Jake Shivery interview

Blue Mitchell: Please tell me a little bit about your background and how you became the Jake Shivery.

Jake Shivery: Geez. Usual story – starts up out East, ends up out West. This ain’t my first port town.

Can you explain your photographic process from concept to print?

All right – it’s like this – my dog and I show up at your house at seven o’clock in the morning. Several minutes later, you’re standing in the backyard, probably freezing. You watch skeptically while I cuss and smoke and fumble around getting this giant wooden camera set up on its legs. My dog sniffs around your yard. You and I talk a little, I say things like “stay right here” and “stand like that”. You do because, mostly, as mentioned, you’re freezing and you want to go back inside. I lean in and warn you that if you sway a bit, you’re going to be out of focus, so the pressure’s on, right? Then there’s dark slides flying and the shutter clicks and then it’s over. Morning whiskey is always appreciated.

Then there’s dark slides flying and the shutter clicks and then it’s over. Morning whiskey is always appreciated.

Sometimes I go in with an idea in mind – most of the time it’s a bit looser. Most of the time it’s “Oh, you’re raising carrier pigeons? That’s interesting.” I generally don’t have much more of an idea than that, and most of the time I haven’t seen where we’ll be shooting, so it’s a bit of a leap, a little Hail Mary action. I get my subject somewhere, pray for Oregon light, and we work with what we have. Of course, it’s formal, of course, it’s posed – that’s the nature of large format – but I try to let go of the preconceptions once we’re on site and shooting.

Printing is harder. I’ve been working in the darkroom long enough to realize that I don’t know everything I need to know to be a really good darkroom printer. I’m also surrounded by people who are truly excellent darkroom printers, so I’m constantly humbled. Nonetheless, I stick with it, and every once in a while turn I out something nice. But it’s slow and it’s laborious. I’m certainly better than I was five years ago, never mind ten, and I stick with it because I want to be that much better twenty years from now.

What drives you to continue making portraits?

What drives my work, in general, are the people that I know. First of all, I hang around with people who constantly produce things of great beauty. I don’t want to be the guy that shows up at the bar with nothing to show. The people that I work with and the people that I hang out with, they’re very active and always turning out work. I’m motivated by wanting to keep up. Or at least trying to.

Secondly, I’m in the midst of a very long-term self-assignment. The first part of this assignment is to keep shooting and printing in the same way so that I can eventually get really, really good at it. The second part is to create a body of work that shows the same people throughout several decades. I’ve got a core group of folks I hang around with, and I want, eventually, to be able to show photos of them when they’re thirty-five, forty-seven, fifty-two, sixty-eight, etc. How long will we all last? How long can I hold out? Well, as long as possible. It’s a planning horizon that ends when I die.

Photographically speaking, are there any misconceptions about who you are and what you believe in?

I chafe a little at the idea that I’m an “antiquarian” photographer. I use the Deardorff because I’m in love with it. Because it and I work in synthesis, and because it does a great job of intimidating my subjects into holding still. I’m after a look that I think of as “classic”, but I am not, specifically, trying to make photos that look like they’re from the past. Not “classic” as representing the past, but “classic” as representing the past, present, and future. My friend David Lewis points out that in the future, any picture made on film will be marked as a twentieth-century image. We came in on Brownies and we went out on the early digital cameras, so folks in the future will look at a film based photo and know that it was from the twentieth century. I’m doing my part to blow that curve.

You could make similar pictures with a much smaller film camera, but it’s not as fun for me. I like the big ground glass, I like focusing with both eyes, I like taking only a few frames per shoot. The large format approach forces me to move slowly, and my budget forces me to shoot cautiously. I pulled about one hundred frames of film last year. The whole year. There were many times I wished I could shoot more, but when you only load six frames for a sitting, well, it changes your work-flow. It’s a lot of work. It’s the long way around the barn. If I was making “old-timey” portraits, I’d just download the app.

Download the app? I snicker at the thought of you doing that. Can you explain the benefits of contact printing versus enlarging and why you prefer it?

Simplicity. Or at least that’s what I thought when I started. Lay the neg down on the paper, hit the light for a second, and hey – it’s a print. The truth turns out to be more complicated – that is to say, printing via contact is a really just a different school of printing. I do interpret the images – I try to make them look better in the darkroom. This obviously requires manipulation – and while many aspects of it are the same as enlargement printing, it’s really kind of a whole new ballgame.

There’s a quality to contacting that I like, but it’s not ultimate sharpness and detail. You can print an 8×10 negative big – I mean really big – but I’m not. I’m leaving it 8×10 and hoping it stays dense and really nuanced.

When you think about your final product – the portrait printed and hanging on the wall – do you feel the photograph depicts who these people are, how you see them, or how they want to be seen?

Hmmm…. all of the above? I want you to like how you look in your portrait. The process is collaborative by nature. Sometimes we’re working on my ideas, sometimes it’s from yours, sometimes it’s a little of both. The goal is The Portrait, in the old-fashioned sense. You may not hang it over your own fireplace, but perhaps future generations of your family will hang it over theirs. I want to make heirlooms for people’s families. When I’m in the darkroom washing prints, I remind myself that I’m making pictures for people’s grandchildren, so I better make them last.

I like the simple portraits very well – just a person standing still for a moment. But the ones with narrative seem to have universal appeal, so I’ve been shooting more with that in mind. I’m trying to incorporate people’s interests and their tools and their living spaces. Yes, it’s all staged, but I try to keep it natural, too. It’s a weird split between incidental and posed. Here’s an example: the clown and the mermaid picture is of my friends Leif and Claudie. They were making a film and were dressed up for their parts. I didn’t make up that situation – that’s the way it was when I found it. I just asked them to “stand here” and “sit like this” and “look at the camera”. Otherwise, that was all them.

OK – time for the bromides. How about your pet peeves?

C’mon, Blue, I’m not answering that – I’m not a swimsuit model. I don’t look good in a swimsuit. I haven’t even owned a swimsuit since I was eleven years old.

Favorite Photographers?

Hmmm – how about photographers from whom I’m actively stealing? Leibovitz, Sander, Stieglitz, Lange, Karsh, Danny Lyon, Stu Levy.

Favorite whiskey?

Mr. John Powers. The only Irish I drink. Three swallows – says so right on the bottle. Otherwise, I stick with bourbons.

What are your feelings about the current resurrection of the original photo processes?

Well, clearly, from a job security point of view, I think it’s great. As a camera salesman, my main interest is in preserving that which we already know. There have been a lot of great techniques developed in the last century, and it galls me that we’re losing all of them because there’s something new around. I have developed a reputation because of this. Really, my main issue is the currently dominant idea that we have no choice – you shoot digital or you don’t shoot. If I’m overly outspoken about film, it’s just because so few people are sticking up for a hundred years worth of technology, and its importance, and its usefulness. The analogy I like to make is to music – we invented the synthesizer, but we didn’t stop being interested in pianos and guitars. Good lord, you can do all this on your video game system now, but if you’re really interested in being a musician, are you actually going to be satisfied with that? The same thing with cameras – film cameras and digital cameras are in no way mutually exclusive. More tools in the toolbox make for a better artist. More to the point, it makes artists out of more people.

No matter how fascinating the process, I still want an interesting picture.

Maybe that’s not what you meant. I like a lot of what I’m seeing out there, but really I’m all about content. No matter how fascinating the process, I still want an interesting picture. I go back and forth with this when I’m talking about the contact printing. I don’t want people to think about the process – I just want them to like the picture. I talk about the process because I’m geeking out on it. I love it, and if you’re interested enough to ask, then maybe you will, too.

Besides the sense of nostalgia, I sense sentiment in your portraits, probably due to your relationship with the subject. Do you ever shoot strangers?


I never shoot strangers – I’m too shy. It’s a whole different thing walking up to strangers and asking for portraits, and it scares me to death. I know several photographers who are good at it, and I have deep respect for them, but I can’t do it. I need to know you to get what I want.

I shot a stranger once – we were set up in the tulip fields for a workshop, and I was shooting portraits of the participants. This guy behind me taps me on the shoulder and says “I’m about to propose to my girlfriend, would you shoot our portrait?” and well, how do you say no to that? I love that I got them right there, right then, right after he got down on one knee in the mud. Hopefully, that will turn out to be an important portrait for them. But generally, no – I shoot people with whom I already have a relationship. I like to have coffee or beer and hang out in people’s backyards and wait for the light.

All right, so this is going to sound high falutin’, but what I’m after is beauty, and how I’m getting there is affection. Dostoyevsky said “Only beauty will save the world”, and I agree. I’m not aftershock or awe, I’m after quiet photos that will serve as reminders. Nobody is ever going to look like this again. 8X10 contact printing may sound grandiose, but the process is ultimately incidental.

I shoot people that I admire – it’s a long list and I’ll never get to shoot all of them, but I’m working on it. Also, as we talked about, I like shooting the same bunch of people over and over again. When all is said and done, my body of work will be repetitive. On purpose. A big 8×10 flip-book of you getting gradually older. Changing your habits and passions and demeanor. That’s when it’ll get really interesting. ♠ 

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ISTORIA: Exploration in Contemporary Narrative

Michael Kirchoff ~ An Enduring Grace exhibit in Los Angeles