I’m standing at the corner of the street just outside the Cocoa Bar in Brooklyn. “Meet me at the coffee shop at 3” -Jesse. “Is this the right place?” I think to myself. It had to be. I’m just early. I shouldn’t text him. That’s just annoying. As I waited I thought about what to ask. What could I possibly ask that he hasn’t heard before? He’s a NYU photography graduate that shoots the stars. Sting, Tom Hanks, Megyn Kelly, Jimmy Page, Idina Menzel? He shouldn’t even be wasting his time on little old me. How could I possibly help his career? He’s only doing this because he went to school with my cousin... But that’s good enough. He’s going to meet with me… At least he said he would.
Typical me, I forgot my notebook. I grab a pen from the lovely barista and some receipt paper and start scribbling down questions. Meanwhile, people are flowing in and out of the shop. At this point I’m afraid I’ve missed him, until someone catches my eye. In walks the friendliest looking lumberjack I’ve ever seen. He’s in his late 20s with long red hair and round, stylish glasses. He walks up to my table, his six foot two stature towering over me, smiles and softly says…
JD: “Hey. I’m Jesse. You must be Chase."
We order some coffee, sit down outside, and begin chatting. The time has come and the pressures on. I glance at my scrappy little notecard.
CJ: “First things first. Where are you from?”
JD: “I’m from Connecticut.”
CJ: “Now lets talk photography. What was your first camera?”
JD: “Haha. It was a Hasselblad 500. Funny you ask. I still love to shoot with it and I just got it serviced for the first time two weeks ago.”
CJ: “And of course that’s film. So film or digital? Which do you shoot with more?”
JD: “It really depends on the project. I’d say I shoot 90% digital and 10% film on average. That being said, my portfolio is 50/50.”
CJ: “Why so?”
JD: “Well I like my film work more. It’s just more personal to me. However I can do so much more with digital. We have to work so quickly and the physical shoots themselves are so fast, it would be impossible to do it all in film and still deliver my level of quantity and quality. But I do make sure I take the time to shoot a roll each shoot, because it’s really fun and it looks awesome. And I love It.”
CJ: “Do you think it’s the “wait’ in film that makes it better? Like not instantly being able to see the shot?”
Jesse pauses and looks away. Did I just ask something stupid?
JD: “I mean…I used to, when I had the luxury to wait. But I don’t have that anymore. When I was in school though it was part of the “Magic” of photography. Seeing the negatives for the for the first time, making contact sheets. I think that’s why I fell in love with photography. But professionally the wait is impractical.”
CJ: “I’m definitely not on the same time crunches as you. What’s a typical week like?”
JD: “For the past two years now we’ve been doing an average of 2 shoots a week. It’s November now and we’re going to have between 90 and 100 shoots by the end of the year.”
CJ: “What does it take to be a successful portrait photographer?”
JD: “You have to have a really fantastic work ethic, and that’s for any type of photography. Whether it be portraiture, still life, fashion. And on top of that, people have to like you because people still have to hire you. No one’s hiring someone they don’t like.”
CJ: “I’d say a good work ethic is necessary to be successful at anything.”
CJ: “But what separates being a successful portrait photographer from the other types like still life?”
JD: “Different skill sets are needed for different mediums. The portrait photographer needs to be able to connect with their subject very quickly. I have to gain their trust and have them buy into what I want to do. It’s all about social interaction. You don’t have to do that when you’re a landscape photographer or a still life photographer.”
CJ: “If anyone, who would you most like to emulate?”
JD: “My heroes are the greats. Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz, Irving Penn. I do everything I can to emulate how they operate, because there is a reason they were successful. I think the best path to success is to figure out how the people you love did it, then put your own unique spin on it.”
CJ: “What do you think your own spin is?”
JD: “I only get a few minutes with these people. I want to make sure the person was really there and it’s them. To make the photo feel real and natural, that’s the biggest challenge we deal with every shoot. And it’s challenging because we’re shooting in such unnatural scenarios. So my goal is to strip all that away. To forget about the photography, to forget about the lighting, forget about the framing, forget about the lens choices and to just be thinking ‘Oh, there’s Sting. Cool. I get what he’s all about. He feels real to me.’"
As we finished our wonderful conversation I had an epiphany. I thought I would be meeting the next Annie Leibovitz, but I was completely wrong. And that’s a good thing, because the world has already seen her. I was lucky enough to meet the world’s first Jesse Dittmar.