Photographer’s Q&A – Jon Blacker
Toronto photographer Jon Blacker started in news photography about 20 years ago and now shoots editorial, corporate and commercial photography. He specializes in location portraits with an emphasis on musicians.
His web site is www.jonblacker.com
Toronto rapper, Taylor T, photographed in a 1920s freight elevator in Toronto’s historic Distillery District on February 25, 2012. This image was a last-minute addition at the very end of a session that was otherwise entirely shot on a white seamless. There are two lights behind him, one red gelled on the floor, firing at the back of the elevator, and one bare head hitting the back of his head and a third light in a gridded softbox from camera right. We managed to get six frames before people downstairs started calling for the elevator. (Photo – Jon Blacker/www.jonblacker.com)
What were your first steps in the photo industry?
My father attended Rochester Institute of Technology for photography back in the 1950s and there were always cameras in the house. While he didn’t pursue photography as a career, that was where my interest first started.
I carried around a camera through most of high school and when I was 16, I was offered a paid summer internship at the Mississauga News.
I went to Ryerson, in Toronto, for its photography program but it really didn’t seem to be a good fit for me. I dropped out before the end of first year and was freelancing full time before that summer was over.
What kinds of jobs do you shoot today?
I shoot a lot of portraits and music. While many of my portraits are corporate, fortunately they’re not just headshots. They’re often environmental and are used in publications put out by those clients. For example, I recently shot a portrait for Washington University, in St. Louis, of an alumni here in Toronto.
My music work is generally for the bands or their management teams directly. Whether those images are group or individual portraits or shot during live shows, they end up largely being used for promotion, merchandise, etc.
After years of working in and out of the Toronto news media community, I do miss the challenge of meeting those tighter newspaper and magazine deadlines and I’m still open to picking up editorial jobs. I think it’s widely underappreciated by readers that, as a news photographer, you often need to create a compelling image out of nothing and the luxury of having time to shoot just isn’t there.
Children of Bodom lead guitarist Alexi Leiho photographed at Toronto’s Sound Academy during a live performance on February 26, 2012. Working directly with the band, I was the only photographer permitted to shoot the entire performance and made this image approximately two-thirds of the way through the show. It was later licensed by the band for one of their t-shirts. (Photo – Jon Blacker/www.jonblacker.com)
What one particular assignment still stands out after all these years and why?
I think if I had to pick just one, I think it would be the 1991 MLB All-Star game I shot on assignment for The Sporting News (TSN). Unless you’re a senior shooter at one of the major wires or you’re a staffer at a large daily in the city where the game is happening, it’s not often that you get an opportunity to shoot a major “jewel” event like an all-star game, a Super Bowl or a World Series. For me, to get that call when I was 24-years old was a pretty big deal.
I had shot several jobs for TSN prior to that and it was a huge confidence boost to be trusted shooting that All-Star game. It was also the start of, what ended up being, a long-standing relationship with Rich Pilling who was the photo editor at TSN. Two years later, he moved from St. Louis to New York to start up MLB Photos where he stayed until he retired 19 years later.
The following two years, in ’92 and ’93, on a recommendation from Rich, I worked on the official books of the World Series when the Blue Jays won back-to-back titles. For me, the importance of building solid relationships simply cannot be understated (as you’ll read a little further down).
Over the past 20 years, what are/were the best/worst changes you’ve seen in the photo industry?
Twenty years is a long time to compress but I think if I narrowed it down to the past 10-12 years, my answer is two sides of the same coin: Digital.
On one side of that coin, it’s been a boon for working pros, especially the road warriors who used to have to haul darkrooms and Leaf scanners. Today, photographers can transmit tethered to a cell phone and have images out on the wire or back to their publication before the event is even over.
The other side of that coin is that as technology gets less expensive and more accessible – and I fully appreciate that this has reached cliché status – everyone thinks they’re a photographer. Don’t misunderstand; I think that’s great. As more people take up photography, the better it can be for the craft in general.
The problem is that it begins to lessen the value of professional image creation when some of those new photographers (a) give their images away for free and (b) dilute a professional standard with sub-par images. There is still more than enough work out there to make a decent living. Mercedes doesn’t care that Kia sells low-priced cars. Each market has its pricing threshold. To really succeed, one needs to adapt and, I believe, find a niche. I know several photographers who have been tremendously successful carving out their own market segment.
Slipknot vocalist Corey Taylor photographed in a backstage trailer during the Heavy TO festival at Downsview Park, Toronto, prior to a performance on August 11, 2012. Corey was the final portrait I shot for Musical Ink and was actually photographed a week after my deadline. (Photo – Jon Blacker/www.jonblacker.com)
You just put the finishing touches on your first book, “Musical Ink”, a collection of black-and-white infrared portraits of musicians and the stories behind their tattoos. What inspired you to do Musicial Ink?
Musical Ink is now with my publisher and will be out in May 2013 and I’ve already started working on Volume II.
In 2006, I saw some cool portrait work that Minnesota photographer Tom Dahlin had done with infrared and dramatic lighting of the NBA’s Timberwolves and I filed that away in my mental ‘I-might-use-that-some-day’ folder.
Jump ahead to 2008 where I had been doing a long run of corporate work and wanted to come up with an outlet to reignite a little more creativity. I’ve always been into music and have long loved the art of tattoos. So, I thought a cool project would be to somehow combine the two into something unique. I remembered Tom’s work and had one of my digital bodies converted to shoot IR with an internal filter swap from LifePixel.
A friend of mine has a Toronto band called “Christian D and the Hangovers” and he agreed to be my test subject. With Christian, I refined the technical side to get the look I wanted. From there, it took a ton of legwork via e-mail and phone calls to get rolling. The next three artists I shot for the project were former Van Halen members Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony, and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer Chad Smith. From there, as more artists agreed to participate, based on who else was already on board, the credibility factor grew.
Slayer lead guitarist Kerry King photographed for Musical Ink at the Molson Amphitheatre, in Toronto, prior to a performance on July 29, 2010. Kerry is one of the artists I’ve worked with who has been photographed a lot. He was very aware of where my lighting was and how his positioning would affect my results. I could shoot guys like Kerry every day. (Photo – Jon Blacker/www.jonblacker.com)
What are the best and worst things about photographing musicians?
Most of the musicians I’ve photographed have been in front of a camera many, many times. One of the best things about shooting them is that, because they’ve been photographed so often, they’re usually pretty easy to work with and are generally receptive to my ideas.
I always do my best to shoot fast and get them on and off set as quickly as possible. They’re frequently so surprised when I say, “we’re done” that they proceed to tell me a stories about “this one photographer” who shot their portrait and they just kept shooting long after the artist disengaged.
On the other hand, the narrow window of opportunity that I get with my subjects can be a challenge. We’re usually shooting backstage with my portable studio setup: five speedlights, softboxes, seamless background, etc.
There’s not really a lot of free time for these artists who always have to run off to an interview, get to a sound check or do some other business. So when I’m fortunate to get five minutes to shoot with them, that can sometimes feel like an eternity. But I’ll gladly take whatever few minutes they give me to make their portrait, even when it’s only 82 seconds as it was when I photographed Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister “backstage” in the Oshawa Generals hockey team’s dressing room shower.
Describe a memorable moment from shooting Musical Ink.
One of my more memorable moments working on Musical Ink was right at the beginning. I had made arrangements with his manager to shoot Sammy Hagar at the Toronto Four Seasons Hotel when his then-new band Chickenfoot was in town for a show.
I had asked the manager if there might also be an opportunity to shoot Michael Anthony and Chad Smith at the same time but he never got back to me.
I set up my studio in a hotel suite and was waiting for Sammy to arrive when there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find Michael Anthony standing there wondering if he was in the right place. I told him I didn’t even know who he was. After laughing at the surprised expression on his face, I invited him in. I gave him the rundown of what Musical Ink was all about and we started shooting.
A couple of minutes in, the hotel door opened behind me and someone ran across the room. Before I could turn around, I found myself giving Chad Smith a piggy-back ride with his face right beside mine. I thought he was going to kiss me!
At the time, I was about three months out of knee surgery and all I could think was, “Don’t fall down. Don’t fall down.” Because if I did, I was going to drop Chad and fall forward into Mike.
After I finished shooting Mike’s portrait, he went into the bedroom to record the story of his tattoo – (at the beginning of the project, I just used a tape recorder for interviews. But now, I get the story on video using a Nikon D7000) – and I shot Chad’s portrait. When Mike was done with his story, I sent Chad into the bedroom to record his story. Meanwhile, Mike just walked over and sat on the sofa where he was joined a few minutes later by Chad and they just hung out. Sammy arrived a couple of minutes later and I shot his portrait and recorded his story. It was a little surreal to have those three guys just chilling out in my hotel suite.
Seether vocalist Shaun Morgan photographed at Toronto’s Opera House prior to a show on May 26, 2011. Shaun has to be the most polite “rock star” I’ve ever photographed. This was shot during a post-sound check session and during the five minutes we spent together, he must have thanked me half-a-dozen times for making his portrait. A very class act. (Photo – Jon Blacker/www.jonblacker.com)
Some photographers think that, to get a book published, all they have to do is shoot a bunch of nice pictures and send them off to a publisher. What did you have to do (and perhaps still are doing) to get Musical Ink to become a reality?
Very early in the project, there was a vicious “Catch-22”: before agreeing to take part, artist managers and PR people wanted to know who was going to publish the book and, at the same time, before agreeing to consider the book, publishers wanted to know who was going to be in it.
The ultimate success of this project, starting as a completely unknown entity in the music world at the time, was entirely a result of perseverance. Believing in the project and in my ability to pull it off were key factors. Building relationships with both managers and the individual artists, themselves, often led to them, on my behalf, to ask their friends to sit for me.
Off the top of my head, at least ten artists appear in the book as a direct result of those relationships. In fact, the manager of one of those artists told me, flat out, that his guy would never participate and to stop asking. But another manager, with whom I have created a great relationship, just happened to be a close, personal friend with that particular artist. When I mentioned the artist’s name during a conversation, this manager told me she’d ask the artist herself. I ended up shooting this artist’s portrait at his home in Burbank, California, and after my gear was packed, we spent the afternoon drinking some amazing local craft beer and watching football.
Once I had about a dozen artists photographed, I put together a comprehensive book pitch and sent it off to publishers, beginning with those whose photo books I buy myself.
I sent out about a dozen packages. After being turned down by several, I was approached by one publisher who wanted to pick up Musical Ink. Unfortunately, they required that I shoot at least 50% of the content in colour. While the idea of having a publisher take on my book was enticing, the fact that they wanted to produce their version of my project wasn’t. I turned them down.
Approximately six months after I sent out my first pitch package, I received a phone call from Peter Schiffer of Schiffer Publishing. Peter loved the entire idea of Musical Ink, including it being entirely in black and white. Within a few days, I had a book contract in my hands (which I then sent to a lawyer for review).
Over the course of working on the project and meeting with people along the way, I’ve been fortunate to cultivate some relationships which will see me on several TV and radio shows once the book launches. Several magazines, which plan to feature Musical Ink, have already put in requests for review copies. There is also a dedicated Musical Ink web site, a Twitter feed and a Facebook page that shows a number of portraits that will be appearing in the final book.
Social Distortion’s Mike Ness (left) and Jonny ‘2 Bags’ Wickersham photographed at Toronto’s Sound Academy on October 20, 2012. (Photo – Jon Blacker/www.jonblacker.com)
How do you market your business? What’s the secret to finding new clients?
There really are no secrets. I have a web site that I update when I have new work that I particularly like. But by far, most of my new clients come from existing clients. Networking and building relationships has always been a mainstay of how I work and a satisfied client is going to refer you to a colleague, business associate or friend if they also happen to be looking for a photographer. Each individual industry is actually very small – the music business or commercial real estate, for example – everyone knows everyone. If you’re able to build solid, sincere relationships, word will spread.
What’s the most important business skill that a photographer has to learn?
I think one of the most important points that needs to be recognized is that this is a business. The shooting part of being a photographer is, or at least should be, almost secondary. If you don’t run your business as a business – and that means not shooting for free, charging a rate that covers your true cost of doing business *and* gives you a reasonable profit, and staying on top of your accounts receivable – then you’re simply not going to have a business to worry about.
What’s the silliest photo gadget you ever bought?
I would have to go with a LensBaby Composer. It was a $200-odd impulse purchase that I thought would be cool for an occasional portrait. But I think I used it once then it sat in my office for a year until I sold it.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you about being a photographer?
Shoot what you love. While some avenues in this business will absolutely pay more than others, if you’re not shooting your passion, it will be a job. If you shoot what you love, it will never feel like work.