March 2014’s featured photographer Jim Darling, is one of APA|DC’s newest members. A DC-based portrait, interior and wedding shooter, Jim comes to the photo industry with seventeen years of graphic design experience, including stints on both the board of DC’s AIGA chapter and the Art Director’s Club. Aside from his professional work, he has developed a reputation for his mobile phone photography and is a founding member of the International Mobile Photo Group, InstantDC, and has lectured on the subject locally and at the Apple Store in New York City. Jim sat down with February Featured Member Jon Goell recently to talk about the transition from design to photography and much more.
Interview by Jon Goell
Edited by Matthew Rakola
You got your start in graphic design – Where did you study?
I went to school at SUNY New Paltz in upstate New York and graduated in December of ’91. My sister and her boyfriend had just moved down to Maryland from New York so I followed them down here February of ’92 – just days after the Redskins won their last Super Bowl, actually, so it’s been a long time. But I didn’t get a design job for a couple of months. I basically drove up and down from Gaithersburg to Rockville and Bethesda looking at graphics places and walking in. That’s how I got my first design job but I don’t recommend that as a strategy anymore.
So what led to the switch to photography?
I got a digital SLR in 2008 after joining Flickr in late 2007. I had point-and-shoot for a couple of years before that and I was starting to really fall in love with photography again. I just always had this in my head that I was going to be a graphic designer even though I felt like I really liked photography and I was really good at it. Ever since I first picked up a camera, I was drawn to taking portraits. So, it was always something in the back of my mind, but I think photography changed so much from ’92 to ’08, and I went a long time without even having a camera. But it was 2008 where I started to notice sort of a new passion arising.
When I was laid off at the Mortgage Bankers Association in March of 2008 I started a personal project, shooting street portraits of strangers. I was still working as a designer and had a series of short-term contracts and freelance jobs over the next two years, but all the while my photography was getting better and starting to get noticed within the local community. By the end of 2009 I noticed the imbalance between my passion for design versus photography – and photography was winning. I landed a part-time design job at the start of 2010 which allowed me the flexibility to also pursue work in photography, while still having the stability of a regular paycheck. The job ended last April and since then photography has been my only source of income. The relationships I had built with the design community over many years, as well as some exposure in local gallery exhibits, were integral in getting my foot in the door, especially with the designers that were now hiring me as a photographer.
So your connections came through? How did you build that network?
When I got into graphic design, I joined the local AIGA chapter where I ended up being a Board Member for 5 years. Then I was on the board of the Art Directors Club of Metro Washington, which now, sadly, is defunct. But having those connections in the graphic design community really helped with doing photography and getting jobs by word-of-mouth. But I didn’t really know about APA or ASMP or anything. I joined a social group on Flickr and got to know other photographers, hobbyists and professionals.
You started through Flickr?
I guess you could say that, yeah. I realized very quickly that there was a social aspect to it. I noticed local photographers going out on photo walks, doing happy hours, and putting on shows. I remember, after one of the DCist Exposed photo shows in the spring of ’08, sitting at the computer thinking, “Wow, I wonder if I could do that?” “I wonder how they got into a photo show; that sounds amazing.” Through Flickr I reached out to Kai Harth, one of the photographers I started following early on, and I asked him how I could get involved. He directed me to the ‘DC Social’ group and I went on my first meet-up with them in June of 2008. Some of those people are my best friends to this day.”
And a lot of this was also mobile phone photography…
I didn’t start until 2010, but quickly became involved with the mobile photography/iPhone photography genre when it was first coming up I was asked to join an international collective, the Mobile Photo Group, and I think that Flickr and Twitter got my iPhone work noticed. James Campbell, founder of InstantDC, actually tracked me down on Flickr because I was the only one shooting portraits on my iPhone in the area and that’s how our friendship started We put on a show and through that first show I met Greg Schmigel who was the founder of MPG, (Mobile Photo Group). I’ve been profiled on Mashable and done two talks at the Apple Store in New York City– all on mobile photography.
In those years, when you were starting to make the switch, did you do any photo workshops or get any training? Or are you mostly self-taught?
I guess you could say self-taught, or left over from high school and college. I learned 35mm and twin lens reflex and shot for my high school and college year books. I also studied some 4×5 view camera in college which I really enjoyed
That’s great. I want to backtrack a little. During any of these years that you were in design, either independently or working for other outfits, did you ever work with outside photographers?
I did. When I was at the Mortgage Bankers Association we had a photographer come in to shoot a stock library for us, using our staff. He did head shots and business lifestyle stuff and he probably shot over three days. Later, I worked with Thomas Arledge on an ad campaign that the MBA was doing. I learned the process of location and talent scouting, and was on the shoots with him and watched him light and art direct. Little did I know that I was going to go down that road. But working with him helped me learn that there was so much more to it than just buying pictures. That was really good. I’ve worked with him since and he remains a friend and mentor.
So, do you feel that your design background has a strong influence on your photography? If so, how?
I see my design influence in the way I compose a photo. Especially with environmental portraits, the space that the person is in and where they are in that space is very important to me. With fine art or landscape photography I’m constantly looking for interesting combinations of shape, color and texture.
Looking at your portraits now, you show a wide diversity of people in your personal work and an underlying feeling of sincerity and trust. How do you go about approaching a stranger on the street to photograph them?
I feel that one of my strengths is my sense of humor and my ability to connect with people, which is why I have always sought out portrait photography. [When approaching someone] I meet on the street, often times there is a brief interaction with the individual where I can quickly assess whether or not they’d be into having their picture taken. Even if there is hesitation in their approval you can usually tell that they are flattered at the same time. I’ll explain to them what it is I see in them that I think would make a great portrait. And I always give them a business card.. When I schedule ahead with the subject, like with corporate clients, they have time to prepare for the shoot mentally and I think that can make a difference. I do my best to explain my vision or scope and how long I think it will take. More creative shots, with people I know, we can be a lot more flexible and we take the time to try new things or just experiment with light, etc. And I can get their feedback while we’re shooting.
Who are some of the photographers, commercial or otherwise, who you admire and why?
I love Noah Kalina’s work. His environmental portraits are moody, mysterious, and beautifully lit. They have a Edward Hopper feel to them but can also evoke a slight sense of humor.
Also NY/San Francisco designer-turned-photographer Michael O’Neal. His work dispels any feeling that Instagram isn’t a place for real photographers.
How has the APA been helpful to you? What have you learned?
It’s been helpful to create relationships. Sometimes just the emotional support that comes with belonging to a group of photographers, even though I am new at this. I’ve learned a lot from different members, because they are open to helping me with questions that I have. I can call Matt Rakola; I can call Jason Hornick. Jason assisted me on a photo shoot with one of the Washington Redskins and that was really good. He was basically my lighting guy and that helped me focus on communicating with the subject. I’ve gone to them with questions about bidding and things like that. I think I learned through my involvement with AIGA and Art Directors Club that by belonging to a club you are supporting your industry, and that’s important to me. I’ve always been an advocate for personal connections. Even though you have followers on Twitter and Facebook, personal connections are still the most valuable to me.
So as you’re developing your own style you have to be thinking, at least a little bit, on where you want to take your photography. So the age-old question- “If you could get paid to shoot anything, anywhere what would it be?”
I would love to get paid travel to new places and spend time with the people that live there and photograph them and their environment. I think I could deliver a nice combination of portraits and landscape photos that tell a story. Basically be sent somewhere and be told, OK, find some street/stranger portraits here and come back in a week. Oh, And I’d like to photograph Tina Fey and come up with something hilarious but beautiful, like her.
Jim’s work can be found at www.jimdarlingphoto.com and you can also find him on twitter, instagram, and Flickr.
He’s always open to learning more and is available to assist.