A poker table – and a good poker face – is what it took to get Little Rock commercial photographer Ron Jackson back in the business after a 24-year hiatus.
Early in his career, Jackson knew the business of weddings and traditional portraiture did not appeal to him, and on the advice of another photographer, sought a degree from the Brooks Institute, one of the premier schools for photography education in the nation.
When he graduated, he returned to Little Rock to work for a commercial photographer. “When I left Brooks, I had a job waiting here in Little Rock at a commercial studio with a guy I had never met,” Jackson explained. “My dad worked for AP&L and somehow he was in a conversation with a big ad agency here. Somehow the word got back to this photographer and he said tell him when he gets out of school he’s got a job waiting. He never saw my work, and had never met me, but I moved back to Little Rock and went to work for him.”
After about a year of working with that photographer, Jackson opened his own commercial studio and started on a nine-year run in Arkansas, doing a majority of his work for Levi’s. Admittedly getting “burned out,” he left photography for 24 years while working in sales on the west coast.
A work transfer took him to Florida, where after six months, the company terminated him. “A new guy came in and took over the company and fired me,” he said. “They were cutting overhead, and I was the highest paid salesman. They cut me out over the phone.
“I had job offers if I wanted to go back to California, but I had basically just gotten to Florida. A friend of mine one night said, ‘You should go back into photography’, and I just laughed. I had been out for 24 years, and everything had gone digital, I didn’t know anything about any of that.”
Upon reflection, Jackson decided to give it a shot. “I knew I had a severance package and I got to thinking about it, and I said, ‘I don’t ever want to work for someone again and be in the situation where I would be fired.’ Either I would make it on my own or I wouldn’t.”
His first big break came when one of his Florida neighbors was walking in the neighborhood and noticed Jackson building a professional poker table in his garage.
“He walked by, waved, passed and then backed up and said, ‘Are you building a poker table?’ And I said, ‘Why yes I am!’” Jackson recalled with a laugh.
That same neighbor, who worked in the information technology field, was in a real estate broker’s office a few days later and dropped Jackson’s name as a potential photographer to his client.
Despite using two other contract photographers – one of which was a contributor to Architectural Digest – the company needed another photographer to help keep up with the heavy schedule of property photography. She agreed to meet with Jackson to discuss hiring him.
“Her first question was, ‘You do shoot digital, don’t you?’ and I said, ‘Well of course I do,’” Jackson said. “The funniest part of that is just about three or four days before I had been at Best Buy and walked by the cameras and bought my first digital which was the Nikon D70 with the kit lens and had been playing with it and could hardly figure it out. I’m used to throwing a roll of film in it and setting the ISO and the f-stop and shutter speed and basically you’re done. This digital camera was a little confusing.”
His poker face landed him the job, which was at the end of April. He didn’t hear back from the company other than receiving a check and had assumed he blew the job. However, they called again in June for a few more jobs, and then began calling regularly for other assignments.
“From then on, it was like turning on the water; it just poured,” he said. “August rolls around and I’m a happy camper because I’ve been shooting a lot of stuff for them. I handed in the latest project and I said, ‘Boy, this is crazy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful, but if I’m this busy I can only imagine how busy those other two photographers are.’ And she said, ‘No, that’s why you’re this busy. You’re the only one shooting for us now.’”
The other photographers’ complaints about the assignments led to Jackson’s exclusive status. “I was so grateful, I never complained. I would just go and do the job. So, what happened is they started feeding me all the jobs. One of them just begged to get back in.”
“This is where my sales experience paid off. I used to teach my salesman, listen to your client because they’ll tell you more than you ever imagine. During that initial meeting with her, she mentioned these other two photographers she was using, she said, ‘Those two photographers drive me nuts. Every time they call, they whine. I don’t have time to listen to the whining. I just want to give the assignment.’”
One thing did stick out with Jackson during that first meeting. When he later took the client out to dinner to show his appreciation for their business, he asked why she never asked to see a portfolio. “She said, ‘Well, Mike said you were a photographer and you said you were a photographer. I assumed by the gray hair you knew what you were doing.”
Laughing and pointing at his gray hair, Jackson said, “This right here passed as my portfolio!”
Jackson primarily photographs apartment complexes, a specialty which sees him traveling much of the nation on assignment. He never flies, preferring to drive to avoid rising airline fees and tightening restrictions on traveling with camera gear. One specific client currently has a list of 40 properties to photograph this year alone.
“With multiple buildings on a property, I can usually knock out . . . the exteriors on a typical large property in about two hours,” he said. “Interiors typically take a bit longer. Total shooting time on any given project, where I’m actually behind the camera . . . exterior, interior total, is maybe four hours.”
A trademark of his work is including a nighttime shot of the exterior of the property, typically around the pool. He utilizes multiple exposures created by use of the CamRanger, a device that allows him to make multiple exposures great distances from his camera.
“Back when I first started (painting with light), before I was just bracketing exposures, I didn’t have an assistant and I didn’t have a radio trigger, so what I would do is set the flash to remote, then I would set the camera to a 20-second self timer,” he explained. “I would click the shutter and I would literally sometimes run, because I might need to get 50 feet to the place where I needed to pop light. I would stand there and wait for the light to flash, and then I would go all the way back to the camera and do it again.
“There would be times where I would see people standing outside the fence of the pool looking at me like ‘What in the world is he doing?’” he added with a laugh.
Outside of the CamRanger and a speed light, much of Jackson’s work is accomplished with a Nikon D810 and a 16-35, always locked at the same aperture.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s night shots or day shots, the one thing that never changes on my camera is my f-stop,” he said. “That lens is set at f/7.1, and if I could buy a lens that was 7.1 I would be fine with that. For the work I do, I don’t need a fast lens, I just need a sharp lens. Ninety percent of my work is done with a super wide lens.”
Jackson returned to his native Little Rock for proximity and familiarity. “I grew up in Arkansas,” he said. “Where I lived in Florida, if I had a job in Houston it was 10 hours to get out of Florida.
“Coming home to Little Rock was attractive for a couple of reasons. It put me back in the middle of the country, which makes all my jobs easier to get to unless I have to go back to south Florida. Also, I had lived in Los Angeles for 24 years, and south Florida for almost 10 years, and I started missing that southern lifestyle where people are just so friendly and courteous. I still had friends here and came to visit. I bought a house and here I am, back about five years.”
“I don’t regret it until the temperature falls below 60,” he added. “After 24 years living in California and south Florida, my blood got adjusted to year-round spring and summer. That third and fourth season bother me now.”
To see more of Jackson’s work, visit his web site at http://www.ronjacksonartistry.com/