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Q&A with Jay Shoots

Q&A with Jay Shoots

December 6, 2019 // by Ylva Rouse



© JAY SHOOTS,The People’s House, 2017. Gelatin silver print, 36 x 28 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

When did you know that you wanted to be a photographer?


J S: I had a darkroom in my house already when I was 14 years old. My dad built it for me, not knowing why. I was a farm boy growing up upstate New York, photography wasn't in our family, didn't know anyone who did it, but for some reason, I fell in love with it. I think once I got a camera-you probably have heard the story, for Christmas-I wanted to learn how to print, so from early age I was making pictures. In high school, you couldn't take a photography class until senior year. I just immersed myself in it, loved it so much. I couldn't stop reading those popular photography magazines. But I almost feel as much passion for photo art-making today as I did back then-I am very grateful to feel that way.


You have worked and lived as a photographer; how was that for you? Did you separate the work of photojournalism and your “artistic” work or was it all one world for you?


J S:  It was all one world for me. After I graduated from high school, I went to the New England School of Photography in Boston, Mass., right off the farm kind of thing. The big city was quite an adjustment. The school was in its infancy then, but it's a good school, and it's still there. I picked it because I didn't have to take any other classes, it was strictly a technical school, and that's all I wanted to do. The instructors I got to know would take you to their studios. It was mid to late seventies, and it gave me, for the first time, a direction where to take my photography. It was very influential.


During this time my parents retired. They didn't have a lot of money, and I was in Boston having too much fun. I started feeling guilty, and I found out that the Navy had a photography program, so I checked into that.  I never thought I would be in the service, but I did it. I was in for seven years. One of those was a sabbatical, when I went to Syracuse University for photojournalism graduate school. All my jobs for the Navy were journalistically related, and they took you to pretty incredible places, like Iceland. Yes, I lived in Iceland for a year. My first station was in Key West Florida for three years, working in a little photo lab and doing assignments out of there; no uniform, people would ask what do you do? I would say I'm in the Navy, and they would laugh. But I was, and had free supplies, and wherever I was stationed I would go to local Community College classes and in one of them I learned about Robert Frank or Cartier-Bresson and to me that's journalism. And it is.


So, yes, it is all in one bag, and always has been to me. I've been to places where they don't want it in one bag but, I'm sorry I can only do it my way. So yes, the answer to your question is that it is one thing.


Because a lot of artists grapple with that question and have a hard time with it whereas for other artists it is impossible to separate their “artwork” and their “work for hire.”  And you can see it in the work. Was it a challenge to not separate the two?


J S: It's very difficult to make a living when you are not really adjusting to people's needs. I remember when I got out of the Navy-which I did here in Jacksonville, that is how I ended up here-because they left me alone in the Navy. I did their work, and they were happy with it. There was never any discussion. Then I was out, and I had to make a living, and I started exhibiting right away. There were some local places and I got involved with the art scene-I was only 23 years old. Ad agencies, Annual Reports … just because you are good in some small part of photography doesn't mean that you might be good at commercial portraiture. Plus, you are told what to do. And I did that for a while. And I guess it was all right, but when you don't like doing it, it doesn't matter what it looks like, it's not going to be good enough for you.


Something I find very interesting right now which is the analog/digital issue that many artists are facing. Because you are completely analog, you don't even own a digital camera, do you?


J S: No, and the other thing is, I've made my living as a photographer all my life and I don't even own flash equipment or things like that. All my cameras are second hand-one lens, one film, that's it-the most minimal stuff. And your portraits are square…That's a camera they used to make, a twin lens reflex…that camera I used for ever. It is extremely durable. I could throw it underneath my car seat, and I could always have it with me. I got that in a garage sale in Riverside


I don't know if everybody knows this, but Kodak has been phasing out analog films-I have friends who bought special refrigerators to stock as much film as they could, because, like Jay, it was their life. But it's not only the film, it's the chemicals you use to develop, it's the paper…how are you facing that?


J S: Well what I did was to say, “That's it.” And moved on.  And so, photography, I kind of don't do it anymore. I am hands-on, like a carpenter with a nail and a saw, that's the way I approach my photo work in the lab, and I think digital photography puts a distance. I can't wrap my hands around it in the same way.


© JAY SHOOTS,The Dwelling Project, 2016. Cyanotype, 9 x 5 feet. Courtesy of the artist.


So instead of going digital you began experimenting.


J S: There is not one answer, there really was not a strategy, everything has just evolved. Part of it was in revolt. I started taking my old camera collection apart; but at the same I had the idea that I would make a different kind of art, after doing street portraiture for 30 years it was exciting to do something new. So the photo became a sculptural object using photographic parts.


Did you have any special tricks in the darkroom, like many photographers do? I was reading this morning about Thomas Joshua Cooper and he would always overexpose and thenunderdevelop. It was like a bastardization of the classical method of Ansel Adams, etc. did you have any tricks like that?


J S: No, I'm pretty straight. I didn't do a lot of manipulating.  I kept a log book for many years, when I processed films. How many rolls I did that day, temperature, time-these two are the way you develop film, gives you the baseline starting point kind of thing. The book through the years, got to be like this (makes a sign very tall). I once summed it up, and it was 60000 hours doing nothing but standing there developing. But for me when I'm working on something, that is when I get my ideas. It's one of my favorite things about working. The other thing was my routine, always doing things the same way-that was photography to me. That's one of the things that I like about expanding my work now, is that I can do things that I wasn't able to do, or even thought about doing, but now I can think about anything. Every now and then in the dark room, something new would happen. It could be such a little thing that doesn't mean anything, but when you do something exactly the same for years, that little thing is like a new card deck.  It becomes huge. I don't know if this makes sense…Yes, absolutely. That is one of the beauties about formalism, when you have very set rules, any little thing can shift the whole picture. You have to be really in tune with it, I think.


But you have always also been interested in cameraless photography, in 19th century photography. Tell us a little bit about that-we have a wonderful example of it in the current exhibition.


J S: Yeah, it didn't actually come about until the time I was giving up developing. But I, again, my passion for photos from early days I made this rule, everyday I had to do something-either read about it, look at it, develop it, print it, make a picture, do something. So, learning the history was just part of it, that's what happened, just learning about it all. There is another part, so to digress a little, when I realized “I'm not going to do these Annual Reports, I am not going to do anything I don't want to do.” This all happened at the same I got married here in Jacksonville. I became artist-in-residence for Jacksonville's Public Schools, it was a really good thing. It was supposed to be a one-year residence, and it turned into three. We had a baby. I started taking pictures of our baby, and then they were exhibited here. That opening weekend I opened up the Sunday newspaper, and there was a double-page spread of all my pictures of my daughter Emma. The phone started ringing, “Will you take pictures of my kid.” This turned into 20 years of work. I had so much work but again, I can only do pictures I like, so they are all black and white, all still lifes, all done beautifully. We ended up being able to build a studio. People would come to the house and of course my work was everywhere, so there were customers for that kind of personal work too. This turned into quite a lucrative job.


What you are working on now? I know you are excited about it.

Well I'm kind of always excited, it doesn't matter as long as I am working… It's hard to talk about it-you have to see it. It's a whole wall, it has photographs on it-completely different to me. I also made a new house. I told myself, “No more houses, Jay, for a while.” But I ended up making a new one, which I really like. It's a “Stilt-house,” but I called it “Stilted.” And I'm working on an homage to Alberti, an artist that helped develop the perspective in the early 15th century. He made this device, and I'm making a work inspired by it. “Jay's Drawing Machine.” It won't work. but I just like the way it looks.




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