I consider Sam Jones to be one of the top photographers in the country at shooting men. And there are plenty of people who shoot men as people or fashionable or sexy but very few who shoot them “manly,” which is something I love about Sam’s photography. So, that’s a very thin category that I put him in and of course he does a lot of things very well but I’ve worked with him a lot on covers and feature stories because he was at the top of that list. I also discovered that he loves to surf, so I put him on some portrait and cover shoots with the big surfers that worked our really well for me. I also noticed something when working on set with Sam that really makes a difference when he’s shooting celebrities. He knows a lot of Hollywood insiders and not just actors, but the cinematographers, editors and sound guys who are respected by actors for their craft. He’ll get into a conversation at the beginning of a shoot with the subject and start talking about the industry, the people they both know and you can see the I’m-on-a-shoot patina start to fade away. Sam made a critically acclaimed documentary in 2002 on the band Wilco called I Am Trying to Break Your Heart and was rumored to be working on an Infinite Jest movie with David Foster Wallace at the time of his death.
Here’s part one of the interview:
APE: Tell me how you got started and how you got into shooting actors and doing the Hollywood thing?
In college at Cal State Fullerton I was a photojournalist at our college newspaper and they had a really good daily newspaper that won the equivalent of the pac 10 competition of newspapers. That led to being a stringer for the associated press, where I worked for over 3 years covering news, sports, and entertainment. I moved to downtown LA and lived 2 miles from the bureau and just threw myself in it. I actually had one stretch where I shot for 61 days without a break.
APE: Did you know before college that you wanted to be a photographer?
No, not at all. I was in bands and always thought I was going to be a musician and make records. I was doing both but I got so busy with photography. Working for the AP was amazing, because we were photographing the national news. You weren’t sent in if it didn’t have some kind of national appeal and in LA we had the Dodgers, Raiders, Lakers, UCLA, Academy Awards, Riots, Savings and Loan Fraud, Courthouse Stakeouts; that whole era was just crazy. If it was national news and it happened in LA you were expected to shoot it. That was 1989 – 1992.
The Associated Press had a syndication company called AP Wide World at the time and they would syndicate the images we shot to magazines. They would take the photos that stringers made for very little money and resell them to publications like Vanity Fair. They resold some of my Los Angeles Riots images to VF, and the actor Tim Robbins saw it. He was getting ready to direct a movie called Bob Roberts at the time, and he wanted those kinds of photojournalistic pictures to publicize his movie. So, he found me and called up and asked if I knew how to shoot actors. Part of the AP job was you had to go to those 20-minutes-in-a-hotel-room-with-Harrison-Ford-and-make-a-portrait-of-him movie junkets. I was always doing that stuff so I told him yes, no problem.
So, I got hired to be a still photographer on Bob Roberts and got to shoot the movie poster and the whole thing. He had a bunch of big actors playing small rolls in that movie like Susan Sarandon, James Spader and John Cusack. During the shooting of the movie I would pull these actors aside and make large and medium format portraits of them.
APE: Wait, is it common that someone shooting a movie is going to be making portraits on the side too?
No, I don’t think that it was, but this was not a normal shoot at all. Tim wanted the film to have a very realistic feel, so he let me do a lot of my shooting, especially of press scenes, from wherever I wanted. This included being able to walk into the scene, shoot without a blimp, and even bump the cinematographer during press scrums.
APE: You were in the movie too?
Oh yeah, the back of my head is all over the movie. He wanted me to be like a press photographer who was assigned to the beat of this politician [Bob Roberts]. They would set up the scene for a press conference and Tim would go “does this look right?” I remember once telling him that the person handling the press conference should not be saying “you there” because they would know everyone by name. I told him to use reporters first names, and they actually changed the script to reflect this advice. I was having a blast and was thinking this still photography gig is awesome.
Then I got my rude awakening. Someone referred me to New Line Cinema for another film, and they said we’ll give you a job being a still photographer on this movie but it shoots in Chicago and we can’t afford to send you there so you have to work as a local. I had to call an acquaintance that I went to school with to ask if I could sleep on his floor for $100/month. It was freezing and the crew was pretty shitty to me.
APE: So, you went from acting in a movie you were shooting and giving the director notes to just another guy on set?
Oh yeah and on the Tim Robbins movie his cinematographer was Robert Altman’s cinematographer Jean Lepine and he totally took me under his wing. I used to come in and ask him how he was lighting this scene, why are you doing this, why are you doing that, why are you changing all the bulbs out? I learned so much from him and looking back on it I was probably a total pain in the ass, but he was so nice. So the main people I talked to on set were the DP, Producer and the Actors. Then I go to this job in Chicago and I’m persona non grata. It’s winter and all the shoots are night shoots, the blimp is freezing to my face and the camera would just stop working. It pretty much sucked, and I barely got paid a living wage.
So, I did that and got another New Line job doing a film called Loaded Weapon and I’m a pretty friendly guy so I made friends with Sam Jackson and some other people in the cast and crew. New Line says they’re going to put me up to do the poster. Then they came back to me and said Emilio Estevez doesn’t want you to shoot the poster he want’s Bonnie Schiffman to shoot it. I was a kid at the time, like 22 and I got kind of pissed off so I walked up the Emilio and said “hey man why didn’t you want me to shoot the poster.” I’m sure he was like, what is this still photographer doing talking to me? After that I decided I wasn’t going to do any more still jobs, because I basically don’t like doing jobs where I’m not wanted. With photojournalism there was a little of that, but being the still photographer on set there was a lot of that. It takes a totally different kind of personality. I think the photographers who do amazing work on films are stealth people who like not being seen and staying in the shadows getting the picture and not talking to anyone.
APE: Yeah, not asking the DP why he’s lighting something a certain way or helping the director with a scene.
Yeah, exactly. If it wasn’t clear what my calling was after that, it was clear it was not doing something behind the scenes.
APE: So, how did you move past that?
I just started flying to New York and meeting with people. I don’t know if it was just out of stupidity, but when you call a photo editor and they say portfolio drop off day is this and pickup day is this and if you’re out of town FedEx it to here, I just figured my portfolio didn’t have much of a chance of being looked at. I decided I’m just going to go there and tell them that I’ve flown here all the way from LA just to see them. I picked my ten favorite magazines and told them I only have one portfolio and I’m only here for 3 days, so If I drop it off I won’t have it for my next meeting. It worked. Maybe they took pity on me, but I had a lot of face to face meetings, and Entertainment Weekly ended up giving me my first magazine job.
APE: How was your book at the time? Was it a decent book?
It was all 4×5 chromes in these black mattes so you had to look at them on a light table, but 4×5 chromes were impressive to look at. I had Tim Robbins, John Cusack, Susan Sarandon and Gore Vidal. It was pretty much a mixture of the film stuff and some AP portraits.
Then, I started getting little tiny jobs at magazines. My first EW job was a parking space. I had to shoot Tom Arnold’s parking space. It was the dumbest job ever. He was feuding with some other actor over a parking space.
APE: And, you crushed it [laughing].
Oh my god, I must have shot 20 rolls. I brought lights and grabbed some security guard and said ok you walk through the background. I lost sleep over the parking spot shoot thinking, I’ve got to impress them.
APE: Right, you were thinking this has to be the best parking space they’ve ever seen in their life. And it was, right?
Quarter page in the back of EW. They ended up using the shot with the security guard’s feet in it.
APE: And they called you the next week to shoot Tom Cruise?
Ha, No. I moved from parking space to Doogie Howser and that was 1/4 page as well. Then there was also a bunch of business stuff that I was shooting. There were some AP environmental business shots that I had blown up in my portfolio, like the president of Bank of America, that kind of thing. So I ended up getting work from some business magazines right off too.
APE: I think a lot of people want to know how you go from 1/4 page of a parking spot to shooting the cover?
You know what it is? The photo editor sees the whole shoot and so it’s not just the one picture in the magazine that they judge you by. I shot features for a long time before I got to shoot a cover. Even when I was doing a 1 page shot I was always trying 3, 4 and 5 setups. I was shooting like it was a cover and full feature because you never know, it could get bumped up. I think there was a couple photo editors early on at Time, EW, US and Premiere who just started making a case to their Art Director and their Editor that this photographer is working his ass off and is good and they should let him do it. That was the case with me, where someone finally said we should give him the cover, or at least I remember it being a cover try. I think back at what I made actors do for 1 page, because I was telling them it might be more pages, so we need to shoot more setups and try a bunch of ideas and we had extra clothes and locations ready. I was syndicating my pictures with Gamma Liaison at the time and because of all these setups, I actually had several syndicated covers before I was assigned an actual cover. So, those tear sheets were in my book and that helped me out as well.
APE: I recall a really big cover run you had at Esquire and GQ. You seemed to be the cover guy for those magazines.
It was funny because there was a period where I was shooting covers for both, and often in the same month. I don’t think that went over too well.
APE: I don’t think it would really. How did you pull that off.
I didn’t have a contract with either one so in my mind I figured it wasn’t a problem. I had originally thought having a contract was the way to go, especially since a lot of photographers that I admired had them, but for me, it turned out to be a better thing not to have one. I never wanted to have to shoot an assignment I wasn’t interested in, just because I was contracted to do so.
APE: It seems like a lot of actors and publicists have a list of photographers they want to work with, so how much does it help to be on an actors list? Like Clooney, I’ve seen you shoot a lot of George Clooney covers and heard you two are friends.
That cover with the hats for Esquire was the first shoot I did with him and he didn’t know me from Adam at the time but the magazine suggested me and he said ok. Then I shot him and we had a good time, so we developed a pretty good working relationship. I will say I feel lucky to have done so many shoots with him, because he is not the type of guy to demand a certain photographer. He’s a lot more low maintenance about that kind of stuff. However, he has been very loyal, and he will ask for me when he has a commercial shoot in Japan or something like that, and I’m very grateful for that.
APE: Ok, but on the other hand if I have a Clooney shoot I might hire Sam Jones because I know I’ll get more than 30 minutes, because you guys are friends.
That’s true, but there’s also the other side of that. A magazine isn’t always going to want the same photographer to shoot the same actor, and I get that. No magazine wants to be told they have to use a certain photographer. I have certainly lost out on jobs where the magazine wanted to use me, but the actor requested someone else, so it works both ways. I have, like a lot of photographers, a few actors that regularly request me, and it is great to have that security of knowing you will be asked to do a lot of shoots with that person.
APE: What about the publicists who are pushing certain photographers?
There’s publicists who really know their job and who really want to match up the right photographer with their client. If you’re an actor, one of the things you expect your publicist to do is make sure that when the cover comes out and you’re on it, that the shoot worked out. That is a publicists job, so I understand the really pushing for a photographer they trust. However, this focus can become rather narrow, and it is tough to lose a job you know you are right for because a publicist stayed with a familiar choice. Anyone that’s been taking pictures in Hollywood is so used to not getting the job for some weird reason that makes no sense. You have to accept it too. I was just on hold for two weeks for a movie poster, and had even started production on the job when the lead actor informed the studio he wanted to work with another photographer who is a good friend of his. You have to just say ok, because I’ve been in the position where I’ve done that to another photographer, so it all comes around. And then sometimes you will be in a situation where there’s several actors and publicists involved and one actor says they want to use a different photographer, where the other actors and publicists may not even know or care about the decision, so it’s crazy.
I understand the element of sucking up that goes on, I’m just not very good at it. I always try to come at it from the perspective of making great pictures, and making sure the magazine, or client gets what they need. This may mean pushing for more risky set-ups or pushing the actor a bit to try something new, which can be uncomfortable for some publicists.
APE: That’s probably removed you from a couple lists.
Yes, but also it’s kept me working in the editorial environment, where pictures need to be more than just safe and pretty. I always loved working for magazines because that’s where I started and you go out and spend a day, or a few hours, with an actor and a writer spends a day with them as well and you photograph them at that one moment in their lives where you try to get something that’s revealing, interesting and compelling about them. If the story and pictures work well together it’s still one of my favorite things to read. I always want to be able to do that.
Part 2 tomorrow.