In all of my years, I have never seen anything like what took place yesterday. There has never been such a turn out against an elected President in our entire history. It was a message people sent all over the world. We want equality for women. We want equality for all. We want to be in control of our bodies and our families, to decide who we want to spend our lives with. We want universal health care. We want a clean Earth. We want a leader with good values and a government with actual experience. I want to thank all of my brothers and sisters for getting out on the streets yesterday and showing solidarity in the fight for equality and love. You all proved to the world that hate will never win. You sent a very powerful message to the evil that has taken our highest appointment in office and exercised you're First Amendment rights as citizens of this great country. I couldn't be more proud.
The reaction (or lack there of) to the Women's March on Washington is proof that we have shaken them. They will continue to react with anger and denial and we will continue to fight with strength and love. This fight will continue...it will continue to grow in numbers...it will not stop until the hate and injustice is washed away from our government. I stand with you all and I encourage you to keep marching on, to keep calling your senators, to keep sending your message of love to the evil that is trying to take over our world.
year was far from easy. We lost icons, we dealt with the stress of the
mind-numbing reality of our new President-elect. It left many of us asking, where do we go from here? The older I
get, the more I levitate towards positivity and the greater good. There's still
a lot of good in this world, a lot of good people, and those are the people
that I continue to surround myself with. Through photography, I've been so
fortunate to be able to connect with some great people, and Jesse Dittmar is
one of the best examples out there. He understands the power of those moments
in between that captures something real and unique. His use of film
photographing some of the most notable humans on the planet gives us a
different perspective, and it's refreshing to see. I had a chance to chat with
Jesse last year before the holiday and it was just the conversation I needed to
feel refreshed and ready to go in the New Year. I love you all, I hope you
enjoy the thoughts and stories contained in this interview.
"A LOT OF OUR JOB IS TO GET PEOPLE TO RESPECT THE FACT THAT WE'RE GOING TO TRY AND TAKE A REALLY GREAT PICTURE."
I loved the portrait you did of Sharon
Jones, what can you tell me about that photo shoot?
was a really interesting shoot - it was kind of one of my first big shoots. It
was my first cover I shot for the Village Voice and the first assignment I had for them
as well. I didn't know anything about Sharon Jones at the time, to be honest.
She was shooting this music video in Queens and it was just a really typical - I'm going to this place, I don't know what's
going to happen, I kind of have a contact, but I'm not the priority there.
I got to talk with her a little bit, and I got lucky they were still playing
the music while I was shooting. I got her to sing for the shoot, which
turned out perfectly. It's kind of hard to get someone to sing, because
it's a little awkward - but that wasn't a problem at all because the music was
shot you're talking about happened right after the music stopped. It was really
quiet and she gave me that look - it felt very powerful. When you're shooting,
you don't really know what you're going to come up with. She's kind of in the
bottom left corner of the square frame and it was just a product of the
difference in our heights, but it helped to tell the story. It made her feel
smaller physically, but then her look is so powerful - it's got this perfect
mix between vulnerability and strength.
have to give so much credit to the editor, Jesus Diaz, for going with that
shot. They could have gone with another shot of her singing, or something
that's not as subtle, but they went for this picture - which I think was a bit
of a risk. When I saw it on that cover, I was so ecstatic about how amazing it
looked and how strong the story was - I know when Sharon saw it, she cried.
There's a scene in her documentary where she's talking about it and how it
kind of was a very palpable example of what she had overcome to see her first
cover after going through chemotherapy. It was a really important shoot
for me. I'm so lucky to have had the opportunity to have met her, to have spent
some time with her, and to have her sing right in front of me.
You've got those memories and that's a
really great thing, you know? She pulled me up on stage when I saw her a few
years ago and made me dance with her in front of a room full of people. That's
something I'll never forget.
got to see her live after the shoot and I became a huge fan. I listen to Sharon
all of the time and she's now on one of the many playlists that I use when I'm
going to shoot other people. I'm a giant fan now and have been since I
photographed her - she's so awesome, I'm so happy I got the opportunity.
Another thing that attracted me to your
work in particular was that you're shooting the same kind of film and format
that I've been doing more of recently. It's inspiring to see what you're doing
with analog and I connected to that when I saw your work. To me
there's just nothing like it. I shoot with a Yashica Mat or a Rolleiflex,
and I think I tend to get more genuine expressions with those
cameras because people are more relaxed around them than they are with a
giant DSLR lens pointed at their face.
Would you credit some of the expressions
or moods in your photographs to the tool you're using?
it's a huge factor. I mean, it completely changes the picture using the
Hasselblad. I'm using the Hasselblad primarily, and I think that actual film,
aesthetically you can mimic pretty well. So technically the film doesn't seem
as necessary to me as the object of the camera. I think that film provides
this kind of factor to get weird. It's not as perfect as digital, so things
happen. Mistakes can happen and happy mistakes can happen - that's how I even
started shooting the way I do, I had 3200 film that I accidentally overexposed
quite a bit, and I liked the results. That kind of fell into using the film the
way I do - I really love the pop of grain in that film.
have digital cameras because I'm really strict about what I'm gonna get out of
it, you know the digital camera is so important because I know when I get it
and that I've got it, when you have so little time. So having the film be this
kind of organic medium that provides opportunities for mistakes and for
weird stuff is something that I strive for. But what you're talking about
with the physical camera is so important. People completely change when you
take out the old camera, whether they know it or not.
With the Hasselblad you're looking down,
I am - you can put a prism on it, but I'm looking down in the viewfinder.
I think that says a lot about shooting
with cameras like that. When I shoot with the twin reflex, I'm looking down -
so it's almost like in some way you're disconnected from the subject a
bit. You're not looking straight at them, so they let their guard down
easier - it's really interesting to me, the psychology behind that - just
having a different style of camera affects someone's expression...it's very
lot of what I do is about getting people to take me seriously, haha - and you
know that's a lot of our job is to get people to respect the fact that we're
going to try and take a really great picture. The Hasselblad is just one of
those things that allows that to happen easily. Everyone sees the Canon or
Nikon cameras - which are great - but they look at them and they go, "Oh I
know how to use that." They have their own version, a phone or maybe they
have a point and shoot or whatever, but it's so automatic and it's so
acceptable that it feels like the people you’re taking pictures of know how to
use your equipment. But then you break out the old Hasselblad from 1960
something and it's got no electronic parts, it's completely manual, and people
- whether they acknowledge it or not - take you more seriously and take the
process more seriously. Then it becomes something that's a little more elevated
than what they thought they were walking into and that's so important for
You eventually started to photograph some
pretty serious people. Did that just kind of snowball after that first big
shoot? How did those jobs start to come together for you?
mean it was really like opening up the floodgates when I started working at the
very end of 2013. I'm paraphrasing, but you make yourself lucky by working
really, really hard and then when the opportunities
present themselves, you're prepared. So, that's kind of how it happened -
after the Sharon Jones shoot - I met the editor at The New York Times and she
asked me to photograph Mike Meyers, so it wasn't linear, you know? It was more
like things started to click and people saw that I was working, and when people
see that you're working, they ask you to do work for them. And then all of a
sudden I was photographing Billy Joel, and other celebrities which was enough
for people to say, Jesse can handle his own on shoots with these big names and
then I'm getting to do more and more. That's just kind of how it goes…
"YOU MAKE YOURSELF LUCKY BY WORKING REALLY, REALLY HARD"
I think what you said was really important
- especially for people who read this just starting out in photography.
"When people see that you're working, they ask you to do work for them."
It sounds like such an easy concept, but did you do anything in particular
to kind of market yourself to show people you were working - was it work that
was just getting out there on its own, or were you using Instagram and that
kind of thing?
it's Instagram, it's all of the social media things that you can imagine and
then it's also email marketing campaigns, it's everything man...it's gotta
be your life. It's going to industry parties, not because you wanna go make
contacts and get work necessarily, but because it's what you like to do - and
you have other friends that are in the industry and you wanna go hang out with
them and you're talking to people and you're keeping up. You have to be really
social and really enjoy it, but you know...it's immersing yourself, you need to
immerse yourself. Keeping
contacts, building relationships...it can be frustrating, especially in
the beginning because you may not have the right relationships yet,
but all I can say personally, that most of the people I work with and work
for...I just really like them. And most of the people that I don't like, I end
up not working with them as much. So I just started getting friends who are in
the industry, like some of the photo editors at The New York Times and Washington
Post, and people that helped me get advertising gigs. It's very
Do you think New York is the ideal place
for a growing photographer?
York is the only place for me, for taking pictures that I want to take. I don't
think it's the only place if you wanna be a photographer. It's where everything
is, but it's also where all the competition is, so it's extremely
difficult to be here, but this is where it's at.
so many ways to get into it, but for me it worked because I'm a portrait
guy...I love people, I love meeting people, I love taking their picture, I love
having that fifteen minutes with them or however long I get, and I love people
across all mediums - whether it's politics, sports, art, pop culture, literally
anything, they're going to come to New York City - if what they're doing is
important. So that means I'm at the place where I have the most access to the
most people. And that's really it for me.
I wanted to talk to you a bit about light.
I know it isn't something that you focus on a lot necessarily in
interviews, but it is a huge part of our medium. What have you learned about
light since you started taking pictures and how are you using it to create your
learned so much about light - light is one of the reasons why you're drawn to
photography. Light is photography. Even know it's not the number one reason I'm
a photographer - knowing how to light - that's one of the things that makes you
a photographer. It's essential to know how to do and how to do well. It's
essential to understand how light works and how to use it to get to your
learned lighting from assisting, from being in photo school, and then from just
experimenting. That's one of the great things about being an assistant is you
can see other people who are professionals, who are really good at what they
do, and how they tackle the problems with light. I had a really wide-net
lighting education, but I learned the most from Ben Baker, the photographer
that I was first assistant with.
me lighting is a tool and it's a problem that you're solving. It's a tool to
help you tell your story, but it's also a variable that you need to corral,
that you need to utilize in the way you want to use it. I like lighting to be
invisible, I like it to feel like it's not lit. I personally think the hardest
thing to do in lighting is the thing that a photographer like Annie Leibovitz
does so well, which is to make something that is unnaturally lit,
feel naturally lit. Because when you're not thinking about the lighting
and it's not an element that is a forward factor in your photograph, then you
can be thinking about the person more.
That's a great point.
doing everything I can in the technical aspects of my work, to let the
technical aspects blend into the background so you can worry about the
person, what I'm trying to say about that person and who that person
really is. Like you said in the beginning about how you loved that
portrait of Sharon, you didn't even mention the lighting - and that makes me
happy because it isn't about the lighting - it's about Sharon. But the
lighting helps me tell her story, like if I had decided to light her a
different way, the story would be different, so it's just a really
highly malleable, extremely difficult tool to use. I use all Profotostuff, I use primarily circular soft light reflectors that kind of feel
like the sun.
always try to mimic natural lighting indoors or lighting that feels like
light that you could encounter when you're outside...whether that's direct,
shade, or under cloud cover. The book is primarily lit with one light
source and I kind of place it in a way that makes it feel like the subject
is in the shade outdoors.
I didn't have an epiphany until I was in
photo school. It's something that I didn't think about until I was introduced
to it, you know? Once I was aware, I started seeing it everywhere I
went. I think one of the best examples of just seeing light out in the
world is looking at Joel Myerowitz's work. He has such a grasp on style,
aesthetic, composition, and everything in his photographs are just so
beautifully lit. So I think there's a lot to be said about great light, but
there's just so many other elements that come together that make up a
great photograph. I think it helps you tell your story and focus on what's
I look at a picture and I go, "The lighting is really cool in that
picture,” then I'm talking about the lighting and I'd rather talk about the
person. It's really challenging, especially in the age of over-photoshop and
really techy kind of photography, to light something in a way that isn't
visible and still have it look the way that you want it to look.
I'd like to talk about your new book of portraits, Two The Bookand
hear about some of the things that went into it.
have so much respect after doing it, it's a process that takes so much work.
Literally countless hours of multiple humans. I don't know exactly how many
people are involved in that book, but it has got to be a dozen or more
that helped me make - in all objective purposes -a pretty simplistic photo
book. It's so much work, but that being said, it's completely obtainable for
anyone who wants to make a book. I basically felt like I had a solid body of
work to show people and I contacted a friend who I went to college with who is
a book maker, Bonnie Briant, and she ran me through the basics of how much
stuff would cost, how much time it would take, what would be involved, and then
seven or eight months of hard work later, we have our book. I love the
tactile quality of it and how you can literally still smell the ink and you can
feel that it came off this amazing 100 year old press inItaly. We took a lot of time to painstakingly go over every detail of
I think it's a really strong collection,
all the photographs in it work really well together. How did it feel
seeing your work printed for the first time?
was amazing, it's hard to describe. Being a portrait photographer you have this
weird kind of cycle of emotions where you get an opportunity to photograph this
person and then you can't get too excited about it because it might not happen,
things can change very last minute, so you're trying to temper your emotions.
You don't have a lot of reflection or a lot time to really revel in the awesome
process of what you've been able to do.
so the book was a little bit like that, when it was done, we had to sell it and
get it out there...so there wasn't a lot of time for reflection. But I think
now, after I've almost sold out of it and things have kind of slowed down and
it feels like the book is behind me now, as far as the whole life cycle process
goes - it's pretty crazy. It's amazing to be able to sit down and flip through
all this stuff that I've been able to accomplish in the last three years.
I just feel so lucky.
remember being on a New York City bus, and I was going across town to pick up
the unbound pressing of the book. I opened it on the bus and had a pretty cool
moment right there. Every shoot is a massive memory for me, and I had such a
visceral, emotional reaction to all of those days and to all of those people -
it was really special.
I think it's an amazing thing just to be
working as a photographer these days and you should be really proud of that.
Your photos really speak for themselves, that's the reason I'm talking to you
and it's the reason I started doing these interviews - to simply pick the
brains of photographers work that I was drawn to. It's inadvertently given me
new relationships with people that I normally wouldn't have had. Just for the
simple fact that you have a camera can give you opportunities that you wouldn’t
have had otherwise. It’s an incredible thing.
absolutely true, I feel so lucky to just be working, but at the same time if
you push really hard and your work is good, and it's what you really want to
do, then something happens...usually. That's the biggest thing is figuring out
if it's something you really wanna do - thinking about what a photographer's
life is like and then living it are two different things. If you get paid for
itand it's what you really want, there's a
lot of pictures that need to get taken.
Is there a shoot that stands out for
mean...there are so many great ones. Jon Oliver was one of my favorites. He's
just amazing. It felt so natural and we had a really great repore. He reminded
me of some of my college friends - when you’re constantly joking around and
making each other laugh the entire time. It came easy and was enjoyable. Shoots
like these, when you're working hard but you don't feel like it are always so
What's happening with you currently?
still in the throes of getting the book out and it's kind of winding down, but
we may have sent out 20-30 books this week, so it's still a major thing that's
happening in our studio. We just photographed the Morning Joecrew, we photographed Megyn Kelly for the second time - which was super interesting.
She's so sweet and she's really fun to photograph. She's been in the news in
such crazy ways and is going to continue to be. I'm really interested to see
what's going to happen when her contract comes up at Fox. We're just
photographing interesting people and hoping to photograph more.
I really love the authenticity of your
work. It has the full spectrum of technical ability paired with a strong
sense of humanity. I think you're able to capture something really special
each time you go out and shoot just because of who you are as a person. A
portrait (in a lot of ways) is a reflection of our own personality
and inner workings, and I think that shows in your work significantly.
Thanks so much for taking the time to
talk to me today, Jesse.
I can honestly say that I've been wanting to photograph artist Jen Umanfor a little over two years now. Her paintings bring me a lot of joy and she has certainly carved out a place for herself among some of the best artists in the world. I'm so glad that it finally worked out and I'm truly honored that she trusted me to document her. All of these were taken on my Yashica Mat-124 with Ilford Delta 3200 film. Link to her work below, check it out!