All images © Jesse Dittmar
Last 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?
That 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 so loud.
The 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.
I 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.
I 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?
Oh 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.
I 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, right?
Yeah, 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 interesting.
A 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 us.
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?
I 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?
Yeah 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 collaborative.
Do you think New York is the ideal place for a growing photographer?
New 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.
There's 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 work?
I've 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 desired photograph.
I 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.
To 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.
I'm 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 Profoto stuff, I use primarily circular soft light reflectors that kind of feel like the sun.
I 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 important.
Whenever 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 Book and hear about some of the things that went into it.
I 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 in Italy. We took a lot of time to painstakingly go over every detail of the book.
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?
It 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.
And 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.
I 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.
It's 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 it and 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 you?
I 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 much fun.
What's happening with you currently?
We're 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 Joe crew, 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.
Thank you Jamie! If you’re ever in New York, come by and say hello!
Check out more of Jesse's work here: www.jessedittmar.com
Purchase photo book here: www.jessedittmar.com/two-the-book
Check out more of Jesse's work here: www.jessedittmar.com
Purchase photo book here: www.jessedittmar.com/two-the-book