Travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…the camera gets you out in the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your degree in?
Photojournalism and International Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who was your teacher?
Keith Carter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

How did you get started in photography?
I took pictures all the time as a kid. My Dad gave me his Olympus camera when I was in 8th grade and I was hooked.

What’s one of your best career decisions so far?
Moving to New York City for 11 years. It really helped my career immensely.

What’s your favorite thing about shooting in Texas?
Since I just moved here in October I’m still discovering that one. But so far I’m enjoying the lack of attitude and pretentiousness of the people here.

Tell us about a dream assignment?

it’s working with a great crew or shooting a story with an amazing writer or editor

That’s a hard one because sometimes the best assignments I’ve had were the ones that on paper didn’t seem like the best assignments. It’s not shooting one particular person or place even, it’s working with a great crew or shooting a story with an amazing writer or editor who gets the place your photographing and allows me to produce my best work. That said, I’ve been dreaming about shooting a food story somewhere in Scandinavia.

Latest gear obsession?
Not obsessed with gear at all.

How do you stay motivated?
Knowing I can’t do anything else for a living at this point.

What was your first big break?
I assisted the former photo editor of Travel + Leisure, Jim Franco, when I first moved to NYC. He encouraged me to show my work to the magazine and I got my first job. No matter how small the jobs were they gave me I worked my ass off and it paid off. They liked my work and it opened a lot of doors for me having shot for them.

No matter how small the jobs were they gave me I worked my ass off and it paid off

Talk to us about how you established your personal vision? was there oneproject that gave you that “ah ha” moment, where you knew this is whereyou wanted to take your work?
I’m not sure if there was any “ah ha” moment. My personal vision is evolving. But I do have a way in which I work with my subjects that allows things to happen organically. People are always telling me how relaxed and easy I am to work with and I think there’s a certain feel to the work I get by creating that atmosphere.

Any tips for photographing kids? You’re great at it and I think people don’trealize just how tough it can be to get kids to cooperate.
Don’t try to control them too much. I pick a scenario, a space or place that I like, find or create great light and let them do their thing. Face it, they’re going to do the thing you least want them to do, but if you’re patient something good will come from it. It’s also easier if there’s more than one of them and they forget you’re there.

Who are you inspired by?
People who are really good at what they do and make it look really easy and treat people around them kindly.

All-time favorite photo books?
Diane Arbus Revelations and at the moment this crazy college yearbook I found from Uncommon Objects from 1943.

Most helpful part of your ‘education’ that wasn’t photo related?
Being a mom.

How do you define ‘success’ in your own career?
When people connect with my images and are excited to work with me.

What’s next? exciting projects in 2012?
I’m traveling cross country back to New York for the Summer with my husband and toddler son. We’re going to take a week to get there and I plan on documenting the whole ridiculous mess.

I was also pretty fearless about approaching clients I wanted to work for and telling them just that

Advice for someone starting out?
I worked for some really nice photographers that I learned a lot from and helped my career in the beginning. I was also pretty fearless about approaching clients I wanted to work for and telling them just that.

Favorite bbq?
Since I just moved here there’s lots of haven’t tried, but I did go to Smitty’s Market and it was pretty freaking good.

Favorite libation?
Rosé

Do you collect anything?
When moving from NYC to Austin I discovered I have collected a crazy amount of negatives and contact sheets.

Hobbies outside of photography?
Cooking

Ben Sklar is an editorial and documentary photographer based in Austin, Texas. Sklar’s easy-going nature and hard work ethic create the best images possible for clients that range from Marie Claire and Ebony Magazine to Bloomberg Markets and The New York Times. ILTP talked to Ben on a sunny afternoon at the East Village coffee shop in Austin.

What was your best career decision?
Committing to a freelance career from the start. I didn’t fit into the regimented structure of newspapers. I found there wasn’t much collaboration or emphasis on making or running the best pictures. I didn’t want to be good enough for daily work. I don’t want to mail it in. I’m not made to be around people that don’t value making the best image possible.

Favorite thing about shooting in Texas?
Giant blue skies make for good vibes.

Giant blue skies make for good vibes

Dream assignment?
Each assignment as it comes, the next phone call could be the dream assignment.

Anything weird in your camera bag?
Canon Sureshot from 1986 loaded with Provia 400, or disposable cameras.

Latest gear obsession?
“I’m not a gear dude, I’m a pictures dude.”

What keeps you motivated?
Coffee, shooting a lot and taking risks.

What was your first big break?
When the NYT called me at age 20, but then the Pulitzer thing in 2005 was bigger. It catapulted me to a higher level that I wasn’t necessarily prepared for.

People pass by a street corner during the SXSW music festival. The photographs were taken against a white backdrop on nearby buildings and sidewalk to show the diversity of the crowd. © Ben Sklar

Mentors
Eli Reed

Any Ah-ha moment that defined your personal vision?
No. I try to make the best picture possible – sometimes with lights, sometimes film, sometimes digital, sometimes work in the darkroom. I don’t let categories of photography define my personal vision.

Who are you inspired by?
Anyone doing what they love to do. I love that energy and want to be around it. People who are thrilled with their impact on the world, no matter what it is.

Favorite Photo Books
Beyond the Fall: The Former Soviet Bloc in Transition 1989-1999
Larry Burrows: Vietnam
Mary Ellen Mark: Ward 81
The Americans, Robert Frank
Dorchester Days, Eugene Richards
Anything by Tom Robbins

Tell us about an important part of your ‘education’ that wasn’t about photography…
Traveling opened the world beyond the self.

Silver Dollar Bill with Sniper Twins © Ben Sklar

How do you define success?
Making the best picture possible everyday. Finding contentment in each trial, each up and down cycle.

What distinguishes you from other photographers?
It’s pictures first for me and I like to shoot relevant topics. I turn melted ice cream into chocolate milkshakes. I’m fun to work with on collaborations or open ended creative endeavors. I bring creative solutions to visual problems.

I turn melted ice cream into chocolate milkshakes

Exciting Projects in 2012?
Yeah, but rather than talk a lot of fluff about what I’m going to do, I’d rather show you pictures when I’ve actually done something.

Any weird collections?
Memories, photos, rocks, plane tickets, receipts, I’m the descendant of pack rats.

Do you have hobbies that keep you sane?
First of all, photography doesn’t make me insane. Photography rivals orgasm. Rock climbing, running, brewing beer, woodworking, and travel.

Favorite BBQ
Franklin’s in Austin

Favorite Breakfast Taco
Pink Taco, Maria’s in Austin

Favorite Margarita
Hotel Havana in San Antonio

Shot in Marfa?
Yep.

Jody Horton is an Austin-based food and lifestyle photographer whose work has appeared in Garden and Gun, The New York Times Magazine, and Esquire.
What’s your background? Did you study photography?
I went to Clemson University and got a BA in in English with a minor in Communications. At Clemson, I took an intro to photography class. After Clemson, I went to the University of New Mexico for a Masters in Cultural Anthropology. During grad school I was interested in photography and film, and took 16mm film classes as part of the grad program. In school, I used visual mediums for ethnographic work. I did a study on low rider culture where I took pictures of their cars and then interviewed the car owners. I also did a semester in Bangkok, plus some time in central Java and attended the Maine Media Workshops.
What was your first big break?
For a number of years I was focused on documentary video. When my first son was born, I realized I couldn’t do it as well because it took so much time and the technology was changing so quickly. The amount of time needed to apply for grants, storyboard, etc. just wasn’t right for me anymore. So I decided I needed to become more serious about photography.  My first break came from meeting with Texas Monthly. Leslie Baldwin (Director of Photography) and TJ Tucker (Creative Director) loved the work and were enthusiastic. I pitched several stories to them, one of them was on squirrel hunting in east Texas. A few days later they called and asked me to shoot it. I had only met with one other magazine before, Garden and Gun. The fact that I could approach a magazine and they would hire me to do something and was extremely gratifying.

How do you stay motivated?
I’m motivated by needing to save for my children’s college of course, but also motivated by the idea of death. You only have so many years that you can do this and do it well. That’s what brought me to photography seriously in the first place.

You only have so many years that you can do this and do it well

You obviously love food and stories around where our food comes from. How did that come to be?

When I was in grad school I created a local food magazine. I started doing food photography then. The magazine had a cultural bent, and I would cover local growers as well as restaurants. I was drawn to people who were really passionate about what they do, and food people seem to be very passionate. I have a lot of different photographic interests — portrait, landscapes, etc, and I like how the theme of food can encompass all of those things. There’s a lot of range. That circle sort of limits the world to a degree, but it is a colorful subject matter and has a colorful community.

How did you end up in Texas?
While on a trip to Costa Rica doing adventure photography and writing, I met my future wife who was living in New York City at the time. We dated long distance for a while and then ultimately decided we would both move to Austin. Austin seemed like a cultural and geographic middle ground between New Mexico and New York City and there was an active documentary film scene.

What’s your favorite thing about shooting in Texas?
Texas is an awesome place to be, and Austin has one of the most vibrant food communities in the country. Part of the reason it does is because the community is really open. It’s not about who you know as much as in other places. Texas is so big and Austin is situated right in the middle of so many major Texas cities, so I can really cover assignments all over the state.

Texas is an awesome place to be

Do you have a favorite uniquely Texas assignment?
I met an interesting man, Shelby Johnson, while working on the squirrel hunting story. Johnson lives like people lived 70 years ago. He has a ton of free time, so Johnson will would go squirrel hunting for 3 weeks at a time after he pulled in his summer harvest. He would spend weeks on end catfishing. Johnson was a window into an older farming lifestyle — a community that is set on a the same schedule of work and play. Even further, Johnson could articulate so well what he loves about doing what he does. I like doing stories about people who otherwise the public wouldn’t get to know. I find an interesting person and then through them interesting stories.

Dream assignment?
I would like to have the chance to document food or food culture for Saveur. Or to shoot for National Geographic documenting a community of fisherman or pearl divers in the South Pacific.  National Geographic, want to send me around the world to document oyster gathering and eating?

How do you define ‘success’ in your own career?
Earning enough to where I can take care of my family, and have some freedom to do jobs that don’t pay well but that are interesting.

What’s next? Any exciting projects coming up in 2012?
I have a hunting and cooking book in the works that will come out in the fall of 2012. Hunting is being reconsidered now and being seen as a natural means by which to acquire local and sustainably harvested food. Hunting used to be associated with rednecks, but it’s being reclaimed and now as more types of people are hunting. Also, I am taking photos for a book on wood fired cooking by Tim Byres of Dallas’ Smoke. The book is essentially based on traditional American cooking, with a focus on making everything from scratch.

Do you have a favorite bbq spot?
Locally Franklin’s. Overall though, I’m more in love with South Carolina pork BBQ. My favorite is a backyard whole hog served with red vinegar pepper sauce, typical of mid-state South Carolina. My wife is a vegetarian. Her stance: “I draw the line at having a whole pig roasted in the backyard.”

Favorite breakfast taco?
I prefer the breakfast burrito, which you can find at Taco Shack. But the very best is one that cannot really be had anymore was from a place called Desert Willow in Alberquerque. Potato, egg, cheese, applewood smoked bacon, the best New Mexico red sauce I’ve ever had.

Favorite libation?
I’m a whiskey straight kind of guy. I love the tobacco-infused drink at La Condesa.

Do you collect anything?
I like stuff that carries other stuff. I have a great bag collection. I’m also always collecting interesting props for food shoots.

Hobbies outside of photography?
With little kids in the mix there is not much time for ‘hobbies’, but I do like to play guitar. I also like to make work a hobby. Do what you want to do.