I’ve been following Jake Stangel’s career for several years and noticed recently that he signed with Julian Richards and this month shot a feature in Esquire Magazine. He’s been very active online helping fellow emerging photographers, previously with his forum Too Much Chocolate and now a series of posts on his blog “the four most important things you can do to become a professional photographer“. I thought we should check in with Jake and see what’s going on.
APE: Tell me about yourself and how you got started as a photographer?
Jake Stangel: I was that dude in high school whose hands always reeked of D-76 from processing tri-x and printing in the darkroom without tongs all day long. I was fortunate to go to a public school that had a great photo program and provided all the black and white film I could shoot. Photography is just literally how I’ve identified myself since I was 15 years old, it’s been ten years now. Just constantly shooting, constantly out and about with a camera, always loving it. There’s never been a day I’ve been “over” photography, and I feel really fortunate to have that kind of relationship with the medium.
I went to NYU/Tisch photo for college, really hated what the majority of the photo program was about throughout my freshman year. A bunch of 18 year old egos with pretty shitty work (myself included), listless crits, an even more listless curriculum (I hear it’s gotten better, this was in 2008). And it was expensive. I couldn’t see myself there for 3 more years, so I got out of there ASAP after my freshman year.
However, I did stay within NYU, and followed my own educational path by enrolling in a school called Gallatin, where you can create your own major. I studied photography, marketing, economics, American Industrialization, and did a whole lot of writing over those last three years in college, which was seriously fundamental. I also studied abroad by doing a semester with NOLS in Central America for full credit, which took me about as far from NYC and civilized life as one can get. I would very much advise studying a well-rounded group of subjects in college, stay aware of what’s going on around you, cause there’s alot more than photography in this world.
Living in NYC was also paramount to my development as a photographer, and I got to intern and assist for Jeff Riedel and Richard Renaldi. Both of those experiences were fantastic and I learned heaps. These internships were utterly fundamental in solidifying my desire and motivation to become a photographer myself. I got so excited and happy to be on shoots, I knew I wanted to go for it. So, if college kids are reading this, work for photographers you love and respect. Doesn’t matter how big-time they are, though it’s helpful if they are working!
What does biking across the country (three times!) have to do with becoming a professional photographer? Shouldn’t you be assisting or something?
So I’m a little deranged (or very sane) and love cycling and traveling so much that I’ve ridden a bicycle East to West across America three times over three summers, twice while still in college in 2007, 2008, and once after I graduated in 2009. About 3 months and 3,000-4,000 miles each time. Usually 50-65 towns along the way. Lots of on the bike and off the bike time.
Every summer, the camera became my journal. The trips were just as fundamental to my photographic development as anything I did in college, and built the foundation upon which I still shoot: exploratory, narrative driven, environment-focused, mood-oriented, engagingly quirky photos that are based on wonderful light and interesting compositions. Everything became part of a visual diary, and a cause for exploration with a camera.
These exploration-quests set the tone for me to always be present on the real, live moment, the situation, the snippets of life/human interaction/engagement that mark our lives, our personal experiences, our memories. It lets me shoot quickly, loosely, and lightly. It also lets me jump between locations alot quicker, and allows me be on the lookout for great light and settings to shoot in, and not worry about all 9 strobes firing or wishing I hadn’t planted all my lights in one place.
These trips were also a phenomenal way to build a giant body of personal work, which I was aware of going into it, and really tried to take advantage of every day. Almost every ride and every experience was a “William Eggleston, eat your heart out” kind of day.
After I moved to Portland, OR from NYC, I was able to leverage this portfolio alot, and it helped kind of pull me up out of assisting a little quicker. But that said, I was shooting a crap-ton of personal work every day in Portland too.
I recognized that personal work, and developing a comprehensive portfolio of reportage-y, on-location work was the key to getting commissions. So I just went for it. Assigned myself what I wanted to shoot, then showed that work around, then got actual assigned work that nicely overlayed on top of it.
Seems like you’ve hit a new chapter in your career. The forum you started for up and coming photographers (Too much chocolate) is dead and you signed with a major rep. (Julian Richards). Tell me about it?
Yeah first of all, a goddamn hacker that took the site down. I didn’t pull the plug on it. I was getting pretty overwhelmed trying to maintain it at the end of last year while shooting, and planned to put it on hiatus, but keep it live, as a reference. Then this hacker came in and destroyed it. I’m beyond bummed, it was like 2.5 years of my life and hundreds of hours of time on the site. I think I’m just going to upload a tombstone on the homepage.
I met Julian through my genial photographer friend, Alex Tehrani. I was shooting some snowboarders riding halfpipe in 2007 in Stratton, Vermont for a small snowboard magazine. I was being totally dumb/gnarly by shooting with a 4×5 Toyo camera, which is the worst cause it slows down the process about 15 times, and you just hope the rider is in the right place, took the right line you prefocused on, etc. When a shot comes out, it’s worth it, but you’re so gripped the whole time you’re shooting, thinking about the money sinking through your hands.
Anyway, Alex comes tromping down the pipe in ski boots with a 5D and a huge sloppy grin on his face, and he’s like, “Dude! What the hell are you doing?!?”. He was there shooting Shaun White or Kevin Pearce, I think, for Men’s Journal. A friendship was born.
Alex became, and still is very much a mentor to me. I love him for that. He’s got such a great attitude and life outlook. Alex had been with Julian forever, and over time, sometime in 2009 I guess, he introduced Julian to my (nascent and early) work. So from there Julian and I got to know each other in late 2010 or so, and I quote-unquote “signed” with him in the summer of 2011. It was a totally pleasant, totally slow and totally natural process. Like childbirth. I’ve been told.
Julian’s great, I’m pumped. There were so few agents I took a liking to, where the roster was fantastic and the overall vibe wasn’t “we’re gonna turn you into a slick, photo-taking machine and you’re gonna shoot for Mercedes-Benz”. I really love Julian because he lets all of his photographers be themselves, and he really finds work that snugly fits right along with our personal, natural style, as opposed to jamming a square peg in a round hole.
What’s going on in the northwest, some kind of photography movement? Every time I check out someone new and cool they’re from the NW? Maybe you guys have a gang or something?
Well I moved to San Francisco in the summer, around when I came on board with Julian, but the two happenings were unrelated. I moved cause I wanted more sun, really, and I felt like Portland was definitely limiting my chances of getting work and being as visible as I wanted to. I’d have great meetings with photo editors and at the end they’re like, “where do you live again”, and I’d say “Portland!” and they’d be like, “oh…”. So I split. But I still love Portland.
Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver also have smaller and more transparent communities, where everyone knows each other, whereas in NYC and SF you start to not have that. The Northwest is rad because everyone there is incredibly grounded and centered, they’re much more in touch with nature, the rent is cheap and the coffee is also really cheap yet terrific, and most people grow beards, which helps in some way I haven’t yet ascertained.
So, is everything starting to click for you now? In the first chapter I detected angst, like “when is this career going to start,” but now you must be feeling pretty good?
Well, it’s not like I just stepped into the club and everything started to pop off. It’s been alot alot alot of struggle and getting the angle of my Kangol hat just so and there have been lots of rainy mornings spent getting out of ruts and staying positive and directed. Just tons of hard work. That’s all I can really say. Everyone who you see doing well has worked incredibly hard to get to where they are in their career, they’re all on the grind.
If anything, and I’m sure there’s a business term for this, there was a definite tipping point where I had the ability to channel all the commissioned work I was getting back into my portfolio, and that let things snowball alot. I was no longer having to make personal work to get assignments, my assignments were getting me more assignments. So its almost like all these magazine jobs were doing my marketing for me, because not only did it all become portfolio material, but was turning up in print, and it helps you stay top of mind alot more.