Interview Series: Jonathan AllenPosted: January 14, 2010
“Being in the mindset of a freelancer, you have to hustle constantly, and being around others becomes infectious.”
The other day I spoke with a friend from high school (Go Jags), Jonathan Allen. A freelance photographer, Jonathan is steadily increasing his body of work on the local and national level. In this first interview of 2010, Jonathan talks about the joys of freelancing, Craigslist ads, networking, skill-building, career uncertainty and staying focused.
Bio: Jonathan Allen
I was born and raised here in Austin. I’ve actually never left. I guess I’m part of a rare breed now, as people constantly point out to me. After graduating high school here in 2001, I went to UT for a couple years studying various things, and ended up taking photography courses at ACC. I studied there for almost four years before breaking off into the field in 2006.
When did you first know you were interested in photography as a profession?
When I took my first photography class at UT, it really was just a minor interest for me, and my primary motivation for taking the class was to use my camera and compare the quality of my work against others. I did pretty well in the class and really enjoyed the act of using my camera. I was also really bored with my other studies and kind of fed up with the big university mentality. That style of learning just wasn’t for me.
I learned that ACC had a great photography program, and I had been tinkering with the idea of leaving UT; so I quit and enrolled in classes at ACC, which I thought at the time would be temporary. I spent the next three and a half years immersed in classes in the photography department. I took every class I could sign up for, and worked on every area of my technical skills that I could. It was through my many great teachers that I learned exactly what could be achieved with photography as a profession. By the time I was done with school there, I had a really good idea of what steps I would need to take to achieve my goals.
What was the process you took to arrive where you are today?
The first step was the academic part. Again, I took every class I could and tried to make the absolute most out of the education I was provided. After that, I decided I wanted to assist other photographers in the field, which is generally one of the steps to becoming a photographer. It pays pretty well, and you learn a ton of skills not provided in a formal education. It’s very much a trade, and a lot of the craft is learned from someone who is a working professional. In order to start assisting, I emailed every photographer I could in Austin to see if they had any work available. I got a few hits and worked some one off jobs.
I had two good friends who were working assistants at the time, and they referred lots of work to me. One of those referrals landed me as a regular assisting with someone I still work with today. I also responded to one Craigslist ad I saw with my resume, which turned out to be an absolutely lucky find, because it’s turned into friendships with two great people who’ve helped me out in many ways and taught me a lot. That ad eventually turned into an extremely profitable client which allows me to this day to travel to Chicago and a few other great cities regularly. For the record, I generally loathe craigslist for jobs postings because people offer way too little compensation, and it’s also very clogged up with people responding. But, I did get very lucky with that one find, so I guess it’s not all bad.
Did you have any mentors along the way?
Several of them. A couple of my friends, Brandon Barron and Lance Holt, who I went to school with, and who helped me become a good assistant. Casey Dunn, an architectural photographer who’s become a good friend and the person I still work with regularly. He’s taught me a lot about technique and attention to detail, loaned me his equipment when I needed it, and helped with the retouching and business side of the field.
He’s also hooked me up with some local clients that I still shoot with on occasion. Angie West, who was one of the girls I met through the Craigslist connection. I worked with her briefly in Austin, and then she moved to Chicago to take over as marketing director for an upscale furniture company. I helped her with retouching a giant catalogue for them, which transitioned into me helping her with photo shoots, which turned into me taking over as photographer for a portion of them when she moved into another department. We still work together regularly, and help each other out.
How did you arrive at Public School?
At the end of 2007, Casey was sharing a studio with a friend who was running an art gallery out of it. His friend decided to leave, so Casey wanted to find others to move into the studio with him to share rent. I was doing a ton of retouching at the time, and I loathed working from home. So I moved in along with a couple others. Eventually we expanded, others came in and left, we consolidated, it finally got to the correct number of people who were all interested in working together in a kind of shared space. We tinkered with the idea of being a co-op, and eventually the name Public School was thrown out earlier this year.
The branding came shortly after, we setup a blog, and it really took off. Now it’s a pretty well known collective, and we get thousands of hits on the web site each month. We moved into a new studio space last June, which has become a really great work environment.
Y’all are located on Austin’s Eastside, right? That seems to be the creative hub in town.
It’s a great place to be — I love working out of a studio in such a great location. I’m able to walk to lunch or to pick up coffee. And it’s a great place to have clients over. We throw networking parties fairly regularly at our place, and the turn out is always really great.
Can you describe how the collective is set up? (Ex. Formalized agreement)
We really have no formal agreements. It’s just a space where a bunch of friends can work together, collaborate on occasion, and help each other out with their work. Bounce ideas around. It’s also a really cheap way to have office space. We are trying to become more formal with the way we work, and we’re starting to have regular meetings to come up with ideas for ways to push and promote our collective better.
What kind of support and expectations does Public School have?
We really want everyone to be working on their own projects regularly and be working a freelance career. Being in the mindset of a freelancer, you have to hustle constantly, and being around others becomes infectious. When other people I’m working side by side with are doing things like networking, promoting themselves, updating their web site with new work, blogging, etc., it makes me want to do all that stuff as well as I don’t want to get left behind.
What’s been one of the most rewarding experiences you’ve had as a photographer?
I’ve love being able to travel for work. I get to go to Chicago pretty regularly to shoot, and have met some great friends up there and experienced one of the most amazing cities. At times it feels like I’ve lived there. I’ve also been to Miami, New York, Aspen, Ruidoso, Omaha, and some smaller places close by. It can be really hard work and stressful at times, but it’s still the best! I was also really excited the first time I saw photographs I shot printed in a magazine. And the first cover I got… what a rush! Lastly, hanging my work on a wall. So much of my work is viewed on a screen these days, that when I actually get a chance to print it, frame it and hang it, it’s really amazing.
Can you describe a moment of uncertainty in the path you had chosen?
Right after school, I got a job as a retoucher in a local photographer’s studio. I became extremely bored with it and quit after six months, deciding I wanted to start assisting. It was really slow at first, and I was really broke for awhile. I was having a hard time getting by living at my parents house, so I was worried about how things were going to pan out. But, things picked up slowly and I started making money regularly and it was starting to work out. Nevertheless, to this day I still become uncertain about my future every once in awhile. Working a freelance career is always uncertain, especially in a field that is so competitive, and sometimes you worry about where your next check will come from. Still, I got over it, as there is no way I could go back to having a regular job!
Alternatively what about a moment when you felt you were moving in the right direction?
When I started doing my first gigs as a photographer. I often got really bored on photo shoots as an assistant, but when I’m the working photographer, time races by, and I get in the zone and work really, really hard. It’s such a great feeling. Plus the paycheck are much larger, so it’s much more of a confidence booster. It’s really nice not to have scrape by.
How important has networking been for you?
Easily the most important part of the work, in my experience. Unfortunately, I’m not the best at it, but I’m trying more and more each day, and becoming much better. Every job I’ve done that I can think of has been through some connection, at least the first opportunity to work with someone. The repeat work comes with being good and delivering according to their expectations. I’m currently in the midst of trying to retool myself and tie up loose ends to, hopefully, hit the pavement hard in the coming months. I’m simultaneously terrified and excited at the possibilities.
Where do you see yourself in 5, 10, and 20 years?
I’d like to be at the top of the Austin market in the next five years. I’m really banking on the fact that Austin’s growth will provide a much better photo market over time. Right now, it’s not the greatest city to be in to be shooting great work. But I love living here, and would be happy enough shooting smaller jobs if I could live comfortably. Within the next 10 years, I want to be shooting on a national level, higher profile stuff — possibly be living in a larger city. Twenty years is pretty far off, but I’d love to have a well established name. Have my work carried throughout various galleries. And to still be making money off photography.
What keeps you hungry?
The thought of being the best. That’s my ultimate goal, I believe. I want to produce work of the same caliber as the great photographers of our time! Also the thought of failing and having to get a real job. I just don’t see myself as being able to work on a regular schedule that I don’t make. I love having my time be my time, and the ability to use it for whatever I want.
Definitely. Thanks for sharing. Best of luck in 2010!