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It’s about trying to tell a story within the frame of a human body or face.


John Loomis

John Loomis is a Miami-based photographer who specializes in editorial, portrait and photojournalism for his magazine and advertising clients. He is also the editor in chief of Blueeyes Magazine. John is represented by Redux Pictures.

Wayne: You first started stringing for your local Florida newspaper when you were 15. How did that happen, and what kind of assignments were you shooting?

John: I stumbled into journalism and photography during the beginning of high school and pretty much immediately fell in love with it. I was actually probably way too serious about it way too quickly, and in that first year I was lucky to befriend a couple of photographers at the local newspaper in Tallahassee, [Florida], and started to shadow them on shoots and then eventually became a sort of intern / stringer. I shot small assignments here and there, but mostly just during the summers. Everyone at the Democrat was really wonderful to me, and I ultimately grew to relish the atmosphere of working at a newspaper and swapping stories with everyone.

Wayne: How long and in what ways were you involved with photography before then? What other photography did you do before you ended up at the University of Missouri?

John: Before high school I really don’t remember any significant tie to photography. I had always been involved with art, and was an avid painter for years. But I’m not one of those photographers with a cute story of how their parents gave them an old Kodak when they were four, and their life was changed. Quite honestly, I didn’t really fall in love with the medium of photography ever…  I fell in love with trying to communicate and understand the world around me through art and using that medium to tell a story. That’s what was really powerful to me. And to that end, and because I loved newspapers, as soon as I learned about the University of Missouri, that it was where the word “photojournalism” itself was invented, I was sold and knew I wanted to leave [Florida] for college.

Wayne: You were already working semi-professionally / professionally before school. Why did you decide you needed to study photojournalism? Why the University of Missouri? And what did you think of the program once you were there?

John: I already had some experience, at least a little beyond working on a school yearbook (I was very lucky, by the way, to go to a high school who had a very serious and historic journalism department—which is probably rare) but I knew that I had a lot to learn. Also, at the time I had no idea how people actually got a job in journalism as a photographer, and so I thought that college was a really good idea. And it was. On this side of school, which I really loved but ultimately grew to feel very held back by it, I can see that what was ultimately the most important part of my education was the amazing group of friends that I made and was challenged by to push myself and my ideas about what great photography was all about. Beyond my friends, I had two really wonderful professors and mentors, in David Rees and Kim Komenich, who gave me so much in their friendship and passion.

Wayne: How helpful is a formal study of photojournalism?

John: Outside of the unique opportunities of Missouri (POY, CPOY, speakers, MPW) that allowed me to meet a lot of very cool people in the industry, which helped me out a good deal, journalism school itself is something that I don’t find all that important. I get asked a lot, or read about debates between which photo J-school is the best, and I think it’s a bit of a joke. None of them are better, really. In my opinion it was not the school, it was my tremendous luck to attend with some really wonderful people that made the difference. Journalism is one of those great fields where you can’t learn much from a book, and only after you throw the book out the window and run outside to start trying, and fuck up, can you start to make sense of the job and what it means to practice it well. Journalism school doesn’t do any harm, I guess, but it’s very possible to go straight through and never be really challenged.

Wayne: Why did you also decide to study English?

John: I had always studied English at school, and as I got further into college I began to drift away from journalism classes and towards my literature classes because they just made a lot more sense to me. Around the same time of this shift, I took a very important photography class taught by Komenich, which I audited (I wasn’t allowed to actually enroll because it was a “capstone” class), I was exposed and really engaged for the first time with a ton of documentary work that I had never seen before. It was a revolution for me. This was Magnum work and Robert Frank and Errol Morris films and Sylvia Plachy. Kim had us go through dozens of these incredible books from his collection every classbooks that went so much further than I ever knew was possibly in expressing a personal vision of the world that had absolutely no interest in debates of “objectivity”—and lectured on the connection between photography and jazz and literature and everything else. So, after that class most of the other photography classes didn’t mean much to me… thus my English major. Later even English wasn’t enough for me, and in my senior year I left school to start freelancing.

Wayne: Can you talk about the evolution of your career since you went to Missouri?

John: First, at the risk of sounding cagey or a bit ridiculous, I’d like to say that the “reasons” some people look for—in the paths that others have taken towards some goal–going freelance or deciding to photograph conflict, for instance—usually end up being pretty hollow and inapplicable to their own career. Learning that Jim Nachtwey perhaps woke up one morning and knew he was ready to move to New York city and get freelance work doesn’t really do me any good, and I’ve tried to steer clear of comparing that sort of thing because it’s all extremely specific and personal logic… and it should be. I mention this because I feel that whatever I may have done, for whatever reasons, doesn’t really mean anything to anyone else… to say otherwise in my opinion is just bullshit, and I’m tired of bullshit.

Along those lines, I don’t think I really chose to go freelance; it sort of chose me. All I did was have the courage to trust myself and take the next step, and then the next, and then the next. I hope that I have, at the very least, grown smart enough to learn from my inevitable and many mistakes. But that’s my career up into this moment… really that’s it. “Evolution” is a pretty strange way to put it, I feel, because I’ve been roughly trying to do the same thing since the very beginning. Slowly over time my understanding and consciousness about what I want for myself has changed; everything else has remained the same. And despite describing it so abstractly, I really like where I am right now photographically.

Wayne: How did you decide to locate to Miami? How does that city and the state of Florida color your work?

John: After living in North Carolina for a couple of years I was looking for a change and thought about heading back home to Florida and to Miami, where I was born and [where] my family had lived for generations. What I really wanted was more energy in my environment, and South Florida is definitely a great place for that. Additionally, and certainly not playing a very small part in my decision, my girlfriend had just started medical school down here. Any other reason after that, I’ve learned, sort of gets muted out.

In terms of working in Miami, I really hope that some of the color and passion has infused into my work. It’s started to, but it takes time to really uncover the true texture of a place. I think where it’s come through the most so far has been in my personal project work that I’ve begun here—essays that are deeply inspired from the new energy I’ve felt in South Florida—and that, along with being close to my family, has made the move really wonderful.

Wayne: You do a lot of corporate and environmental portraiture. How did you train yourself for such work? Can you share your thoughts on what goes into good portraiture? You also do a lot of work for the business magazines; how do you overcome the time constraints associated with that kind of work?

John: I do some, but it’s more of a reflection of the industry than my own personal interests. Portraits are at least 60 percent of what I and most photographers are assigned to shoot, and because that’s the case I do them in order to stay in business and fund other types of work that I’m passionate about. I never really trained at all to do business portraits—outside of buying a Hasselblad when I was first starting out—and I just approach each portrait on my own terms, trying to find something, anything, to make me interested in the subject or their environment. Even when I don’t care about some rich white guy in a suit (which is an unfortunately valid stereotype), I usually can find some beautiful ambient light to fall in love with instead… and sometimes that’s really what I’m photographing. (You can imagine that I don’t share that philosophy with my business clients.) But in my mind really important portraiture goes beyond light or composition, or even a connection between photographer and subject. It’s about trying to tell a story within the frame of a human body or face.

My background in journalism made dealing with the pressure of deadlines a not especially daunting problem, thank god. If I’ve been granted 10 minutes, I’ll get 20 out of the subject often times, simply because I demand it. When photographing someone who is used to being in control I never allow myself to be another person who is under their orders. I’m not rude, but I make it clear that I’m in charge and I’m there to do a job well and make them and their company look as good as possible. Nine times out of ten they are extremely helpful and give me what I need to make something work for my client, both because it’s in their self-interest, and because I feel that people generally want to please each other.

Having a limited palette to work with because of a CEO’s busy schedule can also be freeing in a sense, because you focus in on just a couple of variables and work them as hard as you can. On documentary shoots where I have a never-ending amount of time, sometimes I have more difficulty in trying to find that focus.

Wayne: So, why a magazine like BlueEyes? Who was involved with the startup, and how was it launched? What was the market missing? Why is it online, and what advantages and disadvantages does the Internet hold for documentary photography?

John: Blueeyes Magazine was created in 2003 by myself in order to create a home for passionate documentary photography work. In a sense, the reason for it is because of that 60 percent that I alluded to before. There is just not enough editorial space for important long-term photography which explores political, social, and cultural issues around the world. I found it important to try and help foster an online publication which could support and celebrate what I believe to be the most difficult and rewarding genre of photography. The seed that created the magazine was cultivated at Missouri among the same group of friends who inspired me with their incredible work which they created and then had no place to share it. Since that time the magazine has been expanded and we now have a seven-member staff who all give their time for this labor of love.

There really wasn’t any other options for Blueeyes when I created it, during the beginning of my freelance career, nearly broke and living in my hometown. The Internet allowed me to publish stories without an eye on length, and that freedom was an important part of what I was trying to encourage; that projects didn’t have to subscribe on a traditional 8 to 12 picture format that I had learned in college. The obvious advantages inherent in publishing online, some of which we are still trying to take hold of, are creating a worldwide base of viewers who can interact with the magazine anywhere at anytime, through which we may help foster a dialogue between the subjects, photographers and readers. The main disadvantages that I’m impacted by is that I love holding photography in my hands, or seeing it up on a big white wall, which I miss with Blueeyes, but which we are working towards very slowly.

 

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