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Young Blood: A Chat with Photographer Joey Lawrence

Canadian Photographer Joey Lawrence is kicking butt. He is doing killer still photography, shooting music videos and traveling the world. He has an agent in New York and another one in London. Pretty cool for a guy who shoots with a Canon EOS 5D and is as likely to be lighting with his speedlights as with Profotos.

Oh yeah, and he is only 17 years old.

As a 42-year-old, that last tidbit is the kind of thing that tends to really piss me off. But rather than get mad at the guy, I thought I would interview him and see what makes him tick.

Our archived chat, more of his photos, links and info on his new DVD after the jump.


Beers Milk with Joey Lawrence

Strobist: So, first things first: Where are you based, how old are you really, and is your calendar really that full or is that algebra class?

JoeyL: I'm based nowhere, because most times I live in hotel rooms across the world going from job to job, or eating out of a can of noodles. Yup, my calendar is that full and I'm 17 years old .

Strobist: Noodles, huh? You aren't supposed to have to live on those until college. (10 for a dollar...) When did you start shooting seriously, like with a DSLR, for instance?

JoeyL: Nah, I just eat noodles because they are healthy. I started using a DSLR about 18 months ago. A lot of the stuff you see on my website was done with just a standard Minolta Dimage.

Strobist: Yeah, on Strobist we are pretty big on it being what's between the ears and not how expensive your gear is. You shoot Canon now, right? 5D, I am thinking, with those wide shots.

JoeyL: Yes, right now I use a Canon 5D and mainly prime lenses.

Strobist: When did you realize that you had an eye that was very different from that of most people your age (or any age, actually?)

JoeyL: I don't think what I do is really that complicated, it's more of a conscious thought as to making what is already there work. And that only takes a lot of messing up to develop, so I guess when I made enough mistakes.

Strobist: Mistakes are cool. They lead to more interesting successes. You have a lot going on in your photos -- moment. environment, light, action -- what is your creative process? Where do you start when you are building an idea of a photo in your head?

JoeyL: Are you talking about my commercial pictures?

Strobist: Any pictures...

JoeyL: Well, for the more photojournalistic photographs I have, such as pictures from India, it's usually finding a unique spot and waiting for the right person to appear. Or finding the right person to appear and get to know them enough that they will make a picture with you.

You have to pay attention to the wave of the environment and go with the flow. It's different for the more setup things I do, where I may pitch an absolutley ridiculous idea to a magazine or record label and see if they trust me enough to make it work. Then I have to figure out how to make it work myself.

Strobist: So, you'll throw something out there that you have yet to figure out how to do? Ballsy. Do you worry when they accept it?

JoeyL: Hahaha -- exactly, but it's the best way to force yourself to do new and creative things and get unique shots. I'm sick of pictures of bands standing in an alleyway with tough looks on their faces. I'd much rather dress them up as knights and have them scale a wall or something, it's kind of interesting.

Strobist: You do not realize just how far ahead of the pack an attitude like that puts you. Most guys are like, "If it makes money, let's keep doing it until it stops making money." End result: The death of creativity.

You also have a unique position as a pro shooter in that you are on the leading edge of the 18-34 demo that most companies covet. Do you think that gives you a perspective that many professionals lack?

JoeyL: I think it keeps me sane, more than anything.

Strobist: Let's talk about your light for a minute. You mention you use a lot of speedlights -- bare and hard, it looks like -- do you prefer them over the bigger strobes?

JoeyL: Well, I prefer bringing them through an airport! It's true I usually use them bare and hard. But I also make a lot of devices for them myself like soft boxes made of cardboard, tin foil, and a bed sheet I cut up and stole from a hotel room. I do rent strobes from time to time, but usually I want to mix up what I'm doing and change things.

Strobist: That's a great way to go. Far more liberating than $15k worth of studio lights and hi-power cords running everywhere. When you are approaching a shot, say a commercial concept, do you design the light early in the process? You photos have a definite "look," so I would imagine that people are coming to you in part because of that signature style you can create.

JoeyL: Yes, and also because I have a tendency to break a lot of stuff! If I am planning a commercial shoot the light is usually figured out in advance, yes. But if it's not working I usually mix it up and do something completely different on the fly.

Strobist: Your stuff looks effortless and natural, but you did not get to that point by accident. It takes a lot of work and honing of your skills and craft. What photographers have you used as compass points and mentors? Have you assisted for anyone?

JoeyL: I'm more inspired by movie lighting and a cinematic look, where you put lights where the sun or light sources would actually be, and light for the whole set.

Strobist: Tough to do with speedlights sometimes. But agreed, the movie guys are the best lighting folks in the world. What is your favorite movie, light-wise?

JoeyL: My favourite movie is Baraka, but it doesn't really have any setup lighting at all. So I'd have to go with modern music videos and things like that.

Strobist: Baraka rocks. I have it quicktimed on my Macbook. Amazing movie, almost no words. Does that make you wanna go all Ron Fricke and do stuff like time-lapse still photo video?

JoeyL: It makes me want to go chill in India again. Which I'm doing this October for a month -- India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Strobist: Is it tied to any project, or are you just paying yourself back a little?

JoeyL: The only project for this is to build my photojournalism portfolio, so I can get more jobs doing that. I really like dangerous places and war photography. I was supposed to go to Afghanistan this year but it got cancelled because of the new Taliban threats against foreign nationals.

Strobist: Yeah, and plus if you die before age 20, just think how famous you'd be THEN...

JoeyL: I'd be pretty content with my life either way. But what I really want to do is to be able to afford about 100 cameras and put them all in a circle, take one exposure at the same time, and make an animation of the camera motion.

Strobist: Looking ahead 10 years, what would you want to be doing? More of the stuff you are doing now? A book? Films? I mean you probably have friends that work at the mall -- your head must explode just thinking about your path sometimes.

JoeyL: Well I am doing music videos now, (I've done two.) So I want to slowly ooze more into film and feature film. It would be cool to come out with a book of stuff but I don't think I'm ready yet. I'm not really at the level I want to be at yet.

Strobist: Could you let go and let a cinematographer do his or her thing, or would you be tough to shoot for?

JoeyL: I have great trust in people and would want to be a director instead of a cinematographer.

Strobist: There is a lot of life in your photos. How do you coax that out of your subjects? (I love the yelling stuff in the behind the scenes video on your site.) Do you think your age is an advantage or a disadvantage in a situation like that? Do people try harder with you, or do thay make you prove yourself to them?

JoeyL: Well, on a shoot I like to interact with the people as best I can, such as showing them pictures as the shoot progresses, sketches of what is going to happen. It's hard to convince people because I look like some young sketch so I request that bands see my website before the shoot, for example.

For photographs from the streets, such as the homeless series, I know all those guys and all their stories, so the pictures come after when there is more of a connection. I don't think the pictures would turn out any good unless I was interested in their life.

Strobist: Some of your stuff looks incredibly realistic, and yet highly stylized. The fight photos you have in your website could almost be a snuff film. Is that real blood?

JoeyL: I made it out of food coloring, water, corn syrup and sugar. It tasted delicious!

Strobist: Low-budget SFX rocks. Was that your idea, or a commercial concept?

JoeyL: That was my idea. The pictures are for the band Protest the Hero to advertise a tour they did in Japan.

Strobist: They must have eaten that up in Japan.

JoeyL: They had a different sound in earlier albums and broke into something new, so I thought what better way to show this than beating the shit out of each other.

Strobist: What did they think of the photos?

JoeyL: They loved them, and they are the type of guys that don't really care for photoshoots. and their manager has them on his wall.

Strobist: I loved a recent "fan letter of the week" on your blog, where someone called you basically a product of "matrix metering + Photohop." I laughed out loud. Do people seriously not get that PS is such a part of the process now? Do you do a lot of your own post work in Photoshop, or do you have minions for that?

JoeyL: Haha yeah, it's kind of bad of me to only post the bad 'fan mails' because I get so many good ones. But I think it's also important to show people these because a lot of photographers read that and get similar e-mails. And yes, I do all my own post work. So instead of hiding it and being scared of these e-mails it's kind of hilarious to post them and see how ridiculous they are.

Strobist: It helps to be comfy with who you are and what you are doing. You and Dave Hill (out of Nashville) are working the post process in a really cool way. Ever see his stuff?

JoeyL: Yeah, he shoots for the same magazine that I do sometimes. (Alternative Press) He had the cover last month and I got it this month. He does really cool stuff!

Strobist: All over the world, digital cameras and cheap computers are opening up the process to millions of young, hyper-creative photogs. If you could talk to a roomful of a thousand 14-year-old shooters who want to reach a high level of shooting, what would you tell them?

JoeyL: I get e-mails from a lot of people even younger than me and it's always nice to see that because I used to do the same thing to cool photographers I found. My best advice would be to use the internet as a tool and post as much stuff as possible for feedback. But don't become discouraged -- try to develop something fresh and new. I have tons of really really old horrible pictures that are still around the internet but it's important to start somewhere, it doesn't bother me.

Strobist: Yeah, Flickr is a fantastic thing to happen to photography. There is no distance between shooters any more.

JoeyL: Or people who buy my editing dvds/tutorials e-mail me for more info on something specific. It's cool and there's no way I'm going to neglect those e-mails, I like to help people learn because I was, and still am, in the same boat. If I knew everything than there would be no point at being creative and forcing myself to learn new stuff?

Strobist: Hmm... Be careful what you wish for. Strobist has about 150,000 photographers reading it. And I think you just left your front door unlocked because many of them are going to want to see your DVDs.

JoeyL: That's great! I need money, haha! By the by, I have a brand new one coming out in a few days.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: It is out -- more info here.)

Strobist: What's the subject matter?

JoeyL: My whole workflow, from shooting (behind the scenes footage, light diagrams) to editing (on-screen Photoshop capture with narrration.) It's got some actions and textures to use yourself, even how to cook your own textures in the oven to use! I think it's going to have about 2 hours of material when I'm done. Oh, and it's even got a karaoke sing along intro... (haha)

Strobist: Holy crap, you have no idea how many people are gonna jump on that from here. Heck, I am, too. We'll happily fund your trip to India/etc.

JoeyL: Thanks, I hope it goes over well because I was suggested to break lessons up and sell them individually. But I don't think that's such a great idea because my workflow is just one big thing, you know?

Strobist: Absolutely. IMO, people get hung up on one part of the process (the "How to get the Dave Hill Look" thread in our Flickr group has over 300 posts) and then they lose sight of the more holistic view of the process. You are doing a cool thing by keeping them together.

JoeyL: Yeah, and I think people will learn more this way towards something bigger for themselves. For instance, most people might just jump on the grunge lesson and not on the other ones that make the grunge look good. I've had a friend come around and videotape photoshoots so there's a lot of fire, blood and knights!

Strobist: I really cannot wait to see it. Thanks much for taking the time to chat with us. I can't wait to see what else you have in store, picture-wise.

JoeyL: Thanks, feel free to e-mail me about anything but no "Joey Lawrence: 'woaaah!!!'" quotes from the show Blossom

Strobist: Cool, I'll pass that along....


:: Joey Lawrence Photography ::
:: Blog ::
:: Tutorial DVD :: (Soundtrack Content: 100% Cheese)


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