We first met L.A. Times photographer Jay L. Clendenin last year when he experimented with a 100-year-old Petzval lens to shoot potraits of Olympians. He recently told us about how that analogue assignment came to be, his favorite celebrity subjects and his latest film projects. Olympic, Coachella and Sundance festivals, anyone?
NAME: Jay L. Clendenin
LOCATION: Los Angeles, USA
1. Hi, Jay! Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am a California-native who worked for about 9 years on the East Coast shooting mostly photojournalism, first at the Hartford Courant newspaper and then as a freelancer for weekly news magazines: Newsweek, TIME, and U.S. News & World Report. I covered the White House and Congress and eventually began doing more feature and portrait assignments which led to me being hired at the L.A. Times.
2. Why do you still shoot analogue?
I love a challenge. I fell in love with photojournalism because every assignment is a new experience and presents a new problem to solve. When I was shooting film on assignments, it was always stressful not knowing “exactly” what I was getting until I picked up the film at the lab. Today, with deadlines and a need for so much immediate digital interaction, I don’t get to shoot film as much as I’d like, but when I do, I love how it slows down the process and helps me focus on the “art” of image-making, not so much on the “How many looks can I shoot in five minutes?” aspect. Since I’m most often shooting with my 4×5 field camera, subjects see it as an artful process and are usually willing to give me the extra time I need. Sadly, during press junkets, that “extra time” only allows for 3-4 frames of large format film!
3. What photographic equipment (cameras, films, and accessories) do you usually have in your bag?
I don’t have a precise answer for “what’s in my (gear) bag,” as I have lots of bags and cases that I often mix up depending on the particular shoot! I have been using Think Tank rolling cases since the company started and they have been the most durable. I often use a Think Tank hip-bag system, combined with a Domke pouch or two. I like the Domke pouches as the canvas is super durable and lays flat when not used. Their large pouch conveniently holds my 4×5 film holders and film. My 4×5 camera is a Zone VI field camera, with 150mm and 210mm lenses. My main digital gear I use: primary DSLR is a Canon 5D Mark3, with the 24-70mm II lens and my second DSLR is a Canon 5D Mark2 with a 45mm TS lens or my 50mm 1.2. For analogue, I use a variety of color films or Kodak T-Max 100 B&W. If I can convince friends to sell me their Polaroid, I love Type-55, but haven’t had much luck with emulsions since 2011! I also have a collection of plastic cameras, mostly Holgas, that I will pull out if time allows. My favorite new toy is my Fuji Instax. At the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, I gave a lot of prints away, but it allowed me to build a fun collection for myself!
4. How did the idea to shoot Olympic portraits in digital and film (with a century-old Petzval lens to boot!) come about? Was it something you’ve always wanted to do or was it a suggestion by your editor?
I knew the L.A. Times had a history of doing portrait projects around the Olympics and, after using the last of my color Polaroids for the 2008 series, I had to come up with something else for 2012. I originally researched using the collodion process, but during a conversation with friend and collodion shooter Chris Usher, he made a strong point by saying, “Do you have a budget? Because if you have a budget, you probably shouldn’t do it.” He instead turned me onto the idea of shooting “paper negatives,” where I exposed directly to graded photo paper. Chris understood the look I was hoping for and suggested the Petzval lens. By the end of the week, I bought a lens, a box of paper and researched where to process my images. In the end, it made more sense (read: too expensive otherwise!) for me to process all the prints myself in my bathroom/darkroom! My editor Calvin Hom saw my test pics and said, “Go for it! Wait, how much is this going to cost us?!” Then I explained my bathroom/darkroom and he said, “Then you can definitely do it.” ;-)
5. You said the large format plus Petzval lens set-up was “cumbersome and filled with experimentation” but also “relaxing and, most important, creatively rejuvenating.” That said, would you do a shoot like that again? If ever, what kind of Petzval projects are you looking to do in the future and who would your next subjects be?
I’m torn when considering another project done in the same vein. What has kept me excited in photography, more accurately editorial photography, is the opportunity to tackle a new subject every day and approach each one in a different way. I’m not sure I’d be as excited to do the exact same process again. With that said, there are definitely personalities/subjects I’d like to shoot with that lens and possibly with the paper negative. I’d love to shoot Zach Galifianakis again, Rick Rubin, Steven Spielberg… If i’m making a “dream” list, Obama. Basically, I love shooting people with lots of character about them, in particular beards, strong faces. The majority of 4×5 shoots I’ve done with notable personalities have been people I admire, either for their bodies of work or personal accomplishments.
6. Who/what are your favorite subjects? When/where do you feel most inspired?
Until my daughter was born (now age 7), my Dad was my favorite (and most accommodating) subject. I’m definitely most comfortable shooting portraits and feel inspired/excited by pulling off a particular idea with a subject. Shooting mostly celebrities these days, they are small (and far apart) victories when I get to do exactly what I proposed with a subject in the small time allotted to me (usually just 4-10 minutes). As I’ve said, I love the art form, but the challenge of problem-solving in photography is a huge bonus for me.
7. We also saw the double exposure photos you took at Coachella. What was it like capturing the epic music & art festival weekend event in film?
As with the Olympic series, I had shot Coachella several times and always need to attempt something “different” for my own sanity. Previously, I concentrated on shooting a portrait series, but needed to do something different. After seeing the rampant use of the “multiple exposure” mode on the new DSLR’s at the 2012 Olympics, I decided I’d challenge myself by breaking out my old Canon EOS 1V film camera and try double exposures on film. Again, challenge is an understatement. I was carrying three cameras on me for more than 12 hours a day, for three days. Shooting had its own issues, whether it was lining things up, in my head and then in the viewfinder or properly exposing the two different images I was attempting. I tested a couple rolls before leaving and quickly realized some of the pitfalls, but when juggling three cameras, daily coverage, weather, etc., it all became a grand experiment.
8. If you could hang as a camera around anyone’s neck, who would that someone be and what do you want to capture?
Hmmm… Sadly, first person to mind is Steve Jobs but he’s not around anymore. I think seeing things through a child’s eyes would be pretty incredible, but on a practical level, and my bias having covered news/history for a good chunk of my photojournalism career, I think being able to capture the daily life of the president is pretty interesting. I’m sure you’d start seeing things you never really associate with this icon of geopolitical power.
9. Share a trick of yours that always results in a great photograph.
Oh boy, “great” needs to be in quotes! I will never say a photo I’ve taken is great (except of my daughter, maybe)! I will say, I have two things I like to do when I go out on assignment: 1) Shoot INTO the light. Don’t feel constrained to shoot something evenly lit, turn subjects around, or shoot toward the pre-staged lights set up at events. 2) Stand where everyone else isn’t. It is a constant feeling we have to fight in editorial, when arriving at a scene where other journalists are working. Yes, it’s great to have “the picture” everyone is going to see on TV that night (news or features, really) but I feel it’s our challenge to make something “better” by moving away from the pack.
10. Describe your first memory as if it were a still photo.
It’s funny, my first personal memories are fuzzy, in particular, again, since having my daughter. I remember standing next to my wife in our delivery room, looking at the doctor’s face as my daughter was born. The anticipation of discovering what “it” was since we decided to not find out. My wife’s knee is in front of me, my daughter, still not be able to see the sex, was covered in the usual “stuff” and laying on her side in the doctors arms. I swear we were holding our breath, staring, waiting to hear. The doctor looked up and told us while turning her screaming face toward us. Pretty damn amazing.
11. The strangest, funniest, hands-down greatest, or most “unusual” photographic/Lomographic encounter that you have ever had.
Two things come to mind from a couple assignments. 1) While photographing actor/comedian/telethon frontman Jerry Lewis in Las Vegas, Jerry poked me in the crotch while I was outstretched adjusting my lighting. He was very animated and a non-stop prankster, but being poked in the crotch by one of the “Kings of Comedy” definitely took me by surprise. 2) I was able to not only make a portrait of U2 front man Bono without his glasses but during a self-portrait with him, he put me in a headlock. Both are definitely in my career highlights.
12. What’s coming up on the horizon? New projects? What’s in the works and what’s on your mind?
I’m always making lists of ideas i’d like to tackle. Nothing to be presented publicly at this point, but you can be sure there is film being discussed.
Visit Jay L. Clendenin to see more of the artist’s work. You might also like “Olympic Portraits Shot Using Century-Old Petzval Lens.”
Just like Jay, we were charmed by the unique look and awesome optic history of the Petzval lens so we decided to bring it back for modern day cameras and started the Lomography Petzval Portrait Lens campaign on Kickstarter. Find out more in the Petzval microsite.