Sam Jones talks about his new website and recent award winning Foo Fighters video

- - Photographers, Video, Websites

Heidi: What made you want to create more of a browsing experience for your site?

Sam: First off, let me say I lament the loss of the independent bookstore, the takeover of the pawn shop by ebay, and the overall loss of the tactical experience of searching, discovering, and handling books, records, magazines, and the like.  I am glad I grew up in an era when if you wanted to view the work of an author, photographer, or painter, you went browsing in a great bookstore.  You may or may not have found exactly what you were searching for, but chances are you always stumbled on something accidentally that was equally inspiring.  I wanted to re-create that idea a bit with my new website.

The site has nuances of the ibooks bookshelf. Was that so users would be somewhat familiar to this experience?

I wasn’t really going for that, exactly, but I was trying to create the experience of walking by a display window, and having book covers, magazine covers and other designed elements that catch the viewer’s eye.  It has been an interesting experience trying to design these little icons in ways that make them feel like objects, and also entice the viewer to “pick them up” and browse for a while.  It is an idea I have been playing with for a long time, and I finally realized that users want to have multiple ways to view content, so that they can pick the way that works best for them.  So, the site is designed with traditional drop down menus, and a pretty sophisticated search function.  With that safety net of knowing users could easily navigate the site, I was free to then try something a little different with the shelves.

I think it is important to realize that a website is not a portfolio.  The Internet, whether you like it or not, is like a giant mall.  There may be some non-profit booths set up on the streets, and lots of free performances and conversations, but let’s face it, there are a heck of a lot of storefronts.  I figured, why not make the experience of going to my website more like popping into a gallery, a bookstore, a movie theater, etc.

All are the books on the shelf “books” with the exception of the images that have the grey layers, indicating multiple images?

The general layout is divided into three distinct groups of imagery.  Books, which can be any length or size, and which open up and have page turn animation to be as close to the experience of reading a book as possible.  Galleries, which are a series of large images in a white space that can be viewed right to left or left to right, like walking through a gallery.  And Movies, which include commercials, music videos, short films, movie trailers, interactive pieces, and documentaries.  I can also choose to put a single image on the shelf, if I feel it needs to stand alone.

The idea here was to be able to use the shelf in many different ways.  I can change the display by moving the content of the shelves around.  I can group content together (like placing a gallery of Tom Petty photographs on the shelf next to a Tom Petty music video).  I can put the latest magazine cover I shot on the top shelf, indicating that it is something new.  And I can use it like a blog: It is easy to see that there is something new just by seeing a new item on the shelf that wasn’t there on the last visit.

Because you do quite a bit of editorial, did that influence your embedded “book” style?

Really, the idea behind the books came from wanting a way to show people more pictures from a particular shoot.  On any given shoot, I may try six or seven different set-ups.  Invariably, only two or three get seen.  That doesn’t always tell the whole story.  I like having different options for showing the work.  If you look at the book I made after I did my Elle Fanning shoot for Vanity Fair, you can see that I tried to make it just a little keepsake from the day, like a little journal.  And with the Aaron Eckhart book, there are pictures from multiple shoots over several years.  That book has a very different feel.  And with the Tom Petty Mojo project, a gallery was the best way to show the work, because each image kind of needed to stand on it’s own.

The funny thing is that after creating the site, I realized it is already having an influence on the way I shoot.  I am now thinking about how I will end up telling the story, and displaying the work.  It makes me a better photographer, and it gives me an outlet to be my own designer, and to display the images in a way that brings out the character of the shoot.

Who created the site? Were the developers and the designers from the same group? Or separate?

I had a very talented designer named Ness Higson help me with the look of the site, the type, the layouts, etc.  And his partner Josh Stearns, (who is a tech wizard, and also a photographer) had to figure out how to make all these ideas work.  The three of us went back and forth, debating the merits of the shelf, the feasibility of having different book formats, etc.

How long did this site take to build?

Most of the time was spent on my end, trying to figure out what I wanted.  I would say I mulled over the idea on my own for over a year before I even engaged designers and builders.  Then, once we started I suppose it was about a four-month process before we had a working prototype.  Only then did I realize the massive amount of time it was going to take to “populate” the site with content, entering information, tags, uploading and compressing video, and creating the books.  And I am still a long way off from feeling like it is where I want it to be.

Are the images difficult load and change? how about for  the small books

The beauty of this site is in it’s architecture.  Josh and Ness made the uploading and designing of the elements so easy, and so flexible.  This was crucial for this kind of site because I wanted to be able to easily experiment with different ideas and be able to quickly update the site.  I couldn’t be happier with how it works.

Is this your response to the development of rich media? This interactive site and you being being involved in still and motion?

I think it is a natural evolution.  With first generation photography and film websites, I think everyone was trying to establish a visual identity with varying degrees of success.  Now we all want to find ways not only to reach an audience, but also to keep them coming back.  For me, being somewhat of a schizophrenic in terms of careers (I was making films long before the 5D was in existence), I wanted to find a format where my photography and film could live side by side in a very natural setting.  With the shelf concept, I think I have solved that problem.  When a viewer finishes looking at my site, I don’t want them necessarily to remember whether a particular visual they saw was in a film or in a photograph.  I just hope the whole experience can meld together, and what they are taking away is an understanding of the way my eye works.

I also like the idea that the site is deep, and expandable.  There is no end to the amount of shelves I can have, and that also goes for menu items in the dropdown section.  Additionally, I can use the site as a bit of an archive, by having pictures and films in there that may not show up in the menus or shelves, but if you search by name or keyword, you can find them.

I also plan on adding things as time goes on, such as limited edition printed books that you can get from the site, maybe a music element, and some other interesting sections.

The addition of type on your site is very editorial-minded with captions and chapters.  Was that to allow viewers to be more informed and add to the browsing experience?

I have been a big reader my whole life.  I was always as interested in the captions as I was the images when looking at books.  When I first talked to Ness and Josh, I told them I wanted the ability to write as much or as little about an image as I saw necessary.  So, we created opportunities in each format to write about the visuals.  At the very least, I can give each image and film a title.  And if I want to, I can write a whole book and just slap it up on the shelf.  But the idea is, maybe there is an interesting story that goes along with a photograph, and now I have a way to tell that story.  We tried to be as unobtrusive as possible with the text, and I am pleased with the way it turned out.

Are your printed books just as unique?

I feel like I am still in the infancy of the book design aspect.  I have to say, I absolutely love the art and science of graphic design, and this site gives me an excuse to play with type and experiment in ways that I never had an outlet for in the past.  I used to get funny comments from magazine editors because I would sometimes draw up a layout for a cover or inside spread and send it along with my edit.  But the truth is, design and images are inseparable, and more often than not, I am imagining where the type goes and how the image lays out even when I am shooting it.

Right now, I have two printed books, “The Here And Now,” and “Non-Fiction,” which are both on the shelves, albeit in excerpted form.  As time goes on I will ideally have more printed books and that maybe they will grow out of this website experience.  Or maybe the two formats will merge (I am still trying to wrap my head around a digital version of a photography book—is it the next logical step or the end of our industry?).

Are you disappointed your site doesn’t work on the iPad

We had a big debate about Flash versus HTML 5, but in the end, we decided to go with Flash for a lot of boring reasons I won’t get into here.  But I think an iPad version of my site should be different anyway, because the iPad is a different experience than a computer.  I am trying to wrap my head around how to make something unique to the iPad, and hopefully that turns into another interesting experiment.

You mention this site has great range for your images because it can accommodate any photo you take.

On my old website, there wasn’t a lot of room for variation.  There was a series of pictures that felt like a portfolio.  I found that I couldn’t include too many pictures of one subject, because it kind of ruined the flow of the images.  And I found, for example, with one-off images like the shot of the birds over the ocean in the Rob Lowe book, that there was no place for that image to live. On this new site I have the ability to create individual, stand alone experiences, and each one has their own identity, and their own flow.  And perhaps most exciting, the site is now searchable, which makes finding an image so easy.  I can now accommodate the client who just wants to quickly find one image or film, and also satisfy the person with way too much time on their hands.

Most portfolios / sites are very vertical in the way they are categorized, why did you want yours to be different?

Well, the drop-down menus at the top of the site are designed with the classic vertical categorization style. I wanted versatility, but I also didn’t want to exclude someone who wanted a normal photography website experience, so I made the dropdown menus in that spirit.  I guess you can think of the dropdown menus as the table of contents, or the catalog of the site.  The search function is for those who like to google everything, and the shelves are for those who want to browse, discover, and be surprised.  Another way I thought of it was, the viewer can organize the viewing of the site the way they want to.  The shelves are my personal space to curate the site the way I want to.  That way we can all get along!

I know you just won VMA for the Foo Fighters, have you been having some bad days here in LA?

Ha ha, no…there is no personal message in that video.  But I will tell you, ideas come from strange places.  When I am trying to get an idea together for a video, I do all sorts of things.  I examine the lyrics, I look at the band’s history, I watch films for inspiration, etc.  In this case, I just looked at the title of the song, which is “Walk” and the movie “Falling Down” flashed across my mind, because in that film, Michael Douglas walks across Los Angeles.  That was all it took to start an idea brewing, and I started writing an homage version that would have Dave Grohl just trying to get to band practice.

Do you think it has such great appeal because we’ve all had those days?

Interestingly enough, that film is not as widely known as I thought it was, and yet the comments about the video seem to lean towards a shared unity over bad day fantasies.  I thought when I made it that everyone would get that it was an homage to “Falling Down,” and therefore would understand all the references, but it seems to work fine as a story, even if you have never seen the film.

How many days did it take to shoot this? How is was this different from your previous motion music pieces? Was this more story telling?

The hardest thing about making this video is that it is essentially a trailer for a whole movie, and where Joel Schumacher (the director of “Falling Down”) had two or three months to make this film, we only had two days. I wanted to have representative scenes from the whole film, so we were running around Los Angeles in a panic trying to get to all of our locations.  Luckily for me the whole band is so good and so experienced at making music videos that we were able to nail most every scene in two or three takes.

I think every project, whether still or motion, is unique, and should be approached as it’s own animal.  With the Foo Fighters, I had a real blueprint with the movie, and I spent a lot of time storyboarding and figuring out how to integrate all of the band members in the different roles of the film.  Again, the biggest challenge was time.  Most videos, if you notice, repeat set-ups multiple times in the course of a four-minute song.  This video is six minutes long, and not one scene or shot repeats, so it was a lot of footage to shoot in a short amount of time, complete with effects and choreography.  Preparation was really key to making our days work.

How much did you edit out? Was the Dave Grohl easy to direct?

We managed to squeeze most of what we shot into the video, but there were a few things that we just didn’t have time for, including a funny little bit at the end of the convenience store scene where Dave comes back in for a bite of the Slim Jim.

Dave Grohl was so easy to direct because of all of his experience, and also because he has directed some videos himself, so he knows how hard it can be.  Having someone with experience on the other side of the camera is such a great luxury.  Dave is also naturally funny, so he would find the humor in each scene.  That was important because I never wanted the violence to seem at all real.  I always wanted to play it for laughs, and there is no one better than Dave at doing that.

Music has always been a part of your life, I would image that plays a big role in your motion work?

I have played music since I was very young, and have played in many bands, and it is one of the most enjoyable things I do.  One of the best parts about shooting motion is finding the right music to marry with the visuals, and I have been very fortunate to work on a lot of projects where I get to be really involved in that process.

One of the most satisfying musical projects I have ever worked on is the interactive video for the Cold War Kids.  I have always loved multi-track recording, and I wanted to see if I could make an interactive, visual version of a multi-track recorder.  The end result was that the user could make over 500 versions of the song, by combining different parts played by each musician (go check it out on the site, it makes much more sense to see it than for me to try to explain it).  The fun part for me, besides figuring it all out, was collaborating with the band on the different versions of the song, and coming up with arrangements.  That day was truly a melding of all of my interests, and I just love projects like that.

What is your best advice to any emerging editorial photographer in today’s market?

Don’t do it!  No, I am kidding.  But it sure is a different editorial world than when I started out.  If you can find something that overwhelms you, consumes you, and excites you, then I guarantee good things will come of that.  Find subject matter that really speaks to you, and immerse yourself in it, and the platforms for showing that work will appear.  (And if they don’t, we now live in a world where you can create your own platform).  I think it is important to spend as much time developing your interests as you do developing your craft (which is just a fancy way to talk about the philosophy of substance over style).

What is it about the traditional site that bores you and propelled you to do something unique?

I guess if there was one thing that bothers or bores me it is the traditional, antiseptic, linear site that makes me feel like I am doing research in the basement of the ICP.  I’ve said this earlier in this interview, but the overriding motivation for me doing a new site was to create an experience where the viewer can browse the work like they are walking through a bookstore, or a gallery, and finding things in an organic way.  I don’t want it to feel like work.  Photography should be a breath of fresh air in our busy days, and now that we see the majority of pictures online, it is important to remember that looking at pictures can fun, inspiring, and really motivating.

You have away of opening your subjects up and allowing an unguarded moment to shine, is there a secret?

The secret is I tell them that if they will open up to me in an unguarded moment, and really shine, I will let them go home two hours early!  Ha, no… there is no secret, but thank you for that nice compliment.  I do believe that you have to create the right environment for the pictures you are looking to make.  I try to make things fun, and easy, and have some good food around, and hopefully I make a connection with the person I am shooting.

Heidi Volpe

There Are 11 Comments On This Article.

  1. I completely agree with Alex. It’s a great website and not only when it comes to design. The content on the site is awesome and inspiring. This is one of those articles that I’ve felt I could really connect with. Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. Maybe I’m being suuuuuuuper nitpicky here – the site’s aesthetic is nice and the work is strong, but I question the site’s usability.

    Some super nitpicky design notes: It’s 100% flash with no HTML fallback, which means it isn’t viewable on iOS (iPad, iPhone) and requires a large amount bandwidth. Also, the site’s scrolling doesn’t respond to mouse/trackpad scrolling, so you have to move the cursor over and click and draaaaaag to see the work, which means more effort to get to the content. Also, the info box requires clicking in a different location to open and close, which again means more moving of the cursor to achieve what is basically an on/off functionality.

    As someone who hires creative talent, I don’t want to have any barriers to seeing the work, and I often have to view sites and make decisions on set about what work to present (and who subsequently gets hired), when I’m using my iPad.

    I don’t mean this as criticism, and this may not be terribly important to Sam since his work speaks for itself (gorgeous) and his career obviously isn’t hurting, but not everybody is Sam Jones, so it may be of more importance to others, particularly to less established photographers whose name doesn’t precede their work.

    Just some food for thought when planning a site design…

    • you should have seen his last site. the front page was a bird and you clicked on a different part of the bird then color would fill that part of the bird and once it was done you were allowed to see the images for that particular gallery. I think he had that up for 10 years and hadn’t changed many of the pictures in that long either. this is a 10,000 % improvement over the last one.

      but, yeah, I agree. don’t attempt unless you are Sam Jones.

  3. I guess my mind just wasn’t open to appreciating the newness of the experience. So it sounds like I’m still a linear person. Some photographers work transcends how it is presented.

  4. Glenn (this one is from Texas)

    People are still doing flash-only sites and think it’s a good idea? iBooks (what Jones’ site appears to be riffing off of) has no flash. Good ideas deserve good implementations.

    On a positive note, the screenshot is very pretty.

  5. There’s no denying Sam is a good photographer and his site is cool but why is such a blatant rip off of the movie “Falling Down” being awarded? When are we going to stop rewarding lack of creativity? I see so much of it in this industry. I’ve been on countless photography sets where photographers have ripped pages out of old Italian Vogue’s or brought in a Man Ray book and pretty much copied the images.

    Didn’t Don Henley get in copyright trouble years back for his video “The End of the Innocence” in which he ripped of Robert Frank’s images from the book “The Americans”

    How is this Foo Fighters video legal?