Jeremy Cowart has done it all: celebrity photographer, app creator, photo teacher, photo book author, lecturer, humanitarian and in the future maybe a hotel owner, where he envisions “changing the world in your sleep.”
Starting out as a painter, graphic designer and finally photographer Cowart has captured many a celebrity while continuing to live in Nashville, Tennessee, although he did reside in Los Angeles for a year and half. Over the last 12 years, photography has been a full-time calling. Cowart beat a Hollywood agent to a job, who eventually went on to sign him on and that was the start of a successful celebrity photography career.
Photography is his career, Cowart has also found inspiration from his humanitarian projects. His Voices of Haiti photo essay, for which he let the survivors of the earthquake write their own message on found rubble, ended up as a show at the UN, where a meeting assured a huge funding to the rebuilding effort. Haiti led to Rwanda, where the documentary portraits captured survivors of genocide standing shoulder to shoulder with the killers of their dear ones, who they’ve now forgiven.
We got a chance to catch up with the always on the move Jeremy Cowart to learn more about his life, photography, and projects.
Phil Mistry: Tell us how you got started in photography?
Jeremy Cowart: I was a graphic designer for a few years before being a photographer. I remember sitting down with this guy named Jimmy Abegg. He was a hero and a bit of a mentor to me. He said, “You should buy this thing called a digital camera”.
Canon had just released their very first digital point and shoot. It was the 3-megapixel Canon G1. So I bought that to shoot random textures and stock stuff that I could incorporate into my design work.
But living in Nashville, all my friends were musicians, so I started shooting some portraits as well. Yes, with a 3-megapixel point and shoot. But I already had record labels as my clients for design. So then I let them know that I was shooting as well. One thing led to another and I eventually realized that I loved photography a lot more than design.
Photography got me out of the office and allowed me to meet a lot of interesting people.
In 2014, Huffington Post named you The Most Socially Influential Photographer. What did that mean to you?
Well, to clarify, they did a study and measured actual engagement across ALL social channels. And I didn’t come in first place in any of them. But when they averaged it all together, I came out at the top I suppose. To be honest, I was shocked. Ultimately though, it doesn’t mean anything but is super fun to have on your resume and bios.
These days, there is no doubt who is the most socially influential photographer and that is Brandon Stanton from Humans of New York. He’s doing incredible work and actually changing lives. It’s inspiring.
Your first celebrity shoot was Sting, and then Kardashians, Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson, Gwineth Paltrow and more. What is the secret to celebrity photography?
You mean getting the gigs? I think a lot of it is politics unfortunately. It’s all about who you know and playing the game. There’s a lot of hustle involved and you have to really want it. Of course talent is involved too but not always. I’ve seen a lot of bad photographers make a career out of shooting celebrities but there are also some ridiculously talented photographers shooting celebrities and many of them are people I really admire and respect.
Personally speaking, I got lucky. I had an agent in Hollywood discover me after I beat her for a job. So she called me and wanted to represent me as well. Next thing I know, I was meeting with every TV and Film company in LA. It was incredible. But that was 10 years ago and I think a lot has changed since then. I don’t think agents are quite the magic pill like they used to be and I haven’t had one for a few years. It’s harder now and I realize in hindsight, how truly lucky I was. I’m obviously super grateful for that window of time.
In terms of the actual shoots, celebrities are people like the rest of us so I treat them like I would anyone. They’re all also paranoid and insecure like the rest of us too. It’s always super interesting to see that.
How did you manage to get to photograph Obama on the very first day of his presidency?
Such a random thing. I have a friend named Donald Miller who is an author. He was invited to attend the Inauguration, the prayer breakfast and the Inaugural Ball. But he also needed new photos for his publicity stuff. So he called me and said, “Hey I’m attending the Inauguration. “Want to come along with me and we’ll just do my photo shoot on the run while we go to all this stuff?” I couldn’t believe it and obviously said yes.
It was one of the most memorable things I’ve ever done, especially in hindsight. The more time flies by, the more I realize how special that was. I got to witness history, hang with my friend and get paid to shoot portraits, while documenting history on the side. Unbelievable experience.
How did that compare to photographing Pope Francis?
Ha, good question! Completely wild and different experience. The Inauguration felt more calm and relaxed and believe it or not, it was easier to get good access. With the Pope, I had all kinds of special access and privileges and it was still super hard to get close to him, but I did a few times and got some decent photos.
The trick is once you get close, then you have to figure out how to be creative with hundreds of people around you, also trying to get a decent photo. It was absolute madness. I’ve never experienced anything like that.
You have over a million followers across all the social networks. What is the key to that?
Well, I’ve always jumped on platforms super early, before everyone else. I was on both Twitter and Instagram the first month of their releases. People used to make fun of me for using them so much because no one understood them. So because of that I would always get a lot of early features on the platforms. Twitter had me as a featured follower for years and that obviously helped.
You can’t be too wowed by the numbers though. Even I realize that the vast majority of all my followers are either some kind of spam bot or people who aren’t actually interested in following. You get a lot of low quality followers but I guess it still looks impressive.
I’d say that 5-10% of my followers on any platform are actually engaged. Then 1% of that are probably seeing my posts due to all the crazy algorithms these days. My biggest regret is I took 4 years off of Instagram because we were building our own social network called OKDOTHIS. It’s still running and I’m very proud of what we accomplished. But I should have also kept using Instagram during those years.
The key to building a following these days is the same as it’s always been… find your voice. What is it that you uniquely bring to the table? That applied 100 years ago and it still applies today.
Tell us about your app OKDOTHIS
The idea is to end creative block. For years, people would upload the same types of photos to Instagram… coffee cups, sunsets, cleavage, etc. Now it’s progressed to trees and roads and everyone is doing hipster lifestyle photos every time they hang out together. Nothing wrong with any of that, it’s just interesting how the trends change and everyone jumps on board.
So the idea for OKDOTHIS is to throw a wrench in that system and ask, “What ideas do you have? What would it look like if all your friends and followers put their own weird spin on your ideas? Would the community as a whole become more creative?”
I think we proved that yes, it would and the app was a huge hit. It was #3 in the App Store ahead of Angry Birds and Duck Dynasty the day we released it. The problem is we went through several rounds of ownership changes and it didn’t feel like my baby anymore. Other people were running it. But now, oddly enough, I own it outright. That happened just recently.
So I’m currently brainstorming what to do with it and where it should go. I’m open to suggestions for sure. It’s a beautiful app that I’m still very proud of and I think it could have an incredible future.
Is Eyefi still involved in OKDOTHIS? What was their role in it?
They temporarily owned and managed it but they no longer have a role in it. I’m the exclusive owner now. They’re great people though and we had and still have a great relationship.
Your Voices of Haiti images after the devastating earthquake were displayed at the UN in 2010, when a meeting was being held to rebuild the country. That meeting ended up pledging 10 billion dollars for the project. How does that make you feel?
Anytime an idea for a photo project can “actually” help is incredibly fulfilling. That’s always my goal. I don’t want to just be another photographer or photojournalist in a situation. Granted, photojournalism is a huge and a very important need in our world and I have much respect for photojournalists.
I didn’t study photojournalism though and I never want to pretend that I am one, out of respect for them. So I prefer to go into situations and use a specific idea to tell the story in a different way and then combine that with social media and fundraising ideas. In Haiti, I released one portrait a day for 70 days with that person’s story written on found rubble from the earthquake. It had a big impact and that project seemed to really help and most importantly, my subjects were grateful for the project. They liked being given a microphone to be heard.
I used a similar concept recently after the Gatlinburg wildfires. I had an idea to use drones and photograph people laying on a mattress in their burned down homes. My hope is that it would be a bit therapeutic for them and also visually striking enough to really make some noise and raise money for them.
With each photo I posted, I included links to their individual crowdfunding pages. The project ended up on TIME Magazine, The Weather Channel, USA Today and many more outlets. That project was also super fulfilling.
Can you tell the readers of PetaPixel what is in your kit bag?
Sure, I have tons of gear that I use for different things but in my main camera bag that I take everywhere, here’s what it contains:
- 2 Canon 5DS bodies
- 24-70mm f/2.8 (new version)
- 85mm f/1.2
- 50mm f/1.2
- 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6
- Profoto B1 head
- Battery chargers for Canon and Profoto B1
- Various lens ND filters
- SanDisk cards and card reader
- Tether Tools cable for tethering
- Profoto Air Remote
- Pocket Wizard Plus III
I see that you did not mention a hot-shoe flash in your kit. Is that correct?
That’s correct. I’ve always been a strobe guy. But I’m interested in working more with small flash. Joe McNally is a good friend and that guy can do wonders with small flash. In fact, I saw him present his work last week at Photoshop World in Orlando. You can place Speedlites in places you can’t place strobes. There’s a lot to be gained from that and Joe is the master.
Which is your go to lens?
The newer 24-70mm 2.8 is crazy sharp and I’m anal about getting the right crop in camera, so I love having the flexibility of a strong zoom lens. But I’ve been doing an interesting portrait series in my studio lately and those are all shot exclusively with the 85mm 1.2.
How long have you been shooting with a Canon?
I’ve been a Canon shooter since my parents bought me my first Canon Rebel in high school.
When you, like most photographers, pick up the camera to shoot, only to find that the lens cap is on, what do you say to yourself? Is that embarrassing when it happens in front of a celebrity client?
Oh man. It happens 9 times out of 10, after 12 years of shooting full-time. I just laugh because it’s so me. At the end of the day, I’m an idiot, so it’s just par for the course. I do stuff like this all the time. I once left my DSLR in a cab (never to be found again). I once drove 4 hours to the wrong city. I once bought the same magazine twice in a row. I have stories like this for days. Lens caps are nothing compared to my usual.
People assume that successful photographers like you are on cruise control and have it all figured out. How true is that?
Haaaaaaa, what a hilarious assumption. How large can I type NO. WE DO NOT HAVE IT FIGURED OUT. In fact, I think the longer you shoot, the more you realize how much you have to learn. The doubt, the fear, the insecurity… it never goes away. But the difference between a pro and an amateur is that a pro realizes they have to move forward anyway. We just push through. There are clients and deadlines and money involved.
Too many amateurs let fear stop them and that’s very sad. In fact, I recently released a video, “I’m Possible”, on overcoming the words “I can’t” and it went quite viral. 2.6 million views and 40,000 shares. That just let’s you know that we’re all in this together. We’re all afraid. But you gotta get up and keep moving. Get the work done.
What is the most unpredictable thing about the photography business?
I’d say it’s where the trends are going next. That’s a hard one. A few years ago, compositing was huge. Everything was super Photoshopped and composited and over the top. Now everything is natural light and organic and kind of anti-Photoshopped. And the hot photographers during those trends come and go and it’s a super hard and humbling roller coaster to ride. I’ve been on all sides of it.
I was super hot early in my career, then I went cold for a while, then I figured out how to become hot again. Now I’m somewhere in the middle. Just steady I guess. But that’s why I’ve learned to diversify my income and interests these days. I think every creative person in the world these days needs to figure out how to diversify. But that’s a different interview I suppose.
What do you have to do to keep the jobs coming in?
I’d say to keep the jobs coming in, the answer is the same as a decade ago. Personal projects. Always, always be developing and working on personal projects. The public at large and art directors at large will always be curious to see what you are personally interested in.
When there is major retouching, like in a compositing, should the retoucher get the same credit line as a celebrity photographer?
Yeah, I think the retoucher should get equal credit in those scenarios for sure. In fact I’ve seen some composites so crazy that it’s debatable on whether or not the photographer should get any credit. There are some really talented retouchers out there.
You grew your photography brand in Nashville. Would LA or New York have helped you more?
Yeah, for sure. No doubt. But there’s more to life than photography. I was raised in Nashville and my extended family is here. Everything I know is here. Life in Nashville is beautiful and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I have a wife and 4 kids and everyone is really happy here. I lived in LA for a year and a half and actually loved it. But some crazy circumstances forced us to move back to Nashville.
I sometimes wonder and dream about what my photo career would have looked like in LA or NY but at what cost to my personal life? At the end of the day, I still get to take pictures for a living and that is a massive dream come true, no matter where I live. I’m super grateful to just get to be creative every day. The majority of people I know dislike what they do for a living so I should never complain.
Registration is currently closed at the See University? Why? How did the University start?
It takes a lot of time and maintenance from my team to keep it open all the time. The customer support alone is crazy. So we try to do it in phases so we can be doing other things too.
See University was born after my brother died suddenly. He was a photographer too and we lost him to a heart attack. So after he died, I thought, “what if we all documented our wisdom? How cool would that be?” So I started shooting and documenting everything I know… Photography, Photoshop, lighting, fear of failure, business, marriage/work balance, everything I could think of. We’ve now created over 170 video classes on all things photography and I’m super proud of it.
It’s fun to have for the photo community but more importantly one day my kids will have this really cool footage of Dad teaching his career during his prime. That’s just cool, no matter who you are. Could you imagine watching footage of your grandfather or great-grandmother teaching you while they were at their primes? It’s a fascinating thought. We document our days and meals and our political views. Why not document our wisdom?
I never had anyone to learn from. Annie Leibovitz never taught. Neither did any of my other heroes so I’m all self-taught. I never even assisted. But I find it fulfilling to pass on my knowledge to other photographers. I used to hold my secrets tightly but I’ve learned that community is more important than competition. It’s interesting to see how other people translate the things I’ve taught them.
Have you shot a wedding as the official photographer?
Yes, I’ve shot a lot of them. Somehow friends always convince me that it’s a good idea. They’re a lot of work obviously but I kind of enjoy the challenge of being every kind of photographer at once. Details, portraits, groups, food, action, emotion, landscapes, fine art. I mean… weddings are kind of all photography genres wrapped into one. It’s total chaos. Every now and then I’ll do it for people I love.
Is there an urgency to share your images in today’s world, as soon as you have shot them?
Interesting question, but I’d say yes, there is an urgency. I’m not even sure why. It’s just how our culture has shifted, I think. We live in a world of instant gratification now. We’re all super impatient to post and anxious to see what others are doing.
The comparison culture can be really poisonous. Young photographers shouldn’t have to compare themselves to established pros but that’s kind of the environment that social media has created. As my friend Jon Acuff says, “never compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.”
For a guy who learnt photography by studying Photography for Dummies, today you have published 4 photo books. If a photo newbie asked you where to start, what would you say?
Lots of things. The usual stuff like “find your voice”, “pursue those personal projects”, but these days I’d say to really learn the technical stuff and all the gear. I think our culture is getting lazier. Everyone is just shooting natural light with their phones and apps. But I think as we move forward, the more technical prowess one has, the more of an advantage they’ll have to some degree. I always say, “the more you can learn technically, the more you can achieve creatively.”
100K photographers have given away nearly half a million portraits in over 70 countries and every American state through HelpPortrait.com. How did the project start and where do you see it going in the next 5 years?
The project started by the desire to just do something simple to give back. I wanted to give away the full photo shoot experience to people in need because they don’t really have access to fancy cameras and lighting so we just tried it locally in Nashville, then expanded it to letting people try it around the world. It kind of blew up from there.
As for the future, we’ll just keep on keeping on. I really would encourage the rest of the photo industry to try it. As one photographer said… “this is the greatest thing I’ve ever done with my camera.”
You did not have the best of grades in school, yet now you have your own online photography school. How big a transformation is that?
Ha. Insane transformation. I never would have believed in a million years that this would be happening now. I just didn’t think I was capable whatsoever. Now it’s all so seemingly easy. That should prove that anyone can learn this stuff. If I can do it, anyone can.
The majority of your commercial work is entertainment based. Is that by chance or choice?
I guess both? I live in Nashville so I’m surrounded by entertainment. But I also love entertainment culture… movies, music, TV, etc. In addition, I love the challenges that come with entertainment commercial shoots… the personalities, the egos, the productions, and logistics.
It’s like solving one insanely complicated math problem. Every shoot is so different but they always end up providing pretty fascinating stories. I have lots of great stories from all my shoots. That’s what life is about right? We all want to live to tell some great stories.
Are many photographers hiding behind their cameras?
Oh, of course. I’ve heard tons of photographers say they like hiding behind their cameras. I do too. You still need to be vocal and direct your shoots and subjects but still… you get to maintain a bit of a shy personality if you’re that type.
Is it more important to be a photographer or an idea guy?
Hmmm… obviously it’s ideal to be both. The best photographers have tons of great ideas. But then there are photographers who just show up and know how to execute the lighting and get the shot. Food or product photographers come to mind. They may not bring the idea to the table but they know how to make it look really amazing. Sometimes I bring the ideas to the shoots and sometimes I’m there just to push the buttons because the art director or client already had the idea, they just want me to make it happen. I’m used to all of it. But it certainly helps to have your own ideas.
Are you influenced by your own work?
Yes, I’m influenced by how much I always think it sucks and how I want to be better. You’re rarely happy with your own work but I think that’s a good thing because when you DO nail it, it’s really fulfilling. And I’m always moving onto the next trick, next personal project. I gotta keep moving, which is why I love photography. I could never be a filmmaker. I can’t imagine spending months or years developing one script or thought. I would hate it a couple weeks into it. Then for it to fail in the end would devastate me, I think.
Which other photographers influence you?
So many. In no particular order… Frank Ockenfels, Dan Winters, Annie Leibovitz, Joey L (dear friend of mine), Nadav Kander, Tim Walker, Gregory Crewdson, Danny Clinch, Paolo Roversi, Lara Jade, Emily Soto (both friends), Nick Onken (another close friend), Loretta Lux, Sarah Moon… the list could keep going for a long time.
Should photographers still have a print portfolio?
It can never hurt and I think it’s more professional to walk into a meeting with both. Have your crap together… your brand, your logo, your business cards, your leave-behind promo, your printed portfolio, your website, your portfolio on an iPad or laptop… all of it.
You did an iPhone-Only Commercial Portrait Shoot in 2014 for an album cover. In 3 years since then smart phone cameras have gotten a lot better. How would it be different today to do a similar shoot?
It wouldn’t be too different. The iPhone has only changed from 8-megapixels to 12 during that time. However their new Portrait Mode feature is pretty awesome with the dual lens setup. Definitely a major upgrade. I still shoot with my Canon 5Ds for official shoots though. That was just a test to see what was possible at the time.
Whose idea was it to use an iPhone? Why?
My idea and why not? I’m always experimenting and trying new things and new technology.
Have you done an iPhone shoot in 2017 or 2016?
No, not for any commercial purposes. But I still shoot with it daily like everyone else. I shoot exclusively with my Canon 5DS for commercial shoots but it’s just not realistic to always have a DSLR sitting around with my kids 24/7. So I document my personal life a lot with the iPhone 7s Plus. The portrait mode feature really is beautiful.
The artists in that shoot said it made them feel more comfortable as “I am used to using an iPhone.” Is that comfort of the subject any major help to the shooter?
Again, that was a one-off shoot. That’s the only time I’ve tried it. But yeah, I suppose it could be more relaxing for people. Although I think people get nervous anytime they’re in front of a camera, no matter what kind it is.
We see flare often in your images. Do you like the effect?
Yeah, I like anything that makes a digital image look not so digital. I love analogue photography but the convenience of digital. So anything I can do to make things NOT look perfect is interesting to me. Flares fall in that category.
I noticed that you do add grain in post. Why?
See above. I just like the look of grain. Super simple.
How do you manage to juggle the demand on your time for photography and humanitarian work?
As Joe McNally puts it, “you gotta find food for the table and food for the soul.” My commercial work pays the bills but it’s not fulfilling. The humanitarian work is where I find my purpose. I love exploring that intersection of creativity and helping others. If I can use my creative abilities to help someone or a situation in an interesting way, then I’m deeply fulfilled. I’d rather be telling those stories to my kids than about the time I photographed the Kardashians (though that story is interesting too).
What was your Emmy nomination for?
A health campaign I shot for a hospital in Nashville called St. Thomas. The entire TV commercial was a collage of stills that I shot. It was a beautiful campaign called Nothing Shall be Impossible.
I see you’ve been doing a recent experimental portrait series on your Instagram. What is that about?
I’ve never done portraits for the public before but I wanted to try it. Meanwhile, I had some super weird lighting ideas and new things to try. So I combined the two. It was basically getting paid to do test shoots, which is super convenient. I could explore new ideas while paying the bills. I’m done shooting the series but really enjoyed the process and came away with a lot of new ideas. See? Personal projects always provide something fruitful.
“Everyone is a photographer these days.” Wouldn’t you think so?
Absolutely. Photographers are the new rock stars in this age of social media so everyone wants to be one and everyone seems to think that “photography can’t be that hard” haha. You just push a button, right?
You got a D in your photo class in college. What do you say to other students today who are not faring well in their photo classes?
Your test results don’t define you and never will. If someone tells you you’re not creative, that’s B.S. You gotta tune that stuff out. Anyone can become a great photographer if they work hard and hustle.
You have shot a band called Sleeping at Last. Do you sleep at last despite your humanitarian work, photography and family duties (not necessarily in that order)?
Ha, sometimes I don’t sleep. It definitely gets crazy managing so many different ideas, projects, family and careers, but I love it and wouldn’t have it any other way.
What is the Purpose Hotel project? And what does the future hold for Jeremy Cowart?
You know… just a future global hotel chain that we’re building on the side. It’s an idea I had almost 5 years ago that we’re now pursuing. Essentially, everything in the building will be connected to a cause or a non-profit. So by staying there you will be “changing the world in your sleep”. We already have close to 50 causes and non-profits on board. It’s incredibly exciting to see coming to life.
As for my future, I’ll always be an artist and a photographer. But I think I’ll do less and less commercial and client work. I’d like to only be doing personal humanitarian projects in the future as a part of being the hotel founder and main voice. And I can’t wait to curate the types of photography projects that get displayed in the hotel. I mean, think of the entire building as one massive art gallery. I already have specific friends and photographers in mind.
That’s going to be super fun to oversee that kind of stuff.
About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and teacher for Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days Workshops. You can reach him via email here.
Image credits: All photos © Jeremy Cowart