It’s really hard to bring up Flannery O’Conner when talking about photography, but if you have the chance, you take it — especially if it’s about “A View of the Woods“. Like Mary Fortune Pitts from that story, Los Angeles photographer Jana Cruder spent a lot of time around places swarming with bulldozers and earth-moving machines. This is because, at fifteen, her first paying job was to shoot her father’s construction sites. But, while doing so, she soon fell in love with taking portraits.
O’Conner’s story doesn’t end well, though. Thankfully, Los Angeles fashion photographer Jana Cruder’s story has yet to end and goes nowhere near the not-so-pleasant outcome of “A View of the Woods”. Her work, however, does share O’Conner’s astute sense of revelation and shading. I could try to explain this further, but Cruder does it best when she describes her portraits as “a beautiful dance between lovers: it’s a little give and a little take and at the right moment something extraordinary happens and we both know it.”
In this interview, Cruder talks about how she got her start in photography, explains her unique approach to in-camera techniques, and gives insightful advice about getting fine art work exhibited in galleries.
I really like how elegant and composed your work is. How did you get your start? How would you ￼describe your work?
Elegant and composed I like that, thank you. I would describe my work as hyper-real with a sense of soul. I set out to capture that ever so perfectly imperfect moment and try to create iconic images that make you go whoa! I enjoy photographing people mostly on location but also in studio when it’s right. I’m a true in-camera experientialist. I like bringing back old-school in-camera techniques for the digital era. Since, you know, these filters and colors and instagram-esque feelings, those were all once film bases, filters, and in-front of lens techniques, full of perfectly imperfect film surprises. Now we have them easily available at our digital fingertips. I’m also a seeker of light, where there is great light you will find me and even if there is no light I can create light — even in the foggiest or rainiest of circumstances, I’ll breathe onto my lenses and create light fractals and flares where there isn’t any. I would say that my father was really my first paying client. He owns a construction company, and the second I got a camera he threw a hard hat with a sharpie drawing of a camera on me and sent me to job sites. I would shoot everything he wanted, but I found I was really drawn to the characters I met on those job sites, and as a 15 year old kid that was quite an interesting experience walking around earth-moving machines in mining quarries.
After high school, I attended R.I.T in upstate New York and obtained a degree in photography. After that, I returned to my hometown and assisted some photographers who shot corporate and medical photography in Pittsburgh. It was fun, but I realized if I stayed in Pittsburgh I’d only shoot corporate or medical, and as long as I could remember, I’ve always dreamt of fashion, so when the opportunity presented itself I headed west, deciding that Los Angeles was warmer than New York. In Los Angeles, I very quickly ran out of all the money I had saved assisting in Pennsylvania and I needed work. So I started working at a stock photography house and worked at various stock photography agencies until 2008. In 2008, I set out on a deeply personal project of photographing Native American artists and spent a few months in the desert making that work. I got that year’s tax return and since started my own business, pursuing my photography full time. In 2010, I took my last assisting job and I’ve been walking the freelance path ever since. As far as the fashion industry goes, I’d say I truly honed my desire and thirst to shoot fashion while living in Las Vegas. It was there that a publication and a photo editor saw my potential and encouraged me and provided an anything-goes platform to publish my fashion. I’m forever grateful to them for that.
When did you become confident of your abilities? Were you ever unsure of your talents?
I think this is an ongoing battle for all creatives because, in my opinion, creativity is divine. It’s a channel that we are tuned into, and we are the conduit for which ideas express themselves. I would say I’ve, in the past two years or so, become more confident of my abilities to be able to truly handle big projects. What became clear to me, which lead to this confidence, was knowing that I have a unique, distinctive vision. People are seeing this and commissioning me for it (that is so amazing!). But being unsure is part of it. When you sign up as an artist, doubt and uncertainty are part of the creative process. I’ve learned that when doubt or uncertainty arrives it’s best to love it and just know it’s there to teach you and make you better, and it will pass and what will result will be the best expression of the idea.
Many of portraits are low-key and subtle. You also have a preference for natural lighting. Why do you ￼prefer this type of lighting?
I really like to set the stage and step back and observe. I’ll craft the scenario, set the time of day, figure the lighting and scenery, and then allow space for my subject to be themselves — to be in it, as they are in that scenario. Making a portraits for me is like a beautiful dance between lovers: it’s a little give and a little take and at the right moment something extraordinary happens and we both know it. When someone steps in front of my lens I try to connect in any way, try to find something in common. This is the fun part, but it can also be challenging, especially when that person may be pressed for time or isn’t feeling exceptionally photogenic that day. It’s my job to help them shed those insecurities, and shake them out of what they think I want and get them to truly just be and connect. As for natural lighting, I do have a preference for it. I would say, a lot of times, I don’t have the time to set up tons of lighting on assignment. I’ve learned to keep it simple. I use natural light or simply one light for most of my portraiture. I prefer finding great light and modifying it, so my focus is kept on the story and subject — not what my lighting is. But most of my images are a mix of available and reflected light and some strobe lighting outside. I love light and that is where I thrive, seeing it and interpreting it and allowing light to create moods for me.
The Inked Girls series highlights your ability to maximize a simple approach to lighting and design.￼Were these shots improvised on the spot? Or pulled from a shot list? What’s your usual approach to ￼pre-production?
Inked Girls is a good example of three very different lighting techniques. The on-white Oliva shoot was simply next to the camera and on-camera flash, channeling my inner Terry Richardson. The Des Wilson was modified available light, and Roxy was heavily controlled lighting on-location with gels. For Olivia’s shoot, there was a shot list, and we stuck to it. For Des, I showed up and took notes of what images could be made then followed her around to where the light was great, so no storyline or shot list. We let it unfold and went to where the light was and trusted what felt right and beautiful. Pre-production all depends on the concept, subject, and whoever needs to sign off on the final image. For some assignments, there is a specific story to illustrate or a layout to shoot, but for things like the Inked Girls or the Milk X magazine shoots I have total creative freedom to explore my subject and together we can create a story together.
I love the colors you used for your Kelly Rowland portraits, especially the first image. Could you explain how this image was completed from start to finish? Any tips on post-processing?
Ahh! This was an interesting scenario indeed. We shot high-key on white in a studio and after the shoot the magazine said to me, “Well, we would love an implied environment.” And they asked what we could do in post. I was super happy, and I decided to add some Jana-Flares in the actual capture by using the light flares to create sunbursts plus some other techniques in-capture that will remain artist secrets (winky face!). So that gave us a lot to do in post. The images were then color treated with the pinks and purples and enhanced through painting and post-color ND techniques. My tip on post: work with a creative and tech-savvy retoucher who respects your vision and understands you enough to help bring your vision to reality.
I really like the 8th image in your fashion set. It’s one of your most visually dramatic images. What inspired this image? Could you give a quick breakdown of lighting equipment used in this shot?
Ohhh, I love this image and you’re going to love this: it’s only window light. I used a Canon 5D Mark 3 and a 50mm lens. I remember in college studying Art History how the great masters would paint by window light, so when I walked into this location and saw this window in the dark backside of a hotel room, with the curtains drawn except for 4 inches spilling a line of light across the table and the floor, and after having the stylist bring in the model wearing a turban, which was the piece to be highlighted in the image, I instantly knew she had to be sitting down with her cheek on the table with the turban in the beam of light. The concept for the piece is “Letters from Home”, and it is a fashion-editorial embodiment of the 70s. It’s about a girl who’s waiting for news of her love who was sent off to Vietnam. I shared that idea with the model and asked her to embody what that would feel like, and I think she pulled it off.
You also shoot fine art projects. I really like Great Expectations. Could you explain your aims with this project?
Fine art is a rather new endeavor for me. I had my first exhibition in 2011, then another in 2013. I was discovered by a gallerist in Las Vegas and given my first show from that. I now have two volumes of work that are currently available as limited-edition prints through multiple galleries in the US. The fine art world is something I truly never thought about, but I’m truly realizing I am an artist at the core. The fine art work I do explores sexuality and roles of men and women and where we learn what our perception of what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man, and furthermore what it means to be in relation. Where have we learned these ideals and concepts and what shaped them? That is what my fine art work is about. Currently, I explore these ideas through the iconic eyes of Barbie and Ken. In the series Great Expectations, Barbie becomes ‘Working Barbie’ and Ken enters the story. Since the economy is down, Ken, who’s unemployed, assumes the role of ‘Domestic Ken’ and spends his time entertaining himself at Barbie’s expense. As Barbie gets deeper into her career she notices Ken’s becoming increasingly distracted. Conflicted within himself, he finds he enjoys spending his time with his new best friend Joe. The story of these 3 plays out through a series of vignettes into the subtle dysfunctions of seemingly perfect relationships. This is an exploration & examination of the importance of appearance and how the societal roles of woman, man, husband & wife are learned and the influence of today’s media & culture shapes us through icons like Barbie & Ken. This a continuation of the images of Barbie, capturing different phases of her life. I’m currently cooking up the next body of fine art work, and that will be released in Oct/Dec 2014 with the Joanne Artman Gallery in Laguna Beach. More info about my fine art can be found through the galleries that represent me Brett Wesley Gallery – Las Vegas and the Joanne Artman Gallery in Laguna Beach.
What creative experimentations does your fine art work allow you to explore that your commissioned work doesn’t?
Through my fine art work, I can explore a concept, an idea, or feeling, without any input from a client. It is the purest form of my creative expression. In my fine art, I don’t have to worry about being too bold or about offending anyone. I can create the platform for conversation and ask questions, then implore the viewer to ask questions and ponder the same things I’m wondering. It’s things we’re all thinking but are too afraid to talk about. I can explore through fine art these concepts and ideas that in commercial work might be a bit taboo.
How did you secure your first exhibition?
I was working at my studio in Las Vegas and the owner and curator from the gallery down the street called and asked to come over, he had seen some of my fashion work in one of the magazines there. So he came over, sat down, and said, “Show me something.” I said, “Well, what do you want to see?”, as I opened my website — he said, “No, show me something no one has seen.” I said, “Okay, well I just shot this series on Barbie in the desert and her questing and search for Ken.” Fifteen minutes later he offered me my first solo exhibition. Whoa! So a lot of it is about timing and being in the right place at the right time. But also it’s following your instinct to what feels right. When there is something you just have to create — create it. Sometimes you won’t know why for a while, but do it anyway. Follow that inspiration because it’s leading you toward something.
You also live in LA. What photography museums, exhibitions, galleries, or spots should every ￼photographer go see?
Well, I hands down love the exhibits at the Leica Store in West Hollywood on Beverly. It always has fantastic exhibitions and truly inspiring works, plus the cameras are yummy to look at and play with, plus even more the peeps there are super cool! Also, the Annenberg Center for Photography is always an inspiration for me. I’m also blessed to be in the epicenter for great photo fairs and art shows, so I try as much as possible to go see new things.