Creative Photography Path
So I wanted to start out with giving you my story. How I got into photography. My story and I think a lot of artists is a lot of transitions. I started off doing one thing and then became interested in something else. And even to this day, I'm still kind of, I'm a very curious person. So I'm always kind of like, oh, bright lights. And then I'll like go after it. So just to give you a a little context of where I have come from. I thought I would share a little bit with you. I took a photography course in high school. But it was just kind of a class. It was just fun. It was a low pressure class. That was pretty much how I viewed it. And I think I enjoyed it. But I really didn't think much about it. And, as I think about photography in my life, you know, my dad was a hobbyist or enthusiast. And my grandpa was also. They really enjoyed photography. And I think I grew up seeing, probably better than average, family photos and like, you know, beautiful photos of my grandparents and things li...
ke that growing up. And, actually as I look back there was a point recently where I was going through some of my grandpa's photos after he passed away, and I had this weird feeling where I was like, I thought I took the picture. And, it turns out I didn't. But I mean, it was just this weird confusing feeling. And so, I think there's a lot of, I think for all of us there's a lot of subconscious, you know, we pick up on things when we're young. And so I think I picked up on photography, and how they were even composing things and things like that. But, it wasn't until I was in college that I became interested in photography. And still wasn't even photography how we're talking about it today. It was just simply that I wanted to take some pictures of my friends in college. I was having a good time. And I thought, it'd be fun to document a couple memories and someday look back on it and be like, see, you know, your dad did have friends. I was actually a cool person. (laughing) So, when I went home to my parents' home for Christmas one year I brought back my grandpa's old film camera. It was, I think it was a Canon F two. And I was, it was film, so I was buying film and taking pictures. And maybe a year later, I went back home. And, I hadn't shot a lot. But I had shot maybe eight, nine roles of film or something. And I went home. And I told my parents, isn't this cool. I'm taking all these pictures. And they freaked out. And they're like, you need to be paying for school. You can't be paying for film and developing. And so, we had a pretty serious talk. 'Cause school is not cheap. And the consensus was, not on my part but, you need to stop. You can't be doing this anymore. And so I was like okay. I couldn't really argue. My parents were helping pay for college. And so, I had one last roll of film that I had already shot. So I was like, I'll take this in and get it developed. And, I was a bit of a trouble maker growing up. So I think I just had a guilty conscious. And, I also had no patience. Which, in and of itself is not a bad thing, but, I would take my film in to get it developed and it said you can come pick it up the next day at three p.m. And I'd always go in at noon. 'Cause I just couldn't wait. I was like, it might be ready. And I went in at noon to pick it up. And, it wasn't in the bin. And the girl working there was like, what's you're name? And I said John Keatley. And she's like, oh you're John Keatley. And I said yeah. No one has ever known my name. Why would that matter? And she's like, oh the lab manager wants to talk to you. Hold on a second. And I was like, I had to think for a minute. Should I run? (laughing) this is my chance. They have, you know. So I, she came out, and she's like, she's holding these packet of pictures. And she's like, did you take these pictures? And I'm used to like being scolded. And I'm like, oh my gosh. And so, I'm like show me. You know, like, I'm not admitting to anything here until I know what we're talking about. And she started going through the pictures. And she's like, these are really interesting. Have you ever considered being a photographer? And I had no idea what that meant. Like absolutely no idea. I grew up in a town of 5,000 people and we had a newspaper. Probably they don't anymore. But, we had a newspaper. And as far as I knew the editor was also the photographer. And the janitor. It just never crossed my mind that that was a job. So she said, you know, you have a good eye. You should consider being a photographer. And this came at a point in my life where the one question that I was asking myself and anyone else who would listen was, what should I do with my life? I was studying business in college. And I was working at a software company in the marketing department. And the answer I was getting over and over again was, put in your 20 years. And some day you'll get promoted. And you will get to be in charge of something. And there's nothing wrong with that at all. But for me, that is not what I want to do. That's just, I could never sit and focus that long. And, I'm just, I need to move around. And see new things. And go after it. And so, not even knowing what photography was. It was just an exciting opportunity that sounded like maybe it involved some control over my life. And so, I went home, 24 hours after having this conversation with my parents. And I ran through the door, and I was like, I'm gonna be a photographer. (audience laughing) I can't even remember what the response was. I'm sure it was eye rolls. But, I basically went back to college, and just poured myself into photography. I did what it took to get by in class. But pretty much all my time was going into trying to research photography. There was only a blog or two. Blogs were brand new on photography. There was a magazine that I could find here and there. And there was a guy I found out who was a wedding photographer on my campus. And I stalked him. And tried to ask him questions. And, ended up going into the studio he worked at with a friend of mine, and we got jobs assisting for weddings. And that was really exciting for me because they gave us free film and developing. So, you know, we'd shoot and get paid $12 an hour on the weekends. And then, we had free film. And it was a great way to practice. And so, then being the confident, kind of curious person that I am, after I think six months, I was like, I could do this. And I said I wanna be a photographer. I don't wanna assist anymore. And they're like, oh, okay, well, in the summer you can do it. And so I waited until the summer. And I had another meeting. And they said, you're not ready. And I said, I wanna do it right now. I'm not doing assisting anymore. And they said, just wait another year. And I was like, I quit. And so, I did quit. Smart or foolish, who knows. But, I knew that I had to do this. And so I quit. And I was still in college. And it was like, instantly I started getting my friends, again, it goes back to association, what do you shoot? What do you show? How do people think of you? My friends knew I was shooting, or you know, they thought shooting, assisting weddings for this studio. And so, going to a small Christian college, people tend to get married very quickly. And early on, I had a lot of friends that were getting married right out of college. So, I was pretty busy right after I graduated shooting weddings. And, family primarily. But people would ask me, when are you gonna get a job? And I was like, oh I just need to finish up these last few weddings and then I'm gonna look for a real job. And, the weddings just never stopped. They just kind of kept coming in and coming in. And I never had that time to look for a real job. And, I was also just kind of doing whatever I could to find anything that would pay to shoot. You know I would, shoot for my school. And I would shoot families. And shoot small business owners. Whatever I could get my hands on, I would do that. And this went on for about four or five years. And eventually I started kind of feeling restless. I started feeling like I wasn't happy. And it was confusing to me. Because it was like, I have a camera. Usually, you know, you talk to people, and a common response is, as long as I have a camera in my hand I'm having a good time. And I thought, what is wrong with me for not enjoying this. But, I started to discover something called editorial photography. More specifically, for me, stylized editorial portraits. And there was a few people in several magazines that seemed like they were kind of creating these narratives that were not necessarily based in reality but they were telling a story. It seemed like they had something that they were saying and they were expressing. And that really interested me. And so I started kind of shooting on my own. And doing these portraits. Just, pretty much shooting friends. Whatever I could do and try to emulate these things that I saw in, by other photographers that I enjoyed. And eventually I got to a point where I was doing weddings and I was doing editorial. And weddings were about 90% of our income. And editorial was keeping me busy but it wasn't paying a whole lot. And, I actually, just had this rediscovered this recently, but I, this was probably 10 years ago or something, I met up with Chase Jarvis. Who you guys may know through CreativeLive. And he was someone who was really doing great work in the commercial photography. So met with him. And I wanted some quick answers. I wanted some solutions. And I was like, how do I do this right now? And I think he gave me some answers that were thoughtful. But I didn't want to hear it. I was like, I left the meeting mad. I was like, he didn't give me a magic bullet, you know? But one of the things, and I wish I could remember the specifics of the conversation, but I do remember him talking about if you wanna be great at something you've gotta focus on it. And I have always had this deep seeded need to be great. Now, that can be a problem. It's a problem in my marriage. But it's actually serves me in my photography. I believe. And it's what helps drive me, sometimes excessively, to try to push myself. But, it wasn't until several months later I had this realization, I really wanted, I thought, this editorial thing, this feels interesting. This feels like me. And I want to be great at that. I want to at least try. And so, I knew that if I kept doing a couple things I'd just be okay at 'em. And this was also coming at a time where I was starting to kind of for the first time in my career have people complain. I think I was spreading myself a little too thin. People had always been happy with my work. And all of the sudden people were like, why are you taking so long? And you know, this wasn't what we talked about. And stuff. And so, as you can tell, I'm a bit extreme. So now instead of proclaiming something to my parents, I'm talking to my wife. I say, I'm done with weddings. (laughing) Which is not so awesome to hear if that's like 90% of your income. But for me, I was like, we're done. And, a little side note, I get distracted easy, but a little side note. I think this is like an amazing lesson for business. One thing that I had done just before this was to kind of alleviate this stress and frustration I was feeling, one thought that I had was, maybe if I can make a ton of money shooting weddings, maybe if I can be a high-end wedding photographer, maybe that will make me enjoy it more. Maybe then the money will make me happy. And so, I had met a photographer who was working at a really high level shooting weddings and he had hired this wedding consultant. So I hired this consultant. Came over from overseas. It was $1,000 for the day, which is a lot of money. But I thought, okay, this is what's gonna do it for me. It worked for this other guy. So, everything he said, I was like, I am not doing that. That's not what I want my life to look like. But there was one lesson that I will never forget and he said, all right I want you to sell me. Pretend I'm a wedding client. And give me your pitch. Talk to me about why I should hire you and what you sell. So I went through all of the options. I had package A at the top. I had package B in the middle. And there was package C at the bottom. Package A was the cheapest. Package B was the middle. And package C was the most expensive. No one had ever bought package C before. I think it was like, $6500 or something like that. And my thinking was, hey if someone wants to buy it, I'd be thrilled, you know kind of thing. But, inside I was like, no one would probably buy that. That seems crazy. Most people bought package B. Which was like around $4,000 at the time. And so, I gave him the pitch. And I only talked about package B because I kind of believed in it. I felt like, that's maybe what I would, the most I would do. And also that's what everyone else does. And so at the end of the pitch he said, what's your best package? And I was like, well, probably package C. And he's like why? And I said well, it's the most expensive. And he's like, well that doesn't make it better. And I was like, well it comes with, you know, it comes with a bigger book. And it comes with more time. And I have an assistant. And all of this kind of stuff. And he's like, well if it's the best, why didn't you talk about it? And I was like, well, I don't know. That's a good question. And so I had to think about that for a while. So, we talked a little bit about confidence. And selling yourself. Which is, I can't stress enough how important this is. So, when I told my wife we're done with weddings, a compromise was, and also I'm not that bold and confident. I kind of was a little nervous to do it myself. I decided okay, I have three wedding meetings that are already scheduled. They're already in the books. So rather than just cancel and say okay, I'm not doing this anymore. I'll still meet with them. And if they wanna hire me, great. And I mean we could use the money anyway if we're being rationale about this. So, I kept those three meetings. But what I did, because there was also part of me that didn't really wanna do it, I think part of me was trying to scare them away. I switched all the wedding packages. So C at the bottom became A at the top. And then B stayed where it was. And then the cheapest one went to the bottom. And, I doubled all the rates. So, package A was now $15,000. Package B was eight. And so on. And I only talked about the new package A. And I showed, I had a bigger book printed. And, there was also a part of me that like, I wasn't scared anymore. I wasn't desperate to get this client. It was like, you know, I had a little bit of sense of like, if I loose this, I'm not really gonna be upset about it. So I had this newfound confidence and I'd pitch. And I did the next three meetings. And usually, you get one out of three meetings. Or maybe two our of four or something like that. Well, I booked all three at package A for $15,000 each. Which still today I think about that, I'm like, that's crazy. But the only thing that changed. My pictures didn't change. It was the same work I had showed everyone else. The only thing that changed was my confidence, my presentation, of myself and of the work. That's a lesson I constantly refer back to. Again it doesn't matter if you're doing weddings or photography or any kind of business, there is power in confidence. And there is power in knowing what you do and believing in it and just presenting it. And then walking away and not worrying about trying to force someone to make a decision for, you know, if they're gonna hire you or not. And I learned that lesson constantly over and over again. Last week I was in L.A. And we did a casting for a commercial I was directing. And we had, we needed 10 actors. And we had about 175 people come through throughout the whole day to audition. And auditioning is like a brutal grind. You come in. You say hi. Say your name. You know, we take pictures of you. And then you act. And then you leave. And the thing is, you know, we had to pick 10. And there was probably 15 or that would have done a great job. But, it's not up to them to convince me to hire them. And, the people I picked, it's not like they were the best people. It was just they were the people that made sense for me. Other people would have made sense for you. Or someone else, you know. And so, that's so far out of our control, it's pointless to try to control that or worry about it. There's nothing good that can come from that. So, anyway, we got these three. And then I did cut off weddings. And that money was instrumental in helping us get by. And so, for the next several years I grew my editorial business. And started to kind of dabble in commercial photography. And then 2009 came along. And, out of the blue. Well not, I mean, the phone stopped ringing basically. And, this was, I don't know what you guys were doing in 2009, but when the economy started really going downhill fast. And, it started getting, it started getting scarier and scarier. And my wife and I would go on walks by our house. And I just, I remember, every night, this was before we had kids so we could go on a walk every night, the conversations would get heavier and heavier. When, you know, what are we gonna do? And, what are you doing? And when are you gonna think about getting a job? And it was like, excuse me, I have a job. And then like, when are you gonna fill out a resume? And, that was a terrifying time. To kind of realize, wow, this, maybe this is out of my control. Maybe this isn't gonna work. And, one thing that happened was, after nine months of literally not having a job, and we had gone from thankfully that wedding buffer and other jobs we had done over the years, to very little money in the bank account. I was filling out a resume for the first time in my life and, I got a call out of the blue, from someone. And asked if I wanted to shoot a book cover of a politician in Alaska. So if you think about 2009. It was oh gosh, I know who that is. Regardless of your politics, that's kind of a big deal. And so, I had this opportunity to bid on this job. And it started off, I was way over my head. I put in editorial numbers, which are very different from commercial numbers. And thankfully because of a series of events, I got a second chance to bid on the job. And it was kind of like, wink, wink, you're not doing this very well. So at that point I realized I need help. And so again, I talked earlier about sometimes the difference between doing something and not, is information. And I felt like I had the confidence to do the job. But I didn't know how this world worked. And so, a friend of mine now, and my favorite photographer Chris Buck, who I had recently met back then, he was kind enough to sit down with me and go over commercial bidding with me. And that job was a huge job. It was, not saying this to like brag, but it was, ended up being a six figure job, which was, by far I think the biggest thing I had done before that was maybe in the 10s or 20s. But it came when we literally had like $500 in the bank. And so, that job really saved my career. And turned things around. And taught me what the commercial industry is like. Again, it was not, it's not something that people are even today talking about. I feel like there's a lot of things that's like, where I'm doing fine, and you worry about yourself kind of thing. But I, that's why I think this is so important, because that really changed my life, that information that I was given. So, from then, I was still kind of editorial. But as I started doing more and more editorial. And when I say editorial, sorry, really that means shooting for magazines or newspapers. But editorial tends to be you're documenting something. It doesn't mean, these were editorial also. You can still affect something. But you're working with reality. You're working with oftentimes low budgets and things like that. And now, I found myself starting to get a little frustrated also because I started feeling like I had something even more to say. I felt like originally I had something to say in terms of wanting to do portraits. Now I felt like I had something more to say. And again, I still didn't know what it was. But, I started discovering advertising and realizing there's bigger budgets. And I think I came at it maybe with the wrong mindset. But I thought, well bigger budgets in advertising, maybe that means you have more control. You can do more at least. Or you can afford more. And some of that's true but there's just as many complications and roadblocks as working in advertising. But, in advertising you certainly do have more control. You can build a set. You can decide who's in the picture. It's not just well the assignment's the person that owns this coffee shop. You don't get to go, I like that coffee shop, but what if we put someone else in instead of the guy that owns it? 'Cause he's really you know not my type or whatever. So I like that idea of kind of starting to take more control and so I got into advertising. Which is now what I do today. And what I love. And even more recently, I've started moving into fine art. The difference now is I'm not trying to phase out advertising like maybe in the past where I was trying to phase out weddings. But, my current path is advertising, which I love because I love working with teams. I like collaborating. I like working in pop culture. And working with themes that are relevant in society. Because often times, companies or teams are tying to connect with people over what's happening. So I enjoy that. But I also have these personal ideas that I feel really, I feel driven and compelled to explore for myself and create. And so, fine art is a way for me to explore that as well. And I find that the two balance each other out. So, that is my long winded story of kind of where I've come from. Again, maybe some of this sounds familiar. But, hopefully that gives you a little bit of perspective on where I'm coming from. And again, a lot of this stuff that I'm talking about this is my perspective. I'm a control freak. I like to have things done a certain way. I like to, you know, make sure that everything is exactly as it is in my head. You might like things to be a little more free and stuff. So there's no right or wrong answer. Ultimately, it needs to come from you. It needs to come from who you are. And if you can justify a decision because it resonates with who you are, then no explanation needed. That's the most important thing. But I will, but when we do talk about controlling your path and stuff like that, whether you're a control freak or not, those are the kinds of things that you do need to control. You do need to make sure that, if you're loose and free, do it when you're shooting. But in terms of content and what you're creating, that's something that you do need to think about being in control of. Any questions before, before we jump into personal work? Yes.
So, a question had come in about asking if you could elaborate on sort of that concept of being specialized, but not getting stuck in a rut?
Oh. I could talk a long time about that. (audience laughing) I think, when you first hear that concept, at least for me, it's, kind of scary because you don't start thinking about the possibilities of specializing. You start thinking about all of those opportunities you might miss out on. And that's just, that's fear based. And, that's not gonna do you any good. So you have to get that out of your head. Specializing again, there's great benefit in being known for one thing. And being an expert. There's definitely benefit on being an expert in something. And so, it sounds like it's limiting. But, you know, I have to be careful, I don't wanna say names or throw anyone under a bus, but there's certain artists that I think of all the time who I don't particularly like their style. But what they do is very obscure or out there. And if you had, if you image them earlier on, I wish I could just say, if you imagine them early on in their career, and they said hey I wanna do this weird crazy thing, no one would have told them that's a great idea. You know, they would have said, that's weird. I've never seen that before. But usually if someone says I've never seen that before that's actually a good thing. Because that means it's gonna be unique. If someone says, oh yeah, everyone's doing that. That's a great idea. You're probably on the wrong path. Or it's gonna be really difficult. I don't know. Am I getting distracted? Is that getting at the question? But yeah, I mean specializing again it goes back to you won't appeal to everyone. But I think we all know that. You can't be everything to everyone. But when someone does need one particular thing be that person who they think of first for that one particular thing. There was times when I started where people said you can't do celebrity portraits and live in Seattle. And certainly if I lived in L.A. or New York I know I would do more. But I'm happy and content with the amount that I get living here. It was a decision that was important to me so I made it. And it works out. It's fine. There's gonna be people all the time that tell you you can or can't do these things. Or that's not how other people do it or whatever. But you've gotta figure out what it is that you wanna do, and become an expert at that.