More than any other self-taught photographer hailing from Seattle, Chase Jarvis has established himself as a renowned professional photographer working around the globe, and earning the title of youngest Hasselblad Master (amongst others) along the way. In a sense, he’s managed to position himself as an acclaimed sports, lifestyle and popular culture chaser of images by breathing raw authenticity into his work.
With his portfolio including major clients such as Apple, Nike, Microsoft, Gateway, Fuji Film, American Express, MSN.com, Subaru and Volvo you would have the tendency to define his reputation as an American master of photography. And, for much of the past 15 years, that commercial work has certainly played a significant role in his life.
Today, Chase shares his passion for entrepreneurship and directing by stepping into the role of CEO of the fast-growing online education company CreativeLive that he founded in 2010 together with entrepreneur Craig Swanson in Seattle, Washington. In 2008, Bram caught up with Chase on the phone to talk about his upbringings, photography and the pitfalls of self-taught careers, and getting little vacation time in the process.
How’s it going Chase? Are you up for giving us a taste of your life story? As in how you became a photographer, and what made you choose this direction?
JARVIS: Of course with any story there’s a lot more to it than 3 or 4 sentences but I went to school and was interested in a lot of things, mainly creative, but I felt a lot of pressure from myself and my family to do something respectable. I was destined for medical school and narrowly averted that. At the last second I ducked out and studied philosophy of art and specifically the philosophy of photography. And fortunately pulled out of that as well.
I was always taking pictures in the background and I grew up playing a lot of sports and went to college on a soccer scholarship. There were a lot of cameras around and my dad was a hobbyist and I remember I was acutely tuned in to the capturing of these moments, reliving the moments and highlights of the games through the pictures.
My grandfather died when I was in college and I was given his camera equipment. This is when I started taking a lot of pictures and was really moved by it. Like a lot of younger people I ran off to Europe for 6 or 7 months and took a lot of pictures and knew it was going to be part of my life moving forward. When I came back, I jumped back into school and I waited for my dream career to hit me over the head until I suddenly realized there was something else here. Upon quitting my second graduate school, I dove straight into becoming a professional photographer.
I’m 100% self-taught and never went to school for it. A lot of the free information came from the internet and I spent a lot of time in the library and reading every magazine I could afford to buy at the time. Spending all my spare money on processing film so I could kind of learn, always having been self-driven. I got a couple of great licenses along the way to help feed my passion and my bank account, and then the licenses and assignments started coming in more regularly and I was off.
It’s interesting that there had to be a couple of injections of things you do and don’t want to do to really find your path. I’m very fortunate I got the very first issue of an autofocus Minolta camera from my grandpa, even though it took 3 times as long to autofocus as you could do it manually, but it really had a strong influence on me. As soon as I really figured out that this was meaningful to me I quickly moved into higher Nikon stuff and started buying glass & bodies.
If you weren’t a photographer, what other career path would you choose?
JARVIS: I would be a filmmaker if I weren’t a photographer. I am currently heavily involved in moving pictures and it’s pretty intimidating but there’s no question that I’m deeply moved by images and I really couldn’t see myself outside of the profession of creating them. I would definitely be a filmmaker and I’m constantly blown away by how serious I take photography and how difficult it is and I definitely wrestle with it a lot. Filmmaking seems infinitely more complex to me with motion, front line, story, sound tracks, and what not but I would definitely be into making moving pictures.
Have you worked on commercial projects for film?
JARVIS: Yeah there’s a trend where brands are marrying still photographers to benefit their broadcast or online video campaigns and look like the still campaign. I’m really excited about that trend but as a short answer, yes, I’m definitely involved in it.
There are a lot of really cool things happening with motion graphics right now. Some friends of mine founded Superfad, a motion house; they animate live action and graphics. It’s really a field that’s exploding and it’s a lot of fun to watch.
There are currently many photographers in the world, lots of competition… What would you suggest to someone just starting out and what they should do to be exclusive, to be different from the rest?
JARVIS: If I had that in two sentences I think I would be selling it for a million dollars! It’s really the key element: to differentiate yourself, your brand from your peers. I don’t remember who told me this but it’s actually more difficult to become a professional photographer at the highest level than it is to become a professional athlete in this country. I found that really staggering but I don’t know if it’s true or not. At the fundamental level it’s really about developing your personal vision and style. It’s easier to say that I realize and much harder to do but ultimately that’s what really differentiates you and your work from other folks. Whether or not you’re doing it technically or conceptually or any one of the other million ways of doing it, that’s something you should really take it in consideration as it helps bind where you fit in to the marketplace.
There’s no doubt, you have to earn some money to put food on the table and commercial photography is definitely the easier way. When you’re trying to differentiate yourself I think the key is really about what’s personal and interesting to you because your own experiences in your own head is what’s unique to you. In the commercial market place or even the fine art market place, people are going to hire you for your vision. You can imitate the masters for your own learning curve but really you’re trying to differentiate your brand. Having said that, if you’re trying to appeal to the commercial market, you can’t appeal to everyone: if you try to appeal to everybody, you’re not going to appeal to nobody. To make a good living you could do about 12 commercial jobs a year or you might have to double or triple that if you’re doing it for art, but hopefully there’s not a whole lot of people you’ll have to impress in the commercial marketplace as there are maybe 30 Art Directors you have to impress rather than 30 million people. Do something that’s intimate and meaningful to you and the rest of the world will follow and of course you have to be reasonably smart about business and artists are constantly bombarded with that and most of us never get the message but it does help to have a decent head on your shoulders when it comes to that stuff.
How hard is it to break through into the mainstream market? Does it take a lot of time and commitment? And how about working through agents?
JARVIS: It’s exceptionally hard to break in; you really have to bring your own unique vision to the marketplace. There’s no formula to it, that’s the thing that should empower an artist, as there are a million ways to do it. There’s no real recipe. But unique and personal vision is definitely the most direct. Should you be prepared for hardships? Oh my God, absolutely yeah! I think I’ve been doing this for 12 years and there’s a certain comfort knowing the hardest part of my career is being you know, 10 years ago. But it’s kind of like how mothers have a hormone that helps them forget about the pain they went through and I think us photographers have that same kind of hormone maybe because I’ve talked to so many photographers that are at that stage and it’s not easy, for sure, it’s a lot of hard work.
Not to say it gets easier but it gets challenging as your career goes on. Yes it’s challenging and no the challenges don’t stop once you get in. If you don’t feel it right at the beginning, you’re not going to feel it 5 and certainly not 10 years in.
I’ve had agents throughout different times in my career. Right now I’m glad I don’t have one, using the power of the communication tools we have at our hands right now, such as the internet, it sounds cliché but just like music is doing a really great job going direct – connecting artists with fans. There’s a research of that in photography as well. Never say never, I mean, agents are phenomenal. It’s just a wonderful time right now to be out on your own. Of course it’s not for everybody to slug a portfolio around or people who haven’t made a name for themselves. To each their own for sure. It’s pretty popular to have an agent but there are pros and cons to each.
Do you accept work from clients that you personally dislike due to reasons like being a bit picky or wanting too much input?
JARVIS: Yeah, I definitely will decide not to work for a client if I don’t believe in the product. It doesn’t have to be something that I haven’t heard of or doesn’t seem interesting to me I’m not going to say no based just on that. But say situations like for the tobacco company, yeah, I would not shoot for them.
It’s funny I get asked this a fair bit which is why I just did a blog post about a week ago but when a client comes in and noodles your vision, I think it’s huge bullshit frankly. The bullshit really is that when artists say “oh I won’t it’s my vision, you hired me for….” It’s such a collaborative process and to paint it as anything different is… just… it’s goofy. Ultimately we’re getting paid to do something and I mean, I’m not downplaying the role here, we’re not just button pushers and we bring a tremendous amount of creative vision to a lot of the projects we work for and hopefully all of them but to say it’s not collaborative and if you’re one of those artists that just throw your hands up in the air and walk off set when it doesn’t go your way… I don’t have any respect for that and I don’t understand it. Maybe if you’re so good that you don’t have to collaborate with anybody and you’re just an absolute genius, then by all means, be a dick.
I think there’s a huge misunderstanding between agency, artist and client, whatever, I mean, it’s very collaborative and I work closely with Art Directors and Creative Directors who are really, really smart and without that I wouldn’t be as interested in the job. The commercial aspect of the art that we do, we’re working for other people and sharing the vision is actually exciting.
What’s your favorite project that you have done so far and why?
JARVIS: Well, my memory is a short one so the one that I’m working on right now is a fine art project where I’m documenting the underground cultural leaders and it’s been really exciting. I wanted to focus on a project here in Seattle because I don’t get to be here that much. I just started taking pictures of hip hop artists, dancers, all these kinds of people when I was trying to figure out how or what to make this project in to. Then it basically just hit me on the head that the project is the list. Connecting with my friends and friends of my friends. It’s a really human project and very intimate. We’ll spend hours on end shooting in the studio. Hopefully what comes out of this is a book and some gallery shows, but more on that when it materializes. It’s definitely something I’m very passionate about.
I’m also interested in connecting people – the social aspect of it, connecting one of the best break dance crews with unlikely friends like architects and restauranteurs and I get a lot of satisfaction in introducing people to other people who have similar interests or are artistically driven who might go off and collaborate on their own.
What are your plans for the future? Bigger studio? More offices?
JARVIS: The studio we have now is really exciting! Designing it and the long and painful build out… but our studio now is a dream studio. As far as expanding, I don’t forecast needing much more, the studio that we have is really what we want, a real creative environment and making it a social hub by doing a lot of community outreach. I couldn’t imagine it being any better than what it is.
As far as getting more studios, for several years we’ve split work between Seattle and Paris and I don’t have a large studio in Paris with a partner there but I can’t really see duplicating the process of the studio we have in Seattle. First of all it would be very expensive as one but I felt like we have a shared office space there and was getting spread too thin going back and forth for a number of years and having multiple studios as a center point of our brand, our creative point, I can’t really see that happening. As far as expanding it would be more into creative endeavors and not about physically expanding.
Assuming you get bombarded with emails daily if not hourly, what do people usually ask?
JARVIS: The irony of sharing behind the scenes, we call it the blackbox of photography, I opened up my blog to help more people and share my findings and learn from other people as well. There really was that at first but it’s taken on a life of its own. It creates a ton of online correspondence and I really value being able to do that online in the comment section to the post because I get so many of the same questions, it’s just great to package it and put it online for a lot of other people to read at the same time. Bu the reality is, looking at the email inbox right now I have 450 unread still in it.
I helped Nikon shoot a campaign for them and the day after I got 1400 new email messages of the day before, so it’s a dramatic understatement that I get a lot of email. I do try to bulk email respond but I’m trying to get better with staying in touch with the community, because that’s what’s exciting to me is helping other photographers. I’m learning.
Do you have any plans to run your own photography classes? And why?
JARVIS: I rarely speak at events if it’s an interesting opportunity to meet new people. To be honest, that’s just a pretty straight up no. I enjoy talking about photography a lot but as far as just being an instructor – I’m more interested in creating pictures and pursuing the creative aspect of it. To amend that I do enjoy talking about it and I have friends who have workshops and I enjoy sharing knowledge of photography that way but I’ll never be a teacher. Workshop wise, I think it’d be great, short and awarding and you can do it in an environment where you can really create a lot of change. I think it’s valuable for the teacher and the artist but I have to keep them tightly compressed, I’d never split into doing all kinds of seminars all over the place. But there are currently no plans to do that right now.
When you’re 60, will you still be doing commercial shoots?
JARVIS: Sixty is the new 40, I hear. You know, I do. It’s strange for sure and definitely or hopefully I’ll have a fully developed career at that point but I do always see myself in the collaborative aspect that I touched on earlier.
For me as an artist, when I’m doing these really interesting personal and fine art projects, it kind of gets me on track to have to come on board and follow a creative lead and learn a lot about a brand and immerse myself in that. As a 60 year old I don’t see that changing, I see myself still needing some of that structure, still want to be immersed in that structure with something that has no rules.
Certainly I wouldn’t be able to keep up the pace that I’m doing now and be extremely selective.
What made you choose to focus on commercial photo shoots?
JARVIS: I never was chasing dollars and a castle on the top of a mountain but the reality you have to make a living, and to make a good living is nice for sure but the reality is in order to get top dollars for fine arts when you’re 18 or 20, it’s not for everyone. When you’re making money holding a camera is an exciting first step. The first kinds of gigs that I got were commercial in nature and after I had a number of those under my belt, I swapped into editorial. It did jump start my wallet which in turn helped me get better equipment sooner and let me take the kind of pictures that I wanted to take. The reality is that we have to get paid for what we do in order to support our lifestyle and I’m not ashamed of that at all. It’s really hard work to make a decent living as a photographer. Anyone who doesn’t see it that way is totally disillusioned but if you can be, shoot a bunch of great campaigns, then more power to you.
It doesn’t have to be a pricey career path. Electronics are expensive. There’s so much talk about gear but ultimately you can do the same thing I do with very stripped down equipment. It’s more about vision than it is about gear.
What kind of things don’t you like about photography? And why?
JARVIS: It’s a very fast medium, it’s one thing I like, it’s very textile and active, when you click you have them on the back of your camera so you “have them” but I wish it was faster because now we have all these post production tools and don’t get me wrong I love that but it delays the process and especially when you bring clients in the mix. Snapping a picture and pulling out the final file, I’d like to be able to see it on the back of the camera like that. It’s sort of a weird answer, I acknowledge that, as if photography isn’t fast enough yet – but I want it to be faster, I want all the creative tools and all of the power we have to manipulate and share our images, I just want it instantly.
Ultimately the most enjoyable part of the process is the actual capturing of the image, the actual clicking of the shutter. I’m way more interested in spending more time there than behind the computer.
How do you feel about stock photography? Ever worked on it?
JARVIS: As a part of being a businessperson, as all independent artists have to be if you’re going to make a living off your art, it helps to be diversified, it helps to have a common strategy for us capitalists. There are all kinds of unforeseen changes in the market. Some people do teaching but it helps round out the financial picture so to speak. It’s really in that regard that I participate in stock; I don’t actively go out there and shoot stock assignments. Have I ever? Absolutely. There was a time, early on, when photography wasn’t as commodified and there was a dramatically different landscape but right now my relationships with my agents who have those pictures are more in a art age or personal work that say “oh yeah, this could be for stock use” but I’m not actively pursuing it. I think it’s a viable source of income especially for starting out but the commodification of the image is an interesting topic for discussion. There’s no clear-cut answer.
I’m not saying I’m not making a nice chunk of income from licensing images that I’ve already captured but it’s just not a focus for me. There’s a lot of baggage that comes with it and it’s a very complex issue that I’m not very focused on right now.
When you’re on vacation or doing a commercial shoot in a different city, do you take photos for pleasure still?
JARVIS: Vacation… when was that?!! When I’m on vacation… I’m obsessed with pictures and have a camera on me all the time and I do point and shoots all around me. When I’m on vacation I just hope to be at a cafe with my wife and a glass of wine and taking a picture of her and goofing off a bit. I do it in an instantly more relaxed environment. When I’m on vacation I don’t love it any less I just take different kind of pictures, even if I use them from my camera phone I just take it and put it in my pocket because I wanted to have that shot.
I appreciate being contacted for the interview and I’m grateful. I appreciate your time very much. Thanks for the conversation and much respect.
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