While you may first recognize Jeremy Cowart's photography from his magazine shoots or album covers, like Kelly Clarkson's recent holiday album, the scope of Cowart's work encompasses numerous mediums and areas of photography. He began as a graphic designer, worked on creating a smartphone application, and has built non-profits with strong communities to support them, and he also happens to be a photographer.
I recently had the chance to speak with Cowart about his work and methodology from his beginnings to his current status as a respected celebrity photographer.
How did you first get involved with photography?
"I was a graphic designer beforehand and I studied design in school. I ran my own design company for a while and then when digital cameras came out I thought it would be cool to shoot textures and things to use in my design work. So once I started shooting textures I just fell in love with the process of shooting and I decided this is what I want to do instead. This is what I would rather be doing."
Cowart started out with digital since it was what he needed for his design-centered work. He also wasn't a trained or experienced photographer and just needed something to fill his needs. This turned out to be the Canon PowerShot G1 point-and-shoot digital camera.
What led you to choose the Canon G1?
"At the time there weren't many options in the digital world. That was just about it. So a friend recommended it to me and my parents bought me my first camera in high school and it was a Canon so I had already trusted the Canon brand." This only proves the saying that it is the photographer and not the camera. The 3.3MP and tiny image sensor as well as what my guess wasn't the sharpest lens around would be unthinkable today, but back when Cowart started shooting, it was exactly the thing to get started. So, what got you to make the big jump to a professional camera? "I fell in love with it. I started shooting friends and taking it more seriously, so when DSLRs really started developing I of course jumped on board. I started shooting my friends and shooting album covers and taking it much more seriously." I followed up with the obvious question.
So, what got you to make the big jump to a professional camera?
"I fell in love with it. I started shooting friends and taking it more seriously, so when DSLRs really started developing I of course jumped on board. I started shooting my friends and shooting album covers and taking it much more seriously." I followed up with the obvious question.
What did you get?
"My first actual gear was not even a 5D, it was the first version of the professional DSLR. I believe it was the original EOS-1D. With that I had the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM, EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM, EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, and EF 50mm f/1.4 USM." The most interesting part about the selection is the reasoning about it. And the dramatic leap of faith Cowart took in spending a lot of money on gear that he knew little about.
"I didn't have a clue and someone recommended these [to me]. I knew absolutely nothing about photography when I bought all my gear. Absolutely nothing."
This could explain why his favorite lens is the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM. It allows him to just go and shoot without worrying about all the technical requirements that he may or may not encounter. The versatility of zooms is definitely what makes it Cowart's go-to lens. But, it excludes a large part of what many photographers consider essential gear.
What about primes? Why don't you own any?
"I still rent primes a lot when I go on bigger shoots, but I'm not really a technical dude. A lens is a lens in my book, I'm not really freaking out about different lenses. Way too many people geek out about this stuff but you should be able to make beautiful images with any lens."
It is true. A good camera does not necessarily make a good photographer. It is the thought and collaboration behind a photograph that make it great. This is why Cowart has spent the past couple years developing an app for iPhones that makes the idea-sharing process much easier.
OKDOTHIS was released on November 25, 2013 to much applause and celebration. It was the first app that allowed for the direct sharing of ideas right on your camera's screen. Also, since most people always carry their smartphone, it means that you will have access to it nearly anywhere.
How does it work?
"Essentially, it is idea sharing on your camera screen. So you can add ideas, or as we call them "DOs". So you can add a DO and then you can do your friends DOs and then you can look at other people's DOs. There's also a photo feed where you can browse through photos. And while you scroll, the DO is below each photo. Then you can choose to engage and do that DO as well, or you can keep scrolling.
"We have categories like Street Photography, Fashion, Selfies, and all kinds of different kinds of categories. We have an editorial section called Discover where you can find other great photographers and great photos, and great DOs. There are lots of different ways to find great content in our Discover section."
This app could easily be the alternative to Instagram. I think it is a great concept and, perhaps most importantly, it sounds like fun. So how did this idea evolve from Cowart's previous work?
"I don't know. I'm always having ideas. The more I create and the older I get, the seemingly more ideas I have. I heard someone say it's like having a bunch of planes surrounding an airport and you are just trying to get one to land at a time. This is just another plane that I am trying to land, with of course a great team. I am not doing this myself. There is a very talented team that is building this."
The biggest lesson here is that collaboration is key. Very few grand projects were made by a single person. Understanding the benefits of working with teams and in groups can help you develop something you may not have thought possible. For example, Cowart's journey into professional photography was developed through early shoots with his friends who were in bands.
JEREMY COWART'S FAVORITE LENS
This redesigned EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Lens from Canon ups the ante for optical performance for a professional standard zoom lens. It has one Super UD lens element and two UD lens elements that minimize chromatic aberrations in the periphery at wide-angle, as well as reducing color blurring around the edges of the subject. In addition, two types of aspherical lenses are combined to help reduce spherical aberration over the entire image area, as well as through the full zoom range. Optimized lens coatings help ensure exceptional color balance while minimizing ghosting.
A ring-type USM and high-speed CPU with optimized AF algorithms ensure silent, fast autofocusing. The lens is constructed with improved dust sealing and water resistance, while fluorine coatings on the front and rear lens reduce fingerprints and smearing. A circular 9-blade diaphragm gives beautiful, soft backgrounds. A zoom lock lever locks the zoom position at the wide end for safe transporting while attached to an EOS DSLR camera over the shoulder.
So how did you become involved with entertainment photography?
"It just started. I live in Nashville, which is music city, and most of my friends are in the music business. Mostly musicians and bands and so I just started shooting for friends.
Then after a while those friends got signed to record labels, those record labels started hiring me and then an agent from Hollywood found me through my entertainment work and she started sending me to movie companies and magazines and television studios. It was a very organic path that kind of naturally worked out."
This style of shooting is largely benefitted by his choice of focal lengths between 24-200mm for a majority of his work. The 24-70mm lens which Cowart finds on his camera the most provides the ability to produce great portraits with a shallow depth of field and low distortion at the 70mm end and yet can quickly go wide for shooting group shots.
For example, he recently shot photographs for the relatively new show "The Have and the Have Nots." This involved a variety of stylized group shots, complete with makeup artists, wardrobe, along with the talent themselves.
Cowart says these are exciting because of the fast-paced nature of the shoot and the fact that it is a challenge to produce the images needed. This is where a high-quality zoom lens can come in handy. If you are shooting a group and individual portraits you will likely need to change between a wide-angle lens and a telephoto rapidly to get the shots.
Also, you never know when you may need to take a few impromptu shots, as was the case when John Schneider asked Cowart to take some more images of him after the shoot. This was a shoot involving immensely emotional moments and required getting close to the subject. This was benefitted by a telephoto perspective to get close without suffocating the subject.
However, while some of his most famous shots may be gracing the covers of magazines or CDs, Cowart works on numerous personal projects including non-profit work.
One such project is Help-Portrait, a project with participants all around the world.
Could you explain the thought behind Help-Portrait?
"It is a very simple idea. Find someone in need, take their portrait, print their portrait, and deliver it. It was a very simple idea I put out there to the world and everybody started participating and now we have people in over 60 countries participating, it's pretty amazing."
What draws you to this non-profit work?
"There is a lot of thinking behind it. A lot of the photo industry is about ourselves. How can I be more famous? How can I be better? How can I be a bigger deal? I just don't care about that. I don't care to be more famous, I don't care to make a bigger name for myself. But, I do like the idea of how I can use my platform and what I've been given to help others. Or to point to something that's bigger than myself."
What kind of gear do you bring for these kinds of trips?
"I brought one light that is always with me where I go. It's the one small travel kit... Tiny, tiny kit. I took that, a small softbox, and my EOS 5D Mark II with all the lenses to just go down there and make it happen."
There isn't much but it seems to work well.
Have you been looking at any new gear?
"I've had most of my gear now since the start, almost 8 years, it is all beat up and it's time to get a fresh set of gear. I'm just going to get the EOS 5D Mark III, the new EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, the new EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, a fresh computer, all that good stuff. I need the latest and greatest."
What do you like about your Canon gear?
"Everything. It's what I know and it is what I've used my whole career." And to tie everything up, Cowart does have a goal for his work and for why he does what he does. "I have kids as well and I want to leave a legacy for them and teach them not only with my words but with my life. Lead as an example to them. It's really not about us but it is about our talents and how we use our talents to help other people. That is really my mission statement if you will."