The advent of Instagram and its continuing popularity has polarized opinion among the photography community. The democratic nature of the platform means that almost anyone can now access colossal potential audiences and achieve a corresponding wealth of recognition. This is seen by many as a positive evolution, yet others are less enthusiastic, citing the fact that much online appreciation relates to factors other than simply the quality of the images posted. The prevalence of celebrity selfies and pictures of cute kittens have led many photographers to refrain from joining the Instagram community, while others have seen their work resonant with millions of otherwise inaccessible viewers. One such case of the latter is Jason M Peterson, whose superb monochrome photography, shot mainly with the Leica SL, has seen his Instagram following exceed 1 million. We caught up with Jason to talk about his influences, the art of black and white photography and the importance of embracing the future.
You are Co-Chairman and Chief Creative Officer at the advertising company Havas. How did you also become a photographer with over 1 million Instagram followers?
I have been an advertising art director and creative director for over 25 years. I have always shot photos on the side. I was a late adopter to digital photography, I started shooting digital around the same time as the social media boom and found it gave me an audience for my work. Social media has given me a reason to shoot and publish work every day.
How has your creative work in the ad business influenced your photographic style? And what else has had an influence on your creative vision?
As an art director I have always had a giant library of photographic references. I really love early street photography like Harry Callahan, Ray Metzker and Bresson. As well as 60s and 70s fashion shooters like Clifford Coffin, John Cowan, Jeanloup Sieff and F.C Gundlach, as well as more graphic shooters such as Lillian Bassman, Hiroshi Sugimoto or even Ed Ruscha paintings. I have tried to develop a photo style that is as much graphic as it is photographic. I love simple, strong and dark images that make you feel something.
When did you first start shooting with Leica? And how has your relationship to the brand developed?
I used to shoot film with a Leica M6 back in the 80s. I was reintroduced to Leica by my friend Matt Jacobson and I shot with the Leica Q as part of the global launch of the camera. I work with Leica in the US on various projects and currently exclusively shoot with the Leica SL, Q and M10. I really love the brand and the cameras have really helped me develop my voice.
You shoot almost exclusively in black and white. What is it about this medium that appeals to you?
I love photos that make you feel something and that have a larger narrative. Black and white, to me, offers less of a distraction. I’ve always had a thing with color marking periods of time, the 50s, 60s, 70s… they all have their own color palette. I love timeless images that tell a human story.
Why do you think that your photography is so popular?
First of all, I am humbled by the popularity of my photos. I think it’s popular because of the consistency I try and put into my photos. I shoot everyday and I am never satisfied with my work, always trying to improve every image. I can recognize the work of my favorite artists over their entire careers. That’s also what I’m striving for.
Cityscapes and the urban environment are present in a lot of your photography. Is this simply a reflection of where you spend most of your time or what is it that draws you to these settings?
I love to show scale. I also happen to live and spend most of my time in cities but I would try and do the same if I’m in rural location. I try and show the human condition or existence versus the scale or scope of our world.
Several of the photos in this series, and your photography in general, tend to portray individuals as a minute details amidst monumental backdrops and imposing structures. Is this a conscious decision you make when composing your shots? And are you making a comment on society in general?
Yes, totally. I usually come back to the same location over and over looking for patterns in light and I wait and wait for a moment to happen. Most of my work is viewed on a 3-inch smartphone display. I try and use that small size to show massive scale.
The images in this series are shot with either the Leica SL or the Leica Q. What do you see as the advantages of each particular camera?
I love them both for different reasons. I carry the Q with me at all times, the portability and the quality is unmatched. I use the SL for bigger jobs and more planned shoots like sports and music.
The atmospheric feel of a lot of your work is enhanced by heavy contrast, as well as your use of available light. To what extent is this something you consider before even pressing the shutter release?
I chase and follow natural light and use that light to dictate the image. I shoot raw but my jpeg settings are very close to my final edits, utilizing pushed contrast and underexposed monochrome.
How much post-editing work do you put into your images? And can you give us an insight into your process?
People are often surprised by how little post-editing I do. I always have the end photo in mind as I shoot. I never spend more that a few minutes editing an image. I load my images to my laptop via camera raw and batch import into Lightroom. I don’t use presets. I edit every image individually. I use a lot of gradients and spot contrast to darken my blacks. I export most of my files as 4×5 jpegs for social media and save out larger tiffs uncropped for prints.
What advice would you offer to some looking to improve their black & white photography?
My biggest advice is find your own style and point of view before worrying about color and black and white, or even what camera to shoot with. I have built everything around my style, in service of creating my work. Lots of people send me photos that they have created that look like my work, and while I am flattered I’m always more interested in them finding their own voice.
How do you see photography developing over the next few years?
I think social media has made everyone a photographer, which I love. It’s going to get really interesting to see what this newfound talent and passion creates. I was always turned off by the negativity of the older generation in photography, driven by equipment and rules. I love to see what this next optimistic generation creates with open eyes.
Take a look at more of Jason’s outstanding monochrome photography on Instagram.