Q&A with Advertising & Editorial Photographer JASON MADARA


Jason Madara is a San Francisco-based advertising and editorial photographer who is best known for his trademark cinematic style and for bringing a conceptual and aesthetic sophistication to his images. Represented by Apostrophe, Madara has a roster of regular clients that includes HP, Sprint, Microsoft, Audi, Fast Company, Wired, New York Times magazine, Fortune, Interview and ESPN magazine among others.

Jason and I met several times and spent hours looking at and talking about his work. We had one of the most engaged and inspired conversations I’ve had with a photographer. He  brought equal passion and enthusiasm to each body of work with story after story not only about the images and what went into each shot, but about his inspirations which  all seem to find their way into his work—he scouts locations like the Frank Sinatra house for an HP shoot; Radiohead sets the mood for his night shots and drives decisions about color and light. The conversation would start with Larry Sultan and Vermeer and find its way to his favorite architects, interior design, mid-century furniture, music and film and end up with up with him explaining how he incorporated his love of landscape photography into a shot for Blu-ray of a giant eyeball watching TV.

What emerged was someone totally passionate about the aesthetic and narrative experience and who brings this level of dedication to creating technically perfect and inspired images that are as compelling for the viewer as I imagine they are for him to create.

I so appreciated spending time with Jason and his work and all the time and energy he spent on his interview. A big thank you from POP.

POP: What is your background?

I was born back East and raised in LA by parents working in the film and music industries. The path was there for me if I’d wanted it—I grew up on film sets and had already worked as a PA, camera assistant, location scout and film editor by the time I was in college. I wanted to get out of LA, so I enrolled at Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara as a film major. When the session began, I realized I’d done all of it! It seemed pointless to go to school for three years and not learn anything new. I loved film, visuals and music but in the end I wanted to try something that I wasn’t familiar with.

The film students were required to take a basic still photography class and the turning point came when I saw a 4 x 5 camera. Our first assignment was to photograph the Santa Barbara Mission. I worked with two guys and had such a great time doing it that within two weeks, I’d moved to the still photography department.

I worked in Europe after school and moved to San Francisco in 2000. When I got here, I had no rep, no money, anything. But I had worked hard on my book while I was in Europe and was determined to get an agent. Within two weeks I had a local agent and started working. Initially, I was shooting people and fashion exclusively—no landscape or interiors. I also did a lot of testing and personal work. I was doing anything to build my career and my book.

A couple years later, the work started getting to a place where I felt I was ready to pursue agents in NY. One week after I got home an art director friend in San Francisco suggested I check out Apostrophe. I called Kelly Montez and we clicked right away. I signed with her one week after I got home from my honeymoon six years ago.

POP: Does film have a big influence on how you see and compose still images?

Absolutely. The movies I like all have a similar quality. They’re musically and visually driven, every detail adds an important element to the story and there is lots of drama. It’s the details that make it complete. My favorite directors are David Fincher, Sofia Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson. Punch Drunk Love. Boogie Nights. Magnolia. Fellini’s lighting. Old French silent films.

The movies I like inspire me. I can be feeling flat and then pop in one of these movies and feel inspired— two hours that are completely outside of my life and inspire the hell out of me. I try to make my photographs as inspiring.

To read the full interview, please click here:

POP: I see a lot of Southern California in your work. The sun filled interiors and the cinematic lighting in the nighttime and studio shots and the expansive landscapes.

I grew up with golden light in Malibu going to the beach every day. It’s what I saw every day. I’ve always been inspired by light. Before I even knew it.

POP: Where else do you find inspiration?

I’m inspired by so many different things. From art, architecture and interior design to music and contemporary photography and painting. Just light inspires me. The photographers I love are Philip Lorca de Corcia, Taryn Simon, Larry Sultan, Nadav Kander and of course Julius Schulman.

I come up with ideas based on music. Radiohead has inspired some of my night work. It’s very mellow. I listen to it alone. Sigur Ros as well. I’m by myself when I shoot at night. I wait and wait and just play. Music helps me with the colors I see and the colors I want it to be. Music changes your mood. And the colors depict my mood.

I work hard to incorporate things that I love and it’s always great when I’m hired to shoot in my style and to shoot the things that interest me.

Google for The New York Times

POP: Your style is sometimes described as dark, ominous and moody. Is this how you see the world and your work?

My photography has these elements, but rather than dark or moody I think of it as cinematically dramatic. I look at photography as my escape. I want to change the way I see things. I always want to make them a little bit more interesting, a little bit more ominous, a little bit more magical. I like to alter the reality and give it a little bit more. I use lighting very specifically to create drama and a mood. And for example, the music I gravitate towards is slow and almost depressing, but for me sets a mood. This comes through in my work as an ominous quiet moment.

POP: There’s always an element of tension in your images. Day looks like night. Models are looking out of the frame. An element of emotion.

I try to add drama to bring out the essence of a space or to enhance the experience of the image. At times I tell a story with the drama or tension and at others add what I ‘feel’ is already there.

And yes, a lot of my photos that look like they’re shot at night were actually shot during the day. I recreate night with strobes because the night is different. It’s mysterious and you don’t know what it’s going to give you. It’s one way of adding that tension to the image.

I have to have an element of drama because that makes people wonder. I don’t want an image to be over. I want there to be more. What comes after? What came before? Where are they going? Why are they wearing that? I want people to think and spend time with the images.

POP: You are hired quite often for your style, both by editorial and advertising clients, and to shoot in locations that you love and find inspiring. What is the collaborative process that allows you to have input?

Yes, I’ve been fortunate. I have some great clients. I get called to do technically challenging lighting projects and to bring a certain mood to the project. I’m not the guy they call for a window light portrait although I would love that. The conversation usually goes like this. “We want it to be dramatic, but not too dramatic. We want it to be dark, but not too dark.” I think as a photographer you try to give them who you are, but for your client you back off a little bit and give them options.

And yes, sometimes I am brought in early on and get to scout and select locations, which is amazing. I photographed two projects for HP last year that took me to LA and Palm Springs to shoot in Neutra and Fray homes and the Frank Sinatra house.

For HP, we went to Palm Springs to shoot a collaborative project with the Nice Collective label. We took Nice Collective’s very contemporary designs with references from the 50’s and 60’s and military influences, and threw it back in time by shooting in the Frank Sinatra house and at the airport where I rented a ’62 DC-3. We also shot a ’63 Speedster—my dream car. It required a month of pre-production including location scouting in Palm Springs.

So with this shoot, I got to scout the location and rent a very cool vintage car and airplane and incorporate all the elements I love. It’s my favorite thing in the world. I’m shooting interiors and I’m also incorporating people and landscape. In this shot, there’s a landscape, an interior and a portrait.

Last year I was also commissioned by HP to create a photo library of architecture and interiors. The CD and I scouted and looked at over 100 homes and chose five different homes for five different reasons. We needed one that focused on brilliant light, one on color. We chose the Neutra home in LA because of the color and the Fray home in Palm Springs for the night shots. The CD I work with at the HP agency and I have a great collaborative relationship.

Cookie magazine hired me to bring my approach to shooting a series of treehouses.

This project took me to the next level. This was a major evolution of my work. The whole creative team came from W and they wanted to create a children’s magazine with elevated sensibilities. They pushed me to think outside the box and my style to the next level. I was thinking that if I were a kid, what would make this interesting? I wanted to create a magical and dream-like mood, a fairy tale. I had a vision and it required that I have the lights on stands in the shot to get the quality of light I wanted. I had never approached my photography that way before—most everything I had shot was achieved in-camera, requiring little post-production work. It was incredibly freeing to know that there really were no limitations on what I could do. With this project, I was able to realize my vision for the first time. It was a lot of fun and I was very excited.

I was also nervous because it was challenging and I wanted to make the client happy. I don’t think this feeling ever goes away. I approach each job as if it’s my first job.

I’ve become known for this style, but it’s also been my Achilles heel because once I had the freedom to create drama and a mood, I really embraced it and not everyone wants a dark and moody photographer. With the treehouses in particular, I was trying to create the magical world that children inhabit.

So the next project for Cookie was photographing real children’s rooms and they let me shoot it the way I wanted to which was magical and mysterious. I wanted each room to look like its own little private world. They said ‘make it you. Make it really interesting.’ I put myself in the place of the child and thought about how I would want my teepee to look, for example—I thought I would want my teepee to glow from within and cast shadows on my little figures on the floor….

I was hired by the New York Times magazine for a shoot at Google. They referenced inspirations like Hopper and Vermeer. It set the direction and I had to create beautiful, dramatic light in an office environment.

I’m always trying to change the way a room appears to the eye and make it my own but still do it justice and honor the architect.

POP: With your industrial interiors, you take the opposite approach. You don’t change what’s there with technical lighting. You’re using available light and using long exposures to shift, saturate and enhance the color that’s already there. This comes from the forms themselves, color saturation or any liberties you might take in post with color temperature.

With those projects, I’m like a kid in a candy store! They’re the opposite of the normal interiors. Often, I’m going to a place where I’d never in a million years normally go. I want to start shooting the moment I get in. The site reps always want to give me a tour and I’m thinking ‘don’t give me a tour, don’t give me a tour!’ I’m documenting what’s already there by trying to graphically compose the shot in an interesting way. By shooting long exposures, I’m creating a mood with light and color shifts.

I honestly don’t know what half the stuff I’m shooting actually is. I don’t normally spend a lot of time at Lawrence Livermore, NASA or a Facebook server farm. For me, these are huge, cool graphic structures that I can photograph. Since I don’t really know what’s going on there, I just look at it visually. There are shots I have to get and then I just shoot what looks cool. With all the halogen and fluorescent lights, you get these great colors with the long exposures.

The place tells me how it wants to be shot.

POP: You’re working on a new book. What direction are you taking?

With my new portfolio, I’m pushing who I am as a photographer. It incorporates everything I love about photography—my landscapes, portraits, interiors, still life and aerials. I’m approaching it like I’m designing a coffee table book. It’s a personal approach to how I see design, color and image sequencing. My style has evolved to the point where I feel I can integrate everything into one book.

This portfolio is without a doubt 100% who I am. I’m really passionate about the art of photography. It’s really important to me to love what I do the rest of my life. If I’m enjoying what I do, it tells me I’m on the right path. And if I’m not, then I’m not.

One of my favorite photographers is Nadav Kander. He does what he loves and he’s the most successful commercial photographer on the planet. Everything he does is conceptually brilliant. He’s working with great creative directors. And they’re doing stuff that fits him. And that is the dream. I don’t always get those, but I’m striving to get more of those jobs. For example, New York magazine commissioned me to do a portrait of a group of guys who are supposedly starting the next Facebook. So I pushed the hell out of the color and we made a tech-y and simple group portrait.

POP: What inspires your personal work? For fun, it looks like you hang out of helicopters and bush planes and wander around at night alone.

Is it also an escape? Yes. Is it also therapy? Yes.

The aerials started in Alaska as a personal project. I knew I wanted to be ‘one with nature.’ Every day was float and tundra planes. We had weird weather and at first I was frustrated. I retouched every night and if I saw a certain palette, I just made it a little more vibrant. I noticed that I became less interested in photographing on land because I’d become so enchanted with shooting the aerials.

The weirdest thing inspired me for this. This image reminded me of Georgia O’Keefe. The colors, pattern and the drama. I started looking at the landscape as paintings and stopped caring about the weather and took whatever Alaska had to give me.

My approach is always to control everything and with these photos I had no control. I was in a plane, the weather was what it was and I had a window that was sometimes open and sometimes closed and I just shot. Alaska did exactly what it was supposed to do to me. Within three days, I realized I’m doing the right thing.

The New York From Above series actually was shot from a helicopter. I was harnessed in and hanging outside the helicopter with two cameras around my neck. It was scary. We had both doors off. It was like a roller coaster. In post, I just opened up streets and brought everything else down.

For the nighttime shots, I drive and wander around and take photos of things I like. I don’t get inspired by a lot during the day. I can look at the most boring subject at night and the way the light falls on it inspires me.

You refer to much of your personal work as ‘therapy.’ We don’t always give ourselves permission to simply be creative for the sake of being creative, to just do something because we enjoy it. But this is really the essence of creativity. How is the process for these projects different from your approach to an advertising or editorial job? And do you find that you bring something from this way of shooting to your commercial work?

The personal work definitely keeps me inspired and keeps my creativity alive. In the editorial work I do I have a lot of creative freedom. I’m hired for my style and they expect that I would bring that to the table. The same goes for advertising. But in the advertising work that I do, it’s more of a collaboration since the concept is always thought out prior to the shoot—I’m hired to bring that to life. From time to time this also happens with editorial work as well. But the personal work is completely free, with no restrictions to what I photograph, only I need to understand why I do it.

Smoky Mountains

POP: How has this influenced your commercial or editorial work?

Alaska was great therapy, but I don’t generally apply this to my commercial work. But once I started showing my personal work, people started hiring me to shoot things other than portraits.

ESPN hired me to shoot a landscape. They sent me out to document a place in California where there is an off-road memorial site for eight people killed in a tragic accident. They wanted a beautiful landscape and detail shots. Producer Peter (Scott) and I went together and spent eight hours out on a ten-mile dirt road taking photos in all kinds of light. I was trying to pay tribute to the people who died by capturing the most beautiful light possible. The light is what makes it. I took this shot hundreds of different ways. This landscape is a new style for me: brighter. Midday. This is sand and dust and wind.

With the horse shot I had the lights in frame and the trainer standing two feet from the horse and took it all out in post. It gave me unbelievable freedom.

POP: Great story?

I didn’t have any celebrity shots in my portfolio and it’s difficult to get hired to photograph a celebrity without some examples in your book. It occurred to me that I could photograph impersonators and blur the lines between ‘was it them?’ or ‘was it not?’

What’s interesting is that this was also the beginning of my landscape work. I was shooting the impersonators really wide and at a distance so you couldn’t tell who it really was. I started to realize that I loved composing the landscapes as much as I did the portrait aspect of the photographs.

These two images led me to start shooting landscapes. Arnold Schwarzenneger and Jack Nicholson. There are always those few images that take you to a new place. You either know it then or a few months later you look back and say ‘that’s what made me shoot this.’

Wired hired me for an article on how you can tweet from anywhere. I was starting to get hired for landscape style portraits and I started to incorporate this into my portfolio.

POP: Dream job?

Honestly, bring anything to me. I love the challenge of going to a place and documenting the way I see it. I don’t really care what it is as long as you’re hiring me to show what I really like to do. Give me a campaign for Ligne Roset or Herman Miller, something I love. It can be anything—photographing Arnold Palmer was a dream job because I love the game of golf and having the opportunity to meet and create a portrait of a legend was truly a privilege for me.

The last couple years have taken me so to many different places that any job becomes the dream job simply because you’re creating something. I have thousands of images from my iPhone shooting aerials from flights before I land. I’ve recently started shooting night stuff again. This is Treasure Island. I’d never been there at night. It’s amazing. Shooting trees at night is amazing. It’s still all fun.

POP: If you could decorate a house and then shoot it…

Yes, that would be amazing. I’ve moved beyond mid-century and learned from my wife how to add things in like Japanese or more French and mixing stuff in, to think outside the box.

POP: With a film background, you must be excited about shooting motion?

Because of my film background, I’m taking it very seriously. I’m not mixing it in just to mix it in. I want it to be what my photography is. When I used to make film, I didn’t know who I was. But now 13 years later I know what my style is and I know what I want to do. Right now I’m working on a few film projects.

POP: In your bio, you say that having a family influences everything that you do.

Before having a family, I spent my time however I wanted to. After you’re married you still do the same thing. But once you have a kid, your priorities change and your family means more to you than anything. So now when I shoot it means I am away from my family. So I make sure it’s worth it. I’m much more focused and deliberate because I’m away from my family to do this. I try to do it justice.

POP: What’s next?

I’m working on a new book. Each time my work evolves it’s a different experience. Sometimes you know you’re on the right path and other times you just look back and see how the steps you took led to where you are today, though perhaps not in a linear way. Right now I have no idea if I’m on the right path. I still love what I do, so I think I am.

One Response to “Q&A with Advertising & Editorial Photographer JASON MADARA”

  1. 1 Q&A with Advertising & Editorial Photographer JASON MADARA « J's Photo Blog

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