Photographer Chase Jarvis aims to make artists of us all
Having traveled the world as a professional photographer, Chase Jarvis of Seattle has made portraits of 100 people he thinks show us the way to be creative. Now he aims to make artists of us all, encouraging us to take pictures our own way, and in the process unleashing the power of personal expression.
THERE IT IS, the perfect shot: 72-year-old world explorer Helen Thayer stands mighty on the rim of a meadow at her farm outside Snohomish, snow-dusted Mount Pilchuck piercing the slate-colored clouds behind her like a soundstage version of a Northwest idyll.
The sun pokes through, washing the scene in golden beams.
"Epic, beautiful," gushes photographer Chase Jarvis, who's come here to shoot a commercial about risk and retirement planning for Russell Investments.
Jarvis lives for moments like this.
As a professional photographer and as a visual artist known for capturing the explosive physicality of athletes and the sweeping panoramas of far-flung landscapes, he specializes in the iconic.
It's a cliché to say that you gain a better perspective on your world when you view it from a distance, but it's true in the case of Seattle native Jarvis.
That's certainly the case with the Seattle 100, a yearlong project that showcases some of the most compelling cultural figures and tastemakers you've probably never heard of, or thought twice about. The series is notable not just for the quality of the black-and-white portraits but for the surprisingly eclectic civic personality it reveals. Together, the names read like the guest list of a very cool dinner party. Imagine The Stranger's Charles Mudede talking movies with filmmaker Lynn Shelton. Or restaurateur Matt Dillon and professional forager Jeremy Faber discussing their favorite fungi.
Looking at the faces Jarvis has captured, it's as if you've been walking down the same street your whole life without ever stopping to acknowledge the people passing you, then suddenly realizing every one of them has something fascinating to talk about.
Some of the people in Jarvis' portfolio, like James Keblas, director of the Mayor's Office for Film and Music, or jeweler and artist-housing advocate Cathryn Vanderbrink, make their mark on the city so quietly it's almost shocking to view them as subjects worthy of gallery portraiture.
Jarvis says the project, which will come out in book form in October, should be called A Seattle 100, "a snapshot in time of a city." He hopes that in discovering the people he's photographed, readers will start to think about unsung stars in their own circles.
"It's strange to think that you know your city and then see there's so much to learn," Jarvis says. "Jeremy Faber's traveling to, like, burned-out forests in Montana so that we can have mushrooms . . . The hip-hop scene in Seattle is totally underappreciated."
Jarvis can justly include himself among Seattle's most influential culture leaders. But he's also put his vision to work on a worldwide scale with "The Best Camera is the One That's with You," an iPhone application that lets users add features such as color filters to their phone's camera, turning it into an essential tool for chronicling the world around them. Users can submit photos they've taken on their phones to an online forum set up by Jarvis or to Twitter and Facebook, allowing them to contribute to virtual photo galleries both personal and global.
Jarvis himself has published a book of his own iPhone photography, with beautifully atmospheric snapshots of his hometown and images from his travels. Here, the Seattle skyline from Gas Works Park competes with a shot of Jarvis' feet as he lounges by a hotel pool in Dubai and a scene from a mountain pass in New Zealand. Grainy and clear, mundane and epic, abstract and straightforward, the snapshots run the gamut of textures, moods and experiences.
If nothing else, Jarvis' app shows the incredible breadth of possibilities available with what is in truth a modest camera. But "The Best Camera" aims is to show that you don't have to be Chase Jarvis to get remarkable pictures, or a well-connected art lover to distribute them.
"Right now, I think the people who are making a difference are the ones who are connecting all the dots," says Jason Sutherland, who manages the creative department at Seattle outdoor-gear retailer REI.
Sutherland, who's worked with Jarvis on shoots for REI, calls him "a brilliant generalist" who's great not just at photography but at marketing his vision and inspiring others to follow his lead.
THE DAY AFTER the video shoot with Thayer, Jarvis strolls into his studio at the north end of Lake Union looking scruffy but sounding psyched about the previous day's work. He pulls out his iPhone to show off pictures of dramatic cloud formations he took in between shoots, and then offers his guests a glass of wine from an unreleased bottle produced by a vintner friend.
Disheveled though he may be at times, the 38-year-old Jarvis has a way of classing things up. Hors d'oeuvres always seem to await visitors to the studio. On one other visit, he paired his jeans and boots with a scarf wrapped elegantly around his neck in a way that wouldn't look out of place on the streets of Paris, where he keeps a second studio.
The Seattle space has polished concrete floors and clinically white, laminated cubicles. Unfinished-wood wall and ceiling coverings, a steel-and-wood conference table and steel factory doors add to the chic-industrial look.
"It's kind of rough and finished, together," he says. The perfect metaphor for his work: Rawness and vigor balanced with polish and grace.
"It's my personality, too — I'm either one or the other," he says, scratching his chin stubble before nodding toward his wife and executive producer, Kate Jarvis.
Jarvis' dad is a retired Seattle Police Department officer, a nearly 30-year veteran of the force who knew the city like the back of his hand. His mom was an administrator at a biotech company. Both grew up in Seattle, and Jarvis spent his early years in Seattle's Green Lake neighborhood before the family moved northeast of Lake Washington to the Juanita area.
As the only kid in the house, he had to come up with ways to wile away the hours. He retreated into his imagination.
"It was like, 'Here's a block of wood, now go in the backyard and play,' " Jarvis says, recalling his childhood. "Then I'd go to the dinner table and listen to adults have conversation."
By high school, Jarvis was a bona fide jock, captain of the soccer and football teams. He went to San Diego State University on a soccer scholarship and considered moving abroad and going pro.
But Jarvis was bound to become a man of the world. As a kid in the 1980s, his parents took him on trips to European capitals like London and to the South Pacific, among other locales. The sight of mohawked punks in Trafalgar Square was just as exotic as the beach scenes in French Polynesia.
Those travels opened his mind — and his eyes.
In America, men could either be athletes or aesthetes, jocks or artists, not both. That wasn't so in Europe, Jarvis learned.
"I felt really comfortable in Europe because you could be both things," he says. Back home, teachers in high school and college looked at him cross-eyed whenever he expressed interest in serious cultural pursuits. "I felt like I had been stereotyped."
While at San Diego State, Jarvis also studied pre-med, thinking he'd go to medical school rather than play soccer. Still, it felt like he was honoring other people's expectations of him, following someone else's dream. Guys from upstanding families like his grew up to be doctors and lawyers and accountants.
"That's just what you did," he says.
But he couldn't take his mind off those kids with mohawks in London, a "really vivid, graphic culture" that had sparked his imagination as a boy.
His father and grandfather both took lots of candid, "extremely powerful" photos of family gatherings when Jarvis was growing up. He was always struck by their talent for capturing perfect moments. Jarvis developed a respect for the field, but he never thought of himself as much of a photography buff.
Still working on the periphery of his destiny, Jarvis decided to study philosophy and aesthetics alongside his medical courses. Then, just weeks before college graduation, Jarvis' grandfather, the one who loved cameras, died. He left behind loads of photo equipment, including a camera that went to Jarvis. At the very moment Jarvis was about to walk stone-faced into a career he didn't want, fate put another option in his hands.
Jarvis did what any questioning college grad would do. He ran off to Europe with his future wife and his new toy, "taking pictures and living out of a bag" for six months.
"I picked up the camera, and it just felt intuitive to me," he says.
Spain, Russia and Greece all passed by his frame.
He ate a can of beans a day so he could afford to process film. Like those days when his folks sent him off with a block of wood, he was essentially teaching himself how to be a photographer.
"I always learn things the best when I can lock myself in a room and study really hard and come out with the right answer," Jarvis says.
This was 1994. Jarvis returned to the States broke but happy, and determined not to become a doctor, even though he'd started applying to medical schools. He and his girlfriend went to live in Steamboat Springs, Colo., skiing 100 days a year, hobnobbing with the best skiers and snowboarders in the country.
It was in Colorado that Jarvis sold his first image. He got paid $50 and a pair of skis.
"I bet I can do this again," he told himself. As a new career came into view, an old one faded.
Jarvis had an interview at the University of Washington School of Medicine, a huge opportunity. He flew back to Seattle for the meeting scared about what he knew he had to do.
Seated before the panel of school interviewers, Jarvis realized the time had come.
"I don't know what I'm doing here," he told the panel. With that, he got up, said thank you, shook each interviewer's hand and left. Jarvis returned to Colorado a free man.
AS HE CONTINUED to study art, Jarvis found himself drawn to the painters of the 1940s, '50s, '60s and '70s — everyone from Jasper Johns to Jean-Michel Basquiat, groundbreakers who used art to explode the very term.
As a commercial photographer in the digital age, with new technologies emerging by the month, Jarvis is doing much the same for his field. At least half of the contracts this still photographer gets are actually for directing video shoots, from quick commercials to documentary-style marketing campaigns.
He was among the first photographers in the world to use high-definition cameras equipped with cinematic video capabilities, the type he used to capture explorer Helen Thayer at her farm. The technology has revolutionized filmmaking. Now, for a couple thousand dollars, you can create movie-quality video that once required $100,000 cameras.
Some believe Jarvis' zeal for spreading the word about the latest technology threatens professionals who spend years developing their skills. Some photographers create an air of mystery around what they do, says Sutherland of REI. But Jarvis "boils it all down and says here's how to do this."
"The Best Camera" project aims to make photojournalists and artists of us all.
"A more creative society is a more well-rounded one," Jarvis says, still lacking any world-weariness after all of his travels.
This is the first time in history, he notes, when an artist doesn't need a pedigree or permission or even a patron to create art. The power is literally in the hands of the creator.
"My 63-year-old mother sends me pictures every day on her phone," Jarvis raves in an aside, noting that his mom had always been told she wasn't a very creative person. The phone app "deprogrammed" her, he says. "I think a lot of creativity in the world doesn't get realized because social constructs don't allow for it."
Jarvis believes his career will morph into something hard to define, one that has him not just taking pictures and video but filtering, curating and fostering the creative pursuits of those he reaches with his message.
"Normally, there's a huge barrier to entry for people," he says. With a camera phone, "it's just one button; it's the most brutally simple camera you can imagine."
In an interesting fusion of elite and pop culture, museums are coming to him asking about staging exhibitions featuring the work of camera-phone photographers.
"While 'The Best Camera' can be seen as a commercial venture, that misses the point," says Weir Harman, executive director of Seattle cultural forum Town Hall, where Jarvis does pro bono work. "Chase is democratizing the tools of photography and empowering people to take pictures as a personal expression, a heightened awareness. He's trying to inspire an effortless appreciation for the subjects all around us."
In reality, most people who use a camera phone to take pictures will never make a living at it. Even with cameras that truly are the best around, a slim few could bring out the kinetic intensity in spoken-word poet Laura "Piece" Kelley's stance or the weathered stoicism in mountain guide Martin Volken's face, as Jarvis does
in images posted to his website, chasejarvis.com. Besides, if everyone's an artist, what exactly is art?
"Part of what this is doing is calling that very thing into question," Jarvis says.
That's why museums find his project so intriguing.
Jarvis says he can point to his own accidental career as proof that there's no easy way to distinguish art from not-art, photography from plain ol' pictures.
"To me, there's always a sense that I'm fooling people — am I really an artist?" he says.
"I don't have an answer."
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.
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