It’s fascinating to trace the serpentine routes legendary photographers have taken to eventually reach the pinnacles of their careers. Alfred Eisenstaedt was selling belts and buttons on the streets of post-World War I Germany; Herb Ritts’ first job was working at his parents’ rattan furniture store in Los Angeles.
In this issue we are looking at emerging photographers like rising star Jonathan Shoer, who are taking the right steps toward solid careers. Time will tell how far that path will take them.
As for Shoer, the New York-born, Los Angeles-based artist is taking full advantage of the multimedia/transmedia world we have evolved into, shooting both stills and DSLR video as well as recording music and dabbling in graphic design. His photographs have appeared in Vogue Japan, Teen Vogue, W Magazine, Billboard, Rolling Stone, Vice, Esquire and Elle. He has also teamed with Gadi Creative, an agency specializing in commercial and documentary storytelling, including a recent project in Haiti.
Digital Photo Pro: Take us through the evolution of your career.
Jonathan Shoer: I grew up in a very photographic household. My mother, a full-time ESL teacher, has always had a passion for photography. She used to pick up extra work on the weekends shooting weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, Sweet 16 parties, and real estate. She would take me with her, then take the time to describe her process to me even though I was very young.
So I grew up playing with cameras but didn’t get one of my own until my last year of college at SUNY (the [State] University of New York) at Albany—where I majored in sociology and minored in psychology. My parents gave me a Nikon Coolpix for my birthday, right before I was leaving on a trip to the Middle East. This is where my love for photography was really born. I became obsessed.
I came out to Los Angeles a few months after that trip to chill out with my brother before starting a hectic life back in New York City.
I had plans to get my master’s degree back home with the goal of becoming a high school guidance counselor. I figured with a high school work schedule, I could use the summers and weekends to pursue the art I was actually interested in, mostly music at the time, in a safe way.
Digital Photo Pro: What do you mean, it a safe way?
Shoer: My parents really encouraged me to pursue a “traditional” career path—working in a school, marketing, business—whatever that means. Something with steady income, benefits, a 401(k).
Digital Photo Pro: So what happened out in the City of Angels that changed your mindset?
Shoer: My brother was in a band at the time that was playing shows all around L.A. and Orange County. I documented every show with my camera and did various street photography projects. Over time I ended up meeting a lot of amazing creatives that were out here pursuing some sort of art or passion…basically their dreams. I was envious of them. I realized that I was already miserable with a job path I hadn’t even started on yet.
Digital Photo Pro: So how did you turn that negative into a positive?
Shoer: At the end of that summer, I decided to bail on going back East and to stay in L.A. to pursue happiness. A few months after that I met someone who was running a small agency, Gadi Creative, and he offered me a paid intern position. He valued my taste, and I saw the value in this opportunity to learn and so I took the position. Over the last four years the team at Gadi Creative has tripled in size, and we’ve worked on incredible projects that range from medical documentaries in Haiti to rock and roll music videos with me shooting stills and being part of the DSLR video team. This range of work has helped me learn a lot quickly. At the same time I’ve been able to pursue a lot of freelance work.
Digital Photo Pro: What are some examples of how these various projects have added to your photographic skills and industry knowledge?
Shoer: In 2013, I was asked to shoot BTS (behind-the-scenes) photos on a Teen Vogue shoot with Selena Gomez. Something came up with their normal BTS shooter at the last minute and through a friend of a friend I got the gig. That led me to shoot a ton of BTS for various Condé Nast publications over the next couple of years, giving me the opportunity to be on set with some amazing photographers, as well as talent and crew. I was able to learn the ropes on these big commercial shoots by documenting them, asking questions and connecting with people on set. All the while I was booking shoots with friends, bands, strangers on the street, as often and wherever and whenever I could.
Before I knew it, my portfolio was bursting at the seams and I had the confidence to start going after jobs I wanted in the fashion, music and entertainment world, either doing BTS or as the main photographer, working with artists I’ve looked up to since I was a kid. Michael Keaton was really exciting because he’ll always be Batman to me. It was a thrill to meet Melora Hardin, “The Office” and “Transparent” are two of my favorite shows. Some others have been Katy Perry, Jeffrey Tambor, John Malkovich, Brandon Boyd, Kevin Bacon and the band Empire of the Sun. It’s kind of surreal at this point to look at my calendar and see what I’m doing with my days. I feel like I’m actually living out my dream every day.
Digital Photo Pro: How important was assisting other photographers to the advancement of your career?
Shoer: Since I didn’t go to school for photography, and you can only learn so much from YouTube, assisting played a major part in advancing my career. I’ve spent a lot of time watching incredible professionals like MJ Kim and Giampaolo Sgura. Among the most valuable takeaways for me have been seeing the way they interact with everyone on set, from the client to how they direct the model. Those techniques have helped me on my own shoots. I’ve learned that while the technical end is obviously very important, the photographer can really dictate the vibe and mood of the set, and that is just as important, if not more important when being creative. This stuff you can’t learn unless you’re there in the moment.
Digital Photo Pro: Tell us about your recent shoot with Emmy nominees?
Shoer: I was asked to shoot portraits of a number of this year’s Emmy nominees for Hearst Digital Media, with images going out to both Elle and Esquire. I shot with a Canon 5D MK III with my 70-300 mm lens and Profoto lighting. We wanted to get two looks but didn’t have much time to change anything in between, so I had two setups ready: One with a couple of softboxes and octoboxes, and then for the second more dramatic lighting set-up, I switched everything off except for a beauty dish.
Digital Photo Pro: You’re working in a number of photographic genres. If you had to label yourself, what would it be?
Shoer: That’s hard to say, because in the last year I’ve done high-fashion lookbooks as well as traveled through Haiti documenting hernia surgeries. At the end of the day, I’d like to think I’m a documentarian. That’s where it all started, and even when I’m doing something more conceptual, I still approach it as documenting a scene that we create. I think there’s value in bringing my perspective from both worlds into each other.
Digital Photo Pro: What are some of the challenges facing the emerging pro and how are you dealing with them?
Shoer: I think standing out among the competition is something that I think about on a daily basis. I constantly ask myself, “What can I do to be different?” I look for ways I can leave my stamp. It’s easy to get lost in the sea of digital images and content, especially with how fast media moves these days. I’m looking for a way to stop people in their tracks, ways to make people take an extra few seconds to really look at that image before they continue scrolling, swiping or turning a page.