Listen up, old guys. Jason Peterson has a message for you. The photography world has changed. The days of big budgets for big productions are gone. The future is all about social influence, nimble shoots and doing more work for less money. The good news is that this brave new world is a meritocracy. The talented will thrive. The cream will rise to the top.
Peterson himself is thriving. An advertising creative director, he brings marketing savvy to his photography brand—which is new, by old standards. He’s only been photographing for five years, and much of that time has been solely with an iPhone.
When Instagram was new, Peterson began posting snapshots. He’d grown up loving photography, even majored in it in college. But after a years-long hiatus, it was the iPhone and Instagram that reignited his creative spark. He was impressed not only with what the smartphone could do, but with the buzz he felt thanks to instant affirmative feedback via Instagram.
Peterson quickly decided to refine his online persona and focus his brand, so he concentrated on paying homage to the 20th-century masters of photography, from street photographers to fashion photographers, whose work he’d long admired. In particular, he cites Hiroshi Sugimoto, Harry Callahan and Stanley Kubrick as major influences. He began using his phone to capture dark, evocative, graphically clean black-and-white images. It’s a style he’s refined in the few intervening years.
“That’s what helped me stand out on Instagram,” Peterson explains. “Everyone else was chasing around each other, and I was chasing around 1940s and 1950s photography. And a lot of people didn’t know what that was. I was, like, ‘You just don’t understand! You’ve got to look at this Harry Callahan shot, this is what I’m going after.’”
Until the last year, Peterson did all of his black-and-white conversions in-camera—or in-phone. But he’s taught himself Lightroom and Photoshop, and today uses his own presets for custom color conversions. The black-and-white aesthetic, he says, isn’t just good branding—it makes his work timeless.
“I don’t mean romantic timeless,” he says. “I mean, literally, it’s timeless. If you close your eyes and imagine what the 1960s look like, it has a color palette. And so do the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s. Each decade has its own color palette. And why I love black-and-white is because it could be the 1940s or it could be shot today. You don’t know.”
Peterson’s strong eye led him to make strong work, which delivered more and more followers. Then Instagram featured his work. That’s when the big brands started calling.
“I probably did 15 photography jobs last year,” Peterson says. “I turned down most of them. I have the luxury of a day job that’s very supportive of my photography. It allows me to pick and choose: Is it going to further my brand? Can I shoot in my point of view and my style?”
The first big brand to reach out was Dom Pérignon. They wanted to fly Peterson to Iceland to photograph a campaign. “That’s when I was, like, ‘Oh, shit. I should probably get a camera,’” he says.
So Peterson purchased his first DSLR. From a glacier in Iceland, he called his best friend in Los Angeles, a professional photographer. “What exactly is an ƒ-stop again?”
Of friend Chris McPherson, Peterson says, “He’s super-successful. He shoots all kinds of editorial, he shoots for Nike, he’s made millions of dollars every single year forever, and he’s got 3,000 followers on Instagram. I come into this thing, and now he’s, like, ‘People are telling me you’re their favorite photographer!’ It’s totally bonkers. But it’s not about me—I believe that it should be this way—because it’s about a great image. It doesn’t matter what tools you have available to shoot it on. Do you have a point of view? Can you create an amazing image?
“Your audience, guys that come from a professional photographer background,” he says, “and I say this with as much irony as possible, but those guys are fucked. Because, literally, I can give you cases of a hundred other kids that have come off Instagram that are now calling themselves photographers that are getting booked for jobs all the time. The economics have completely shifted. That’s where photographers have had a hard time catching up. To these kids, Levi’s will call and go, ‘We’ll give you three grand and a few pairs of Levi’s to go shoot this,’ and they’re, like, ‘Awesome, this is great!’ To you, you’re, like, ‘Just three grand for that photo shoot? No way.’
“I know how it’s going to shake out,” Peterson continues. “We will never go backward. We only go forward. I see this across advertising, as well, with TV commercials and everything. We used to do million-dollar productions. The Apple ‘shot on an iPhone’ campaign is the wakeup call. It’s changed everything. My clients go, ‘Can you shoot this on an iPhone?’ Yes! So why would an agency say, ‘We need half a million dollars to go shoot this video that’s probably going to live on Facebook or Instagram or wherever, and we need all this money to do it’? It’s a completely different medium. My analogy is this: If you go and spend that kind of money and put it on social media, you look like a dude wearing a tuxedo to a beach party. You look like a fool. It’s old versus new. And what you need to do is use the tools that are being used now. What we’ve done here at the agency is that my job isn’t about $100,000 productions, it’s about thousands of $1,000 productions. We’re just making stuff constantly. Half the kids I’ve hired in my creative department are kids off of Instagram and Vine and YouTube that can pick up their 5D or their iPhone and just go make something right now.
“I think there are two things photographers can do,” he says. “You can either adapt—go, okay, you know what, I’m going to jump on this thing and figure out how to do things cheaper, quicker and faster, less the way that it was and the way that it can be, and see what’s possible and jump in the game and start doing it. Because you have to have confidence: You know what, I’m a great fucking photographer, regardless of what it’s shot on. I could shoot it on an iPhone and do amazing, great stuff, create a brand and persona for myself, and rise up through that—or you can hang on as long as you can and get as many people to pay you for jobs still. They’re still out there. But I’m telling you, I know this more than I know anything: It’s not going back.”
For his part, Peterson isn’t particularly interested in being a successful commercial photographer. He’s got a wholly different agenda in mind.
“I have the luxury of a very lucrative advertising career,” he says. “So what I’m aiming at isn’t successful commercial photographers. I’m looking at fine-art photographers who really stand the test of time. I am unwavering. I get jobs sent to me, some for decent money. But I’ve got these parameters. You’re going to pay me in the mobile photography world what would be considered a good amount of money, I only shoot black-and-white, I only shoot my style, and I get the final say in what the image is, and the only language that goes on there is the language that I write my captions in. I’m not going to say, ‘Buy this awesome pair of ski goggles because they’re awesome and amazing.’ Because I understand advertising and marketing, and I’m a brand, I’m endorsing whatever it is you’re doing in my voice. People follow me for a reason. A lot of times, I know they’re coming after me because they like my photography, but what they love is my media following of all these people. So I’m always careful. I turn down. If I took every job I’m offered, I could quit my job and make a big career. But I don’t want to do that. I’m looking for something bigger. I want to be, like, this really great photographer. And I don’t even consider myself a photographer; I’m still an art director shooting photos. But I want to; I’m ambitious. I want to be known as a great photographer. But I’m going to do it on my terms. I have the luxury of being able to say no. The power of no is everything.”
Adds Peterson, “Great film directors or photographers or any artists, they’re unbending. I’ve always admired that. Because I was always in advertising, and it was, like, ‘We’ll do anything!’ But the great guys that transcend, they never do that. Not that they’re assholes; they’ll listen, but they’ll still figure out a creative solution that’s still going to be true to who they are as an artist and their point of view and gets across what the client wants. That’s what I’m focused on.”
“What I say to younger photographers,” he adds, “is you have to balance out opportunity—oh, my god, I got to go in a helicopter! There’s definitely some value in that—but you need to eat, and you need to not be taken advantage of, and you need to demand what you think your value is and push it a little higher so it pushes the market forward. These young kids go, ‘Oh, my god, how’d you get all these Instagram followers?’ And I’ll look at their Instagram feed and they have 30 photos. I say, ‘Go shoot 1,000 more photos and then we’ll talk about it.’ The more you shoot, the better you’re going to get. Shoot more, learn from what you’re doing, constantly try to evolve. It’s not going to be handed to you. Just because you have the tools doesn’t mean you’re going to be a great photographer. I’m shooting every single day. I post two or three images every day. But they have to be awesome. I won’t post if they’re not awesome.
“But I’m getting pretty confident,” says Peterson, “so usually I have good stuff.”
Today, Jason Peterson has more than 700,000 Instagram followers. Join them @jasonmpeterson.