Creative analysis with Julieanne Kost

Dennis Chamberlain and Julianne Kost
© Bob Coates
Dennis Chamberlain and Julianne Kost

Many Photoshop users are familiar with Adobe Evangelist Julianne Kost. She’s a must-see at conferences and conventions as well as a helpful tutor via her blog, YouTube and Adobe Help videos, and her books “Window Seat” and “Passenger Seat.” She is looked to as the one person who can answer any Photoshop question.

I first saw her in 2004 as she took command of an auditorium of about 2,000 Photoshop World attendees with her rapid-fire, improvisational wit. Her comfortable, conversational style made the technical presentation entertaining and memorable. If the photography profession had an entertainer of the year award, Kost would have no competitors. Watching her, I wondered what she was like in real life. In the years since, I’ve made progress in discovering the answer. When Kost gave me a tour of the Adobe offices in San Jose, California, last year, I was able to spend an afternoon conversing with her.

© Julieanne Kost

Dennis Chamberlain: Your artistic and technical abilities are strong and well balanced. How did that come about?

Julieanne Kost: My father is an engineer and as such is a logical problem solver. After all, that’s what creativity is—solving problems by connecting the scattered dots. On the other hand, my mother is an artist and is driven by intuition as opposed to logic. As I grew up I was fortunate to be exposed to the different and creative ways in which they solved problems.

They look at things quite differently, and I grew up enjoying both.

Julieanne characterizes her photographic style as tending toward the small focus—for example, the individual rocks and bushes at the Grand Canyon as opposed to the wide-angle scene. This perspective comes from her mother’s artistic viewpoint. Her mother showed her how to break things down into their basic components, while her father helped her eliminate the unnecessary.

DC: I found it significant that both your parents emphasized the importance of tools.

JK: To accomplish your objectives, you need a solid understanding of your tools whether you are an engineer or an artist. If you don’t master the tools, you are at a disadvantage.

This belief in the importance of tools was an asset at Kost’s first assignment at Adobe—18 months in technical support. The knowledge base she gained there, on top of her finely honed skills and engaging personality, led to the position she’s held over the past 15 years as Adobe Digital Imaging Evangelist.

© Julieanne Kost

DC: Is there one Photoshop tool you feel is the most useful and yet underused by many of us?

JK: The pen tool. When you need to select a hard-edged subject, it’s the best alternative. Once people get past the learning curve they never turn back. It’s like taking the training wheels off your bicycle.

DC: You also encourage more use of actions and presets to shorten workflow, correct?

JK: Actions don’t have to take you all the way from A to Z. They are most often used just for a portion of the steps in your workflow. And presets in Camera Raw or Lightroom can be used as starting points as opposed to one-click solutions. Too many people, upon seeing the results of applying a preset, just back up and start all over from scratch. Instead, they could let the preset do 80 percent of the work and proceed from there.

DC: Do you have to keep up with all the Adobe programs or just Photoshop and Lightroom?

JK: Fortunately, I get to focus on one industry—the photographic industry.

Kost used Adobe Premier as an example. It’s a professional video editing program, but it also has excellent tools for designing slideshows that go far beyond the capabilities of Photoshop and Lightroom.

© Julieanne Kost

JK: Do I know everything about Premier? Oh, no. Nay, nay. I look over new programs and updates to programs as they launch to identify things that would help photographers. For example, we have a new product called Adobe Premiere Rush, which is a simplified video editing program that will help photographers.

DC: A lot of your creative work involves composites. But I know you also enjoy non-manipulated photography. How do you compare the two?

JK: Think about sculptors and their work. Some sculptures are additive and some are subtractive. The sculptor who starts with a piece of clay and builds it into a final work of art, that is additive. On the other hand, the sculptor who starts with a piece of rock or wood and chisels away at it would be the subtractive artist.

Kost believes a photographic composite is additive since it’s constructed from various components. A traditional photograph is subtractive, with the photographer choosing what they want to show and, via composition, eliminating the rest. The concept seems both profound and obvious to me. Both approaches are expressions and ways to communicate visually, and neither is right or wrong.

DC: Where do you get your inspiration for your creative work, your photographic projects?

JK: I read all the time rather than watching television. Reading sparks my imagination and it forces me to create the visuals in my head. While I’m reading, I make meticulous notes of anything visual that comes to mind.

© Julieanne Kost

Visuals, words, and thoughts create the energy and inspiration behind Kost’s creative manipulations. She starts with a specific idea then approaches the project logically. She prefers to have a map to follow. She acknowledges that other people, including her mother, might prefer to enjoy the route and take whatever turns they want as they move along. But Kost never forgets that it’s important to have something to say.

Her projects vary in size and duration. Some, like her book “Window Seat,” a collection of extraordinary images taken through ordinary commercial airplane windows, may take years. Even though the book was published in 2006, the overall project will continue indefinitely due to the amount of air travel she experiences.

DC: Why “Window Seat”?

JK: Why not pick a project that’s already in tandem with your life, something that can be woven into your daily activity?

DC: You typically pursue multiple projects simultaneously, a characteristic that many creative people share. Much of your artwork seems mystical and intense, with subdued colors. But when you’re on stage you’re light and humorous. Which is the real Julieanne?

JK: There are, in fact, two Julieannes. I play an extrovert in public. But the personal Julieanne tends to be quieter. My default persona is subdued and introverted. I love my alone time. I need it to re-energize myself.  

DC: And is your subdued color palette related to that introverted persona?

JK: Yes. I am inspired by muted colors, and I interpret that as being an introvert. Color is important to me, so I like photographing in locations that have a color palette that is pleasing to me. I love earth tones. I like to focus on nature. Vivid color palettes normally equate to higher energy, and I prefer calm scenes, so you will rarely see bright colors in my work.

© Julieanne Kost
White Sands
© Julieanne Kost
White Sands

Julianne’s newest body of work is “Color of Place.” Each image in the project begins with 50 of Kost’s images from one location, such as Antarctica, Arizona, or White Sands. She then takes blurred slices of each image and stitches them together to create a panoramic color palette representing that location. This concept is a striking example of the creative balance that seems to come so organically to Kost.

Finding balance is a challenge for photographers who must weigh the efforts that come with running a business and mastering technical skills against the artistic aspects of generating compelling photographs. As for her color palette observations, I suggest it would be a constructive exercise to take a close look at the color palette that suits you the best and do a bit of self-analysis regarding what that means about you as an individual.

Between explorations of color palettes and additive versus subtractive processes, Kost’s analytic approach to creative endeavors gives photographers some inspiring food for thought. 

Dennis Chamberlain is a landscape and fine art photographer in Corrales, New Mexico.