John Davidson is a commercial, corporate and editorial photographer originally from Manchester, England but residing in Austin, Texas. He is known for producing colorful contemporary portraits and narrative-based work-culture images. From photographer to writer back to photographer, John’s journey has landed him with a client list consisting of some of the biggest tech players in Austin. They include Rackspace, Accenture, British Airways, Hypergiant, Environmental Defense Fund, Honest Dollar, Volusion, ESO Solutions, Div Inc. just to name a few! While his work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Financial Times, Bloomberg, Texas Monthly, Austin Monthly, San Antonio Magazine, Houstonia, and Food & Wine Magazine.
Hi John! When did you first start becoming interested in photography?
I was young and had a bit of an adventurous spirit, so I moved to Los Angeles at 21 to pursue fashion photography. Somewhere along the way, though, I became a little disillusioned or dispirited. I either wanted to be really great at it or I wasn’t interested – and obviously, I just wasn’t committed enough to be really great!
I left LA for New York. In New York, I was writing for magazines, and working on a novel. I always describe these as my years working for my own non-profit. Then the dot com bubble burst and writers all over New York were standing on window ledges preparing to jump because all the magazines were shutting down and the budgets shrinking.
Somewhat coincidentally, around this time I moved to Austin, thinking that if I could write AND take pictures, it might provide me with some leverage at magazines. This proved hopelessly unfounded, but it served as a bridge to get me taking photographs again. A friend was opening a high-level restaurant and needed website photographs – and somehow this set me on my way. Pretty soon after, I dropped the novel and picked up the camera again full time.
The way people work has changed and it gives you the opportunity to create images that are visually arresting.
You describe your work as narrative-based work-culture images, can you elaborate on this?
Some of the work that I do might be considered corporate photography, but I think the imagery we associate with that term is somewhat staid and dull. The way people work has changed and I think it provides an opportunity to create images that are more visually arresting.
Work culture now is about creating a lifestyle, almost seducing your employees – a company’s work culture is, by necessity, carefully linked to its brand. Exploring that culture shift represents an interesting opportunity, and I want to see what comes out the other end of it.
Why did you decide to focus on so many types of photography?
I don’t know that the work I do is particularly diversified. In fact, I think it can be dangerous to spread yourself too thin, and it’s better to be known for doing a smaller number of things well.
What I would acknowledge is that there is a bit of a disconnect in my work between the tech/work-culture photography and the food work. It’s something I haven’t managed to fully resolve yet. With food photography, it’s really an area I slipped into because the opportunity presented itself. I don’t market that work so much, but rather, it seems to find me. But I enjoy the travel aspect of it, and I’ve been fortunate to enjoy a fairly long and fruitful relationship with Texas Monthly, a great magazine that has sent me far and wide across this enormous state, seeing places and meeting people I otherwise never would have met.
Austin is becoming one of the larger tech scenes and you’ve photographed a lot of the executives, are there any that stand out to you?
I’ve worked quite extensively with serial entrepreneur, Ben Lamm. Ben’s latest company, Hypergiant, works in the realm of Artificial Intelligence and his company is on an amazing trajectory, having recently launched their own satellites into space. Ben is an ideal collaborator – he carries strong ideas about branding (and everything else), but he also provides the freedom to move within his concepts and allows me to suggest other ideas too.
Any other portrait subjects you’ve particularly enjoyed?
I’m a photographer by way of being a failed novelist, don’t forget. And as an avid reader, I’m often struck by the terrible author portraits I see on the back of books! Last year I photographed Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright in his home office, which was great. Similarly, I enjoyed photographing Philipp Meyer, whose book “The Son” was made into a hit TV series. So, getting to talk about books while taking an author’s portrait is a very interesting day’s work for me. I really hope to pursue more of that, even if it’s not the kind of work that’s going to make anyone (me included) rich.
On a completely different note, I photographed Donnie Dunagan for The Guardian last year. Donnie is 84 now, but many moons ago he performed the voice of Bambi, in the Disney film. He lives in San Angelo, Texas, and he’s lived an extraordinary life. How else but through photography would I have spent such a memorable afternoon with him?
Can you tell me about your “Women Who Tech are Dangerous” series?
One of the things you hear a lot about as a photographer is the importance of personal work as a means of showcasing the kind of work you’re passionate about. At the end of 2017, I was looking for a portrait project when the #MeToo movement came into sharp focus. It led me to photograph and interviewing 40-plus women from all backgrounds and career levels in technology.
As someone who works regularly with people in tech, I found myself wondering what some of the women I knew or had met, felt about the movement, and what their own experiences might have been. Most of the media attention was focused on companies in Silicon Valley and the West Coast, but as someone who works in Austin – a city that sees itself as the nation’s second city of tech, and a more progressive city at that – I felt that someone should be asking questions here.
My primary goal was to elevate the voices of these women, provide an outlet for them to share their stories. Soon I had inquiries from women in London, Vancouver, Seattle, etc, asking to take part – though unfortunately, I didn’t have the option of flying to all these places to make portraits!
Of course, I hoped the project would create some professional exposure for my own work, as well. The project ended up gathering a fair amount of media attention, culminating in me being asked to present it at SXSW 2019.
I feel conflicted about Instagram at this point because as a photographer it’s pretty much non-negotiable to have an account.
How do you feel about social media as a photographer?
Ambivalent, at best, I’m afraid. There is such a flood of pictures on social media that it feels desensitizing to always be looking at something. It can get in the way of creativity because you’re just looking at all these images and you’re not actually seeing things with a fresh perspective anymore.
Would I have liked to have got on Instagram early, been featured in a story and immediately gathered 100k followers? Sure, it might have been useful. But I’m very glad that I didn’t invest huge amounts of energy trying to chase followers. I think that Instagram is already showing signs of fatigue, in much the same way that Facebook’s influence, while still strong, has lost much of its power.
I feel conflicted about Instagram at this point because as a photographer it’s pretty much non-negotiable to have an account. But I do shut it down or tune it out for periods and have no qualms over doing so.
Studio or no studio?
Each affords their own pleasures. Studios are obviously good because of the control you have over everything. But I like to experience someone else’s environment and experience their world.
The customer is always right?
I had a shoot recently where I felt I should shoot it one way and the art director felt it should be shot a slightly different way. We went with the art director’s way because he’s paying for the product. We both agreed afterward that my way would have worked a bit better, but that’s OK. The result we got was fine. The customer buys the image, so the customer gets to choose the image. You have to be prepared to let the client be right.
Which three tools would you not be able to work without?
I am not one of those photographers who like to play with the latest and greatest anything. Definitely not a gear-head! There are pluses and minuses to this, I’m sure.
Tools I use the most? Assuming a camera/memory card/computer is a given… I love my 24-70mm lens, my 5-in-one reflector, and probably Lightroom or Capture One.
Curiosity and visual awareness are more important. It’s about finding a visual language you can communicate.
Thoughts on going to school for photography?
Well, it wasn’t my path. Somewhere between my first go-round as a photographer and my second, the digital revolution happened. I went from making prints while sitting on a toilet seat in my bathroom to trying to figure out Photoshop – with little connecting in-between.
There’s a group of photographers in Austin who all went to the famed Brooks Institute (RIP) in California, and their number includes some of the best photographers in the country. Sometimes I wish I had a better technical background, like some of these guys. But no, you don’t have to go to school to become a photographer. Curiosity and visual awareness are more important. It’s about finding a visual language you can communicate.
Is there anything/anyone you’re dying to shoot?
On a personal level, I want to improve as a portrait photographer. There’s a long road ahead of me, I know. I’ve never been interested in celebrity for its own sake, but I’ve always been interested in people of uncommon talent – writers and artists, for example. The civil rights activist Bryan Stephenson is someone I greatly admire and would love to photograph.
Professionally, I’ve been thinking about a project called How We Work Now. If anyone reading this has an extraordinary or unusual workspace they’d be interested in me photographing, feel free to drop me a line!
Any final advice?
As a photographer, you always have re-evaluated what you’re doing. “What am I doing now and what do I want to be doing?” is a healthy conversation to have with yourself. It’s vital in ensuring that you remain satisfied, in pursuing work that you really want to do.
It can be easy to get caught up in following the money sometimes, but following the money can be dangerous. If your work always feels like a job, then it’s a pretty good sign that too much of what you’re doing is for the money, not for any of the reasons you picked up a camera in the first place.