Jessica is a model-turned-photographer who has been on both sides of the lens. Have you ever considered either of the paths or making a change as well? Check out her story below.
Say hello to Jessica:
Where are you from? Where have you been?
I am from Boulder, CO – but surprisingly, I don’t really like snow.
I was a fortunate kid because I was allowed to tag along on my mom’s business trips all across the world. I’ve been to 4 of the 7 continents, with Asia next on the bucket list.
What’s your favorite place in the world?
I have three favorite places: my hometown of Boulder, CO; my childhood summer home in Garden City, SC; and, New Zealand.
The first two cities, to me, represent safety, pure childish happiness, and easier times. New Zealand is a whole different story. There’s a place at the northernmost point of the North Island called Cape Reinga. After a walk up a rolling hill, the view opens up to the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean, which visibly clash together. I’m not a religious person, but experiencing that was one of the most profound moments of my life. NZ is an incredible country and I only hope I can return.
Although I live in NYC, I can’t say with certainty that it’s my favorite place. I miss the nature!
What’s on your “bucket list” of ideas to create?
I have this recurring image in my head, initially sprouted from a road trip across the South Island of New Zealand and a few visits to the Pacific Northwest. I grew up in nature as an only child, and spent most of my time emerged in the forest. I’m greatly inspired by surreal fairy tale scenes, like Oleg Oprisco’s work. It hasn’t come to full mental fruition yet, but when I get the perfect model and garments, I will absolutely make this on-location concept happen.
How would you describe your visual style?
Currently, my style is soft and feminine. I think it’s an introspective approach to understanding the past year of my personal life. It’s also about creating work that I want to create – not necessarily work that others expect me to create. For a long time, I was so concerned with what my peers or professors wanted to see, that I strayed from what I love. At the risk of sounding like a broken, lofty record, I’ve begun to understand the importance of finding a style that finally aligns with my own subjective opinion of beauty.
How do you find your inspiration?
A go-to, singular source hasn’t presented itself to me yet. Of course, the Internet and social media is hyper-saturated with imagery, so it’s easy to get lost in it. There are physical, literal inspirations – like a garment inspiring a shoot, or a model’s features, or even a location.
My background in piano has provided me with an incredibly emotional attachment to music. It would be a gross hyperbole to say “music inspires me”, but from time to time, a certain piece will open up a mental place otherwise closed off. In an abstract sense, a song or composition can certainly lead me in the right direction with mood, emotion, and color choice. Recently I’ve been really into Radiohead’s “A Moon Shaped Pool”, Agnes Obel, and Lo-Fang.
Do you get photographer’s block? If so, how do you overcome that?
Yes, of course, I’d be an anomaly if I didn’t! I’m naturally more inclined to solitude and introversion, which I use to my advantage when I’ve come to a creative or mental block. Reading, biking, and walking around the city have been helpful solutions. Essentially, anything that exposes me to things outside of my normal routine. Although being a creature of habit has its benefits, straying from the mundane day-to-day can be extraordinarily helpful for anyone stuck in a rut.
Was there a particular image or photographer who inspired you to pursue this path in the arts?
I don’t think there was an “ah-ha” moment in my life where an individual photo or artist determined my path. I’ve been an artistic person since I was cognizant, and shooting since I figured out the family Polaroid. In secondary school, I carried a cute purple point-and-shoot with me everywhere and drove my friends crazy by taking photos all the time. I guess that was the time when I realized photography was where I belong.
Henri Cartier-Bresson has some remarkable articles and thoughts on photography. But, I discovered him after I chose photography. His theories on the Decisive Moment are so important, especially in an age where digital shots are basically free (after you buy the hardware, of course!). With digital photography, it’s very easy to shoot bursts and simply choose “the one” out of the bunch. Slow down and compose, really think about what you’re shooting and why.
Have you ever considered what career path you would’ve pursued had you not chosen photography?
I probably would have gone into Biology or Chemical Engineering somehow, possibly down a path similar to my mother’s. She has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Chemistry and got me excited about my high school biology class. I find microbiology fascinating, and also had a great appreciation for my film photography classes in high school and university. The way that chemicals, silver, and emulsifier interact is a thing of beauty.
Tell us about your career. How did you get into it? – we noticed that you’re a model-turned-photographer, what’s your story?
I went to the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) and interned here in NYC through the University’s program. After graduating, I promptly moved to NYC and began to work in the photo world at Aubri Balk, Inc., an agency that reps photoshoot stylists. From there, I moved to the studio and assisting world, and haven’t left!
When I was young, like 3 or 4, it was suggested to my parents that I try out child modeling. Then the JonBenet Ramsey mystery happened and nipped that in the bud. Fast forward to high school, and I decided to try out modeling of my own accord. It was exciting and fun at first. A high school girl’s dream of playing dress up and booking jobs… but it had a very negative effect on my mental health. I became obsessed with things that don’t really matter and lost sight of what was truly important in my life. I kept it up through university, but decided to dedicate my time to being behind the camera and putting my own work first. I still very much enjoy posing for my photo and styling friends from time to time, but I won’t be making a solid career of it.
What types of photography do you do?
I professionally shoot fashion-based portraits and lifestyle… I guess that’s what you’d call it. That’s the stuff that makes it to social media and website. My “other book” is the flipside of my work, mainly working with film and focusing on botanicals. It may sound cliche, but I really do love soft and beautiful light. Over the past few years or so, a great appreciation for plants and flowers has taken over my work. Shooting the botanicals and models that I work with both bring me happiness, so it’s hard to pick a favorite.
What was the moment you decided to become a model? …and then a photographer?
Sophomore year in high school, I looked up to a junior who was brilliant, kind, and a professional model. She and my friends were encouraging, and I went to an agency in Denver for an open call. It was brutal, and I was rejected. Nonetheless, I stuck to it and ended up with an agency in Boulder, then Savannah. Shoots and shows introduced me to the fashion world, especially at SCAD.
While in college, I faced an issue with deciding what I truly wanted to follow. I committed to a shoot with a great designer, but had my own photographic work to finish. After double-booking myself multiple times, prioritizing my work became increasingly important. Learning to say no to things was very challenging.
What insights do you have from being on both sides of the camera?
Learn how to coach models! Take a breath, think about what is needed, and deliver instructions with a smile. I’m directionally-challenged, and learning to articulate right or left (as opposed to camera right and left), tilt or turn, clockwise or counterclockwise has helped me immensely.
I’ve modeled for nice and direct photographers who can express what they are going for, and I’ve modeled for frustrated photographers who spoke in anger. It’s easy to take out frustration on your team – but DON’T! The model and styling team will feel uncomfortable, and if the model is uneasy, it will come across in her facial expression and body language.
What is the strangest situation you’ve ever faced as a photographer?
Ha – okay, this isn’t a great story, but it was pretty odd.
I was working for a studio in Manhattan, and a photo assistant came in for some thin material, like a thread. He asked if we had fishing line, and I gave him our roll. It was too thick, so he received some sewing thread too.
About five minutes later, he returned from the set and said the photographer required something even thinner. As a joke, I said, “I’ve got my hair?”.
At first, he was taken aback… but then the light bulb lit up and he said it would be perfect. So, he jogged back to his set with a strand of my hair. Turns out they were suspending liquid and needed a foundation to allow the liquid to drip. I later joked to him that I should be paid as a hair model… – too bad that didn’t happen too!
What has been your biggest setback as a photographer?
This industry is wildly popular, and mobile photography certainly changed the landscape. The expectation that artists will work for a nominal fee or for free is insane! Freelance work is very challenging because asking for a fair price likely puts a photographer in a more “expensive” echelon.
Of the photos you’ve taken, which three are your favorite?
Photography is competitive. How do you stand out?
I try my best to be a genuinely nice person. In a highly competitive and sometimes harsh industry, being kind and attentive goes unbelievably far. I am far from irreplaceable when it comes to people who can create photos, but personality is a far more unique trait. Use it wisely!
What’s the best advice you can think of for someone just starting in photography?
Shoot what makes you happy and get good at it. That’s what counts – being satisfied with your work and knowing that you’ve put in your 100% best. There’s a saying that I repeat to myself over and over when I’m working: Good enough is never good enough. If I’m shooting and the exposure is “good enough” – no, it isn’t. Get it right on camera! If I’m retouching and the file is “good enough” – I go back and refine until it’s where it needs to be.
Keep a positive attitude and understand that there will be incredibly wonderful days and days that will make you want to start everything over. It’s what you decide to do with those days that determine your path.
What was your most memorable photoshoot?
(Ha, mom – skip this answer!)
I was a junior in college. It was the night before a huge shoot I had produced and booked – a final project involving something like ten people. Those were considered massive to students then. My good friend and roommate at the time had invited two boys to hang out and party with us in our apartment. We all stayed up until 6 AM, talking and sharing stories, and consumed far too much beer. Our guests left only when we noticed the sun was coming up – my call time was 8 AM.
My friend and I crashed for two hours, and I dizzily walked out into the world to shoot my cousin’s senior collection. Of course I was a little more loquacious than usual on set, I can thank my good friend Heineken for that. One of the models rolled up thirty minutes late, and requested the music to be lowered, in addition to Advil and a glass of water. Apparently her night was similar to mine!
The shots are great and the team of students was wonderful. I couldn’t be happier with the photos, and my cousin and I still laugh about attempting to finagle furniture.
What’s a deal breaker for you when deciding to do a shoot?
Flakiness. When people go back and forth confirming and releasing, or being unresponsive, it makes the production a much more stressful process. Understandably, some things have to be rescheduled. But, at a certain point, I’m turned off and move on.
What are 3 tips you have for aspiring models?
Similar to three tips for photographers… I’d say:
1. Stick to it and be persistent,
2. Surround yourself with uplifting and supportive people, and
3. Create what you love!
To be persistent means continuing going to castings, over and over – professional models go to castings WAY more than you’d expect. Continue to be a healthy and happy version of yourself, and don’t get too caught up in what you’re “supposed” to be. Reach out to photographers or stylists or even other models, it’s amazing what a short, nice email can do!
Surround yourself with people you look up to, not because of their job or possessions, but because of how they treat others and act in tough times. Find people that believe in you and your work, then believe in them and their work in return.
Of course, not all soul-feeding projects pay rent and you’ll have to take jobs for the paycheck, but don’t ever get sucked into it. Take test shots with great teams as often as you can, plan your own concepts or shoots.
What’s one post-processing tip you’d like to share with other photographers?
It’s basic, and I’m sure some pro photographers out there will scoff, and that’s okay – but, I always try to do lens corrections. I shoot regularly with a 50m and a 35mm lens, and the corrections can totally change a model’s facial structure. It’s a basic feature in Lightroom and Photoshop, check it out.
Also, become familiar with layer masks if you aren’t already. It’s a non-destructive way to affect pixel transparency in a layer. Muy bueno.
What is your most life-changing event?
Moving to NYC, as cliché as it sounds. Learning to be assertive, succinct, and efficient isn’t a choice. New Yorkers don’t care for slow or unproductive processes. The city has changed how I work, how I think, and definitely how I walk 🙂
What fashion trend do you wish would come back?
I love my mom’s dresses from the 60s. They are beautifully made and last forever. And have fun colors!
For anyone that wants to get in touch with Jessica, here’s some contact information:
Jessica, we are really glad you entered our photo contest and thank you for sharing your story!