Q&A with Editorial and Fine Art Photographer JONATHAN SAUNDERS


Jonathan Saunders is an editorial portrait photographer and fine artist referred to me by photographer Timothy Archibald. Well known for his portraits of notable business and entertainment personalities for Texas Monthly, Time, Barron’s, People, Forbes, Fortune, Bloomberg, Money, FSB, MSNBC online and Business Week among others, he is perhaps equally well known for his personal work which has a devoted following and, on his website, is the section where one lands first.

With each interview, I learn to look at the world in a new way and to think more deeply about how we see, to recognize nuances in scale, light, and expression and to feel my way into a photograph to unearth from where the photographer made the image. In the stories that Saunders tells, one is taken quickly from the familiar to the fathoms, as if walking into the ocean and suddenly dropping off a sand ledge. And with his interview, I found myself dropped into the creative depths where the transcendent lives alongside the routine and the willingness to have one’s heart broken open by the disorienting sadness of love lost or the circumstances of a stranger carry equal weight.

January 25, 2010 – 11:00:21 PM | January 26, 2010 – 7:33:30 PM

This is the past two train rides I have been on. Both of these rides, this particular piece of music was again playing in my headphones while I sat there alone. Over and over and over it played and I was not feeling the comfort I once did within it and I was listening in a longing to feel this comfort once again.

I boarded these trains, sat down and only then noticed what was taking place directly in front of me and on each occasion, it was this same thing. Only I could see and hear these things together in this way: over and over and only inside my own head.

I also try to surface the thread that runs through their personal and commercial work, the current that defines who the artist is and how they bridge the two worlds. Jonathan was very clear that his personal and commercial photography are two distinct bodies of work. Throughout his work though, I found the heart and eye of a poet and a deep love for image making matched by a strength and vulnerability that enables him to walk into a relative stranger’s space and capture a compelling portrait of them in sometimes 15 minutes or less with the immediacy that connects with readers and drives newsstand sales.

Bill Gates for TIME

This is a long interview that has been months in the making, but I had a lot of questions and Jonathan brought the same fine-tuned attention to his answers as he does to his work and art. And he tells a great story. Thank you to Jonathan for all his time and work on this. I’ve included a lot of images, but it just scratches the surface. To see more, I would recommend setting aside some time on a weekend morning for going through his site, jumping from story to story with the same sense of discovery he brings to creating it…and be sure not to miss his bio.

I had been waiting for it to happen. Then it did. Someone did, it was not me. They took you and put you in the grass, this yard off to the side, out of the way. This someone cared enough about you for at least that. Then, over time, you were eaten by one after another that fought over you, sought you out as their source then moved on while countless more kept feeding. I don’t know who you were, but I can say with some certainty, you were once mine and that I saw you like no one else ever had or will or could. You were not my source and it never occurred to me to eat you like this or leave you like this, yet.

I can still taste your scent and I cannot bury you here.

[Where I lived in Texas was very suburban yet had deer running around more than children. These deer became very unique to me and very representative of many things in my life as well as one person in particular. I had grown up visiting this neighborhood and always been indifferent and removed from connecting to these deer. Now that I was staying here for awhile, I came to see the same ones over and over as well as slowly becoming connected in deeper metaphors. Any time I would see them, I would make a photograph, this became like a law. Let the food I was returning with spoil, let me be late for a meeting, photograph the deer. I never sought them out, I let them find me, even when I no longer wanted to see them or when I really needed to, there they were. In all that time I was there, in a very busy area, only this one was hit by a car. Through a process of elimination, I now even know which specific deer this once was.]

POP: What is your background? Fine art, commercial or both?

Well I got a camera for my 16th birthday after my father found that I had secretly been making silly pictures of my face with his camera when he developed the one roll that had spent months in this camera developed. A few holiday snaps and the rest was all me making faces. He didn’t think it was as funny as I did, so I got my own camera for my birthday that year. The card literally said, “Now you can take all the damn pictures of yourself you want.” So I did.

I was in the middle of an eight-month stretch on crutches so spent a lot of time in the library at school reading American Photo magazine, how-to books on photography and photographer monographs, book by book, shelf by shelf, down the photo section. My senior year of high school I finally enrolled in photo classes and found I had a good technical head start. I was then able to intern at a commercial studio instead of attending high school which was invaluable. I went from reading books and fumbling with my camera on my own to assisting national ad campaigns when I was 17.

You Look Like Me When I Was You Before I Became Me

[Before I got hurt in high school and became unable to join the military, I was JROTC and dreamed of a military academy attendance and a career in the military. I wanted to fly. I was JROTC in Texas and now this is me photographing JROTC at an air show, in Texas. I had gone for many other things, but finding this, seeing this, this day in the fall of 2010 was just more than I could handle. I had received some personally devastating news shortly before and this all tied together visually with what was in front of me. I couldn’t stop making photographs, there were too many, too fast. I got overwhelmed and upset at one point during these and just quit. I walked to my car with a severe sunburn and dehydrated. I don’t remember driving to where I stay that day or how I made it.

I had started the day to photograph just a few planes and ended up on three different flights. A vintage T-6 called Miss Texas, a vintage B-25 Bomber and a ride with the Golden Knights Parachute Team who at one point in my life, I had wanted to be.]

All along, I kept reading that many I admired went to the Rochester Institute of Technology so when it came time to find a college, I applied to many but chose RIT. At the time, it was very divided, photojournalism, advertising or fine art. One had to choose and that was confusing for me as I enjoyed it all. And really at the end off the day, I just wanted to make my own photographs—the specific career within photography seemed secondary. So I blew off the curriculum and just class surfed.

During this time I also got accepted to and attended the Eddie Adams Workshop, I was only 20. Here I was meeting with and listening to the very photographers that I had just read about shortly before. All because I submitted twenty images someone important found interesting enough to accept me. While there, I won one of the assignment awards. I still wish I could go every year.

I got back to RIT and it felt small and limited, so I just hibernated and printed my own work all the time while class surfing until money ran out. I left RIT before finishing the degree. Everyone was going to NYC or LA and neither felt right for me. I chose San Francisco randomly as I knew nobody, had no connections and wanted to build myself up on my own. I got to SF and used a Communication Arts Photo Annual to find Bay Area photographers to assist. For two years I assisted a small handful of editorial photographers who were far too nice to me and with whom I am still friends today. I would go for walks and just photograph. I lived in 5-6 places in those two years and had a couple hundred rolls of film I couldn’t afford to develop. I kept a mini-fridge full of it all for that ever looming ‘someday’ when I could deal with it all. I also once got shipped 50lbs of outdated expired film an assistant friend in NYC was told to throw out. That helped and also changed my life in some ways as it was free to shoot, even if it was cross-processed so I could print it out myself later in life.

During this time, about a year into SF, I did a blind drop at the LA Times Magazine. I picked up my book the next day and it didn’t look touched. A week later however I got a call to photograph Francis Ford Coppola at his vineyard for the cover. I owned no gear, had never been paid to make a photograph before and had shown what was essentially a documentary photography portfolio. A friend I assisted loaned me all his gear and everything that could happen on a shoot happened. The story of this assignment and how it played out could be its own novel. It was my first paid shoot, my first time using a light on a stand for a portrait, my first a lot of things. At the end of the day however, I had the cover and the inside spread and a year later, one image I made of Coppola that day would be a full page in the Communication Arts Photography Annual. I did two more covers for the LA Times before I left SF about a year later. Short of one other job I did for USA Today, documenting the winery business from predawn to dusk in one day, I was still assisting and photographing whatever my life was all along as well, throwing the undeveloped film in the fridge.

Francis Ford Coppola for LA Times Magazine

At this point, I re-enrolled back at RIT and went back for a summer independent study with an awesome professor so I could do nothing but dive into all that undeveloped film. I printed from 8am-9pm for almost 10 weeks straight and burned up all my money and credit and didn’t even get through it all. I still have handfuls of film from CA unedited or scanned or really dealt with.

After this, I went to NY and through a photo editor friend started shooting portraits. I feel like it all found me and I liked it that way. I never sought out to be a magazine photographer. I also didn’t really say no to anything. I just needed and wanted to work. Then it guided itself. Most magazines I worked for never saw my portfolio until websites became the norm. New clients came from PE’s that moved around from magazines to magazines, saw or used my stock or that somehow came across me. I really enjoy shooting people in the news or people of remarkable accomplishment. The randomness of how it works is an incredible joy. I never stopped photographing for myself or making things for me then or now, but there became a really big difference in the type of work I would get hired to make and what I did for me. I actually really liked this too. They are different beasts and tasks entirely, sometimes they overlap, some times they don’t so much as it’s the nature of the assignment or situation. I like this too and both are still parts of me.

Someday soon I hope to pursue an MFA so I can teach and not too long ago was awarded a BFA by RIT based on Merit (and a check). Frankly however, the study has never stopped. I still go book by book or site by site. I adore the constant learning and inspiration. That part has always felt the same kind of good, all along.

George Carlin for TIME

POP: You still shoot almost portraits exclusively. Have you always had an interest in people?

When I started, my portfolio was all large event coverage (marches on Washington, protests, etc.) along with some candid family moments and one documentary of an abandoned hospital with no photographs of people. I still have my original portfolio intact. But I got hired to make portraits and that just snowballed and was what I was known for and asked to do. I personally just love photographing. Assignment photography is mostly about people. Formal portraits were 99% of assignments I got and those seem to follow the traditional editorial script. Arrive 1-2 hours early, find a shot, set up, shoot then get the take in as fast as possible.

The nature of my clients (almost all news magazines and business magazines) and subjects meant that I never got to meet or sometimes even see them in person for more than a hello before I had to get ready for the 5-20 minutes I was allowed to actually shoot. So often, it was try to build one or two portrait sets or spots then use the time I had with my subjects as efficiently as possible for as much as possible. I read stories of other photographers that get all kinds of time or have meetings first where giant ideas and plans are discussed. But I read those and think I must be in a different profession as that is just not how my assignments are for the most part.

Tiffany Nicole | Awaiting Return of Imprisoned Husband

I am never given set budgets or allowed the funds for large crews, pre-scouts or even hair or make up. Sometimes it was frustrating but I enjoy being a one-man show; an assistant and the subject, let’s go make something. Here’s the time, here’s the place, here’s the name, make a photograph happen out of thin air. Occasionally on assignments that mean a great deal to me personally, mean more to me than the clients budget even allows or when I could, I would go early or if possible the day before on my own, unpaid, because that is what I had to do. Sometimes I would rent more gear than budget allowed or do things that may mean I made no profit at all, but I had to get it done how I was comfortable tackling the shoot.

Often, it’s a battle between the practical realities of business and what my brain or heart desires. But yes, I like making portraits very much. It’s a challenge and always gets my heart racing for the right reasons. I am trying to do more live coverage of situations or events combined with portraits if it fits the story or happening. This seems to be trickier than it should be and I really cannot see why. Images have never been more in demand or desired, yet there is a vacuum of lacking funds, lacking permissions and short sighted ambitions. The world is so wonderful and I don’t want to miss anything more. I just want to go make things. Today.

POP: Portrait photographers whose work inspires you or whom you admire?

Way back in high school I used to look at a lot of fashion magazines. They were using the most photography and many times, they were the few magazines that were pushing against the norm. They are still some of my favorite to seek out. I became instantly amazed by Raymond Meier and Richard Burbridge and Hiro before them. Burbridge’s portraits always sorta got under my skin a good way and he was such a good technician, it was hard to not be impressed. Then with Meier, it was also just how consistently amazing he was no matter what he shot, not just visually but how flawless the craft was. The what didn’t matter—shoes, man, woman, purse, house, solo portrait, group, it was always solid and perfectly executed every time.

Then a few years after I found him, I got to go on a tour of his studio. The studio was super clean and sparse and only what was needed was readily on hand. He picked up one small light and said you can shoot a whole job with this, let it flare the lens, point it into the lens, who cares, just know what it does and how to use what it does for your photograph. At one point, we walked by his desk and on his desk was a giant calendar that had almost nothing on it. Many days were empty but then every few days, it would simply say, Vogue, Italian Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, whoever.

I thought that calendar was so awesome and decided then that if one could just work everyday for themselves making what they love, then every so often, make something for ‘work’ or have a calendar like that, well, then you’re doing alright in life. He was most excited about his personal work he shared that day too, all that great stuff for Vogue and the majesty in all that, yet here was a man looking right at me excitedly bragging about these flawless, large alternative process prints of a something he shot only because he wanted to.

POP: What of your ‘style’ do you bring to a portrait shoot? Some portrait photographers have said they shoot in their own style regardless of whom they are shooting or shooting for.

This is a good question and tricky to answer at least when combined with this example. It comes down to what kind of assignment, who is the subject, who is the client and what are the specific parameters I am given to work within for the goal of the client. The short easy answer is, I have never been in, nor has any photographer I know, ever been in a position to just say no to whatever job they feel isn’t absolutely perfect. I have had great assignments that fit me very well but this is a business and I want to work. I take a lot of jobs that are simply jobs to get my clients needs done to the best of my abilities.

I make the most of these jobs for myself too or often if the situation allows, shoot for me in addition to what the clients need. I was hired to photograph on a white seamless not so long ago. I liked it, the subject was great and I did just as required for the client very well. The subject was great, had a wonderful story, we had some time and we got along. So we took a long walk and I made all kinds of photographs in addition to the seamless photography. I shared them with the client and the client was happy to see them, however, the task I was hired and the goal of the client was seamless and that is what ran. End of the day, client was happy and I got some photographs I enjoy a great deal.

Joseph C. Muscari | Alcoa

I have always struggled with many aspects of this kind of thought on assignments. On one hand, I completely relate to this attitude—wasn’t this photographer hired or sought out by the client for how they see in the first place? But the reason for even hiring this photographer can be tossed out the window by the simple practicalities of any shoot.

When I get an assignment, of course the client’s needs and the willingness of the subject are taken into account. If I get an assignment for a magazine, I am not going to go out of my way to make a photograph I know does not work or is outside the scope of what I know they will, need or want to run. Ideally, there is an overlap in what they need or desire and what I want to make or see. That and those moments are of course the most rewarding. It’s this overlap of right person for the right job for the right client that keeps me assigned again. When I get an assignment, I want that client to love what I made. I want another assignment as much as I want to make an amazing photograph. To me, the nature of assignments that involve other people in any way are by very definition of the particulars, as clichéd as it may be, a team effort, when each person’s role works out, that to me is the most rewarding and exciting. Next assignment please.

POP: With only 15 minutes with a subject, how do you prepare and then work with your subjects on location?

The way I go about anything is to be as respectful as I can, professional as I can, while also just trying to be the best of myself. I try to remember too that from the subject’s point of view, it is a very vulnerable position to be in to have a stranger come into your life to represent you on such a large scale. I do what I can to make people comfortable with that in the short time I am there.

I shoot only location work so often I do not know what I will shoot or see the location until I arrive. I like working off the environment of the subject so much that when we first talk, I will often just ask them what is unusual or special about their space. I of course search what I can about them online too before the shoot and see what about their presented history would work or may work visually as well as find some common ground with them in which I feel I can discuss or ask questions. People are fascinating and hopefully, the right few questions in the overlap of their lives and mine, even if seemingly superficial, can make for good connections or sparks for a way to approach them photographically.

When I photographed Billy Ray Cyrus, I shot him in a field with a dirt bike, a fence, his dog and sort of a sweeping view behind him for a sense of scale and place. I thought this shot worked great for the magazine and moved on to the second shot that was essentially a wall of trees and Tennessee greenery where he told me a story about a large bird he found there one day and nursed back to health. Now that bird follows him around his land.

Billy Ray Cyrus for People

The plan was to bring his other motorcycle down and shoot him on that. As I was setting it up, I realized I couldn’t shoot what is essentially almost the same shot with just a different motorcycle. So when he came back from changing, I explained “Let’s just have you stand back in the brush a little and make it more about you, your personal style, in this land you love.” It wasn’t as straight forward. He agreed to my idea and we shot a few frames. Then he basically stepped out and was like, why aren’t we shooting this other motorcycle again, what are you doing? I couldn’t explain it as fast as I could just show him the back of the camera. I figured, he’s a smart guy, he’s on camera all the time, he’s been around, he knows how to look at himself, just show him. He lifted his sunglasses, looked at the screen and then stepped back in. It’s a give and take whenever one photographs someone. That to me is what makes it so exciting and wonderful as I can be as surprised by something my subject brings to the table as I am by my own ideas.

Billy Ray Cyrus for People

When do you consider a portrait successful?

I’ve often gotten odd enough or off the map enough that a subject looks at me and says why or what are you doing. Usually I like to think I am pushing my own boundaries of vision and or trying to make this 450th windowless, beige, conference room, with man in a tie, look as interesting as I can. The default, used too much answer that I always fall back on when talking to a subject, is something along the lines of:

It’s my job to make someone quickly flipping through a magazine, maybe forwards or backwards or maybe even over someone else’s shoulder at some airport or somewhere, stop and want to read that caption, want to read that article, want to learn more about that person. If I can make someone have a knee-jerk thoughtless reaction to a well executed, peculiar, different, wonderful, or maybe even just odd looking photograph stop and read, I like to think I did my job well.

Roger Faxon | Chairman and CEO of EMI Publishing

POP: Some of my favorite portraits of yours feature the subjects with their eyes closed—Seth Godin and Daniel Kahneman, Psychologist and Nobel Laureate. You also photographed Rush Limbaugh with his eyes closed for TIME. How did you decide on this approach for these subjects and what were you trying to convey?

This is a great observation as I didn’t even consciously put this together myself. I know I like closed eyes for a list of different whys but these three are all sort of different to me in nature at least in the how of their creation.

Seth Godin I had actually met many years before on a photo shoot that I was assisting. He was off my radar in the years before I got the assignment but when I got the job and looked him up, I remembered Seth right away and Seth was actually using the rights to the image I had assisted on for his own marketing.  I could even remember watching Seth make the expressions in this image as the strobe went off and even how the photographer had lit it.

So now it was my turn to photographic Seth and honestly I was a little intimated. Seth is a really smart guy and knows the photo shoot routine, is photographed a lot, so I knew going in it would be memorable again. His office space was pretty interesting so I was able to have I think three or four different sets mostly ready to shoot him in one after another. It’s a large mostly open space so I could hear him conducting a potential employee interview, conversing on the phone and going about his business as I set up. Listening to his mind work was the right kind of scary. There was a dichotomy in my head as I listened that made me want to work for him while at the same time, again, made me completely intimidated. The man is a thinker. The man is ruled by his brain.

So we shot one set and he went through a very calm set of expressions like I wanted and even started being playful with his expressions, he was great. As we went from set to set, I could tell his interest and ability to keep putting up with a photographer was fading. The last set up was a close set up and I told him, just a few more. So I shot a handful, then really just wanted a photograph that at least appeared to have his mind at rest. What is Seth like when Seth is not thinking? That to me is what I saw when I chose to share that frame. Seth was great, when I left he gave me a book and an action figure of himself and thanked me for being professional. I always keep that memory close like a trophy. I even entertained putting it on my business card. “Seth Godin called me professional.”

Seth Godin

I had gotten the Daniel Kahneman shoot pretty last minute and had started a set on his balcony overlooking New York City. It was dusk and the balcony was narrow and I was just having a hard time getting my light right fast enough for the fading light. I had a light inside mimicking the window light and also a light outside. It was starting to snow. I’d left my coat inside as time was too short to deal with it and I was trapped out there by own light, we just had to shoot so I was shaking, the light was too close to the balcony ledge, so I had my arm around it too while I shot.

I remember him just seeming annoyed and bored while he drank his coffee also standing out there in the snow with me, shaking and cold. I didn’t get many frames but it ended up being a photograph I like. As we were packing up inside I saw this little booth or nook he had. I always want or strive to have multiple shots and knew I could throw it together pretty quickly. He agreed thankfully and as I was shooting, trying to get the reflection in the table to look more interesting, he just rested that way and he frankly seemed to fall asleep. I got a frame or two of that and knew I had it. We were done.

Daniel Kahneman | Psychologist and Nobel Laureate

The shoot of Rush Limbaugh was actually a lot of fun. I didn’t think I would like him as I cannot say I agree with much he says. But it was really interesting and I remember him, at least in the context of this shoot, person to person in a tiny, windowless room in front of black velvet, being professional and likeable. The Abu Ghraib prison photos had just been released, so when I looked up his previous day’s transcripts to do some research, I read that he even said on his show that he was going to get photographed for Time and that maybe he’d show up with a hood on his head to look like a prisoner. This was of course a sarcastic line from this show but when he came into the room, I asked, “Where’s the hood? I heard you say I could shoot you that way, do you have any idea how famous you’d make me if I could photograph Rush Limbaugh with a black pillow case on his head?” Well, Rush burst out laughing and from there on it was ‘on’ so to speak. We spent much of the shoot laughing.

Rush Limbaugh

Another side note here that I never knew until I photographed him is that Rush is deaf or very hard of hearing and has a Cochlear implant. So often, he is shot from the side where one cannot see it. During our shoot, he kept turning his head as he didn’t want it photographed. At one point when I wanted him looking straight at the camera I don’t think he trusted me. As again, he always kept his head to the side. So I shot a Polaroid and handed it to him. You couldn’t see it and that I think combined with the constant joking, made him relax a little. Now, when I look at that photograph with his eyes closed, I think of Rush, quietly laughing lost in this world of his own thoughts.

POP: When you are photographing someone, what inspires you?

Well I would think this again depends on the context to a degree, assignment or otherwise, but really, I am not even sure how to answer this. We are all a product of the visual history before us and that surrounds us and I like to think its my brain and heart reacting to whatever is front of me at a given moment that inspires me the most. What is it about this person, this place, that I feel and react to the most in the moment I have to make something. This awkward, wonderful, difficult, easy, moment, that alone is the most inspiring. Trying to lose myself in the act alone is one of my favorite things.

Then I hope to build on what I reacted to in the past to make it different, to make it as unique and me as I can. My desire would be that when someone sees something I made, they know it is mine right away, they don’t need to look for a credit, they simply see it and think, “Only Jonathan would make something like that.” That thought alone is sometimes motivation enough for me to push myself as far as I can.

There are a lot of greats in every discipline of photography and I think looking at my own work, I can see far too many of my influences or loves in me. I once hounded a photographer I really admired until they met with me and one of the most important things they told me was that we cannot escape our influences, we have to push through them. So that getting lost in the push is where I find the most joy.

I still look at too many books sometimes, too many sites mostly these days. It’s as motivating as it is intimidating. I just love looking at all I can.

Newt Gingrich for TIME

POP: You shoot primarily editorial. Do you also shoot corporate portraits?

I do and have done everything from some annual report work, corporate event coverage to headshots. I did some really nice straightforward head shots not too long ago that I keep finding used in new ways. That feels good to know and to also see the client was happy with what I made. I’ve done some work for EMI Music that was used in-house and I think came out wonderful and also was just contacted by a writer I shot for MSNBC Online who wanted to use my head shot for a book. I’d like to do more of this work frankly. I like shoots where others are involved as much as I enjoy being a one man show pulling something out of thin air. They are both great photographic challenges for very different reasons. I find I do my best work when all my assignments are all mixed up. It keeps the brain alive and pushes me in new directions.

POP: How is your process with your fine-art work different from the way you approach commercial portraits?

In many ways, they couldn’t be more opposite and frankly, for me, they should be really different in most usual assignment circumstances. So the bigger question is why do you make and share work and how, for who? For me, this matters.

Me photographing a lover because I am in love or me photographing the sky because my heart is broken, is not that same as photographing someone in a conference room/set/their home where there are very particular client needs in place. Now I can bring all those emotions to a shoot and apply them when the assignment overlaps whatever emotional state I am in, but is that the correct thing to do for my client’s needs? To me, this question matters. So the situations are, or usually are, quite different with different goals.

Right time or right place or right image. My site is for me at the end of the day because I love making things. There is an assignment section, as I believe I can do many types of jobs very well, but that is not why I make things.

POP: Your personal work is quite narrative based, yet you shoot portraits for your commissioned work almost exclusively. Are you interested in shooting more narrative editorial or advertising work?

I would love to. It’s just that 99% of my calls are to shoot someone I never met, in five minutes, in a place not of my choosing. This is the nature of most assignments. So the nature of the work doesn’t always lend itself to these types of photographic adventures. These types of images or approaches are not always what is appropriate for the client either, but when it all overlaps or I can stretch it, it does get interesting.

Golden Knights

POP: There is so much intimacy in your personal work. What happens to this when you get 15 minutes to do a portrait of someone you don’t know?

Well I am still me, I cannot escape or run away from who I am even when I try. So by default of being me, there is always some me in there. Many times, the intimacy just vanishes as its like trying to put a square peg in a round hole. Sometimes, with the right subject, they understand and or you find that common connection to them and try to embrace it. I am pretty open, talk too much and lay myself out there to be vulnerable. I like to think some people can sense this and then there is a connection. Other times, it’s all just a show or you fall back on previous experiences to get through or find some beauty.

Bill O'Reilly for TIME

The tasks are very different to me and this one rule of the same thing all the time to me just doesn’t fit. I think often as well that it shouldn’t. Of course me photographing my 450th white man in a tie in a windowless beige conference room with 1h to set up and 5m to shoot for a news or business magazine isn’t the same as me spending an hour meticulously exploring a new space or area because my heart is breaking or I miss someone lost or the joy of someone new. They aren’t the same and shouldn’t be. Yet this overlap of me being me and seeing how I see, mix.

I got known by one editor for pulling things off against silly odds. So I can remember this PE calling me and saying, the subject is not attractive, rough to deal with, the space is awful and there is no time, so we thought of you… While flattered that the PE knew or trusted my attempt to make it grand, I do think I would like to try a pretty, nice person, in a pretty place, with lots of time, I just never get that call. I like the challenges, I like working. If I didn’t go through all these things, I know in my heart I wouldn’t be able to make the things like Roswell [below] either. So while not visually so directly related, it is, very much so.

POP: Your stories are very personal. Do you consider them self-portraits?

It took me a long time to really see what I was doing. But if anything, I think of them as letters. I use to keep what essentially were large journals. I made about five over the years and when each 100-page book was done, even if it took 30 days or four years to get there, I gave them away. I didn’t consciously, at the time, think of them as letters. It just felt correct. Now I see the site as a simple continuation of that. Some are or for or are lost in the thought of someone specific, sometimes a mix, sometimes its just for me, a letter to my future self so I don’t forget. I am not really sure and try not to get lost in the why, even if I think too much about how it all came together or what my true sources of thought were. Someone once referred to my stories as each being a block in a pyramid, I liked that idea, even if I don’t always think it fits or see my stumbles along the way.

I think photography itself, by definition, is only ever about the one making it. I can show you 1000’s of photographs of one person that I have made and you wouldn’t necessarily know or maybe understand that person any more or less than I do or in any real way at all, but you’ll learn a lot about me.

I see hundreds of photographers go to far away lands and make photographs of these exotic places I will never go to. But I don’t for a moment think that defines the place, or really teaches me anything more than what that place looked like to that photographer. That for me is how photography is and clearly, I think is wonderful.

S.Matt Read who walked the perimeter of Texas for Texas Monthly

POP: Your site is called I Like to Tell Stories. What kinds of stories are you drawn to or do you feel compelled to explore? Both for your fine art work and editorial?

I enjoy the happenstance of life. The things that happen or one sees because they are just aware of the world around them. Paying attention to the everyday drama of an errand to Target can be as dramatic as a giant political drama for a magazine to me if one pays attention correctly. They are the same, the gravity of this human condition we all experience exist on the same plane. Real life is more fascinating to me to than make believe or created performances only meant to titillate. Both of these are exciting and have their place in the world, but for me, the joy is found in facts, in reason, in purpose, even if only a memory explored or a desire desperately truly wanted. I hope I bring a unique voice or way of seeing these things to the table and I like to believe that is why people look at my site or hire to me make things.

When I first started reading or visually paying attention back at 16 in those libraries, I read something Minor White said that basically was, “One could spend their entire life photographing the block they live on.” I took this to heart in that it’s not where you are or who is in front of you that makes a photograph, it is you. I think one should be able to photograph anything anytime anywhere, make something amazing, tell a good story, at any moment of any day, simply because of who they are.

So before I left Rochester, NY for the last time, I went to Minor White’s old block and made a book of pictures there. The smallest detail can become so large to me and I like that, very much.

POP: Do you look for stories in your daily life?

I feel like things find me more than I go look for them. So many photographers have these large grand ideas and make a very calculated effort to achieve whatever goal they preconceive. I could never relate to this very much as it removes or limits what possibilities of happenstance I enjoy or may see. I am even jealous and wish sometimes I could work that way, but it just never feels correct in my heart when I try. I don’t want to have a goal or have to make an arbitrary list of whatever to get me out the door or on the path to discovery. I just pick up my machine and start looking. It takes a faith in myself of sorts I imagine, but I’d rather be found than go looking.

POP: Where does the inspiration for your personal work come from?

The photographers I admire are countless. But lately I have realized a few distinct things. There are all these details in my desires and daydreams of or about life that I realize tie back to very distinct movies from the early 80’s: Vision Quest, Starman, Taps, Falcon & The Snowman, War Games, The Dark Crystal, Empire Of The Sun. What they have in common is that they all evoke a sense of awe. Much of what photography or the making of things is a person’s need or desire to capture or create a sense of awe.

I think for me, that time in the early 80’s when these movies hit me, is that they gave me this sense of in stories and daydreams that coincided with an awe I felt for women. Then a few years later, I saw Koyaanisqatsi and not too much later, Sherman’s March by Ross McElwee. One about the awe of life, earth and sound. One about the pursuit, confusion and awe of women. This I think was a dangerous combination for any young man with a camera whose first profound book discoveries were Mapplethorpe’s Women, Emmit Gowin’s photographs of Edith and Galassi’s Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort. How does one not just photograph what they see or love everyday after all these get mixed together? These things go after, fight at, struggle for and within the things that define life itself. For me, I am not sure what else there is as its all the same thing.

POP: When did you start to document your daily life and did it shift the way you engage with friends, partners and everyday situations? Or were you always looking for the narrative?

I couldn’t really walk (crutches) when I first got a camera and I had just moved high schools and I didn’t have friends or a girlfriend, so I just built things or made things out of what was around me. It is what I have done ever since I picked up a camera. It seems like what they are made for. Assignment photography was really hard for me for a very long time. In college, I distinctly remember the conversation I had with a professor. The assignment was due and I had not done it at all as not only did I have no interest, I was also intimidated. Yet I had brought over 100 work prints to class that had nothing to do with anything really. So his response was, well, give me an F for not doing the assignment or compliment me on not having left the darkrooms for two days. Then it was Thanksgiving break and he gave us an assignment to just shoot whatever we wanted, a diary, journal, whatever we wanted, just bring back pictures. I was like, well, I do this everyday already. It was the first book I ever made.

Now what I find exciting is that sometimes I will find a narrative while building or noticing another just in what I make everyday. I’ll be in front of the computer, editing or looking or writing one story when I realize 10 others, all connected, or maybe I did the same before, or maybe I remember that this moment I connected to because of a scene in a movie I saw 20 years ago or a love I just found yesterday or longed for all along or realized too late. It seems the nature of just making things that things find me or find themselves. I have laughed out loud and cried just sitting here connecting all the things I couldn’t or didn’t always see while making them.

I never really thought about how it shifted my relationships until I told a friend about a journal page I had made about her. We were only friends but I wrote about something in it and told her about it. Without ever reading it or seeing it, her just knowing I had written something down we both shared was enough I guess to scare her as she dropped me from her life and told many mutual friends I had done something inappropriate. This was before the Internet long ago and to this day, to the best of my knowledge, she’s still never seen it. I will always think what I wrote was beautiful and if she cannot understand that, she wasn’t the friend I thought she was or we just never understood one another like I thought we had.

Since then, I have been far too open with what I make to a fault. I started a new relationship shortly after this incident and as I lived in a small studio, with my walls and journal table out in the open at the time, I would just let anyone see anything. I never liked secrets, I cannot keep them anyway and they only lead to hurt. So since then, ten years now, I try to live without them. I woke up one morning and found this new relationship I had started sitting quietly with this huge journal on her lap reading every page. It was hard, but I felt a great window into who I am, how I make things and how I live. I asked if there were questions. We talked and we were then together for a very long time. In my relationships since, well, my site is right there and I have yet to be in a relationship since I started it that hasn’t seen it or known this part of me long before we got very far. I have even had a relationship seek me out because of my site, go to great lengths to meet me in person only to then hate me for it. It’s really hard and can be confusing.

These 7 Days, These 7 Nights

For the most part, I think I have just been really lucky in that I found some amazing, very intelligent, beautiful and understanding people along my ways. I’ve made some mistakes, been duped and hurt people I loved when I was trying to make beautiful things out of painful things and I have done what I could to correct and protect those I love from ever doing it again. It is really complex and I’ve found leaves me an easy target for those that wish to hurt me as much as it is a way to find those that love me for who I really am, too. If one is in my life enough that I photograph them, I would think it goes without saying after seeing all I make, on a relationship level, I photographed them in the first place as they were my everything. Not that many people ever really photograph me and when they do, I think it is a wonderful gift they cared enough about me to do so. I understand that it is theirs and that its something I gave them I cannot take back.

I recently met a woman I didn’t know at all and didn’t know me or my site, yet in 3 minutes of hearing me tell a story, she called me a “romantic pragmatist.” I liked this.

Another woman I haven’t known long in person but who knew my site very well before we met, said that watching me make things in person “was seemingly arbitrary yet known to be intentful.” I liked this too.

POP: Does your approach to your personal work have any influence on your commercial portrait work? Do they influence each other in any way?

They are starting to overlap more so since I left NYC just by the nature of the jobs and the environments I find myself in. I always try to push myself to make something like never before or if similar, somehow a step further. If I do a big lit shot now I also try to do something more for me and sometimes have taken it so far I don’t even show the client all I have made as its just too far off the map. Or, I show it and it doesn’t get used, but they know I am out there pushing. It again depends on the shoot itself.

A rep I wanted and was sharing work with once asked me why my professional work didn’t look more like my personal work, as they reacted to my personal work much more and all I could really offer in return was that no one hired me from my personal work. It is the norm for everyone to say they like and maybe they really do, but it is just not what I actually get hired for. It is in my experience another elephant no one really talks about.  I once showed all my magazine work in a fancy portfolio to a famous art buyer and then I showed them a hole punched, 4×6 flipbook of journal pages. They barely touched the portfolio and even told me, why show this, anyone can do this, this flipbook is great, just show this. So a year later, I met with them again and only showed the journals, that even included some mashed up assignment work and the only response was, “Do you expect to get a campaign with this?” So I just went back to pushing the assignment work as that is what really led to more work.

There aren’t that many places that really use the types of images I make personally. A small handful of elite magazines in specific stories, well, I showed my personal work to many of these over the years and if I waited for everything to overlap and be a perfect mesh or these places to hire me, I couldn’t be a professional photographer.

There is a PE out there who is great at hiring a certain type of photographer for a contradicting subject. Sometimes that is really great, for that PE and for that magazine. Say that PE hires a war photographer to shoot a wedding. Great, interesting, but to whom? Would the bride have paid to see her one big day shot that way? Maybe, but even if she sees the value in this, its likely not what the bride paid for. It’s a silly example, but maybe it helps explain my point. For me, it’s right shoot for the right client.

Say I love some book by someone really gifted. This book they made for themselves changed my life and the way I see. This is a wonderful thing. Yet, I then see this person go shoot an assignment and I see them mimic this, force it, fall back on a technique or formula or type of shot they are known for. I then don’t look back on their book the same. I see them shooting patterns of themselves for money. Sometimes this mesh of job and who they are fits and its sadly very rare and I think many times, photographers tell this to each other in bars in the dark, but heaven forbid out loud or written down. This to me has always been a dilemma and for the most part, I have enjoyed how different assignments have looked from my personal work until that spark of overlap hits again.

POP: Both the domain/title (“I Like to Tell Stories” ) and navigation of your website prioritize your personal work. What is behind this decision?

I think ones personal work is the most exciting and or interesting thing someone can witness. If one wants to see my assignments they are just one easy click away. I don’t want to be defined by my assignments even if or when I am proud of them. The combination of my all I believe or hope is much more fascinating.

I think people try too hard, make it all work work work. Look at me on this site, this site and this site, look at this last job I did, look at 20 outtakes spread out over a month, four months later. I lose interest pretty quickly when it starts to feel forced. It feels as times get harder people are getting more desperate or shouting too loud. Regardless of my assignment load or social circles, I want to make, and see, exciting work. And I really fear someone looking at my site and seeing some of the things I just described so I go out of my way not to do that.

One site, one place, this is me.

POP: Your book, btk, was inspired by a project you were hired to shoot for the ABA Journal on the Wichita, Kansas serial killer Dennis Lynn Radar. You write in the book that you were hired to shoot the DA, the Task Force Lieutenant and the houses of his victims, but that once you were back in New York, you felt compelled to document Radar and the victims themselves as well. It feels like you completed the story by doing this. What was your experience with this project and why did you feel like you needed to continue the project?

This is a perfect example of the happenstance I mentioned earlier. I had literally been back from Kansas about five minutes, struggling with my gear in the doorway when my phone rang. A friend who knew what I was up to called and asked if I was still in Kansas. I said no I just got in, why? He told me to turn my TV on, as a documentary on BTK had just started. I turned it on and there was Radar’s face, in my apartment, I had just been in front of his home and now he was in mine. At around this moment my father called too, telling me to turn on my television. I got my camera out and just started photographing the screen. I saw the houses I had just photographed and Radar’s face from his court appearance, but more disturbingly, the faces of the victims. I had only seen very small reproductions before but now here they were, their faces lighting up and glowing inside my home when I had just photographed their homes, the places they were killed. It was the very thing I couldn’t photograph in Kansas.

The assignment had been really hard and it was exactly why I had agreed to it. The budget wasn’t much but I made it work and knew when I got the call I would regret letting my worry about it stop me. The more an assignment call worries me the more eager I usually am to do it. The forethought and happenstance of why a PE chose me, called me, put me on a particular assignment is something I really treasure. I want it to change me, I want my experiences or photographs to make me a different person than I was before. This was unique as it was an assignment. I was telling the story of the men who helped, contributed, to putting an end to this man’s abuses. I wasn’t a thrill seeker or off on my own for some personal experience. It was an assignment first for a greater goal than myself that then became personal. Sometimes it’s a hard compass to follow but it’s how I have slowly learned who I am.

POP: Do you still shoot film for your personal projects?

I have been shooting almost exclusively digital since fall of 2005. I still have thousands of rolls of film to scan and sort—I am overwhelmed by myself. Not just with that but with digital too. I have about 7-8 books I need to sit down and make. I just don’t have time. Ideally, I would just work all day everyday for myself, taking the jobs as they come for fun or the challenge. I have one project barely started or dealt with that alone is 13,000+ photographs.

POP: With both your personal work and your portraits, you push past the comfortable to an unexpected place. With your portraits, you said that this sometimes has to be explained to your subjects because it can be uncomfortable. With your personal work, it is the point where the documentary becomes poetic and profound. It must be an interesting moment when you are photographing someone and for you the most comfortable or familiar place is in this deepening and they are being asked to go there with you to the unfamiliar. Are there times when you pull back from this?

The only time I have consciously pulled back is with children. Children are so wonderful and many times the play or rough housing or goofy I do that has them laughing away and playing back with the camera can be too easily misunderstood or not look like the something’s I hope to find. I don’t have my own children so when I photograph them I try to be sure the parents are familiar with me and the things I make and the ways I make them or I just don’t photograph them in the first place.  While they aren’t my children in any of my photographs, while I photograph them, for me and my world, they are and I try to protect them as such.

Not My Daughter

All other times, it’s that discomfort or metaphor in awkward I embrace or seek out, as that for me is the moment I find beautiful in trying to understand someone in what I would like to believe is a real connection. Even if in the end, it’s only a real connection I felt. For me, it was as real as real can be, even if only that moment of a fractured second.

POP: What was the concept behind your Visitor series?

The visitor series is just that, people that visited my apartment I had in NYC, #1RN. It was small, old and cramped and bursting with photographs and boxes of them. I arranged a small space in which to photograph people, so whenever someone came by, I would take their portrait. No matter the who or the why, if they were in this space, they knew me well enough to know that I would want their picture. It started as Polaroid at first and then for a brief moment is was an antique camera in the back courtyard. But it eventually became people inside, on black, let me see you. There is someone in that group that is a one frame shoot. There is someone in there that is thousands. I see people so rarely, it became really special to me that someone would come by. I haven’t counted them yet, I think there are about 80 in the 13 years I was there. This amazes me as each one felt so special.

POP: For a recent personal story, you photographed Roswell. Can you talk about this project? Rather than photograph in the expected way, you chose to photograph the sun as a way of imaging the feeling behind our fascination with these places.

Roswell was only supposed to be a quick stop. I don’t have much connection to it other than a small fascination with the myths surrounding it and how the name almost has a mystical quality. I drove the small downtown, saw the small shops and almost didn’t stop. I am making a small series of images with my phone for someone as a gift, or joke, so I stopped to make one small image.

Then seeing how depressing these older gift shops were banking on the alien folklore, I wanted to get away and walked one block east. There was a small alley that had a few blocks of older telephone overhead wire structures. When I get lonely or wish I could hear from someone I miss, I tend to photograph phones, phone poles, wires, etc. So that was part of it but so was the desire to want to hear from someone, something, far away, in physical space or mental space. So I shot the sun peeking through poles as the sun is the only star I could see during the day. Then I also photographed the clouds around Roswell. Looking up, looking up into the sky with a desire to see something, not knowing exactly what. That hope, that desire, that longing, that longing to me is what the myth of Roswell is. The clouds were than placed on the sun/poles photographs later, almost randomly. Look up, look up with longing, what does that feel like, what does that look like?

What I Saw Up There, Here


I started sandwiching images long ago for a very specific reason and person, but since then, they have become much more akin to Frederick Sommer’s methods. Using multiple enlargers and several negatives to make a single print. Not multiple exposures of random calculated happenstance, but thought out, specific plans of action to make an image, specifically. This process always fascinated me. So while I don’t retouch or use software any more than a traditional darkroom worker would, it does lend itself to a wonderfulness these new technologies now offer that never existed before as easily.

POP: A perfect day when not shooting?

Well, making things is what I enjoy most. So I would have to say a car full of different types of forever machines, an open road in front of me, some music on too loud, the windows down and someone I love within arms reach, or touch, going someplace new, or new to me.

A couple I once knew were lying on a couch together under a window, quietly being affectionate with each other, I was photographing them. The man was sleeping with his head in her lap as she was caressing him. She looked up at me, I knew her less than I knew him, but she softly said, “I’ve never seen you as happy as when you’re doing that.”

6 Responses to “Q&A with Editorial and Fine Art Photographer JONATHAN SAUNDERS”

  1. 1 TA

    There are people who work as photographers, and then there is the real thing. When you see the real thing, it is hard to explain the difference, but you know it. Thanks both of you for putting the time into this enlightening interview and brining it to the light of day!

  2. 2 ptpix

    Yup, JS is the real thing. Always has been and always will be. Whenever I think of a true artist, I think of Jonathan. His stories are always meaningful to me. As I once said, “I may not know what it is that your are telling me, but I always know your are saying something.”
    As TA said, Thank you Jonathan and Alison for a great interview. I sure hope many people read this.

    • 3 alison mccreery

      Thank you. It was really a pleasure to get to know Jonathan and his work.

  3. 4 Olivier Laude

    Good to know Jonathan is getting to press…been a fan for many years…!

  4. 5 Dennis Kleiman

    Thanks for the interview. Although you get everything you need to know just by visiting Jonathan’s site, I appreciate hearing him speak about it. Good stuff!

  5. Jonathan seem remarkably the same as when he assisted me in San Francisco. His story telling made travel to assignments fun and memorable. His telling of the thinking that goes into assignment/personal work conflict is nicely fleshed out.

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