Gallery Talk - Jake Salyers
Jake Salyers is a photographer living in Brooklyn, New York. He won the prestigious World Nomads International Photography award and traveled to Oman to explore and capture the historic town of Muscat, its spectacular architecture, arid desert, and fascinating culture.
Tell us about your background and how you became a photographer.
I’m originally from Atlanta, Georgia. During my junior year in college, I studied abroad in Tanzania. For this trip, and for my 21st birthday, my parents gifted me my first camera, a Canon T1i. It was there in East Africa that I became fully hooked on photography. The camera made me connect with the world around me in a way that I had’t experienced before and I became obsessed. My early work focused on documentary photography.
After college, I returned to the continent and lived in South Africa for a year. I worked at a local documentary TV show, Street Talk TV. We made short documentaries about Cape Town’s townships and the people that lived there. During the week we would go into the townships to produce that week’s show and in the weekend’s I would go back to meet up with the folks I had met, and to photograph where they lived. I won the World Nomads scholarship with a photo essay that I made about my friend Waqa - a Gugulethu resident and township Hip-Hop star - and his group of friends.
After South Africa, I moved to Brooklyn and have been living and working there ever since.
Winning the prestigious World Nomad scholarship contest and traveling to Oman must have been a pivotal moment in your career as a photographer. How did it influence the work that came after that trip?
Winning the contest showed me that this was something I could be good at and make a career out of it. Discovering photography late in my college years was slightly unsettling as it side-tracked me from what I thought I’d be doing with my life. But winning the contest validated this new direction and was a huge boost to my confidence. The most rewarding aspect of winning the competition was to be able to work with Jason Edwards, a leading National Geographic photographer, as a mentor. He taught me to slow down and focus on being in the moment. Many things we experienced and the events we witnessed, like an early morning camel race, had the potential to become quickly overwhelming and get out of hand. Working alongside him taught me that to remain calm and focused on the work in front of us was critical to being successful.
This trip taught me what it would take to create images at a very high level and what I still had to learn in order to reach that level of consistency. It took me a few years to put all I had learned into practice, but the immediate effect of this experience was that it instilled the belief in myself that I could do this.
Many of your photos have this intense richness with highly saturated colors and a razor-sharp subject matter. What type of camera or technique do you use to accomplish this result?
When I’m shooting digitally, my process focuses on creating files that I can then take back to my computer for further processing. After the primary task of framing the composition is locked in, my exposure is then dictated by capturing the maximum dynamic range, which is the contract ratio between the darkest and brightest color tones that a camera can capture in a single exposure.
My post processing work isn’t focused on altering the content of the image but rather in extracting maximum detail from the images and creating a tonal balance that is both true to the scene and the strength of the composition.
What inspires your work and how do you come up with new ideas?
What attracted me first to photography was that it involved travel. That feeling of excitement that comes from the newness of a place was all it took to make me want to pull out my camera. Broadening my view, and opening my world to something larger than the one I grew up in, really inspired me.
As I mature as an artist, I’ve also learned to find inspiration in my immediate surroundings. During the pandemic, when travel wasn’t as readily available to me as it had been earlier in my career, I found inspiration in my backyard, at times literally. I still draw much inspiration from being out in the world but I also discovered that inspiration can come from things closer to home. Living in the best city in the world doesn’t hurt either.
Can you share more about the creative process and what it is like to aim for a specific outcome?
I put myself in situations that inspire me. Sometimes I will visit a place with a specific image or composition in mind, but most of the time my intentions are much more open-ended. I find that If I’m technically well prepared, and the circumstances are ideal, everything else falls into place, and the process and my experience just take over. With photography there will always be an element of luck but by being well prepared, and in the right mind set, you can greatly influence the outcome.
What makes a photo exceptional?
The ability of an image to draw a certain emotional response from the viewer is what for me ultimately dictates a photograph’s exceptional nature. If an image I made can move just one person, I feel I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. The intensity of what that feeling exactly is will vary from person to person. The quiet calm sensation of a beautiful landscape can have as much impact as something more overtly emotional, like the anger and sadness felt with images of war and conflict. Photography is an art form with so many possibilities and that it will be difficult to find some universal standard of beauty. Styles change and technique evolves but as long as an image moves you, there is the promise of it being exceptional.
Are there artists who inspire your work?
Although they represent very different kinds of photography, my work is inspired by artists such as Steve McCurry, Vivian Maier, Sinna Nasseri, Richard Misrach, Sally Mann, and Ansel Adams, to name a few.