JB Fitts is an LA based fine art and commercial photographer. I first met JB more than a year ago at Connections in LA. I’d been interested in his work for many years and was very happy to be introduced and to get to know him over the course of the past year as we’ve worked on his interview. It started with a call, then emails, followed by lunch in downtown LA a few months ago.
Much like his work, JB is quiet, generous and contemplative (and the consummate storyteller) with an eye and mind tuned to the conceptual and visual details—after our lunch he was off to take photos of the small incursions and shortcuts that people take through patches of grass and plants between sidewalks. What we don’t always see in his work, which is quite serious at heart, is his humor and an ability to not take himself or his art (or more specifically the things he thinks deeply about) too seriously while being entirely serious about it—a quality that he shares with so many of the best artists. Somehow it wasn’t surprising that his first commercial job was shooting an actress in the nude.
There is another, subtle gift of this lightness that allows a detached perspective. Free of some of the constraints we generally live with, including our current rushed relationship to time, what comes through in images that ask us to pause and spend time with them is presence and attention, held with beauty and light and considered composition. The result of an artist’s eye and a BFA from Art Center College of Design and an MFA from University of Hartford, Connecticut. I see signs that that clients are starting to value the quality of attention that a subtly beautiful image engenders and that quiet is the new loud.
Born in Kansas City, Missouri JB grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In an environment where, in his words, “the sublimely beautiful collides with the ugliness of the built environment.” He now lives in LA with his wife and two daughers. JB is represented by Paul Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles and his commercial clients include Esquire, Wired, State Farm and TIM Mobile among others.
We spoke about many things, but went into depth about his art, what is behind it and what he brings from this to his commercial work. I had just as much fun though discussing his life-long proclivity for finding trouble which has proven quite helpful in building these bodies of work that take him to the fringes. Thank you to JB for his patience with this process and for being such a pleasure to work with. And for such an interesting, highly entertaining, and well-considered interview.
POP: What subjects were you first drawn to?
My earliest interest was in skateboarding and as the body broke down, as bodies tend to do, my dreams of making it as a professional fizzled out. Subsequently this interest in skateboarding led me to the documenting of my friends I knew in the community and I attempted to parlay this interest into some sort of tangential career, where I could somehow still be involved in the subculture but be subjected to less bodily harm. Eventually though, this idea of documenting someone else’s activity got boring, it didn’t leave me enough room for personal creativity, so I gave it up. This ended that chapter of my life and off I went to Art Center (with the strong urging of my then girlfriend and now wife) to pursue a career in photography, this all came about back in the year 2000.
Art Center, during my time there, was primarily focused on shooting people with an emphasis placed on photo illustration and celebrity portraiture. I got it but it was not my passion, I was more interested in the fine art side of photography. I took all of the classes, the celebrity portraiture, the architecture, the fashion, still life, etc.. But in the back of my mind was always the thought of how I can take the skill sets I am learning in these classes and use them in relation to my photographic intention. I would say that I was a bit bitter at the time, paying gobs of money to take classes that I thought were not relevant to my interests. But looking back from where I sit today, working both commercially and in fine art, the experience was great, the knowledge that I was force fed comes in handy on a daily basis and I am better off for it.
As you move through the program at Art Center you are given more freedom, more classes with a focus on personal vision and in one of these classes I produced a body of work on golf courses at night. I took this body of work with me to a portfolio review conducted by Paul Kopeikin of the Kopeikin Gallery in my final term. Him and I clicked during this brief meeting, he liked the work, encouraged me to continue with the project and eventually led to him representing me in his gallery, 10 years and 4 exhibitions later we are still working together.
Similar to other photographers my work is biographical, in that it stems from a subject that I have been fascinated by since my childhood, that being the relationship between the built and the natural. I grew up in Colorado Springs, CO where the sublime beauty of the Rocky Mountains colliding with the ugliness of the built environment is ever present. Of course the natural meeting the built can be found everywhere but in my opinion Colorado Springs is the epicenter of this collision. To give an example of how awe inspiring the natural beauty is here, the view from Pike’s Peak, overlooking the city of Colorado Springs, inspired Katharine Lee Bates to pen the lyrics to “America the Beautiful”, the song almost became our national anthem, give the lyrics a listen they are describing something absolutely stunning. So “America the Beautiful”, that is the good part of Colorado Springs, the bad is everything built, the city is a development nightmare, strip malls, subdivisions filled with look alike tract homes, every chain restaurant imaginable, the list goes on, if there is any way possible to negate the beauty of the Rocky Mountain backdrop possible in terms of development, the city of Colorado Springs will find it. The cumulative effect of growing up in a place like this for me is that I developed a sensitivity to the intersection where the built meets the man-made and this has gone on to inform all of my work.
Golf courses were an interesting first subject in that they are built to resemble an ideal version of nature. I photographed various courses in the Southern California area at night using existing light to enhance the quality of artifice that already was already present. I went on to exhibit this work with Paul and found moderate success with the work in terms of sales—my goals were, and still are, humble financially in that all I am ever trying to achieve monetarily is to earn enough so that I have financial freedom to do the work I want.
“No Lifeguard on Duty”, was my next endeavor, a two year road trip that consisted of photographing abandoned motel swimming pools and accumulating stories. Needless to say it was a great time and as much as “the road trip” has become cliche in contemporary photography it is still a great experience to travel this country with no other agenda than making work.
“No Lifeguard on Duty” focused on abandoned motel pools often framed up against desert backgrounds, the ocean or some other natural backdrop in order to create a juxtaposition between the subject and the setting. Another important element was the quality of light, obviously this in an important element of every photograph, but in this series, given the quotidian nature of the subject, it seemed especially important to capture it in the most seductive light possible as a means to elevate it from the banal. Fortunately for me I finished this work up at a good time, 2005,the economy was going strong and spending on emerging art was at an all time high. Sometimes things just work out in your favor that way, maybe I would have put this body of work out in 2009 and no one notices, timing is tough to predict but with this body of work the timing worked in my favor. I ended up exhibiting this work in solo shows in NY, Portland, Dallas, Boston and LA and also being invited to participate in some great group shows along side photographers I have always idolized such as Richard Misrach and Joel Sternfeld. Do not take this as bragging because I am not suggesting that the work I was doing at the time at their level, I was just flattered to be taking up wall space with these folks and enjoyed having my work printed next to theirs in catalogs.
This work was the springboard into commercial work as it garnered some attention in various contests such as the American Photography Annual, PDN Annual and the CA Annual, it also helped in my being named to PDN 30. I had been hoping to begin shooting more commercial assignments and these contests and what ever PDN 30 is were great promotional vehicles to use in getting myself in the door for meetings.
POP: What do think the impact is on the soul of living in this environment?
First off, I am not comfortable in confirming that I believe in the soul but assuming that I do, I believe it is taxing at best.
POP: Were you conscious of your intent when you were first making these images?
No, you don’t always have the answers while you are in the process stage of the work but given some distance it becomes possible to look at the work with more clarity. These projects both began as more of a simple urge and developed in to something more a long the way. Ideally you would be the best critic of your own work and have enough detachment from the work to recognize what the images are saying and see how that differs from your intention. This distance is not easy to find but it allows you to better edit the work, sequence the project, basically do everything that is needed to be done to create a successful project. Two photographers that I have heard speak about this in the most simplistic terms are Ron Jude who cited the ability to “look at his work as Raw material” as being one of the break throughs for himself in his artistic process and the other being Mark Wyse, who speaks about the separation between the intuitive shooting process and the rational post process (sequencing, editing, etc.). (Both of these artists are on my recommended reading/looking list)
POP: Artist statements?
Anything my grandma can not understand, I’m wary of, statements should be simple. I read a book that cited the importance of economic capital versus cultural capital in our country and how that creates insecurity in artists, this insecurity then manifest itself through art jargon, i.e. “retinal perception” instead of simple “seeing”. The best concepts are often quite simple why should the statement be so complex.
POP: Have you had to reconcile any conflict between your fine art and commercial work?
No, not at all. If you take a look at the landscape of the medium today and even go a bit farther and look back through the history of photography you will not have a very difficult time finding examples of photographers existing in both worlds. Eugene Atget being commissioned to document the architecture of Paris, the FSA, Matthew Brady, Timothy O’Sullivan, Ansel Adams, the list goes on and on, so who am I to draw a line in the sand?
My favorite and a more contemporary example would have been Larry Sultan, one of the all time great photographers. He balanced both worlds well, Larry’s fine art work is incredible and well known by all photographers but maybe everyone does not know how good his commercial work was? On top of all this I hear nothing but great things about what a influential educator he was, my point being that he did not draw lines between fine art and commercial, he produced incredibly serious personal work, also took jobs as a commercial photographer and taught, he simply put in work.
Also I would say that people are approaching me with a certain amount of knowledge of my work and the assignments they are proposing tend to have aesthetic similarities so there is very little to reconcile.
POP: You were first a successful fine artist and are now a commercial photographer. What made you want to shoot commercially and how did you first launch a commercial career?
I am a bit wary of claiming I was successful. I have had some success when judged by the criteria of sales or maybe exhibitions with reputable galleries but success is not a term I would use to describe my career. A year a go I wrapped up my MFA studies and the reason I went back to school was because, like every other photographer I know, you always want your work to be evolving, seeing the evolution of the work is how I would measure success and that is a never ending process.
The reason I began to shoot commercially was the opportunity to collaborate with other creatives and deal with the challenges this presented. The literal challenges that arise when working with a team of people and working with the ideas of others was something that I thought I was up for and is something I enjoy.
My “commercial launch” was a soft launch, some photo editors saw the work in contests or maybe at a gallery and reached out to me, at the time I was incredibly naive about how to get the ball rolling. I still am a bit naive in certain areas and I embrace this, so many people build a career by envisioning where they want to end up and then figure out the steps needed to get there, if that works for you more power to you but for me, I prefer to stay focused on the work I want to make, and then identify the people that my work is applicable to.
POP: What kind of marketing do you do for your commercial career? (testing, meetings, relationship building, promos…)
Meetings I like, it is nice to say “hello” to people, share some stories and look at some pictures together but with people’s schedule, understandably, that can not always happen. In addition to meetings I do the usual 4-5 postcards per year, 1-2 specialty mailers, reach out by email when there is something to reach out with, a touch of social network stuff and on top of thisI also have a couple of amazing people out there pushing my work on unsuspecting art buyers throughout the land.
Out of all the promotional options available to photographers today I still feel the most important promotional tool is relationship building. It is just hard to replace networking and getting to know people, social networking maybe an important marketing tool but it is a poor substitute for actually interacting with people in the physical world.
Another good approach and one I still utilize is spec work, sometimes it is more than worth while to forgo the payday in order to collaborate with someone very talented resulting in great work ending up in your portfolio..
POP: What was your first commercial job?
My very first job was shooting an actress named Lindsay Price. I got a call from Alison Unterreiner at Esquire, who I’d met with a few weeks prior, inquiring about my experience level with shooting nudes. I answered ‘zero’ and apparently that was the right answer because it turns out they were looking for someone with no experience shooting nudes to work with someone with no experience posing nude.
It was the perfect formula, I was a bit uncomfortable, sort of flushed all day but she was very cool, and actually made me a bit more comfortable with the situation. Today, I would handle the whole thing with a bit more suavity, I have more tricks up my sleeve in terms of the posing of people and I have twin four year old daughters who have taught me to never get flustered, or rather have increased my level of calmness.
POP: So you were first hired to shoot commercial based on your fine art work. You never tested specifically for commercial markets?
POP: How do you balance the pacing of fine art versus commercial?
If you mean the literal pace then I would say that the tempo of commercial photography is one of the nicer aspects of that type of work. The process moves quickly and when it is finally over, finished art work delivered its over, that does not happen with personal projects, personal work never ends.
POP: What is the interplay between the bodies of work?
When everything is going according to plan there is very little that differentiates the commercial from the personal work. Hopefully someone has come to me with an idea that they fill is well suited to my photographic interests and I take it from there, execute it, add to it, it’s collaborative and rewarding. The key is, finding clients that match up well with your work, it’s not easy for me as a photographer and it is probably difficult at times for art buyers and photo editors as well.
In general though, speaking about what differentiates one body of the work from the other, I would have to say that the greatest separation is that I give less consideration to the work’s audience when making personal work. I feel as though the audience for fine art photography is willing to sit with it for awhile, read the imagery, think about the sequencing where as in the commercial world the read has to be quicker. “Quiet”, “Contemplative” are probably words that are not thrown around too often in advertising briefs where as you will hear them often tossed around when speaking about successful fine art imagery.
POP: Commercial work that is closest to your personal work and its’ quiet, spacious, refined aesthetic?
The best jobs I have done are assignments that emphasize simplicity, I often find that people are asking a single image to do so much that no matter how unbelievably great the photographer is in the execution, the photograph is destined for failure.
I made some images for a manufacturing company, SEW Eurodrive, not too long ago and I thought they turned out well enough. The images were simple portraits of factory workers made within the confines of their workplace and I thought the images were successful in their simplicity. Also the shoot presented a nice challenge in that I would be working within the confines of this factory where I had never been before and working with employees, none of whom, I’d previously met, these parameters can often help in the creative process. Similar to a typology of say, “abandoned motel pools”, I was working with a set of rules but pushing myself to be creative within said restrictions; I try and set up similar situations with my personal work so this was nice.
Another example is the work I have done with my friend, Charlie Hess, for UCLA. These assignment have been as close as I have come blurring the line between my commercial and personal work. These have been a blessing for me and a compliment to him as a creative. He has come to me with a few assignments this last year that were very easy for me to engage with, one being on the reclamation of the Los Angeles River and the other being on finding quieter moments on the UCLA Campus, both of which I found to be stimulating subjects.
Ideally the commercial work and personal work will not be seen as extremely divergent as I am fully invested in both, one body of work emerged from the other. Also it is not as if I shut off one side of my brain when I am working commercially and vice versa when making personal work, I am all there.
POP: What kind of commercial clients are you typically shooting for? And how do you approach your commercial work?
I prefer to shoot for clients with good ideas, people that can inspire me, challenge me to get out of my comfort zone and make good work. That is the ideal client.
I try to approach the work with the mindset that I am not being asked to simply execute an idea but to collaborate on a concept, to add something to the project. Contrary to popular belief I am not just a pretty face. I spend time thinking about how an idea can be executed better, what could be added or subtracted photographically in order to strengthen the concept.
As far as the type of client, there are certain types that I am always looking for, that being someone, who like me, believes that a simple but strong image has the ability to communicate an idea. It is tough out there today, the world of visual communication is cluttered, people are beaten down by imagery so the photographs you put out have to be incredibly strong in order to have any impact. The definition of a strong image varies among us but for me it is something impactful and believable photographically, an image that doesn’t demand the suspension of disbelief. So I am out there looking for creatives that have the same visual values that I do, I see examples of this all over the place from insurance ads to automotive ads and these are the people that I am reaching out to.
POP: When you shoot portraits or landscapes with people, how do you get this same quality of feeling or stillness?
It seems that I am always working one of two ways; either responding to the person or responding to the environment and using a person to activate the scene. Either way the intention behind the work is the same as it would be in my landscape work, simplistic, well seen composition and a certain atmosphere.
POP: So much commercial work is now on a tight turnaround, yet you’ve spoken about taking time with your landscape and interiors. Are you given this time with commercial projects?
I may have misspoken here, when I say that I’ll be taking my time, I mean that I won’t be rushing, I’ll spend time looking, thinking and will not be getting worked into a frenzy regardless of how frenetic reality may be at that moment. At the same time, a slow pace does not guarantee good work and a fast pace does not set you up for failure, there is no formula for any of this but I always try and present a calm exterior. I am used to having tight turnarounds and sometimes the limit of time can force you to work more intuitively which can be a bonus.
POP: You signed with Brite Productions two years ago. Did you have commercial clients at the time?
Not so much.
POP: You get some very interesting editorial projects that seem to really match your genuine appreciation for people and your sense of adventure.
I am very fortunate in this regard, most people come to me with work that is very suited to my photographic intent.
One of my favorite magazines to work for is Wired, they always seem to come to me with assignments that are a perfect fit, that is a testament to the quality of their editorial staff.
A few years back they sent me out to photograph the launching of hobby rockets in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. It was a fascinating event, all of these career rocket scientists launching their insane hobby rockets, the setting was beautiful, the people were a bit nuts and the art direction from the magazine was right up my alley, “don’t bring us back any photos with blue skies”.
The only downside to the job was at the time I would do all editorial work on film and shooting rockets with 4/5 film was beyond difficult. The photos turned out beautifully but I had no idea when I left if I had even captured a single launch, these rockets were reaching altitudes of 30,000 feet so they were traveling at a nice clip, so I was clueless as to what the photos would look like, I knew the the skies weren’t blue but I wasn’t sure if there was a rocket in the picture.
POP: Have you had an editorial project like Larry Sultan’s Valley project evolve into a fine art project?
No but I would love to, there seem to be only a few publications out there today that can still pull those types of involved projects off. NY Times Magazine is certainly one and Time would be another.
POP: You’ve been shooting a series of portraits in Colorado Springs of your mother, sister, and friends. What are the challenges of shooting someone you know so well?
I actually did not make any of the photographs, a local portrait studio is responsible for those images. I have a real problem shooting my family so for this project, a body of work on home in which I thought there presence was integral, I brought them to a nearby studio that specialized in high school portraits, family photos and such. I am good with the landscapes of home but I am real tight with my family and I think this close connection interferes with my ability to photograph them, does that make any sense?
POP: Who are you drawn to for your personal portraits?
For some reason I find myself being drawn to younger subjects, I can’t say what the reasons for this are, I am sure it has something to do with the awkwardness of being a teenager and how that strikes a chord with me.
Beyond that, I would say that my being able to empathize with certain subjects is the initial draw to a person. For example, I can relate to the awkwardness of youth or I see loneliness in someone, whether real or imagined, and I want to capture it because I have felt it. This is all a bit psychoanalytical but I do believe that there is some truth to the saying that “all portraits are self portraits.” When taking photographs of others your showing a bit of yourself. I am a 35 year old male, with a wife, kids, a cat and a roof over my head, but for some reason I feel a certain connection to a homeless man named Bill who lives in a tent along side the Mojave River in Victorville. I can not figure the draw out but maybe I take the photos because they help me understand something about myself or maybe they don’t but I think they do, who knows?
POP: What is your process when shooting portraits?
Usually something about the person has caught my eye and I will find myself observing them for a bit of time before I approach them. When I do approach them and it begins with quite a bit of engagement before I even ask if I can make a portrait with them, I am reconsidering this though because often once I start talking to them I begin to find out that they are not the person I was imagining they were, like I already made a whole life story up about the person before I even spoke to them and now they are telling me that my story was wrong but my story might have been a good one so I am now thinking that I should talk to the person less. I am hoping this doesn’t sound strange or I come off as not caring about people’s personal history because I do, I just think that I should do the chatting after I take the image so that I can capture the fiction I initially imagined.
For personal that is 4/5 so when I shoot I am buried under the dark cloth and I can’t be looking in the ground glass and kicking around stories with the person so there is a bit of tension, in that they are waiting for direction from me and I am hiding under a blanket, but I think this tension can be a positive.
POP: Photographers whose work has been most influential.
Robert Adams, Guido Guidi, Paul Graham, Larry Sultan, Robert Adams deserves to be mentioned twice because work is something I always returning to, that man is just the best, plus he did some great work in my home town so the nostalgia factor is off the charts.
POP: How do you balance a busy personal life and a career that requires a lot of travel?
I have twin daughters, a wife and a cat, things are busy at home, busy at the studio, but wherever I am and whoever I am with, I try to be engaged in that moment. I am the opposite of a multi-tasker, you would never catch me talking to someone and dropping text messages at the same time, I am all about fully engaging in the activity at hand, especially in photography where my goal is to tune out the noise and respond to what’s in front of the camera.
POP: Theory/books/critics/writers influenced in school and since?
Most of that stuff I try and forget, I have read it, still read it but I try and let it go when I am shooting.
Mark Wyse is a great photographer/ educator here in Los Angeles and I had the opportunity to hear him lecture in Chicago awhile ago and he spoke about the balancing of the intellectual and the intuitive in such a great way that it has never been too far from my thoughts when working. He has a book out by Damiani, “Seizure”, if its still available get it.
Also, recommended reading, the Paul Graham essay, “Photography is Easy, Photography is Difficult” brilliant.
POP: Now that we’ve gotten the serious discussion out of the way, let’s talk about what goes on behind the scenes of a lot of your work and your penchant for finding trouble and putting yourself in dangerous situations. Your photos are contemplative and serene, yet the stories you have told me reveal a different side of JB. Can you share a few stories?
That is one of the great things about photography, you are only capturing what takes place in front of the lens, it is especially great for me as I am often finding myself in various predicaments while shooting but none of these incidents reveal themselves in the imagery.
While shooting the “No Lifeguard on Duty” project I had many good experiences, mainly due to the demographic that inhabits derelict motels. In West Virginia, I had a gun pulled on me by the motel owner. In Florida, I had a younger guy convince me that I needed to hide out in his room while I packed up my gear because I would be robbed by meth addicts that hung out at the motel if I walked by with my camera equipment. As I am sitting in his room packing up I start to notice how twitchy he is and then I start to see the paraphanelia all over the room. This guy was a full blown meth addict and here he is warning me about meth addicts.
I was recently shooting in Wonder Valley, a small area in the high desert of California, when I managed to get my Mini stuck in a dry river bed. It all came about through a sort of, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” situation, I wanted to see what was on the other side of this hill even though I knew it would be another hill. Inevitably I ended up stuck in the sand, 106 degrees outside, no water, no cell service, just an embarrassing situation to be in. I had to walk around the desert in search of scrap metal/wood with which I could drive over after I dug the car out by hand. After hours of digging, a random guy drove by from a nearby salt quarry and let me use his shovel. So all in all it was good day except for the fact that my hands and knees were bloody, I was completely dehydrated, and I was still sitting 40 miles from civilization.
A final story is from shooting a story for Los Angeles Magazine on empty car lots after the economic collapse. I found myself breaking into the showroom of an already broken into showroom in San Bernadino. Any how, I am inside, the place is filled with graffiti, trash, and broken glass and I am thinking “this looks pretty nice, I will set up my 4/5 and get to work.” Well I am under the dark cloth, setting up the composition when all of a sudden this big guy comes stumbling in to the frame. I was scared to death, the man was out of his mind a bit and large. Also I was in no position to make a quick exit. I ended up telling him how I worked for the car company, asked him if he “was responsible for the broken windows, trash and graffiti?” Somehow I can also get out of trouble as easily as I can into it.
POP: Recent experience that has stayed with you.
The 2012 4th of July fireworks show they staged in San Diego where all of the fireworks went off at once, how amazing was that, I could just imagine being there in attendance and being so confused. There is such a traditional dramatic arch to fireworks shows that I think these people are on to something. Every 4th of July should be so exciting, one year it should be 15 seconds long and the next two hours, the whole celebration has become too formulaic, so I propose that we mix it up.
Please visit JB’s website here to see his full portfolio and fine art series.