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Interview by guest contributor John Davidson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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