The Great Discontent

The Great Discontent

Jeremy Cowart

Jeremy Cowart

  • photographer

Jeremy Cowart is a photographer from Nashville, Tennessee. Mostly known for his photography of celebrities and musicians, he also spends a lot of time on entrepreneurial ideas and humanitarian projects. He launched his first iPhone app, OKDOTHIS, and founded a global photography movement called Help-Portrait. Jeremy lives in Nashville with his wife and two children and soon-to-be two more children who they are adopting from Haiti.

Interview

Describe your path to becoming a photographer.

I’ve always loved painting, illustration, and anything that involves fine art. When I was in high school, I wanted to be a painter, but I think my parents were worried about how I would make a living, so they encouraged me to explore graphic design. Reluctantly, I decided to study graphic design in college, but once I started classes, I fell in love with all things technological—computers, programs like Illustrator and Photoshop, and all of that.

After college, I was a designer for several years. I worked for a few ad agencies, but didn’t love that world at all; it wasn’t nearly as cool as I hoped it would be. In 2001, I started my own design agency and by 2003–2004, digital cameras started to become a thing. I bought a camera to use for my design work so that I could shoot textures to overlay on work in Photoshop.

Meanwhile, I lived in Nashville and many of my friends were writers and musicians, so I started shooting them for recordings or projects. I fell in love with the process of shooting. It felt so natural and it was almost as if I realized, “Oh, this is what I was supposed to be doing all this time.”

In March 2005, I quit design and started doing photography full-time; it’s been nearly eight years.

Was it a cold-turkey switch?

There was a bit of time where I was doing design and photography, but in March 2005, I left my company, stopped designing, and started shooting full-time.

One of the things we ask about is “aha” moments. Was what you just described your “aha” moment?

I think so. With design, you’re sitting behind a desk all day and you don’t go anywhere or meet interesting people. It’s a very solitary activity. When I got my first travel shoot, I realized, “Wow! I get to travel. I get to go to awesome places, meet awesome people, and use really cool tools.” That was part of the “aha” moment—I realized that photography allowed me to get away from my desk and see the world and that was certainly part of what I liked about it.

Are you self-taught?

I guess so. I took a photography class for a semester during college, but I hated it. I actually got a “D” in the class and certainly never dreamed I would become a photographer.

(all laughing)

Other than that one class, I’ve just learned from picking up my camera and shooting. I’ll never forget when my agent called me during that first year and said, “You know how to light a set, right?” I replied, “Yeah, of course,” but I had no idea. Sometimes you just have to dive right in, shoot, and learn from your mistakes. Now, with digital photography, the beautiful thing is that you can see your images right away, which is an advantage.

“…there’s something I’m really drawn to about risk. I love the moment of standing on the edge of a cliff and just jumping. I’ve always been drawn to that feeling, to that moment, and I’m not afraid of it.”

Imogen Heap
Innovative English musician, Imogen Heap

You mentioned wanting to be a painter when you were younger. Was creativity a part of your childhood?

I’ve always been who I am. As a kid, I connected to anything creative. I grew up thinking I was dumb because I couldn’t focus like other kids; I didn’t connect to teaching; and I didn’t listen in class because I was so ADD. But when it came to do anything creative—music, drama, art—I really excelled. I was the lead in my school play, was in all the music stuff I could be in, and won many art shows in high school.

It wasn’t until later in life that I realized I wasn’t dumb; it was just that the traditional school system wasn’t built for people like me. I feel sorry for all the kids out there who are creative because art programs continue to be cut in schools. I just spoke at a school recently and learned that the kids there only have art class once every three weeks for 30 minutes. I’m blown away by that because, based on my experience, I was one of those kids who needed that creative outlet because that’s where I could shine.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Nashville, so I’m a true Nashvillian. I grew up outside of Nashville in a town called Hendersonville, which is known for Johnny Cash and now, Taylor Swift—she and I went to the same high school.

Did you have any mentors along the way?

Not officially, but there were some big influences in my life, including my parents. When I was designing, there was a guy name Jimmy Abegg, who I really looked up to. He was kind of a mentor; we met for coffee every few months and he was the first person who told me, “You know, you should really buy a camera and start shooting for your design work.” I think that out of anyone, I’d call him an early mentor.

Was there a point in your life when you decided to take a big risk to move forward—maybe what you mentioned earlier about switching from design to photography?

Yeah, I think that was a big risk. I took out a loan, which I don’t recommend for artists, but that was part of my story. When you’re married and providing for your spouse, it’s not a good idea to go into debt, but I took out a big loan to buy all my gear and equipment after I quit my full-time gig. It was a big risk, but there’s something I’m really drawn to about risk. I love the moment of standing on the edge of a cliff and just jumping. I’ve always been drawn to that feeling, to that moment, and I’m not afraid of it.

“…the first big risk I took was leaving my cushy design firm job…and starting my own design company. The big risk a few years later was leaving that successful company to become a photographer.”

A portrait from Rwanda
A portrait from Rwanda
Actress and model, Marielle Jaffe
Actress and model, Marielle Jaffe

Have there been any other risks you’ve taken along the way?

Well, the first big risk I took was leaving my cushy design firm job with insurance and starting my own design company. The big risk a few years later was leaving that successful company to become a photographer. I also think there are ongoing risks in working for yourself. Right now, I’ve got a lot going on; I have a new iPhone app coming out and a few other dreams I want to pursue that will be very big risks. I feel like that phase where I went from designer to photographer is happening again, but this time I’m transitioning from photographer to entrepreneur and idea steward. Photography isn’t my focus right now and I don’t think of myself as just a photographer. I’m in a transition period and entering a new world of possibilities.

Are your family and friends supportive of what you do?

They are. I think I make everybody a little scared sometimes because I always have new dreams and ideas and they rarely make sense or have anything to do with what I’ve been doing, but that’s just who I am. My family has gotten used to it over the years.

Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?

I think that’s always on my mind. Everybody is so self-focused and I think I’m blessed to have realized early on in my life that that doesn’t really mean anything. Obviously, I want to provide for my family and pay our bills, but at a young point in my career, I’ve realized that the accolades that photographers are aiming for are things I couldn’t care less about. I’ve achieved a lot and although I don’t consider myself an Annie Leibovitz or household name, I’ve shot a lot of household names and have had big billboards in Times Square and LA. All of that is cool for a minute, but you quickly realize that all these things the world thinks is going to make you happy and fulfill you literally mean nothing. That leaves me asking, “What does matter? What does fulfill me?” It sounds cheesy, but the answer is things that give back, that help people, or help change someone’s story.

Also, because I’m a parent, one of the things I think about often is how our generation is the first to leave an online legacy. There’s very little you can find out about our parents online, but our generation is leaving thousands and thousands of pieces of litter online behind us. I wonder what my story is saying behind me and what my grandkids will find one day when they search for my name online. It’s interesting to think about how my story is unfolding in that way.

Are you satisfied creatively?

(laughing) That’s a big question. I have to be careful because I never want to sound like a jaded artist. I’m really, really thankful for work. It’s a really cool thing to be working for myself, to have great tools, and be doing something creative. That’s a huge, awesome opportunity that I never want to take for granted.

At the same time, as a photographer, shooting for clients has become a little less interesting for me. When I shoot something, it seems like the client ends up picking the worst photo out of the 800 shots taken that day, then an intern retouches it, and I see the final image out there that I’m maybe not that proud of. Am I satisfied from a working with clients perspective? Not really, but on a personal level I’m more curious and passionate to create than I’ve ever been. Right now, I have so many things I want to create for myself and I’m trying to find the time to really refine those ideas because they’re very different from my commercial work and what people know me for.

In the next 5 to 10 years, what are you interesting in doing or exploring?

Ultimately, I don’t want to be known as any one thing. I hope to be known as an idea person. There are a lot of things I want to do. For example, I’m about to release an app called OKDOTHIS, which I think will make a lot of noise. I know that’s a bold statement, but it’s going to be exciting for people to get their hands on it. And it’s a very different app for photography; nothing in this sphere has been done before. I’m pumped! After I release that, I have many more ideas for apps and most of them are not photo-related. Photography will always be something that I do, but it’s starting to be more of the thing that is helping support the other ideas I want to pursue.

It’s neat that it’s given you a platform to do other things and try out roles that you’re maybe even more inclined to fulfill.

Yeah, it’s certainly been a platform and catalyst for all of this other stuff to happen. I think that as I start pursuing other things, especially if they start paying my bills, my creativity and art will thrive a lot more because I’ll be freed up from random client work.

I’m excited to see where all of this goes because the photo industry is changing so much and I think it’s going to be harder and harder to make a living in it. The upside is that with the way technology is changing, there are so many things possible now that were just never possible before. That’s what keeps me going. I’m not interested in traditional ways of paying my bills and obtaining new clients. Now, social audiences are the new client and that will be how I earn my living in the future.

“…I never want to sound like a jaded artist…It’s a really cool thing to be working for myself, to have great tools, and be doing something creative. That’s a huge, awesome opportunity that I never want to take for granted.”

Musician Sam Beam, AKA Iron and Wine
Musician Sam Beam, AKA Iron & Wine

If you could give advice to a photographer starting out, what would you say?

Focus on your voice and what makes you different. Young photographers who are just starting out want to know how to nail lighting and Photoshop and composition. It’s not really about any of that; it’s about who you are, what you have to say, and how you can say it in a visually different way. If you can do that, you’re going to get attention and clients. I’ve seen so many photographers come out of the woodwork with no expertise or training, but with a vision for something fresh and that’s what gets clients and art directors excited—that’s what gets you hired.

You’re in Nashville. How does living there impact your creativity?

Well, I lived in LA for a year and just moved back to Nashville last July, so it was interesting to see the difference between West Coast and here. Right now, there’s just a magic here and the creativity is unparalleled. I can’t really describe it, but there is a lot of momentum and energy. All my local singer-songwriter friends are thriving and I hear them on the big TV shows and movies. I feel like a lot of eyes from around the country are on Nashville in terms of creative talent and I love it for that.

Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?

Very much so and I wish I lived in a different part of Nashville; I live in a very suburban, white area. But when I’m in the areas where I want to be living, it’s a whole different energy and vibe and I get inspired by seeing people pursuing their dreams. The other day a friend said to me, “I’m realizing how rare it is to be around people who are constantly pursuing their dreams because most of the country isn’t like that.” Here, almost everyone I know is risking it all to pursue a dream. I also go to a church where everyone is an artist of some sort and the environment is really creative. That inspires me and makes me want to work harder.

Ryan: That’s one of the reasons we love living in New York City so much. Everyone is pursuing something and being around other creative people has been life-giving.

I would definitely agree. I’ve spent a lot of time in New York and I always get that same energy. New York is magical for a lot of the same reasons.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I try to live a very normal life. In the morning, I get up and spend two hours helping my kids get ready for school. I usually take them to school and get to work around 9am. I eat lunch around noon and might have business meetings in the afternoon. I try to get home around 5:30pm and then I live the dad life. From 5:30pm to bedtime, I’m with my family and usually don’t work anymore. I also spend time with my family on the weekends, so it’s pretty traditional, except when I travel and do shoots, which changes everything up.

I have some single photographer friends on Twitter and I get really frustrated when they say they don’t have time to get stuff done. I think, “Are you kidding me?!” I remember the night my son was born—I really mourned the loss of my social life because my wife and I were always going to see shows or the movies. We lived very independently; she’d go out with her girlfriends and I’d go out with the guys. I knew that once my son was born, that would be a wrap on a lot of things socially, but I had no idea how much more I would gain. It’s just a very different life.

That’s interesting. People likely think you live a glamorous life because you get to shoot all these celebrities. It’s nice to dispel the myth that you get to have fun all the time.

Yeah, I have two new interns and I think they’ve been very disappointed by how boring my life is. Don’t get me wrong—there have been some crazy experiences, from shooting the very first episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians to touring with Britney Spears for three months to traveling the world with the Passion tour. My life has been crazy, but in small spurts. I think people see the bulk of it and assume I’m always doing that, when in reality, I maybe travel 10% of the year.

So, we have an additional question for you from Ryan’s younger brother, Anthony, who is a big fan of your work. What do you do to keep yourself creatively inspired to make new and fresh things, without getting stuck in a rut?

It will probably sound crazy, but I am a massive, massive fan of Pinterest. I’m one of the five men on the planet who have ever said that sentence. I think you have to dig a tunnel into what really inspires you because if you just follow your friends, it won’t work. I had to unfollow everyone I knew and then I started going down this path of finding new, obscure artists who I had never heard of. I feel like a new world of work is developing for me and I haven’t even started creating it yet and it’s because of Pinterest. I’ll discover journal scrapbooking, then I’ll see a watercolor artist that blows me away, then I’ll see work from an old-fashioned photographer from Paris who only shoots with existing light on Polaroid film, and I’ll mix that with a painter I found. There are all these bits and pieces of inspiration I’m finding that I want to bring together to create a new style of work.

I should have mentioned this in my typical day, but literally every morning when I get up, I browse Pinterest for 30 minutes and search for new art and artists. I can even give you a list1 that I’m keeping of all the artists who are making me want to be more creative right now. Lately, Pinterest is definitely the answer to that question.

Do you have any albums or artists on repeat?

I do. I’m a big fan of the new Thom Yorke project, Atoms for Peace, and have been listening to their album, Amok. I’ve been listening a Nashville-based band called Leagues—I’m friends with the lead singer, Thad Cockrell. I’ve also been listening to the new Hillsong United, The Civil Wars, The Daylights, and The Lone Bellow—they are just amazing.

Favorite movie or TV show?

I was really blown away by Silver Linings Playbook. I went in there with such low expectations because I didn’t know anything about it, but it was amazing.

Do you have a favorite book?

I really want to be a reader because I think readers are interesting, intelligent people, but I really don’t read a lot. I want to because every time I do, I love it, but it’s not one of the things I make time for.

Do you have a favorite food?

I don’t think so. I’m really trying to be healthy. I haven’t been a healthy eater my whole life, but being a parent in my mid–30s, I see the early stages of my body going downhill if I don’t do something about it. (laughing) I’m desperately trying to eat better, which is so hard here because we have our sweet tea and fried foods and everything tastes so good, but is so bad for you.

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

I hope to leave a legacy of a guy who did good things for people and tried his best to use his talents and skills to help make a small impact on the world. I just want to be a good steward of what I’ve been given and I want to be a good dad. I think that too few people are focused on raising healthy, strong families and I like to go against the grain. I really want to be a good dad and good husband. I’ll leave it at that.interview close

The Daylights by Jeremy Cowart
LA-based rock band, The Daylights