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.
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.
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.
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.