“In art, I think that you’re pushed and pulled in a direction. And being a Black artist, especially a black photographer, a lot of my decisions were based upon survival.” -Lou Jones
Lou Jones has been a successful photographer for more than 50 years. He started out as a physicist working for NASA. Needless to say when it comes to understanding how to make photographs, in his case it just might be rocket science.
From NASA to making his own way
Lou Jones graduated with two degrees in physics from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He saw his fellow graduates moving to cities with little or no cultural offerings in art and music to work for companies.
Jones was a musician. He played in several bands while at college. He was drawn to places with robust arts and music offerings. He began falling in love with the culture in Boston during visits with his fraternity brothers. “Even though it’s not New York, you can see almost anything. Every musician, every artist travels through.”
He had accepted that he was very independent. “The fact that I did not work well in the sandbox with others.” Jones said, “So, controlling my destiny was a major factor in why I’ve been a freelancer, and have never worked for anybody since that time.
“I had no interest in making a living from photography at first, and I went to graduate school and then worked for NASA,” Jones points out. “But the fact that I was so in love with photography eventually caught up with me, and while transitioning from one technology company to another.”
Physics solves photo challenges
One principle that Jones learned early was that science and its problem-solving skills are a photographer’s friend. “Learning how to become a professional photographer, how to light, and to solve problems was a big part of photography,” he says.
“Physics is also about solving problems, so as I started chasing high-tech companies and medical people as clients, I spoke their language. It became relatively easy to be invested into the system. And, when you’re talking to engineers, and they realize the photographer they’ve hired to solve their problem understands what the science is, it made that communication much easier. In point of fact, I turned that science around, and used it to solve the problems, logistically and aesthetically.”
Behind the scenes
Like so many other photographers of the time, Lou Jones loved photographing musicians. The competition was daunting. Looking for an alternative, he turned to jazz.
“I started going to crazy church basements and things like that to hear these Black musicians who were maintaining brilliant music but having a great deal of trouble making a living,” he says. “I couldn’t get access to the rock and roll people, but in those days, access to jazz musicians was a lot easier.”
Jones concentrated on making photographs of musicians backstage allowing him to get more of the personality of the performer on film.
“I photographed a lot of the greats: Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie. I chased those guys for years, and still continue to do. But they’re behind so many layers of protection now, to get photographs of these people is harder and harder.”
“The jazz series is probably my oldest long-term project, and it’s still ongoing.” (Opening photo, bottom row, first image: Dizzy Gillespie and his trumpet, 1974)
Big studio, little joy
Ten years into his career in photography, Lou Jones had a big studio in Boston with five employees. They did annual reports and lots of other projects. Jones said, “I was supporting a lot of mortgages that weren’t mine, I looked out, and everyone was humming away at their desks, and I was sitting in the middle of the studio with nothing to do.”
He wanted to go into the world and use photography to “go out and cure the ills of the world. And here I was taking pictures of computers for peoples’ annual reports,” he notes. “I asked myself, ‘Is this what I want people to remember me for, being a commercial photographer?’”
That said, Jones has created photographs for IBM, Major League Baseball, FedEx, National Geographic, Nike and People magazine to name a few.
Congressional Delegation’s photographer
The Congressional Delegation (CoDel) was looking for a photographer to come with them to Central America to record the trip. This was the 1980s where conflict in the region along with U.S. support of dictators in many of the country made the area very dangerous.
The delegation was surprised as they looked around for a photojournalist to put on a bulletproof vest and take pictures where people were shooting at photographers when Jones said, “Yes, I know someone who would do it — I will. They were kind of freaked out, but they liked my work so much that I did these trips for several years. It became one of the long-term projects. We’d accompany the CoDels to photograph in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, two or three times annually.”
Death row portraits
Jones did a project on death row photographing “The unseen, unheard stories of an American subculture — people on death row. It was a long process, and it took several years to flesh out details and approvals,” he says, “But I wanted to see if art could make a difference” (opening photo, top row, first image).
The project became his first book, “Final Exposures: Portraits from Death Row,” which won an award from the Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty.
Lou Jones lights most of his work using Nikon speedlights. He wrote the book on small flash photography: “Speedlights & Speedlites: Creative Flash Photography at Lightspeed.”
“We put up speedlights to illuminate a lot of pictures,” he says. “We even work in situations where it’s almost black, because there’s not a lot of electricity if we’re in someone’s home that’s a mud hut. So, I’ll push my ISO into the 6400 range, and I’ll hold my breath to get a picture with a shutter speed of 1/8 to 1/15 of a second. In those kinds of situations, I’ll use a Gitzo monopod or Induro carbon fiber tripod with my Manfrotto 496 ball head to steady me,” he adds.
“But I also carry little Lume Cubes. Everybody on my staff has at least one or two in their pockets, and if we get into a situation where we need a little lick of light for separation or to light up the side of somebody’s face, we use those. Even though we’re using speedlights with softboxes and bouncing them off ceilings and umbrellas, it’s gorilla lighting because we’re moving fast,” he admits.
Olympics, panAFRICA and many more projects
Lou Jones has photographed 12 successive Olympics, done work for the panAFRICAproject to show a positive, contemporary view of the 54 countries on that continent. He has ongoing projects and new ones as well keeping him busy at the career he loves.
Lou Jones is the photographer’s photographer. He is a friend and when he shoots in Atlanta, he’ll call me up to ask what I’m doing for dinner that evening. Learn more on his website: fotojones.com
Sources: B&H Explora