Have you heard of "Star Wars"? John Oliver? Maybe Tom Hanks? Still no? What about Tom Brady? Perhaps you’ve heard of one of the other hundreds of stars Jesse Dittmar has photographed.
“Famous people come to me to feel normal and normal people come to me to feel famous.” In the first of my three-part series of film photographers, I sat down (virtually) with Jesse Dittmar, a celebrity photographer living in New York City. His Instagram is filled with famous actors, writers, athletes, musicians, news anchors, chefs, and more. There are liberal talk show hosts right next to Fox News hosts next to famous athletes. His Instagram is quite literally a collection of people you’ve heard of and people you should know of. I would bet just about anything that you cannot possibly go through even his most recent 10 posts without seeing someone you know of and would love to meet. His book, Two, features many of his best work and has almost entirely sold out, but there are a few copies left available on his website; if you’re lucky enough to have picked up a copy, you won’t be sorry.
John - If you see this and want to know if I purposely put you and Driver together, the answer is, you're welcome.
Prior to our sitting down, I felt like I would be talking to someone just as famous as the people he photographed. A man that has stood alongside so many highly revered people in the United States must have reached a certain level of acclaim to reach such a goal, right? For me, this was definitely true. However, I would never have known about his specific kind of photography or the people he works with from talking to him. He is easily one of the most humble photographers I’ve ever had the pleasure of chatting with. His portraits are amazing, and his attitude about it is that of a normal 9-5.
My first thought was, of course, “how could anyone meet or photograph these people without being starstruck?” It was my first assumption that he would say that he does, in fact, go a bit fanboy on some of these people and tell them just how much he admires their work. It was in this conversation that I found myself most impressed by Jesse. His response was, to paraphrase, “I don’t fanboy.” His take on it was uniquely sobering and made me think back to an interaction I had with John Mulaney back in Charleston.
There are two reasons Jesse goes out of his way to try and forget who these people are and what they do. The first was simply that these subjects spend so much of their life being berated by strangers who tell them how great they are. Part of the service he provides is the opportunity for these people to relax and be themselves. It is because of this that he is able to capture some of the truest moments of who these individuals are. That, without them in character or outside their uniform, Jesse peels back the public persona we’ve constructed around these people and gives them an opportunity to be seen for who they are — not who we want them to be.
The second, and possibly the more important of the two, is that he does not get starstruck out of respect for the client/subject/famous person. The way he put it, we can spend so much of our life impressed by some of these famous people that when we meet them, we are in complete admiration of them and feel the desire to express to them just how much we admire them and their work. There’s something in us that believes we are making their life better by letting them know how we feel. Intuitively, however, this relationship goes only one way. We know their work, but they have no idea who we are nor our body of work. For some people in their position, they may not mind the admiration from a total stranger, but for some, it can be very uncomfortable.
Circling back around to the photographer/subject dynamic that exists between Jesse and his subjects, he goes out of his way to make them comfortable. Otherwise, the session suffers, and ultimately, there are no second tries. Either he makes portraits his clients are happy with, or the clients move on and finds a different photographer.
One of the first questions I asked Jesse was about why his clients reach out to him for their portraits. That is, what is it he brings to the table that others don’t. The response was in short, “that’s a loaded question” and “if I knew the answer, I’d be so much busier than I already am.” I thought for sure that his unique quality would be because of his film work, but that was not even almost the answer. He said that every client is different and has different goals for what they want out of the shoot, and, as such, he makes a point to have a discussion about goals. That was, with discussions upfront about what clients want from a shoot, he can ensure that their expectations and what he delivers are collinear.
After Jesse finished art school, it was time for him to get working on what he always knew he wanted to do — to be the celebrity photographer whose work he admired so much as a young photographer. He assisted a number of well-known portrait photographers, including Annie Leibovitz, Martin Schoeller, and Ben Baker for more than five years. His last photoshoot assisting, he was working with Baker, shooting the Obama's at the White House. It was then, in 2012, when he decided to stop assisting cold turkey and tried to make it on his own. After a couple of years, The Washington Post hired him for his first gig to photograph Idina Menzel, and he was off to the races.
Roll of Film
My first exchange with Jesse came one year ago when I noticed for the first time that the film he shoots regularly is Ilford’s Delta 3200. I had shot through a couple of dozen rolls of the stock myself in both 120 and 35mm — for a time, it was my favorite black and white film for 120. My experience with it is that it’s pretty grainy and would be my last choice for professional portraits, so, of course, I was really intrigued. Jesse’s thoughts were simply that any less grain, and it may as well be digital. That’s not to say that Jesse is opposed to shooting digital. In fact, only about 5% of the frames he walks away with are shot on film — the rest are taken on digital.
So, why then would a professional photographer whose career necessitates consistency to a degree of predictability shoot film at all? He does not exclusively shoot film, because he needs the efficiency and consistency of digital, but cannot deny his love for the aesthetic of the film. It is because of this love for film that though film comprises only a small fraction of the work he produces, it is often among his favorite work and represents the overwhelming majority of what he chooses to share on his social media account.
Jesse still shoots his Hasselblad 500C that he bought in high school. It was the same camera that his art teacher had, so it’s what he went for. A couple of decades later, Jesse continues to use his high school camera to shoot some of the most famous people in the world. Jesse outsources his film processing to someone who knows the ins and outs of his style and what he’s going for — he’s also quite patient with Jesse. Jesse prefers the look that spent Ilfosol gives, and he often hands over the film, not remembering exactly how he rated the film.
All images, including the lead image, are used with permission.