Jesse Lizotte is a self-made portrait photographer.
There is a slight drawl in his voice, demystified by the upbringing he straddled between Sydney and New York, and his demeanour is cool; the perfect temperature for an artist whose eye has been employed by Adidas, Oyster, GQ, Diesel and a score of other brands dotted between your coffee table and wardrobe. It’s no wonder his career has adopted the same transcontinental nature as his life has, too. The razor sharp accuracy of his photography complements the buttery candor he draws from his subjects. You’d buy the clothes hanging below those faces without question.
But don’t let the simplicity of his work fool you; it’s no modest feat harnessing honesty in the second dimension. In a time where anyone with a Wi-Fi connection can be a ‘photographer’, Jesse Lizotte is a prophet, de-cluttering the absurdly cluttered.
To commemorate his inaugural exhibition in Asia, at Room 13 in The Slow, Canggu, Paige Leacey caught up with the portraitist to delve behind the lens, behind the retina and into the grottos of his chief creative muscle.
First up, on both a personal and professional front, how do you manage living between two lands – Oz and the US?
I guess I’m lucky! Having family on both sides means I don’t really have a fixed address right now. When I’m in the US I get homesick, but when I come back to Oz I get restless pretty quickly and miss the energy of NYC. I try and find a balance.
A big challenge with creative freelancers can be finding a productive routine. What daily rituals do you implement to aid your creativity no matter where in the world you are?
Running more recently became my thing. Early mornings, Bad Brains in my headphones, pound the pavement till I feel like throwing up and then finish with a black coffee, 2 sugars, haha! You don’t need a membership and can do it anywhere. It’s cool when you are in a new city and a great way to get a feel for it.
As a pic taker who’s been around a while, how have you seen the social media landscape (Instagram capital for example) change the game for photographers? Is it for better or for worse?
I dig that it gives the creative types more autonomy, you know it can be used as a tool to self publish and get your work seen by people all over the world in an instant. I don’t like how there is a generation now that gives way too much importance to ‘likes’ and the amount of followers you have. I can’t say if it’s for better or worse yet, we’ll just have to let it take its course!
What, if anything, do you try keep old-school about the way you operate?
I keep a physical diary and wear the same Casio watch.
Apparently you’ve had no formal training in photography. Geez. When did you realise you were actually pretty good?
I’m still making it up as I go along! Every shoot I learn something new. If I’m ever completely content with my work then maybe its time to hang it up and try my hand at something else, ha!
You were mentored under renowned Vogue photographer, the late Richard Bailey. What legacy did he leave behind in your photos?
Richard had an unparalleled command of lighting and a real respect for the craft. He was one of the people who influenced me from an early age in a big way. There was something seamless about his work, whether it was personal – from his travels on surfing trips – or in the pages of Vogue. The world through his lens looked so effortlessly beautiful.
You’ve had some pretty big celebs in front of your lens – Kelly Rowland, Troy Sivan and Sam Neill to name a few – but in contrast to the lesser known faces you’ve shot, what kind of human subject feels the best to work with?
Its hard to say because I treat every subject the same, whether they are famous and have millions of followers or they are completely off the grid, just an interesting character you might meet on the street. Everyone is the same in front of the camera lens; vulnerability is universal. You still have to work to gain the trust of your subject.
When you take photos of people, what do you aim to expose in stillness that can’t be captured in motion?
I think a still photograph can be so arresting and powerful because of the sheer permanence of the medium. We are allowed to stare as long as we please and are afforded a glance into someone’s being, completely unfettered. If I can capture that essence of a subject or maybe a moment that elicits a certain feeling in the viewer then I’m satisfied.
Throughout your own journey of self-discovery, how has your idea of ‘beauty’ changed or evolved? What levels of self-awareness have you had to arrive at when shooting other peoples bodies?
Over time I think my idea of beauty has become less about what’s on the surface and more about what someone exudes from within. There’s beauty in vulnerability and there’s beauty in being self assured and comfortable in your own skin too.
Describe the difference in feeling between the first time you got paid for a photo and the day you got your first magazine cover published?
I can remember selling my first print in America and getting a cheque in the mail. I felt like I had made it big time, haha. My first cover was with ‘10 Magazine’ and I was completely surprised by it and shocked they would consider one of my photos! I was in Tokyo at the time and found out the day it hit the stands.
Being an artist, it can be a bit of an intrepid pursuit trying to figure out the value of your own work and feel confident in asking that price. What has that rite of passage been like for you?
Absolutely. My motives in the beginning were to just throw a party and afford my friends some free booze with some nice things to look at, haha! Selling any works was an afterthought. I try not to get caught up in that side of things but at the same time I think it’s important to be able to give back to the gallery that supports you.
Speaking of exhibitions, what can we expect to see from your upcoming show at The Slow in Canggu?
The work I’m showing at The Slow is a medley of sorts – photos taken here [in Sydney], the US, Mexico and Japan. Some are portraits of strangers I’ve met on my travels, others are intimate photos of friends. They are from different places and stages of my life but I feel there is still an underlying narrative that ties them all together. It’s a small body of work, kinda like a ‘greatest hits’ thus far, haha. Because it’s a China Heights offsite project, I felt it would be a good opportunity for a completely new audience to be exposed to some of my work from the past.
One last one for the shutter-nerds out there! What kind of gear do you most dig shooting with?
Over the years I’ve had a few workhorses, Pentax 67’s and Mamiya Rz’s. I love medium format cameras.
Catch Jesse’s work from August 11th to October 5th at Room 13 in The Slow – Jl. Pantai Batu Bolong No.97, Canggu. You can secure yourself free tickets to the opening night bash here.
Hero Image by Kent Johnson