Sadly, there are such things as unrealized coincidences and glaring oversights. I learned this the hard way interviewing well-known photographer, director, musician, and skateboarder Sam Jones. You see, when I found out about Off Camera, its own magazine of Sam Jones, television show, and podcast, in February 2013, I knew I had discovered something special. It was one of those rare places to read insightful, long-form style interviews that didn’t shy away from actual conversation. Now a year later and with a chance to speak with its creator, I failed to ask a single thing about it.
(So I’m mentioning it here: You should check out the interviews of Sam Jones. You’ll learn a bunch.)
But back to the photography of Sam Jones. It needs no introduction — and I promise this canned phrase is entirely warranted. You’re probably familiar with the portraits of Sam Jones even if you don’t know it. Having worked with so many high-profile clients and companies, it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ve seen them. They’ve been featured by Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and on numerous movie posters, including those of recent critical favorites like “Gravity” and “Promised Land”. It has been an understated privilege to speak with one of the best.
In this interview, Sam Jones talks about how he got his start in photography, explains the approach used by the artist Sam Jones to portraiture, and reveals what’s special about photographing in LA.
You’re a well-known celebrity/portrait photographer. How did you get your start in photography?
I got my start as a photojournalist at the Associated Press. Right out of college I was lucky enough to land a position as a stringer at the Los Angeles bureau, and so I was immediately doing a variety of assignments.
*Note: You might want to learn what it takes to make a mark in Los Angeles photography community – Famous Photographers Interviews
How would you describe your work?
I think the best way to describe my work is by calling it “cinematic portraiture.” I strive to make portraits that feel like they are part of a bigger story, and that illustrate the subject in an authentic and unique way. I am very influenced by movie stills, political cartoons, literature, and other odd sources that I use to spark an idea. I am always trying to have the mindset that the picture is a still from a film that may only exist in my head, but is very real to me.
When did you become confident your abilities? Were you ever unsure of your skills?
I am constantly questioning my decisions and abilities. I think it can be dangerous to be too confident, because then I would just automatically think every impulse I had was good. I try to balance confidence with curiosity, and I am always trying to make a picture that I haven’t made before.
Your work has a sophisticated feel. I imagine that you’re very precise about aesthetics (I apologize if this is wildly inaccurate). Do you still get “tingles” when you see something beautiful? Does this sense guide you, photographically?
I am very conscious of design and aesthetics, and about how a color palate, or a font, or a certain piece of furniture on a set can communicate so much information. But it is also very important to me to create environments where beautiful accidents can happen. When beauty happens in a picture accidentally, it is always so much more exciting. I am always striving to see things in a new way, or challenge my perceptions on what makes a good composition.
I think most photographers have a precise eye about composition, color, and light. I also think this eye can be taught. How did you develop your sense of seeing?
I think the more you go through the whole process, from idea, to making the picture, to editing, the more you learn what works and what doesn’t. In some ways I am glad that I came up on film, because I couldn’t immediately make a judgment on an image—I had to wait a few days to see what I shot. By having that distance I was able to see my pictures anew, and separate that moment from the act of shooting them. I think that process trained my eye in some ways.
You’ve also photographed President Obama. I’ve always wondered what it’s like taking a president’s portrait. What is the process of photographing a president like?
When you photograph a president, you invariably have less time that you would like. So you have to be prepared. But if you are too prepared, or too rigid in your approach, you may not make a very interesting picture. My approach with people in power is usually to see if I can humanize them—find a way to make their personality come through the layers of power and control. And sometimes that requires taking a chance, trying to engage in a conversation, or being a little unorthodox. In the case of President Obama, I found some common ground and was able to have a real conversation, which made him more at ease in front of the camera. I sacrificed half of my time with him to talk to him, and I believe that made my photographs better than if I would have used my full allotment of time shooting.
When working on movie posters, I imagine that the producers give you little creative freedom. Is this true? Do you work as a hired lens? How do you express your own style within what I assume is demanding direction?
Every job is different. With some clients that I have worked with multiple times, they involve me early in the process. I read the script, and I am encouraged to bring ideas to the table. There have been times when one of my concepts has ended up being the poster used for the film, which is always nice. And sometimes I am just asked to make pictures based on concepts that have already been fully fleshed out in terms of sketches. But I always tend to engage more deeply on the jobs where I am a part of the creative process. I also enjoy those jobs because it is often a fun challenge to create a new lighting look that I have not done previously. I have created some of my favorite lighting set-ups on movie shoots when we have a full day to prelight and experiment with stand-ins.
*Note: You might want to check these free movie poster templates available & use them for your next shoot.
For example, in Promised Land, you capture a familiar “lonesome man looking out to the landscape” moment. This image perfectly corresponds to the narrative of the film. How was this image completed from start to finish? Did you suggest this look?
That was a case of having a lot of freedom, and a great client that was open to trying a lot of different things. And since we were on location, I was able to find that particular hillside and create a picture that I felt captured the emotion of the film. So that poster came about very organically, using a natural location, and staying true to what the film was. Those are the best kind of jobs.
What advice would you give to other aspiring entertainment photographers about securing work? Does having a personality that gels well with celebrities become a requirement?
I think any advice I could give would apply to any kind of photography, not just entertainment photography. And that is, are you taking the kind of pictures that you love? Because if you love what you do, and pour all your effort into it, you will find your clients, and your audience. But if you are trying to make pictures that you think people want to see, or that you think will get you hired, then you are sort of chasing a moving and indefinable target.
You’re Los Angeles based. Give us your thoughts on working in Los Angeles, por favor. What advantages will LA give a photographer?
I’ve always loved it here for the same reasons that the film industry originally started here: There is great light, great weather, and a plethora of locations that can evoke almost any mood, period, or genre. For someone like me, who loves natural light and location photography, it is the perfect place to live and work.
Be sure to check out all the work of Sam Jones on his website!