A Frank Discussion with a Veteran Photographer
I had the pleasure of meeting John Hartman last year during my indoctrination into XXV Society in New York. We became fast friends and taught together at Texas School, and I attended one of his Light Painting Workshops in Portland. He is one of the most fun, interesting and giving people I have met in the industry. I am honoured he blessed us with an interview.
If you never needed to earn another dollar in your life, what would you do?
I feel very fortunate to be be able to be doing exactly what I want to be doing in my career right now. The fact that others find value in what I do is a bonus.
You are an amazing photographer (and human being), what would you say has been the one largest struggle in your career?
Taking everything into account, the biggest career challenge I’ve had to was to discover my own niche (some would call it a style, but it’s more than that), and to feel completely comfortable in it. As a younger photographer I was a seminar junkie, and I was always determined to come home ready to change what I did into something better, or so I thought. Eventually I determined that I no longer wanted to learn in order to become a clone of someone else—rather, I began adding only the things that fit with the way I wanted my work or business to look like. It was then that my career took off and things started to really get fun.
What makes you most happy in your life?
My happy place is spent with family and friends, who have become increasingly important as I get older. I also value tremendously the friendships I’ve made in this industry over the past four decades. Photographically, give me a flashlight, a Pluto trigger, an iPad and a camera and I’m in light painting heaven.
You shoot with a Hasselblad System, what are your reasons, and do you think it is necessary for those who would never print larger than a 30x40?
I shot with film Hasselblads for 25 years. In 2014 I found myself selling lots of very large images, and the resolution requirements for photographs three feet and larger dictated the larger format camera. The medium format files, especially from the 100MP camera I currently use, do not disappoint.
However, the improved dynamic range, the 16-bit files, and the incredible color gamut these files produce are superior to any DSLR camera, at any size. There are a great many photographers who get everything they want from their current camera, and those people are not medium format candidates. But for those whose images consistently bump up against the limits of their toolset, and for those who have the skills to get the most from these files, there is no substitute. My 50mp 35mm DSLR is collecting dust right now.
What surprises you the most about the industry today?
With all the complaining we hear about business not being like it used to be due to the influx of more photographers combined with the diminished need for services, I’m constantly amazed at how many photographers are keeping busy, making great images and earning a good living. Having been in professional photography for almost 44 years, I’ve pretty much seen it all. And what’s going on today is not new—there have always been ‘newbies’ coming into the business with subpar skills, undercutting the established businesses. Those that have always thrived and continue to thrive are those who combine aggressive marketing skills with photographic products and services that the inexperienced folks cannot touch. In doing so, they run in parallel but separate markets, and in so doing insulate themselves from the cannibalization that so much of the industry is experiencing.
Do you think High School Senior Portraits are becoming a thing of the past?
Not in central Wisconsin! We’ve been as busy as we want to be in the senior market, year in and year out because in part because we’re doing what others can’t do and in part because of being around so long. I’m now photographing students whose parents and even grandparents (!) came to us for their senior portraits. The cheese has definitely moved, so it is important to be playing in the area that everybody else isn’t.
If you could only have one light, one camera and one lens which would they be and why?
The sun, a Leica M and 35mm lens. Good enough for Henri Cartier-Bresson, right?
If you had to start from scratch, right now, no one knew you, you had no body of work, how would you manage to make a go of it in today’s environment, culture and social media driven world?
I think a good model to follow is Benjamin Von Wong. He started out doing projects that interested him. Then, when he posted the resulting BTS videos and finished images, he began attracting people interested in seeing his process. Soon he was being asked to create really epic projects all around the world, in some really exotic locations, and with models, props, equipment and makeup all provided by his hosts. Eventually started getting paid assignments from big name clients.
Another model I would follow is that of my friend Joey Lawrence, who most people know as Joey L. I met him when he was a teenager, when his work shooting street people in Toronto with a 1 megapixel point-and-shoot camera was beginning to get him notoriety. When I met him he had just photographed the now-famous poster for the first Twilight movie, By age 18 he had been traveling for several years photographic indigenous peoples from all over the world. His rise to the top was meteoric, and he has photographed film, music and political personalities at the highest levels and from top clients worldwide.
Both of these young men have very strong photographic skills, which is the main prerequisite for success today. Additionally, they had a strong vision of their brand (even before they knew what branding was) and were able to deftly navigate and exploit social media and the Web to their advantage.
You are an educator, what do you like most about teaching?
I’m proud to be the father of three handsome men and to be the husband of my best friend for forty years. I also feel fortunate to have been able to support them entirely as a professional photographer—I’ve never had a paycheck in my life!
I began teaching marketing, business and sales to photographers in 1983. In 1996 I held my first Marketing Boot Camps in Chicago and Las Vegas, and thoroughly enjoyed all twenty of them and the four thousand-plus photographers who attended them. After discovering light painting a few years ago, I was besieged by requests to teach again, so the Light Painting Workshops were instituted.
Whether teaching how to light, how to market, how to edit, how to sell or how to run a business, I feel it is my obligation to help other photographers achieve their vision of what they consider success in their photography. The rewards come at odd times, but are sweet nevertheless; I just got a call last week from a photographer who told me he still has and reads his old tattered copy of my Family Portraiture book from 1988.
You are the John Hartman behind Quick Mats! I love your product so much, I used it in competition this year and my images either went loan or earned a merit in my photographic case. They have been around for many years, but there are a LOT of new photographers that don’t know anything about them. Tell them what they are, and how they can benefit their business.
QuickMats came about in 1999 when I tried to make a realistic looking digital mat for a photo gift I had made for a neighbor. I shared the results with some photographer friends, who immediately asked me to make them available to them. There have been five major upgrades since then, and they continue to be sold to photographers all over the world.
QuickMats is a series of more than five hundred digital mats in single and multiple-opening configurations. They are available in all sizes and aspect ratios, from 2” to 40” and larger, and from 1:1 square to 4:1 panoramic. They can be customized in any color, and come with hundreds of textures and overlays that help create mats that can compliment any photograph or image series.
I sell QuickMats products to my clients almost every day in my studio. From sports teams to seniors to fine art to families, these products add multiple five figures to my sales year in and year out. So QuickMats exists primarily for the benefit of my studio. (And yes, all my competition prints this year contained QuickMats presentations.) But I’m happy that so many other photographers have found them to enhance and add value to their work, as well.
Your light painting is so beautiful and unique, you teach this to a limited number of professional photographers, do you have any upcoming workshops that might have a spot or two open?
Light painting is extremely rewarding, both artistically and financially, but it’s also one of the most difficult types of photography I’ve ever done, and it’s equally difficult to teach the techniques and concepts in any way other than to very small groups.
At this time I have one workshop scheduled in May at my Stevens Point, WI studio. There are just two seats available—the class size is generally kept small, so there’s lots of hands-on attention for each student.
It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in photography!
Thanks for allowing me to interview you John, you are a wonderful dear friend and I respect and adore you and your work.