Jim Fiscus: “Outwork your competitors.”

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Over at the Stockland Martel offices this past fall, Bill and Maureen and the reps were talking about ways that the agency could reach out to students of photography. They were keen to expand their current efforts: Stockland Martel already makes a conscious effort to stay in touch with the various colleges where either our or our reps studied—like Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where Matthew Rolston studied; Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Photographic Arts and Sciences, where Kwaku Alston got his B.F.A.; and Syracuse University, the alma mater of our photo agents Emily Leonardo and Kathryn Tyrrel O’Connor. Emily and Kat, in fact, shipped a box of our 2009 SMart Books, to Anthony R. Golden of Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. And the kind professor sent us this photo of his students with the books:

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Students at Syracuse University with copies of our 2009 Smart Book.

 

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Along those college-outreach lines, I thought it could be interesting if we invited students from our photorgaphers’ alma maters to interview them for the blog. The students are freshly passionate about their craft and utterly green about the marketplace. I wondered what sorts of things they’d want to know, given the chance to interview these seasoned, successful photographers.

First up is Daniel Mendenhall, whom I found through Chad Smith, assistant professor of photography at Texas A&M Commerce (thank you, Chad!). I asked Daniel to interview Jim Fiscus, who attended the school back when it was called East Texas State University. Here’s Daniel’s report, which he has also posted at the college’s photo blog:

Jim Fiscus.

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What first attracted you to photography?

I went to a bullfight in Mexico with my uncle when I was a six or seven. My dad was sick with the revenge, so he let me take his camera. I got in trouble for shooting his entire roll of film. Taking pictures with my uncle was the coolest thing ever. He probably encouraged me to use up the roll just to make my dad mad. I sort of kept on going, and here we are.
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When did you attend East Texas State (A&M Commerce)?
I think 1987-88.
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Many photographers have emulated you work. As one of the originators of this look, what makes your esthetic unique?
The light is the basis of my story telling. Different types of light bring different feelings or emotions. There is a fairly wide range of work in my portfolio. I think that my approach is to make each job stand on its own. It’s a compliment for people to be aware of my work, but I don’t really keep up with all that. I just want to make better photographs.

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Above: images from Jim's campaign for Showtime's "Masters of Horror."

 

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Does the Jim Fiscus style come from your lighting or postproduction?
The “Jim Fiscus Style” is a weird thing to me. There are a lot of different looks in my book. The images are different based on what I’m trying to tell. Lighting is the basis of any post technique. Without good light it’s just a picture that’s run through a computer, and that’s not legit. Lighting technique and a computer are really just tools to manage the Zone System. I spent months learning the Zone System from Jim Newbury and at the time it seemed unnecessary. I’m certainly glad I learned it as I use it on every image I make. Thank you, Jim Newbury.

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How have social networking sites or blogging affected your business?
Not really sure, as I’m somewhat antisocial. I’ve never actually written much about myself, as it seems sort of forced and self-serving. In fact, I’ve procrastinated in writing this for two weeks, and without my studio manager hounding me, I wouldn’t be sitting here now. There is a lot of stuff written about me. Most of it I didn’t say or even do. Life is odd. I keep a closed set.

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This image and the ones below are from Jim's campaign for Levi's, shot at the Salton Sea.

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How has your idea of photography change since you were in school? Are you still passionate about your work, or is it just a job?
I have the best job in the world. I had the greatest teacher in the world named Jim Newbury, and I loved my time in school. I was prepared in terms of the creative and historic aspects of photography, but was not in any way prepared for the business side. Without business skills, it is very difficult to run a photography business. I made every mistake one can and somehow still made it. So photography is just as exciting as it was when I watched an image appear in a tray on the 3rd floor, but the business is hard work. Nine-tenths of my time is used running my business, and 1/10 making photographs. Not quite what I planned, but still better than plumbing.

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Where does you your inspiration come from?
Too much reading of science fiction, music, painting, daydreaming and dreams, time on planes and trains, time in NY, and travel.

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What is one thing you can’t live without in your studio?
My studio manager, Andrea.

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What are some of your favorite projects you have worked on?
All the Channel 4 stuff out of London. Anything from the UK, really, as those guys are so wacked. Showtime does great work, and I love entertainment. Levi’s was one of the most fun, as I had 40 people working at the Salton Sea and we had really loud music in an otherwise quiet place. There are dozens of favorite projects. Making pictures is a really fun thing to do. A job doesn’t have to be big to be a favorite. I’m lucky to have a new top favorite 5 or 6 times a year.

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From Jim's campaign for Britain's ITV.

Gordon Ramsay, as photographed by Jim.

Gordon Ramsay in an image from Jim's campaign for Britain's Channel 4.

 

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What advice do you have for aspiring photographers?
Learn business skills. Outwork your competitors. Take risks, and be willing to fail. Have fun. Don’t take a camera on vacation. Make sure you have goals. More importantly, pause to feel good when you have achieved a goal. It’s easy to keep resetting the goals and living in the future.

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