If anyone merits a big ego, James Houston does.
The Australian-born, Los Angeles- and New York-based photographer has done commercial work for L’Oréal Paris, Gap, Donna Karan, and Givenchy, among other fashion houses. He’s photographed celebrities including Jennifer Lopez and Hugh Jackman, published five books of his work, raised more than a million dollars for HIV/AIDS-related charities, and counts Sir Elton John as an acquaintance. His formula for that success: “Take the ego out of the equation. You’re just a brand.”
The difference between a successful photographer and a talented photographer with less success is how they sell themselves, Houston says. “Let’s face it, these days, agents are not what they used to be, and you have to be able to sell yourself.” By presenting yourself as a brand, “You’re removing yourself from yourself.” Via this outsider perspective, photographers can honestly assess their work and its value in the marketplace—essential knowledge for improving their skills and building a profitable business. “You can look at yourself and say, how am I going to market this brand? Who is my target audience? Who are my clients?” The brand can also open doors to celebrities, galleries, and sponsors.
To Houston, ego counters the purpose of being a photographer. “You’re about making somebody else feel good,” he says. “It’s not about you. You’re creating images of other people and other things.” However brilliantly the photographer does that, the subject remains the image’s most essential element. For example, Houston’s image of a horse once prompted people to declare him an amazing photographer, he says, “But I’m going, Look at that horse: He’s beautiful!”
Houston doesn’t conflate ego with confidence. Ego looks inward as the source of creating excellence. Confidence gathers resources to conjure excellence. Houston never shies from mentioning his confidence, be it in his technical skills, his team of designers and stylists—“the best people I can be working with because they make me look better,” he says—or in the subject. “If you work with a supermodel, you don’t have to do that much” because they also know what they’re doing to get the best possible image.
Houston’s way of depicting beauty is his brand. And his ethos applies specifically to commercial photography. He has great admiration for still-life artists and wildlife photographers, but admits he doesn’t have the patience for that. What he does have is almost 40 years of practice and experience on both sides of the camera—10 as a model, 30 as a photographer—that enables him to capture beauty on a tight timeline. When he started in Australia, he photographed for catalogs and learned to work fast. “I’m comfortable in that world,” he says; he doesn’t like extending a photo session longer than necessary. “I will shoot as long as I have to to get what’s needed, but with experience, you get there faster.”
The market has changed, too. More clients are looking for quantity rather than a specific quality. “The demand is for exclusive work and much more content,” he says. “Now they want 20 hero images, five for social media, this many for that. Clients aren’t as stringent for particular images.” This loosens up photography sessions, he says, plus he’s doing more video. Such a market shift means more competition from what he calls “Instagram photographers who aren’t used to lighting.”
It doesn’t bother him that “Everybody’s a photographer” now, he says. “I like the idea that people are taking a moment to record something and capture a moment. They’re great memories. It gives people a creative outlet.” Houston, who started out with a second-hand Nikon FE2, later relied on a Pentax 6x7, and currently uses a Canon EOS 5D, says that when anybody asks him what camera they should get, “I say, just get a phone.”
Nevertheless, a professional photographer is more than a person with a camera. “We’re problem solvers, we’re therapists, we’re project managers. That’s not to discount the young Instagram photographers coming through; there’s a lot of talent there. But lots of things come into play for people who have been on Instagram six months rather than somebody doing this for 20 years.”
Houston primarily works in commercial and fashion photography, and his online portfolio reveals a subtle but singular Houston style. The images exude a feeling of life and fun integral in the lighting and colors as well as the poses and expressions. “My work tends to be more colorful, more uplifting, more inspirational, more aspirational. That’s how I like to be as a person, and that shows in my work.” His aesthetic foundation is what he calls his “respect for beauty.” His artistic pursuit of beauty began with sculpting, winning him awards while still in art school and directly influencing his early black-and-white photography. His passion for beauty now involves interior design and landscape gardening.
“You can be shooting the most beautiful person, but they may not be beautiful from the inside out. You have to capture that person looking their best, and for me that’s a combination of communication—making them feel good and gain confidence in you to direct them into certain positions—and my perspective of what I think is interesting about them.”James Houston
Capturing beauty in photographic images is a technical skill, but Houston also applies his own perspective. Asked to describe this abstract notion that so informs his work, he answers with an example. “You can be shooting the most beautiful person, but they may not be beautiful from the inside out. You have to capture that person looking their best, and for me that’s a combination of communication—making them feel good and gain confidence in you to direct them into certain positions—and my perspective of what I think is interesting about them. You have to capture them in their best light—pun intended.” Even with professional models, he works hard to draw out emotions. “They’re not just going to give it to you,” he says. “Same with celebrities.” Ultimately, he aims to “tap into the confidence in their eyes.”
While working as a sculptor, Houston got into modeling and soon made that a full-time job in Australia, Japan, and Europe. In Japan, he bought the Nikon and started winging it, he says. He began photographing fellow models in a variety of environments, images that would result in his first published book, “Raw,” combining nudes with landscapes. What might have been a sculptor’s vanity project was his first major step in building the James Houston brand.
“As a photographer, you have to be self-motivated, and you want to get your name out there,” he says. “You’ve got to create ideas or projects or platforms for yourself.” Despite his premise that ego interferes with a photographer’s career growth, he built his brand by doing work catering to his own artistic interests and focusing on his subjective perspective on beauty. After publishing “Raw,” he did “Rawmoves” featuring dancers—sculpture in motion, if you will. Next came “One Yogamoves,” and a book titled “Move” to benefit HIV/AIDS charities, for which Hugh Jackman wrote the forward. His “Move for AIDS” campaign exposed Houston to issues surrounding adolescent sexuality in the United States, inspiring him to produce and direct a documentary about how current attitudes affect teenagers.
“For me, these are great creative outlets and ways to make a difference in the community using my creativity and talents,” Houston says. “And to do creative work, you get to shoot what you want to shoot, and that work brings you commercial work, which pays the bills.”
Through his commercial photography he developed connections with celebrity models that helped build his brand of fashion and celebrity photography. With the books, he invested his own money and time into launching each project and enlisted the involvement of superstar models, actors, and musicians.
“This leads to this, leads to this, leads to this. That’s how it plays out,” he says. “If I’m chasing someone down, I’m going to keep going. I’m pretty determined, as well; you have to be.” It’s essential to building a brand.
Eric Minton is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.