a very enjoyable thing but also comes with a burden of having to produce under different circumstances. The constraints of an assignment are very different than with a purely personal exploration.

I’m really interested in the perception of place and the relationship between people and their environments.  This was a great example in that we were looking at how a water system and cultural system interact. I try to step back and think as broadly as possible about those relationships as it lets you look deeply into otherwise mundane things. Part of a photographers is to bring forth wonder. That is easy to do in an exotic location or adventurous moment, but takes bending the mind a little when you’re looking at a water pump or road sign.

The larger focus from a conservation standpoint is to try to make people aware of this water system that there lives depend on. The hard work of public officials and modern engineering has made it so that the general populace doesn’t have to think about all the details when they turn on a water faucet. But that convenient lack of awareness there can put a city, or civilization, on a dead-end path.

In my personal work I also like to step into a realm of thinking that is different from how we ordinarily experience the world. And that is what makes it a valuable exercise.

Do you use a majority of natural light in your work?
Being aware of my surroundings is the first step in my process, so I enjoy finding light wether that is natural or artificial. I will also bring in and use strobes at times – more so with portraiture. I think using found light is important is critical if you are trying to give the viewer an experience of the world as is. I enjoy working with lights but also enjoy a very streamlined process regardless of aesthetic.

I primarily shot natural light until I began the Nightwalks work in which I started shooting urban nightscapes. I found I was more interested in the process of shooting at night than the actual product so I continued to refine how I went about shooting. I went out for a night here and a night there, and realized it’d be a stronger experience if I turned it into a multi-day outing. Waking up and going to bed within the same experience exponentially enriches that experience. I developed it to the point where I was dropped off on the other side of Austin without a phone, money, or ID and gave myself 5 nights (sleeping during the day) to wander back to my house.

It was such a departure from my day to day life.  It also raised interesting questions, like where to sleep.  I did pack all the food that I ate for 5 days and allowed myself to ‘forage’ for water. I’m out there trying to make this aesthetic art thing, but basically living as a street person, which puts me at odds with the majority of people in the city and how they view their surroundings. I realized a different set of rules as to how I can and should operate. My goal was to gain the greatest amount of freedom in order to explore the urban environment in abstract terms of light and space. It was incredibly insightful.

I’m really interested in the perception of place and the relationship between people and their environments.

How did you establish and evolve your personal vision?  
Never being satisfied is certainly one method. Exploring various processes and letting the process speak will also push that envelop. I’m continually playing with a new process or challenging the assumptions of what I take for truth. exploring something else. There’s also a process of self understanding that has to occur too. That just comes with making work. It’s not something that can be forced. Engaging in what you enjoy is a starting point.

Best career move so far?
I went to the Eddie Adams Workshop in 2008, and that has been as pivotal as any career juncture as it immediately put me in touch with a strong photo community and some talented colleagues/friends. I didn’t know any photographers when I first started shooting.

Career development is a pretty slow process though.  I thinking being open to opportunity is helpful.  There’s a fine line between developing something on your own and being open to something that comes along.  I’ve been more focused on what kind of work I’m generating than how much. With freelance work, it’s easy to keep yourself busy chasing to keep the wheels going and you have to be comfortable with the ups and downs of freelance life and balancing art and commerce.

Do you have any hobbies outside of photography? 
Too many. Lots of sports: skiing, climbing, hiking, biking, baseball, basketball, whatever comes along. I swim a lot in Austin, primarily at Barton Springs.  I’m on a sandlot baseball team/social club – The Texas Playboys. I grew up playing baseball and pitched in college. Pitching is one of the most enjoyable things I know. I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands and body. During the past two years I’ve been building out a trailer as a autonomous studio space. That is more of a design project than a photographic one.

I always find it enjoyable working on something physical and bringing that into the photographic process.  I think good photography comes out of that.

Favorite thing about shooting in Texas?
I like exploring the Texas mythology and how the idea of Texas and reality of Texas can be quite different. I grew up in Georgia and it took me a couple years to get accustomed to the culture, mythology, and contemporary landscape of Texas, but at this point it’s a part of me. The state has some bravado. It’s a really fascinating and diverse place. I think anything with a really strong culture is rich territory for a photographer.  There’s a rich mythology, and there’s no shortage of interesting people.  There’s also a freedom in Texas where people are continually re-inventing themselves and what Texas can be.  It’s an evolving place.

I think about it now as a lifelong pursuit… Don’t feel like you need to prove your work too quickly…

Advice for anyone just getting started?
It really took me a long time to get my career going, primarily because my background was not in photography. Part of that was my youthful impatience and not understanding what all goes into operating a photo career (as opposed to just taking a photo).  There is a ton of accessible photography out there, but it’s not all professional. I always thought my images were good enough and I should be further along than where I’m at, but I don’t think is a beneficial thought. There was a long gestation period, so I’d say, don’t rush it. One of the speakers at the Eddie Adams Workshop retold a quote (I’d have to dig around quite a bit to find out who first said it): “Do what you can with what you have where you are.”

I think about it now as a lifelong pursuit – photography is something I’ll always practice and it will take different forms. Don’t feel like you need to prove your work too quickly,  The more time you spend with the work and putting your effort into refining your work, will strengthen what the work is. That’s something I still tell myself. If you don’t know what you want to say and why, you’ll get chewed up by the industry.

On the business side, find people you really want to work for. Find clients that you will willingly go beyond what is required to get the job done, because that’s what it takes to make it and to be satisfied creatively. It’s not enough to just get the job done unlike other professions.

Where are you from?
I was born in Port Arthur, but we moved to Beaumont when my mom remarried. That’s where I’m from but I freelance in Dallas now. I moved out of Beaumont in 2004 to go to the University of North Texas.

What’s your degree in?
Photojournalism and International Development

Tell me about working at The Orange (Texas) Leader.
It was a little 8,000-circulation paper back in 2002 and I did that for two years.

How did you get your start there?
My mom had saved up a small college fund for me.  After I finished my chemotherapy at 18 I ended up messing around in college my first semester at Stephen F. Austin (a college in Nacodoches, Texas) and came home with a 1.0 and went to Lamar for two years (a college in Beaumont, Texas),  but I still wasn’t really figuring anything out. So I took what little bit of college money I had left, worked two jobs, and saved up enough to spend three months backpacking Europe.

How did your experience in Europe change you? 
The thing about Europe was that it was really the first time I was truly on my own.  I’d been sick since birth and the cancer only magnified my somewhat sheltered experience growing up.  When I left to backpack I was suddenly forced to rely solely upon myself.  Build relationships with strangers, monitor my cash, develop a budget and suffer the repercussions of not sticking to it.  I’d found myself in churches a lot of the time too and developed a stronger spiritual life.

How did you hook up your first staff photographer position at the Orange (Texas) Leader?
I was shooting this Bridge City [football] game and the editor of the Orange Leader saw me out there and asked, “hey, do you want a job? There’s a Lion’s Club carnival tomorrow. Do you want to go shoot that and that’ll be your trial run?” I woke up the next morning and went and shot the Lion’s Club carnival and got a bulldog page on Sunday morning. I worked for them for two years for something like $6.25 an hour.

When I returned from Europe I had had this sense of adventure under my belt and a stronger belief in myself.   When I got the job for the Orange Leader, shooting daily assignments, a lot of that experience I’d learned in Europe about socializing with a variety of people and stepping out of a comfort zone was utilized in a constructive way.  I used to think that that first job for the small daily was not only a continuation exploring daily life but it was also a boot camp of sorts photographically.  I’d talk with classmates at Lamar about the nature of the business and say how much I enjoyed the variety of experience.  How I could be at a kindergarten classroom at nine, a homicide having lunch with the sheriffs department at noon and a basketball game by 730.  It was all really exciting for me at that time in my life.

You mentioned chemotherapy earlier. Can you talk about that?
I had lymphoma from age 15 to age 18.

Did the experience influence your work in any way?
Not immediately, no I think it took a while. About the same time I got my driver’s license is about the same time I found out that I was sick and I was already the confused teenager anyway and so once I got a car I would just go wander off around Beaumont. Just cruise around town until sundown. This is before I did photography. I’ve always had this drive to get out and cruise around and explore and meet people.

You are a former Dallas Morning News photo intern. How did that come about?
The Morning News had me intern with them in ’05. Chris Wilkins called me and asked me if I wanted to do an internship and I said let me check my fall schedule for school and (Dallas Morning News photojournalist) Mona Reeder called me back immediately and she said “What the hell do you think you’re doing? You just say yes to stuff like that. Don’t worry about school right now.” So I called Chris back immediately and said I’ll take it. That’s how I started to [later] begin freelancing for them. After college, I just naturally went into freelancing full time.

We all went through this cusp, this in-between, where you and I both have a photojournalism degree but the NPPA job bank didn’t necessarily have anything in it.  Freelancing bridged the gap.

 You and me both met at the Eddie Adams Workshop.
Yeah, we both had Bill Frakes.

What did you draw from that experience?
That I went too early. I couldn’t even tone my images properly back then. There were some other people there that had a portfolio and had a really good experience for networking and having an actual dialogue about work. But for someone [who] hadn’t even finished college yet it was a bit premature I think. It was more of the experience of meeting other people. It was more about the social interaction and getting a taste of what professionals do.

Talk about what you’re working on now.
For the past three years, I’ve been working in the Mississippi Delta. I started that in 2009. In between freelancing in Dallas. I go back as much as I can.

Where is “there”?
A network of about five communities in northwest Mississippi. I’ve been abstractly documenting daily life in the delta. I went there just to find myself at first, I wasn’t looking for a story. I was looking for something better than me, stronger than me. It ended up being this time to just speak with people and get back into a project and begin shooting for something that I wanted to shoot. It’s since grown into something beyond me. It’s grown into something that’s about other people. It’s about strength, and humility and pride, hope and religion and faith.

Tell me about your decision to use medium format, black and white film for your project in Mississippi.
The only reason I started shooting that was because I had a brand new camera, a 1973 Mamiya C330. I’d just got it and thought I’d take it for a spin, so to speak.
At Lamar, I was trained in black and white photography in the darkroom and I guess I wanted to go back to something familiar.  But I ended up finding this new thing; it was like a turning point in vision. I began finding something that’s mine in a way. Merging documentary traits with a more artful background.

Who was your teacher?
Keith Carter.

You’ve told me before that you bring a bicycle with you when you go to Mississippi.
Looking back, I think using my bicycle was a perfect compromise. I could cover more ground than walking but yet still be connected more so than if I had confined myself in a car. I liked the idea of using a bicycle because it allowed accessibility.  Naturally, a lot of people were just curious about what the hell this little dude with big glasses was doing riding his bicycle with this weird-looking camera. It was like an automatic attention-grabber. Conversation-starter. But a big smile and a wave goes a long way.

What plans do you have for the Mississippi work?
I think it’ll naturally fall into book form. I’m going to have my first solo show in Portland, Oregon at the Newspace Center for Photography. It’ll open June 7, 2013.

[With this show], I can begin playing with the images in a new way. I’m interested in seeing the relationships the images will take on with one another.  It’s different from the experience of a book or website presentation and raises all sorts of questions, but I’m really excited to begin the process.

What’s been the reaction to your photos by the people you’ve photographed for the project?
It’s humbling. They take a lot of pride in them. One of the families that I photograph told me once that, “when you bring back photographs of us, you give us joy.” And when I stay the night at their homes I find their portraits hanging in their bedrooms.

Building relationships be it in my daily work or personal projects has always been important to me. The experience and journey I guess you could say has always rode shotgun alongside the desire to tell a good story.

In terms of this new project in Mississippi I’ve been working on I think this is where I’m really beginning to not only explore a new visual aesthetic and way of developing my narratives, but I’m also relying on myphotojournalism background to search out my characters and choose my topics.

You don’t typically light your portraits. Why is that?
I can light a portrait, and I keep a reflector in the bag, but I tend not to overcomplicate things. It’s already a puzzle. I can appreciate exploring for natural light in an environment. Sometimes lights are just another damn thing that needs a battery or plug.

Sometimes lights are just another damn thing that needs a battery or plug.

Who was an early photographic influence on you?
The first guy I fell in love with was German portrait photographer August Sander. I was intrigued by his work ethic, being able to catalog so much work. It was scientific. And if [your images] make a government want to burn your book you know you’re doing something right. But most intriguing was his ability to communicate effectively with people on all levels of society.  That speaks a lot to me.


What’s the most interesting thing in your camera bag?
I have this, uh, I don’t even know how old it is. I have this crushed granola bar. I just pulled it out to check my luggage at the airport this morning and I asked the guy if it was all right if it was in there. Chocolate chip.

How long has it been in there?
At the very least, months.

What’s your favorite Texas barbecue?
Actually me and the lady, we make these short ribs in the oven and she makes a Dr. Pepper sauce and we smother that thing in that.

You don’t have to travel around the world to find interesting subjects…sometimes you can find the whole world in your own backyard.

Any parting thoughts?
I think the most important thing I’ve realized over the past few years is that you don’t have to travel around the world to find interesting subjects. You can of course, but sometimes you can find the whole world in your own backyard.

Adam Voorhes is a commercial and editorial photographer based in Austin. A few of his many clients include Texas Monthly, ESPN, and Esquire.

As the owner of four dogs, I love your animal portraits. Do people ever hire you to take pictures of their pets?
Although 99% of the photos I take with my phone are of my bulldogs… No. Never.

I did photograph an art director’s Weimaraners in Christmas outfits once. I made him swear to never tell anyone that I took the photos.

I will say, my little buddy bulldog, Catfish, has been in more magazines than most models could ever hope to be in. He’s one handsome little dude.

Were you always interested in photography?
I was interested in illustration until I was about 15 (I still love to draw). A  highschool photo class changed everything. The romance of the darkroom, the science meeting art, the small group of historical figures to look up to–it was just too easy to identify with. As soon as I saw an image I’d captured appear under that red light, I was hooked.

As soon as I saw an image I’d captured appear under that red light, I was hooked

How did you get started?
Student loans and worked my ass off. Same as most people I’d guess?

What made you decide to go to Brooks to study photography? 
I was going to college studying computer science and history. Although that was supposed to be my focus, I managed to take every photo class the school offered in 18 months. I never really understood that I could make a career of this. It was like not knowing the moon exists. I’d never noticed it and no one ever pointed out the blatantly obvious.

One day I went with some fellow photo nerds to Carmel. Carmel is a coastal California village that Clint Eastwood was mayor for some time with phenomenal art galleries. We went to all of the galleries. All of the famous f64 stuff was showing (like Weston, Adams, Bernhard, Sexton, and so on) and the new ones like Michael Kenna. At the show there was a ‘landscape’ of parking meters in fog that struck me because it was a landscape approached like a still life. The composition of the piece was so intentional. At that time I still didn’t know that I was inherently a still life photographer. I asked the gallery curator about the work. She knew I was just some kid and couldn’t buy anything, but she took print after print out of the files, took them out of their sleeves, and let me handle them, ogling over their craftsmanship.

The photographer was Rolfe Horn. He’d gone to Brooks. That day I decided I would too. Lots of student loan forms later I was there. And in my third year I met Rolfe. He was guest lecturing my class, and that night I found myself on a beach with him drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, smoking backwoods cigars and taking 45 minute exposures with my 4×5.

A few weeks later there was a raffle in my class for a print Rolf had made from that night. I remember the look on my instructor’s face when he pulled my name. He swore to me that he did pull my name and showed me the scrap of paper. It was fate.

Hell, I don’t even believe in fate, but how can you deny that?

I love that photo.

Do you think photo school is a necessary foundation for photographers?
No. But things are a lot different now. Things are different every year. What does seem to be constant is that photography is an entrepreneurial venture. And if you can be prepared for that, you will be better off.

What are your go-to cameras or your favorite cameras you have experimented with in the past? 
A view camera is my most comfortable and truest tool (currently using an Arca Swiss 6x9cm with a Phase One P65+). Although it is very time consuming, so I also use a Hasselblad V system when I need to work faster. It is still all manual, but much quicker than a view camera.

I guess I like the old school stuff.

Do you have a mentor in the field?
No. Not like that. I have my wife. She is my collaborator, my inspiration, my director, and in a lot of ways she is pretty much my handler. I would flounder a lot more without her to point me in the right direction.

What has been your best career decision?
When I was starting I built the basic still life portfolio similar to what most of my competition has. Cosmetics, a shiny phone, a few gadgets and fashion accessories. Everyone has a similar portfolio and it gets old pretty quick. After a while I got bored with the assignments I was getting. People hired me to do the dry stuff that was in my portfolio. I started thinking about my work in a new way. I wanted to inspire ideas in art directors and designers. I wanted to make still life that told stories and conveyed concepts. That is now the ultimate goal with my personal work. I’m trying very hard to develop a strong portfolio that shows still life in an atypical way, while staying true to tradition. Since changing my perspective about my work and portfolio, my assignments have gotten much more interesting.

I wanted to make still life that told stories and conveyed concepts

What is your favorite thing about photographing in Texas?
Living in Austin. I have a remarkable quality of life here. When I was living and working in New York I missed things like trees and smiles on people’s faces. The trade off is that very little of my work comes from Texas, so I have to work that much harder to bring work to Austin from cities like New York.

Why would a magazine hire me a thousand miles away where there is someone just as good (or much better) down the street? I have no idea! I’ve managed to trick a few of them into thinking I’m not too bad. I hope I can keep it up because I like it here.

Do you think that living in New York was important to your success and making initial connections?
I learned a lot in New York and gained insight into the industry. Most of my clients are in New York, so having lived there is handy. I would recommend living in New York to anyone. But did I make contacts while living there? No. I had to become known before anyone would want to be my contact. It’s a bit of a puzzle really.

Do you have a dream assignment?
No. I just want to do good work with fun people.

How do you stay motivated?
Staying motivated isn’t an issue. I have a long list of ideas that I’d like to bring to fruition. The hard part is making time. My clients always come first, and my personal work is an after thought.

I have a long list of ideas that I’d like to bring to fruition

What was your first big break?
I had some editorial projects with Shape & a few other magazines right out of school. I also landed Stephen Dweck as a jewelry client after I moved to Brooklyn. However, the one job that really stands out to me is the first GSD&M ad I shot for BMW when I was struggling to get going here in Austin. I’d really been making my living as a camera assistant before moving here, so I was starting at square one. I was struggling to get by, selling old camera gear to pay rent.

I didn’t have strobes, so I used clip lights from the hardware store and foam core to build my light setup. But light is light, as long as you point it in the right direction you can make one hell of an image. And my little career started to grow after completing that job.

How did you establish your personal vision? Was there one project that gave you that “ah ha” moment, where you knew this is where you wanted to take your work?
I don’t think it works like that. You can have an ‘ah ha’ moment where you discover something you want to rip off / emulate, but I think you are who you are. You can express unique ideas from your own perspective, or you copy others.

Do you have any favorite photo books?
Oh yeah. Venenum, Guido Mocafico is the pride of my bookshelf. Gift of the Common Place, Ruth Bernhard was one of my earliest inspirations. Still Life, Irving Penn. A Notebook at Random, Irving Penn. Pretty much any Irving Penn book really. I’m also pretty fond of Blunt, Nigel Parry. And any Yousuf Karsh. I’m very inspired by classic portraiture. And if I can stray from pure photography, I find a lot of joy in the works of Dave Mckean & Mark Ryden.

What was the most helpful part of your ‘education’ that wasn’t photo related?
Marketing. Photography – Marketing = Fail.

Who are you inspired by?
My wife. But if you mean old or dead people? Irving Penn represents everything I aspire to achieve and never will.

How do you define ‘success’ in your own career?
It is complicated. Each achievement is a stepping stone to the next level of possibilities. There isn’t really a final goal to reach. So true success is never reached. We just keep working.

What’s next? Any exciting projects coming up in 2012?
Ha, you’ll have to wait and see.

Favorite bbq?

Franklin’s, isn’t that everyone’s?

Favorite breakfast taco?

Mine. I make them at home with eggs from my backyard chickens.

Favorite libation?

Mine I make at home! I’m a hobby mixologist. I’ll say my favorite starts are gin or bourbon.

Do you collect anything?

I don’t like ‘stuff.’ So my go to answer is no. But I do have a small box filled with vintage Polaroids & one off prints I’ve been collecting for a few years. I like images that tell intimate stories about people’s lives. They document history in a very personal way. It is true Americana at its brightest and darkest.

Any hobbies outside of photography?

I’m a serious gardener. It’s something that requires a level of dedication and can take my mind off of work for a while.

Jay B Sauceda is an editorial and commercial photographer based in Austin, Texas. This 5th generation Texan talked to ILTP over cold beers at Rabbit’s on Austin’s east side.

How did you start out?

I went to UT for political science. I’d always done video stuff and photography in high school, but it was all super hobby. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I actually had way, way, way more experience with video and worked on documentaries in college. Most people go the other way around. Sophomore or junior year in school, I took Dennis Darling’s J316. Harry Benson came a spoke to Dennis’ class and I was super intrigued. He photographed the Beatles, the Robert Kennedy assassination – he was there for everything, all the preeminent moments in American cultural history.

I’m an inquisitive person by nature. He made a comment about how the camera is this.. .not a stupid device… but an excuse that grants you access into people’s lives. You’re a complete stranger and people open up to you just because you’re there to take a picture. So it’s a magical object.

 You’re a complete stranger and people open up to you just because you’re there to take a picture

At that point, I had no real desire to become a photographer, but I wanted to do it more. I was actually a really shitty student. I dated a girl in that class that got great grades. I was a “C” student. She always had the better photographs and grades. She never thought my work was that great. It’s a joke we get a kick out of now.

I wanted to work in political science or advertising in some regard. At that point I wasn’t completely sure. I worked on a documentary. I interned for the Butler Bros and cut my teeth on ad work and creative work. Realistically, it wasn’t until after college when I was doing freelance design work and getting into the political side of stuff and was not really enjoying the work I was producing. I was also working with people I wasn’t politically aligned with.

The path worked out, though. I was shooting stuff still for fun. My buddy Adam Voorhes said you should seriously consider going after this, “Keep trying to do work for the Butler Bros, refine your stuff, play around. If you’re able to pay bills doing other work you’re not happy with, just do that to make money and use that time to build a portfolio that’s solid.”

How long did that take?

It took a long time. I started getting work because Adam vouched for me. He had solid relationships with art directors around the city and vouched for me. I probably wouldn’t have work if it weren’t for him. With a lot of art directors and buyers, it’s who you know.

A lot of people try to get into the photo industry and don’t go to school for it. I lucked out and met Adam Voorhes and Matt Rainwaters who had both gone to Brooks and had a good commercial background and worked in New York and assisted for people. A lot of people who try to get into photography without school end up reading a lot of bad information online from photographers that don’t know what the hell they’re doing anymore. Their careers are on the way down and they become this source of a lot of bad info. You’re dating your work by taking tips from people who aren’t doing that kind of work anymore.

I lucked out that those were the guys I got plugged in with. they gave me a lot of good advice – don’t rush into showing your work, because up front it’s going to be bad. They told me what stuff I was producing was bad, and the rights and wrongs of how to get in (to the industry), essentially.

For me it was a long journey. I started wanting to go in that direction 2007. I didn’t start showing books to agencies until 2010, or ’09 maybe. I started showing work to magazines before that but I didn’t have agency relative work until 2009. I was still paying bills doing web development and layout for old political clients, but didn’t get rolling with ad work until 2009.

What was your first job?

Robin Finlay gave me my first editorial job, she was the Art Director at Austin Monthly at the time. I’d sent her my portfolio two or three times and she never responded. Finally, Adam invited us to his birthday dinner and she was one of the guests. I think she felt awkward that I had emailed and she had never responded. Finally she said, email me again and she finally gave me that job.

What kept you going through those early days?

Encouraging feedback from Adam. I got to do some cool stuff at the Butler Bros, before I really got rolling or had a style or anything like that. The Butler Bros would hire me to do random stuff. I had a background in all things design and photography, but that’s what they brought me in to do. They were a young agency and wanted someone that could do web development and video.

Sounds like that internship was a formative experience.

To this day a lot of what we do at Public School, my studio, is stuff I learned while working for The Butler Bros. Before they expanded, the office was just a big open space. I heard everything from business stuff, numbers, all those things that as an intern you normally don’t hear. In retrospect, I’m glad I got an internship there rather than a bigger agency. They could kick me $500 to shoot jobs for clients that couldn’t afford a full-on shoot. It was really easy stuff. It looked like stock, not in my style. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. It taught me a lot about the art direction process, shooting a lot and having to work around an ad concept. They helped me figure out that I didn’t know what I was good at yet.

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned from them as well as Adam is that I’d just rather make the pie bigger. Adam reminds me of that all the time – don’t get online and see pictures of other photographers working or other photographers having success and become resentful and negative. Take that energy and be positive about it and use it to make the pie bigger. Don’t ask why your slice isn’t bigger, make a bigger slice because you’ve made the pie larger. If that means stealing work from other cities, that’s fine, but don’t be annoyed about people who are here and busy and on their hustle. That’s our thing – put Austin on the map. Don’t complain about why people are working in New York and elsewhere.

How did you establish a personal vision?

When I first started I wanted to shoot fashion, but there’s no market for that here. I say that, but Andrew Shapter did really well with that stuff. Andrew made a living shooting fashion because he had gone and lived in Barcelona for a while. He got his portfolio going and when he came back to Austin he was ‘that European guy’ even though he was from Ft. Worth. That was why he blew up, and he was shooting for people outside of Austin. There wasn’t a lot of fashion work here, but no one tells you that until you are broke and you can’t get any work.

So I started out doing that and playing around with lighting because you don’t learn that in Dennis’ class. It takes forever and honestly everybody does it different. People tell you what’s right and wrong. They tell you don’t light hard. Don’t to this or that. All this shit. And you just have to figure it out for yourself.

For every lighting style that I’ve had and every light setup that I’ve done, there’s always been an ‘ah-ha’ moment where I try something that I really like. I write it down in a little book and that’s what I base everything else off of for a while, depending on what it is. I like experimenting.

Was there a time that you made a career path distinction between documentary and portraiture?

I’ve never considered myself a documentary photographer. I have a hard time with that honestly. It takes a special person to see someone drowning in a river and take a picture of it for Newsweek.

The environmental portraiture thing happened on accident because I like shooting weird stuff and I like having a lot of control over a scene. Environmental portraiture is sort of a gut reaction thing. I go into a space, I walk around, and my first inclination is what I go with. I like that about it. I experiment if there’s couple things that work for me. If this is what speaks to me immediately, and then I can see it before I shoot it, and then I shoot it.

Environmental portraiture is sort of a gut reaction thing

I was going to ask you what your process was because all of your stuff is well composed, classically oriented, squared-up, geometric.

I share an office with an architectural photographer. It’s kind of hard to not sit over someone’s shoulder who totally respects Julius Shulman and see how he would photograph a space and not take that into account. One Shulman portrait is a bad ass photo of this modern home, and the wife is sitting on the couch, in a really pretty long dress and her arms are out taking over the couch, the husband is behind her at the counter making a drink. and it’s cool, it’s Madmen, but in photo form, but in real life. It’s squared up and the shapes of the ceiling are coming at you. It’s rad.

© Julius Shulman

The architectural aspect plays a big part of it. It’s subtle if you don’t know what it is, but it’s visually pleasing to me. It’s like with any creative thing, people hire you for your taste, you just hope your taste is in line with what’s in style.

How much of your time do you spend conceptualizing a shoot before you get there?

Commercial stuff I scout – always, always. Depending on the timeline of the editorial job as well as the location, my options are limited. It just depends on the job.

I shoot with two cameras a Fuji X100 and a Mamiya 645 and a Phase One back. Outdoors and certain situations, the Phase One is fine, and then when I’m shooting inside – when it’s all fluorescent lighting that’s really dim – I can’t shoot with that camera so I have to make do with what I’ve got. The X100 is awesome, it’s also not massive. My 645 is huge. I pull it out and people are like, ‘Oh my god.’ Whereas the X100 is barely bigger than a point and shoot.

You also get good moments in your portraits. I really enjoyed your captions, too. You refer to people by their first name and tell a little story about them or your interaction with them.

I talk to people…a lot. My fiancé would say I could talk to the wall. She’s probably right. I’m legitimately interested in what everyone has to say. I’m also interested in a lot of things by my nature. I’m super interested in finance, politics, science. I’m obsessed with the space shuttle and the space program, history, WWII, design, cars, trucks, fishing. I have a horse. I’m kind of all over the place, so I can find something to talk about with somebody. I can always find an angle with people. I’ve found that when you’re photographing people, everyone thinks they know how they look best and so they’ll do that thing to a ‘T’ every time and rarely is it actually what makes them look good. You have to talk them out of it.

I’m legitimately interested in what everyone has to say

Why do you think that is? Why do people have this weird conception of themselves?

No one’s vain. Well, everyone’s vain, but not to the extent that they’ll stand in front of a mirror and close their eyes and say, “When I smile in pictures I go like this,” and then open their eyes to see what it looks like. There’s a lot of things that are different about how you look in the mirror when you smile at yourself when you’re brushing your teeth, versus how you’re going to look when I blast a bunch of light at you. It’s easier to get people talking about themselves. Everyone loves talking about themselves. It’ll break the wall down a little bit and make it easier for them to get comfortable and trust you when you get to the point where you’re telling what to do and how to pose. I shoot a lot with a cable release so I don’t have to look through the camera. They don’t know when I’m going to pull the cable. A lot of my favorite photographers are like that.

If I was shooting celebrities, it would be easy, well, not easy, it’s still hard, but when it’s a celebrity, you can do what you want because the photo is partially interesting because it’s a cool photo and because it’s a celebrity.

One of my favorite portraits of all time is Denzel Washington that Dan Winters shot in that weird green room that Dan built in his studio. It’s a kind of small box of a room with a slanted floor and Denzel is sitting on a chair.

© Dan Winters

Tell me about your cowboy stuff. Is it all personal?

Yeah, sort of. It started as a personal project that’s turned into commercial thing and a book.

How all personal work should turn out, huh?

Yeah, totally. I’ve always wanted to work with DJ Stout from Pentagram because he’s a cool old school Texas dude, bad ass Art Director, and a partner at Pentagram. I wanted to work with him for awhile. I photographed him a few years ago and then asked to show him my portfolio. He said, “It’s cool, but you should do some personal work.” I told him some of it is and he said “No, not, like you had your friends over to the studio. Shoot a project, a cohesive body of work.”

I met all these cowboys on assignment in Terlingua in ’07 at a chili cook-off and always wanted to go back. A year went by and I didn’t go, and the year after I was like I’m gonna go out there and make a photo project out of it. I ended up not really shooting anything out there, but I met all these cowboys. I photographed 2 or 3 of them and got to be good friends with them and totally fell in with their crowd.

 grew up in east Texas. I’m kind of a redneck.

I grew up in east Texas. I’m kind of a redneck. I rode horses, cooked out, stayed up drinking with all of the cowboys. These guys are old school, old school cowboys. Last year one of them told me he was going to a cowboy poetry gathering for his birthday. I asked him, “Do people dress like you, old school style?” And he said, “Oh shit yeah.” So I pull up there and it was like a geriatric conference. Everyone there is such much older than me.

These people, when they were kids ‘cowboy’ was cool. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, that was cool when they were kids. It’s a dying culture for sure, which is a shame, that’s why I’m all into it. I was going to see what happened, maybe cruise around and shoot some natural light portraits outside. I didn’t know what the format was like. So when I looked at the schedule it was crazy because they had morning sessions in the auditorium and the next 4-5 hours it’s college style with sessions all over campus. 10 minutes before the next hour everyone breaks and goes to the next one. So it’s not conducive to grabbing people and taking their portrait. I figured out that on Friday/Saturday night they do these big performances in the auditorium with the who’s-who of cowboy poetry. I set up in a classroom right next to the auditorium, and you know older folks – always get there early to get in line and get a good seat. So I walked around outside grabbing people. I got 16 that year and this year I went back for more.

I sent all that work to DJ. He’s from Alpine. He was psyched that anyone was doing work that had anything to do with Alpine. He said I think this would make a perfect Pentagram paper. They do one or two a year since the 70’s. It’s generally a collections of photographs of something. The last one he did was portraits of the homeless that Michael O’Brien had done. He wanted to pair up the portraits with their poetry, so that’s what we’re going to do – pair the portrait with a poem or a quote. It’ll probably come out in September or early October.

Tell me about your horse.

His name’s Quatro. He’s a Quarter-horse. A big solid dude, a big bay. Bought him from that guy that got arrested downtown for drunk riding. He still rides. I keep him on his property. I didn’t ride growing up. I grew up south east of Houston right on the water in La Porte. It’s not east Texas, it’s east of here. I’m proud of my hometown. Best theater program in the country.

Really? Were you in it?

Yeah, I was thespian president, co-president with my best friend. I was in the musical all four years. I was super introverted dude until theater. When you’re in high school, all you want to do is hang out with girls. When you make the cast you start practicing after school in December. As soon as Christmas break starts you’re up there from 10am to 2am every day, but you’re just hanging with a bunch of girls.

What’s so rad is that I went home earlier this year to see the musical and we went to the local restaurant to have dinner. We were at the bar and mentioned the show and this dude turns around – some guy in oil field overalls, with his name on a patch, had just come home from one of the plants and says, “Y’all going to see the musical? Oh, it’s so good.” That’s what’s so cool about it. It’s not theater for the rich person in downtown Houston, it’s for everyone and it’s legitimately good.

Do think that influenced how you think about your production work?

Yeah, you don’t have to do things the way everyone else does. Theater more so than anything made me outgoing. Once you perform in front of 750 people, 36 times over all four years, it’s a lot. You stop giving a shit. I could talk about theater all night. I know it’s not super relevant to the article. That’s another set of beers.

Do you have any mentors?

Voorhes, major mentor. Same thing with Robin Finlay. Both of them are huge mentors. Robin is a bad ass producer. I call her for everything. Honestly, if she couldn’t produce for me, I probably wouldn’t take a job. Well, that’s not true, but almost. They both have different perspectives on everything.

Casey Dunn is a peer and a mentor from a technical and creative stand point. The Butler Bros, easily. And my old teacher from back home Sam Sprosky. Our high school needed someone to teach video and he knew somewhat about it, but didn’t know a ton. I was one of his students his first year. There was a mutual thankfulness that I got his class and he was my teacher. He didn’t know what he was doing, I didn’t know what I was doing. He’s easily my first creative mentor and to this day a life mentor. Every problem I’ve had from relationships to business stuff, from when me and my girlfriend in high school broke up to what I want to do for a living. I think those mentors are just as important.

Best career decision?

Good question. I would say, in a weird way, Wonderful Machine. They’ve kicked ass. I get so much good work from them. Some people have had mixed results. They’re going to love that I gave them a shout out.

What’s your favorite thing about shooting in Texas?

Being that ‘Texas’ guy. I get a kick out of how tickled people from out-of-state are about me being sort of redneck and being Texas-y. People eat that up. I love it. I love this state. My family has been here from before it was a state. My mom’s side of the family had been here since 1820-something. Our family on my mom’s side can trace it back to the first Spaniard asked to map southern Texas.

You don’t have to look very far, you throw a rock and there’s something cool to photograph here. The people here are so interesting. There’s an inherent fascination with old west culture that people everywhere have, and that makes my job easy. Just photograph somebody with a cowboy hat and people think it’s rad. People like Texas. They love it or hate it, and if they hate it I don’t want to work with them anyway.

You don’t have to look very far, you throw a rock and there’s something cool to photograph here

Is there an advantage to being a Texan working in Texas?

I’d like to say yes. To some extent we’re at an inherent disadvantage by not being in New York, LA, or Chicago, but that’s what we’re trying to change. We’re trying to show that caliber of work is being produced here. People like Randal, and Dan Winters and Brent Humphreys.

I’m sure the only reason people were sitting down for me for cowboy portraits is that I was wearing a cowboy hat with a cowboy vest and a pocket watch. I was at least trying to fit in. Some dude shows up with vans and baggy jeans and volcom t-shirt trying to take pictures of old school cowboys born in 1930? People wont be down with that.

What was your first big break?

I don’t know. I perceive a lot of diff things as big breaks. The first time someone hired me to shoot commercial work was a big break. I remember bidding on something and losing the job because I didn’t know how to bid right and I bid too low. The client went with someone more expensive because they thought he’d be better. I got a call a month later and the client said, “These suck, can you come shoot this for us?” That was a big break because I ended up with a client I still have. Every time a magazine I’ve really wanted to shoot for has called me, that’s a big break too.

Adam has always told me, “You don’t make it and then you’re done.” There is no more annoying interview than the one Chip Simmons did on aphotoeditor deriding people for ripping him off in the late 90′s and his dog portraits he shot in NYC. Yeah, it was huge, he made a shit load of money, and that’s awesome, but, dude, get over it. Create something else cool. Don’t be pissed that people will copy you. People will copy you and rip that style off. Don’t ride on that one big break that you had. Get over it and do something else cool.

That’s why I don’t consider anything as one big break. They’re all wins. They’re all little successes. When the time between each success starts becoming too far, that’s when you know you need to shift gears. Do something cool and novel.

As long as you’re happy and not content with the work you’re producing, I think you’re in a good place

As long as you’re happy and not content with the work you’re producing, I think you’re in a good place. You’re happy when you produce it and you’re happy with the results it gets, but in a month or two you’re not content. You perceive it as stylistically not with it anymore and you need to do something new. You’re not content. That’s where you need to be.

I don’t mean to sound crass about it. I have been like that too. Work that I created sucked. Robin Finlay knew. She saw it and she didn’t hire me for a long time.

Who are you inspired by?

A lot of people. I’m inspired by Harry Benson, for sure. He’s one of my favorites.

Dennis Darling, his work is bad ass. He just turned 65 this last year and, as a retrospective, he’s sending out a mailing list of work that’s never been published. You need to get on that mailing list.

I like Platon’s work a lot.

My friends inspire me a lot. Matt Rainwaters, everything that guy does is awesome. You can quote me on this, “If you’re looking for a photographer, call Matt Rainwaters.” Casey’s work is incredible. Adam Voorhes blows me away. I got so excited to see a body of work of his I’d never seen. The other day he showed brains, deformed brains from the Texas State Mental Hospital. It was so freaking cool. I was so moved by it, how passionate about his work he is. It makes me want to go out and make a bunch of cool work just to keep up with him.

Designers make me feel that way, too. Jon Contino is a designer out of Brooklyn. DJ Stout, Stu Taylor, they do tons of design work that’s rad. Time Magazine – every time I open it up they have beautiful photojournalism.

Photo books you love?

I love Randal’s book with Roy Spence,The Amazing Faith of Texas: Common Ground on Higher Ground.

Avedon at Work: In the American West (Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center Imprint Series).

I like James Evans’ work because I miss west Texas. I don’t own any of them. I’m the worst about buying them.

What’s the most helpful part of your education that wasn’t photo related?

Interning at the Butler Bros.

What would you be if you weren’t a photographer?

If I wasn’t a photographer I’d be unemployed. Haha. I don’t know. If I wasn’t a photographer and I had the work ethic to be an engineer, I’d be an engineer. I like working with my hands in general – cars, wood.

Any hobbies outside of photography?

Riding horses, all western trail rides. I don’t do English style shit. It’s, like, drink on the back of a horse kind of stuff and race them a bit. Dancing I guess. Me and my fianceé dance tejano, cumbia, salsa, two-stepping.

What does the ‘B’ stand for?

My real name is Juan Bernardo Sauceda. My middle name is after my granddad. I went by the initials J.B. through most of school. My high school girlfriend made a joke about branding myself like Jay-Z, so I did. I dropped the hyphen at some point and went by Jay B. I started spelling it ‘Jay’ and it carried over into business. It was just easier and a brand people could Google so i left it that way.

The ideal client calls with ideal assignment. What is it?

I would love to do portrait work for Vanity Fair or Esquire. My ideal client will always be more editorial. You have more freedom and flexibility. Commercially, it’s more lifestyle or traveling maybe. I’m still in the phase where I fall in love with every project. If I don’t like it, I won’t bid on it.

Your dad was on the Colbert Report?!

He was. Getty licenses a bunch of images of mine, all portrait work. My dad’s portrait was one I shot when I first started out. That one’s royalty free, and I guess Colbert Report didn’t want to spend $1000 for a photo that would be up there for a second, so my dad’s picture was one they picked about a joke about Mexicans. My dad thought it was hilarious.

How do you distinguish yourself from the competition?

If I said I was hard working, I would be doing a disservice to everyone else who’s hard working. I do what I like stylistically and what makes me happy. When I first started out, I was following a style trend that was super ‘in’, but that doesn’t get you work. You can be the poor man’s so-and-so, but I don’t want to be the poor man’s so-and-so. Instead, I do what makes me happy.

I keep my ear to the ground, so I make sure I know what’s going on. I differentiate myself from the competition by letting them do what they do, too. I don’t concern myself with trying figure out what so-and-so’s doing and mimicking that or being cheaper. It’s not in our best interest to be cheaper. There are a lot of people for whom that’s their business model, to be the cheaper photographer. Ultimately, that just fucks us all.

 If a client values price over creative value then I don’t value you as a client

If you’re a photographer and your business model is “I can do it cheaper,” you’re not competing against me. You’re going for work that I’m not going after. If a client values price over creative value then I don’t value you as a client. I do what I think makes me happy.

How do define success in your career or on a particular shoot?

If the client and I are both happy. Sometimes the client takes something I did and takes it in a different direction. That happens. It’s the nature of it. It’s my job to give creative input. It’s not my job to give the creative veto and say, “I’m walking.”

Realistically, I have to deliver what they want and give them something that will surprise them. I want to surprise them with something cool and different – something they didn’t think of. I do what they want, and then play around on set and improve upon what we thought about.

Is that a struggle with the Art Director sometimes?

Editorially, not really, but commercially yes, all the time. It is a struggle. It’s your job as a photographer to work with the art director and reassure the client that they will achieve what they were sold on. Your job as a photographer is to raise objections beforehand as to why that might not be achievable. We will get this as close to spec as possible, but also, we’re going to make it look as good as possible. We’re going to give you the best product we can given the circumstances. Your job as a photographer is setting expectations as well as achieving them.

Exciting stuff coming out this year?

Two personal projects I’m excited about. I don’t want to talk about it quite yet, but they will be really cool. One’s a sequel to the cowboy series, and the other is completely separate but really cool, epically cool, maybe not the coolest thing ever, but very cool.