APE Ed Note: I’ve worked with Jeff quite a bit in the past, so when I heard about the inspiring lecture he gave at Chris Orwig’s class I asked if he would conduct an interview for us. He’s an amazing person to work with, so I know you will enjoy his perspective on the industry.
Learning photography is easy – there are so many articles, books, blogs, videos, workshops, and schools. Yet, becoming a photographer is a completely different story; it’s a journey that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a pursuit that requires a mixture of knowledge and experience. And one of the best ways to bolster your own skills is to spend time with those whose have forged their own path.
At the photography school where I teach, we take this concept seriously and therefore work hard to bring in photographers of all stripes to give guest lectures and presentations in order to inform and inspire. The guest lecture roster for our school includes a huge range of legendary photographers from people like Yousuf Karsh to Steve McCurry – you get the idea. One of the more enlivening of these lectures was recently given by Jeff Lipsky. Jeff is a highly accomplished photographer, and his images are authentic, down-to-earth, and full of life. A few of the students who heard Jeff speak said it was life changing. So after the talk, I decided to spend a few minutes with Jeff and asked him the questions below in order to try to capture a bit of what he shared.
CO – Take us back to the days of living in the mountains in Colorado, fly-fishing and snowboarding. How did you go from there to here?
It all started with a road trip. After graduating from college (Boston University), I strapped my skis on top of the car and didn’t stop until I reached Telluride. I wanted to ski for a season but ended up staying for 10 years. It was one of the best times of my life. Snowboarding had just been opened up on the mountains, so there were all these amazing ascents that hadn’t been snowboarded before. I snowboarded 200 days a year, and my biggest worry was whether to wear goggles or sunglasses. I was a free rider, and I wanted to float in the trees. The camaraderie and friendships were amazing. Along the way, I picked up fly-fishing, and became a guide met some fascinating people and became exposed to photography.
In the later years of my time in Telluride, I became more and more interested in photography. I was shooting landscapes and some portraits. I was inspired by a bunch of photographers; one was Ace Kvale. One day, Ace gave me his F4, which opened some new doors. I started spending 8-9 hours in the darkroom. I became obsessed. I decided that I wanted to become a photographer, which led me to working for the Telluride newspaper for a year where I became acquainted with the environmental portrait. I loved it. Then I made the leap and decided to move to Los Angeles.
CO – How did a ski bum from Telluride break into the LA photo scene?
I went to LA knowing that it was how I was going to learn photography. Instead of going to school, I worked in a grip room at Smashbox Studios. There, I was able to be a fly on the wall and see how it all worked. I saw how some photographers shot a huge campaign with a truck full of lights, while others didn’t use any lights at all. Eventually, I started assisting. At first, I didn’t know what roll film was, and the first photographer I assisted gave me his camera and said, ”Learn how to load it.” I was hooked.
I started assisting for all of these amazing photographers, working on everything from editorial to fashion. But I was also constantly shooting pictures. I’d ask for the left-over film after a shoot and then ask the assistant stylist and assistant makeup artist if they would help out. I photographed everyone I knew and friends of friends. I tested almost every girl and boy on the Ford model agency board at one time. I paid my dues testing so many models. I was crazy. Once, Ford sent me to Chicago and got me an apartment, and I tested 4-5 people a day for a week. I rocked it out. I tested nonstop. I was always shooting. I was trying to take photos that I like to look at. I was always trying to find my vision.
CO – How did you eventually find or clarify your vision?
As I progressed, I discovered that my vision was tied to who I am. What I mean is that I always wanted to do darker, moodier portraits like Paolo Roversi or Nadav Kander, but that’s not who I am. I like my photos to have more of an upbeat feeling… Something organic, natural and maybe whimsical. But at first, I didn’t have the words for it. Then I put together my first book and shared it with a few people. Someone told me what my style was before I knew what it was. Sometimes it takes an outsider to say it like it is.
CO- With that in mind, what is it that you’re striving for in your pictures?
I like to portray people in the best way for who they are, and I’m always searching for the real moment. I like people to be really laughing at a real joke. I like real emotion. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. Like recently, I wasn’t connecting with the subject until her boyfriend walked in and her eyes lit up! I had the boyfriend come next to me and talk to his girlfriend. If I don’t get it, I find other people to help out. Often, finding the real moments means looking for the break in between the frames when the subject isn’t staring into the camera but has emotion coming through. I keep shooting until I see that moment. Then I move on.
CO – Let’s get back to how you started out. After all that assisting and shooting, what was your first big break?
While I was assisting on a shoot, I happened to be talking with a magazine editor and we realized that we had a mutual friend. She said, “If you’re ever in New York, come by. I’d love to see your work.” I had to beg, borrow and steal, but that next week I went to New York and “happened to be there.” I called her up, and she graciously looked through my book and said it was good. She also said to feel free to send her my work. I sent them a package every week. Eventually, this connection led to a few others, which led to the big break.
Premiere magazine asked me to do their Sundance portfolio. Man, that was it! I went go to Sundance and found an abandoned office. In that space, I built a makeshift studio with floors and walls. There was a big window, and I had a few light sources. Then the talent came through, and I got to spend 15 minutes with each. It was unreal— Francis Ford Coppola, Jessica Lange, Bob Dylan, Al Pacino and so many others. From that point on, I was established. I began shooting more commercial and editorial work.
CO – For who?
For commercial, I worked for clients like Eddie Bauer, Haagen Daz Showtime, JBrand, 20th Century Fox. On the editorial side, I picked up work for magazines like Men’s Journal, Outside, Esquire, Glamour, Woman’s Health and Vogue. It’s been a pretty good ride.
CO – At our school, our students often discuss the business/money in shooting editorial versus commercial. What are your thoughts?
First, you should never be in photography for the money. Be in it for the passion of shooting. And sometimes the less money you have, the better it is. It gives you more drive when every shot you take has meaning to it. It makes you strive and set goals.
For me, editorial is my driving force, my lifeblood. I love the creative freedom of shooting editorially. It is an amazing outlet for creativity, and it helps me hone my advertising skills.
When you take something down to the bare minimum, it is better. In commercial work, there can be so much production. And in those situations, you have to shelter the subject from all of that. They don’t need to know that there are 5 trucks full of lights. If I’m shooting a big celebrity, a lot goes into making them comfortable. I’ll shoot at a beach house, even though I don’t need the beach. It’s the setting that helps to get them unguarded. Editorial shooting helps you to learn how to do that.
On the other hand, commercial work is more of collaboration. It’s important to be able to get the creative task done efficiently and in a way that the client is happy, that I’m happy and that some beautiful work has been created. So in a sense, for me commercial and editorial work go hand in hand. And there has to be some sort of balance. If you only shoot commercial work your work looks too commercial – same thing with editorial. The two balance each other out.
You also have to diversify within commercial and editorial. If your just one type of photography you’ll die. I do music, food, travel, celebrity, lifestyle… and in doing a lot you still have to keep your style. That’s one of the most important things you can do.
CO — What are you working on now?
I’m always working on something – that’s what keeps in interesting. I just shot an ESPN cover of Sharon Stone, which was really cool. And I just finished a great a great portrait series for an outdoor client of famous mountaineering families. It was with some of the most inspiring people you could ever meet – people who have been on top of Everest 5 or 6 times with out oxygen.
CO — It seems like you shoot such an interesting mix of things, what else have you been doing?
Well, a few weeks back, I finished up some album packaging for Lady Antellebum and Keith Irving. And I’ve done some recent covers for Outside Magazine, a few covers for Woman’s Health. I created portraits of Ohau North Shore Lifeguards for Men’s Health. And most recently, I just finished up shooting the cast of the Real L Word for Showtime. Next week I’m off to Mexico for another shoot. It is an interesting mix and that is one of the things that keeps me motivated and inspired.
CO – Any last advice advice to the aspiring student?
Target who you want to work for and go out and meet people in person. It is the single most important thing for getting work. And use every resource that you can to learn. Assist for as many other photographers as you can as a way to learn the business. And constantly shooting while you are assisting. I’ve always felt that it boils down to timing, tenacity and talent. You have to be at the right place in the right time. There’s a reason why I moved to Los Angeles. You need to be where it is happening. Tenacity – constantly produce work and get it in front of the right people. If someone doesn’t like your work, that’s ok. Have the self-confidence in what you do and press on. Talent – it comes from learning from your own mistakes. Go to photo editors and other photographers and ask them for input. Listen to their advice, yet stay true to what you want.