CD: Jeremy, thanks for participating in the grand FUSEVISUAL experiment. We’ve known each other for while and I know your back story. Which is pretty damn interesting. Please tell the FUSEVISUAL readers a bit about your history; how you came to photography, studying Japanese, and the wondrous world of booking talent?
Jeremy Goldberg: I’ve never really thought about having a “back story” per se. I actually took a number of film classes when I was at UCLA, and back story implies some element of crafting – where my story feels like a strange tumble down the rabbit hole. After initially enrolling as a Physics major at William & Mary, I changed at the last minute to attend UCLA on a computer science engineering scholarship, pretty much the polar opposite of William & Mary’s small town isolation.
After a year at UCLA combined with my computer science work experience in high school, I decided that I didn’t want to work in front of a computer for the rest of my life. My father was a lawyer and convinced me not to do pre-law. My grandfather was a doctor, and that didn’t seem fun, either. So I chose Japanese and Economics, assuming that would postpone my decision as I could work with any Japanese company.
Toward the end of college, I discovered the film school and started taking as many classes as I could. The quality of the film classes at UCLA was far above everything else I had studied there except art history, and I enjoyed the classes immensely. Yet starting over as a film major seemed daunting at the time. I interned at two production companies and a talent agency and had a blast.
Coming out of school, I fell into a job developing talent – but at a modeling agency, not a talent agency. For the next several years I worked in NY and LA at a couple big modeling agencies and experienced some of the excitement of the fashion industry – and I was hooked. Who wouldn’t want to watch Kate Moss drink champagne and eat cookies backstage at Ralph Lauren?
After a few years, the problems in the modeling industry were affecting my enjoyment of it – and an up-and-coming photographer friend of mine named Troy House thought I had a good eye and encouraged me to pursue photography. The catalyst was a model I was trying to develop who was adorable, but every test shoot came back with her looking incredibly uncomfortable. As she always had a mischievous and open sense of humor around the agency, I knew I could get her to be comfortable in front of the camera – so I rented a camera along with the instruction manual, and had a couple friends help me set up lights. And I never looked back (except between the hours of 1am and 3am every night).
CD: How did your interest in Japanese culture come about? What is it like to shoot in Japan as an American who speaks the language and understands the culture to a certain degree? Also, how do productions differ in Tokyo than say L.A. or New York?
Jeremy Goldberg: My father was a partner in a NYC law firm when I was growing up. He had a some important Japanese clients, one of which would send us Nabisco Japan products in the mail – a magical thing for a five year old. I accompanied him on three or four private Japanese lessons at the time, since he was aware of the immense value of speaking to the Japanese clients with at least a few polite phrases. Yet after a few hours of Japanese instruction, I didn’t revisit the language until high school when I picked it to study purely because it was the least normal of the options offered.
As for working in Japan, the differences are hard to list – I could write a book just on that topic. Westerners often complain the Japanese never say no. In fact, the Japanese say no to most requests, unfortunately Westerners hear “yes” answers. A Westerner says, “Can we get the talent to do this?” A Japanese responds, “Well, I think we can ask him and see, because it might be a nice result if they don’t mind doing it.” The Westerner thinks – great, I’ll wait to hear back, then gets frustrated when they never get a straight answer. However, the Japanese person has already said no, the Westerner just didn’t hear it.
It’s also quite different to shoot in Japan as a Westerner or as a Japanese. The Japanese will micro-manage a Japanese photographer to an extent that would never be accepted in the US, but they will give a Western photographer freedom that would never be extended in the US.
The bigger difference is cross cultural issues with clients. Westerners think it’s a mystery why one film or star does well in Japan, and others do poorly. Yet usually there’s a direct correlation, as Japan has an efficient promotional system…if you follow the rules. This bears repeating, as many Japanese things work amazingly well…IF YOU FOLLOW THE RULES. Unfortunately, Western stars look at Japan as a mediocre market, as opposed to the 2nd biggest entertainment market in the world with the most loyal fans in the world. If you build up a good career in Japan, it will last for decades after the American market has discarded you. Yet they spend more time and money on France or Germany because they speak a few words and the culture is familiar, but a well promoted Western star in Japan can still make millions for commercials that will never be seen in the West and a well promoted movie can break $60million or even $100million for Harry Potter and the like. Often the American predictions of what they think the Japanese will like is terribly off base. I’ve heard Americans say they thought Twilight would be a huge hit in Japan (it barely registered). They also think movies with a Japanese connection will automatically be huge, but Wolverine and Pacific Rim both disproved that. Meanwhile, Les Miserable made $80million and Alice in Wonderland made $130million.
In any event, my cultural affinity for Japan probably has a lot to do with my continued good relationship with Japanese clients. Unfortunately, I often find it’s more difficult to deal with Western companies that want to do business in Japan, but aren’t willing to do the ground work.
CD: Your portraits of young women have this amazing sense of innocence in them but also the feeling that they are very much are the verge of change. Is this something you strive for or is it how they respond to you?
Jeremy Goldberg: Hmm. I think it’s something I strive for, but not the aspect of change – it’s more the aspect of potential and of potential loss. The photos that affect me the most are the pictures that look like a caught moment of time – but with a sense of potential and hope, sometimes combined with the loss of that hope. Melding the past, present, and future into one introspective stew. Possibly the girl who makes your heart skip a beat, or the girl you dated for one magical week but somehow got away and all you have to remember her by is three perfect but faded photos.
I don’t respond as much to the photos that look like people who just have a nonstop partying lifestyle hanging out in dirt-covered venues listening to their favorite bands and dancing for hours before they all hook up with each other for a drunken weekend. Not because the photos aren’t beautiful or even similar stylistically, but they’re just not representative of my life. I don’t respond to people who seem like they just stumble through life with amazing things happening around them and no adversity – that wouldn’t make for a great movie. I respond to the photos that have a sense of unrealized hope, ephemeral happiness, lasting loss. It’s not as happy-go-lucky, but it makes more of a lasting impact. I still remember the first time I saw Irving Penn’s Summer Sleep in person, and it gave me all those feelings. Then again, Irving Penn could do that with a picture of a lemon or a cigarette butt, too.
CD: Your images always have a sense of production to them, even if they look like they are totally a snapshot. You are equally good at full scale produced shoots. How do you prepare for each type of shoot?
Jeremy Goldberg: I prepare in a similar style for everything, even if the steps are abbreviated for the simple shoots. I like to meticulously plan things in my head – because that allows me to change everything once we start. Honestly, I probably like huge shoots the most – I’m quite comfortable when 30 people are asking me questions at once. I also enjoy very small shoots – for instance my first album cover was James Iha’s Let It Come Down and it was just me and him at 4am in Griffith Park with an RZ67, a Nikon F4s and a bag of filters. There’s a rapport you get one-on-one that’s hard to duplicate in busier environments.
CD: Are there any personal projects you are working on at the moment you can share with us?
Jeremy Goldberg: There are a couple of personal projects I’m working on at the moment. The one that I’m starting to look for galleries for is a series of portraits of interesting women…along with everything in their purse. It’s a different take on the magazine “perfect” versions – the ones where it’s a red carpet photo of Angelina Jolie along with two lipsticks she can’t live without (likely ones she’s never used). The challenge with this project is getting people when they’re not prepared. I don’t want to just see which nail polish someone has – but how many crumpled receipts they carry and from where. I’m still trying to track down a few people I’d love to shoot for it, but I’m hoping to do the exhibition early next year. I’ve gotten some very interesting comments from subjects, too. Some have likened it to shooting nude – as its a very voyeuristic endeavor. Some have mentioned that their husband or boyfriend might get to see them with their clothes off, but even they aren’t allowed to rummage through their purse. To me, it’s a fascinating comment on the portraits themselves – a girl who looks healthy and bright-eyed…does her purse have almonds and throat lozenges, or an asthma inhaler and three packs of cigarettes.
CD: How do you choose crew? Is it through connections, friends, vibe or recommendations? Follow on: Who is the perfect crew person for you and on the flip side – what is the worst thing that a person could do on a shoot that would insure that the not be invited back?
Jeremy Goldberg: I choose my crew mostly through recommendations from my core crew. I’m proud that 90% of the time I shoot with a celebrity, their publicist will mention how much they like my crew. Since my concern is a good rapport with the subject and a simple but perfectly comfortable portrait, the environment on set is of paramount importance. I don’t understand why anyone would choose another energy. To me, the most important quality is probably the most difficult to teach – having a sense of propriety and appropriateness on set. I strive to create an intimate environment – one where the subject is comfortable displaying their vulnerability. With one subject it might be best to joke around and have fun, and with another it might be best to be serious and fast. Some photographers act the same around every subject – but for portraits, I think those photographers are taking pictures of themselves, not of their subjects.
CD: What is your advice for a young or aspiring photographer about to enter our crazy business?
Jeremy Goldberg: Advice is hard to give in an industry that reinvents itself every year. Seven years ago, Instagram didn’t exist and no one outside of college used Facebook. Twelve years ago, no one serious shot digital and catalog was the biggest money maker. Seventeen years ago, not everyone had an email account. My best advice is to create something that’s truly unique and make sure a lot of people see it. If you can’t do *both* of those things, it’s a tough uphill climb.