Lifestyle

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.

Matt Hawthorne ©

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.

Matt Hawthorne ©

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!

Matt Hawthorne ©

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.

Matt Hawthorne ©

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!

Matt Hawthorne ©

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.”

 

Originally from California, Matt Rainwaters moved to Austin 6 years ago to start his career in photography.  From landscapes to reportage, Matt strives to create honest work and talks with ILTP about his recent  experiences photographing in Haiti and Guatemala.

Tell us a little about your background.  How did you get started?  
I’m from the San Fernando Valley, just North of LA.  Photography for me started around age 14 when I bought a video camera– I used to make skate videos with my friends.  Now everyone has a video camera on their phone, but back then it was rare for someone to have their own camera, so I just fell into the role of photographer for my friends. When I wasn’t filming skate boarding, I was filming punk rock. It wasn’t until I was 18 that I bought my first still camera.

When I wasn’t filming skate boarding, I was filming punk rock

Then when I was 21 I left a job working in this crazy special effects shop – a pretty unique job making monsters for horror movies and art films- to go to Brooks.  I focused on black and white printing and landscapes, and I did everything I could to avoid photographing people. My degree is actually in industrial and scientific photography. When I graduated, I was showing black and white landscapes in galleries all over California, but you don’t make much money doing that, so I took a job teaching high school photography.

My buddy Adam Voorhes told me there was lots of opportunity in Austin, so I moved and it’s just kind of worked out from there

After three years, I got concerned I’d never have a professional photography career if I was still teaching, so I quit my job one day in the middle of a teachers meeting.  Then my buddy Adam Voorhes told me there was lots of opportunity in Austin, so I moved and it’s just kind of worked out from there. That was about 6 years ago. Being from California, do you think you need to go to a big city, like LA,to get started?  Did that help you being from there?
Being from LA didn’t really help me.  It’s really about your work and vision.  I moved here with a landscape portfolio and three years of teaching experience now I shoot more portraits than landscapes. 

Who are you influenced or inspired by?
I saw the Richard Avedon documentary, “Darkness and Light,” and the way he dealt with subjects was revolutionary to me.  He could talk to his subjects and direct the entire shoot without them realizing it. It’s a rare skill to be able to disarm people in front of the camera and get an honest photograph. Avedon was a real master at that.

Renee Cervantes is an influence as well. We met in school and have been close friends since.  He’s a phenomenal photographer based in NYC. Renee and I have a similar work style that involves minimal gear, and we talk shop about that kind of thing.

Lou Mora is another influence. Lou amazes me with his natural light photos. He’s been especially inspirational lately as I’m trying to move away from using artificial light and am shooting more natural looking photos.

Lastly, Nadav Kander, is very influential. Nadav can shoot anything and make it look good.

 [Keith Carter] said, “Above all else, always be honest with your work” And that stuck.

How would you describe your visual style?
I think your style is always changing. For me, I want consistently honest work.  I’m not forcing the subject or coaxing them to do something they don’t want to.  I did a phone interview with Keith Carter when I was a student, and at the end I asked if he had any advice for an aspiring photographer.  Keith said, “ Above all else, always be honest with your work” and that stuck. 

I don’t do a lot of conceptual photography because I don’t think it would be honest coming from me; I’d rather just show a person as they are. 

You obviously shoot people now…
I knew if I wanted to make it as an editorial and commercial photographer, I’d need to photograph people.  So I spent a few months before moving to Austin photographing some of my students to build my portfolio.  After moving, I got a break shooting with Austin Monthly and the first thing they had me do was shoot a fashion spread – the last thing that I am is a fashion photographer. I just made it as landscape-y as possible, where the girl was smaller in the frame.

Then I started getting a lot of the assignments that took a reportage twist – a lot of prison and disaster stories… and that stuff takes a mental toll on you.  Right now I’m trying to focus back on lifestyle images, music and punk rock – like Fun Fun Fun Fest and SXSW – to return to the inspiration where it all started.

 It’s a great job where you get to travel, meet people and see new things.  Even though you’re in Guatemala and think you’re going to die…

Most memorable photo shoot?
The most recent one:  I was working for the New Republic on a story about Guatemalan Bus Drivers, which is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the world right now, ahead of industrial logging and deep-sea fishing.  And it’s not because they’re flipping buses off the sides of cliffs – even though  they’re doing that too.

They’re being extorted by MS13 and M18 – the most notorious gangs to come out of Southern California after a huge deportation in the mid-90s. Now the gangs have incredibly sophisticated crime syndicates and their income comes from extortion.  We spent a few days with a bus driver  who was being extorted by one gang and hunted down by another for almost killing one of their members.

At one point our bus broke down and we were in the neighborhood where he beat that guy up who’s trying to hunt him down.  We’re on this bus like sitting ducks, in a neighborhood that we’re not suppose to be in, and I’m photographing him with a huge medium format camera trying not to be obvious.  I really thought we were going to die there a few times.

Haiti was rough too.  I spent 9 days in a hospital without running water for the Texas Medical Association with doctors giving aid to patients post-earthquake.  No one talked about how there’s this overwhelming need for aid in Haiti, beyond the earthquake.

We were outside Port Au Prince by 4 hours, but the infrastructure is just so rough, it’s difficult for them to bring people to the hospital.  So we were helping the local people, but they don’t have basic things like soap.  I saw two horribly infected legs that had to be amputated with handsaws because they just don’t have soap to clean the wounds.

The work is hard for me to look at so I took it down from my site about a year ago. That’s bad stuff, but there’s good stuff too. Overall, it’s a great job where you get to travel, meet people and see new things.  Even though you’re in Guatemala and think you’re going to die, it’s an amazing experience and something most people don’t get to have.  It definetely grounds you.

What’s your favorite thing about shooting in Texas?
The people are really unique; there’s so many interesting stories coming out of Texas.  In California, the really great thing is the landscape – you’ve got the coast, snow in the mountains, and a beautiful desert – you have that same kind of diversity here in Texas, but with the people.

How do you spend your free time?
I grew up skating, and just started doing that again.  I’m also raising a baby and that takes up a lot of time, but she’s a little cutie so it’s worth it.

Do you have a dream assignment?
I feel pretty lucky; I get a nice mix.  I’ve done a good job of not getting pigeonholed, so I still get a range of studio assignments, environmental portraits and travel jobs.  I get a good mix of travel and adventure, doing work that I’m interested in, plus some fluffy stuff that helps pay the bills.

Your book ‘Beard’ started as a personal project.  What was it like getting it published into a book?
The “Beardfolio” project went viral really fast; then over a year later, a friend of mine, Will Bryant, told me to pitch it to an editor at Chronicle Books.  I did, and then two-weeks later, they said they liked it and wanted to print it as a book.  Publishing a book is not a super profitable endeavor, but it’s really fun.  It’s also great marketing piece and really fulfilling to be able to walk into a bookstore and say, “I did that.”

You’re bearded now, but have you always had a beard?
I didn’t always have a beard but I kind of feel like I had to be a bearded ambassador after printing the book. One of the guys in the book said, you can’t really know your face without seeing it with a beard.  I just prefer the way I look with a beard now.  And my wife likes it, so that makes her a keeper.

Best career decision so far?
The faith to invest time and money in personal projects and using those to promote your work instead of tear sheets.

It’s really about your work and vision.

So just like you asked Keith Carter, do you have any advice for a young, aspiring photographers?

You really have to enjoy what you shoot.  That’s kind of a no-brainer.  Make sure you love photography before you decide to dedicate your life to it… because that’s what you have to do to make a career out of it.  And be honest with your work… Keith said it best so it’s worth repeating.


Favorite Taco:  I love tacos! I can talk passionately about tacos, maybe more so than photography.  In Austin, best taco joint, world-class, one of my top three favorite anywhere, is Piedras Negras, but we lovingly call it “Not Dos Hermanos,” because the trailer is on the foundation of a leveled Mexican restaurant named Dos Hermanos… the sign is even still there.

Favorite BBQ:   Kreutz Market’s ribs.  I love that its dry rub… it’s truly an art to make BBQ that good without sauce.

Favorite Beverage:  Beer: Hops and Grain’s Pale Dog  Coffee: Non fat latte from Jo’s on South Congress  Water: Whole Foods’ brand sparkling mineral water in the giant green bottle

Favorite Texas Weekend getaway spot:  My backyard… cruise over we’ll smoke ribs and play Bocce

How did you get started in photography?
I always loved art, and my dad taught me and my sister how to draw when we were little. However, I didn’t really get into photography until high school when I took a black and white film class at a community college. I fell in love with photo, and also thought it would be easier to make a living doing commercial photography then drawing or being a gallery artist. I was one of those weird students that knew exactly what they wanted to do going into college and never changed their mind. I think that might be a little abnormal, but maybe good abnormal? Not sure!

Do you remember your first camera? The first photo you were proud of?
It was a 110 film camera and I think it actually said “My First Camera” on the package. Pretty sure my dad still has that somewhere…I should look for it. I was super proud of some of the images I took in my first black and white film class, and I still really like some of those. You can really fall in love with photos when you are doing everything manually, with care by delicate hand. They are so much more special that way.

How do you manage the business side of photography? Do you send email blasts and postcards?
I have sent out lots of promo stuff the last few years, and gotten some response, but mainly I get jobs through relationships and people I know, or get introduced to people in the business by way of people I know. If I could go back and tell photography students one thing, it would be to make friends with people in the design program at their school. Those are the people who are going to be hiring you in the future, and those are the relationships you need to make and keep throughout the years.

Personally, I find email blasts annoying, and so I would rather not annoy other people with my own, but postcards and other things are always fun to get in the snail mail, so I will send those out to photo editors and ad agencies. Advertising through blogs and people with lots of social networking followers is a great tool to spread your name out there as well. I got a really awesome job shooting for the University of Minnesota through Twitter of all places, so you never know how people will find you!

 If I could go back and tell photography students one thing, it would be to make friends with people in the design program at their school.

Do you have a rep? Why/why not?
I don’t currently have a rep. I had one for a while a few years ago, and I go back and forth with wanting one and not wanting one. On one hand it would be amazing to not have to deal with invoicing and receipts, but on the other hand I would have to give someone a percentage of jobs. My plan is to just keep doing what I am doing, and if I get a really big job that I am having a hard time handling, I might start looking more seriously for a rep, or if someone approches me, I might think about it.

Do you mainly shoot in digital?
Yes, mostly digital, although, I only had 2 digital classes in college, and shot a lot of film on my Mamiya 645. I still shoot film for fun, but all jobs are usually taken digitally.

What’s your go-to gear?
Those that know me, know that I am the antithesis of a gear head. I am completely content with a only a Canon 5D Mark II and a 50mm 1.2 lens. That’s all I need. As for lighting, just give me the sun. I have always been enamored with natural light, and manipulating what is already available in the scene by way of reflectors and such. I am intrigued by light and watching it play on walls and in spaces throughout the day. I am constantly observing light patterns and reflections…sometimes it’s annoying because I can’t turn that part of my brain off, even when I don’t have a camera in my hand.

Have you spent time living in LA or NYC? Do you think it is crucial?
I lived in NYC the Summer of 2007, and then from 2008-2009, but moved back to Dallas shortly after the economy hit rock bottom up there. I think it is absolutely beneficial to move to LA or NYC, but not necessarily crucial. You are a fish in a MUCH bigger sea, and I have found it easier to establish myself in a smaller pond such as Dallas, where there is still a lot of cool work.The market isn’t as over saturated in Dallas so I am more easily spotted as a photographer. Plus, it is so much cheaper for me to fly to NYC multiple times a year for jobs than to actually live there (clients are usually pay for the flight anyway). However, I do miss it sometimes. NYC is a great city, and I love walking. I’ve been to LA a few times and shot some things, but the traffic makes my whole entity rage and my blood boil (I am not exaggerating). I don’t know how they do it over there. I definitely respect LA dwellers!

Have you spent time assisting other photographers?
When I lived in NYC in 2007, I assisted two photographers and learned so much about how to deal with clients, calculate expense receipts, and just the business side of things in general. It was extremely helpful, and I am still in fairly regular contact with them. However, when I wanted to start shooting on my own I actually found it more helpful to prop style assist. That way I got to meet art directors and people on shoots without being labeled as a photo assistant. Sometimes it is hard for people to see you as a shooter if you meet them while working for another photographer. Plus, you would never ever want to step on the toes of aphotographer you were assisting for or steal their client from them.

So, it’s hard because if you want to say, shoot for Gap, and you photo assist on a Gap photo shoot, it is going to be difficult to escape the photo assistant context in which you met the Gap creative director. Common sense says you should not give your business card to the creative director anyway, because you are working with the photographer. I would never dream of doing that, so it’s almost detrimental to your career to meet clients who you want to work for while being a photo assistant. However, in prop style assisting, I got to meet art directors and sometimes the prop stylist I was working with even promoted me and handed the art director my card. I think photo assisting can be great in lots of ways, but if you want to shoot on your own I wouldn’t recommend doing it for very long.

Sometimes it is hard for people to see you as a shooter if you meet them while working for another photographer.

 

What is your favorite thing about photographing in Texas?
I think Texas is so versatile in look and feel. You have big cities, flat fields, deserts, hill country, and pine trees! Texas is huge, so it’s nice to have the ability to get in your car and drive! The sunsets are so lovely, and I feel like there are so many different locations and backgrounds to use in photographs.

Do you have a dream assignment?
I love shooting look books, and catalogs, so I would love to shoot some things for Fossil, or more for Anthro. I’ve also always wanted to shoot an editorial portrait for W Magazine. The portraits in there are so pretty!!

Do you have any favorite photo books?
I love love love Sally Mann, and her Immediate Family book.Those images of her kids are so lovely; I could stare at them all day. I have also always been a huge William Eggleston fan, so anything from him is super.

What are you inspired by?
Dappled light, fall leaves, building things with my hands, music, punny jokes, documentaries, and good conversations.

How did you end up working with Anthropologie? What about Pinhole Press?
I sent Anthro a promo and they contacted me about doing some promotional stuff for their Push Play music series. It was pretty awesome to shoot Stacy from Eisley and Sucré. I was a huge fan of Eisley in 2004, and if my 2004 self would have known that I was going to get that job 8 years later I would have not believed it! I have been working with Pinhole Press before they even launched as a company. I few years ago they found some images of mine and bought them to use for their products and company launch. We just developed a relationship and I have been working with them ever since! They are hands down some of my favorite people to work with and it’s been fun hanging out with them on our crazy kid filled shoots. The best was spending a couple days shooting in CT at their amazing cabin, while mini golfing and ice cream eating!

Favorite breakfast taco?
Good to Go Taco. In my opinion, breakfast tacos always need to be in the near vicinity of good coffee, and Good to Go and Cultivar Coffee are in the same place, so double win!

Favorite libation?
A salty dog (grapefruit juice, vodka, and a salted rim!) is probably my favorite cocktail. And of course I am always game for a delicious Shiner, yum.

Do you collect anything?
I collect milk glass vases. I guess maybe that is kind of weird, but I love finding them in antique or thrift stores when I am traveling or on vacation. They are small enough to easily take back home, and they look so pretty altogether. So far I have 16. I used to collect stamps though, and go to a stamp club at a library. All part of being homeschooled I guess!

Sara Kerens is a fashion and editorial photographer splitting her time between Dallas and New York CIty. Some of her recent clients include Anthropologie and Marie Claire.

Were you always interested in photography? How did you get started?
I started out Pre-Med and wanting to be a cardiovascular surgeon. My parents are still disappointed I’m sure of it. I took an Intro to Photography class in college because it was a hobby. My professor, Cade White, encouraged me to apply for an open position at the newspaper. Within the year I was the Chief Photographer. I kept shooting even after leaving the paper to be involved in student government. I shot engagement pictures in college to make extra money and charged $35. I know. Learning the business side of photography was a bit painful for this Rio Grande Valley girl.

Could you elaborate a little on learning the business side of photography? How do you manage business, marketing and promotion?

the business side of being a freelance photographer is a beast!

Yes, the business side of being a freelance photographer is a beast! I love the creative aspect of photography. I had to learn how to manage the money, the marketing, producing and much much more. Being a freelance photographer without an agent is like having 5 jobs. I sought the advice of many people in photography as well as public relations directors, and marketing gurus. At the end of the day, it falls on me. Social media has been a huge way to get my work out, especially to audiences that I may not already be in contact with. It’s important to present yourself genuinely. Who you are and what you enjoy and are doing. I am a very extroverted and positive person, and you get a feel for that through my tweets and posts.

How are you developing your personal vision?
I have several goals that I desire to accomplish with my career and personal life. My work and life often overlap because of my interest in certain subjects. At this point, I am both shooting and showing my book to a wider audience. This helps see how my style and interests work with a variety of publications and clients. I desire to travel and live in Europe, so that influences the track that I am pursuing and the type of work that I spend my time on, even personal work. My style overall is consistent, but I like to push myself and even challenge myself to try different techniques or subjects. It’s fun and keeps it interesting.

How often do you take photos?
I photograph daily. Even if it is my iphone, I snap at least 5 photos a day. I Instagram consistently because for me, this is such a fun way for me to share my life and work with those who care to look and be a part of it.

Do you mainly use digital?
I shoot mainly digital because that’s generally the most economic route. Clients usually want digital as well, especially with fashion as they can see the images immediately on screen and take home images from the shoot the day of.
I take Polaroids when I am able. I photographed a Dallas band, Fox and the Bird, on tour last summer. I shot over 100 Polaroids in the two weeks I was with them along with video and still shots. A printed piece has been in the works for a while and I’ll let you guys know when it’s finished. Very excited about it.
I have a lot of film cameras that I play around with, and do personal projects with.

I know you go back and forth between Texas and New York, could you discuss your reasons for doing this a bit?
I grew up mainly in Texas and have lived there since graduating college. I first visited NYC two years ago on a last minute trip. There is a huge market here, and I see this city as a place to pursue my foreign interests as directly as I can from the U.S. I have amazing clients in Dallas that I want to continue working with a well, so I found that working in both cities was a great fit for me career wise. There are extremely talented creatives in Dallas and the city’s art culture is really taking off. It is an exciting time to be connected there. There is a strong Texas presence in NYC. I have many friends who have moved here, and several of my favorite stylists and makeup artists are Texas transplants.

There are extremely talented creatives in Dallas and the city’s art culture is really taking off

Do you have someone you look up to in the field?
I have had several teachers and photographers guide me and push me along. Dallas specifically has been an incredible place to learn and grow. I have been very fortunate to work along side extremely talented and kind photographers. People want to help you. You have to remember that.

Do you have a dream assignment?
I have many. I would love to shoot a catalog for Anthropologie and Free People, do a piece on Iceland for National Geographic, as well as document Sufjan Stevens’ next tour. I photographed his Age of Adz tour performances in both Dallas and Brooklyn, and they were both incredible. I would love to join the Cousteau family on a sea adventure and document that as well.
How do you stay motivated?
The girls in my sorority in college joked about never seeing me without a camera. It’s true. I love what I do. It is internal and my desire to express myself through photography is pretty strong.
Was there one project that gave you that “ah ha” moment, where you knew this is where you wanted to take your work?
There was a point that I decided I was going to photograph things of interest to me, even if that meant I was hustling all week and shooting nonstop in my spare time. Once I started doing that and posting it, I began to get requests for similar paid assignments. That process was a huge “ah ha” moment for me. I will continue in that way.

Do you have any favorite photo books?
Can I count Tina Fey’s book, Bossypants as a photo book? Laura Wilson’s Hutterites of Montana is a favorite. She is the photographer that documented Richard Avedon when he was shooting “The American West.” I remember contacting her when I first moved to Dallas because I wanted to meet her and learn from her. About a year after emailing and calling her rep and not getting a response, I realized that she was Luke and Owen Wilson’s mother, and why I never got a response. Laura, if you’re reading this, I would still love to meet you and hear your stories, and I am not after your sons.

What was the most helpful part of your ‘education’ that wasn’t photo related?
Connecting with people is the most important and helpful part of my ‘education’ that was not photo related. Life doesn’t make sense without relationships. I work with people who have stories, and great depth. I connect with the people that I’m photographing. It makes a difference. I learn so much from the people that I come in contact with. Letting your subjects tell their stories will translate through the photos.

Connecting with people is the most important and helpful part of my ‘education’ that was not photo related

What are you inspired by?
Music definitely inspires me. I often have thoughts or ideas of shoots or movement by the particular music I am listening to. I’m also inspired by a variety of people and environments. Wes Anderson’s genius is inspiring as well as Tim Walker, and I think that I have whimsical dream inside me like that.

I like the grit and dirt of life as well, and maybe it’s just my generation, but I am inspired by life as it really is.
I am inspired by people who are passionate about life or passionate about what they do, or actively working to change things for the better, and those that have compassion for people, for the human spirit.

As Jack Kerouac wrote in one of my most favourite books, On the Road, “They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

People inspire me. The human condition inspires me and motivates me. In the depth of depravity there is great hope.

People inspire me. The human condition inspires me and motivates me

How do you define ‘success’ in your own career?
I define success as quality of life. That means relationships and living. My day to day life is enjoyable and challenging. At the end of the day I believe that I am working hard, and I do not think that the work I’m doing is changing the world. I think I express beauty and show the reality of the world.

What’s next? Any exciting projects coming up in 2012?
I moved to NYC in May to pursue more editorial, lifestyle and fashion work. I will be splitting my time shooting in both Texas and NYC. I have been working on a book of some of the subjects that I have photographed. I would like to get that finished this year. I have some projects on the horizon in LA and in Europe.

We all are dying to know, how did you get the Anthropologie gig?


The short and sweet of it is that I was contacted by a scout. Being at the Mothership was certainly a dream. I shot their online merchandise in studio. That was so much fun because I got to see all the beautiful apparel and shoes before anyone else had seen them. I met their copywriter as well who names and describes all the clothing. Fantastic job. I was there for a week shooting and stayed in their bed and breakfast on the Navy Yard – which is completely decorated with Anthropologie bedding, furniture, EVERYTHING. I am looking forward to opportunities to work with the company again.

For more information about the Anthropologie shoot, check out Sara’s blog post.

Favorite fried chicken?

I have two places that are relatively new to Dallas that I have frequented and have photographed both places; Sissy’s and Chicken Scratch. Go there.

Favorite breakfast taco?
Taco Joint. They have my heart. Jalapeno ranch! It’s incredible. Plus everyone that works there is so welcoming and they remember your name.

Favorite libation?
Drink specifically – Anything with gin in it. Place to get drinks depends on the night. School night: Strangeways and the Windmill. Weekend: The Gin Mill, The Londoner (also great fish ‘n chips). Mimosas: Smoke – they make them right and they are bottomless.

Do you collect anything?
Dresses perhaps. I also at one point had 4 copies of Settlers of Catan – all the same 483 Mayfair version. Klaus Teuber has a hold on me. I have since narrowed it down to just one copy with the expansion pack as well.

Any hobbies outside of photography?
I make notes of inefficient traffic areas or lights and make reports to the city. I also collect those paper miniature scale models of iconic city buildings and monuments and never actually put them together, even though I promise that I will. I also love to watch dance movies. I cannot wait until this summer for Step Up 4 Miami: Come for the Sun, Stay for the Heat. Please tell me that MTV contacted you and that I will be spending one day on the set of Missy Elliott’s music video learning the choreography.

 

Sarah Wilson is an editorial photographer based in her hometown, Austin.  Her approach to environmental portraiture is documentary in nature; focusing on subjects and stories that give a sense of community and culture.

Tell us about your early years in photography.

After high school, I decided to major in photography in college, and pursue it as a career.  I attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Photography and Imaging Department.  In my last two years, I spent semesters interning for several photographers including Mary Ellen Mark, Robert Clark, and Ken Schles. Then I moved out to Marathon, a little town of four hundred people in the middle of the West Texas desert, to do a summer internship with a photographer named James Evans.

The experience in Marathon was a turning point for me.  Within a couple of weeks, I had met nearly everyone in town, which quickly made me feel like I was part of the community.  I realized that Marathon was the perfect place for me start a portrait project, so I borrowed James’s 4 x 5 field camera and I began photographing the locals: the weathered, hunched-over cattle rancher, the Marathon High School six man football team, the constable, the teenaged boys that would hang out on the street corners, and the ninety year old woman that would drive around the 3 squares miles of town in her pickup from sun up to sun down.  Each individual portrait came together to tell the story of the community as a whole.

The Marathon project became my NYU senior thesis show, which I submitted for a grant called the Daniel Rosenberg Traveling Fellowship, and won.  This grant allowed me to complete and exhibit another portrait project one year after graduation about the Cajun community where my mother was born, and where much of my extended family still lives.  With two solid projects under my belt, I had the confidence to dive into another project about the community of Jasper, Texas, where in 1998, three young white men chained an African-American man, James Byrd, Jr., by his ankles and dragged him three miles behind a pickup truck.  It was a hate crime that threatened to fragment this small East Texas town.  Texas Monthly published a selection of this work, which in turn jump-started my editorial career.

I feel fortunate to have had several opportunities to complete and exhibit full bodies of work

I feel fortunate to have had several opportunities to complete and exhibit full bodies of work within a few years after graduation.  This filled out my portfolio and quickly solidified my intentions as a photographer.  Over time I was able to move away from assisting, and began working for myself.  I do however highly recommend that young photographers spend a few years interning and assisting- I learned more about photography as an assistant than I did in four years of college.

Lots of people think you need to move to a bigger market (LA, NYC) in order to make it in this business.  Outside of your education, do you think that living in NYC was helpful or made a difference in starting your career?  

I believe that it’s a good idea to spend some time in either New York, LA, or Chicago if you can.  If these big cities are not in the cards for you, it would be beneficial to attend a few of the portfolio reviews, where art directors, photo editors, curators, and art buyers can take a look at your work.  If they like your work, you can make solid connections very quickly, over the course of a weekend.

Your work can be described as “documentary portraiture.” How did you establish and evolve your personal vision?

I aim to tell the story of a community through portraits of individuals within that community.  For the Jasper, Texas project, I photographed law enforcement officers, family members of both the victims and killers, church leaders, the men convicted of the crime, the prosecutor, the young boy who discovered the body of James Byrd, Jr, and many others.  From an outsider’s perspective, many of us were ready to condemn Jasper as an evil place all together, but I hope these images tell a deeper story than what was seen on the nightly news.

Your award-winning personal project Blind Prom has been published all over the place, including, in Texas Monthly, BLINK, Fraction Magazine, Marie Claire South Africa, NewYorker.com, and several other blogs.   It’s also won the PhotoNOLA Review Prize, a nomination for Santa Fe Prize, and Critical Mass Top 50, and has exhibited in Chelsea at the Foley Gallery and at the Lishui International Photography Festival in China.  Can you talk about your experience in photographing blind teens and working with your boyfriend, Keith Maitland, on the PBS documentary, The Eyes of Me?

In 2005, my boyfriend Keith Maitland and I moved back to Austin from New York to work on a documentary film about four blind teenagers that attended the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Austin.  Keith directed, edited, and produced the Emmy-nominated, The Eyes of Me, and I was his stills photographer when he needed me.  The film followed one academic year.  We made it a point to cover prom, and since then, I have volunteered as the school’s prom night photographer each spring.

After hair, makeup and final primping in the dorms, the students travel by bus to the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Dinner is served, followed by an eager progression to the dance floor.  With an hour left in the night, prom court crowning begins. The room erupts with applause, as crowns and tiaras are placed upon the heads of that year’s favorites.

 With each new couple or individual that enters, there is a unique set of circumstances

Over the course of the evening, couples leave the dance floor to have their formal portraits made. Each year, I create a painted backdrop appropriate to the prom theme, which often stretches my limited painting skills, but I enjoy the creative problem solving.  In the quiet separation of the portrait room I have the opportunity to interact more directly with the students.  With each new couple or individual that enters, there is a unique set of circumstances.  Some students have a good amount of usable vision, many are completely blind, and still others have additional physical and mental challenges.  But no matter what, on this night, there is pride and joy, and it is my pleasure to share in it.

These images not only memorialize prom night for the attendees and their parents, but I hope they introduce a larger audience to what life might be like as a blind teenager.

How important do you think personal work is?  How important has it been in your development and your style?  

Personal work is very important- it’s an opportunity to hone your style and show prospective clients how you see the world.  A majority of my portfolio consists of personal work mixed with particular assignment work that felt like it could be personal work.

Who or what influences/inspires you?  

I have always loved the portraits of Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Diane Arbus, and Dan Winters.  These are my heroes. They show both the greatness and the imperfections within their subjects.  They honor the glowing humanity within people.

How do you stay motivated?

I’m starting to learn how to take things one day at a time.  The life of a free-lancer is very unpredictable.  A job that exists this month may not exist the next.  Once I figured out this fact, the challenge has been to have faith and continue to do work that is fulfilling to me.  I try not to think too far ahead because it’s already been proven that completely unexpected opportunities come my way when I am open to them.

the challenge has been to have faith and continue to do work that is fulfilling to me

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

Meditating; reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood; listening to public radio, especially This American Life; and wandering the halls of the European Portrait wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Best career decision so far?

Moving back to Austin has been the best career decision so far.  Working for Texas Monthly has been often as fulfilling as doing personal work, and I have become a satellite photographer for some national magazines, which has been great.  I’ve stayed busy, doing a mix of things, so I can’t say that I’ve been bored.

Favorite thing about shooting in Texas?

There are so many different kinds of people in Texas that are in to all kinds of good, bad, and strange things.  This makes for interesting subject matter.

Do you have a favorite or memorable photo shoot?

Back in 2001, I was photographing one of the church leaders in Jasper.  I could sense that for this man, having his portrait made was real proud moment.  As we talked about his life and his congregation, he suddenly said to me, “Photography is your ministry”.  I would consider myself more of a spiritual person than a religious person, but I took what he said to heart. Through photography, I have the opportunity to serve humanity.

Do you have a current dream assignment?
I would like to follow in the footsteps of the FSA photographers, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, and Walker Evans.  I would move from town to town, photographing the people and places that shape our country.

What else would you want to do if you weren’t a photographer?

If I weren’t a photographer I would want to be a psychologist or a chef.

Any other hobbies or talents outside of photography?

Cooking, hiking, taking my little boat out on Lady Bird Lake.

Weirdest thing in your camera bag?

Perhaps we should talk about what I don’t have in my camera bag.  I don’t have a waterproof housing for my camera or a pelican case for my equipment.  These items would have come in handy on a recent assignment to photograph an afternoon canoe trip.  We went down and so did some of the equipment.  Lesson learned the hard way!

Photo books you love? 
Avedon’s In The American West, the Aperture Monograph of Diane Arbus, Keith Carter’s From Uncertain to Blue, Shelby Lee Adams: Appalachian Lives,Dan Winters: Periodical Photographs, Heber Springs Portraits: Continuity and Change in the World Disfarmer Photographed, and William Eggleston’s Guide.

Do you have any advice for someone just getting started?

 If you narrow your portfolio down to your strongest work, you will direct your clients towards hiring you for what you’re passionate about

Make sure that you only present examples of the style of photography you really want to pursue on your website, in your portfolio, etc.  You don’t have to show that you are capable of being a sports photographer, a wedding photographer, a still life photographer, and a fashion photographer.  If you narrow your portfolio down to your strongest work, you will direct your clients towards hiring you for what you’re passionate about.

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.

George Brainard is a commercial and editorial photographer based in Austin, Texas, and a sixth-generation Texan. Formerly a working musician, George loves people and focuses his work on story telling.

Who or what influences and inspires you?
It’s people and their stories that really inspire me more than any one photographer. For me photography is about telling a story. I like the challenge of trying to tell a person’s story in one photo or a series of photos. But as far as photographers, I’ve been inspired by Wyatt McSpadden and Michael O’Brien. They are friends of mine, I’ve worked with them in the past, and I’ve learned a lot from them.

It’s people and their stories that really inspire me more than any one photographer

You worked as a photo assistant full time prior to going to full-time photographer? How did you make the transition?
I started assisting my senior year of college. I was also a working musician through most of my assisting years. I worked for about eight years as an assistant. I had a choice to make whether to be a musician or a photographer. Once I decided I was going to be a photographer full time, I quit doing everything else. All the time I had invested in promoting the band, I just invested in my photo career.

What was your first big break?
I can’t point to one moment in time where everything changed. I’m hoping that moment’s still to come. The first time I shot for The New York Times was a big deal. Getting hooked up with Getty Images has been big deal. When I first started I shot for Rolling Stone Magazine. Those are ones that stand out from early in my career.

Best career decision so far?
Doing personal work has become really important to me in the last five to six years. I’ve had a tremendous response to my personal work and have even gotten some jobs from it.

One of your larger projects is about hot rod fans? What made you decide to make these portraits?
I have some friends who have a car club, The Kontinentals, and they host two different events each year. For the past 11 years, I’ve been shooting the events for them. Several years ago, these things had gotten popular enough where everyone had a camera and everyone’s out there taking pictures of the cars. I sort of felt that the need to document this event wasn’t as great as it once was. I also realized I was actually more interested in the people than the cars. In 2008 I started taking portraits and have shot around 600 since.

Favorite thing about shooting in Texas?
Texas is my home and always has been. I know Texas well and love Texas. Texas has its own story and it’s a strong and interesting story. Many times the story and culture of Texas bleeds into what I do. It’s also great to shoot here because everyone is so laid back. For the most part people in the business here are cool and nice. That’s more pleasant for me than highly intense situations.

How do you stay motivated?
Hunger. Hah Hah. I just love what I do. I’ve never really done anything else. I’m qualified to deliver pizzas, be a photographer, or a singer. The business side is hard and discouraging. The money roller coaster is hard and discouraging. But I’m always going to be a photographer – no matter what. If I won the lottery I’d still do what I do. It’s not hard for me to be motivated because I love going to work everyday.

I’m always going to be a photographer – no matter what. If I won the lottery I’d still do what I do.

Do you have a favorite or memorable photo shoot?
One that comes to mind was the last book cover I did for Kinky Friedman where I spent a couple days at his beautiful hill country ranch. I spent that evening hanging out, smoking cigars and drinking whiskey with Kinky at his kitchen table. That was a moment I had dreamed about back in college when I first started reading his books. More recently, I shot press photos for Kat Edmonson, who’s this amazing singer. She’s talented and smart, and just magical in front of the camera. One of the best people I’ve ever photographed and one of the best shoots I’ve ever had.

Current dream assignment?
To photograph Willie Nelson.

Being a musician yourself, what’s it like for you to shoot musicians?
Musicians are people too. I love photographing musicians. It’s a nice way for me to keep a foot in that world. I have lots of musician friends and I’ve been a professional musician, so I understand musicians, I know what it’s like. I can relate to them in a way that a lot of photographers cant. Musicians are creative people and it always gives you a chance to flex your own creative muscles working with creative people.

What else would you want to do if you weren’t a photographer?
I’d probably be a writer. Sometimes I have fantasies about being a writer where all you need is a laptop and not a huge truck load of camera/lighting gear. When you’re a writer there’s no camera between you and the subject. It’s a more direct way of storytelling. Most of what I love is meeting people and making beautiful things.

What’s the weirdest thing in your camera bag?
I don’t know. Nothing too weird. Advil, Granola bar, compass, matches

Any other hobbies or talents outside of photography?
I play music: the mandolin, ukulele, and guitar. I also read a lot. I love to swim – or I should say I love to soak and I spend as much time in natural bodies of water as possible. Also spending lots of time with my daughter.

Anything exciting coming up?
My biggest goal right now is to get this hot rod fans book done. I’m spending a lot of time working on it and I’m hoping to get it done in the next year.

Favorite BBQ?
Going to Opie’s (Spicewood) for lunch and soaking at Krause Springs is a perfect Texas Day. Also the brisket from Snows (in Lexington) and the sausage and ribs from Smitty’s (in Lockhart).

Favorite taco?
I have many. For breakfast tacos: The Don Juan at Juan in a Million or the Migas taco at Donn’s BBQ. The Cowboy taco at Taco Deli, and the al Pastor at Curras.

Favorite drink?
Topo chico or bourbon.

Any advice for anyone just starting out?
Shoot as much as you can. Be kind. Shoot what you want to shoot and stay true to your artistic vision. Don’t follow trends. Be yourself.

Kimberley Davis is an Austin-based photographer specializing in food and interiors. She shares her tips for starting out in food photography, her inspirations and more.

Kimberly, do you have any tips for aspiring food photographers? I know some food photographers use a lot of trickery. How do you make food look so appetizing on a shoot?
Working with a skilled food stylist makes all the difference in making the food look as appetizing as possible. They usually have a range of tools, from tweezers in various sizes, q-tips, make-up sponges, spray bottles, dowels, etc.  I know sometimes food stylists use artificial ingredients to make food look good, but in my case, the food has always been edible-unless it’s a Thanksgiving turkey.

Lighting is absolutely key to shooting food

Lighting is absolutely key to shooting food.  Lighting can create texture in even the most boring dish.  For those just starting out, I would recommend working with someone in culinary school to do some mutual portfolio building.  Also, don’t touch the food! Let the food stylist do that, they don’t pick up your camera!

What are some of the keys to making an interior look beautiful? Do you get decorating envy when you walk into some of these homes?
Definitely!  A prop stylist is always helpful to work with in making a home look inviting.  Even adding flowers can make a big difference.  When I shoot interiors it is usually a focus on the interior design elements, vs the architecture of the space. For me, the beauty is in the details, and that’s why people hire me.

What’s been one of your best career decisions so far?
Working for a magazine publisher gave me a ton of experience.

Best decision since going freelance?
Hands down is joining ASMP! The contacts alone have been an invaluable resource.

Favorite thing about shooting in Texas?
It’s Texas! I am grateful every day to be in Austin, especially after moving out of state for four years.

One of my favorite TX themes to photograph is of course, Texas BBQ. If I only take pictures in BBQ pits for the rest of my life I would be fine with that! I love those sexy smoky walls!  And of course all my gear smells like BBQ for weeks!

One of my favorite TX themes to photograph is of course, Texas BBQ

Do you have a dream assignment?
On one hand I’ve already had my dream assignment. I photographed Paula Deen and her sons for their magazines.  I got to travel with them, photographed other celebrities, more than I ever dreamed of actually.

There are several magazines I would love to photograph stories for, and collaborating with other photographers is on my bucket list too.  I love to work as a team, especially when everyone brings something different to the table.

What was working with Paula Deen like? She is such a character!
Working with Paula Deen was great! She is exactly the same as she is on TV, like the southern aunt who cooks that I never had. I had amazing opportunities shooting her for her magazine, including trips to New York, Key West, South Beach, Cashiers, New Orleans, and several to Savannah of course. Paula even let me try on her amazing and huge diamond ring once! Many great memories there, definitely some of my favorites!

Weirdest thing in my camera bag?
I have a few of those round shiny cardboard take out container tops in my bag because they make great reflectors!  I can fold them and set them on a table, they cost nothing and they’re handy.  Be resourceful!

Latest gear obsession?
I have a little shoe mount bubble level that my friend Andrew Pogue gave me and I love it!

I stay motivated because I really enjoy my work

How do you stay motivated?
I stay motivated because I really enjoy my work and there are busy times and times that aren’t busy, so that keeps me motivated too.

Did you have a big break?
My big break came from Mac Jamieson, the Creative Director at Hoffman Media.  He saw the potential in my work and was patient.  He gave me advice and I took it, built a new portfolio and he saw my dedication.   He taught me a lot and had a lot of faith in me too.  I got a ton of experience there in 4 years working for 8-9 magazines.

How did you develop your personal vision?
My personal vision came with practice really.  It is definitely possible to achieve the same look with different lenses and of course I have a favorite, but lighting is everything.  I use strobes and I use natural light, it depends what it is and what it’s for.  The point is that I am conscious about how I am lighting, even with natural light, I will light the same as if I use strobes.  It has to be a thoughtful process.

Who inspires you?
I’m inspired by Jody Horton (ed. note: read Jody’s ILTP interview here).  Even before I moved to Austin I followed the Farmhouse Table blog and I knew his work from that.  I love Debi Treloar’s work and her book Food for Friends.  Sang An,  Katie Quinn Davies (What Kate Ate) her sort of messy/dark food images are gorgeous, Wyatt McSpadden, Maren Caruso has an inspiring portfolio, I especially love her conceptual food work!

All time favorite photo books?
Most are cookbooks…Food for Friends, Jamie Oliver’s Jamie at Home, Wyatt McSpadden’s Texas BBQ

How do you define success in your own career? 
Being brave enough to put yourself out there and then making and keeping happy clients is rewarding.

What’s next? Exciting projects in 2012? 
Texas Photo Roundup was pretty exciting!  The first quarter of 2012 has been a good start and hopefully that momentum will keep going throughout the year.  I have a new website, starting email promos, really marketing myself this year.

Advice for someone starting out?
Join ASMP and most important, show up!  Let people know who you are, make friends, and it will make a huge difference.  Assist and you will learn a lot.  Learn the business side, it’s crucial to making it!  Don’t take no answer as a “no” answer.  Just keep trying –respectfully- and don’t give up.  Don’t listen to the nay-sayers, associate yourself with photographers who work hard and have a positive outlook.

Learn the business side, it’s crucial to making it!

Favorite BBQ?
You asked the right person!  Franklin BBQ chopped beef/Tipsy Texan is so good it doesn’t even need sauce!  The pies are really good there too by the way.  My other favorite is Cele Store in Manor.  It’s truly a special place, historic building, as casual as it gets!  They’re only open Thursday and Friday for lunch and Friday nights I think.  The BBQ is great, and you definitely want to get extra white bread for dipping in the sauce.  Yum, I want some now!  I also love Rudy’s.

Favorite breakfast taco?
Dan’s Hamburgers believe it or not!  They make great breakfast tacos!

What do you collect?
I collect notebooks.  I have one for everything…there are five sitting on my desk right now!  One is a large sketchbook I use for making notes about each job.  I love the little notebooks books from Wiley Valentine the most though.  Beautiful paper is one of my favorite things!

Hobbies?
I love to garden, and also love to photograph flowers. It’s not something I usually do for work but I just added a Flora gallery on my website because I think it’s still worth showing.  My once a year hobby is baking Christmas cookies for friends and clients.  I look forward to it and enjoy sharing them.

How do you stay sane?
Who says any of us stay sane? Just make it work, ask for help when you need it, and keep going.

Where are you based?
I’m based here in Houston, Texas. I don’t have a studio per se because most of my work is on location. I live in Katy, which is sort of outside of everything. But it’s good for family, it’s just a lot of driving.

So why Katy?
It’s really just where I landed when I moved here from New York. My wife’s family all live out there and we have a daughter who is seven now and the family recommended we move there for her. It’s worked out but I think I’d prefer to live closer in.

So you used to live in New York?

It’s been a long road to get to the point where I’m at, but it was fun. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it

I lived in New York for ten years. I went up there to study photography at the International Center of Photography there and then assisted a bunch of people. I never got a degree in photography but as I was working, I would take courses at night here and there as I could while my wife was going to college. It was a very long road. It’s not an easy way to go. But over the years, I’ve amassed the experience to finally go out on my own. At this point, I’ve been shooting freelance for myself for nearly eight years. It’s been a long road to get to the point where I’m at, but it was fun. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.

Who were some of the people you assisted?
There were a lot. The notable people would be Ben Fink. I was his first assistant consistently for two and a half years and he’s probably the most influential person on my own career. He’s a food and travel photographer, very well-respected. He’s shot a lot of cookbooks, and things like that. He’s really the person that changed the direction of my career. I really wanted to do more photojournalism and documentary work, but that’s how I veered off course. But it’s all worked out, I’m happy with that.

I’ve also assisted Bruce Davidson, a Magnum photographer. I loved his work, I still do. In a distant way, he still influences my work. I really go for honest portraiture and a straightforward approach to my work. I tend to try and capture things in the moment as opposed to directing things much. People seem to like that approach.

If you could synthesize everything you’ve learned from them, how would you sum it up?
The main thing that I learned was that it’s really about your eye and not so much about all the production and you don’t need a whole entourage of people and tons of equipment and unlimited funds. It’s all about opening your eyes and discovering what’s there and making something bigger and better and more beautiful out of it. I think both Bruce Davidson and Ben Fink, both had that sort of effect on me, you know? They just have a very amazing eye. They just see right into a situation and zero in on that thing that’s amazing and beautiful and fascinating and powerful. It’s the kind of thing that stays in the back of my mind in my head while I’m shooting.

it’s really about your eye and not so much about all the production

How long did you assist Bruce Davidson?
[My time with Bruce] was fairly short. I took a class from him at the Jewish Community Center. That’s where we were introduced. He was recommended to me by an instructor at ICP. They saw some similarity to my work and approach to street photography and documentary work and thought that we would gel. So I searched him out and that’s how I found that he was giving this class at the Jewish Community Center. So I went there and started out by being his class assistant and then that led into assisting him on a few jobs. He’s a very special guy. No pretense, no attitude, just a kind, helpful guy, straightforward and giving. He shared a lot with me. It didn’t last long before I landed a full-time job with Ben Fink. I assisted a lot of other people, a lot of fashion and still life and architectural photographers and all kinds of people but not one of them I think back to and look at my own work and say that they had some sort of influence. It’s really only those two.

Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Tougaloo, Mississippi, just outside of Jackson, Mississippi.

How has being from a small town in Mississippi affected your work?
I’m not sure. I think that where I grew up and how I grew up was probably pretty different from most people. It was a college campus and it was a closed environment. I didn’t venture out much to see beyond that. It was a little biosphere environment of it’s own. When I did leave there, I think I had so much to discover and everything was so new that I think that just coming from a small town where your exposure to things is so limited that it’s very easy to find wonder all around you. I think that really helped me as far as going out and exploring finding all these things that to other people are run of the mill or everyday and might pass up. I think I’ve seen quite a bit since then, but I still try and keep that. At my core I think I’m still that person where I’m still amazed by things.

At my core I think I’m still that person where I’m still amazed by things

What was your first big break?
That’s hard to say. I’ve had a lot of little breaks that have led into where I am. One thing I haven’t talked about is how I got into all this to begin with or how I left Mississippi which is probably my biggest break was when I was 16, I was studying ballet. I got a scholarship to leave Mississippi and come to Houston and dance with the Houston Ballet’s academy. Then that eventually took me into being a professional dancer with Houston Ballet. That allowed me to escape that little world I was in and see all this new potential for my life and discover all these new things. That was probably my first big break. Though it had nothing to do with photography, that was the thing that set me on this path to new things.

That didn’t last long – I was  a professional dancer for about two seconds before I injured myself and then that was that. But, it got me out and got me exposure to new things and allowed me to discover photography and put me on this path.

Since then I’ve had lots of small breaks. One of them, when I moved back from New York to Houston, I immediately got picked up by Houston Magazine and they’ve been incredibly generous and loyal. I’ve shot for them now for at least five years. I don’t think I’ve missed an issue. They’ve hired me consistently and allowed me to build my portfolio and get all this access to things. I don’t think I would have had that same break in New York to where I’d have been able to get sort of loyalty and shoot that much for one person.

If I see an opportunity, I’ve learned that you have to grab it

That has led to so many other things. I’ve shot cookbooks as a result of that where I’ve been able to travel to Finland and France. I’ve landed this amazing opportunity with Midway Corporation and City Centre to be their designated photographer which has given me a lot of consistency which, when you’re a freelancer, is hard to come by. It just continues to open up things constantly come my way and fall in my lap to a certain degree.

To a certain degree I’m an opportunist. If I see an opportunity, I’ve learned that you have to grab it. Maybe it’s not necessarily the perfect opportunity but it is an opportunity and you take it and you run with it and you make it something bigger and better. If I’ve had any success, the secret to my success is I take those opportunities and I run with them.

How did you establish your personal vision?
Being in ballet, in theatre, really gave me an appreciation for drama and the theatrics and a love of the dramatic image. I may not always be successful, but I always go for a dramatic, impactful image the same way when I was dancing that was the sort of performance I’d try to put out there – something that had power and resonated. It’s a goal, I don’t know if I ever really accomplished that.

What was your best career decision?
My best career decision was to stop assisting and get out there and work on my own work. I had assisted for nearly four years and it was turning into a situation where I could have been a career assistant. That’s totally great for some people – there are a lot of full-time assistants I really respect – but for myself it just wasn’t satisfying, it wasn’t where I needed to go. So it was just taking that leap and deciding that I was going to be broke for many years and struggle and just get out there and do my own thing. Had I not done that I’d either still be assisting or doing something entirely different.

My best career decision was to stop assisting and get out there and work on my own work

How do you define success in your own career?
It’s cliché, but to me it’s being happy everyday with what you’re doing. I’m not the type to worry too much about finances or getting rich or anything else like that. I didn’t grow up with money.  I don’t feel much need to have it. As long as I’m working and people appreciate what I’m doing, I find what I’m doing fascinating and I’m happy, I feel successful.

How do you stay motivated?
I think a big part of it is my family, my daughter. Her and my wife, they’re both inspiring to me. I want to do well for them. I just want to do something they’d be proud of. That’s a certain motivation there, but I think that I have this innate desire to explore and see things and the idea that I’d ever have to stop and get an office job and at best, I wouldn’t be able to handle that. It’s that desire to be constantly moving and out there and discovering that keeps me motivated, keeps me going.

Do you have a favorite thing about shooting in Texas?
I think I enjoy the access. I think that a lot of places, they’re so many photographers, they’re so jaded towards that it’s a real process into a place with a camera. When I was in New York, there’s all these permits you need to do something on the street. You need permits here, too, but there’s just as intense…you know I could probably call any institution I wanted to and say I want to come in and take pictures and they would be open to that. There’s just a friendlier environment I feel like towards photography and photographers.

Do you have a dream assignment?
I think my dream assignment is more of a travel/documentary assignment. I’ve always been a huge fan of Saveur magazine. I just love their approach. They’re like the National Geographic of food. It’s more about the culture as opposed to…like what I do now is I shoot a lot of restaurant “stuff” – restaurant reviews and things for their website and hotels…it’s all great but it’s missing the culture behind the food as opposed to what a lot of these things are. It’s more surface and selling something. I would really love to get back to what attracted me to photography in the first place which is connecting with people and discovering cultures I wasn’t familiar with before.

What’s the weirdest thing in your camera bag?
Yesterday the weirdest thing in my camera bag, I discovered I had a hammer in there. When I was cleaning up my gallery, I was moving things around and somehow this hammer had fell into my bag. I didn’t even realize because I was in such a hurry, I went off to my shoot and it was so incredibly heavy I was like, “wow, why is my bag so heavy today?” And at the end of the day I’m exhausted and I open up the side back pocket, the one I don’t use that much and I open it up and there’s this big hammer in there and I’m like “oh there you go, that would explain it.”

Do you have a latest gear obsession?
That’s the funny thing about me is that I don’t care much about gear, I’m not that gear-oriented. I’ve had the same three lenses for seven years: a 50mm, a 16-35mm, and a 100mm macro. Those seem to do fine for me, and if I ever need something else, I’ll rent it.

the funny thing about me is that I don’t care much about gear

What are some of your all time favorite photo books?
One that has influenced me quite a bit is Nick Waplington who did “The Wedding.”. That book spoke a lot to me because there’s something very familiar about that whole environment there that is… if you see it, you’ll wonder how I grew up when you look at how strange it’s subjects are there, but there’s something very comfortable and familiar to me about that. It opened my eyes that as unsophisticated I am and my circle is probably that my demographic, my vision has worth and value and I can go out there and shoot the people I love and it’s valuable. It’s weird to say probably if you look at my portfolio because I shoot a lot for Houston Magazine which is very the wealthy and upper class and probably not like anything like where I’m from. That is the thing that impacted me. This is real, this is something familiar to me. I can see the beauty in this even if most people don’t.

What projects are you working on in 2012?
I’m very freelance, so from one day to the next I never know what I’m going to be doing. The big major thing I’m working on that has nothing to do with my own photography, but I’m excited about is this art gallery I’m opening with my partner Luqman Kaka. All these years we’ve wanted to do something together, some project that allowed us to explore some of our ideas that we’ve had. We’re a couple of daydreamers.

We’re constantly coming up with crazy ideas that have no ability or venue to make it actually happen. This opportunity suddenly popped open out of nowhere where I discovered this gallery space was becoming available and I thought this might be an opportunity here. So we’re going to do this gallery that’s focused on photography, but we’ll venture into other mediums occasionally and that’s going to get started July 2. I’m really excited about it. Who knows what will happen or where it’ll go.

What’s the gallery called?
It’s called Be Human Gallery. I’m definitely motivated to get Texas photographers in there.

What’s your favorite barbecue?
I’m a traditionalist. I still really love Goode Company Barbecue. I haven’t found a place I like better than that.

Do you have a favorite breakfast taco?
Cochinita pibil taco at a place called The Bullet in Katy, Texas.

Do you have any hobbies outside of photography?
Yeah, I really like gardening. I’ve always had a secret desire to be a landscape designer. So I mess around with a little bit of that at home. Not that great but I enjoy it. I also enjoy mechanics. I like to work on my car. My wife’s got a Mini Cooper. If you have a Mini Cooper, you know they break down constantly and they’re garbage but I love it because it keeps me busy. I’m always doing something with that car and right now it’s in a million pieces in my garage.

Do you have a favorite Texas getaway?
I really love going to Austin. We have friends out there we visit occasionally.