Monday, September 1, 2008
Jeff Hutchens - The Frozen Mood
Globetrotting freelancer Jeff Hutchens captures the ambiguities that shape our times
Where did this highly developed sensibility come from? Hutchens had a peripatetic, cosmopolitan childhood that opened his eyes—and eventually his lens—to the world in all its political, cultural and social diversity. Born in Lansing, Michigan, in 1978, he moved with his family to northeastern China when he was four, after his father was hired to teach English to Chinese students. He and his brother attended a Chinese preschool and learned Mandarin.
“We were pretty much the only Western family in a city of seven million people,” recalls Hutchens. “My brother had blond hair, I had really light brown hair, and we attracted a mob of people wanting to touch us and pick us up—we were complete cultural oddities.”
It’s not a stretch to imagine that this experience may have imbued Hutchens with his sensitivity to differentness and disconnect or influenced the way his photographic style came to emphasize elements that seem surreal or hard to comprehend.
After a few years in China, the family returned to Michigan, but not for long. Kentucky, Colorado and Virginia followed, China again, South Africa and back to Virginia, where his father entered the diplomatic corps and began working for the U.S. State Department. It was during the course of this geographic ping-ponging that Hutchens’ parents gave him a used Pentax K1000.
At first, photography was a hobby. Then, as he recalls, during his junior year at Asbury College in Kentucky, “One of my roommates said to me, ‘Why don’t you become a photographer? You’re skipping your physics classes, but you’re reading photography books and taking pictures of everything!’”
Hutchens heeded his friend’s advice, taking photography classes, working in the darkroom and landing an internship at Times Community Newspapers in Virginia, all the while continuing his double-major in psychology and pre-med and earning an undergraduate degree in both. But the life of a therapist or physician wasn’t to ensue.
After graduation, he interned at The Washington Times, working under J. Ross Baughman, whose influence was pivotal. Says Hutchens, “I fee l like he helped me start to learn different ways to conceptualize photography. That’s really where it hit me that you could use the medium to go beyond the literal.”
Adventures Wild And Woolly
It wasn’t long until the National Geographic Channel hired Hutchens as a staff photographer and he began shooting all over the world. For the next two years, he was on the road at least eight out of every 12 months.
Recalls Hutchens, “They’d say, ‘Hey, Jeff, we need some adventure images, and I’d say, ‘Okay, I’ll go to Hawaii for two weeks and come back and give you an edit!’”
It was a heady season for Hutchens, then in his early 20s, and one filled with drama. During a trip to Alaska, an enormous grizzly bear ravaged his and his assistant’s campsite, and the two had to hop into their canoes and paddle like mad—upstream and in the dead of night—to avoid becoming the bear’s next meal. During the course of various assignments since then, Hutchens has contacted rheumatic fever in South Africa, was briefly quarantined in Singapore on a false alarm of having the SARS virus, and, during a shoot in the Amazon, was infected with Ancylostoma braziliense, a burrowing parasite more widely known by its ominous nickname, “creeping eruption.”
While grizzlies and creepy-crawlies couldn’t deter the photographer from his assignments, Hutchens began to yearn for work that had impact beyond the high-octane adventure photography that dominated his tenure at the National Geographic Channel. “After about two years it began to feel like it had become more of a logistical challenge than a creative challenge,” says Hutchens.