Drew Doggett takes his creativity and passion through deserts, accross oceans, and to corners of the globe that may not be accessible to most to find stories that are exciting and informative. Doggett creates award-winning still photographs and video to generate compelling, often romantic pieces of timeless imagery and distinct style.
Drew Doggett is a storyteller with a camera. He takes his creativity and passion across deserts, oceans, and to corners of the globe that may not be accessible to most, to find stories that are exciting and informative. Doggett creates both still photographs and video to generate compelling, often romantic pieces with timeless imagery and style.
His image A Young Goddess, Mindisayo from his latest series Desert Song: Compositions of Kenya was recently crowned a winner at the PDN World in Focus global travel competition. His 2011 series Omo: Expressions of a People was curated as a permanent installation to the photographic archives in The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. This significant achievement brings his work to scholars and educators as well as those who enjoy beauty.
Were you always taking photos as a kid? Did you get to travel a lot?
I was inseparable from my camera as soon as I discovered its power. I was also lucky enough to be part of a creative family that loved to travel, so as a child I was able to get out and see a lot. It was these travel experiences that helped to fuel my interest in and passion for understanding other cultures.
What were the steps you took to go from being someone who takes photos to having a successful creative business that also gives back?
I’ve always felt it was important to give back, so I’ve collaborated with charities to host exhibitions as well as create series. I often find that the places I travel to are at a precipice — often environmental factors or other obstacles are hindering their existence. While the documentation of these places is important, I try to find another means of giving back as well, whether that’s a monetary donation from sales or otherwise. My documentation is just one part of my conservation effort.
You have won several awards. How did that come about for you? Did winning awards help to build momentum for your work?
I’m not sure that awards have quantifiable results, but the peer review is so important. You get so close to your images that having someone you respect outside of your studio review them offers you important insight and lets you know what’s working and what isn’t. Admittedly, the most career-boosting recognition I’ve received yet is having my work accepted into the Smithsonian. This has had more of an effect on my career than anything yet on both a professional and personal level. I love knowing that generations to come as well as global institutions will have access to these images.
How did you get started as a full time professional photographer? Was there ever a fallback plan or did you know from the start that you’d be successful?
Like many other full-time professional photographers, I got started on my own after working for years for other people. Assisting is a huge part of this industry and it was invaluable to get to learn from the best in the business, however, I knew that at some point I wanted my own practice with full creative control. To be totally honest, there was never really a fallback plan from that; I was unwavering in my need to seek out my own subjects and stories. To me, success was being able to have that control and make a living from it. I’m also the type of person to throw myself into work completely, so when I create a new series I give it my all.
Did you have a vision early on and know what your niche would be? Or did it evolve? Do you suggest that everyone find their signature style? You have an elegant sensibility that draws in the viewer. Where did that come from?
I took a lot of cues from my years spent working in fashion but organically tailored my portfolio over time so that my work became recognizable as my own. This fine-tuning took years, but I know, now, that my images are identifiable. Developing a signature style is incredibly important, especially since everyone equipped with a phone is taking photos. Think about your signature style as, in a way, what differentiates you from the masses of phone photographers and if you don’t have that style your work can get lost. This is also not just about a look but about subject matter and editing choices – all of this goes into owning your aesthetic territory.
Tell us about the research and development phase of your series creation.
I spend a lot of time researching any location I am interested in traveling to as well as developing the concept. Every creative decision I make is predicated on months, often years, of research and thought. I pay for everything out of pocket, which is one of the many reasons I am so involved in the business side of my practice. I often try and balance out my work so that I can take creative risks while also sustaining my practice. So far, none of my work has come from commissions, and I’ve been fortunate enough to pursue subjects of my own choosing since starting my independent practice. This independence is a lot of work – but worth it.
You mentioned you got your start in fashion photography. Did you find that there were surprises or obstacles in going from that to fine art photography?
One of the biggest obstacles is going from the controlled studio environment of the fashion world to, for example, the sand dunes of Namibia or the desert of Kenya where you have little to no control over the environment. However, I’ve found that no matter where you are, making portraits involves a similar set of skills. I’m thrilled to have learned under the auspices of so many incredible photographers and I find myself implementing tools learned in my assisting work in my current practice.
Who were your greatest influences? What did you learn from them?
I am grateful to have assisted some of my favorite photographers and greatest influences, many of whom became my mentors. Steven Klein, for example, taught me the importance of artistic narratives as well as the incredibly high level of attention to detail needed for success. I apply what he taught me to every single series I make, and working with him was one of my most formative experiences. I also constantly refer to the work of Ansel Adams for his incredible range and palette.
What is the most exciting part of photography for you? How often does that happen?
So much research and work happens before I ever click the shutter, so one of the most exciting parts of my photography practice is seeing the ideas we discuss in the studio come to life. Also, I find the editing process to be incredibly gratifying because I am maximizing the image’s potential; it’s cathartic! I also love seeing the work on a collector’s walls, as well as how they have incorporated my images into their daily life. One of the most exciting parts of making a sale is knowing that someone wants to live with my art. It’s such a humbling feeling. However, I must admit that making a living doing what I love is the most exciting part of all.
How do you find collectors/sponsors/clients? What is involved in your daily work when you are not shooting?
Like any business, there is a ton of work involved with keeping it sustainable. After creating a new series, you don’t just release it and hope for the best, but instead actively try and get your work in front of the right people. When I am not shooting or working on ways of improving my business, I try and get out and see as much as possible, so I can continuously be inspired. In recent years, I’ve discovered a love for live performances. There is nothing like seeing someone in the act of exhibiting their creativity.
Where do you see your work moving towards? Do you have a 5-year plan or a 10-year plan or just try to see what’s next as each day unfolds?
While not really rooted in a specific timeline, I am always seeking opportunities to reach the widest array of people in an educational capacity. Starting in 2018, I plan on focusing on cultures through a large-scale, comprehensive body of work that plays out over time. The study of global identity continues to intrigue me, and I feel this non-stop urge to document the most remarkable people, places, and subjects out there. There’s also so much changing in the technology of photography and film, from the equipment available to what people feel comfortable purchasing online, that I’ve trained myself to focus on the big picture while adjusting to new goals as they come.
How do you continually keep your work fresh and exciting for new clients and repeat ones?
This is an interesting question because I try and choose subjects that are timeless, so because of this they are also inherently varied. I feel that this range of subject matter allows me to always have something new and exciting. I’m also not so interested in following trends, but I’ve found that sometimes, a few years after creating a series, the trends fall in line with my work. For example, I created my Omo Valley series in 2011, and it wasn’t until five years later that it became financially ‘successful.’ I also create so much material for my archive around each series that I now have a huge pool of work to pull from. This allows me to present my audience with something fresh and never-before-seen months and years after the series is released. I can also pull images out when any issues in them become topical. Between my film, my behind-the-scenes photos, and my social media – I feel that I inevitably have created a formula for keeping my work fresh and exciting.
How many people help you with your work?
DD Answer: I have two people that help me with my work, one based here with me in Charleston and another in New York.
How much time do you spend editing and dealing with the business side of being a professional photographer?
I’d say about 85% is pre-& post-production and business, but so much of that is still creating. I put a ton of effort into releasing and promoting each new series because it’s part of what is required of me to represent the work well. From researching the narrative around my subjects to Instagram stories, everything I put out into the world is part of both my creative and business process. I’m also very hands on, more than most, and I genuinely enjoy it. You also need to be much more involved with your clients now – so figuring out meaningful ways of getting to them is always exciting for us.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out, maybe they have created some excellent images, maybe they have even sold a few images, but now want to sell more of them, what can they do?
Go out and shoot. Look around you and don’t try to be too technical at first so you can start to figure out what you like and dislike without worrying about anything else. Find out of any of your influences are teaching workshops and go to them. Create your own archive of photo books – I know I am constantly referring to my own library, even the books I bought when I first started taking photos. Figure out what you admire about other people’s practices and try and bring your own version of that into your own practice. But keep making work, and never stop learning.
Owning your social media presence and personal brand gets increasingly important every day. It can also lead to partnerships and sales. It’s incredible how much opportunity is afforded by Instagram; I know many businesses will check your social following before deciding on working together. It is understood that your website should be well-curated as well; we are in a creative industry and the aesthetic of your site will speak volumes to your audience. Also, embrace online art sales platforms, but choose wisely because you always want to be in good company.
What’s immediately next for you? Where is your camera taking you?
I am looking forward to furthering my study of cultures in Africa and beyond through film and photography. I’m also hoping to build an archive that will celebrate African cultures and act as an educational database for future generations to learn from. There’s so much left to do!
Ray of Light, Desert Song: Compositions of Kenya, Canon 1D Mark III, 70-200mm f2.8
Untitled 13, Omo: Expressions of a People, Canon 5D Mark II, 24-70mm f2.8
Adorned, Desert Song: Compositions of Kenya, Canon 1D Mark III, 70-200mm f2.8
PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST: MAX EREMINE
“The greatest motivator is my mortality. Desire to bring greater meaning to my life. To have a sense of fulfillment. To do something that would go beyond simply procreating and maintaining existence. To make the world just a tiny bit better, and my subjects just a little bit happier. And the time limit I have to achieve any of that is a truly great motivator.”
Looking over the galleries of Max Eremine, the words that immediately sprung to mind were haunting, serene, and beautiful. Though the artist himself has said that “the concept of beauty is highly subjective,” I feel that the draw to the eye that his photos encompass are undeniable. Eremine has the ability to go beyond the aesthetic of the human form, and is able to convert it into, at the very least, fascinating art. His photos give the impression of a man twice his age, with a grit and serenity of detail to the likes of which I haven’t seen. Even more intriguing, he keeps his social media and page as “negativity free,” threatening to delete and ban offenders. His Facebook states, “Since my work features living and breathing people, I don’t want to hurt their feelings by seeing negative comments. If you want to critique my images, feel free to do it privately by messaging me instead.” This high caliber integrity artist has been internationally published, and has had in work in such magazines as Obvious, En Vie, The Imprint, Tinsel Tokyo, Glassbook, and more.
To delve deeper, to see the man behind the lens, I asked Max some questions to get a deeper understanding of not only him, but his unique art.
Being an artist myself, albeit of a different medium, I wanted to know where his true roots were laid. Though originally from Moscow, Russia, he has worked in both the East and West coast markets, and is currently based in Atlanta. After working in Los Angeles and New York specifically, I asked what brought him South. “Nothing specifically, really. Home is where my family is, and since my family currently resides in Atlanta (for logistical life reasons), then Atlanta is home. There are many other cities around the world that I probably would be more comfortable in, but I was able to carve for myself a comfortable social niche in this city.”
Going back to the beginning of his story as an artist, I asked, “When did life as a photographer begin for you? When did you know that was what you wanted to be?” Max explained that as far back as a young adult, he never actually thought he would be a photographer, nor did he even consider himself as an artic type. “I was always a meat-and-potatoes type of guy,” he explained. “My interest in photography and art in general began in my late 20s.”
I found this answer most interesting, as typically, we as children know who we desire to be, even if we never take the steps to get there from adolescence to adulthood. I wanted to know what prompted this change. Max added, “I think it really began with a trip to Oregon that I took with my wife. I brought along my Sony Mavica digital camera just for family snapshots, but the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest was absolutely astounding to me. I really tried to capture the grandeur of what was in front of me…
“While at it, I realized that I seemed to have had a natural sense for composition – I didn’t know anything about compositions or perspective or anything of the sort, but I really, really enjoyed the actual process of composing the shots and seeing the results. It was an almost physical pleasure of aligning things around until it was perfect. In retrospect, I think I did a pretty decent job of just sensing my way through it in auto-mode. And I think it was the first time in my life that I thought that I might be actually “a natural” at something. Until that moment, I only had occasionally discovered things in which I was… ‘an unnatural.’ So it sort of clicked, and that’s when photography became a hobby, which eventually became an obsession, and eventually a career.”
This intrigued me, as typically, hobbies and obsessions don’t evolve into thriving careers. Especially for someone who runs their own business. Even more than that, Max is a teacher of photography, offering private, one on one lessons for beginners on lighting, post processing, portfolio guidance, image critiques, and guided shoots, where the student shows up with their own model, and he guides them through the shoot.
Regarding the beginnings of his fully developed career as a photographer, he said, “I stumbled into it. Photography was a hobby, and I really didn’t expect to make money with it. Especially since my initial interest was in the sort of photography that is not usually a big money maker – classic fine art photography. Specifically, landscapes, abstracts, street photography, etc. I attended several photography meet-ups, where amateur photographers like myself would photograph amateur models.” It was here that he realized that he enjoyed shooting people. This lead to him scheduling his own shoots, practicing, and shooting more than ever before. “On day,” he said, “somebody reached out to me on Facebook and asked for my rates. This was the first time I seriously considered a photography career.” After a few years of 90-hour work weeks, massive credit card debt, stress, anxiety, and depression, he finally made the conscious decision to take photography on professionally.
When it comes to working with aspiring photographers, I asked what the most important lesson was that he has learned. “I think the most important lesson I am still learning is recognizing that although artwork is without a doubt a window into the artist’s soul, it really shouldn’t be about the artist,” he said. “It should be about something bigger and greater. I think that’s what separates art from craft. If you create something to just showcase your skills – it’s really just a craft project. However, once it is infused with some sort of higher meaning, whatever it may be, that’s when the work becomes art. In case of portraiture it is often as simple as realizing that it’s about the subject and not the artist’s ego. Love your subjects, be fascinated by them, try to peek into their inner world and try to capture that. A great portrait would make the viewer fascinated by the subject, and not just by your lighting techniques.”
I found myself readily agreeing, as there is no shortage of fascination with his work. While there is a clear indication of lighting techniques, Eremine’s style surpasses mere adjustments of light and contrast. His photos bewitch, intrigue and engage. He describes his own style has gravitating toward dark themes, as that reflects the entertainment he consumes—books, films, etc. While Max is a huge consumer of art, spending quality time looking at photos, paintings, movies, and listening to music, he still has his own voice. While dark, it is strong and powerful. “It’s just my aesthetic,” he said. “So, I tend to be rather dark in my images as well. I call myself a Neo-Noir photographer, but everyone interprets terms differently and really, it’s just a label.”
On the idea of labels, I then asked if there were no labels, or fear or failures, what would he do with such freedom? “Nothing truly new can be born without fear of failure and rejection. Those are normal things, and are an integral part of creative process. If I had no fear of failure or rejection I would probably create something pretentious, aimed to cause shock and result in publicity, possibly very profitable, but ultimately something trite, banal, and pointless.”
On the note of “banal and pointless,” I asked him what was his message, ultimately, with his work now. My personal photography messages vary from project to project. But most of the work I do is portraiture for clients. It is more than just pretty pictures to me, though. I want the viewers to see the inner and outer beauty of my subjects. To be amazed by this world and to love life a little more. I want my subjects to love their images. I want to boost their self-esteem; to realize how beautiful they are. To make them a little happier, and their world a little brighter.
To where he’s been to where he is now, I asked if he would change anything. “To be honest, I wouldn’t tell my early photography-self anything,” he stated. “I think my photography path was just fine as is. Not that I didn’t make any mistakes – I made lots of mistakes. But without that, I would not have learned anything. You can’t learn to walk by being told some secret. You learn to walk by falling, standing up, and stumbling around several thousand times.”
When it comes to his “menagerie of influences,” he added, “Sometimes I feel like a DJ sampling bits and pieces from dozens of different places, rearranging them to create something new. Or a cook working with an endless count of amazing ingredients – here is a dash of Renaissance chiaroscuro, a drop of Wes Anderson’s colors, a hefty helping of John Alton’s lighting, etc. The visual language created by thousands and thousands of artists over the centuries is so insanely diverse and rich, it’s just a joy to be a small part of this world. Sometimes I look at all Art, in general, as a sort of one giant improvised jazz symphony that all of us are playing a part in. It’s an honor to be in this world-wide millennia-wide orchestra even if it is just to play the triangle.”
Curious about his working style, I asked if he preferred to blend into the background to capture candid moments, or if he liked to be engaged, visible, and take charge. Looking at his work, I would have said the latter. Oddly enough, he said it was a bit of both. “I fish for moments while controlling the environment. Most of the time, my images start with just a very vague idea – a prop, type of light, or a background. And then I just elaborate and improve on it until it grows into something. There are lots and lots of ‘wait… what if I do this?’ moments on my set.” He calls this an improvisational approach. “But in a way I just stumble around until I get something good…”
In terms of what’s deemed as “good,” there is some discrepancy for both photographers and filmmakers in terms of shooting digitally or with film. Once again for Max, it’s a bit of a mixed bag: he shoots digitally for clients, and film for personal projects. While he loves film, it comes down to budget; it’s more cost effective to go digital for his work. Still, his love of film has found its way into a fine collection. “I even film cameras. One of the things I do almost every Saturday is go to yard sales and rescue cameras. I consider it a rescue because I don’t buy them to sit on a shelf – I buy them, clean them, repair them, and then use them. Not as often as I’d like to, but I DO use my film cameras. Cameras that are not used to take images are unhappy cameras.”
This struck me as a career-related hobby. I wondered what type of gear he used for paid shoots. “I often say in my classes that great images can be created with ANY gear and any type of camera. It’s much more about lighting, and creativity, and vision than about gear. It’s good to have a good camera, but it’s more important to have a camera that you are very used too. The one you know like the back of your hand. So, my favorite cameras are the ones I’ve been using for many years. And I am not planning on replacing them until they go cold. And there is a good chance when that does finally happen, then I’ll just try to find the exact same ones in better condition, rather than buying anything new.” I am not sure if “green photographers” exist, but if there is such a thing, Max is most certainly that. Perhaps a line of refurbished cameras is in his future.
With the type of equipment used out of the way, and keeping in mind that he’s self-taught, I then wondered how did he educate himself to take better pictures. It was here that Max gave a most wonderful metaphor:
“The only way to take better pictures is to be able to SEE if the picture is actually good or not. I look at a photograph sometimes and can’t believe a photographer thought it was good enough to make public. It’s especially upsetting when that photographer is me.
“In many ways making images is like making wine – if you want to make great wine you need to develop the taste buds for it. You need to be able to tell one great wine from another, to be able to tell which grapes were used, the terroir of the estate, how much sun did the grapes receive, that sort of thing. And then you’ll know what your grapes need to get the flavor you want. And the only way to develop this skill is to drink lots of GREAT wine.
“Same with images – the only way to train the AESTHETIC taste buds is to consume a lot of GREAT visuals. It’s important to make sure that the visuals are really good. If you can’t figure that out yourself at first, you can rely on curators for a while. And then you look at all this amazing work by other artists and compare it to your portfolio, you realize that your work is complete crap in comparison. Which is wonderful. Cause now you have a chance of growing and improving and making your images a little less crappy. Which is exactly what I do every day. It is quite depressing sometimes, which is why I also drink a lot of GREAT wine.”
Speaking as someone from the artist community, I am sure that wine makes it into the process of many. Eremine’s work most certainly hits many varying notes, lingering, smooth, and full of robust flavor. I look forward to seeing his future work.
To learn more about the wonderful art of Max Eremine, please visit www.maxeremine.com.
What are your favorite works?
Max Eremine: The one I’ll be working on tomorrow, because I hope it will be better than what I did today.
I don’t dislike my work – there are some images I’ve done I am even proud of. But I feel like all of it is just preparation; my magnum opus has not been created yet. Assuming it ever will be, if it’s all about the journey. I’m okay with that, too.
Your stunning photos are predominantly black and white. Is there a reason why you favor that over color? Do you shoot in color first and edit the photos, or are the black and whites shot with purpose?
When shooting digital, I shoot in color RAW format, but usually keep my back of the camera previews in black and white. For me, there are a couple of reasons for sticking with black and white most of the time: Composition (or the perfection of the chosen crop) is simply more evident when seen in black and white. Some images are simply more dramatic when everything else is simplified to lines and tones. The second reason is that introducing color is more complex… And I honestly feel like I am just starting with color.
I see some photographers that have a natural feeling for color. That is not me. I am the composition and lines guy. I am learning color, but I might be learning it for the rest of my life. I am playing and experimenting with it and I might even get good at it one day. So in all honesty the reason I shoot a lot of black and white is because I am more comfortable with it.
What is your favorite type of work?
ME: Artistic portraiture. It’s a very consciously chosen path. I don’t shoot many advertising jobs, because it often requires selling yourself a little bit, even compromising your ethics sometimes. I would only shoot an advertising campaign for something I like and believe in. With portraiture, there is much less “selling out” going on. It’s very honest ethical labor – documenting someone’s universe, freezing a moment in time, making your subjects happy, bringing a little bit of beauty into this world. And all of that without any ulterior motive, without trying to sell something to anyone.
What is your best shoot experience?
I have had many amazing photoshoots, and I am not going to pinpoint any one as I do not wish to slight anyone. But in general, my favorite shoots are when the clients give me complete creative freedom and say “Do you!” Luckily, that is very common in my work. My clients hire me to see themselves through my lens, and I am happy to oblige.
What would be your dream photoshoot?
Every portraitist has a bucket list of people they want to shoot. I am no exception. It’s the people that fascinate me or the ones whose look resonates the best with my aesthetic. Sometimes, the names on this list change, but the two names that were on this list since the beginning are actress Christina Ricci and fashion model Marina Nery. But there are also lots of people on this list that are not household names whatsoever. I do not rate people based on the level of fame they happen to enjoy. I would much rather shoot an unknown model with whom I perfectly “click” than a huge celebrity whose work I don’t really care for.
Profiling America: Elliot Ross
How did photography become your thing?
I moved to the U.S. from Taiwan when I was four. I moved to my Dad’s side of the family on a rural farm in North East Colorado. Needless to say, there was definitely some culture shock there.
I had grown up in Taipei, a really dense city, I had a lot of friends, spoke Chinese, and then I moved in with a very conservative white family in the middle of nowhere United States, where you could see the horizon and the closest neighbor was four miles away. The mailbox was eight miles away. The grocery store was over an hour a half away, so very different. It was difficult. I loved it, but I was painfully shy.
One way that I could still be present in situations was to have a camera between me and whatever was happening or whoever would be visiting. The camera provided a sense of security. That’s when photography began to take root. It was just something that I did, but I didn’t think too much about it, outside of enjoying it. Things changed in high school when I enrolled in a photography class. It was that process of shooting and being conservative with film, because as a student you don’t have a lot of money, so being very concentrated on what I took pictures of and starting to think about “what do I want to take pictures of?” Then that whole magical process of seeing an image come to life happened. It began with portraits of my friends and then collecting memories. I was hooked.
Then you started shooting music after high school?
I had quite a few friends that were in bands. They would go play in the parking lot of music festivals. I would make my own pass that looked like an official pass that legit photographers had. Something close enough to get me in and that is how I started shooting music at shows – finding a back door or finding someone who would let me in. Then I started hitting up different magazines asking them to write a letter for me saying that I was covering a particular concert for their magazine, because then maybe the venue would let me in for free and then maybe I’d get access to the pit. I worked with local newspapers to get that letter on a letterhead just to get my foot in the door. It worked.
Was there ever a fallback plan?
No fallback plan. It still terrifies me. No, I didn’t always know (I would be a photographer). My mother is Asian and she definitely falls into that stereotype of being the disciplinarian. I had to get a 4.0 every quarter since Junior high. I’ve never gotten a B in my life. I was in engineering prep school. That’s what my parents wanted me to be. My Dad still sends me job openings. He hasn’t fully embraced the fact that I’m a photographer. My mom long since has.
When did photography turn into a business for you?
It was a natural progression. If you want to be working in photography you find a way. It wasn’t black and white.
How long have you been a full time professional photographer?
I came out of school in 2011. I assisted, here in New York City, for Annie Leibowitz, Mark Seliger, and Mario Testino up until 2015. Then three friends and I started our own business. That’s what pushed me to begin making enough income where I could let go of assisting and only shoot. I’ve been doing that for three years, where I’ve had no other income. You asked about a fall back plan…This has to work. My skillset is very deep in photography and pretty shallow in everything else. (laughs) It’s fulfilling for me every day. There is no shortage of challenges, when it comes to photography, on so many different fronts, in terms of technique and being a technician. Even with digital. A lot of these colors that I’m trying to achieve, you have to nail the exposure every time, because otherwise you don’t have the latitude to make those colors work.
If there had to be a fall back plan to photography, I’ve always thought about it…I’d go back to trail building. I used to work at Rocky Mountain National Park during my summers off, when I was in school, as a trail builder and high alpine trail maintenance. I went camping and it was very cathartic, digging, crushing rock, and cutting slopes, I really enjoy that. It allows me to think. That would be my fall back, something outdoors and in nature.
Since you won’t be needing that at all. Tell me a little about what your first jobs on your own were like. Did you enter contests and use winning as leverage at all to get work?
The first jobs were obviously terrifying. It’s one thing to be on big sets with celebrities and photographers that you grew up admiring and worshiping to running that set yourself. It was a big jump. I pitched myself and then had to adjust and get used to working directly with the art director or photo director.
How did your vision come about with your particular creative point of view?
I think it comes from two places. It comes from my past and it also comes a lot from reading. I spend every morning, at least an hour every morning reading different news outlets, I subscribe to a heap of weekly magazines, The New Yorker being one of the most important for me. I love their long form stories and how much investment they put into crafting the story. And staying on top of current events, sometimes an interest in some sort of event and wanting to understand why things are precipitating the way they are is going back to the root cause (if it is a problem) or going on a tangent from that like getting interested in the cultures involved that leads to a portrait project. It’s an ideation process I guess. Photography is an extremely powerful tool to affect change and I definitely want a portion of my practice to be used in a way that I feel like, in some regards, is bettering the world. As naïve as that sounds, I hope to be able to achieve that.
I have an unquenchable curiosity in a lot of things. Photography is such a nice way to be able to bounce between those curiosities, to have an excuse to learn more, and to be able to devote my time to that and make that my job.
How do you bring those ideas to the clients that are paying for the jobs such as the portraits of centenarians?
A lot of treatments. A lot of “this is what I want to do…this is why I believe in it…” and you know, one out of every 30 treatments may turn into something that actually lives in the world. The whole practice is good for me too because it makes me analyze why I want to do it. Who do I want to devote my time, energy, and resources into this story and is it worth it? A lot of times when I am making a treatment, I start to realize all the different holes in this idea and then the idea dies there.
I do a lot of pitching and finding the people in the world, no matter if it is a company or a magazine, who believe in what I have to say, and will trust me to do a good job. I look for common interests that I know they will be invested into and also finding people who have a similar voice as I do.
You make everyone look good.
I do? I make everyone look good? Oh good…With the portraits that I choose to share, those portraits represent people, and there is a part of me that falls in love with that person. There is something to like in anyone. It’s just a matter of finding it. Then using the power of connection to tell something about that person. A lot of times it starts with finding common ground or common interests. Then it is building off there and building a personal relationship with that person, even if you only have an hour, or thirty minutes. We are very social animals. Let’s employ that.
It also goes into the process of selecting who I am going to photograph. There is definitely some projection that takes place. I am choosing to show a certain side of someone. It just so happens that I like just about everyone I photograph. I’m trying to find things that I like about that person.
How much are you manipulating the light because your portraits tend to look very natural which is going to appeal to certain clients.
Part of my aesthetic is that I never want to leave the realm of reality. I want it to look natural. A lot of the things that you see, especially my more recent work that I’m sharing on Instagram, a lot of it is lit, or the light is manipulated. Lighting is what photography is. Other than the connection with the person, it’s the second most important thing, the quality of light.
If you were to see the initial test shot and then the final shot after I lit it, it’s a night and day difference, but I don’t want anything to ever look lit. The key to having a beautiful portrait is to have this element of realism. This is who they are. This is the essence of this person. If the lighting doesn’t look natural or realistic, then all of a sudden, the artifice of everything begins to reveal itself.
Is that part of your success do you think? That you chose to stick to realism and portraiture and found your niche with that instead of trying all kinds of things? Was having a niche something you thought out as you transitioned from an apprentice?
I don’t know. I think it is important for any creative person starting out to define their area of expertise. In the beginning, I feel that you have to be known for one thing before you can start publically exploring other realms. It was definitely a conscious thing, carving out a niche. The niche doesn’t define who I am as an artist. It’s a necessity for starting out. Having a brand image that art directors can expect when they hire me.
Who where your influences?
As a child, as a teen, and as a college student, Annie Leibowitz was easily one of my greatest influences. Her lighting is in that realm of realism. It’s very classic and unobtrusive. A lot of things are obviously lit, but lit in a way that is not distracting. In her early work: 1970-1990, she really had a knack for distilling a person to what the viewer feels like is their essence – creating that connection. Being able to work for her was really valuable in seeing how to communicate with people. That is just as important as the technical skills of photography, the ability to relate and the ability to put someone at ease. She does that very well.
Aesthetically, Robert Frank was a big influence. His looseness and composition, his sheer talent was something for me to strive towards. How do you strive to become a genius? You can’t really. He just is. He has a way of inserting himself into situations that a normal person should never be in and such a wide variety of situations. In a way, he is a chameleon too.
Color wise, Phillip Lorca Dicorcia, and also lighting wise too, is a big influence. He like William Eggleston, another color influence of mine, there is just something about the richness to the way they utilize color, especially using reds as well. They distilled things down to one primary color and two secondary colors. Color theory plays a huge part of their aesthetic. That has definitely influenced my own practice in creating that graphic quality.
Phillip Lorca Dicorcia also has this incredible ability to use small light sources to help accentuate a scene, where it isn’t apparent that he is using a light source. If it’s putting a gelled strobe in a lamp other than just using the normal lamps ability, it looks natural but as a photographer you can definitely point those things out and see that is not what a lamp normally does, but it looks plausible. Manipulating the existing scene without pushing it too far is something he does really well and it’s suitable to who he was and who I am as a photographer, primarily being alone in the field. Not having an assistant, I can’t carry big strobe units easily on my own. He worked out of his car and used little flash units much like I do too.
John Steinbeck’s ability to tell stories is a big influence of mine too. The way he paints a scene, the way he can bring something to life using words is extraordinary. Reading his work allows me to notice more of the subtleties in life to enjoy, celebrate, and appreciate.
One of the more valuable lessons for me was looking at good photographers and finding they work subtractively. They start with a scene and then whatever doesn’t help contribute to what they’re trying to say, they move it. Let’s get rid of all the extraneous stuff. Everything within a photograph should have a reason and a role. When it comes to storytelling there shouldn’t be anything extraneous that will take away or dilute what you are trying to say.
The same goes with color. If there is a yellow thing in there and the yellow isn’t helping the reds and the blues in a composition then let’s get rid of that yellow thing.
That informs your language when you pitch for work. What would you like other photographers coming up to know?
Don’t be afraid to experiment. Don’t be afraid to go down every path that might be interesting and know that 80 percent of those are not going to be, but then you know.
Try every avenue and see what doesn’t work and then by process of elimination you are understanding what does work, what you respond to, and to a lesser importance, what other people respond to. Be curious. Embrace your role as a photographer. Bring your camera with you everywhere you go. You should always be thinking about it if that is something you want to do as a pursuit. That’s how you find your own aesthetic.
In your experience, what helps to create a sustainable photography business?
Never pass up an opportunity. Say yes to everything in the beginning. Even if the pay doesn’t make sense or you’re kind of undervaluing yourself, the connections that you make on set may lead to much more important things. There is no way of knowing what one thing will lead to. Also, do not wait for opportunities make them for yourself.
Where is your camera taking you next?
I recently just finished a four-month long project traveling the entire length of the U.S./Mexican border. My girlfriend, who is my creative partner, and I, went to Trump’s inauguration in D.C. We shot portraits and interviewed Trump supporters as to, where on their voting hierarchy of needs did the wall come into it, and if the wall was important, why did they perceive it as important? We asked them questions related to the wall and our national security. From the inauguration, we drove to the border. We started in Brownsville, Texas. To do this project, I built a 4-wheel drive mobile photo studio/living quarters out of a Mercedes Sprinter van. It’s self-contained. There is a bed, there is a kitchen, a fold out portrait studio out the back doors where I can have a backdrop, set lights up, and it has a diffusion rooftop so I can use natural light.
For four months, we drove ten thousand miles along the two-thousand-mile length of the U.S./Mexican border, covering every inch of the borderline. We did a lot of off-roading. Our goal was to speak with as many people who live on the borderlands, on the frontier, what they thought of the border. We asked them what they think the best solution is, what their viewpoints are of the wall, Donald Trump, this administration, and their needs in life. (Versus Trump voters in other states.)
Vice funded a lot of it. We published a story with Vice. They funded a huge chunk of it on the U.S. Texas border, which took two and a half of the four months. Then Carhartt, being an incredible patron, funded the rest with no expectation of anything. They just believed in what I was doing and paid for it.
What we found through talking with the most liberal people on the far left to the most reactionary ranchers on the right is that nobody who lives along the border wants a wall, for a variety of different reasons. Whether if it’s environmental, economic, etc., it doesn’t make sense to spend such a huge sum of money on a tool that has a very limited range of use. Its efficacy versus cause ratio is just way off. The next step with this project is a book.
What are your other goals for the future?
I would like to work more consistently with magazine that I really respect and love, and a variety of different clients such as branching out into the car world for example is something I’m really interested in doing. It requires some new skills and getting new tools as they come out.
Is there anything else that you want to say about your journey as a professional photographer and making it a sustainable, supportive, and creative occupation?
There isn’t a path. There isn’t a formula to achieving success in this industry. I really think it is a personal journey. You have to figure that out for yourself.
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