Our next interview features Jon Duenas from Portland, USA. Jon talks to us about his move to Portland, switching from wedding photography to fashion, about setting goals, the importance of being excited and passionate about your work and why he’d like to see more diversity of models in the fashion industry.
Interview by Sachin Khona // October 2015
PHOTOGRAPHY WORK & PRACTICES
Hey Jon! Can you tell us a little about Where is home for you and where you work?
I currently live and work in Portland, OR.
Have you always lived in Portland or was there a conscious choice to move to there?
I’ve only been here 5 years. Before Portland, I was in Nashville, TN, for 2 years; St Louis, MO, for 4 years; and I grew up in Houston, TX. I decided to move to Portland after feeling like I wasn’t fitting in and wasn’t happy where I was. I visited Portland and loved it, and moving here was the best decision I’ve ever made. I work mostly here, but occasionally get a chance to travel to Los Angeles or Seattle, and I’d like to travel more in the future.
In what way, if any, does your location influence your work?
I’m surrounded by forests, mountains, rivers, and the ocean. It’s been a big inspiration for me over the years. Portland is also the kind of city where you can be creative and take chances and develop your skills without as much risk as there is in bigger cities with bigger expenses.
When did you know you wanted to be a photographer?
I had interest starting in college and even took a class. By the time the class ended, I knew I wanted to keep doing it. I didn’t realize I wanted to make it my job though until after graduating.
Do you have a designated workspace or office?
I work at my desk in my room currently, so no designated office. But I do have a studio space that I use for photo shoots.
What has been the most defining moment in your career? OR Do you feel there was a turning point, monumental time, or series of events in your life that you were felt as though you were on the right path in regards to your photography career that bought you to where you are now?
It’s mostly been a bunch of little things that build up over time. Moving to Portland and the west coast was big for me. Deciding to focus on fashion, deciding to quit my part time job, being featured on Instagram and getting a ton more followers and being able to use it to help my career, those were all big too.
I usually set some goals for myself every year. Some small and attainable, some big and sometimes unrealistic. But every time I can cross one off my list, I feel like I’m taking those little steps that will get me to where I’m going.
Can you describe your style via a series of 10 photos that you feel define the work you’ve done in the last year and where possible describe why each one was included.
02 – This shot was my take on some of the portraits Tim Walker does. He’s been a big influence on a lot of my work, but in a more realistic, less surreal way. As if you woke up from Tim Walker’s dreams and came back to reality, but still had that residual feeling you had when you were dreaming.
03 – At the very early years of my creative life, Lost In Translation was one of the most influential movies for me. This shot has been rooting around in my brain since then, waiting for the perfect moment to reach the surface.
04 – I love seeing photos where the edges of a set show. It’s like the narrow perspective of the carefully perfected photo shoot set is expanded, and reality peaks through.
05 – For some reason, this photo tends to get less attention and “likes”, and yet it’s one of my favorites. I love playing with shadows and light. Also, when I’m shooting, I’m often noticing the really subtle things that catch my eye and interest me. It’s really what makes a photo for me.
06 – Minimalism is a big part of my aesthetic. I love how this particular shot, the landscape is so minimal, and yet carries such visual weight. It sets the whole mood despite almost being a total wash of white.
07 – More minimalism, more shadows, more mood, more subtleties.
08 – A little more colorful and commercial than a lot of my other work, but I think still retains a lot of my personal style. I’m always pushing myself to experiment and not get pinned to just one look, but still be recognizable as mine.
09 – This kind of clean, minimal studio work is a big part of my work these days.
10 – A lot more colorful than the rest of my work, but I had to include it. I mean, c’mon.
What inspires and motivates you?
A lot of different things. Seeing other photographers work challenges me to try new things a lot. But I get inspired by things like stories, moods, and environments. The way a scene in a movie feels. The way a song washes over you. The way the light hits a patch of ground.
What creative training do you do outside of your work?
I’m always taking photos in my mind, whether or not I have a camera to actually take it. I’m always being observant of my surroundings and people and light.
When you get stuck creatively, what is the first thing you do to get unstuck?
Sometimes I’ll take a break. Sometimes I’ll specifically look for work that is outside my norm, or outside the realm of what we are barraged with in social media.
It’s easy to get into a rut if all you see and know is what’s popular and trendy. There’s literally over a century’s worth of photography out there to see.
How do you know when a piece of your work is finished and needs no additional work?
My style of editing is pretty natural. So there isn’t a ton of variables for editing. It’s finished when it looks good to my eye.
Are there any key lessons in your career that you’d like to share? OR Best piece of career advice you were ever given?
Best thing I learned is the advice Ira Glass gave on starting out as a writer. Basically, he said if you’re just starting out and you realize your work sucks, it’s because your taste for good work is accurate and you’re not there yet. And the only way to bridge that gap is to keep making more and more work and push through it, and eventually you’ll see you’re getting better.
Do you have a photograph burned in your memory that you never took but wish you had?
No, not really. There are so many photos I’ve missed for so many different reasons. I don’t like to to dwell on the past with regret. If I’m too busy looking back at what I missed, I’ll end up missing more of what’s ahead of me.
Can you share one creative tip that you use when you are working?
“If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.”- Jim Richardson.
Sounds obvious, but this quote speaks a lot to the intentionality of planning, shooting, and actually being interested and excited about what you’re shooting. The more excited and passionate you are about your work, and the more of that you put into the work, the more people will notice that same passion come through and allow them to connect with it on a deeper level.
Can you tell us about about why you are joining ARC at The Experience?
I’m very excited to be a part of ARC 2016. I love getting to know other photographers and their journeys, what works for them, and what doesn’t, and I hope sharing that my own experience helps just as much as others have helped me.
What are the 3 most important things in your personal life?
Good food, stories, and dad jokes.
Do you work in any other fields of business?
Currently, as of a few months ago, no.
Can you share a bit about your daily schedule?
Depends on the day, obviously. Days where I have a shoot or something else going on can change things up. But other days, I usually wake up a little later, between 9-10am. I relax, take my time getting out of bed, have my coffee and breakfast, and start working. Usually emails and social media to start, then editing photos for a few hours. Then I try to fit in some networking and reaching out to potential clients, planning upcoming shoots, etc, and maybe some more photo editing. Since I start my day late, it usually ends late too, around 7 or 8pm. Then it’s either dinner at home and relaxing with Netflix, or going out and grabbing dinner and/or a drink with friends. I’m a night owl (I’ve tried fighting it, but it’s not happening), so usually sleep by around 1am.
What within your work do you not like to do and why?
Out of everything I do, networking might be the thing I hate the most, mostly if it’s the forced, obligated type. I rarely go to events for networking because of that. I’m an introvert at heart. I do however enjoy when networking happens in a very natural, organic way, like how you actually meet people in real life. It’s just the forced aspect of doing it for the job that turns me off.
What was your hardest / painful creative failure to deal with and what did it teach you?
A few years back, I sank a lot of time and money into trying to be a successful wedding photographer specifically targeting a high-end market. All that time and money invested ended up giving little return, and I suddenly lacked the passion for wedding photography to keep hustling and reworking my strategy. I realized that my personality, as well as the market I’m currently in, didn’t really fit with what I was trying to go for.
I’ve since become more attuned to myself, my strengths, and what I’m really excited about, so that even when I struggle to make things happen, I still feel the drive to hustle. I think that’s the most important part about making it in this industry. You either have to be lucky and fall into a successful career because of who you know, or you have to be so determined and passionate about it that you hustle constantly to make up for it.
What will you be doing (or hope to be doing) 5/10 years from now?
I think in 5 years time, I’d like to break out of my local market more and start working in more major markets like LA consistently. Maybe in 10 years time I’ll have moved on to NYC or beyond.
Can you share an image that you’re particularly proud of and tell us why?
This photo is a combination of a great team of people and a lot of serendipity. It was a test shoot for the model in LA at the Walt Disney Auditorium. This location is an incredibly popular spot for photo shoots because of the architecture. When we were there, a lot of other photographers were there shooting cheesy photos of couples in clearly cliche ways. It was hard to find spots that weren’t already being used. But I noticed this wall that everyone else was ignoring. The timing was perfect, as the sun was right at the horizon, streaming through the downtown LA buildings and a bunch of trees on the grounds of the auditorium. It made those interesting patterns of golden light to contrast with the silver wall and match the model’s golden dress.
I couldn’t have made it any better if I had planned for it.
THE CORE // FOUNDATION
If you were no longer able to use a camera, how else would you express your creativity?
I’d be playing music for sure. I used to play guitar in a band, and I also studied to be an audio recording engineer. So if photography didn’t take over, that’s what I’d be doing now.
If you only had 24 hours to live, how would you spend your day?
Probably eating amazing food with loved ones and trying to knock off a few bucket list items.
If you could change one aspect of our society through your work, what would it be?
I’d love to see more diversity of models in the fashion industry. Race, body type, gender identity, etc. Also, I support the “free the nipple”movement, because I think a woman’s nipple shouldn’t be sexualized and censored while a man’s isn’t, especially when the same outlets that censor it are ok with gratuitous violent images.
Have you ever doubted your talent? If so, how did you work through your doubt?
I doubt my talent every day. I think it’s healthy. It motivates me to keep getting better.
Usually it’s brought on when I see another photographer’s work that I see as better than my own. I get through it by trying to objectively see in what specific ways their work is better and how I can improve my own, and then I go out and shoot with that in mind and improve my own technique.
Are there any mantras that you live by?
I always liked that quote from Conan O’Brien,
“Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”
I think it’s a great balance of pragmatism and idealism. Conan said this on his last show as host of the Tonight Show where he essentially was screwed out of his job. I think a lot of people feel this idea of having their dreams come true is some sort of entitled right. And I think a lot of times that’s simply not true, and a lot of times we don’t get the things in life that we want. And instead of being cynical about that, you can work hard and be kind to everyone, so even if your dreams don’t come true, inevitably good things still happen.
A question that I haven’t asked but should have or something you’d like to share with others?
If there’s one thing that all these interviews accomplish, I hope that it’s showing your readers that most of us photographers, even the most “famous”ones, are completely human and normal people with their own doubts and struggles. I mean, I get it. I once got to speak with Robert Plant and I was stupidly starstruck. But I am no Robert Plant.
QUICK FIRE QUESTIONS
Your favourite podcast(s)
Your favourite music
My Bloody Valentine, Talking Heads, Yo La Tengo, Tame Impala, Blonde Redhead, Tamaryn, a ridiculously large amount more
Film / Documentary that is a must watch?
Your favourite book // A book you are currently reading?
A website you regularly follow?
Last place you travelled?
Los Angeles, CA
Favourite photographer or photo project outside of your genre?
Off the top of my head, Corey Arnold
Do you have a favourite poem or quote?
Carl Sagan’s speech on the “pale blue dot”
Favourite (photography related) TED talk:
I don’t have one
Last gallery / exhibit you visited
Not including my own? Can’t remember.
Your favourite photography book
That I own? The Contact Sheet.
Links to your personal work // projects
I shot a series of double exposures a few years back titled “Deux”
Can you share a short assignment / project that has benefited you in the past OR create / describe an assignment that you feel can help those reading this interview?
During my very first (and only) photography class in college, we had to take photos of interesting light. Everyone started out shooting obvious shots of light sources. Our professor then challenged us to not focus on light sources, but instead how light interacts with subjects. It was an eye opening change of perspective that I still use to this day.
THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR TIME JON!
You can see more of Jon’s work here // Web
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