Sharper Image: Photographer Chase Jarvis
Long before the Internet, Chase Jarvis dropped out of grad school to backpack through Europe with a camera he inherited from his grandfather. Twenty years later, he’s named one of the 30 most influential photographers of the decade and passing his knowledge along.
In 1994, amateur photographer Chase Jarvis licensed his first image for $500 and a pair of skis. Two decades later, his images sell for up to $50,000 a pop, he’s won photo awards by the boatload, he’s authored three books and an app, and shoots for clients like REI, Red Bull, Apple, Polaroid, Starbucks, and Nike. By the time we catch up with him, he’s fresh off of a shoot for Wilson Tennis that resulted in 28,000 images of the best athletes in the world showing off their swing.
It’s an enviable job, one that Jarvis painstakingly landed entirely through self-education and pure hustle. Which is why it’s not surprising that he’s helping other amateurs do the same. In 2010, Jarvis launched creativeLIVE.com, a platform that offers free online classes in fields ranging from fine arts to finance. Led by recognized industry masters—think Pulitzer Prize winners, New York Times bestselling authors, and multi-million dollar entrepreneurs—the site has hosted more than 600 free courses and brought in over 2 million students worldwide.
It’s where education is headed, says Jarvis. Gone are the days where classroom learning is enough for artists. If you want to land the big clients, shoot the big celebs, and compete with the bigwigs in the industry, you have to push yourself and find a support network with equally high standards. Here’s how.
Chase Jarvis: Through tenacity and hustle and all those things that people don’t want to really hear about because they’re very ambiguous and amorphic. … I remember looking for an opportunity to sell my work to anyone who would buy it. At the same time I also knew, mostly through reading, that positioning yourself in such a way as to be a premium product is something that you are in control of. … As an artist, you really were pricing your own work and so I resolved to try and put myself in a place where I wasn’t going to be a commoditized, commodified source of photography. I wanted to put my work on a certain level and train and work hard to get there, and then when people were able to pay me for that, to then go higher and continue to push and challenge. … You have to sort of want it more than you want anything else in the world because there are so many people who are vying for that same slot in somebody else’s Rolodex.
CJ: First is just with yourself on a walk with no other people around so that you can get even the most baseline level of comfort with your tool. Even before I’d go to school or before I’d open a book, I want to be able to feel the tools a little bit and familiarize myself with the environment. … Read about it. Think deeply about if it’s something that you’re interested in. … Just literally play with photography for a long time before you take that next step of becoming a professional or going to class. …
CJ: If I was going to learn afresh, I would resist acquiring gear. I would be minimalistic in my approach, probably a DSLR and a couple of lenses. There’s a school of thought that they teach in a lot of the photography schools, these sort of traditional-model photography schools, where you start out shooting on an 8x10 film camera or a 4x5 film camera because they’re so slow. You have to [be] so focused about composition, specifically about the mechanisms and about the process, so that you don’t put all of the technology in front of the art. I don’t think I’d go that far because I love that digital gives you instant feedback. It’s a great learning tool.
There’s so much learning to be done just from a simple DSLR and a DSL body and one or two lenses. There’s a lifetime of work there, literally, if you want to keep it simple. If you decide that the work you want to pursue requires additional gear then go into gear mode. If you decide that the kind of work you want to do doesn’t require it, believe me, it’s not required. I think people think that all photographers roll around in a truck with a bunch of gear and it’s not true. I know a lot of people that make incredible money, do beautiful work, and are incredibly happy with just a body and a couple of lenses.
CJ: Yes, but that was a very specific requirement. That’s a large budget with literally the best in the world. These are unreproducible moments that cannot be missed. That’s a different ball of wax entirely.
CJ: It actually doesn’t. I enjoy that mode. … I will say that it took a long time to get through that and now there’s a lot of joy and it’s more about focusing on the moment and the pictures. It’s when all of that other stuff can go away and you can focus on what your task is, all that stuff becomes second nature and that’s a really refreshing place to be in. … I have never shot a wedding. I don’t shoot weddings. Never plan to, never will. But for the people who do, it’s very hard work. I know wedding photographers who are very, very successful, but just the pressure of this is someone’s wedding … this is their one and only special day of their life, to me, that’s way worse than having 40 people on set and all the art directors and world-class athletes or celebrities or whatever. I’m comfortable in there, but it’s certainly been a learned comfort. Of course, you’re shitting your pants for the first 100 times you do that.
CJ: Finding a voice. There’s a plateau where you can execute pictures, where you’re taking a lot of pictures, and you like the pictures that you’re taking, but you hear other people talking about “Oh, well, that’s definitely a fill-in-the-blank photographer.” … It’s recognizable and it’s an own-able sort of look. That is an interesting phase in the development of an artist, where you’re looking [and thinking], “I don’t even know, do I have that? Do you know when you have it? And what voices in your head do you listen to?”
Whatever is the one that’s in your head or, most honestly, the one that’s in your heart or your soul. It sounds simple, maybe even trite, but it’s not. That’s the one that is you. What do you literally enjoy shooting? When you look at it, what do you like? That actually becomes your voice, and when you’re trying to sort that out, it’s very confusing because this person is a great photographer so you should like their work because they have this great reputation. Discerning between what comes out of your camera and looking and saying, “I genuinely like this,” and comparing it to other people, that’s where it kind of gets a little bit murky. Defining that voice far and away was the hardest plateau in my professional career, and once you have it, you sort of look around like, “Oh shit, that’s it. It’s been here all along.”
CJ: Data. Data is a big one. Technical challenges, I feel like I’ve got most of those things honed in. It’s always fun to try and put technology and put cameras in places they’re not supposed to be and make them do things they’re not supposed to do. I sort of create my own challenges by pushing the cusp of what’s possible with the technology using remotely broadcast things like drones for example. I’ve been using drones since 2008, 2009 was when they first came out. Experimenting has always been fun.
As far as a challenge, [for the Wilson Tennis campaign] we were creating so much data so quickly. I think I shot two terabytes worth of still pictures in three and a half days. There was a full-time digital asset person on set. Their only job was to download cards and organize them.
CJ: That’s pretty aggressive and there’s a reason. We were shooting 10 times a second on every swing for every athlete because [there was] a precise moment we were looking for according to the creative direction. That’s an extreme example.
CJ: It would be horrible if my brand was out in front of my photography in my mind. I’ve mentored thousands of photographers and some very closely. This has happened so many times where they’ve got a great gig and they’re like, “Alright, I’m on my way. I’ve got my first campaign for Nike,” and I’ve had to caution them. It’s sort of like the first time you’re playing golf and you hit a ball down the middle. You’re not on your road to being a pro golfer. You got paid. You hit the ball down the middle once, but you have to stand up now and do that every day every shot in the rain with 20 million people watching or two people watching. It’s really through that that you’re going to develop your reputation and your “brand.”
In my line of photography, in the commercial world, you can’t really stick around as a fake because if you pull the wool over somebody’s eyes, people talk and the industry is small and you just don’t get hired any more. The people who get hired over and over and over and build a brand, they do so because they’re reliable and they’re good at their job. They’re good at their craft and they can stand up and hit the ball down the middle of the fairway every time. That’s what you need to be able to do as a photographer.
It’s all about vision. People aren’t hiring a monkey. They’re not hiring a button-pusher. They’re hiring someone who can look at the world a certain way, ideally in a way that no one else can, and capture a moment and a story within that moment. Images aren’t about dynamic range and cameras aren’t about megapixels. It’s really about an image. I’d start off with that fundamental thing and get that look, that voice, through repetition, through taking a ton of pictures, and then as you start to feel what it feels like to be comfortable in your own shoes as an artist.
Build with the end in mind. Fast-forward X number of years, what kind of jobs do you want to be shooting? What kinds of work do you want to be creating for what galleries? If that’s your dream, then there are paths that you can put yourself on to get there. The brand is something I feel like sort of coheres around your ethos, your work that you stand for.
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