Jonathan Saunders has an identity issue. Make that several identity issues. It started in childhood. Before moving to New York City, he grew up in Utah, Virginia, New Jersey, Texas, Pennsylvania, upstate New York, and California. Despite the constant moves, he knew what he wanted to do in life. After studying photography at Rochester Institute of Technology, he began to build his impressive reputation as a professional photographer of celebrities and political figures for national magazines. Publications such as TIME, People and Forbes have hired Saunders to shoot the likes of George Carlin, Francis Ford Coppola, Judi Dench, Billy Ray Cyrus, Bill Gates, and, oddly, a who’s who of the apex of American conservatives: William F. Buckley Jr., Newt Gingrich, Bill O’Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh.
It is not this dizzying array of famous faces Saunders has captured which have led to his most pressing identity issue. It is not the sheer gravitas of these personalities threatening to drain Jonathan Saunders of his own identity, nor is it that his outstanding photography has overshadowed his personal life. It is the simple fact he is sometimes mistaken for other Jonathan Saunders on the Internet.
Our Jonathan Saunders — the real Jonathan Saunders, photography fans might argue — has figured out a solution. “It’s very problematic,” explains the good-natured photographer. “I changed my Web identity to iliketotellstories.com. I figured it was better to separate myself from my name and make it distinctly different.” There’s a fashion designer of the same name and, more unsettling, two photographers both using the name Jonathan Saunders. “It’s tricky. I’ve had clients look at the wrong Web site and say, ‘what’s happened to your work?’ I don’t mean to insult or say anything bad about another photographer, but it’s been problematic for my career,” he laughs.
Like any powerful creative and inventive force, Saunders has built a solution more than compensating for his Internet identity issue. iliketotellstories.com has grown into not just a portfolio of some of his impressive commissions, but a look deep into the mind of the artist. It changes on an almost daily basis. Corporate clients can get a deep look into the artist who might be shooting for them. Fans of his work can see his personal photos. Friends can see portraits of themselves, as anyone who visits the Saunders abode gets their photo taken. Anyone can read his beautifully-crafted journals. Most importantly, the name “Jonathan Saunders” is barely mentioned on iliketotellstories.com.
Saunders has few secrets, although if asked to keep something private, he’ll take it to his grave. Fortunately, he’s open about his photographic process. “This is the coolest job in the world. My job is to stop someone flipping through a magazine and make them want to read an article. I use a Sekonic meter and typically shoot about 75% mixed lighting. It’s never just all-strobes or all-natural,” he reports. When pressed about consistency of light — arguably his signature — in diverse geographies he’s sent to, “I have a clear idea of how I want my lighting to look. I want people to know it’s my work without looking at the credit line. They should just know, ‘that’s a photo Jonathan Saunders would take, and only that Jonathan Saunders in New York—none of the other ones,'” he laughs. His minimal kit on every shoot consists of the following: one early model Acute generator and two Acute2’s (all 1200Ws), five heads, an Acute2 Ringflash, and a PocketWizard Plus. If size and budget allow, he brings Profoto Pro-7b packs. He sold his Hasselblad gear but still uses a Mamiya 6, a Mamiya 7 and an RZ.
Saunders has been recognized by his photographic peers, appearing in Communication Arts several times, and has done a lighting interview for PDN and had his studio/home featured on PDN online. When he was just 20, he was accepted into the Eddie Adams Workshop. While there, he won a “Best of Barnstorm” Award. In 2009, he was a Webby Honoree for the RSS/main site of iliketotellstories.com
When asked about which individuals he’d like to add to his impressive list of photographic subjects, he flatly and honestly responds, “everyone.” Of his commissioned portraits, he has developed a strategy employed at every shoot in order to please his clients. This approach was actually in place around the time of his famous sitting with Bernard Madoff in October of 1999, well before the December 2008 collapse of the Madoff Ponzi scheme. Always cognizant of the limited time he has to shoot celebrities, Saunders explains his two set-up approach. “If I use two or three lights for set-up number one, I’ll try to have a completely different approach in a different location for set-up number two, like one light and natural or available light.” This strategy has paid off multiple times with intervening periods of up to ten years because Saunders has unseen photos in different settings of countless subjects. When the Don Imus scandal broke after his on-air racist remarks, Saunders had an unused shot which made the cover of TIME. After the initial shoot is over, “sometimes all I have time for is turn the tripod around, and switch the radio slaves. Or I take the receiver out of the main pack, turn the other one off, and I’m ready to go. If I have time to build other sets, even better. Be as prepared as you can,” he advises.
Projects he’s currently working on include a hardcover book of largely-unseen photos he took in 2004 of Michael Jackson belongings he shot in a warehouse during the late singer’s child molestation trial. He also spends time every day documenting his life and his work on www.iliketotellstories.com, where he explores everything from meals to notes from photo editors.
“To me photos are stories. A book of photos is a novel.” We look forward to our continued reading of beautiful novels by this very capable photographer. The identity of Jonathan Saunders is always evident in both his commissioned work and his life. Lovers of great photographs just need to know where to look.
Jonathan Saunders Photography: http://www.iliketotellstories.com/
Jonathan Saunders’ Madoff portrait New York Times article.
Jackanory Studio Visit: 1RN.
Most recent Mamiya 7 portfolio
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