James Ellis is one of Toronto’s rare talents. He’s captured some of the most iconic hip-hop moments the city’s ever seen ranging from Kanye West to A$AP Yams to The Weeknd. Yet there is something more to his work, a unique ability to capture mood and ambiance that goes beyond the obvious: a sense of timelessness. We sat down with the esteemed photographer to talk about life, photography and social media.
How did you get into photography?
I’ve always liked looking at photos and respected the art of but I never seriously considered it as a career until a few years ago. I started out taking photos at parties my friends promoted, that let to me meeting and shooting musical artists. When artists I shot started to get noticed I got noticed and people started hitting me up for photos. One of the biggest challenges in photography is making the transition from a lifestyle photographer to a commercial photographer but Its been a fun ride so far, cant wait to see where it goes.
What’s the biggest joy you get from photography?
Biggest joy is getting your photo published, especially in print. Its the equivalent of hearing your song on the radio. Its a form of validation knowing you did something good enough to get published. Its not that a big deal for the average person but for a photographer its everything. This is why photographers annoyingly post scans or photos of their photos in magazines.
How did you develop your style?
For me developing a style was simply thinking about what I don’t want to see in a photo. I don’t like seeing distracting elements that are out of place, I don’t like a super shallow depth of field, I don’t like seeing the newest fashion trend that may look wack next year. Getting rid of the things I don’t want to see left me with want I wanted to see or feel in a photo. Poetry, humor, nostalgia and went from there.
Your pictures look very old school like they were taken in the 80s or 90s.
My photos look like they were taken in the past because I am inspired by the past. A time when photography really mattered and people took the craft seriously. I want my photos to have a timeless quality and make you feel like you were really there.
What’s it like dealing with musicians?
It’s delicate and you learn something new every day. You gotta have respect for the artist, their work and understand that for them putting their image out there is a scary thing. Its understandable to be sensitive about your image, i’m the same way.
Ever have artists not like their photos?
It happens to best of us and its a part of the job. Everyone looks the best in their own selfie but sometimes it’s not about the best angle, it’s about the most effective portrait. A photo where on first viewing people are like “who is this person, I need to know more about them”. I find that communication before and during the shoot leaves everyone happy in the end.
What effect does social media sites like instagram have on your photography?
It is awesome, it’s where most of my stuff is viewed for the first time. You have an instant connection to a wide audience and that’s priceless for getting promotion or feedback. The downside is that you might fall into the trap of shooting strictly for IG. A photo that’s meant to be seen on a 24″ screen, or in a magazine, or on a gallery wall won’t have the same effect when viewed on a small square on a phone. The reverse is also true, something that looks clean in an Instagram post might look basic when viewed on a larger screen. A lot of photographers hate IG and refuse to post work on there. I think it’s here to stay so I try to adapt. It’s a new medium so i think its a fun challenge for photographers to figure out the perfect way to present their work.
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