5 Questions for John Francis Peters (interview by Peter Hoffman)

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John Francis Peters is a Los Angeles based photographer specializing in documentary, portrait, travel and lifestyle projects. John’s diverse body of work ranges from the portraiture of influential personalities to essays on emerging culture and environments in transition. His personal and assigned projects focus on both domestic and international subjects. John was selected as one of Photo District News 30 emerging photographers to watch in 2013.

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He can be found: on the WEB | on Tumblron Twitter | on Instagram

1. As long as I’ve known of your work I’ve thought of you as a photographer a first, but you’ve done different kinds of work and have a background in design right? Can you tell us a little bit about how you arrived at the place you’re at right now?

It’s been a winding path but always with a focus on photography. Photography caught my attention during my first semester at SVA and from that point of engagement, every class I took or job I had somehow had to add or relate to the study and practice of the medium.  I graduated SVA with a degree in design and then briefly went into the art department at Def Jam Records. It was a wild place to work during that time and while I was there I found my way into an assisting position for music photographer Jonathan Mannion.

Jon was amazing and taught me many technicalities of the medium that I had missed out on. I think the most important aspect of that position was taking on the responsibility of archiving his entire library. I was able to look through thousands of negatives and really begin to see the subtleties of how color, light, film and moments collaborate to make great images. What also made this position extraordinary was that Jon’s archive covers a vast history of hip-hop music and before he became a full time photographer he had assisted Richard Avedon. I felt I was soaking up some great experience during that time.

After I left Jon’s studio I worked on a few of odd jobs in upstate New York where I’m from. I kept practicing photography by wandering the Hudson Valley towns I had grown up in and shooting peoples portraits. I also picked up a few small gigs around that time most notably my first assignment being for the FADER Magazine. That was when Phil Bicker had taken over the creative director position at The FADER and freelancing for him ultimately led me to a staff position at the magazine where I spent the four and a half years.

2. It seems like you really started to hit a stride once you left your job photo editing for the Fader and decided to focus on freelance and on personal work. Do you feel like being an editor made you a better photographer at all, or a different photographer? Is there anything you miss about being an editor?

I would say my experience working at The FADER, specifically while Phil was there, was pivotal in my development as a photographer. During the first two and a half years on staff I worked under Phil’s direction. His vision, which really shaped FADER into a serious photo based magazine, was something I believed in and was fully dedicated to. I look back at that time as my graduate school in photography.

Working for Phil was challenging on many fronts one of those being to find new photographers all over the globe. I spent months searching through portfolios and I began to see how very subtle nuances in focus, form, editing and subject matter set one photographer apart from the others.  While editing stories with Phil I began learning how to feel images as opposed to just looking at them. I also made great friends with some of the photographers I met during that process and began to network into the photo community at large.

When Phil left Fader I too was going to leave but after consulting some of my closer colleagues I decided to stay on as photo editor for a few more years. I was lucky then to work with the new creative director Justin Thomas Kay who became a great friend and collaborator. We worked closely together to continue evolving the magazine while maintaining a dedication to highlighting great photography from around the world.

I wouldn’t say I miss being a full time editor because I’m a shooter first. I hold my experience in full at The FADER, good and bad, close to my heart and would say it was essential in making me the photographer I am today.

3. A lot of times when photographers strike out on their own you start to see them make less photography than, say, if they had a job as a photographer for a publication. They’re suddenly a one man business, blogging machine, etc. But you seem to always be making new pictures, and a lot of it is in fact personal work. Can you talk a little bit about what drives that?

I think when we first start making photos, we see life and then we see how it looks in images which in turn feeds the desire to see more of life. As we begin to study and practice photography further, we go through the whole process of mimicking others work, aesthetically and such, which is important in the learning process. I do feel however it is essential to continue seeing life first or we end up seeing images first and getting stuck in formulas which are not our own. 

For myself, the best way I find to evolve my craft is by actually practicing it on the purest level, in personal work.  I need to push myself every day to see life first so I can collaborate with it and allow that process to guide me beyond what I already know. I never want to find comfort in process, that’s like giving up, succumbing to gimmick, which doesn’t add to anything.  So what I hold on to is that initial connection I had with photography, in experiencing and collaborating with the world. That’s what will always drive my to make new work.

4. I recently came upon your dad’s wonderful paintings online. My dad was a painter too (but largely gave it up before I was born), and I know that as a kid, seeing his work was some of the first visual inspiration I ever had. How do you think your dad’s work as an artist has rubbed off on you?

Well my fathers paintings; his life path and the moments we have shared together, definitely set for me a solid foundation in the arts. He exposed me to great art from a very early age not only in his own work but via a wide spectrum of sensibilities. We spent many years together in upstate New York communities like Woodstock, which were in those days largely comprised of artisans. I literally lived the artist life as a child so growing into it as an adult has not been so foreign though no less challenging.

Growing up surrounded by visual and musical artists was so rewarding, something I definitely took for granted but now embrace as an essential part of my art. If I boiled down my fathers influence to a few keys aspects, the most apparent would be his dedication to nature. Focusing on nature is what has driven him all of these years to pursue his work amongst the confusion that life brings. I’ve been close to that level of spiritual dedication and I too look toward nature as a source of inspiration, focus and peace.

5. In the past few years you’ve been all over the world making pictures. China, Pakistan, Haiti, Morocco, Egypt, I don’t even know where else. What are you working on now?

I have been very lucky and proactive at pursuing international commissions and personal projects. Working internationally and experiencing culture in all its forms is essential to my work and the direction I want to go. I plan to continue my work in Western China and hopefully Pakistan, which is a place I’m greatly inspired by.

Right now however I’m focused on a project in San Diego, which may expand into a larger series in America. I’ve been interested in the people and communities that exist within the context of the American landscape and its seeming sense of order or normalcy. I want to explore the philosophies and stories behind people who are seeking more to life than what we are presented with here in America and look into other dimensions of our common landscape in which many folks exist for better or worse. 

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    I asked my friend and constant source of inspiration JFP a few questions for the A Photo A Day blog.
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