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Chase Jarvis is one of a new breed of successful young photographers who's at the top of his game. His use of social networking has brought him an enormous following while his exploration of radical business models is opening new markets. Best known for his lifestyle and sports images, the creative and financial success of his personal projects has earned him top corporate clients like Nikon, Reebok, and Microsoft.

Best Camera is the one that's with you
The Best Camera

Seattle 100: portrait of a city
Seattle 100: Portrait of a City

Chris and Larry: You have no formal training as a photographer, yet arguably youíre one of the top photographers working today. Howíd you get there?

Chase Jarvis: I wish I could answer that in a sentence. I think maybe the shortest description is by being incredibly curious and very hardworking. And throw a whole bunch of luck in there too. Thereís a lot of timing and luck involved in anything I do.

As for teaching myself how to be a photographer, it was very passion driven. Even though learning some of the technical aspects required dedication, it was all very centered on how I wanted to be spending my time.

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Chris and Larry: Whatís different about your approach?

Chase Jarvis: Itís really a great asset to be willing to fail and blow it, so to speak, and to be okay with just making stuff, sharing it and getting feedback. I coupled that with new socialization tools to get my work out there in the world and get a lot of feedback.

Chris and Larry: Your use of social networking technology is pretty impressive.

Chase Jarvis: Iím a hard working culture junkie who knows that itís the greatest time in history to be a photographer or creative.

Itís the first time in the history of the world that creatives are also distributors. And thatís very profound if you think that up until the recent history, permission was required for us to be able to share work at any sort of scale. We had to get permission from galleries, from ad agencies or photo editors to be able to have our work out there. And now anybody with access to a computer can show their work in 200 countries around the world. So my adoption of new technology is about the socialization of my work, creating and sharing work in ways that just were not available in the past.

To be creative, you have to make stuff. If you sit around waiting for the perfect idea, youíre never going to get anywhere. And it just so happens that some good ideas occasionally float to the top.

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Chris and Larry: And those are the ones hopefully people will remember.

Chase Jarvis: Yeah, exactly. And the idea is if you put something out that sucks, it fades away pretty quickly. And if you put out a concept like the Best Camera or the first iPhone book that we did, those have some sticking power and they will be around for a while.

Chris and Larry: At first it seems strange that a pro that shoots with world class photographic equipment would publish a book of their iPhone pictures. But you also came up with a wildly successful iPhone app that made tweaking and sharing photos easy and a created an entire community around it. How did the project grow to that scale? Was it initially planned that way?

Chase Jarvis: My goal is never to make a project large scale. My goal always stems from solving a creative problem or creative challenge.

At the most fundamental level of the whole iPhone movement was my desire to have a visual journal. When the iPhone first came out I started taking pictures with it every day. As someone who travels the world shooting major ad campaigns with all the best equipment in the world, this little camera that at first had only 2 megapixels suddenly gave me more creative freedom than I felt like I had in my professional life. And that was incredibly interesting and empowering for me.

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Suddenly gone was all the pressure to make the perfect picture. I was more interested in the immediate and the now and the things that were near me, and using that as kind of a study or sounding board for my other work. Well, even that idea that this was just a sounding board for my other work was quickly supplanted with, wait a minute, this is actually work in and of itself. Itís conceptual artwork and itís informing, not just my professional work, but my life. And the freedom it gave me was incredible.

All I wanted to do was then share that idea because it was rewarding for me. So I started socializing my pictures and sharing them online every day through different outlets like Facebook and Twitter. The feedback that I got, not just from the pictures, but from the concept, was really staggering. I think the first iPhone gallery that I put on my site received two million views in something like 72 hours. The concept is simple. The pictures arenít about megapixels or dynamic range, and all those things that technical photographers talk about. Theyíre really about stories and the moment, which I learned by first desiring a visual journal and seeing the kind of feedback it got. When I started using the camera, I realized that there were no apps out there that did exactly what I wanted to do. So I made my own.

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So thereís kind of this necessity is the mother of invention behind these larger concepts. And then the community for that, in that case, TheBestCamera.com was just a logical extension to this thing that has changed my creative life. I feel more creative now than ever before. I want to share that with people to inspire them and say, hey, if I can do it, you can do it. I want to give them a tool, like the iPhone app, and then give them a place to put their creations at thebestcamera.com along with all their other social channels. So it never starts out as a grand vision, I just went with it and it all came together for me.

Chris and Larry: Like a snowball turning into an avalanche.

Chase Jarvis: Thatís exactly what it was. In reality, itís been going on since I started taking pictures with my phone camera. I did wake up at one point in the middle of the night and say, wait a minute, I got this book coming out in a few months and weíve been working on this iPhone app. There seemed to be a really cool tie-together. But it evolved very organically and very naturally. Itís really been just kind of setting them free at the same time that I feel like leads people to believe that it was all conceived in one great creative session.

Chris and Larry: Would you say the feedback you get from social media is an important part of your creative process?

Chase Jarvis: I think your characterization is accurate. For me, an important part of this whole process is the immediacy of it. Like creating and the sharing. I think those kind of combined acts are fundamental to my personal creative process. But I think none of these things are necessarily conscious for me. Itís like when someone asks you ďwhatís your styleĒ, and you didnít realize you had a style until youíve done it for a long time. Iím able to look back and say that the mechanism of creating and sharing is contingent on the right now part of it, because the thing that I do tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, is part of that process.

Chris and Larry: How does that work on a practical basis?

Chase Jarvis: It starts with making a lot of stuff. Finding the best ideas only happens after you have a million ideas and have a cross section of things to choose from. And I think thatís important to people understanding my process and maybe being able to make it applicable to themselves. Chuck Close once said ďInspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.Ē If you only develop your best ideas, how many ideas would you develop? Sometimes the ideas that donít start out to be your best ideas evolve, like the Best Camera, and cell phone photography evolves into something that Iím talking to museums about. The irony is that there wasnít an immediate understanding of what it was going to be - it was just creative sharing.

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Chris and Larry: How did you get so good at it?

Chase Jarvis: I think itís in the same way that you build up your ability to run fast or to make your muscles stronger. You lift weights. The more weights you lift, the stronger you get. In the case of my creative process, Iíve built up a callous, though thatís the wrong word, but you just get used to it. And it didnít start out that way by any stretch of the imagination.

The first time a friend said, ďHey, you should start a blog,Ē I just thought it sounded very self-centered. But he said, ďNo, no, donít just point it at your own stuff; point it at other peopleís stuff.Ē So the next week I pointed it at some other peopleís photos. And then he said, ďWhy donít you do a video?Ē And I thought, oh man, this is a lot of work. But as soon as you start doing those things, you start feeling the benefit, both personally and structurally. You start to see some social interaction in the world. Maybe you create a conversation, and itís a motivator in and of itself taking on a life of its own. And you get better at it and that all goes back to being willing to throw it out there and fail, and throw it out there and get feedback of all types. And you do get better at it.

Chris and Larry: What Iím hearing you say is something that Iíve heard artists speak of many times. But people who are in the high pressure world of commercial photography rarely think in terms of ďitís okay to failĒ. If you want to keep a big client you have to produce. How do you reconcile those two worlds, the art world where itís OK to experiment and see what happens, and then the big-time world of the big corporations who see you as someone who will produce the work they need? Do you feel that you have to switch gears, or do you just handle it all with the same attitude?

Chase Jarvis: I think that is one of the best questions Iíve been asked in an interview in a long time. I havenít ever articulated this to myself, but as you were asking the question, I started thinking.

I think that part of why I get hired and what people might like is that once Iíve got the thing that the art director wanted in the can, now letís turn this idea on its head. Iím not being a renegade for the sake of being renegade. I got the shot that we talked about prior to getting here. But itís about how can you bring the fearlessness and an experimental approach to the commercial setting? Because itís very rarely the shot that you think is going to be the shot that ends up in the campaign. Itís usually one of these that are more adventurous, ones that are created in the moment, rather than the ones that were drafted by the creative director back at the agency.

Chris and Larry: So getting that one in the can is the first priority, and once you feel that youíve covered your bases, and then you continue to play and to experiment.

Chase Jarvis: Absolutely. And those are the ones that tend to be the most successful pictures. And the weird part is that the reason you end up getting hired is not because youíre able to be like a monkey and take the pictures the art director drew, but itís because when youíre on set, youíre able to create something that was unanticipated and exceeded the original vision of the client.

And itís hard to do. Youíve got to kind of develop the balls to pull that off. I donít want to sound like Iíve got this figured out because it has been a huge trial and error process. You need to be dependable and be all those things, but youíve also got to take the risk. Youíve got to swing for the fence. Michael Jordan has 33 game-winning shots to his credit, but heís also probably missed hundreds because heís not afraid to fail. If you donít swing, you donít hit the ball. At the end of the day, you build up a tolerance for the fear of risk associated around creating, and ultimately, that is sort of a constant that you take into the next job.

Chris and Larry: Letís talk about your personal work. You did a project called Songs for Eating and Drinking. How did that come together?

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Chase Jarvis: The project was kind of born full-grown. And at its core, the concept is a simple one, get a bunch of insanely talented musicians together, and let them share songs, food, and drink. A friend of mine, Michael Hebb, is kind of a food provocateur, and his favorite thing in the world is putting amazing people together and cooking an amazing meal. We got together and wanted to collaborate.

We found that the power is in everyone winning, everyone benefiting, and what a richer place the world is. I personally stay interested because itís invoking things that Iím genuinely passionate about. I love music, I love food, I love creating and sharing.

Some of the artists that are at the table are very famous and theyíre used to playing in front of audiences of thousands of people. What they really want is to get back to their roots. And so the evening gives them an opportunity to do just that.

When Pearl Jam fans get an opportunity to see Stone Gossard playing a guitar with a rapper rapping over the top of him, totally impromptu in the middle of a dinner, the fans love that.

So itís some sort of combination of these interdisciplinary ideas that I feel like I get the most value from. Not that I donít love just taking a picture or shooting a campaign or directing a commercial, but Iím really excited when Iím doing what I love and the person across the table from me is doing what they love.

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Chris and Larry: There can be real synergy bringing talented people together in these great venues - but how do you get paid? Your success infers that thereís a new business model thatís kicking in. Where does the revenue come from?

Chase Jarvis: Itís the new model that lets creative people have their own distribution channel, allowing us to share our personal work.

So letís say I finish a job and instead of buying a new couch or a new car with the money, I put that into a personal project. Iím going to be able to create a cool body of work that is going to make me feel alive and bring the most out of me creatively. And that work will be responsible for me getting my next job, maybe getting a cooler job, and having my personal brand equity and my personal value as a creative be higher than the last job that I did.

You wouldnít believe the phone calls, and theyíre not just a repeat of the last job. And for the next ad, itís like, ďWell, I saw what you did with Songs for Eating and Drinking and I loved the style.Ē If I hadnít done that project then I wouldnít have gotten that call to shoot this ad campaign and shoot it in a way that I wanted to shoot it. I would have been asked to do it in the way that the art director did it, the way that theyíd all seen it done before. So itís a great way to develop a personal style and a great way to then get hired for that style.

I would advocate that throwing money at personal projects is in many ways a stepping stone or a ladder to growth and evolution and ultimately jobs. Those personal projects translate specifically into jobs for me.

Chris and Larry: That brings us to your new book, ďSeattle 100, The Portrait of a City.Ē Can you tell us about how that came together? It appears that it started as a personal project, and now youíve got a book and a website.

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Jason Puccinelli

Chase Jarvis: It started out of realizing that I love Seattle. Iíve had a home here almost my entire life, but at some point I realized that I didnít know my city as well as I wanted to. Iím on the road a lot, most of the work that I do professionally is not in Seattle. Itís all in major advertising markets like New York, Los Angeles or London.

And so I started making a list of the people I found to be remarkable in Seattle because I wanted to collaborate. Once I made a list of people that were doing amazing things, I realized my project could be the list itself. The first list was people that I knew, that would let me take their picture and share their story with the world. And then I made another list of people that I thought would be fascinating to meet that were in and around Seattle. An important distinction here, these are not people like Paul Allen, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz, who are normally seen as heroes in Seattle.

Over the course of the three years that it took me to complete the project, I started to develop a vision for having a website that painted a cultural ethnography around the photography that I had done.

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Laura "Piece" Kelley-Jahn

I had an idea, I started doing it, and the idea evolved. It turned into a three-year long project documenting underground cultural leaders and the places that they love in Seattle. Thatís why I called it Portrait of a City because it gives you a picture of the city, but through the eyes of 100 people that I found interesting.

And the hope of the project was that it was going to allow cross-pollination and encourage the city to take a look at itself. I was hoping to break down barriers, you know architects hang around with the architects, and the break dancers hang out with the break dancers.

Chris and Larry: People are used to coffee table books being $50 or more. But if you go to Amazon and buy this with a discount, it costs about $26. Is that part of the concept too, to make it more accessible?

Chase Jarvis: Absolutely. The democratization of creativity is a theme in the stuff that Iím trying to share with the world. And for people who couldnít afford the $26, weíve built a beautiful web site so they could in some way experience the project.

The first price that was suggested was just under $70. We were able to change that and to make it list for under $40. And on Amazon, with discounts itís about $26. I think that at the core, thatís the right idea, the right vibe.

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The Blakes

Chris and Larry: It seems everyone else monetizes sequel after sequel, but that youíre always on to another project. Do you ever go back and rework an idea?

Chase Jarvis: Oh my gosh. Thatís a great question too. I could name so many things that Iíve done wrong. People point out how a project can be a huge business model in and of itself, and I think sure, maybe in my next life, or perhaps when Iím ďmore matureĒ Iíll be able to think more like that.

I definitely created the Seattle 100 with the idea of doing a series of these. It was an idea and a platform, if you will. And thatís in many ways, what the Best Camera was as well. I have visions of future books, a whole series of books that are from all over the world. But you touched on an important point. It would definitely help some things if we slowed down a little bit, but Iíve got to confess, I have a hard time with that. Iím always excited about the next thing.

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Cliff McCrath

Chris and Larry: Letís talk about your video work. Now that DSLRs can capture full HD video, thereís convergence of possibilities. But a lot of photographers donít see themselves as filmmakers. Yet you just jump with both feet into it and have been very successful. Tell us a bit about what got you excited about video and the new technology.

Chase Jarvis: I think the thing that put me there more than anything else is, again, pure luck. I was the first photographer in the world to get to use that technology. Nikon contacted me about the campaign for the D90 and I got to play with the first camera that had that technology. It was really blind luck to land the campaign and incredibly inspirational to be able to ruminate on all of the possibilities. I remember just trying to wrap my mind around exactly what that meant. It was like wait a minute, this camera that costs $1,000, can produce a cinematic look that just six months ago required equipment that cost $100,000?

So after creating that campaign for Nikon and living with this camera I felt like it was something that could change the world. And once you start shooting and see the beautiful cinematic look, itís hard not to get hooked. And back to my willingness to fail thing, I just kind of threw it out there. I love it. Iím crow-like. I tend to fly after shiny stuff, and this is a new kind of shiny thing. It just turned out that I really enjoyed working as a director.

Chris and Larry: Many would say you need focus on the one thing your best at. Do you think youíll be able to continue to progress on both fronts with such speed?

Chase Jarvis: Oh, Iíve made a career out of not doing things that weíre supposed to do. I categorically refuse to be pigeonholed any more. You can do one thing better than the other, perhaps generate more revenue off of one thing or the other. But I think itís an old mentality that says you should only try and do one thing. Iím living proof that itís not the way that the world works now.

Chris and Larry: Youíre constantly pushing at the high end, the low end and finding new possibilities in between. Is that just part of your creative process?

Chase Jarvis: I think so. It goes back to that curiosity thing that we kind of touched on earlier. Being really curious and being willing to fail. Overcoming fear Ė Iím afraid of a lot of things. Every time I do something, thereís fear in there, but working it through and developing an approach toward it has allowed me to do the things that Iím interested in. Again, a crow flying around at all kinds of shiny stuff.

Chris and Larry: Whatís remarkable is the speed and ease that you share the shiny things with all your friends. You seem to enjoy telling people, well, this is how I do it. This is why. This is what the possibilities are. You actually got flak from some of your peers when you started out, that you wanted to share so much. And now it seems to be whatís bringing you a lot of new creative possibilities.

Chase Jarvis: An ironic twist there, huh?

Chris and Larry: Well, it works that way sometimes.

Chase Jarvis: Yeah, it does. And itís very true. I wanted to be a photographer, and I was trying to find other people who were interested in talking about it, and I couldnít believe how few people were willing to talk about the work that they were doing. I thought that was bullshit, so I did the opposite.

Part of the reason I share so much information is because I learned so much from other people. Itís the comments that I get back, the feedback, and the amazing people that Iím able to meet through doing these projects, itís insane. Iím a direct beneficiary. And I believe that the people that Iím sharing with are also benefiting.

So again, weíre in a new era where there doesnít have to be a loser. Everybody can win because mostly what weíre talking about is the movement of pixels and images and information, which hopefully is the rising tide which will float all the boats.

Chris and Larry: The days of dream assignments where a corporation says ďTake six months and go to Africa and make some good picturesĒ are gone, yet your whole energy seems to be saying there is something else happening.

Chase Jarvis: Yeah, I think we are beginning to place value on different things. Money is essential because it keeps a roof over your head. But the way we measure things is evolving, I think.

We talk about it sometimes like our industry is the only industry thatís changing. And thatís crazy. I mean arguably itís one of the faster changing industries perhaps because of our tie to technology. Yes, the old day of getting paid to go to Africa for six months to make some cool pictures doesnít exist. But what has replaced it are things like collaboration, understanding, learning, evolution of work, evolution of job, growth of job, and expanse of experiences.

Chris and Larry: So how do you see increasing competition and accelerating technology affecting photographers in the future?

Chase Jarvis: All that benefits us dramatically. The market photographers compete in is often seen as a pie that we have to slice thinner and thinner. But I know that there are more pictures being used in more ways now than ever before. So it is up to our industry and us as individuals to carve a new vision out of all of the volumes of media that are being created, used and shared. Itís really about open-mindedness, flexibility, and a willingness to change. Itís not going to look like it did ten years ago. The photographer of the future will be an interesting and different animal.

But I want to emphasize what an amazing time it is. Like Iíve said before, weíve got still cameras that shoot video pictures and video cameras that take stills. We all have access to sharing. We have new tools.

I donít want people to confuse a tool with something that will help your business. A new camera is not going to make you a better photographer, no more than a Twitter account is going to put your work on the desk of every gallerist in the country. Those are just tools and in my personal experience, all this takes a lot of hard work. Itís not for the faint-hearted.

There are a million levels at which you can enjoy photography. But if youíre interested in making it a profession and driving a career and supporting yourself and a family and maybe a staff, itís not for the weak stomach.

Chris and Larry: Well, youíre living the dream and earning a living at it too. Thatís quite a combination.

Chase Jarvis: It feels great. I get to spend my time with amazing people and amazing technologies and itís pretty wicked. I pinch myself every day.

Chris and Larry: Are there any other projects of yours that you would like to share with Shutterbug readers?

Chase Jarvis: I partnered with a friend of mine and created a company called creativeLIVE. We point video cameras at the most talented creative educators in the world - photographers, filmmakers, painters, programmers, designers and basically give them a platform to share their teaching message with the world. And weíve created an infrastructure and a company around providing that education for free.

So if youíre anywhere in the world and you can access the Internet, I will put the best creative educators in the world in front of you and you can learn for free. The business the model is that if you want to keep it for future viewing, then you pay to download it. That is an incredibly exciting business model. And I think youíll see a lot more of it.

check out Chase Jarvis' web site


Contents of the Interview © 2011 Chris Maher and Larry Berman
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