As a student, Jason Keen wasn’t attracted to the “sheen and perfection” of commercial photography. In fact, he was turned off at the idea of having to “make work in a controlled environment.” Then, an experience he had senior year changed everything.
Keen is now a successful freelance photographer whose list of clients includes: Rolling Stone, Dwell, Architectural Digest, Interior Design, HGTV, Delta Airlines and Adidas as well as a list of local, national and international architects.
“Most of my student work was made out in the real world, often impromptu with little planning,” explained Keen. “This seemed to counter the very notion of commercial, and especially, advertising photography where every detail is sussed over and the art is made by committee. I thought there was no real place for me.
“During my last two years of school, I became interested in the idea of objective and conceptual photography. I began to study the culture of the suburbs through its disposable, characterless architecture and photographing it. This body of work was awarded senior select for 2011. I sold all of it to a collector and was invited to Taiwan by Adobe to exhibit it.
“This experience helped me realize that I enjoyed the process of photographing architectural subject matter. It was methodical and studious, yet still allowed for chance and made in collaboration with the real world. I had found a ‘loop-hole’ as there was a commercial demand for this kind of imagery that had a kinship to what I was doing for myself.”
This particular body of work also caught the eye of a local architectural photographer who Keen worked alongside to help execute projects he was doing for local and national architects. Keen spent the next two years apprenticing him. This intimately exposed him to the process of working with architects and designers and helping to communicate their needs visually.
“Don't be in a rush to categorize what you do, let the market figure out how to leverage your aesthetic viewpoint and innate talent,” said Keen. “Let your style emerge and come from within. Your unique approach is what you bring to the table and infinitely more important than technique, novelty or specialization. You have a monopoly on this. More specifically, if you're looking to photograph the constructed environment, try to think of it as more than a product of commerce. The environments we build are vessels for human interactivity. How can you show that dynamic relationship?”
Keen also credits much of his success to an internship experience he had with Mary Ellen Mark in Manhattan the summer before his senior year. While he had learned a great deal about theory and technique at CCS, it was through this internship that he was exposed to the business aspects of his field.
“Most art, be it commercial or fine, is a business first and foremost,” he said. “It was interesting to then contrast that with the world of commercial photography I was exposed to upon graduating, assisting and working as part of the production team for advertising, commercial and car shoots. They are very different worlds, yet both are businesses before anything else. To be successful at either one, you must be able to tightly run a business.”
Over the past few years, Keen’s projects have taken him to Taipei to accept an international award and exhibit work as part of the Taipei World Design Expo as well as Bangkok, Thailand; Hanoi, Saigon; Vietnam and Cambodia. This October (2015), he will be documenting projects for international architects such as Jacobs and SMDP across China's major and emerging cities. He also recently started doing set (unit) photography for movie productions.
“The best thing about my career is that I have complete autonomy over my life,” said Keen. “I choose what I say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to, and I rarely walk through the same door twice. In that way, it’s always a thrill. The worst is that I am directly responsible for my successes and failures; I am my own boss. There was no one to blame!
“It's not always that care-free, however. Freelance photography is an insanely competitive field, especially in the wake of the digital imaging boom and recession. It's easy to put a website up and call yourself a photographer. This is much different from actually being a working photographer; one is a job, the other is a hobby. Both equally valid, yet the former requires skills far beyond the technique of photography. This creates a lot of confusion in the marketplace and has devalued the cost of photography in some areas. It is hard for most people to get over the cost of commissioning original imagery. It can be expensive, there's no way around that. Additionally, there is still a huge misunderstanding as to what the handiwork of the artist is within the medium of photography. The common misconception is that you're just pushing a button. All working photographers know it is not that simple. Most of the work is in preparation for that moment, then what happens after you've taken the image. Cultivating relationships is also very difficult and time-intensive, but ultimately the most important.
“Looking ahead, I would like to take my business on the road and work more internationally. There is so much new and exciting development in East Asia, South East Asia, and the Middle East. Creatives that are making decisions for campaigns and marketing efforts do not have to rely on regional photographers, photographers they know only through word-of-mouth or pay-to-be-featured books any longer. Through the power of the internet, they can branch out, do their own research and find a photographer that has the exact vision and style they're looking for It's a great time to focus on what you have to offer and put it out there. Give the market not what it thinks it needs but what it doesn't know that it yet needs. The latter will always have the edge.”
To check out more of Keen’s work, visit http://www.jasonkeenphotography.com. ;