Shutterbug - - Contents - By Barry Ta­nen­baum

Why One Mil­lion In­sta­gram Fans Fol­low Ja­son Peter­son’s Pho­tog­ra­phy

NOT AL­WAYS, BUT OF­TEN ENOUGH, Ja­son Peter­son’s pho­tog­ra­phy is a wait­ing game. Un­til it isn’t.

First comes recog­ni­tion of the graphic strength of the scene’s ge­om­e­try, or maybe it’s the lure of what the light is do­ing.

Then it’s wait, wait, wait for the de­ci­sive mo­ment when some­thing or some­one will hap­pen.

With Ja­son Peter­son, pretty much ev­ery­thing is of or in the mo­ment; not much “al­ways” or “usu­ally” seems to be go­ing on. Right af­ter talk­ing about wait­ing for pic­tures to hap­pen, he tells of see­ing a shaft of light slic­ing across Wabash Av­enue be­low his Chicago of­fice, and how

he jumped up on his win­dow sill, and with his iphone on burst mode cap­tured a wo­man run­ning across the street to make the traf­fic light. “I did a lit­tle edit­ing on it and posted it [to In­sta­gram] within 10 min­utes,” he says. “That’s what I love about dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy—i’m kind of ADD, I’m al­ways on to the next, the next, the next—it hap­pens right now.”

Peter­son isn’t a pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher. He’s an art di­rec­tor, a graphic artist, and, cur­rently, chief creative of­fi­cer of Havas, a brand­ing

“A real es­tate com­pany de­vel­op­ing the build­ing wanted to use some of my im­ages. I gave them the pho­tos free in ex­change for unique ac­cess. A friend was with me, and we were 48 flights up dur­ing a snow­storm. In­sta­gram fame has opened up a lot of things.” A Le­ica SL photo.

agency. His pho­tog­ra­phy, which has at­tracted over one mil­lion In­sta­gram fol­low­ers, is black-and-white pho­tog­ra­phy. “Mainly be­cause the im­ages I try to cre­ate are time­less im­ages, im­ages that you don’t know when they’re from,” he says. “Could have been to­day or in the 1940s. Color has al­ways been some­thing that marks the time, right? If you think about the 1950s, you think about a color pal­ette; 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s…you think of a color pal­ette. Black and white takes time out of the equa­tion.”


So what do you have to do to get a mil­lion In­sta­gram fol­low­ers? In Peter­son’s case, it’s sim­ply do what you’ve al­ways done— take pic­tures with pas­sion and pur­pose. “I’ve been shoot­ing two pho­tos ev­ery day since I’ve been 13,” he says. The dif­fer­ence is, now, with In­sta­gram, he has a ready­made and read­ily-avail­able de­liv­ery sys­tem for his im­ages.

Nei­ther pho­to­graphic tech­nol­ogy nor so­cial me­dia has made a sig­nif­i­cant

dif­fer­ence in the style of his work.

“I’m still shoot­ing the same type of pho­tog­ra­phy,” he says. “In­sta­gram and so­cial me­dia have just been ve­hi­cles in the last five or six years; my work has come to life in it, but I’ve al­ways been in­flu­enced by a lot of pho­tog­ra­phers from the 1940s. I’m not do­ing any­thing dif­fer­ent than Harry Cal­la­han did when he came to Chicago in the ’40s, doc­u­ment­ing in dark, black-and-white street pho­tog­ra­phy, with glimpses of shad­ows and peo­ple. I’m do­ing the ex­act same thing, but I’m do­ing it in an age that hap­pens to be dig­i­tal.

The rea­son I think I’ve had this suc­cess on In­sta­gram is be­cause I just try to take amaz­ing pho­to­graphs that make you feel some­thing.”

But what does he want us to feel? Many of his In­sta­gram im­ages de­pict dis­tant,

iso­lated, maybe lonely peo­ple. “When I shoot a pho­to­graph, I feel it— that mo­ment,” he says. “To me it’s of­ten about iso­la­tion, about fit­ting in; that small­ness, that be­ing alone. Those are emo­tional hang-ups that come across in my pho­to­graphs, but it’s still all about mak­ing you feel some­thing.”

That some­thing is of­ten caught in a mo­ment we would or­di­nar­ily miss, which may be the ul­ti­mate at­trac­tion for his In­sta­gram fol­low­ers. “I like to look for those mo­ments that hap­pen that we don’t re­al­ize hap­pen be­cause they hap­pen in a blink,” Peter­son says.

Maybe it’s as sim­ple— or as dif­fi­cult—as that: cap­ture the blink mo­ments and you’ll find your­self with fol­low­ers. Lots of them.

Ul­ti­mately Peter­son doesn’t come to any con­clu­sions about why his pho­to­graphs res­onate with oth­ers. “It comes from what­ever peo­ple are get­ting from it, for rea­sons of their own. The medium has noth­ing to do with it. [In­sta­gram’s] no dif­fer­ent from a printed pub­li­ca­tion or a book or some­thing on the wall. It’s a de­liv­ery method—and the best thing about it is that you con­trol it.”

He read­ily ac­knowl­edges one other ben­e­fit of that de­liv­ery method: put up a pic­ture, get a re­sponse. When asked if that spurs him on, he re­sponds, “One hun­dred per­cent. I’m do­ing more pho­tog­ra­phy now than I have in the past 30 years be­cause all of a sud­den I have this way for ev­ery­one to see and re­spond to my work.”

And he re­minds us that his work has re­mained con­stant in style and theme. He tells of re­cently giv­ing a talk and show­ing some im­ages he made in 1986. “You know what? They look ex­actly like the im­ages I shot yes­ter­day. The only dif­fer­ence is, now I have an au­di­ence.”

That au­di­ence, he adds, is there for the hav­ing. “When I started out I had three peo­ple fol­low­ing me—my wife, my son, my daugh­ter. If you post re­ally rad pho­tos, and re­al­ize that this is a com­mu­nity, and you go and like other peo­ple’s pho­tos, com­ment on them, get in­volved with what’s go­ing on in the com­mu­nity of shar­ing pho­to­graphs, peo­ple will like your work.”

You can con­nect with Ja­son Peter­son’s im­ages at in­sta­­son­m­peter­son.

“A stair­case in Den­ver, out­side a park­ing garage. The graph­ics at­tracted me—su­per sym­met­ri­cal. I ran be­hind him as he walked up and squared the frame up and took the shot with the iphone [5s] in burst mode to get the ex­act right body move­ment and po­si­tion­ing.”

“Out­side the art mu­seum in Mil­wau­kee,” Ja­son Peter­son says of this photo. “I’m ly­ing low on the ground, there’s per­fect light­ing—a foggy, back­lit morn­ing—and I’m just wait­ing and wait­ing. And the two bikes come by…” Taken with the Le­ica SL.

« In Sun­trust Plaza, At­lanta. “This amaz­ing arch­way con­nects two build­ings. The light in the late af­ter­noon is a per­fect, beau­ti­ful, glow­ing light, and this was a wait­ing sce­nario—that is, wait­ing for peo­ple not to be there.” Taken with the Le­ica SL.

Cen­tral Park, New York City. “Late af­ter­noon, about three o’clock, just wait­ing and wait­ing for all the tourists to get out of the way.” An iphone 5 photo.

One of a se­ries Peter­son has been shoot­ing at Union Sta­tion in Chicago. “I’m fas­ci­nated with train win­dows—there’s this green glow­ing light, and the plat­forms are re­ally dark, and peo­ple can’t see me when I’m shoot­ing, so it’s one of the most nat­u­ral hu­man sit­u­a­tions.” Taken with the Le­ica Q.

“This was out­side my of­fice win­dow at 200 Hud­son when I worked in New York City. End of sum­mer, su­per-long shad­ows. I shot a bunch while the shad­ows were so head-on and per­fect. It’s one of my fa­vorite iphone im­ages.” Taken with the iphone 5.

« A zip line in the old Las Ve­gas part of town. “I framed it so you see none of the hard­ware hold­ing the lines.” A Le­ica SL photo.

“In Chicago, on Ran­dolph Street in the sum­mer, the sun in, I think, July, lines up with all the cross streets. This is one where I see the light do­ing all kinds of things and have to stop and wait. And this guy lined up per­fectly.” An iphone 7 Plus photo.

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