Jake Stangel is an editorial and advertising photographer based in San Francisco and represented by Julian Richards. I’ve followed Jake’s work for the past couple of years and am always excited to see a new project on his site. Jake shoots in a documentary style and is one of the photographers hired to tell a story and capture the authentic moments as they unfold rather than as they are created.
One of the first things I noticed when I spoke with him was how incredibly smart he is. Really smart. And nice. And how completely unguarded and enthusiastic he is with an infectious passion for his craft. Jake is young and out of school eight years and already built a career shooting for a long list of clients including Mini, Rapha, Strava, Dwell, AFAR, ESPN, Outside, Travel & Leisure and Bloomberg among others.
What Jake brings to this style of shooting is a visual intelligence—a love of light and the ability to tell a story with the moments we remember, the intimate felt moments that create memories. Not the ‘off’ moments that pass for authenticity, but the subtle yet potent moments that together connect our heart with an experience.
The interview took place over several calls between work, surfing, bike rides and meeting up with friends, most of whom are fellow photographers. He seems to be missing the competition gene, which I greatly respect. It’s hard to live this way and Jake does this quite naturally. And the good news is that he’s busy, doing work he loves, and has a tight knit group of photo-industry friends, most of whom are photographers whom he regularly refers for jobs (and lists on his site).
We spoke about the importance of truth and honesty and how this translates to his image making, how he sees and works with light, and how he learned to stay true to himself (great story). And how he got his start in photography. This involves still-lifes of plastic fruit and colored construction paper (another great story).
Thank you very much to Jake for all his time and for his inspiring stories, deeply thoughtful responses, and sharing so much great work and so much about his process.
POP: How did you get into photography?
In 8th grade I took a required general art class, which was also the same semester I took a required homemaking class. I learned how to shoot photos and sew throw pillows in four months. It was a big year for me.
In the art class, the teacher had set up stations around the room for all sorts of activities: claymation, painting, pottery, etc. etc. In one corner, there were like three Nikon FM10s sitting on a table. The teacher said, “go to whatever activity you’d like.” It was a free-for-all and I went for the cameras. I’m not sure what compelled me, whatsoever. It honestly could have been that everything else was taken.
We were encouraged to rotate stations throughout the semester, but I got hooked on those FM10s. We weren’t allowed to leave the classroom to shoot; somehow I spent the entire semester photographing three rolls a day within the confines of that small middle school art room. I shot out the window, around the room, all the goings-on, and eventually settled on a series of very colorful still lives of plastic fruit on construction paper in soft focus with hot lights. Green plastic Bartlett pears shot on purple construction paper that I tiled and taped together to make a seamless. We received little 4×5” index prints back, I think from Costco, and I made hanging mobiles out of pear shots.
So that was my introduction to photography. I had no instruction and there were no rules during that period. I asked how to rewind the film once and the rest was just trial and error.
The next year I moved to high school and took an actual photo class that taught the basic fundamentals of black and white photography. How to make a proper exposure, the interactions between aperture and shutter speed, how to process film, how to make a really epic contact sheet. My first good contact sheet was of my green Specialized Stumpjumper bike leaning against a goal post. My photo teacher was like “this is nice.”
I was lucky that my public school had advancing classes all the way through each year of high school. I took Photo 1 all the way to Photo 4 and by the end was shooting with a Hasselblad (I’d discovered KEH.com and split the cost of a 503CW with my mom) and printing on fiber paper.
We were into some heady stuff… sepia toning, double exposures on holgas, sandwich printing, hand toning. I was kind of a darkroom rat, playing The Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, of which we only had half one of the double CD, Sea Change, by Beck. Those were the two CDs in the darkroom. The good days. Shout-out to Mrs. Scott, who was my photo teacher and mentor through all those classes. She encouraged me, showed me the sky was the limit, and helped me grow photographically all four years. I see you, girl! And shout-out to Mrs. Diamond and Mrs. Mornini as well.
I loved shooting and processing the film and making b&w prints, from pressing the shutter to making the print. This was the most meaningful thing for me in high school. I was a total photo nerd and this was my identity and by far the thing I was the most passionate about. And for whatever reason, I’ve never deviated or once felt the urge to lessen my relationship with photography; I feel really lucky in that respect, to have found this thing so early in life that was so captivating to me.
POP: What were your first subjects?
After my still life pear phase, I was all over the place, exploring. I doubt I had any focus whatsoever at 14-18. But basically, I always have been shooting out-of-doors and photographing people. These days if I’m asked at a party, “what do you shoot?”, I still struggle and have no quick or easy answer. I usually say I shoot “environmental portraits and travel work.” So, even then, I was beginning that lineage, shooting my friends. And everything was outdoors and natural light. I worked with what I had, trying to capture interesting moments in time and place.
I was never interested in a false reality or having the blank canvas of a studio, I was just interested taking a camera out into life. Even today, if there’s a cup on a table that I want to move, I think twice and will likely not do it; I like to shoot things whole, exactly as they are. Like the concept of shooting plates of a sky to drop in is totally foreign to me… the sky’s gonna do what the sky’s gonna do. Ambient light has its way.
POP: Did you go through a standard fine art photo program?
I applied to a whole slew of schools and ended up at NYU at Tisch. All my photo and art teachers really recommended I go there… that the photo program was something akin to an honor to be admitted into, that I shouldn’t pass up the opportunity, etc. I personally chose NYU because New York City was new and different. I was a kid from the Maryland suburbs. I was about to go to UVM (Vermont) to snowboard my face off and live a great, comfortable life. I realized I could pick that life up after I graduated.
Off I went to art school in big NYC and quickly realized I didn’t really like living in New York, and I definitely didn’t like art school. My interests wildly expanded going from Maryland to NY and I became interested in economics and marketing and business and globalized labor. I left Tisch to study all these other things, while still taking technical photo classes on the side, like Large Format and lighting.
I also took two well-rounded internships, one with Jeff Riedel, the other with Richard Renaldi. Working with these guys was, without a doubt, the most fundamental photographic education I could have received. I was able to work and witness full days with two very different photographers at the pinnacle of their careers. I saw what it was like to work on location with hectic schedules, loads of technical lighting, to witness the challenges of timing and diplomacy and getting the shot. Witnessing the whole cycle, from studio to shoot to print, over and over again, I knew photography was exactly what I wanted to do. It was brilliant.
To anyone of pre-college age out there: I highly recommend getting an education outside of photography. There’s a big wide world out there. Expand your mind in the classroom, learn how to communicate, write, and express yourself, and learn the technical side of photography in the field. On my first day of working with Jeff, I learned more about lighting than two semesters of lighting class at Tisch. I swear, each shoot day with him was worth a year in photo classes.
POP: So you pretty quickly knew how and what you wanted to shoot. How did you know ‘how’ you wanted to shoot this? You have a very narrative style.
It’s intrinsic. Shooting style can’t be forced, it’s about processing your mind’s eye into a photograph. It’s visual talking.
Narrative is huge if not everything for me. I enjoy shooting a one-off portrait, but my preferred method of description is through narrative. Sometimes I feel like I’m more about telling than seeing… picking up the pieces to collect and visually retell an experience.
For example, I’ve been going to Big Sur a lot. It’s an insanely rugged bit of coastline in California. It’s sensory overload, emotional peaks. I can’t jam out to the coast and stand back to take a big, wide panorama of the beach and present this one photo that says “Hey! This is the beach! This describes our entire day in Big Sur!”.
If you and I went to Big Sur, then in the following month I asked you to recall that experience, your visual recollection wouldn’t be a single wide angle panorama of the beach. You’d assemble a narrative in your head, a patchwork of what you remember, on macro and micro levels. A collection of squawking, brilliant white birds tracing their way across the clouds; the cold frothy water hitting your feet; the sun wrapping around your skin; the people you were with, and how you reminisce on them in this moment. It’s not just looking out at a beach. It’s about how we process experiences.
I really enjoy creating that experience, but in the present. That is exactly what I shoot. I’m asking myself, “What is making this experience what it is? What am I noticing?”. From the light hitting the sand to the largest clouds above. Pinpointing those tiny details that make a feeling a feeling.
POP: So with something like shooting cycling, what do you look for?
Cycling is exhilarating. The atmosphere around being on a bike, the speed, the wind on your body, carving turns, hammering on climbs. When I shoot for Rapha (a London-based cycling apparel and accessories company) I’m trying describe what it feels like to be on a bike. You can’t just drop a rider on a road, stand there, and shoot that. Just like the beach scenario, you’ve got to dig deeper. Pinpoint the visceral, emotional, and sensory experiences, then channel them with a camera.
Not to beat a dead horse, but I really feel like that experiential connection comes when you’re real and true to what you’re photographing. I just wrapped a shoot for Rapha, shooting their Autumn/Winter city riding look book in Antwerp and Berlin. Two very different, uniquely charismatic cities that are totally different to ride in. For most Rapha shoots on the open road and mountains, we shoot out of a van due to the riders’ speeds and the long distances. But in the city, the van wasn’t working for us: it was difficult to relay the experience of cycling in these cities while shooting out of a van. On a bike, in a city, there are a thousand different things you see, feel, hear, and notice; you’re able to spot and wander down alleyways; you can weave and dodge. I was able to touch upon very little of that from the van, so we picked up a cargo bike that the art director got to shuttle me around in. We were now able to rally through the city streets, get lost, check out everything, stop for coffees… it was true to the experience of city riding in its natural form. Shooting bikes from another bike lets there be that synergy we were after.
POP: And how does this carry over into your lighting, do you have any examples?
Same thing; au natural as much as possible. And being aware that there are more options to shoot in the day than 10-2, which is when shoots usually get scheduled unfortunately. I just shot a guy named David Lang for Outside Magazine, who quit his job to start a DIY underwater robot company. He lives on a boat in a harbor in Berkley. I asked him what his favorite time of day was, he said he loved waking up early and what the early morning light looked like in his marina. We met up at 5:45am and I photographed him at his favorite time of day on the pier with his underwater robot. There was the classic and pervasive San Francisco fog that morning, but instead of the dull grey you see it as during the day, the fog was cool blue since it was so early morning. He looked awesome and alert and super comfortable. It turned out quite striking…. just me, him, a camera, a tripod. It was nice. I’d rather do that any day instead of getting there at noon and shooting him with 9 strobes. It requires a lot of waking up to shoot at 5-8am or 6-8pm, but to get that kind of atmosphere is worth it.
POP: How do you approach a job that’s an activity you aren’t familiar with?
I shot a Men’s Health assignment recently featuring the Crossfit routines of the Oracle sailing team. I don’t sail on boats this large or do Crossfit, but I could relate to what it’s like to be tapped out athletically. I’ll try to lend my life experience or relate to the subject matter in some way. I’d probably be awful at shooting the stills on a QVC campaign. When I know nothing, I will immediately absorb as much as I can so I can bring an authenticity to it. I want to properly represent the subject.
I also try to make subjects as comfortable as I can by asking them “Is this something you would normally do?” or “How you would hold that?”. Even something as basic as asking, “Are you comfortable standing like that” or “Is this how you would sit?”. Making things true is important to me. I think it’ll come across as ‘off’ if I put subjects in a position that isn’t natural to them or their activity.
I’ll talk with someone for half an hour to get a subject comfortable. Logistically, if I only have five minutes, it helps to get the subject into a comfortable position right away. This comes before the first shot is taken because for me, one of the first frames taken is usually the one that runs. Most people are like lettuce in the sun when they are being photographed— they wilt quickly, so you want to make sure you’re dialed on the first shot.
POP: The narrative style is what a lot of clients are currently looking for. You’ve been shooting like this for many years. How did this begin for you?
Well, that’s great. I’m just hoping that shooting reality is less a style that’s trending and more something that’s timeless. I don’t want to be a guy whose site you go to and are like “god, his stuff is so 2008.” I’d like to have a lack of that.
The narrative is what I’m going for all the time. I hope it doesn’t go out of style. I’ll joyously shoot a portrait but I’m much more keen on dropping into a place and making a story. I am actively trying to get commissions where there is a narrative, multiple days, an opportunity to make a project. I’ve always worked long-form. Not necessarily Mitch Epstein-esque 10-year projects. But my first long-term shoot was spending three months cycling across America with thirty friends. It was a big eye opener to see what you can make when you commit to an idea for this long.
POP: How do you take this personal style of narrative and apply it in the commercial world? Like with the Rapha Continental?
The Rapha Continental is a cycling series that explores the finest and most charismatic roads, regions, and cultures one can find on a bicycle. A group of guys dropping into a region of the country for 3-6 days to explore on a bike. It’s about adventure and camaraderie and physically pushing your limits. It harkens back to the essence and spirit of European touring. These adventures are documented by photographers like myself, live on the Rapha website (accompanied by video and text from other folks), and are wildly successful for the company.
The brilliance of the Rapha Continental series is owed to the fact that it’s entirely real and unscripted. Some days we get lost. Some days we don’t. Some days are amazing and some are shitty. There’s always epic riding, but there alot of variables and unknowns; that’s the fabric of what makes it interesting. With Rapha, we’re telling a story because there is a story to tell. The product is in all the shots, but it’s all incidental. The story is so compelling that the product gets elevated, by association.
POP: What are you encountering with clients who want to recreate this approach? Can you see the difference in shoots that are scripted and created versus those that are captured?
A lot of companies have seen the spirit and looseness of the Continental, the potential to tell a story and show product in natural and exciting ways, and want to apply a similar template. They specifically cite the Continental. Which is exciting, and an honor for Rapha, and for Daniel Wakefield Pasley, who is the original mind behind the Continental. Daniel has gone on to do many great new projects, including Manual For Speed and Yonder, which you should also check out.
A lot of these companies don’t often realize that if you want a real story you have to go out and make one. You can’t script it. These companies come up with a half-story then we go out and shoot, often out-of-sequence, and it’s not successful. Everything is known beforehand, there are no surprises, it’s abrupt. There are no chances to make those shots that are esoteric and personal and that just happen. Those gorgeous moments. I 100% understand that a company has products that need to get shot a certain way but you can’t make a safe AND compelling photo essay, it’s usually one or the other.
I recently did a four-day shoot for a client with planned scenarios and a shot list. We’d bang things out like “Let’s get the shot of Dad in the morning with his first coffee on a camping trip” and it would be like 1pm. We’d also have to light it like it was first morning light. So we’d light it with thick orange gels and then call Dad in, holding a mug with nothing in it, who needs to look like he just woke up, but didn’t. When you shoot from a script, nothing looks quite right. The mood, lighting, and even posture are off. You lose any sense of what was magical in the first place. I feel like that’s the definition of advertising these days, unfortunately.
If I were to re-shoot the camping project (we had models, makeup, and a 13-ish person crew) I would cut the crew down to myself, the art director, and 2-3 well-cast talent. We’d take off go backpacking for five days straight and come in under budget. We’d use the entire range of light throughout the day, there would be no need for hair and makeup cause we’re CAMPING, and we’d let things just happen, let those serendipitous moments occur. As long as the photographer has a good sense of what the client needs, it’s a great way to shoot this type of commercial work.
POP: A lot of photographers shooting in this style don’t necessarily have a sensitivity to light. In your images, the light is used so carefully to capture emotion or the natural beauty of your subject.
Light is totally, totally paramount to me. I could stare at light all day, I usually do. I’m even staring at it right now. You can’t match the power of nature and I really feel sunlight and ambient light is underrated… it’s this dynamic, unique, untouchable presence, changing so much throughout the day, a thousand different looks.
When I shoot I try to show what the ambient light is doing and how the tone of the photo can match that. If it’s super foggy, I’ll roll with that. And if it’s super sunny I go with that. I’m like a big dumb golden retriever when it comes to light. It goes back to that whole idea to be in the moment and show what is happening at the exact place and time. And that also let’s me focus 100% through the viewfinder, not have part of my brain thinking about strobes firing.
POP: You wrote about the Modular Home shoot you did for Dwell that you spent the day in the house hunting for light. The result is that each room of the house is filled with streaming sunlight or this beautiful soft ambient light. The images are so beautiful and an interesting departure for Dwell.
When shooting homes or architecture, natural light is especially important. It’s almost how I view the home…. instead of looking at rooms for their design I look at them for feel and shape, how the light plays with angles and furniture, works with structure and dimension.
These homes are gorgeous and the sun dances around them all day from the second it rises in the East, makes its high arc over the home, and sets into dusk in the West. For the Dwell shoot, I was there until 8 or 9 pm and the light was constantly changing. I moved with the sun all day, from one side of the house to the other, to capture each element of the house in its prime form, with the sun in its most wonderful spots.
POP: Back to finding your style. What was your process?
When I started out and was assisting for Jeff and Richard, I was young and hadn’t yet found my style. The first couple commissions were complete failures. I would shoot for the magazines that hired me and didn’t bring my own voice. The work sucked and the client hated it. And I understood very quickly that you will have no success if you don’t shoot the way you see – not financial or personal. The only way to find that success is to shoot exclusively for yourself, whether it’s for personal work or a commission.
Photographers are hired for their voice because they fit intrinsically with the style of that brand or magazine. In a perfect world, a photographer’s personal work and commissioned work should be indistinguishable. It feels really good when a photo editor recognizes your strengths and assigns you the perfect assignment for your style, it makes things incredibly fun when you’re shooting a project that feels like an extension of yourself.
I learned early on that the only way I was going to have a career was to shoot assignments as if they were personal projects. To switch gears and pretend the assignment was for myself was the biggest revelation as I began to shoot full time. This is when everything started to click. I just went after how I was seeing things. And I still shoot in this style, to this day. The more I put my heart and soul into a shoot, the more I made photographs for myself, the better things got, because it was shooting it for me. And the client gets a photographer working in his element and by that extension, the true photographs that come with it.
POP: What’s an example of the first time you applied this practice?
“48 hours in New York City” for Dwell was one of the first projects I shot like this. It was my first big break. Amy Silberman saw my work online and called me out of the blue. She wanted someone to shoot a story about going to all 5 Boroughs of NYC in two days, shooting a living space in each borough and showing how that borough reflected on the home (and vice-versa). Amy wanted someone who could shoot lean and not have a lot of equipment, and who could do the entire shoot using public transit. I took a bus to my first location. It became two very hectic days but was totally up my alley, and set me up to shoot in this personal style I’ve been talking about.
POP: How regimented is your marketing and what does marketing yourself as a photographer mean to you these days? What constitutes marketing?
My marketing plan is to take the best photos I can. That’s it. This is where 98% of my energy goes. This is the best form of marketing… the have a good product to begin with. If you have a good project and you’re not a jackass, people will hire you because they like what you have to offer. If you gave me $5K, I’d just go out somewhere and shoot more photos somewhere a little further away from home.
I do send out promos from time to time, and I definitely keep an active tumblr going (that’s half about other photographer’s work I love and am inspired by) but for the most part, I focus energy on taking photos that will get me hired back by the same clients; or, if the fit wasn’t right, having another client see those photos and hiring me for the first time based off that work.
Sometimes the most successful ways to get work are through the least common paths. I began shooting for Danner and Adidas because I met a dude surfing on a beach in Oregon four years ago. The internet has done wonders to float work around. I hope everyone is in the industry because of their love for photography, so when I see promos that have more swag than work, I kind of miss the point. The photography should speak for itself. I won’t be coming to a meeting with a bottle of champagne and fancy chocolates, but I might twerk for ya if you ask nicely.
It pains me when I see photographers or agencies augment creative talent with extravagances and surplus amounts of money. Photographers sending personalized Ray-Bans to thousands of art buyers or lavish parties with a Macbook frozen in ice that someone wins. Money talks and it’s the basis of marketing, but I’m only interested in making good photographs and being a good human being, and supporting people doing the same exact thing. If I come to your office for a meeting, I’m bringing my book and smile, but I’d only like to talk about life and photography, not the halfway decent bottle of champagne I theoretically brought you.
POP: When I first tried to schedule time with you on the phone to do this interview, you were pretty adamant about talking only at night, not during your day at the studio. I phrased a daytime in-studio interview as an investment in marketing, which you disagreed with.
Well it’s interesting that you considered it a form of marketing. I was pretty reluctant to do this interview during the day, during studio time, I had really wanted to talk at night at the end of the day, away from the studio. My studio practice is pretty regimented, and it’s the time I take to work on photos, scan, or keep up running a business. I often feel like there’s not enough time in the day as it is and as a result, I’m quite reluctant to eat up an hour on the phone during the day when there’s so much to take care of.
But I do think this is an important distinction. Should an interview be considered marketing? I look at this interview and every other as a medium of expressing views and sharing thoughts and information. If I approached an interview as marketing, the conversation becomes commodified to me. It would become less an opportunity to have a conversation and more a way to awkwardly drop more names and prove myself in some way. I wanted to do this interview because I wanted to do this interview. That’s it, that’s the only reason. I enjoy it. Like Ben & Jerry’s says, “If it’s not fun, why do it?”.
POP: You have your photographer friends listed on your site. For you, is community more important than competition? This is really a generational shift.
My peers, who are also some of my closest friends, are so incredibly important to me. We’ve all come up together, we’ve all supported and encouraged each other, elevated each other. My core crew is Geordie Wood, Daniel Shea and Adam Golfer. They have been my three closest friends from the beginning, years and years ago. If I searched for correspondence from Daniel Shea in my email, I’d have like over 500 emails back and forth. I found him on Flickr while I was in college in 2008 and we’ve all gone from virtual friends to tight real life friends. I traveled with Geordie to India for a month and we co-shot a Travel + Leisure story. I surfed with Adam in Mexico as his assistant last winter.
Everyone on the list on my site has gone from photo contact to complete friend. I think through what we all communally do we understand each other – we’re cut from same cloth. I get tremendous joy and inspiration from everyone listed there and having that community is nothing but a pleasure.
I also have good friends moving here to SF and instead of being worried I’m super hyped. I’m a very type B person. I don’t really understand the concept of competition, interpersonally and intrinsically… I don’t know what it’s like to feel the heat of another person breathing down my back in sports or business. The way I see it: work hard, make work true to yourself, and be nice. It’ll get you quite far.