“Learn This well, Let The Pictures Tell Your Stories And Go Help, Jimmy!”
Although I only spoke with Jim for about an hour and a half, I could have asked him questions for days… I’ve only touched on the life of this dude. An old soldier (which he wouldn’t elaborate on), a worldly traveler riding horses with clans in the far corners of Asia, and an ex-Reserve Deputy Sheriff using his skills of diffusing heavy situations to become friends with Outlaw Bikers in the western US… All the while capturing eye catching, timeless, photographs. Let’s scratch the surface…
*Pastor Paulee Curran in Arizona– A long term documentary project of mine in the Circuit Riders Motorcycle Ministry comprised of mostly ex-outlaw motorcycle clubs or “1%’ers” who have become Christians. They have an outreach to Drug Rehab programs, Prison Assistance, assistance to outlaw families who are outside while they do time, and domestic violence programs (as protecting women who need to get back into their home and get their stuff or move out without getting the shit beat out of them again). These guys and their associates can be a little tough, Christian or not.
Being involved with a lot of humanitarian & NGO organizations, I was getting lost and frustrated in what I was doing.
Christmas of 2006 my wife Christi bought me a Canon Rebel kit (the original kit with 2 lenses and a spare battery) Attached to the box was a card that read “Learn this well, let the pictures tell your stories and go help Jimmy!”
Today when I head out and pack my kit, which now consists of 2 Canon 5D Mark II cameras, I see the Rebel sitting on the bookshelf above an arsenal of daisy chained hard drives and remember when I could not believe how many photos I could fit on my 16 & 32 mg cards.
BUT that camera was my entry into the world and the start of this journey of what an image can convey.
Simple, clean and uncomplicated. Until 2008 I had no idea what a light meter was. Photography was just plain fun, lots of “I made that!” moments.
I entered the iPhone world, only because it seemed like the best fit for our world with Macs in our home and office.
Then I read a review one day for Picture Show.
Hmmm, that might be fun to play with and that was it I was hooked on mobile photography. The simple joy and fun was back.
I make the joke all the time “if these things ever shoot RAW my DSLRs will gather dust.” The other day I put the 645 Pro app on my phone, I think we are getting close.
“I would rather be in a room full of outlaws and criminals, than these guys in my own neighborhood of Irvine with the golf shirts. It’s the guys with golf shirts that scare me… at least with the outlaws, you know where you stand.” -Jim McGill
D: David J: Jim
D: Talk to me about your biker photography. How did it start?
J: I had been soliciting an outlaw gang and they agreed to at least meet me in Laughlin, NV during bike week. Turns out, the contact I met ended up knowing my father from the past and was a little pissed off about it. About to throw down and get my ass stomped, Pastor Paulee, an ex-outlaw clergyman I know, recognizes me and puts his hand on my shoulder and announces ” Hey! This guys with us!” And I watched these guys fly back…
In most situations these guys were hardass at first. I’d get lines like “Bro, I didn’t wanna be photographed in the past, I don’t wanna be photographed now.” So there was a little bit of being the meaner dog, and there was a little bit of being the goofy guy. A long time ago, I was a deputy sheriff. I realized the best way to diffuse a bar fight is to be goofy. You can walk up and be a prick or you can try to make friends in 20 seconds. I think over the course of meeting up with these guys two times, I tried to earn their trust by being friendly. They even started call me “Hef” because I smoke a pipe, thought that was pretty cool. I will sometimes have issues with new guys coming in, but over all it’s been good. It’s the same story over and over, it always comes down to getting their trust. You are the outsider. The only mistake I’ll never make again, don’t shoot the pretty women first! (laughs)
I’ve even been asked to photograph a few weddings. It’s pretty cool to get a call from an outlaw, saying “I really like your stuff, can you come photograph my wedding?” Best part about a situation like that is that I can gain more contacts to go photograph. If this ends up being my genre, photographing that world, I’ll be okay with that…
I even went as far as to enroll in a motorcycle safety course to get my license.. Im qualified to go about 10 mph in a parking lot, but…(laughs)
D: Oh, so you don’t ride?
J: No, I don’t ride. In some cases, I will take the shots from a car, close enough to make it seem like I’m riding amongst them.
*This is Billy, he is an ex outlaw, from Colorado. This particular photo is taken within 72 hours of him deciding he wanted to become a Christian. Pastor Paulee had just baptized him in the Colorado River. There are about thirty of us standing around a campfire, but Billy was just standing alone on the outskirts of everything. In his mind, just coming out of the life, he’s still a prospect. He didn’t yet feel like he had a part in the group. Billy stood like that in a tension for hours. At one point I tried to engage him in conversation, he kind of just nodded, like “I’m really not interested,” and kept his eye on the leader…
D: Let’s talk about some of your more intimate portraiture, how’d you get into that? It’s most definitely your own sort of pin-up style, wouldn’t you agree?
J: Yeah, the one girl that has appeared a lot on the EyeEm site, the girl with all the tattoos, her name is Amber.
A while back I took some courses at a community college on photography. The professor, to try and screw with me, tells me “you can photograph strippers or prostitutes, your choice.” So, I went to a strip club nearby and struck up a conversation with one of the dancers and asked her if she wanted to be in a documentary project… I have now known her about 6 years. I’ve watched her go from being a full-time dancer to a mom and a clothing designer. She actually just asked me to photograph her wedding, which should definitely be cool. The one question I always hear about this type of photography is, do I know the models personally or intimately? Because they say there is always this eye contact, and hopefully I have a knack for that. The portraits don’t necessarily look superficial. I’m trying to approach it as a storyteller rather than a fashion photographer.
*Amber in a kitchen in Los Angeles, CA– This is a shot from when I first started paying serious attention to iPhone photography beyond the “normal” snapshots that make their way to the occasional Twitter and Facebook posts. On this day armed with my normal rig of two Canon 5D MK II’s, tethering to Lightroom running on my laptop, we had two 40″ soft boxes and two studio strobes. I kept finding the exposures lacking, so as I sat on a bar stool in the center of the kitchen trying to work out the lighting, I pulled out my iPhone and started snapping some shots. Amber was laughing at me saying “Hey photography boy, I think here is an instance where size doesn’t matter…” Then I showed her this shot altered in Pictureshow and received an instant “that’s AWESOME!” At that point we changed the lighting and the direction of the shoot. Ultimately, all post editing on the 5D shots were based on this iPhone snapshot.
D: Any advice on getting that eye contact in a photograph?
J: I used to have on my business cards “meet with them, eat with them, shoot em.” But too many people misinterpreted that, so I got rid of the phrase. I see too many people pull out the camera, take the shot, then run away rather than engage. I don’t even have to have a conversation with people, it’s the momentary eye contact that makes those shots.
D: Travel photography, what’s your approach?
J: I try to see the finished image in the camera. Yes I crop, I crop all the time. Generally, I’m seeing the finished shot or I won’t take it. I know what final image I’m going for.
D: Any difference making these connections in your foreign travels?
J: Oh, thats even better! At that point you don’t speak the language, you can just plead ignorance. I have 3×5 cards for most of the countries I travel in that says “You are beautiful, can I take your picture?” I carry field model releases in their language as well. There were a couple of times I’ve gotten myself into trouble… Like taking a picture of a solider in China. This usually isn’t a good idea, but I’ve been there. I will come up and flash them a card that says “you’re beautiful…” and that kinda throws them off guard and diffuses the situation. For the most part I’m just that big stupid American… (laughs)
D: Are you born and raised in California?
J: Born and raised in California, I grew up in the San Bernardino mountains, about 60 miles from where I live today.
D: Back on traveling for a moment, tell me about some of the best spots you’ve visited?
J: I really love Tibet and Mongolia. But if I was gonna move anywhere in the world tomorrow, it would be Japan. It’s the one place on the planet where I feel totally at ease and stand down. If I could have any dream job, it would be to go to Japan and photograph the Yakuza*. That is kind of a closed world, but I’m always looking for an in.
D: How long have you been shooting iPhone? Any favorite methods, apps?
J: I first shot with an iPhone in a lighting situation about 2 years ago. If Apple would make these damn things shoot raw files, all my dslr’s would just gather dust. I love the idea, I do wish it was a little more camera-like, give me a viewfinder and that’d be kinda cool. As far as apps I’ve been using… Snapseed, Phototoaster and Photogenie 2. No, I don’t have Instagram on my phone, everybody always asks me that.
D: Well? Let’s get an answer. Why EyeEm and not Instagram?
J: I put Instagram on my phone and shot a picture. I did not realize it would post instantly. Thankfully, I posted something as benign as my cowboy boots. That’s why I don’t have Instagram. I wanted a chance to review my photos first.
D: Lastly… any significance behind the Photo444 name?
J: It seemed like for years, every time I’d get on an airplane to go away or come home it was always 4:44 or flight 444. My wife calls it “trip time.” To this day I feel, even if I look at the time, that’s what time it is. I may not notice any other time that day. Also, when I started my website, “Jim McGill Photography” was (and still is) the site for a shitty wedding photographer from Connecticut… (laughs) So my wife suggested Photo444 because its the start of a new adventure.
*Yakuza generally are traditional organized crime sects, commonly adorning full body tattoos.
* On a side note, while I was editing and drafting this interview, Jim had contacted me 2 days in a row. Sending me photos from his wife and an old friend, encountering the strange reoccurring numbers 444, while reading previews of this interview. He certainly wasn’t kidding!
About David Norbut
David Norbut @dnorphoto is drawn to capturing the raw beauty of the people he meets, and the environments surrounding us