On this episode of What Makes You Click, Kelvin welcomes John Keatley, an American photographer known for his conceptual fine art and commercial advertising work. John’s interest in creativity began at a very young age. Listen in as he reflects on how his love for photography grew into a successful and impressive career.
John shares the weird conversation he had with the manager of a photo printing store about his photos and how he took her kind affirmations and ran with them. He talks about how he got his first clients while still in college, how he landed his first celebrity clients, and how his entrepreneurial spirit has evolved throughout his life.
Tune in to learn what it was like to photograph the legend herself, Annie Leibovitz, and to gain insight into his relatable experience with imposter syndrome as a freelance artist. Plus, he speaks on the impacts of therapy, teaching, and his intuition in understanding and refining who he is and what his work represents.
“To be genuine is hard to define but I feel what is genuine when I see it.” - John Keatley
Connect with John Keatley:
Visit his website: www.johnkeatley.com
Follow him on Instagram: www.instagram.com/johnkeatley
Connect with What Makes You Click:
Visit our website: www.whatmakesyouclick.com
Follow us on Instagram: www.instagram.com/whatmakesyouclickpodcast
Connect with us on Facebook: www.facebook.com/whatmakesyouclick
People + Resources Mentioned:
Chris Buck: www.chrisbuck.com
Peter Yang: www.peteryang.com
Annie Leibovitz: www.instagram.com/annieleibovitz
Portrait referenced of Annie Leibovitz: www.instagram.com/p/BYWaFDLhj4a
Maren Levinson: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1533748/7810657-maren-levinson
Redeye Reps: www.redeyereps.com
Gregg Kreutz: www.greggkreutz.com/gallery
[00:00:00-00:00:56] – Episode Introduction
[00:00:56-00:01:40] – Guest Introduction
[00:01:40-00:07:55] – John Keatley Origins
[00:07:55-00:17:43] - Getting into Photography
[00:17:43-00:22:28] – Determined Career Choice
[00:22:28-00:28:42] – Personal Projects
[00:28:42-00:43:08] – First Successful Publications
[00:43:08-00:49:53] – Imposter Syndrome
[00:49:53-01:02:35] – Personal Photography Style
[01:02:35-01:03:53] - Show Outro
What Makes You Click with John Keatley
Kelvin Bulluck: Hello, and welcome to another episode of What Makes You Click, I am your host Kelvin Bulluck, and on today's episode, I will be chatting with a photographer who really has a unique way of capturing his subject matter, whether that be in his fine art or commercial work. We are really going to dive into what it looks like to chip away at that process, and hone in on your own style and aesthetic, so stay tuned for that.
It is a very enlightening conversation, so without further ado, let us take a listen to hear what makes Mr. John Keatley click!
[Intro Music Playing]
Kelvin Bulluck: John. Hey man. Appreciate you for hopping on this call and agreeing to have this conversation with me, man.
John Keatley: It is my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Kelvin Bulluck: Yeah, definitely. When I think about how I first became aware of your work and you as an artist, I cannot remember if it was through your uniform series or through Creative Live? I know that you did a series on creative live for commercial photographers, I cannot remember which one I became aware of you from, but I just know that once I was aware of you, it became super clear that this guy knows what he is doing, and he knows how to get his point across through the camera.
John Keatley Origins
We are going to talk about that a little bit today, but before we do, let me go back to…., and believe I saw that you are originally from Santa Barbara, California, is that correct? I know the internet can sometimes give misinformation.
John Keatley: I was born there, I lived there, I only lived there about seven years and then we moved to Northern California, but that is where I am from.
Kelvin Bulluck: How does your family even find themselves in Santa Barbara to begin with?
John Keatley: My family is from Southern California. My mom and my dad both grew up in Sherman Oaks or South side of LA and my mom's family relocated to LA from Buffalo, New York before my mom was born. My mom and my dad were born there and then they got married and they moved to Santa Barbara. My dad had a job there and that is where I was born. Then I think they decided they decided they wanted like a simpler life. They moved to an exceedingly small town in Northern California.
Kelvin Bulluck: Okay, what kind of work did your parents do?
John Keatley: Well, my mom, she was a nutritionist. She did not work once I was born, and my dad was a pastor, so I am a pastor's kid. That is a big influence on who I am, and I think my work, especially, but that is what my dad did. He had a church in Santa Barbara and then got up, took a new job at a church up in Northern California, so that is why we moved up there.
Kelvin Bulluck: Once you guys moved or even before that, when you were a kid, what kind of things did you find yourself interested in? Were there particular activities or even arts and crafts that you gravitated towards?
John Keatley: Yeah, I always loved crafts or just creating. I would say I think crafts probably, especially because of Sunday school, but I remember my grandma bought my sister, this kind of a kit for paper cutting. You cut little silhouettes out of paper, and I my sister did not really love it, but I started doing it. I do not remember, I might have been eight or nine when I started, but I started doing those and I sold a bunch of them. That was my first business, I suppose, technically it was selling paper cuttings.
I did that for, a few years, but my mom a couple of years ago gave me this letter that I had no memory of from, I think it was me. First grade teacher, I think she wrote it maybe would have been in Santa Barbara. I do not know if she wrote it because we were moving or if it was a nice just because, but she wrote this beautiful letter and it said, John, you are an artist. I do not remember exactly. I would not be doing justice. It was a nice letter, but basically said do not ever forget you are an artist, you have such an interesting perspective.
It was interesting to hear that in my thirties, because on one hand, if I had not gotten into art, if I had taken some job that I did not love, that is obviously always inside all of us, creativity, I think some of us get away from it. We are told we must color inside the lines or, life goes on and life changes, but I do not know how it would have handled that letter if I had walked away from creativity because that letter would have been like a huge slap in the face of what could have been, but to receive it now in be in a place where I am creating all the time, it was really affirming, and it felt wonderful that someone would have taken the time to say that to a, six- or seven-year-old or something, it was powerful.
I do not remember all the little things I did. I, but I have always loved creating. It is, something that my parents encouraged, I played music I did not ever love it, but I was forced to play music. And then….
Kelvin Bulluck: I am sorry with what instrument or instruments?
John Keatley: I played the saxophone. Gosh, I do not remember when I started playing, but I played the saxophone all the way through high school, and then in high school I started learning the bass.
I played bass for, five or six years or something like that, and then I gave that up around when I discovered photography. Music was always…. I love music. We have music playing constantly in our house, but I do not love playing music. I love listening to it and feeling it. It was like a really love, hate, stressful relationship with music for a long time, because I felt like I had to play it. I felt like I was supposed to be good or, I needed to play it.
Finally, when I realized like there is a different way to love music, it was really freeing.
Kelvin Bulluck: I am curious then; I love that a lot of creatives are creative in multiple ways. With you first having music as is one of the ways that you creatively express yourself, what was that driving force or that influence that made you feel like you had to be good at it? You said you felt like you had to be good at it.
Was it pressure from your parents or those around you? What drove that?
John Keatley: I think that is part of who I am. If I do something, I am going to try to be the greatest at it. No matter what it is, I could get into where that comes from.
I think the older I get, the more I realized, I am sure there are reasons or influences that maybe facilitated some of that. I also think that is who I am to some extent. I think there is, pressure growing up in the with your dad, being a pastor, people are always watching you. You always must be on your best behavior.
There was a lot of so-and-so saw you today and reported back what you were doing, good job. If it was good, if it was sketchy, that is a terrifying way to live or to grow up, having to make sure you make the right decisions because it reflects on your parents.
There is probably some of that at play, but I also think the older I get, the more I realize, I do not want to blame my parents for everything. That is my mentality with things.
Kelvin Bulluck: I can totally relate to that feeling of, wanting to be spot on and presentable and perfect for your parents and those around you.
My dad growing up was a police officer, he still is, and he had his eyes and ears everywhere, so they would be the same thing where it would get back to him, something that I did. I am like, Aw man. Let me stay on the straight and narrow, I totally get that.
Getting into Photography
At what point then, did you find yourself getting interested into photography? Because you said once you found photography, the music kind of fell away. At what point did that really happen in your childhood?
John Keatley: That is not true, in high school I did take a photography class and we, developed our film in the dark room and made prints.
I really enjoyed it. I remember we had assignments where you are doing perspective and, I learned a lot, but it was like, I never thought about it other than it was a fun class. I had fun, but I never thought outside of the classroom, this had any, any real reach anywhere else.
Beyond that, my dad was interested in photography, he and his dad were also, they had good cameras, good Canon film cameras. I grew up seeing better than average family pictures. By no means was he shooting a lot, but what pictures we had, they were in focus and they were interesting.
The backgrounds were blurred kind of thing, and I grew up with that, but then in college I was I was on my own. I was having a good time and I felt like I wanted to have some memories it is to show that I, hey, I had a lights and call. I do not know what my motivation was, but I thought I should take pictures, hanging out with my cool friends.
I got my grandpa's old film camera because my grandpa had passed, and the camera was just sitting around. I asked if I could have it and I took some pictures and it, again, really was for memory’s sake.
Although I was trying to take, if we went out to dinner, I would take pictures through the glasses on the table or something, I suppose to that extent. Some friends and I, we broke into a golf course late at night, and we like rode longboards down this steep hill, we took pictures of that. I just was doing that kind of thing.
Then I went back to California during Christmas break, probably told my parents that I had been taking pictures and they were free. They freaked out because, I was going to a private school and it was expensive, and we certainly did not have a lot of money.
I, to this day, do not even fully know how I was able to go there, but they were like, you cannot be spending money on film and developing. I could not disagree. I worked a lot through high school and college. I saved a lot of money, that is partly how I went. I had to pay my own way, so I worked a lot, but I know my parents were helping my grandparents.
We probably did not have ten, fifteen extra dollars to spend on film and developing, so I took my last roll of film that I had already shot in to get developed at like a cat long's drugs, which is, like a CVS or Bartell’s depending on where you live. I dropped the film off and then you must go back like the next day by noon to pick up the prints or whatnot.
I was always like, I have no patience, so I would always go back in early, nine or ten in the morning. Maybe there is a chance there will be done by then, and when I got to the counter, there was a girl working there and she said, are you John Keatley? That got my senses up a little bit.
Because I had a bit of a guilty conscience and I was a bit of a troublemaker. I immediately started thinking should I run, what is this about? She went and got the manager who wanted to speak to me, which did not sound promising. The manager came out, her name was Colleen Potter, and she had a packet of prisoner hand and she said, did you take these?
I am like, do not admit to anything, and so, I said, show me the pictures first. She went through them with me and went through the pictures and talk to me as she was looking at them. It was a very confusing experience. I did not understand why we needed to have this conversation.
She said, have you ever considered being a photographer? That was like such a, I did not even know what that meant. In the town that I grew up in, it was like a town of 5,000. There was a newspaper, they were called The Record B and I had seen someone, at our track meets taking pictures occasionally and things like that. I do not know for sure, but it, seemed like he was probably the photographer and the publisher and the editor, it was an exceedingly small kind of thing. Like never in my wildest dreams had I ever thought that, there were photographers in the world and, I just was not even aware of it.
What was intriguing about what she said to me though, was I was in college at the time I was studying business and I had been desperately looking for something that I could run on my own or be in charge. I want to oversee my own destiny, and this was something that I had enjoyed and thought a lot about it, but I enjoyed it.
Then there was someone telling me that, I could make a living doing it and that I was maybe good at it. That was all I needed to hear. I went home, twenty-four hours after my parents told me I cannot afford to take pictures anymore and announced I am going to be a photographer professional photographer, so that was it. It was kindness and, it was that caused her to take a moment out of her day to tell some kid who knew nothing about photography, that they should think about being a photographer.
Kelvin Bulluck: I love hearing stories like that because it is almost like she was an angel sent down to put you on the right path.
John Keatley: Definitely!
Kelvin Bulluck: Yeah. It is like so many different things could have happened to you had that one conversation does not happen, so it is almost like you won the lottery by her, deciding to, first, say to the young lady working at the desk, hey, when John Keatley comes in and come get me, because I need to talk to this guy, I just love hearing things like that.
You said a couple of other things that I wanted to kind of go back and touch on very briefly before we move forward, a little bit because you said first, you guys broke into a country club and are on a, a golf course, so that is kind of funny. It kind of reminds me of some of the preacher kids that I knew growing up because they always tended to have a little bit of that, trouble streak in them. It was the same with cops’ kids. We were all kind of on the same accord with that, but it is kind of funny to me that was the case.
In addition to that, you said that you ended up going to college and you were majoring in business admin and that was at Seattle Pacific university, correct?
Kelvin Bulluck: You were back when you were like a senior in high school or whatever it was at that point were or was it at that point when you started to have that feeling of, I want to have something for myself. I want to be my own businessperson. Is that when those feelings started to arise or when did that even become a thing for you?
Creatives, they are not always necessarily on that same path, but it sounds like you had a remarkably interesting mindset about that kind of thing.
John Keatley: Yeah, that is a good question. I always had a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit. I think also my parents did a great job in like, just forcing me to work.
When I was young, they made me go out and mow lawns. I mowed, all the neighbor lawns for like ten bucks a pop, and in the summers, we lived on a lot of proper weed and own it, but we lived in an area where there was a lot of properties. I would go out and pick blackberries all day and then sell blackberries.
I probably did that when I was from the age of like nine to fourteen or fifteen or something. I remember that feeling of picking blackberries and then, giving someone a basket of berries and receiving a dollar, or mowing a lawn and getting ten bucks like that was, that was a big deal.
It made an impression on me when I was young, and then, when I was in high school, I had for a small town, I had what was probably one of the better jobs you could get for my age, especially there was one computer repair shop and this has been, computers were kind of just starting to kind of become a more common thing.
I got paid fifteen dollars an hour to build and repair computers, and so that is part of what got me into….I initially went to school to study computer science and I hated that. I switched to business, I have always worked hard, and I have always had those opportunities around me. I think those things I do not, but to answer your question, that I do not know at what point in my life I was like, thinking about. Adult type things, I enjoyed that when I was a kid. I probably, if I had to guess it was probably when I got to school and people start asking you, what are you going to do when you grow up kind of thing? What are you going to do now that you are in college?
There was a lot of pressure, are we doing this? Do I need to make some sort of decision now? That was probably where the pressure was coming from.
Kelvin Bulluck: That is all remarkably interesting to me, and I am seeing a lot of recurring themes with you from an early age, getting a taste of that entrepreneurial journey from the selling, the paper cutouts to the blackberries, to even the job at the computer store. It is interesting to see how that just kept coming up.
Determined Career Choice
Kelvin Bulluck: Now moving back to the point where you said that, okay, mom and dad, I am going to be a photographer. How was that received?
John Keatley: I do not know. Whatever they said, I was not paying attention because I had made up my mind at that point.
I always come up with ideas and especially when you are young. My parents, I think still to this day, think that I like to go through ideas, like water, but I think when you are younger, you try things out, or at least I did. I tried stuff out and a lot of it did not stick and sometimes something did.
I am sure they thought this photography thing was maybe one of those things, but there nothing else from that moment on and there never has been ever since, that was it. That was what I sunk my teeth into.
Kelvin Bulluck: Did you go through with getting your Business Administration degree or did you switch over or was it like I am going to finish in this, but once I graduate, I am pursuing photography?
John Keatley: No, I just went straight to photography. I would say, I do not even know how I graduated, to be honest with you. I skated by, but I went to my classes and I probably did the bare minimum to pass. Even then, it took me as a whole mother story, it took me a long time to graduate. I went back and immediately started looking for anything photography related.
There was like a couple blogs, there was a magazine or two that I was aware of, and there was one guy at my college who was a wedding photographer and he worked for a studio. I tried to meet him and eventually a friend and I, we went down, and we got jobs as assistants, at a wedding photography studio, so I started doing that, which was awesome. Cause they gave us free film and free developing, for our own uses to practice. We would drive downtown every week and load up a bag of film. It was, amazing. That was probably more exciting than getting paid.
Then let us see, I also kind of force myself into a photo shoot for the college once and which, if someone did it to me, I would have been furious, but a friend of mine was being photographed by some professional photographer and she mentioned it. I just showed up at the shoot. The photographer was gracious and generous, and he ended up talking to me quite a bit.
They had to drive downtown, and he let me ride with him. I asked questions nonstop and watched him, and then actually the college ended up, started hiring me too started to hire me just to do, things around school.
I think they liked the idea of like a student's perspective, as opposed to bringing someone in from LA who does not necessarily have a connection to the school. I started shooting events and things that or whatever, and shot for the school for several years, even after I graduated, that was my first client.
Then I had an acquaintance who I grew up with. My friend, who I grew up with his older brother was an art director for a small print magazine called All Rondo, and so, I wrote him and then he did not hire me, but another magazine under that umbrella started hiring me and I shopped for them while I was still in college.
I was like a pair of socks, I attached myself to anything I could find, I wanted to shoot. I was assisting at that wedding studio, and I wanted to be a photographer there, not just an assistant. I kept bugging them and they promised in six months they would let me do it.
Six months came along, and they said, I was not ready yet, and I was so angry. I quit in there. Good luck. That was right around the time of digital SLR’s. I was like, hey, that works for me. I did not have any from attachment to film. There was a lot of pushback.
I remember in the community, people were like, I have been doing this, I am not going to switch over to these stupid digital cameras. In hindsight, I get it, they probably were not that great at quality, but I bought one. One of the perks of going to a known a small private Christian college is for whatever reason, white Christian kids tend to get married super young.
There was a lot of weddings going on, so I started, getting hired by people. A lot of the people I knew, but some people, I did not know, it was a small community, so John shoots weddings. I had a business going before I even graduated.
It was the kind of thing where I remember getting to the end of my final year and everyone was like, what are you going to do for work? I thought, I have a couple more weddings I need to do, and then I am going to look for a job. That never happened to keep going.
Kelvin Bulluck: Interesting again, that theme of you just going out and being a go getter just continues to pop up. A question that I have regarding some of the subject matter that you were shooting aside from some of the assignments you had for school and some of the weddings, were there any other types of work or personal projects that you were doing that was more of just the things that you were interested in?
John Keatley: I started doing this when I was like in high school, I think when I was working at The Computer. When I had that job at the computer repair shop, they had a copy of Photoshop. It was one of the first versions and I remember taking that home and installing it.
I have always just messed around with Photoshop. I would take pictures and insert myself into them or something old historic photos and put myself in them or I would always mess around like that and try to make funny pictures just for fun. I did that in college, maybe even, while I was dabbling with food, it was just for fun.
Like I would spend hours on some picture took some friends, family photo, cheesy family photo and put myself into it. We told everyone that we were related or what I just did crazy stuff like that and not this silly stuff. That was probably my quote unquote personal work.
I did not have something that I was really interested in. Whereas, Hey, I am photographing this story or this, or athletes or whatever. Well at the time was just having fun, making money, and taking pictures and goofing off kind of thing.
Kelvin Bulluck: Interesting that even though, like you said, it was not necessarily a traditional type of personal project, the work that you found yourself doing still had a comedic or humorous element to it, which is clear in the work that you have now.
It sounds like you have enjoyed comedy or humor from an early age, were there particular movies or comedians or were you even into standup or anything like that as a kid?
John Keatley: Well, I was not allowed to be of course cause problems. I could listen to like Christian comedians or something.
I do remember though, that is the funny thing is it is very strange to me. Sometimes this stuff, I was able to watch it because I will make a comment. I was not allowed to listen to comedy, but then I watched my Python in the, in the Holy grail, all the time. That was, was kind of everything for me.
As I got a little older, I was able to see there is a lot of movies from my childhood that I still have not seen. What I had to choose from was quite limited, but I remember getting a hold of like a jerky boy’s CD at one point, which is like these guys who just made like prank phone calls basically and had all these different characters.
Anything I could get my hands on, I devoured it, but it was limited, so I do not have this like array of like inspiration that, some people may have from their childhood.
Kelvin Bulluck: That is all good. The fact that you pointed out Monty Python, like that says a lot, like, I am seeing where some of the seeds were planted, so that is amazing.
Moving forward just a little bit, you have graduated from college and you have got a thriving wedding business, or at least you are getting quite a few gigs doing weddings and things of that nature, when did you start to, see traction in the business to the point where it was like, I am legit a photographer, this is who I am, this is what I do. Like when you really started to…
John Keatley: I consider myself a photographer the whole time, I never really liked it. Was not like a, I ever doubted that. I mean, I think at the beginning of that transition where I did tell people I was going to get a job kind of thing, I do not think I wanted to get a job, but I do not think it took long for me to see, like this seemed pretty viable and it just kept going. I did not try to stop it. It just kind of happened. It for as much as I say, I worked hard.
There was a lot of things that happened in my favor as well, right time, right place. I have had conversations recently where I think, if I were in college today, I really do not think that I would be able to do what I did back then.
There were not a lot of people doing it was part of it, so even though I was not that good, people, I certainly had friends telling me I was. I can look back and say, I was probably worse than most photography. You take most photographers today, if they pick up a camera within two years, that what they are doing is far and beyond, better than what I was doing after probably even four or five years, with the camera. I think it was simply different time.
Kelvin Bulluck: It sounds like you got in on the ground floor and you had that first movers’ advantage; I think is what they call it.
John Keatley: Yeah, rode the wave that is for sure.
Kelvin Bulluck: Yeah! I know that you are in Seattle, correct? Is that that is where you are based. Right. When did you start to move from California and continue to pursue this even further? How did you even end up in Seattle?
John Keatley: I was in Seattle the whole time. I had gone up to Seattle for college, and so that is where I first picked up a camera. Aside from high school photography class, so I was already at school, up in Seattle and I had moved up to Seattle to become famous playing bass in a band and to become a millionaire working at Microsoft.
Those were my two goals, so that is how I chose Seattle. I moved to Seattle, sight unseen. It was like, I had never been there, and I was like, that is where I am going. I had some great friends in college. It was a wonderful time and I never really considered leaving, just kind of stayed there.
First Successful Publications
Kelvin Bulluck: Yeah, okay. One of the things that you are quite known for is, you are just striking celebrity portraits. Right? How did you get your first celebrity, was it a publication that you were working for? How did that even come about?
John Keatley: I think again, right place, right time. Just to give a little bit of backstory, I had been doing weddings and small businesses and some small editorial, but mostly college or local kind of things. I started to notice editorial photography, on a national level, I had seen people Chris’s Buck or Peter Yang creating these portraits of celebrities when there was humor to them, it was not like they were not just taking a picture.
They were creating a picture they are creating a story through; I did not know how they were doing it, but it was almost like they were messing with the viewer and that was really intriguing to me. I started becoming really interested in that type of photography, but it was so different who even hires you for this?
How do you get hired? How do it was like starting over in a lot of ways. And so, I started kind of working down that road as best as I could. I did not really have a lot of information, but I was like trying to figure that out, and I was terrified, but I knew I probably needed to reach out to some of the local magazines, like Seattle magazine or Seattle Business Monthly or Seattle Met.
One day, it was almost like I blacked out, like I was in a trance. Cause I think if it were, it sounds silly, but I really was just one of these moments where I was not aware of what my body was doing, or I would have stopped it. I found myself on the phone I had called, I do not remember if I called Seattle magazine or Seattle.
I think I called maybe both I called one of the local magazines and they gave me the email address for the art director. I started wrote, I think both art directors and one of them gave me like an assignment, on the spot. I could not believe it, and which has never happened in my life other than that one time.
It did not go well, but I had the shot and I felt like that gave me a taste of a little bit of what it is like. Then I lined up a meeting with the art director at the other magazine, the other local magazine, and he was maybe a little older than me, but we are about the same age.
He had just started, and I do not know what it was. I think we just connected. I had not been doing some….to be fair, I had been shooting some personal portraits on my own that were like in, I was trying to like to create in the style that I had seen in these magazines.
It is not like I did not have something to show. I always look back and like judge myself harshly, but I think at the time it must have been enough. He was intrigued, so, he started hiring me to do like these profiles of local business people and creators and things like that. We worked a lot together I had several assignments every month and it was awesome.
Then they started doing this celebrity column where like some celebrity would be passed through Seattle and there give a lecture, or have a show or whatever, or book release or something. They started hiring me to do the celebrity column and like I had nothing to show for it, but I that is how I got started.
It was one of those opportunities were how would this happen? If not in right place, right time, and so that is how I got started. I just basically took, as soon as I got the first celebrity portrait, I tried to turn it into the next one. Of course, there was crazy stories along the way of how some of them came up, but it was a lot of willing it to happen and putting it out there that I wanted it to happen and positive thinking.
Then you try to turn one into the next one and then the next one into the next one, and that is how it went.
Kelvin Bulluck: Well, it looks like it has been working out quite well for you, so, yeah, that is amazing.
For anybody that is listening right now, we are in a different time than what you were, you had to pick up the phone and make some calls and people were generous enough to give you the art director's email and that kind of a thing, but the underlying energy behind it, of going out and making the things happen because they are not going to come to you.
They are not going to just come knocking down your door. You got to put yourself in front of where you want to be as much as possible to see the outcome that you want to see, and it sounds like you live that way. I think that is that is pretty dope. I love hearing those stories.
I did want to ask you one question about….and this is not even necessarily a celebrity, in our world, she is a celebrity, but I saw this portrait and I am like, I got to ask him what it was like photographing Annie Liebowitz? I do not even think I could bring myself to do it because I would just be like, man, she is going to be judging the c*** out of me.
She is going to be like, what is this kid doing? How did you deal with those nerves? Were there nerves at all?
John Keatley: Oh my gosh, absolutely. I was photographing for that cost celebrity column. I was telling you about, I had photographed John Waters, who he wrote Hairspray.
I am portrait with him, and he was just phenomenal. He was so fun to work with, and after the shoot, he hung out and it was just kind of talking with us. He was Gus the thing about other celebrities and telling us some hilarious stories about other celebrities and his publicist was there.
I do not know that she was named dropping, but somehow it came up and she told me that she was working on a book project with Annie Leibovitz and I just blurted out, I would love to photograph anything. She kind of laughed and was like, Oh, that would be cool. Wouldn't it? I do not think she really sits for portraits or anything like that, and that was it.
I think she just told me because she thought I would get a kick out of it because I was a photographer. And so that was that. And then maybe three or four months later, I got an email from the publicist who I was talking to with John Waters. She said, the email said, would you be interested in photographing Annie Leibovitz?
I said, yes, I am still very much interested, and then they said, could you send in a portfolio to her studio? I did, and I do not know who looked at it, but I sent it in and then I got an email back, a week later. It said that Annie would be happy to sit for you, and that was that.
Then I got the email from the magazine and I said, I have not told this story in a while. I am like remembering details that have not thought about in a while, but I went through these phases of preparing for that shoot, my first and probably definitely my worst idea was phase one where I was like, I am going to make, I did not have like a style.
Well, I suppose I did, but it was very much like I am still trying to find myself, but back then I was really trying to find myself. My first idea was like, I am going to make this look like an Annie Leibovitz picture. I am going to have her on top of a horse on the roof of the hotel with the wind blowing and all this kind of stuff.
I do not know what thankfully allowed me to see clearly that that was a terrible idea, but thankfully I had the clarity at some point it was like, what are you doing? Why would you do this? Then I moved on to. I do not even remember what phase two was, but some other idea that I was trying to think.
Then thankfully, I had done enough celebrities at that point to realize what usually happens, which is you do not get this amazing location, or you do not get them to where typically what you want them to wear. You are sitting in a hotel in some room, and for me, I mean, some people can take a hotel room and make it look interesting, but I only want to talk about what I am interested in talking about, or I only want to show what I am interested in showing.
If it does not add anything, I would not very much rather look at a picture in wonder about the things that are not literally like handed to me, then be given everything and just be like, Oh, I guess I know everything and move on kind of thing. I just had this realization of like, look, this is going to be at a hotel. There is going to be ten minutes, best case scenario, just trying to get one great iconic portrait. Then that is always, my goal is like, try to get one great neck, make this the best portrait has ever been taken on this person kind of thing, and so, I tried to live into that, and I just decided to simplify and just make it a studio portrait, like just take a seamless and try to set up have some ideas for what it is going to look like kind of thing, but just do not fight the situation and just go with what you are given kind of thing.
That was probably the first time I really lived into that, and that was something that has stuck with me more than a lot of things I have learned because I still operate that way too, to a large extent. He was indeed at a hotel and she was giving a lecture and around her book release and everything. We got there, and we had like the suite or the penthouse or whatever at the hotel. I think we were given like an hour and a half to set up and then they said, we would have, I do not remember exactly. I think they said like half an hour for the interview. Which I was not doing, but the interview in the photo.
We got set up and I got everything dialed in and I was nervous, and then someone got a call and they said, Annie is running late. She is going to be like forty-five minutes late. I instantly thought I was going to throw up. I was like, really, my nerves just hit me because, I was ready to go.
I had kept myself occupied with lighting and everything, and then now I am just like sitting there thinking about it and it was rough. I walked out into the hallway and I had to pace around and try to talk some sense into myself and just gain my composure. Then I got another call that said could, when she arrives, could she do the interview first?
Which meant I was going to be another hour, at least or something. I do not know how I got through that hour. I did not throw up, but I was like, that was a ball of nerves.
Eventually she did, she showed up and she walked in and she was exceedingly kind and gracious. I had just bought my first digital hospital blog, and I guess she had not used one yet because she was really interested in the camera. She is like, Oh wow. She was asking me about it and asked if she could hold it. She was like, looking at him. We were talking about that, and then we started talking about cameras and I think the publicist, or someone was like, let us get going, come on, you got to go.
I realized, we have been talking for like five minutes and probably will use half my time there. I had just bought for this shoot. I do not normally like to talk about gear, but for this one specifically, I remember it kind of, as part of the story, I had bought this beauty dish with a grid in it.
It was awfully specific, that you, it is exceedingly kind of technical. Like it is not very forgiving. I had this specific pose that I wanted for her and she had to sit just this right way and everything. She sat in and she was just nervous, nervous.
I kept trying to like to get her where I wanted her, and she just kept, she was very ancy and fidgety. Then is like, is there something I could put my hands on? I realized in hindsight; she was uncomfortable. When you are uncomfortable, if you have something between you and someone else, it would be the same thing as if you and I were sitting and talking, we were both just like sitting in chairs facing each other.
If you put a table between two people, there is something very calming about that. If you must be able to face each other, especially with the camera in the middle, that is an intimidating thing for anyone, even if they are used to photography, not necessarily on that side.
She was wanting to put her hands up and have a table, so we did get this little like corner table that she was leaning on and she kept putting her hands up and like creating these shadows on her face, which I think could be interesting, but I just was not set up for that. The shadows were too dark, and it was covering her eyes and stuff.
I was getting nervous because I am, she is not listening to me. What do I do? Eventually I just spoke up and I said, I love what you are doing. I think this is interesting, but the shadows are too heavy. I wonder if there is some way to bring it closer. Then she just gave me this thing where she just put her hand up over her face and there was just one picture like that.
Then she said, oh my gosh, John, this is so difficult, and she buried her face in both of her hands and lean forward. I got this other picture, which I do not I have shown maybe once or twice. It is one of my favorite pictures. It is so vulnerable.
Kelvin Bulluck: It is on your Instagram, right?
John Keatley: I think I did post it maybe at some point. Anyway, there is, I got several pictures, but those two were, were it for me. I think they are probably some still, probably some of the best pictures I have ever taken, and I would say she was also for as nervous as she was by far, one of the most collaborative subjects I have ever had. Especially considering how uncomfortable she seemed, I will always be grateful for what she put into that. She clearly understood like what it takes when she has a camera in her hand to really get a great picture. It takes collaboration and that is not something I have always understood or even lived into, but it is such a gift when the person you are photographing can give you something raw or vulnerable or whatever it is that they give you that was a gift that I will always be grateful for.
I was very nervous and I think she was nervous too, but I think I talked to her afterwards after the shoot, even I remember asking her about if she ever got nervous because I was, it was an easier question once the shoot was done and I'm sure maybe my nerves showed as well, but she was very, very gracious and said that she did get nervous around people that she admired, , when she was photographing them kind of thing.
That gave me a lot of like confidence in, okay, It is not like I cannot handle this. Right. It is not, it is not just me. That is falling apart here. That was probably a lot longer.
Kelvin Bulluck: That was exactly what I, that you could not have answered it any better.
That was perfect, and I think it shows the humanity of all the bliss, even the people that we might consider to be on another level. At the end of the day, they are a human being with a brain, a heart and nerves and everything else that makes us human. That makes us susceptible to the things that humans find ourselves worried about.
Kelvin Bulluck: That makes me think, and I have got a couple more questions and I will let you go. It looks like we are already at time, but how or have you ever dealt with imposter syndrome? Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you think, wow, what the heck am I doing here? Will they find me out little?
They call me out for not actually being the photographer that I claimed to be.
John Keatley: I have thought about it, in that sense, if I felt like an imposter, but I have felt like I am not good enough. I guess that is not the same kind of thing. Yeah. I do not know that I have had like that phrasing.
I constantly struggle with not being good enough for was that a fluke. That one thing that I did that I and other people seem to resonate with was that an accident? That is, I remember, there is so many times, doing these interviews is always like a great trigger for that kind of feeling because I will come on here and I will sound like I have got it all together and make some statements about the way it is or whatever.
Then two weeks later, it is that thing that I said it comes back and hits me in the face or whatever. It is in the same way that she told me she still gets nervous around people. She respects. It is a difficult job and there is a lot of closed doors and there is a lot of.
Just pushing ahead because you believe in yourself or what you are doing or hopefully both and not letting the rejection stop you in. A lot of times the rejection is not personal, it is hard to not take it personal, but it is rarely personal. It is often situational or circumstantial, when you think about the number of opportunities that exists out there and the number of people that are trying to get those opportunities, it is not great odds.
I remember in interview from a friend of mine who is been a long-time mentor of mine, and one of my favorite photographers is Chris Buck, who I remember an interview that I read with him maybe before we even met, but he was talking, he was being interviewed, but I think like a photo editor at.
I do not remember which magazine it was, but it is some magazine that the interviewer said, like you have been one of my favorite photographers for the last ten years. Chris was like an oddly you have never hired me kind of thing, that stuck with me. He was joking around, but I mean, the reality was he never really did hire.
I mean, it does not mean that he was not his favorite photographer. It just means that a lot of times, especially we were talking about client work, people might get to hire a photographer once or twice a year, sometimes, maybe for magazines more often. When they do, they are not just trying to like to help a friend, they are trying to make the best product they can.
They are looking for the artists that can do whatever that story happens to be justice, and sometimes it is based on location. Sometimes it is based on style, sometimes it is based on both, but you are not going to get all of them and that is no matter who you are, and so that can be hard, especially for someone that believes in themselves.
Especially if you are in a stretch where you have not had a job in a while it is rough. There is a lot of be down. To answer your question, have I ever felt imposter syndrome? I. Constantly struggle with not feeling like I am good enough or know what I am doing, or whatever, it is something that maybe it is just me, but I think probably something we all struggle with in our own ways.
Kelvin Bulluck: Of course, of course, and I love that framing that you gave of putting it in the perspective of there are a finite number of jobs and opportunities and almost an infinite number of photographers and creatives out there. It is not personal, and it reminds me of something.
A couple of my actor, friends have told me over the years regarding being an actor is basically it is essentially being told no way more than, than people are used to. Being able to understand that. Yeah, maybe I did the best that I could, but it still was not right. For the role, or like you said, all those myriad other factors.
Going into it, knowing that all you can do is your best and then hoping that it is the right opportunity, and ultimately, it is a numbers game. The more people you can get yourself in front of the higher, the chances are that you will find work. I guess that is basically in any profession where you are selling something, whether that be a service or a product or whatever. I love the way that you framed it.
John Keatley: I saw a beautiful video this morning of Tiffany Haddish was like live on. I did not realize she had a show. I do not know what it was, but she was alive on, I think on her show, and her producer told her like live in her ear that she had won a Grammy for.
For best comedy album, and she had these two girls with her, and she was telling them just like how hard it is how many closed doors there are in it. I think it is easy for people to look at anyone, not just celebrity, but anyone that is achieved some sort of success assess, especially if that success has been in like the arts or in the public eye, whether it is a movie, we are commercial or photo shoot or whatever it is, people see that and they think, oh my gosh, it is so impressive or whatever, but even on like the biggest levels.
There is a situation where a celebrity can hit someone can hit this stretch where they are hot for a year or two or whatever, but no matter who you are, like your best year, you are making maybe two, maybe three movies at the most. Probably one, if you are lucky and it is the same for any arts, bands are not putting out albums every year even if take money aside.
Cause even if you are fortunate enough to make a lot of money and you are fine, you want to create that is what you are that is what you got in to do this. If you are an actor and you are making like one movie a year, what are you doing the other nine months? That is a lot of time to sit and think and wonder if you are good enough, right?
That is what being a freelance artist is all about is managing the downtime and either living into it and living it well, and then hitting it hard when you get those opportunities and making those opportunities or otherwise that downtime is just going to kill you. It is going to be, preventative to doing the thing you love. It is, it is part of the deal, but, but it is worth fighting. It is worth fighting through, I believe. Cause because what we get to do is, so thrilling, at least for me.
Kelvin Bulluck: That is amazing. Just the framing of it in the perspective, I think is something that for people out there who are listening and might be struggling with this idea, I think that that is one way to look at it, to help people press on.
Personal Photography Style
My last question, and I will let you go. I, a few months ago had a conversation with Marin Levinson from Redeye Agency. She is amazing. Love her too. She said something that it makes perfect sense, and it is something that when I look at your work, it applies. She said, when she is editing work with the photographer, she has them look at the image and then she asks, can anybody else make this image?
That is a question that she loves to ask, and when I look at your work. I can tell like, that it is just John Keatley all the way right there. Because, whether it is the lighting or the expressions or the post-processing, you have a style, whether you are shooting portraits or fine art, that I could not shoot it like that.
There is no way I would be able to tell the stories in the way that you tell the stories. My question is, how did you come upon that style? How long did it even take you to reach to the point? Earlier you said are still trying to figure yourself out, but clearly, you figured some stuff out along the way, and you have been able to infuse your work with it.
How did, how did that come about or what was that process like? How long did it take?
John Keatley: It is ongoing, but I would not even know how to try to pretend to know how many years, but it has been many years in the making. I think for me, a big part of that process when I really started to kind of dig deep was when I started seeing a therapist getting to unpack who I am and where I have come from and the good and the bad, understand that part of me.
I taught a workshop for a few years and kind of teaching that workshop force me to also, break down my own process so I could teach it. In part of that was really analyzing my work in ways that I had not done before, whether it is blurring everything and just simply looking at it from a color perspective, or looking at everything from a subject matter person, trying to look at all my work collectively and try to map out the similarities and then try to understand, why am I drawn to this or that color? What is it about this?
In some cases, like what is missing, what do I really, what if I gather my inspiration, the other people have created, what is one of the similarities in these images that I am clearly drawn to right now?
I think it was a lot of analysis and trying to understand who I am, and that is something that I think I am still constantly, probably one of the hardest things to do is like write out an artist statement or like just some sort of like clear, concise message of who I am or what my work represents.
I think, especially for me, because I am a very curious person, I think what I do is remarkably similar repeatedly, but in my head, I am trying to explore so many different things and like merging the two is, what I struggle with. Giving yourself room for growth, right? Who I was ten years ago is not who I am now.
I do not want to create some sort of artist statements, so to speak that I am going to force myself to live by for the rest of my life. Right? It has got to be like a living, breathing document that can adjust as you adjust. At the same time, there are things that I know, that is just not for me.
I have grown, but that does not mean that I am interested in this or this makes sense for me, it is just an awareness and studying of whatever you can wrap your mind around, but then there is also some of it, this is subconscious too. There have been times where I have tried to apply like a certain look to an image, like a color grade or something.
It is like, I love the idea of it, or I love it in this other person's work, and then I, when it comes down to it, it is like, no, I cannot do that. It is just like putting on a shirt, that is a color that you hate. I do not care how good it looks on the model or how. It looks in the store, like when you wake up and it is time to get dressed, you might put it on, but at the minute you look in the mirror, you no think, it has got to come off.
That is just kind of, I think understanding yourself or being honest with yourself, not being willing to lie to yourself is important because then it is like, if you eat something and you do not like it, there is never any confusion, no one ever goes, do I like this or not? I mean, maybe like some rare new tastes you have never encountered.
You may have to think for a minute, but what I mean? Like it is never a question, and I think you can do that creatively. The more you spend time doing something, the more, who you are and what you like, and there is just no lying to yourself after a certain point. You are like, this is not, what am I doing? This is not going to work; it is just a lot of that. There is this project that I have been working on for a couple of years in the pandemic, kind of threw things off a little bit, but I am just having the hardest time, figuring out where I want to go with it. I have spent hundreds of hours, nick picking stuff up on the computer and, there was this time I went down to LA and I went out to lunch with Marin, and I had these three prints that I am really excited about it.
I had spent months and months putting these together and I thought I had finally figured it out. I went to lunch with Marin, and she looked at him and she is like, this is not you. I was so angry. Cause I was like, this must be me married, and you do not know how much time I have put into this.
At the same time, I knew on this very deep level that she was bright. That is not to say that anyone that said something to your parents might be like, I do not like that or whatever, but like Marin is one of the few people, maybe one or two people, maybe one of three or four people who I could have that conversation with in there.
I know where they are coming from and they know where I am coming from, and I trust their opinion and that was tough because I just want it to be done. I just wanted to use that equation and create the rest of it. To hear that the equation was still like, not even anywhere close.
I am still wrestling with that one, so even though you figure out who you are, maybe that is just me though, I see some people's work, and this is the hard part about creativity, right? I could say, hey, they are phoning that in, but I do not know.
That is judgmental, what do I know about what their goal is? I do think though, sometimes people, this is a current pet peeve of mine, and I do not want to name any names and I could be totally off base here often. Again, I said before, I have made so many statements on, this will be my statement on this podcast.
I do it every time I make some statement and three months later, I am that was so off faced. What were you thinking? I have to say things out loud to process them, but I see people constantly, they would like to come up with this formula that works well. It is like, a lot of people now will do like, and this is kind of part of what my series is even, but it is like this big environment with a person in it or a series of people.
It all kind of goes back to like Gregg Kreutz, and he was one of the first people that I really saw that was like really doing this. Then, it became extremely popular, and a lot of people started building sets and putting people in these sets. It is once you get that to work, it is an interesting visual.
It is beautiful, and there is so much mystery and intrigue that can be wrapped into that, and you can do so much with lighting in an interior set, that kind of thing. It is like, these are, this is a story about. This is a story I am trying not to be too literal here, that this is a story about hoarders, let us say, and it is like this series of hoarders in their environment.
Then the next series is a series of gun collectors and the people are…., but is that really a new series? It is the same thing, and I guess you can make that argument, I am just making portraits. It is like John, you are just doing people on seamless the whole repeatedly in my mind, it is all quite different but, I do not know.
I do not know; how did we get onto?
Kelvin Bulluck: I love it. I love it. These are the tangents that I live for.
John Keatley: I do not even remember now, if I am still answering the question of how do you find your style? I guess for me, I constantly wrestled with this stuff and I constantly want to, because you can do something does not mean you should.
That is something that I constantly tell myself, and sometimes that holds me back. Maybe it maybe I overthink things sometimes too much, but there is just this part of me that, I know what I want, and I know what I feel is good or what I can be proud of, and for me, that takes a lot of like thought and it must be meaningful, and I do not want it to be easy.
I do not want it to be this like formula that I have come up with, and I just like copy and paste and just change my subject like it has got to be different. For example, a uniform came off me exploring this concept of identity where I photographed one person looking seven different people.
Then I photograph twenty people all dressed as the same person, and it was a genuine exploration of identity in it. I was simply curious, and I was trying to figure out what would happen if I did this kind of thing. That led me to uniform and when uniform hit, it was like this lightning bolt, it just made so much sense on so many levels.
I have had conversations with art galleries and people they are, you need to just paint people that should be your thing. Like, it is so good. You should be doing a pink series or something. I think, I see people doing that to be honest, and they are say, I paint people, or I do this or whatever, and it is like, I do not, I am not going to say that is wrong. I just know that I cannot do that. I have got to know, that is not to say I will not take some elements from that somehow, grow it into something else, but I just have learned that I am not the person that can like do that one thing and do it repeatedly, some of my favorite artists, that is what they do.
Some of the art that I have collected personally, like, hey, for some reason it does not offend me as much when it comes to painting or illustration and things like that. I find it offensive in photography and I do not know why that is. I am clearly trying to unpack that.
That is kind of I guess all that to say, I wrestled with this stuff a lot. I think about it a lot. I try to create as much as I can a lot of it, I do not ever show, but I am just constantly wrestling with it and asking those questions. There to be genuine is hard to define, but I feel like I know what is genuine when I see it.
I know what I need. I know who I am and how, what I need to do if I am wanting to be a genuine person, and that is important to me. I must like wrestle with stuff until it feels genuine, and then I feel like this is that, but if I do not have that feeling yeah, something is off and there is clearly some people in my life who also consents that because Marin is one of those people where she knows she is like, you are trying to be someone else here, or I do not know what you are doing, but you lost track of who you are kind of thing. I am grateful for that input when I get it.
Kelvin Bulluck: Yeah, no, that is, that is amazing. I love it when people like that kind of just pop into our lives and help keep us on track and keep us on the, on the right path. One thing that you said that I want to briefly touch on is the idea of really getting to know yourself, really doing the self-work and, as you said, even going to therapy, I feel like even for myself, I did not really start to understand my perspective until I started to understand my perspective and start doing that self-work and asking questions that I had been putting off for years and years and years, and not trying to understand why I felt certain ways about certain things.
I think that is like one of the best places to at least start when it comes to finding and evolving your style or your artistic aesthetic, if you will.
John, man, this has been amazing. You have dropped some major knowledge and I just love hearing the way you work things out in your mind and the way you tell stories verbally and through your work.
Thank you for taking the time and I am looking forward to seeing what you do next.
John Keatley: Thank you. I appreciate your interest and the opportunity to be on here with you.
Kelvin Bulluck: Alright! That was my chat with John and man, you never really know what you are going to get when you are dealing with a PK, or preacher's kid as we used to call it in my hometown. For real though, he dropped a lot of really good information, a lot of inspiration and a lot of motivation because I really feel like the things that he said can apply to all of us, especially when dealing with doing the inner work, to really learn about who you are as a person, and then doing that work and then finding a way to infuse your own artistic endeavors with that new information and knowledge.
As you can see when you do it right amazing things can happen. If you enjoyed the show as always feel free to like, and subscribe, comment, share with your friends on all the platforms, you can find this at What Makes You Click and as always, I just, I appreciate you guys for listening. I do not take it for granted that you have taken this time and spent it with me and my guests, so thank you for that. All right, we will catch you on the next episode.
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