Featured Contributor: Jesse Untracht-Oakner
New York based Photographer Jesse Untracht-Oakner boasts a refreshingly unique, delightfully brazen and positively outlandish portfolio; capturing a warmly vague sentiment we’ve all allowed ourselves to feel.
While his event photography leaves much to the imagination, placing his viewers amongst people and performers both foreign and familiar, covered in confetti, slabs of meat or masquerade masks - of one thing we can all be sure - we want to be there. Jesse describes his work as a collection made to help along the flâneur – the stroller, in all of us. There is a certain paradox he explores, melding his personal projects and professional work together. An unexplained alienation that presents itself in overtly extraordinary imagery. A universal curiosity that empowers each of his pieces.
In much of his work, there is a strong enough coalescence of anonymity and familiarity that it presents an innate desire to understand the subject; a fearless captivation of something more than meets the eye. An extended metaphor linking his works together, a self-aware tone that causes no strain as you draw your own connections, your own contemplations. Upon viewing his online portfolio, you find yourself wide open as if by some sudden stirring fascination, to whatever the next photograph may be. Much of his photography jolts the viewers into an almost carnal state, not entirely aware of what it is that draws them in whilst keeping a captivating eye out for the next album. There is something magnetic about his work, something that forbids you to move on to the next photograph without feeling like a voyeur; an inherent seduction.
Many of his photographs offer a tremendous sense of humor to those searching for it. His blog features a lengthy photoset of what appears to be bubbles drenched in light refractions, to which the caption reads, “The universe or something.” There is an unmistakable perspective that begs the viewer to think as Jesse does. He is an incredibly humble artist with a great understanding of the local landscape in which he lives. The versatility present in his work from editorial to still life to fashion photography and music videos reveals his true and unmistakable talent. On his blog, Jesse writes, “I don’t want to be famous, just recognized.”
I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Jesse and
bringing well-deserved recognition to his work. He shared with us his personal
reflections on his work, his use of extended metaphors throughout his
photography and what makes a photo truly worth capturing.
Your commercial work differs pretty dramatically from that of your personal projects. I’m curious to know more about your personal vision versus your professional standards. What is your favorite way to photograph?
Great question. My personal work does differ from my commercial work in content and how it’s handled. Commercial work serves a very specific purpose: to satisfy the client’s ideas and desires to help make the product or content or concept look the best way it can. It’s not art. It’s commerce and, knowing that, I work to make it achieve its goal. However, there is a connecting thread that runs throughout my personal and commercial work—it’s how I handle light. I strive to give the light a personality, an essence or a form that gives the eye something to fix on. By being aware of light, and how to create it or modify it, I have the ability to work on many different types of projects.
Can you describe what it is that intrigues you enough to snap a photo?
My favorite way of photographing is to walk outside and experience the world in the style of a flâneur, a French word that means “stroller” or “saunterer.” I make myself open to coming upon the decisive moments, capturing them when they happen. Sure, I do construct scenarios as well, either when I’m shooting fashion editorials or portraits. But I still like to leave a few things up to chance in those situations as well. The world and life give you wonderful photographs every single day. It’s my job as a photographer to recognize them and when to push the shutter. I can’t really explain why I take the photograph so much as I feel the need to take it at that moment. Sometimes the moment is the right one and I see some of what made me take the photograph when its been printed. But I also notice the other subtleties that made me put the camera to my eye. The closest way I can describe it would be when an athlete is said to be “in the zone.” They aren’t thinking about what to do; they do it on impulse and muscle memory. I have trained my eyes and brain and heart to see in a way that allows me to enter the “zone” and sometimes it pays off, and sometimes it doesn’t. C'est la vie, right?
What, to you, makes something worthy of being captured? How much planning goes into your personal work and projects? Typically, who or what are your favorite subjects to shoot?
I have no hierarchy in what I like to shoot; I’m very democratic in that way. I treat all subjects the same, but I focus on the light and how that will affect how the viewer sees the subject. When most people look at a photograph, they aren’t aware of the light. They see a photograph and respond to the recognizable and easily associated information—be it a person, animal, tree, whatever. But they aren’t aware of how the choice of lighting and how it’s handled affects how you respond to those recognizable subjects. A silhouette of a man looming large in the foreground might make you feel apprehensive because you can’t see his face, just this large black shape. Is the viewer consciously aware the lighting is causing this? Probably not. Does the image gain greater depth and meaning because of it? I would say so.
Much of your personal work seems like a giant, connected metaphor while some of it seems like pure coincidence - capturing the right turn of events or images at the right time.
That’s so nice of you to notice. It’s been a long struggle to get photo editors, art directors and photography agents to take notice that there is a running interconnectivity throughout my work. That running connected metaphor is life, right? I mean it’s not just separate things happening. We all live on this planet together. We are all multi-faceted, multi-dimensional beings. It’s unfortunate that society wants us to specialize and focus, to compartmentalize ourselves into ever smaller and easily digestible brands and commodities.
When you’re called for a job - given you’re able to express some creative freedom - do you always walk in with a set plan, or wait to meet and understand the subject(s) before calling the shots?
I always like to start any job by asking the client for as much information as I can get. I will do my homework, but if the client has no real direction as to what they want, that can be tricky. Too much freedom can be like giving you enough rope to hang yourself and not deliver to their expectations, since they don’t even know their expectations. I found that when I include the client in the process of storyboarding or ideation, I am less likely to surprise them with something they are unhappy with, and more likely to surprise them with something they never expected. For instance, if I get hired to take a portrait of some personality, the magazine’s art director may say they want a certain light and have an idea for the portrait. I’ll then give them three variations on that, plus a wild card shot. Always make sure your wild card shot is something you would want them to print, because sometimes it will make the edit. Better to surprise your clients with happy accidents than disappoint them with sub-par work or an unrealized concept. I am the farthest thing from the auteur photographer. I generally appreciate input from art directors and creative directors when it helps to further the shot.
What has been your favorite body/bodies of work you’ve completed to date?
One of my favorites was the event photography for an art happening staged by the New Museum and the artist Ed Forniele. It was a semi-structured happening and I was just there to capture what took place as a record of the artwork. It was a wild party and made me remember when I was sneaking into clubs like the Limelight and Tunnel as a teenager, as well as some of the parties I threw when I was actively DJing in the NYC nightclub scene.
Another body of work that I really liked creating, and is in the permanent collection of Sydney Australia MOCA Museum, is called Tree Times. It encompassed still life, portraiture, street photography, and video as well as sight specific installations. All based around the concept of “Trees,” a slang term for marijuana, as well as the literal Tree, or the absence of trees, in today’s urban environments. It was a sort of free association exercise that turned into a successful project.
Okay, back to that event photography on your website - what is that you’re trying to evoke out of both the subject and the viewer when taking these photos? Essentially, what do you see that you want others to as well?
I have mixed feelings about events. Most clients hire you to get photos where everyone is happy and smiling. They want you to make sure you get photographs from the step and repeat; but they also want the people there that donated the most money to be smiling for the camera. I will get those shots the client expects. But I also want to get the shots when people are just “doing their thing,” being in the moment, enjoying the party. And I will be right there to capture it. I want the event photography to be less a record of existence and more a record of the event so the viewer will experience the reality of these moments in the frozen time of my photographs. Which is more interesting: seeing a staged shot of a celebrity smiling into the camera or seeing them dancing with abandon out on the dance floor?
There seems to be this kind of no-holds-barred motif present in a lot of your work. Do you ever set any rules in your work, personal or commercial? Are you given limitations, and if so, how do you manage to stay true to your style in doing so?
I don’t really believe in setting limitations whether in my personal work or in commercial work. That being said I love to get rules. Rules give you a specific parameter to work with in and sometimes by having those rules to work against you figure out creative ways to go around them. For instance The New Museum wanted me to get overhead shots of a performance happening at Union Square, the event was supposed to spontaneously happen and involve the people walking through or sitting in the park, and I was just supposed to “happen” to be there. With the event only lasting for 2 hours, and it being a “flash mob” type of performance, I had no way of renting a helicopter or getting a cherry picker. So I had the idea to get those overhead shots by utilizing some of the department stores in and around the park. Got the overhead shot they wanted but stayed within budget and time frame of the performance. By creatively problem solving I managed to stay within their rules and exceeded their expectations.
Do you have a motto or mantra you work and live by?
Be a good human. It sounds trite, but so many people these days are of the mindset “what are you going to do for me, before I do for you?” “How will you advance my career and that affects who and how I will work with you.” If you are friends with someone, and you both believe in each other, you help raise each other up. I live my life by being open to the universe and the world, to the people in it. That being said sometimes I have had to stop associating with certain people because they were out for themselves. I call them sharks because if you get in their way, they will eat you, if they stop swimming they will die, constantly on the move to their next prey. I try to be a dolphin. Dolphins swim in pods, care about every member of the pod and try to maintain a playful experience in the world with open hearts and joy.
I watched some of your videos and found them to be wildly entertaining, super bizarre and awesome to watch. Judging from your photography style, I’m going to say that the music videos featuring Horatio Sanz and You Can Be A Wesley were probably a blast to film. Do these artists approach you with an idea/concept or is this all fresh from your mind? Are you hired for videos like these because of your previous work? What’s your artistic process behind making these videos?
That’s one of the sweetest things to say and exactly what I am trying to achieve with my music videos: to be wildly entertaining and super bizarre. I usually pitch concepts and ideas to bands. Sometimes the bands like them and want to go through with them and sometimes they just pass. My process for going about creating video work is like this: I generally hear a song and get enamored by it. I then try to distill all the different things I have been looking at, reading and experiencing into some sort of narrative or visual representation. Then, after writing a treatment, if it gets approved I work with putting together a storyboard and shot list. Depending on the concept, I might work with set designers and makeup artists to get the best effect for the budget. I found that if you can take an old idea and re-contextualize it for a younger audience, it will be super successful. The older idea is already in the collective unconscious, and if you present it in a new way, there will be that element of familiarity in it but it will still feel fresh and new.
If you could give one piece of advice to artists and aspiring artists everywhere, what would it be?
My one piece of advice would be to keep making work. Sometimes it feels like you make all this stuff in your own little world, with an audience of one. But now with today’s Internet and interconnected social network sites, you can develop an audience quickly. Don’t stop making things! Everyone gets a chance, but if you quit before your chance, you will never know what happens when you get it. Stay the path. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different ideas. Find your voice and what you want to say and figure out how to say it 20 different ways. Throw out 10 of them and keep the other 10. Don’t lose focus on why you first became an artist or wanted to create art. And don’t feel ashamed or saddened or upset by the fact that you might have to work a bunch of side jobs to fund your art. Today’s society puts value on the wrong things and until we as artists are valued for our contributions to society, we will always have to hustle.
To view more of Jesse’s work, visit his site.