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BEST OF 2014, Jonathan Hanson
Baltimore
Jonathan Hanson takes viewers behind the scenes of Baltimore’s hip-hop culture in his coverage of studio sessions, live shows and battles between local rappers.

© Jonathan Hanson

© Jonathan Hanson


“I started hanging out with a group of guys recording music in their basement. Soon enough, I was going to their shows and realized it was a great story,” Hanson says of the project. “I’ve shot in most of Baltimore’s music venues, including a few that aren’t exactly venues but warehouses converted for one-night shows. I’m drawn to the people because they’re the ones creating the music, the energy and the styles. I’m fascinated by showmanship and the fine line between emulating and being original.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Jonathan Hanson: Five years

ASMP: What initially prompted you to join ASMP?

JH: When I was first starting out, I had a copyright infringement with one of my images and I contacted Victor Perlman about the issue. He gave me sound advice so, once I was working full time as a photographer, I decided to join.

ASMP: What’s made you stay an ASMP member since 2010?

JH: I’ve stayed a member because I think the organization is an important resource for photographers. Being a part of the ASMP community has connected me with photographers around the country.

ASMP: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of your ASMP membership?

JH: I think the most important part of being an ASMP member is that each person is contributing to a larger picture beyond the local chapter that supports the photographic community through education and advocacy.

ASMP: What is the most important relationship you’ve formed through your ASMP membership?

JH: I met my current legal counsel through ASMP, which has been very important.

ASMP: Which ASMP education/advocacy tools do you find most helpful to your day-to-day business and why?

JH: I found the business book to be the most helpful.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

JH: Portraiture, Editorial and Commercial.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable professional tool?

JH: My camera and lens.

ASMP: What piece of gear could you not do without?

JH: My camera.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

JH: This is something I’m always asking myself. I’m a bit obsessive about light and not making the same picture over again, so I’m always experimenting.

ASMP: What inspired you to begin photographing Baltimore’s Hip-Hop scene?

JH: I started working on this project soon after moving to Baltimore. I wanted to find something that would be a unique introduction to Baltimore and the culture.

ASMP: How did you first gain access to the Hip-Hop scene? Were you already a part of the community before you began photographing?

JH: I met a group of guys who were recording music in their basement and I started hanging out with them a lot. Soon enough, I started going to their shows and started realize there was a great story there.

ASMP: You’ve been photographing Baltimore’s Hip-Hop for a couple of years now. How often do you shoot? How much time do you spend on each shoot and how many venues have you shot in to date?

JH: I’ve shot in most of Baltimore’s music venues, including a few that aren’t exactly venues but warehouse spaces converted for one-night shows. I haven’t shot for the project much in 2014 because I’ve worked on spin off projects with some of the artists I’ve met.

ASMP: What interests you most about the Hip-Hop scene: the people, the music, the environment, the clothes? What captures your eye the most in terms of making images?

JH: I’m drawn to the people because they are the ones creating the music, the energy, and the styles. I’m really interested in showmanship and the fine line between emulating and being original.

ASMP: Do you ever run into obstacles in terms of access to the venues or people allowing you to photograph?

JH: I haven’t really run into any problems. Baltimore is a small city, so I see a lot of the same people at shows. A lot of the musicians want to be seen and discovered, so there is a desire to be photographed.

ASMP: On the whole, do you find the people and performers open and receptive to having you photograph them? Do you show them your work and give them prints? What type of feedback have you received?

JH: Most people are pretty receptive to letting me photograph them, even when I’m on the street shooting portraits. I always give prints if they request them, but most people don’t.

ASMP: Your Hip-Hop images are in black and white, while much of the other work on your Web site (including the Queen of Baltimore) is in color. Why did you choose b/w over color for this project?

JH: I shot the Hip-Hop series in black-and-white because I thought the lighting in most of the places I was shooting was distracting. Black-and-white also adds a little grittiness, which I like.

ASMP: Do you ever explore the Hip-Hop scene in other cities? Do you have any other favorite cities in which to photograph on the streets and/or specific communities?

JH: I usually try to see live music when I’m visiting other cities, but it’s usually not Hip-Hop. Minneapolis has a fantastic music scene and I head there every summer to see friends and go to shows. One of my favorite places to photograph is Thailand. I love the energy and lights of Bangkok, but I enjoy exploring the coastal communities most.

ASMP: You still shoot with medium-format film. Do you also shoot with medium format digitally? What is it about film that you’re drawn to?

JH: I shoot with 35mm digital cameras and medium-format film. I love the feel of working with a Hasselblad. I think digital cameras kind of all look the same, so shooting film can create a unique look that digital has not yet created, even though some plug-ins try.

ASMP: Your corporate work includes people and environmental portraits, which are often shot in color. Please compare and contrast your approach and style between your commercial work and your personal projects. Which do you prefer to shoot most, color or black-and-white?

JH: My approach to assignment work is not that much different because I’m always after the same thing: great images. I’m usually hired to do something specific (style) so it’s not a real stretch between the two. Sometimes I have to adjust to the content, but that’s part of being a flexible, well-rounded photographer.

ASMP: Do you use the same gear for your commercial work as you do for the Hip-Hop project?

JH: I use the same cameras and lenses, but almost always I need more production when shooting commercial work. I like to keep things simple and try not to overcomplicate things.

ASMP: Do you have a specific lighting strategy that you most prefer to work with?

JH: My go-to lighting is always natural light, but if the natural light isn’t very good, I’ll use a light or two. Sometimes I’ll use more, depending on the subject/story and its final use.

ASMP: What brought you to Baltimore and how long have you lived there? What’s the creative community like in Baltimore?

JH: I’m originally from St. Louis. I moved to Baltimore for an internship as a newspaper photographer at Patuxent Publishing. I’ve been here about six years, and I’ve stayed because of the creative community.

ASMP: Your commercial work takes you to many locations around the world. Do you also get a lot of commercial assignments in the Baltimore area? Do you find Baltimore to be a lucrative place for a commercial photographer to be based?

JH: My work mostly comes in from out-of-state. I’d like to shoot for more Baltimore-based clients, but I’ve not been able to break into the market here. Most shops continue to use the same people they’ve worked with for ten years, so it’s a real challenge for people in my position. What this city does offer is affordability and the opportunity to live a great lifestyle while pulling work from larger markets.

ASMP: According to your bio, you have a love affair with pizza. How is the pizza in Baltimore? Where’s the location of the best pizza you’ve ever had? Have you ever shot an assignment about pizza?

JH: I’ve never shot a story on pizza! Fingers crossed though! My favorite spots in Baltimore are Joe Squared or Home Slyce; Hersh’s is pretty good too. My favorite pizza of all time is from a place in St. Louis called Imo’s. I think the East Coast might think of it as an abomination, but I love it. They have a super-thin, crispy crust and use a combination of Provel and Mozzarella cheeses.

ASMP: You have dual degrees in creative writing and journalism. Did you also study photography in school? What inspired you to become a professional photographer?

JH: I did not study photography in school. I took a trip to Amsterdam with two close friends around the same time I first became interested in photography. A few days into the trip, we were sitting in the courtyard of a café when I noticed a sunflower craning in the warm evening light. I walked over, carefully composed a photo, and as I hit the shutter, a gust of wind blew the sunflower out of frame. I cursed the wind and shot another frame. A few weeks later, when I was looking through the film, my first major lesson in photography was staring back at me. The photo where the wind blew the sunflower was far better than what I had composed. I realized there’s a crossroads where preparation, chance and being in the right place at the right time come together to create something special. I’ve been obsessed ever since.

ASMP: What do you find most challenging in your commercial work — pursuing assignments, negotiating fees, administrative work (scheduling, billing and so on), working with your subjects, postproduction, etc?

JH: I think the most challenging is getting seen in a crowded market.

ASMP: What kind of support team do you work with in terms of assistants, digital techs, producers or other support roles? Do you work with any full time staff or freelance?

JH: I use freelancers and hire the crew based on the project. I hardly ever work with digital techs but always have at least an assistant with me. I like to use the same people, but it’s not uncommon for me to switch it up. I think the crew helps carry the energy, so I try to find people that I think are well suited to the type of work I’m shooting.

ASMP: Please describe how your current project has affected your business to date. Has the project generated new clients or markets for your work? Has it given you new visibility with existing or past clients?

JH: The Hip-Hop project has created business opportunities for me. I shot a project for Adidas after an art buyer saw my Hip-Hop work. It also helps generate editorial assignments that focus on “a day in life” or “behind the scenes” stories.

ASMP: For how long have you been represented by Wonderful Machine? How did this representation come about? What services do they provide in addition to representation?

JH: I’ve been with Wonderful Machine since 2009. It’s a non-exclusive relationship and I often refer to them for consulting with estimates and contracts. They also aid in marketing new and published work through their social media outlets. They have a variety of services, including consulting, branding, setting up meetings and estimates. I think they’ve created an innovative crossroads between being a directory and a marketing agency.

ASMP: You shoot motion in addition to stills. What percentage of your work is still versus motion?

JH: Almost all of my work is stills, but I’ve had a couple of large projects that combined the two. It’s not something I’ve been promoting as an additional service. I’ve been using motion mainly for my personal work. If I decide to push motion work more, I’d like to focus on music videos.

ASMP: Please talk about your marketing strategies. Do you prefer social media to traditional avenues?

JH: I think successful marketing is the combination of multiple platforms. I use traditional printed mailers, e-promos and meetings, combined with social media. I’m a member of Photoserve, Wonderful Machine and Novus Select, all of which promote my work and send out updates.

ASMP: What’s your opinion about the effectiveness of social media in general?

JH: I think it can be very effective in bringing attention to a project, but I’m not sure how that translates to assignment work yet. I’ve received a few assignments from LinkedIn, but Facebook and Twitter have yet to generate anything.

ASMP: In your opinion, what makes a good assignment and makes you excited to shoot it? Is it the client, the brief, the location, the subject or something altogether different?

JH: I get excited about assignments when I have a personal connection to the story or because of the client. I’ve worked with supportive editors and creative directors who see the opportunities and help push the vision forward in both the production and the final layout.

ASMP: On your Web site, you mention that your work is inspired by music, culture and color. What types of music and culture inspire you the most? How are you inspired by color?

JH: I think that music, color and culture are interwoven. They are expressions of identity. What I find inspiring is how music and color can represent a culture and vice versa. I have a pretty steady rotation of new artists I’m listening to, so the bands that inspire me are always changing. Right now, I’m listening to Night Moves, Washed Out, Al Rogers Jr. and John Legend, to name a few. The type of music that inspires me most tends to come from musicians who have an original sound and whose passion resonates in the sound. Color is something I like to use in my images to communicate emotion. When I see color that I’m drawn to, I have an emotional reaction to it and I try and put that into the work.

ASMP: Are you currently planning or working on any new assignments or personal projects?

JH: I’ve been working on a street-portrait series around Baltimore and a project exploring the theme Androgyne. Both are rooted in my interest in people, but each has a completely different approach.

The Androgyne work is all shot in a studio and lit. As the work develops, I want viewers to try and look beyond gender classification and question the way they see current cultural gender frameworks and beauty. How do social pressures in the gender binary affect identity and, in the larger scope, the treatment of others? How has sexuality taken shape through the gender binary?

The street portraits are shot on Kodak film with a Hasselblad on location around Baltimore. My goal with this project is to capture slight body language, revealing something deeper in each of the characters I photograph. The city streets provide me with an opportunity to come across a wide range of people. There’s a limitless supply of backgrounds and synchronized moments where color, light, and people come together to create a portrait of the city though the humans that inhabit it.

ASMP: What’s the most important business advice you’ve ever received?

JH: Only the show the type of work you want to get.

ASMP: What’s been your most valuable business decision to date?

JH: Investing time into creating my own work and registering my copyright.

ASMP: What’s the most important advice that you’d give a young photographer starting out now?

JH: I’d advise photographers just starting out to be more concerned with creating solid work than with getting assignments. Vision and authorship will be the thing that gets you work.

ASMP: Where do you hope to be, personally and professionally, five years from now?

JH: I think about this all the time. Most important, I want to grow as a person and continue the path to becoming a more compassionate and loving person. Because photography is big part of who I am, I think personal growth will influence my photography. I hope the caliber of my assignment work continues to grow and that I will have scratched a few more names off my dream client list.