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BEST OF 2012, Jimmy Williams
Raleigh, NC
Project: The Music Makers series, an ongoing project to pay tribute to the faithful disciples of Southern musical traditions, and a 2012 assignment by the Spark Agency for a new ad campaign for CF Martin Guitar, launched with John Dee Holeman, the debut artist from the Music Makers series.

© Jimmy Williams

© Jimmy Williams

In the Music Makers series, Jimmy Williams pays tribute to the faithful disciples of Southern musical tradition, through portraits of the true pioneers and forgotten heroes of this art. Williams’s efforts to document these artists for the Music Maker Relief Foundation spawned a 2012 ad campaign for CF Martin Guitar, featuring John Dee Holeman, his first Music Makers subject.

“These musicians are the real-deal originals who live the lyrics, the chaos, the loneliness, and the poverty — and do so by choice,” Williams says. “This series is about preserving the faithful faces that ceaselessly pass on the rich oral records of our Southern past.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Jimmy Williams: 36 years, since 1976.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

JW: 31 years, since 1981.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

JW: I focus on people and places, which covers a lot really: lifestyle, travel, landscape, healthcare and tourism.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable professional tool?

JW: Not trying to be funny, I really believe my most valuable tool is my vision and my ability to tell a story.

ASMP: What piece (or pieces) of gear could you not do without?

JW: Over the years I’ve moved from heavy equipment and gear to very light; although, I still use the large Elinchrom Octa Light powered by the Profoto 7b portable power packs for much of my people work, as it provides such a beautiful and natural light and I can pretty much take it anywhere.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers and their work?

JW: This is a difficult question to answer in words without my words sounding very similar to many other accomplished photographers. Although the words may appear similar, the photos will not. Basically I try to tell an emotional story in a simple and beautiful manner… I see my work holistically. It is how I combine those basic elements that reveal the results. I’d say it’s my stylistic vision, a consistent and strong sense of light, dynamic compositional elements, combined with an emotional story or statement.

ASMP: Blues is a Southern music discipline that particularly speaks to you. What, in your opinion, makes blues music unique? How do you render this uniqueness into the visual language of photography?

JW: Blues is all about feeling. The blues attempts to tell an emotional story in a simple and beautiful manner. I’m drawn to the honesty of the notes and the lyrics, and that honesty is what my photography feeds on and communicates.

ASMP: In 2006, you began working with the Music Maker Relief Foundation. Please describe the mission of this nonprofit. How did you first learn about the foundation? When and why did you create a working relationship with them?

JW: The goal of the foundation is to preserve the tradition of the southern blues, by partnering with authentic southern blues musicians. Elderly and often penniless, through the help of the foundation, these musicians are represented and enabled to make new CD’s, get bookings, travel and go on tours. The Foundation preserves the music and provides the musicians with a livelihood.

In 2006, I decided to do a blues musician series and stumbled upon the foundation, which was a wonderful twist of fate. It seemed like a perfect partnership because we were able to help one another in a sense. They had the perfect personalities and souls that fit my creative goals for the series. It was important to me to have the local connection and to give back to these important figures by providing them with photography for their PR efforts — needless to say I got a lot more than pictures in return.

ASMP: One unexpected outcome of creating “Music Makers” was the connection you created with the musicians you photographed. What was the foundation of this connection? Please tell us about John Dee Holeman, the artist who came first. Do you keep in touch with any of your subjects?

JW: We contacted John and set up a time to come by his home to scout it as a possible location for the photo. I arrived to find John out on the curb with his old station wagon, working on the engine. As part of this entire process, I’m never in a hurry, so I hung around and we just enjoyed talking for a while. Eventually we got to looking around his house inside and out. I liked the place. John seemed to like the company. The actual shoot was much the same. It seemed more like two friends spending some time together than a photo shoot. John played music off and on; we talked a lot, and just enjoyed the time together.

Since that shoot I’ve had several opportunities to get back in touch with John, including my recent Martin Guitar campaign in which John was one of the featured musicians.

When I have a photographic exhibition of the work, if possible, I’ll try to have one or more musicians play for the opening, and John has been at several. We just had an opening at a local gallery and we invited four of the musicians join us. It was a blast.

ASMP: When photographing musicians, what do you do to prepare for a shoot? What techniques do you use to bring out the personalities of each subject? How do you set them at ease? Is there anything about photographing musicians that you find different from other portrait subjects?

JW: It’s really not rocket science. I want a meaningful location, the musician wearing what might be typical for a performance, and plenty of time.

We always research the artist and try to understand where he calls “home.” It’s important to find a location where the artist has an emotional connection. It may be his home, a bar where he first played, a church, or anyplace that has meaning to the musician. We’ll attempt to acquire photos of any of these places in advance (or at least good descriptions) to make a determination about places that have the most photographic merit.

Setting someone at ease is probably more of a personality question — his or hers and mine. I just take my time and enjoy the process. They seem to enjoy it as well.

My approach to other portraits is pretty much the same, from beginning to end.

ASMP: Inspired by your “Music Makers” series, Spark Agency hired you to shoot their ad campaign for CF Martin Guitars. Are you often able to parlay personal work into commercial assignments? If so, are there any strategies can you offer others for success with this?

JW: I have been fortunate in the past with acquiring assignments based on personal work that I’ve created and promoted. One of my larger projects was a campaign for Barilla. I put together a very nice promotional piece that contained a series of my personal photos from Italy. As a result the agency for Barilla contacted me and I ended up with a three-week shoot in Italy.

The only strategy comment I can offer is one that I see in retrospect. It is the personal projects that I have a passion for that have found their way back into an assignment.

ASMP: In your “Music Makers” slideshow, you include music, narration, and sound bites of the subjects portrayed in the series. Have you ever been inspired to include motion capture in this project? Please share your thoughts and opinions on the future of visual media in its widest sense as well as the relationships between various components.

JW: If I were starting this project today, I’d probably include a motion element. When I started, DSLR’s were just really making their debut. I focused on the print and, separately, I have an audio interview with each artist. My vision at the time was perhaps an eventual gallery/museum show where I would incorporate my photos with audio sound bites and their music.

I do see motion as an important element in the photographer’s bag of skills for the future. As our world evolves, so do all the methods of communication and the technical tools to do so. When 35mm motion film was the norm, the technical aspect was a far reach for most still photographers. Now that HDSLR’s are available in almost all pro cameras, the ability for the still photographer to generate his or her own promotional motion reel is much closer at hand.

ASMP: You’ve worked with many different clients and agencies over the years. Has there ever been a project where the client or agency was displeased with the photographs you created? If so, what methods did you use to maintain a positive working relationship in the face of this news? Were there any points when you found yourself getting emotional about this dilemma?

JW: I’m sure at some point I’ve had a photo that didn’t meet the expectations of my client, but nothing comes to mind. I try very hard to understand my client’s needs up front, as well as manage expectations so that what they receive is what’s expected — or better. More likely is the case that the photo didn’t meet my expectations, in which case I continued on until I was happy. I have a pretty calm personality. It just doesn’t help to become emotional. You lose all perspective.

ASMP: Please talk about your support staff. In what capacities do you employ full time administrative staff, assistants or tech support? Which tasks do you prefer to do yourself and which do you prefer to outsource to others?

JW: I owe a lot of my success to my crew. I’ve almost always had a full time producer, office manager, and digital crew. They really look out for me, pave the way, knock down barriers, open doors and solve problems. I do use freelance assistants but almost always work with the same first assistant. I’ll find an assistant who I enjoy working with and who understands the look and feel I’m after. I think in a lot of cases my first assistant could probably shoot the job for me because of our relationship. This has allowed me to keep my focus on the most creative aspects of photography.

ASMP: How many regular freelance helpers do you work with, and how wide a range of sources do you consult when assembling a crew? Do you have any tips for keeping a crew motivated and working well together?

JW: Typically I’ll use the same freelance first assistant, and we’ll add to the crew based on the scale of the shoot. Often I’ll have a second assistant and a digital tech. Since my shoots are nearly always in other states or countries, I’ll hire a second assistant local to our shoot, which allows me someone familiar with all the area in the event I need something unforeseen, and they can also pick up and drop off rental gear, if needed. I’ve found a producer to be indispensable. I’ll either have my studio producer with me on location or a local producer, depending on who can best serve the needs of that specific shoot.

ASMP: What part of owning a photography business do you find most rewarding? What part is most challenging?

JW: First, the most rewarding: Owning your own business allows you the ability to create your own destiny.

The most challenging: Owning your own business means you are responsible for your own destiny.

ASMP: Many of your images have a warm palette, radiating happiness and pleasure. Are you cognizant of this effect? If so, what do you do specifically to achieve this look?

JW: I’m not sure when this palette became part of my look, but I evolved into it many years ago. It’s the way I see visually and perceptually and most likely a result of my appreciation for the renaissance masters and their palettes. Recently I’ve been evolving into other palettes as a continuation of my style. It has taken some exploration as I find I’m always drawn back to my core, but I really enjoy where it’s taking me.

In reference to “radiating happiness and pleasure” … Aside from my visual style, I would hope my content reflects that I just appreciate the everyday person and find humor and light in the little life. I love to combine my visual style with a story of mystery, subtlety, humor or quirkiness.

ASMP: Your Web site is extremely well organized, comprehensive, up-to-date, and professional. How important is your Web site to your business? Can you estimate what percentage of your annual income results from Web traffic?

JW: Because I’ve been in business for so long, I’ve had the opportunity to more clearly understand the needs of my Web site, which by the way is a moving target. As technology evolves on the Internet, as well as on the photography side, the needs of the Web site also change. But the business function remains similar — how do we communicate our “brand” in an effortless manner for our clients? The Web site is really the backbone of the marketing side. All efforts point you back to the site — direct mail, e-mailers, social media, PR, and so on. It is sort of home base for you. All the other forms of marketing help generate the buzz.

ASMP: How much time is spent maintaining your Web site on a regular basis and how do these efforts fit within the general framework of your business?

JW: I still keep a print portfolio, which I feel is very important, and I really begin my thought process there. Once the print portfolio’s layout and image selection is complete, I’ll mirror as best as possible the same content on the Web site. Even so, we’re tweaking the site on a weekly basis.

ASMP: You have separate Web sites for your fine art photography and stock photography. Why do you feel these two categories need independent Web sites?

JW: I do keep three separate Web sites:
• My assignment site:
• My stock site:
• My fine art site:

I separate these sites more for the benefit of the user, since the tools for browsing, searching and purchasing are different for each of the three.

ASMP: In your opinion, what differentiates a fine art photograph from other genres of photography? Please tell us more about your fine art print collection. How many prints do you sell on a regular basis, and who are your biggest collectors (and in what countries, if this work has an international reach)?

JW: A fine art print is really subjective and everyone has his or her own feeling about it.

I believe there are three components that define “fine art”:
1) The creator has to have vision. The photograph or series should have creative merit well beyond just capturing an image with great craftsmanship.
2) The photographs should evoke some form or emotion or feeling.
3) Someone should want to actually buy the photo for either his or her personal enjoyment or investment purposes.

I have regular, ongoing sales of my fine art work throughout the year. It’s not massive but regular.

My collectors really seem to fit into two categories.
• Those who buy for the beauty of the photograph and intend to have it in their home or business.
• Those who are buying for investment purposes.

Of these two categories, the first is the larger group.

ASMP: Please describe your overall client base. What percentage of your assignments are promotional/advertising vs. editorial or other markets? Do you have a favorite type of assignment to shoot?

JW: For nearly all of my years in the business, advertising has represented nearly 100 percent of my clientele. Earlier in my career I had a few corporate clients that have continued to stay with me over the years. In the last couple of years I have found a couple of editorial clients that feel right for me, and I’ve enjoyed the creative freedom of the editorial shoot.

We also try to consistently produce personal shoots and generate new promotional material. When possible, I’ll attach a personal shoot onto an existing assignment when we find ourselves in a fascinating location.

ASMP: Your assignment work has a broad international reach. How much time do you typically spend traveling on assignment? What percentage of this work is shot for US-based clients vs. international accounts?

JW: I travel on about 80 percent of my assignments. Some months I find I’m on a plane a lot, and on others I might not travel at all. We do shoot in other countries but mostly we’re somewhere in the US. When we do shoot internationally, we’re typically working for a US concern.

ASMP: How do you handle clients who want to look over your shoulder when you don’t want them around? Also, the opposite scenario — what do you do when you wish a client was present, because you know they’ll second-guess you later, but they aren’t available?

JW: I do a lot of communicating up front with my clients, and I prefer to operate as a partner. That said, I do my best work by gathering all the information up front and then executing my understanding of the concept somewhat on my own. Then I ask for feedback once I know I’m happy with the direction to insure everyone is in agreement.

ASMP: Adding to your multifaceted photography career, you most recently taught photography workshops for the Waverly Artists Group Studio, located in Cary, North Carolina. Please describe this group and your involvement with them. For how long have you been a photo educator and what attracts you to teaching?

JW: The gallery is a “working” art gallery where I display some of my work. All the artists are encouraged to teach ongoing classes. I’m the only photographer in the group, which I find liberating in a way as the focus is purely on art and completely void of the technical side of photography. I’m always exploring new ways of seeing or experimenting with multimedia approaches.

Teaching is relatively new for me. I’ve had an interest in teaching for a very long time, but it wasn’t until recently that I’ve been able to put enough energy into the planning process to develop classes that I feel really focuses the student on finding their creative vision and how to achieve it. The beauty of teaching is that I seem to learn as much as the students in the process. Never would have thought it.

ASMP: People make photographs with their iPhone all the time. During your iPhone photography workshop at Waverly Artists Group Studio, were students typically new to photography, having discovered the magic of the medium using this most recent technology, or were they experienced photographers adapting to a new realm? Has this workshop been popular for you?

JW: The iPhone class is actually one of the most popular. A good portion of the students are there just to understand the basics. I do have some more advanced photographers as well.

What I really try hard to communicate about this class is that even an advanced photographer such as myself can find iPhoneography liberating. It opens up our world to a new way of seeing which you can then translate back to your regular photography. The creative process is on a faster timeline, allowing you to now think constantly about photo possibilities all around you, because you always have your phone. That constant creative thought process and the post development of “what could this photo be” is an excellent mental exercise that really pays off.

ASMP: What kind of archiving workflow do you recommend to your students and how do you advise them to print their iPhone photographs? Do you have any favorite iPhone tips, tricks or apps to share?

JW: I haven’t really explored the workflow for students in great depths. I use Microsoft Expression Media (used to be iView) now owned by PhaseOne. That works well for my purposes, but unless someone shoots large volumes, they would probably be happier with just iPhoto or Lightroom. The answer is really how much shooting do you do that needs archiving.

I still print my iPhone photos in a similar manner to all my prints using Epson printers on fine art papers. But recently I’ve attempted printing on canvas, and although canvas has historically not been very appealing to me, I’m starting to see some applications for iPhone that may be useful.

If you have not seen the app 645pro, you should check it out. It is the most advanced app I’ve seen that actually makes you feel you are operating a pro camera, all the way down to giving you shutter speed and ISO specs and even allowing the capture of uncompressed JPEGs and even raw TIFF files. Yeah, that’s right, raw TIFF files.