Behind the Lens With Photographer Jim Lafferty
We love discovering and introducing the world-class talent living and working in the Hudson Valley. With that said, we’re super excited to share our exclusive interview with image maker, Jim Lafferty. Specializing in dance, beauty and fashion photography, Jim creates evocative images expertly pulling you into his subjects using movement, strength and beauty. His photography has appeared in Dance and Pointe Magazines, Allure, Porter, Glassbook, Goop Beauty, B-Metro, Cosmopolitan, Flanelle, Jejune, and Chatelaine to name a few. Commercial clients include Converse, Maybelline, Stitch Fix, Uniqlo, Marc Ecko, Housing Works, LinkedIN and Google.
When he’s not shooting, you’ll find Jim working with wood and an axe (woodworking is his latest passion), or hosting celebratory events at Catbird Cottage, the sublime B+B he runs with his foodie rockstar wife, Melina Hammer. Let’s get personal with Jim Lafferty as he shares his journey as a photographer and his take on living in Upstate NY,
Where are you originally from and how did you wind up in the Hudson Valley?
I’m originally from Philadelphia, but moved up and down the east coast, mostly in Virginia and Maryland. My wife and I moved to Birmingham for a bit, pursuing a shift in her career. At the time we’d been in Brooklyn for a decade, but Birmingham really opened our eyes to having forests and mountains easily accessible and my wife was hooked. From that point on, wherever we were looking to move, it was with an eye to getting out into the more wild edges of things.
When did you realize that you wanted to be a photographer and what was your journey?
I took a class in high school with an encouraging and warm teacher who I recently learned is still teaching photography. Hi, Mr. Barber! Within a short time, I was running circles around the curriculum, partly because I’m a bit of a technical savant, but also because I was embracing Photoshop, then in its infancy. A shift in class scheduling put me off campus for my senior year and I ended up interning at a photo lab on an Army base. There, under the watchful guidance of a long-haired hippy type who ran the place, I made use of their near-endless budget for materials and machinery. They had a huge walk-in dark room, a machine that could make poster-sized prints from negatives and a wall of Agfa and Kodak papers. I was in heaven. For a time, I put that all down and really got swept up in the idea of becoming a filmmaker, only to find out years later I didn’t have the patience or temperament for making movies. Eventually, I met the woman who would become my wife–she was shooting film at the time while earning grants for her photo work. It rekindled my interest in creative output that had a much shorter timeline than making films.
Tell us about your style of photography.
I’m a humanist with a camera. My work is nurturing a place where my subject feels comfortable enough with me that they’re interested in experimenting and taking creative risks…and failure is just an incidental part of the process. If we do that well enough, good photos just happen to happen. All that said, I’m also a bit of a recovering technician. I spent years pursuing technical perfection and it has given me a really strong aesthetic foundation for my work, but I’m working to come at it more from my feelings now. I like to say I’m now more top-down, whereas I had been bottom-up for years.
You do a lot of work in the fashion and beauty industries. Tell us about that world.
I like being in proximity to interesting, beautiful things and people, playing with lighting and movement. A fantastic model brings so much to the experience it really raises the floor – the work will never go below a certain threshold and that’s inspiring. Their capacity to allow themselves to be seen and vulnerable, the particularities of their features, they can often take well to severe and strange lighting, it’s a rich creative space. I shoot a lot of dance, as well, which is similar. I collaborate with people who are exceptional in ways I can’t be and we get to partner in a creative process. Of course, the central mechanism to photography is observing and it’s a treat to observe these phenomenally driven and talented people explore their creative process. And if I do my job right, even the exceptional can be made better.
What type of camera equipment do you use? Do you shoot videos as well?
I work with Nikon cameras, mostly, though at times I’m put in a situation where I have to shoot on a camera system chosen by the client, so I’m comfortable shooting with Canon, Fuji or whatever it takes. I’m a reluctant upgrader, so I’ve got one foot in DSLRs and one in mirrorless. And with mirrorless, yes, I’m shooting video now. I made it a priority during the initial long stretch of Covid to get into video and really get some firm ground underfoot. The cameras are so forgiving now, in fact, they offer so little friction to the creative process, they’re ironically pushing me back into thinking about filmmaking.
What is your creative process?.
In short: keep it simple and keep it moving! Four elements are the underpinnings of my work:
First, have an idea or elements in mind, but leave it a bit undefined so there’s creative flexibility and room for discovery. Second, prep the gear so you can be, as the saying goes, tidy in your workflow but messy in your work. Third, show up early, relaxed and alert. Finally, just get into it and don’t give the people you’re working with room to fall back on bad habits or become too conscious that the shoot has started. I often test my light, truly test it while keeping my subject talking, and then just never tell them it’s dialed in and the real work has started – if you say out loud “OK, now we’re starting” it’s death. They stiffen up, they start pulling from what they think they should do, the mask goes up. Better to never let them get it on than have to work it off.
How do you decide where you will shoot and how do you prepare before you arrive?
Well, I have a wonderful studio, but I’ve also gone scouting for interesting places to shoot or simply found myself in them by accident. Sometimes I’ll see an interesting place in a photo and then hunt it down on Google Maps. Mostly there’s got to be interesting light intersecting with some minimalist topography or architecture that we can tuck into or play against. But I never want the scenery to overpower the work – it can’t be a heavy-handed Kinkade postcard or something – the scene has to be a good collaborator, effective, but restrained.
Tell us about your most intimidating assignment, and on the other side – the most amusing.
I don’t know about intimidating, but I’ve had some assignments where I went in with some anxiety and had to cross a new threshold to pull it out of a hat. I shot a lot of reportage assignment work for Dance Magazine, and one of my earliest was a profile piece on Misty Copeland, who was at the time just starting to emerge as this larger force in dance and our broader culture. The editor said “You know those creative, blurry dance photos meant to convey movement? We don’t do blur here.” I rented the best camera available at the time, but dance rehearsal spaces are really brutal in their lighting, especially shooting movement and I was really pushing everything to try and get sharp shots – I overshot, even bought more memory cards on my lunch break. But it came out great and I went on to do about 40 assignments for the magazine.
Most amusing? Another dance story – I’d seen some promotional posters all over the subway in NYC of this incredible dancer with a major NYC company, just a surpassing physique, bordering on too strong for what’s permitted in ballet – a football player among dancers. He came to my studio and had the brightest falsetto voice when he wanted. As I often do, I encourage people to put their music on, and he spent a lot of our shoot harmonizing with these high-toned falsetto singers and just worked himself up into this place of expressive joy, shouting “YEEEESSSS!” when he saw photos he loved. His joy was infectious and I’m sure I was smiling and howling with laughter through much of our shoot together.
What is one question you’re constantly asked or what’s the biggest misconception about your work?
A question I’m constantly asked is what kind of camera to buy. I try to give some general guidance, but it’s a vast ocean of choices out there, and it’s inevitably so personal a decision, I try to exit the conversation gently but quickly.
My wife and I shoot food together for Row 7 Seeds, and she is, on her own, an incredible food photographer… and the world of food photography has to be home to one of the biggest myths in photo – that pancake syrup is motor oil, ice cream is mashed potatoes, and steam rising from a turkey is smoldering cigarettes nestled in the scenery. If these things were ever true, they haven’t been for at least 30 years, but people like repeating them like they’re sharing an illicit secret.
What is your favorite aspect of being a photographer?
Using the work to reflect back to someone how inherently beautiful and valuable they are. This was a major inflection point for me. I was on a shoot that was off to a slow and disjointed start and then there was a palpable shift in energy and it really picked up steam. At the end, the woman said to me that she’d come into the shoot feeling low and depressed, but that when she got to see herself as I looked at her, it restored her confidence and reminded her of who she truly was. We left the shoot with some wonderful photos and I left the shoot forever changed and with a new sense of purpose.
Tell us about Catbird Cottage.
Catbird Cottage is my wife’s brainchild, born out of a desire to lower our dependence on what is the sometimes turbulent lifestyle of freelancers. In essence, she said, “Let’s find a place where we can use some of its space and beauty to offset our overhead and meet new people”. She is a real force when she’s seized by an idea and within two months of unpacking in our new home she’d refashioned the master suite as a cozy sanctuary space, meant to refresh and renew guests who visit. As we host, we do the layers of prep together, then entertain, all while she serves world-class meals, pulling seasonal ephemera from her garden or wild foods to shower each course with magic. While it is a great bit of work, the overall experience is really wonderful and we often feel the people who stay with us fill our wells too.
How do you grow your business / How do your clients find you? Do you leverage social media to get work and how is that working for you?
I’m not great at social media – my wife is amazing and I just don’t have the drive and comparative resilience to be on Instagram as often as I should. But, I have gotten a few jobs and connected with amazing artists like makeup artists, dancers and stylists through IG. It’s really the best way to discover new talent and often inspiration – not so much from other photos, but from exposure to other art forms and experiences. The most productive I’ve been on IG has been to sort of stake out a niche and post to it repeatedly. I got a job shooting for Maybelline via posting beauty work for about a year solid.
I have a companion business manufacturing laptop platforms that function as an organized, secure and nimble workspace and I really enjoy that aspect of IG more – it’s largely free from comparison and judgment and being a physical object, it’s inarguably good and productive. It’s called, Swift Bklyn.
What would be your dream assignment?
Shooting the fashion work of Iris van Herpen. Best actor Oscar nominee portraits or profile pieces, but especially a handful of standouts including Cate Blanchette, Charlize Theron, Danai Gurira and Daniel Kaluuya. Or, long-form reportage in Cuba and Japan meeting and connecting with exceptional humans of all stripes – dancers, performers, boxers, craftsmen, artisans– being paid well enough to work that beat comfortably.
What are you working on now that you’re excited about?
I have a variety of open questions I keep returning to refine my process. So it’s not a particular project per se, so much as honing methods. I’m really trying to get more facile in observing how a lens and framing distorts the face and how to use that to my advantage. People like to say their favorite portrait lens is a specific, usually long focal length, but it’s really situation and face dependent – some faces are flattered best by 70mm and under. I’m working to make my lighting feel more effortless, natural and provide a generous space to move in. I’m trying to make work that’s more responsive and an authentic reflection of the subject, of our environment, our mindset at the time… and trying to make work more guided by my passions and connection with others. Emotionally driven work.
What is it about the Hudson Valley that makes it unique to live + work here?
Proximity to Manhattan and Brooklyn is just on the cusp of accessible and yet just far enough removed you can live a fully realized, very different existence. I like to think of it as living in the extremes: I like the extreme of the city and just as much – leaving it for the extremes of the country. But the proximity to Manhattan also means there’s a vibrant community up here, funky and interesting people who’ve spilled out and settled into the region for decades, who are among the best and most nimble creative spirits. They just happen to wear overalls. All of this intermixed with the old school, multi-generational locals who have somehow managed to escape the inertia of the city’s machinery and carry the accumulated wisdom of doing so. There’s a great article on The Bitter Southerner that speaks to people who are “heads down and arms open” and of “contentment being downright subversive” in today’s world – I think that perfectly underscores something you can’t get in the city.
What are some of your favorite places to shoot in the Hudson Valley?
I’m *just* feeling that out and working on how I’d move some of my Brooklyn style work into nature. I’d love to shoot something interesting with movement at Opus 40. Also as a complete departure and just for personal satisfaction, I can see myself lured into documenting the social and economic ebbs and flows of the area by documenting grandeur with pockets of decay, abandonment.
What impact does your business have on your community?
My portraits of people attending the YWCA 100th Anniversary in Kingston really made that palpable. At its core, the Y is about empowering and uplifting marginalized people and in a brief moment in my work I’m able to connect and make people feel they’re being seen.
What local businesses do you rely on to be successful?
I love the local USPS (United States Postal Service) and our mail delivery man, Bart. In general, my preference is anything local versus a big, established chain. A&M Hardware has helped me out of some real jams. Ron at Maple Lawn 1843 in Stone Ridge and Charlie at Downtown Antiques on Main St. in Accord – they’re both such sweet and colorful characters with surpassing taste. They’ve added some much-treasured detail to Catbird Cottage. Ollies Pizza and Top Taste can really carry the day when we need to grab something fast but great.
What is missing in the area that you wish we had?
A small, unpretentious and reasonably priced restaurant with a simple, single-page menu that just HITS on everything, with not a smash burger or fried chicken sandwich in sight. West Taghkanic Diner used to epitomize this, but I haven’t been back in a minute. In Manhattan, Inoteca and Txikito back in the day were it; Bacchanal in New Orleans, too. Slightly under the radar, vibrant spots for people to mix it up. I was just in Miami on work and ate at Niu Kitchen and I had the *perfect* meal: simple but not simplistic, elemental, surprising, delightful staff and music.
Who or what is your favorite person, place or thing to shoot?
Open and receptive people who bring a sense of engagement to the work.
Who or what inspires you personally?
People who live differently than I’m able to and working to find our commonality.
Tell us something about yourself that people might be surprised to know.
I’m not athletic but I loved my time biking to and from Bed Stuy (Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, NY) to Manhattan, gracefully weaving through traffic. And, chopping wood is my favorite country exercise (related, I’ve got a growing wood shop and love that craft).
What would be your dream local Staycation?
What is your current state of mind?
I was really defined by my decade in Bed Stuy and Brooklyn in general. I felt I really found my place and people. So, I bring that with me: rough + immediate, cultured + pugnacious, proud to link hands with working people wherever I find myself. Always rooting for the underdog.
All Photos Courtesy of Jim Lafferty
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