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Trove Artist Management is a woman-owned, women-empowering talent agency based in Austin, Texas. We are dedicated to promoting, educating and supporting women and culturally diverse artists and social influencers. Trove represents photographers, makeup artists, hair stylists and other artists working locally and nationally. Our roster has served clients such as Elle Magazine, Aveda, Betsey Johnson, Zac Posen, San Antonio Magazine, Austin Monthly, Modern Salon, Jack Ryan, By George and more.

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Following an undergraduate degree in Fine Art at the University of Derby, England, a process of elimination led Spike Johnson to Texas. Mentored by Throne Anderson at the University of North Texas, he embarked on an MA in photojournalism, graduating in 2011. Spike photographs in the documentary style, exploring themes around religious friction and self sufficiency in it’s broadest terms, focusing on rural areas of Myanmar, the United States, and England. In 2012 he was awarded a scholarship to attend the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop in Thailand. His work exhibits internationally, and publishes with outlets including Vice Magazine, Foreign Policy, BBC World, The Telegraph, Human Rights Watch, and The Global Post.

Recent awards include:
Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding in Depth Reporting, Society of Environmental Journalists, 2012.
College Photographer of the Year, International Picture Story, 1st place, 2011.
Society of Professional Journalism, Feature Story, 1st place, 2011.
Society of Professional Journalism, Magazine Photography, 3rd place, 2011.
The Texas Associated Press Managing Editors, Investigative Report, 1st place, 2011.
NPPA Monthly News Clip, Multiple Picture Story, Region 2, 2nd place, April 2012/ October 2011.

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Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski
Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski

Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski

For those of us who started our photo careers in a darkroom 36 frames at a time, it can be daunting trying to navigate digital and social photography as a business model. This is not the case for Kristen Wrzesniewski, a young (but wise beyond her years) photographer based in Austin, Texas. She is simultaneously tackling both social media and medium format film cameras. Kristen owns a beautiful and soulful style that is already recognizable, and she’s only just getting started.

Kristen is not just an excellent photographer, she is also the Marketing Director for Photogroup Austin, an Instagrammer for Lumix, and a blogger for Small Camera Big Picture. She knows where her web traffic comes from and she understands that photography succeeds when it’s about experiences, not just attitude.

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What makes Kristen stand out is how much of what she does feels sincere and very organic. She has over 3000 Instagram followers on her personal account, but she seems concerned only with the creative outlet. She does her double exposures in-camera (“I like to do things the hard way”), and rarely plans out her shoots (“I want to see the soul of the person I’m photographing, show who they are deep inside”). She’s not likely to be out with a crew of stylists in tow, nor is she going to post every frame or even every shoot online.

I want to see the soul of the person I’m photographing, show who they are deep inside.

Kristen is mostly self-taught. She began shooting her friends to relieve summer break boredom in her teens. After high school she put her point-and-shoot aside to study English at Texas State, but eventually came back to photography. She stuck with it despite a film teacher disliking her work enough to discourage her.

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The majority of images in Kristen‘s portfolio (many of which are still of her girlfriends) look like fashion and beauty shots, but she does not identify as fashion photographer. She is not really sure yet how she wants to make her mark, but is resolute that her work has to have meaning.

You mentioned shooting with the Lumix GH3 and GX7. What other cameras or equipment do you work with?

I have also shot with a Nikon D7000 in the past, but am selling it to focus on shooting with smaller cameras. The camera is typically secondary to me. With that said, I’m becoming addicted the GH3. It’s a great tool once you understand how to use it. About 30-40% of my work is film, but I have been shooting mostly digital this year because film can be expensive.

“Texas has a really good feeling to me, everyone is so kind.”

What are your favorite places to shoot in Texas and why?

Anywhere outside! Bastrop State Park is beautiful (and sadly, even more photogenic now). Enchanted Rock is an amazing place to shoot, but anywhere outside will do. I like exploring small Texas towns and talking to people who run small storefronts. Last time I was at Enchanted Rock with a model we went into a small fur and antler shop and the store owner was kind enough to let us shoot with his furs. It was great.

Texas is such a giant vast place, and there are so many different kinds of people and landscapes here. I’d really love to take a road trip all over Texas and just document what I see and the people I meet.

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What is your overall impression of the photography industry/community in Texas as a photographer and studio director?

I think Texans are much more laid back than the rest of the country, in general. (Mostly) everyone I’ve met has been so nice and open. There are a few people who carry an elitist kind of attitude but I don’t let those people get to me because a bad attitude gets you nowhere. I’d like to see more people openly talking about HOW they make their photos – people can be so secretive about this and I don’t know why. I believe even if I tell someone how I did something, they still cannot replicate it because it came from my brain. It’s my vision. I’d like to see more sharing of information in the future but I think that is well on its way. Things are changing in the photography world – we now have so much access to information, and I like it like that.

Who are your mentors?

-Chip Willis (who lives in Ohio) has been a sort of internet mentor to me. I was incredibly inspired by his work for a very long time before we even spoke. He has always been supportive of me, even though sometimes my work looks a lot like his!

-Also, Giulio Sciorio has been a great mentor and teacher. He is a long time pro and an awesome photographer. He specializes in hybrid photography and has shown me the ropes over the past few months. It’s been an amazing learning experience. He’s taught me a lot about the business aspects of photography as well.

-Robert Bradshaw, my boss at Photogroup, has also been a great mentor. He is a wealth of knowledge, and he hired me on even though I had never shot in a studio before and knew absolutely nothing about studio photography. Over the past year he has taken a lot of time to teach me everything he knows and I am incredibly grateful. 

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Are you shooting more studio work now?

I used to shoot only natural light but have taken up studio light in the past year. I like it because I have more control and can manipulate it and make odd shapes and shadows. Honestly, I love them both, just not together.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

I will have to quote Ira Glass on this one: 

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

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When I ask Kristen what inspires her she mentions hip-hop music, old films and Kubric. When I ask about her thoughts on the future, she only mentions plans through May. I think that might just be the secret to her success.

Kristen is represented by Wonderful Machine.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.”

 

Chicago Choppers Motorcycle members. All photos © Dennis Darling

Dennis Darling is an Austin-based photographer and professor at the University of Texas who has inspired generations of photojournalists.

You’ve done a lot of traveling and covered widely different subject matter. What drives that?
It’s curiosity. When I came to UT, I came on a tenure track, which means in six years if you haven’t proven yourself to their satisfaction, they ask you to leave after the seventh. So I saved a few hundred dollars a month. I figured that would give me enough if I didn’t get tenure, or if I did get tenure I would ask for time off and go travel. A lot of those pictures I send out [in the email retrospective], I haven’t seen at all. They were just contact sheets. They were from that trip in ‘86 or ‘87 where I got tenure and bought a one-way ticket around the world with no particular thing in mind.

For $2000 back then, you could buy a ticket, good for 365 days and, as long as you were heading in the same direction, you fly where ever. It was nice to be able to wake up in Malaysia and say, “Today I want to go to Thailand,” and just go on a whim.

There was no agenda?
None. I went to Ireland and then England and then flew to Delhi because I had been to Europe a lot at that point. I was out seven months, I think. This was before the Internet. It was hard travel. I went to make a phone call from Katmandu to the US and they said come back Thursday and this was Monday. They had one wire coming into this place and you had to make an appointment and they’d put you in a booth and could call for ‘x’ amount of minutes.

It proved to me that I could probably go anywhere and do anything I wanted to by myself – that I didn’t need any support. I went into the jungles of Borneo, I went into Burma when it was still Communist. I went up into the golden triangle in Laos and Thailand. I did all these weird-ass things, and for the most part, I didn’t take any pictures. I just did things that interested me. I didn’t photograph everything I ever saw. Most of the stuff I did [photograph], were things that I wanted to remember, not necessarily an interesting picture.

All my negatives fit into four shoe boxes.

All my negatives fit into four shoe boxes. I throw them all away, all the jobs I ever done. When I got out of college I worked for Whittle Communications which owns all these college life magazines, but they also own Esquire. I worked for Parent Magazine. I used to have pages of [negatives] of breast feeding mothers and people and playgrounds. I just went through my negatives again and threw away another basket full of them. Hopefully, in the next decade when I’m old and grayer, I’ll have just one shoe box that I can pass down say, “Here’s what I’m proud of,” and the rest of it doesn’t even matter.

Any surprises in going back through that work?
The surprises are the subject matter I’ve been able to get in to. And I don’t know why that interests me. Probably Catholic school full of people in strange uniforms, violence, and intolerance. It just gave me a taste for exploring those themes. Take a woman, dress her in wool and tell her she can’t have sex for the rest of her life – that will make somebody mean. They got a chip on their woolen shoulder. The thing I value the most is having a sense of history – the Holocaust, the Mexican-American men that fought in the Mexican revolution, a series I did for Texas Monthly, or the WWII veterans, or any number of the other things I’ve done. I’ve had this desire to photograph things that will survive and be important somewhere down the line to somebody else.

Did you have that sense of history in the making when you were photographing the KKK or motorcycle gangs in the ’60s and ’70s?
I don’t know. I’m drawn to the darker side – the people who create the darkness or the people that suffer from it. I didn’t realize this until recently – I had photographed the American Nazi Party and now I’m doing Holocaust survivors. I guess if you live long enough you end up back where you started.

I’ve seen one of your Nazi Party portraits from your email list and your portraits from Terezín. It strikes me that they are both nonjudgmental depictions. The way you approach the darkness is still respectful.
Yeah. I’m not there to judge. I have opinions but I’m not interested in what makes people tick, just to show that they’re ticking. One Jewish friend of mine…I showed her the Nazi portraits and she says, “You showed those SOB’s for what they really are.” I show the same picture to the Nazi’s and they say,” Great! You really show us the way we are,” and they give the prints to their families.

I’m drawn to the darker side – the people who create the darkness or the people that suffer from it.

So the photograph is a neutral document.
That’s important. It’s easy to photograph somebody in an awkward position. Newspapers do this all the time. They’ll find the most unflattering pose for somebody that they’re in opposition to – some politician with his mouth open or an awkward look. It’s easy to do that in subtle and not so subtle ways. Someone picking their nose or itching their butt. It’s harder to convey that kind of sinister existence or survivors that have overcome obstacles that live to be 90. It’s harder to convey, in a subtle way, that people can then draw their own conclusions. I hope [the viewers] are interested enough to follow through and go beyond the pictures and learn something about what the pictures are of. Maybe not to learn more, but to whet their curiosity. Whether they learn anything or not, I don’t know. I have plenty of pictures that are not flattering to the Klan but I choose not to use them. I think you can be opinionated in a civil, and not mean-spirited way, but that’s not en vogue at the moment.

I’m basically a crappy technician and a lot of my negatives aren’t good negatives, but I occasionally hit on something. I credit that to my sense of design and proportion rather than my photographic skills. I should be going to digital. I’m the perfect candidate to take digital pictures because I’m crappy at doing that other stuff. But I do and it takes a lot of work to make it work.

That’s why I’m sending out all these things I haven’t seen before, because I didn’t have the energy to screw around in the darkroom with a 35mm frame that’s 40 years old. But now you have Photoshop, spot the dust electronically, burn, dodge, and make prints. The technology has caught up with my inept-ability. It’s starting to gel now. And that was the impetus for this email thing. I knew I could send 100 or 200 photographs that I’ve never seen larger than an inch tall. The technology made it possible.

I’d been thinking about this for a long time. Last year I tried to make a picture a week and it lasted about four weeks. I just couldn’t do it and schedule it around school to get in the studio, the PTA or my wife’s travel. Then I thought I can send one out a week that even I haven’t seen.

I look at these contact sheets and I think, I don’t remember that at all. There’s one coming up that’s a grab shot, it’s called Garbage Can Cowboy, Venice. It’s this guy walking with a little pistol.

Garbage bag cowboy, Venice,Italy, winter 1992

He’s got a mask on and this ugly looking hat and he has a garbage bag over him with a star on it. I looked at that picture and said, “This is really weird.” Its’ not a great picture, just a weird picture. It needed a lot of work, it was on a gray cloudy day at dusk, and I’m sure I just said there’s no way I’m going to get grade 4.5 paper and screw around with burning and dodging on that thing, it’s never going to come out. Now it took 15 minutes and I have a decent print of it. But there’s lots of them like that, with vague recollections or no recollection at all.

Do you need an intern?
I have my share of student help. I have various TA’s, four or five a year that work for me, and they have an aversion to work. Ha ha. They want the money but they don’t want to do anything. It takes more time to manage them than just do it myself. And what would they do?

Make scans of the negatives? Are you afraid of how they would handle them?
I handle the negatives terribly. I’m, like, eating a ham sandwich while I’m doing it. I shouldn’t say this, but I don’t even measure my chemistry. I think about film the same way I think about cooking. If it says a cup, it’s sort of a cup, could be a little more or less, and a pinch of sugar. Not that I’m a great cook, but I’m a decent cook and I bake well. It’s a unique experience each time, and sometimes it works and sometimes the souffle comes out flat. I’ve got a lot of flat souffles on gelatin.

How did your project on Terezín begin?
I was sent to Brazil on study abroad and I hated it because it was so rough and tumble. It was impossible to take a group out with cameras and expensive equipment. I was in Salvador, the third largest city and the old slave capitol. It was 100% black and I’m 100% white, there’s no body whiter than me but Queen Elizabeth. It was difficult [to shoot] because of the poverty. We had five years worth of salary for a local around our necks. We didn’t lose anything but some pick-pocketed money. When asked to go back again, I said, “No. What else you got?” And they said Prague.

Doris Grozdanovicova, photographed in front of the former military hospital where her mother died - Terezin Ghetto, Terezin, Czech Republic, June 2012

I didn’t even know about Terezín, but I hopped a ride with another study abroad group because they had an extra seat. I went to Dachau 25 years earlier and got interested in the Holocaust then. I started taking my students out to Terezín and then started looking for survivors to talk to my students when we went out there.

The thing about Terezín that’s interesting is, unlike most of the camps that were wooden barracks, the Germans took over a 17 century fortress town and kicked all the residents out, turned it inside out, and made the town the prison. It was a beautiful architecture done in the 1700’s baroque and 1800’s empire style, all in really good shape. It had churches and stores – all that stuff became barracks. A town of six or seven thousand turned into a town of 70 thousand when it was a prison. They were putting people up in the attics.

There was an inordinate amount of people with creative talent that were held there. Because of where they were drawing from – Bohemia – there were a lot of composers, artists, sculptors, musicians, and dancers all in that one place. And because it was not a death camp, but more of a concentration or holding tank, the Germans allowed them to perform for each other and perform for them.

They had these things called “friendly evenings” where the kids would perform little children’s operas, or, one of the people I photographed, the 108-year-old woman in London, she was a concert pianist. She played 100 performances while she was in Terezín for over four years. Because of that, Terezín has this reputation of being almost a country club. By comparison to Auschwitz it probably was. They were doing these performances, but also getting shot and hung in the lower fortress below the town, brutalized and then sent off to other camps. It has a lot more survivors than Auschwitz. People survived Terezín in one way or another.

I went over there in the spring to attend this conference of survivors, and I didn’t get many takers because I don’t speak Czech. But I did meet a woman who was a filmmaker and producer. She had done some documentary work about WWII. She knew all the people, so I hired her to make connections for me and act as translator. I was able to photograph a lot of people, almost two dozen, in a short period of time when I was there this summer. They trusted her. Now they are asking for pictures for their newsletter, but it took a year to get to that point. I plan on going back a couple of more times. There’s reputed to be 400-600 people left, although at this point most of the people left were children at the time.

What’s it like working with the survivors of the Holocaust?
It’s a little stressful. You’re dealing with these people that, for the most part, most of their families perished. It was arbitrary – you go, you stay. If you could do something for the war effort or entertain the Nazis, you could stay, or you were a good cook, or whatever. It was capricious. So a lot of times people would go there as a family and then the family would be whittled away with each transport so they would be the only person surviving from the entire family. They would be shipped off, usually to Auschwitz because it was the closest camp to the east.

That’s stressful to say, “Would you mind coming back to this hospital where your mother died when you were 12 or 13?”

Is there a lot of survivor guilt?
Not so much survivor guilt, but I feel sort of guilty because I’ve been trying to photograph these people in locations that are significant to their history. Some of them are feeble or have medical conditions and can’t leave their apartments. If I can, I try to talk them into going some place that has some kind of meaning, good or bad. That’s stressful to say, “Would you mind coming back to this hospital where your mother died when you were 12 or 13?” They generally come.

The woman that I brought out to the hospital was the first person I met 6 years ago that got me interested in the project. I was on quite good, friendly terms with her, but she wouldn’t go into the hospital. She would stand out in front of it, but would not go in. It’s that kind of thing.

It’s not like the photos I take here – portraits just for fun of somebody dressed up in trash or recycled goods. Everyday there I’d wake up with a black cloud over my bed – oh, another survivor, but there was a bigger cloud if I wasn’t able to photograph them. It’s a contest against the clock. I’ve already had one of them die. I had written her about photographing her a couple of times. I didn’t hear back. I wrote back in the summer and she didn’t reply again. My fixer then said, “You know, she died last week.”

Everyday there I’d wake up with a black cloud over my bed – oh, another survivor, but there was a bigger cloud if I wasn’t able to photograph them.

A lot of the sites are also being destroyed. I photographed a lot of stuff in the train yard because its scheduled to be an office building soon. I missed photographing the foundation of the old barracks because they got bulldozed. Prague’s expanding so they’re going to these sites that used to be on the outskirts of the downtown area that are now in the downtown area. They’re vanishing. Terezín is falling down.

Some of the buildings I was let in hadn’t been opened in 40 years. Me and my fixer would go out there and the city manager would come and open up this huge barracks that was two blocks of ruined buildings and would let us in, lock the door, and say,”Call me when you want to get out.” We’d be locked in there. It’s fascinating. I look forward to working more on it.

What’s next with the project?
I’m doing this thing in the fall, just as an add on component to a musical performance at bass concert hall for three days, ‘The Music of Terezín’, some of the music that was written and performed at Terezín.’

Do you only shoot medium format? Some of the Terezín stuff looked like a panoramic format…
I guess I do. I don’t have a 35mm. The pano I’ve had since I was a student is called a Brooks Veriwide. It’s the old Graflex back with a Super Angulon lens, so it’s in essence a 4×5 camera – you have to cock the shutter, shoot, advance the film. You have to consciously move from one frame to another or you get double exposures. It’s as close to shooting with a 4×5, except the film holders, as you can get on a 2.25 camera. There are only 8 pictures on a roll, 4×9 or something. The Super Angulon lens is made for at least a 4×5 camera or a 5×7, so you’re only getting the center of the lens – you don’t get that wrap distortion. It’s 101 degrees which is about what two eyes see next to one together. I like it a lot.

The drawbacks are the largest aperture is 5.6, so you’re always need light. The depth of field is critical, and that’s why I take 12 frames instead of two. You’re not actually focusing because it’s a rangefinder. You just set the distance. Sometimes you just get their ear in focus. That’s a challenge just to make a picture. Of the 12 pictures I have, 4 photos are bracketed not for exposure but for depth of field – it goes 2 feet, 6.6 feet, 16 feet and infinity. Outside it’s easy with bright light, but inside – there’s one in the warehouse – I was shooting at 8th of a second and holding real still.

You’ve been a professor at UT for 30 years. What have you learned from watching generations of students go into the profession?
I came in Pampers and I’m leaving in Depends. Got the whole bowel cycle. Haha. You would think it would be interesting, but no. The students are less curious about things now. It’s that trophy generation that wants everything handed to them. “Can you tell me who to contact?” Instead of going out and making contacts themselves. I think the digital age adds to that. Maybe laziness is too harsh a word, but complacency where, “Oh yeah, I’ll just take 25 shots and get one instead of take one and getting one.” I’m not enamored by digital photography. I still shoot film.

I think digital tends to trivialize some aspects of photography and gives the students a mystical sense that they don’t have to think to much about what they’re doing. In some cases that’s very good. I don’t own a digital camera but I have one on loan from Olympus that I do street photography with.

I think digital tends to trivialize some aspects of photography and gives the students a mystical sense that they don’t have to think to much about what they’re doing.

I don’t have to think. I know it’s going to focus and it’s going to make the right exposure. I’ve never shot it on anything but Program mode. It’s good exercise. Like photographic batting practice. Bunting or something. Not hitting home runs but bunting. Making pictures.

[Digital] is counter to everything I learned in school. And I think that what I teach is not the hardware and software of photography, but the seeing. You can walk two blocks from my classroom and see the Gutenberg Bible. The same graphic principles in that book apply to a web screen, or a magazine page, or a photograph – the rule of thirds, this, that, and the other. Those doesn’t change, just the technology changes. The technology makes people think they actually know more or better than they actually do.

How do you get students to get beyond technology to the basis of seeing?
I don’t know if they can do that. I just think the good ones will. You really can’t teach photography, and what you really can’t teach that photographers need, is curiosity. You cannot teach curiosity. If you’re not curious about life then you’re just spinning your wheels.

You really can’t teach photography, and what you really can’t teach that photographers need, is curiosity.

What is it about the trophy generation that contributed to this lack of curiosity? Is it the ability to Google anything we want?

Probably so, and people like me that spoil their children. They say, “Oh, you need milk? Here let me do that for you.” Instead of, “Go get the milk yourself and learn how to open the cap.” The photographers now – some of them are very, very good. And the ones that are tend to be multi-talented with interest in photography, design, fashion, art. But the people that just want to make pictures and work for National Geographic, they’re not interesting people.

Students aren’t very interesting. I used to hang out with students, maybe because I was more their own age at one time. I still hang out with them, but the pool I hang out with – either I’ve become more discriminating or they are less interesting, or both – but they tend to not be very demanding about what you teach them and what they want to learn. They want things presented in an easy to absorb or consume fashion, which is unfortunate.

Photojournalism, or art in general, is the journey rather than the destination. Sometimes there’s never any destination, sometimes ‘no destination’ is conceived by the photographer. It’s getting moving in some direction, but not to a place where you can sit. This generation is destination-heavy and journey-light.

[The] trophy generation wants everything handed to them. “Can you tell me who to contact?” Instead of going out and making contacts themselves.

You’ve said in other interviews that you’re an ‘occasional photographer’ and there’s no reason to photograph all the time. What’s up with that?
I take single pictures. I do series too, but each one can, hopefully, stand by themselves. I’ve done day-in-the-life, I’ve worked for newspapers and magazines and all that stuff. If I get one good picture that’s all I want each time I go out and raise the camera up. I’m not documenting everything around me. I look at these photo books and I think, how did that person ever get someone to publish that series of pictures? There’s only one or two good ones in there!

For the Holocaust series, I try not to waste people’s time and do three hour shoots. Most people have a very low tolerance and diminishing returns happens about 3 or 4 minutes after you make the first picture. Nobody’s taken their picture three or four times in a row and they think, you got it. Digital contributes to that, you can take 15-20 pictures in 10 seconds, but should you?

I took 20 frames tops for each person in the Holocaust series over a 15 or 20 minute period of time. My friend Michael O’Brien did that book ‘Hard Ground.’ He took two pictures, just two exposures for each person. People have to think more and shoot less, but the way the equipment and camera manufacturers and all that business goes, they tend to shoot far more and think very little, except how to put some kind of filter on it at the end. I’m really just an old fart. People who throw parts of their picture out of focus or throw on an effect – it’s trying to make chicken salad out of chicken shit. So I don’t carry anything but a camera and a light meter, and only occasionally.

Do you ever assign your students to shoot film?
UT just got rid of our darkroom. It just closed down. The rooms are still there, but there’s nothing in them. This is a nice time to be a traditionalist though because you can do some very un-traditional things, if that makes sense. I can use a material that basically hasn’t changed since the 1890’s – the film – in a camera that was built in the mid-20th century, and use 21st century technology for finishing, scanning, and making the print. You cover 150 years of photography to make that one picture. It’s an opportunity that other people haven’t had. There were no bridges from daguerreotype to tintype but now there are bridges that you can go back and forth between technologies and centuries. Someone like Robb Kendrick does tintypes. He has the originals, scans them, and then digital prints made on Iris printers. The opportunities to use old processes are great, you just have to have a vision, not Nikon’s vision or Canon’s vision of how things should look.

I can use a material that basically hasn’t changed since the 1890’s – the film – in a camera that was built in the mid-20th century, and use 21st century technology for finishing, scanning, and making the print. You cover 150 years of photography to make that one picture.

Your background is in art. What does the art approach add to a straight photojournalism program?
It probably doesn’t add anything. It probably prevents students from getting a decent job. Haha. But again going back to those basic principles. The Parthenon looks like it does because of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man (man with hands outstretched). The 35 mm frame, the piece of paper you write on, the windows you look out of, they’re all based on a ratio found in all art, something that we’re hard wired for. If you can get those basic principles across and have them applicable to the technology of the present time, then that’s the art influence.

Some people intuitively have an art background without even knowing it, and some people you can send to the Art Institute of Chicago for 10 years and they’ll come away with not much more than they went in with.

What’s difference between those people?
Curiosity probably. People do not look at things anymore. I have a 12-foot bulletin board in my office full of stuff that I put there so I could look up on occasion and be inspired. It always shows up in my photographs some where along the line. It might take a year, two years, or five years, or it might be the next photograph I take, but those things I stick up there for inspiration have an influence. But people hardly ever look, unless it’s a website or something on Facebook. They’re more interested in Facebook than Jansen’s History of Art. Even when they have something that highly suggests they might look at something beyond Facebook – subject matter they might be photographing, to see what’s been done beforehand – they don’t do it. They don’t take the opportunity. The technology is there but most of them don’t use it. They have no links to the past, it’s all future.

Are they reinventing the wheel?
It’s not even a wheel. It’s like a square wheel, or a reinvention of the sled.

Not to get completely off-topic, but does that have ramifications politically and historically, that we’ve lost the ability to learn from our past?
Well, I don’t know that we’ve lost the ability, we’ve lost the interest. These students that I have, they have a fragile grasp of anything over a few years before they were born, which was at this point, 1990.

Who are you inspired by?
Lots of people. How I learned lighting was to study Irving Penn. He’s a master of lighting and incredibly old school. For all his money, he had a studio on the roof in a New York building with window light. He had a camera, oftentimes an old Rollei, and a window. Sometimes he had some rolled-up carpet to put over a table to make it softer.

Richard Avedon I like because he’s adventurous, but he’s got a mean streak. I’ve met him a few times and went out to dinner with him years ago. I didn’t like him as a person, but I liked him as a photographer.

Is there a photograph you wanted to make that didn’t work out? An assignment that went horribly wrong or remarkably right?
Most of them go horribly wrong. It’s like Christmas, going out on assignment. It’s never what you think it’s going to be. It’s usually far better, or it’s a tie, or a pair of socks, or a sweater from your mother. My mother gives me a sweater every year. I’m from upstate New York. I haven’t lived there since 1967 but she gives me a sweater every year. I give it to Goodwill. You go down there in January, you’ll find a brand new sweater sitting on the shelf from the D. Darling collection.

Some assignments have gone terribly wrong, but then when you throw the negatives away you don’t ever remember. It’s a form of photographic amnesia. In ‘Desperate Pleasures’, a retrospective up to that time in the early ’80s, I wrote to not look at the book as if I had started as a child prodigy in photography. I destroyed all the Cro-Magnon Darling’s from the early years. Nobody sees, nobody knows.

Is that important for the photographer’s psyche, you think? To destroy the failures?
It is for mine. People, like Michael O’Brien, he’s got every single negative he’s ever taken. His garage is full of racks. He looks at mine and I’ve got three boxes on the shelf. He says, “What’s that?” I said, “My negatives.” “Yeah, but where’s the rest of them?” “That’s them. That’s it. That’s all.”

I don’t see any reason to have anything you’re not proud of lurking around in the wings. It never gets any better. Sometimes I’ll look through and find something like the Garbage Can Cowboy, but it’s there because at some point I made the value judgment that there might be something in the future. For the most part I’m a fairly good editor. And it’s from art experience and life drawing classes and all this stuff where you know that was a step you have to take. I have a sculptor friend that does bronzes. They’re worth thousands of dollars, and people ask him, “How long did it take you to do that?” And he says, “60 years.”

Everything you do, you have to take one step before you take the next. Without that step you couldn’t take the next, or, if you took the next, you’d stumble. But you don’t have to save your baby shoes or the sneakers you wore in third grade. They’ve done their job and out they go. The mistakes I made ten years ago, I’ve internalized it, and processed it, and hopefully I won’t make it again, but I don’t have to keep that mistake around to haunt me. And so it goes.

Everything you do, you have to take one step before you take the next. Without that step you couldn’t take the next, or, if you took the next, you’d stumble. But you don’t have to save your baby shoes or the sneakers you wore in third grade.

You’ve said you’re an ‘Under the Radar’ photographer. What does that mean?
I don’t have a website. I’ve never tweeted. I’ve never even texted. I have a job. All young photographers want to be famous, but I came to the conclusion a long time ago that it was too much work. You always have to be out there selling yourself. It’s just something I don’t want to spend my time doing. I’d rather be drinking a beer on the patio watching fireflies than emailing people to show them my portfolio. I’m lazy when it comes to publicity and if it happens, it happens. I’m not adverse to talking about stuff, I just don’t want to have to go and pursue it.

Not to draw a direct comparison, but I love those historic caches of photos like those of Vivian Meyer. Those archives that surface where someone spent their life diligently documenting – it’s a historical legacy because it’s an effort, sustained over a period of decades, and leaves evidence of a unique personal experience.
I have some of those same outfits she wore. With the purse and everything. I’m a little bit of a nanny, too. Ha Ha. I feel that way, too. It’s a past-time that I have, photography. I don’t watch sports. With a name like Darling, I got a dispensation at birth about being interested in athletic events. I tend not to watch TV, except the news. I don’t go to movies. I mean, I’m really dull, but I hang out with exciting people, and that’s the reason I’m able to hang out with them. They don’t see any threat. I come in with a single camera and a roll of film. No lights, no generators. I spend my time doing art and thinking about pictures and sometimes taking actual pictures. Other people go to sports bars, I go to Klan rallies.

Any advice you give to young photographers?
It depends on what they want to do. If they want to take pictures like mine, I would say get a job that’s not related to photography at all. In the past I’d say get a teaching job, but those don’t exist anymore. Old farts like me just landed someplace and then stayed. Everyone I know that teaches at other schools are my age and they’ve been there forever.

But if they want to do it just as a hobby or past time or whatever, I would say be curious and adventurous and go out and find things. I don’t see any reason for making pictures that somebody else can make five minutes later. The things that I photograph are the right time and the right place and they won’t happen again just the way they happened. The Klan in the ’70s turned into people in camouflage living in Idaho in the Aryan Nation. It’s not that I look for those things, but I’m somehow drawn to those situations.

I don’t see any reason for making pictures that somebody else can make five minutes later.

What’s an example of something someone could take five minutes later? Shadows and landscapes?
Oh, music. Every student wants to photograph bands. How boring. They want to photograph them performing. All musicians look alike, all stages look alike, they do the same thing over and over again, they play the same songs, they use the same instruments. That’s a case where they’ll go and make xeroxes of what they’ve already seen. There’s plenty of stuff out there. Look for the last of the line, the last munchkin from the Wizard of Oz, the last WWI vets. Things like that.

There’s things happening now that won’t happen again. I think there’s value in that. That particularly interests me because it goes beyond just making a document, it captures a piece of living history, the last thread. You’ve got to combine photography with your interests, even if it’s sports. If you’re sitting watching a Dallas Cowboys game, there’s things happening, the world is passing you by while you’re wasting your time.

Your portraits are very connected and some of them were the results of short-term rapport built in foreign countries. How do you approach people?
The problem with foreign countries, and the advantage, it’s a double-edged sword. I speak no other languages. I can order a beer and identify two body parts in Spanish. Other than that I’m verbally bankrupt after I leave the border. So you’re relegated to making animal noises or drawing pictures on the back of envelopes.

The pictures in foreign countries look differently than the ones I make here. The girls in Mexico, I didn’t talk to them at all, that was seeing something, approaching them, being non-threatening, making a picture and then you can say ‘Thank you.’

Mountain Mist, Main Plaza, Cuetzalan, Puebla, Mexico 1996

You just have to approach people in a non-threatening fashion. Lots of time I hold my hand out like I do for dogs, let them sniff me and then I pee on their leg. Ha ha. They might say ‘Fuck-off’, but I don’t know it because I don’t know ‘fuck-off’ in Spanish. So I wave and leave. That’s the advantage, you have no idea what they’re saying about you after you leave.

I think you have to be honest with them and tell them what you want, what you need, what you’re going to do with the stuff. I always send somebody back a picture. That helps when they get something back. I would suggest that.

[People] might say ‘Fuck-off’, but I don’t know it because I don’t know ‘fuck-off’ in Spanish. So I wave and leave. That’s the advantage, you have no idea what they’re saying about you after you leave.

What’s next?
I don’t know. Plastics. I think there’s a big future in that. Ha ha. I’d like to finish off this Terezín thing. I have no projects in the wings, but that’s generally how I operate. They just come up, you know? It could be almost anything.

Right now I’m doing this crap, well it’s not crap, it’s lighthearted stuff. Stuff I know I can do with hands tied behind my back. Pictures of women with wings or tattooed people or whatever. I’ve done it before. Because I’m married and I have two kids, 10 and 12, and they have school and I have commitments to PTA, or this or that, and it limits my travel. It prevents me from doing something more meaty. What I do here I like, but it’s photographic batting practice – hit a few balls to the outfield and some of them go over the fence. It’s necessary to occasionally shoot because you get rusty.

I would like to do a series of different portraits once a week again. I’d love to go out to the Mormon thing in West Texas, the FLDS, to photograph those women that dress the same way with those hairdos all the same way. I would love to do that. I would give a collection of prints to anyone that could get me into their compound to make those pictures.

One of my students photographed some women boxers, there’s a gym on the south side someplace, and he never did that, he changed projects, but I told him I would steal it as soon as he graduated. He graduated in May. I’m interested in women. Men don’t particularly interest me at all. Maybe I’ll do a series with pictures I have and pictures I have yet to take. I’m always busy, but most of the time it’s just being busy with no particular end-game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Bruce Davidson

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

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

© Dan Winters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Follow Matthew on instagram: @mahon_

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…the camera gets you out in the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your degree in?
Photojournalism and International Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who was your teacher?
Keith Carter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

6

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.

A member of the Battle of Flowers Association judges high school bands as they pass in front of the Alamo during the Fiesta Battle of Flowers Parade, Friday, April 27, 2012. (JENNIFER WHITNEY for the San Antonio Express-News)

Jennifer Whitney is an editorial photographer based in San Antonio. Her love of people, food and the great outdoors inspires her work. Jenn spoke with ILTP over iced coffee on the dog-friendly patio of Spiderhouse in Austin.

Who are your mentors?
I’ve had a lot of incredible mentors… Neal Menschel from the Salt Institute – he always said it’s about imagination, heart, and intention and I’ll never forget that. Rita Reed taught me to be a badass and not put up with anyone’s bullshit basically by osmosis. I look up to Lisa Krantz immensely because she’s not only an awesome photographer but an awesome person. I’m completely in awe of her way of seeing things, her sense of humor, and her incredible patience.

Best career decision?
Sticking to what I believe in and not compromising myself for anything, which led to the decision to go freelance. I never quite fit in at newspapers – too many rules for me and I didn’t like turning work over that quickly all the time because the quality suffers. I have a lot more freedom now to work on projects and the ability to work with clients who expect a higher quality of work. I’ve grown immensely as a businesswoman and have had a lot more space to be creative and find my own groove.

I’ve grown immensely as a businesswoman

Favorite thing about shooting in Texas?
I’m a total sucker for Americana, and I love the quirkiness and the bright, saturated color. Really, its a lot like my home state, Florida, in so many ways but with a bit of a western flair. I love the independent values and progressive thinking that led explorers to the promise of the West, but I’m a true Southern girl at heart. Texas is really the crossroads between the two cultures.

Current Dream Assignment?
Pretty much anything having to do with strong women or wise old people. But I don’t want to limit myself because there are so many things I’m really curious and passionate about. I’m dying to work for Texas Monthly and Garden & Gun.

What’s the weirdest thing in your camera bag?
I try to keep my bag pretty light, but I do carry a purple Leatherman and a tube of Dr. Pepper Lip Smackers, which always brings a little sweetness to a rough day. Also, I carry a stepladder in the back of my truck that was a gift from a good friend. As a small person it comes in handy all the time.

Gear obsessions?
I’m not a gear head. I like to keep it as simple as possible. I couldn’t live without my fixed 50mm lens.

 I couldn’t live without my fixed 50mm lens

How do you stay motivated?
I’m the kind of person who functions best when I’m busy, so I’m always juggling a lot of balls in the air. Making sure I always have at least one story going that I ‘m really passionate about is huge.

What was your first big break?
There are so many ways of looking at it.  Working on the first project I cared about and making the realization that this is what I have to do. As nerdy as it may be to say it out loud, I remember feeling super excited the first time The New York Times called.

I remember feeling super excited the first time The New York Times called

How you established your personal vision?
Through a lot of hard work, experimentation, and finding inspiration outside of photography like in music, film, literature, and other visual media.

Was there one project that gave you that “ah ha” moment, where you knew this is where you wanted to take your work?
At Salt I did a project on two sisters that did beauty pageants in rural northern Maine. They were 8 and 11 when I met them and we still keep in touch. I’m going back to visit them this summer. It was the first time I really fell in love with a subject and realized how powerful the images become when you make yourself vulnerable to people, and what a gift it is when they give you so much access to their lives.  I learned so much from that project, and I’ve pretty much been hooked ever since.

Who are you inspired by?
Erykah Badu, Dolly Parton, Billie Holliday, Yoko Ono, Tina Fey, Kiki Smith, Ann Richards, Alice Waters, Georgia O’ Keefe, Stella McCartney, Annie Oakley, Miranda July, Sofia Coppola, Nina Berman, Lauren Greenfield, Dorothea Lange, Lynsey Addario… I could go on and on…

These are all women, what’s up with that?
I think women have such an important role in society and in our industry and we don’t get enough credit anywhere. There’s such a double standard- we still have to work harder to get what we want. In general, women approach their work with a lot more sensitivity, and that’s important to me

All time fave photo books?
Robert Frank, The Americans

Diane Arbus, Monograph

Donna Ferrato, Living with the Enemy

Sally Mann, At Twelve

Susan Meiselas, Carnival Strippers

Brenda Ann Kenneally, Money Power Respect

Mary Ellen Mark, Ward 81

Alex Webb, Sunshine State

David Alan Harvey – Cuba

Danny Wilcox Frasier- Driftless

 What was the most helpful part of your ‘education’ that wasn’t photo related.
A lot of moving and traveling taught me how to shift my perspective and see things from the outside and how to adjust easily. Also waiting tables for many years taught me a whole lot about people, their habits, and human character in general. Also, I got to try and learn about a lot of amazing food.

How do you define ‘success’ in your own career?
I think with every new project. I try to take it one day at a time and make the most out of everything I do. Being happy in life and finding some semblance of balance is really important to me. Also, I really want to make the people I interact with smile, so I try to be a source of positivity in people’s lives.

Any exciting projects in 2012?
So many great stories, so little time. I’ve been spending a lot of time in Florida exploring how the Gulf Coast commercial fishing industry has changed. Its complicated and exciting to deal with the environment, food, and politics all wrapped up in one package.

Hobbies outside of photography, aka, how do you stay sane?
I’m not: I think its more fun to live a little on the edge and take risks. But I do exercise a lot- I’m a student and teacher of Ron Fletcher pilates which, much like photography, never ceases to challenge me and I need that constantly. Also, I try to spend as much time as possible enjoying the outdoors.

I think its more fun to live a little on the edge and take risks

How do you think you distinguish yourself from the competition?
Relationships. I’m a people person. Being able to make people comfortable and to be present and empathize. Also, exceptional reporting skills and strong intuition: it’s key to being prepared to capture those moments that really push a story above and beyond.

People are thinking of the industry in a very negative way and I think it’s exciting what people are doing, all the possibilities. I feel constantly challenged by my peers and everyone is so dedicated. I’ve never seen it as doom and gloom, I see it as opportunity to make room for new ideas.

Favorite BBQ?
I’m a (mostly) vegetarian, but I do like the occasional bite of great BBQ. Franklin’s in Austin is the best hands down, but I sure miss my side of Southern greens.

Favorite breakfast taco?
Taco Haven in San Antonio – Bean and Cheese with Nopalitos and Avocado. It’s not on the menu- I made it up and its awesome.

Favorite margarita?
Rosario’s in San Antonio – The Mexican Handshake.