Interview by Hellkat
Photograph of Jim Herrington by Nathan Osterhaus


Hellkat: I asked you to pick a place for the interview and you chose [restaurant] Bryant's. Why?

Jim Herrington: The music, Sinatra, and it's easy. No frat boys, good service.

H: When did you become interested in photography?

JH: Around 11 years old. My dad collected Life Magazine, and I liked watching old movies and looking at old photos of my parents.

H: Did you ask for a camera?

JH: Yeah, I asked for a camera for Christmas when I was 11 or 12.

H: What did you photograph?

JH: Just a lot of boring stuff. There was no, "Wow! This guy is a real talent!" It was just pictures of my dog and turtle. But about a year later, when I was 13, I took a picture of Benny Goodman. My dad and I went to see him play, and by then I'd gone up to a 35mm camera.

H: Was your dad a photographer?

JH: No, no.

H: Was he a musician?

JH: Yeah. He played a little clarinet, guitar, and piano. Definitely a big music fan, as was my mom. So, yeah, there was a lot of music around.

H: Did you have a formal education in photography?

JH: I went to school and dropped out, very rapidly.

H: Do you think it's important to go to art school?

JH: I think it's different for every person, you know? There are geniuses that drop out of high school, and there are geniuses that have their master's degree. Both do great work.

H: You've traveled and lived all over the place. First, you were in North Carolina, and then to Los Angeles after that. Is that when you started climbing?

JH: I started climbing in the late Seventies in North Carolina.

H: Is that when you started taking photos of climbing?

JH: Not really. I didn't really start doing the two of those things together until I was in the Sierra Nevada in California.

H: How old were you when you were first able to make a living off your photography?

JH: Well, I moved to California after dropping out of school. I really believed in the apprenticeship method. (laughs) I needed to since I had dropped out. I had a list of photographers in New York and L.A. that I wanted to work for. I ended up moving out to L.A. and assisting a bunch of people throughout the Eighties.

H: Like who?

JH: Some of the celebrity fashion people. One of the first jobs, and one of the coolest ones I had was working as a grunt in a lab. The guy I worked for, Tom Consilvio, was [photographer] Garry Winogrand's personal printer.

H: Wow.

JH: I got a job at his lab sweeping the floor and developing film. Winogrand died right before I started there. We got all of these undeveloped rolls of film of Winogrand's to process. There were thousands of rolls of film because Garry would just shoot and shoot, and he wouldn't process the film until a year later. When he died there was a freezer full of film. So, my first job was processing film, making contact sheets, and printing work prints of one of my greatest heroes, Garry Winogrand.

H: There are a lot of photographs on your website that were taken in Nashville. What led you there?

JH: One of my first jobs on my own was photographing Tom Petty through his management's company. It turned into doing all kinds of stuff with Petty. The pictures turned out pretty good, and MCA Records, who had Petty on their label, ended up calling me. They had seen the photographs and they wanted me to shoot some publicity stuff for them.

H: Yeah?

JH: Yeah, nasty publicity stuff. Susan Levy at MCA Records in L.A. hired me after seeing some of the shots I had done of Tom Petty in rehearsal, and we quickly became friends. Then I moved to New York City, and she got transferred to Nashville. After that, I went to Santa Fe for six months, then East Berlin for six months, and then I came back to America. I didn't know where I wanted to go. I was talking to Susan on the phone and she said, "You should come visit me in Nashville. In fact, you should move here. It's fantastic." I told her, "There's no way. I'm from the South, and I really don't need to go back to the South." She said, "Well, why don't you just come and visit?" I agreed, and it turned into ten years, which was the best ten years, really.

H: Did living there end up influencing your work at all?

JH: I don't know if it influenced it, but it really was a great place to be because it has a lot of the kind of music that I listen to. Los Angeles has all kinds of people and lots of stuff going on. I shoot a lot of celebs, but what really interests me are people who did something thirty years ago-- these heroes of mine, these great musicians that are slipping away. So, I ended up in this place that I didn't want to be at all: in the South in a small town. But then this guy called and gave me a job to shoot [musician] Charlie Rich. It was like, "Fuck! I'm a huge Charlie Rich fan!" Right after that job I said to myself, "Why am I questioning this? Everybody's here." All of these greats... and it's not like it was just country greats either. There were rhythm guys, soul guys in Memphis, New Orleans is just down the road, and the hillbilly, bluegrass stuff, too. It was all there. It's just so rich-- rock 'n' roll, jazz-- and I'm not saying Nashville is the birth of music in America, but it's part of it. If you draw a big circle, from New Orleans to Nashville to Memphis to St. Louis to Kansas City, it's all there.

H: Have you ever developed a friendship with someone you've photographed?

JH: It would happen a lot because I'm really into music-- talking about music, playing music.

H: Was it after you took photographs of them?

JH: Actually, I've lost friendships that way. (laughs)

H: Really? Why? Is it because they didn't like the side you showed?

JH: Yeah, sometimes. Because I don't always like taking pretty pictures.

H: You've photographed so many celebrities-- amazing musicians and climbers. Who has inspired you the most?

JH: Gosh... (pauses) a lot of these people I tracked down because they were already influential to me in one way or another. Some of them I even idolized, whether they were photographers, musicians, or climbers. You know, I'm not sure. I came from some of these people and thought, "Wow! Carl Perkins! He's a really nice guy. He's like my grandfather, who used to stand on his porch and wave every time I left his house." But some people were total bastards, of course.

H: One of the things I like about your work is the settings of your photos. How much influence do you have over location, and how do you go about preparing for a shoot?

JH: What I consider my best photos were done so spur of the moment. It has become the way I like working. I almost don't like to know where I am heading.

H: What about when you work with record companies?

JH: Well, a lot of times you get hired to do jobs where you're supposed to deliver. Like when I shot Willie Nelson's album cover. It was a big fucking deal to go out to California and do location scouting and deal with Willie's bus. We had to be somewhere where he's not going to be mauled by people. I don't really do studio stuff, so that wasn't an option. You gotta bring home the goods because you get paid a lot of money to do album covers for a major label. But there's still this selfish part of me that looks for the picture of Willie that I would want in twenty years, after the record label has folded up. I want the timeless picture. I can be a good worker boy, a monkey boy, and I give them an album cover that fits what they want. But at the end of the day, I want something really cool for somebody like Willie. You wouldn't believe the stuff I've done shooting these Christian rock bands.

H: I haven't seen any of those.

JH: (laughs) And you won't.

Both: (laugh)


JH: But they give you a lot of money. A couple weeks will go by and you are not working, and then somebody from The Clouds of Joy Record Company calls and hires you to do a job. They've got five grand to give you for a little band that looks like Hanson, except they sing Christian songs. You do it for the money, you know? I can be a whore like everybody. The other stuff, you go and try to make it good. I shoot with natural light a lot, and what I look for is a timeless place. That's not to say that I'm always looking for these old nostalgic places that look like the Thirties, though I do like those. But what I like about timeless places is that they don't scream some identity out at you.

H: The setting of the photo you took of R.L. Burnside, the one where he is standing in a corn field, it seemed to fit him so well.

JH: That's when you get lucky. When you're forced to shoot in a strip mall, you're fucked, because it's hard to make a strip mall look good. If you go down to the hill country of Mississippi to shoot R.L. Burnside, well, there's a place that hasn't changed in over 200 years, so it works.

H: I love the shots you took of Dolly Parton for her Little Sparrow record. How did you set that up?

JH: I got hired by her because she liked my work. She was doing this kind of back-to-her-roots record, and I think my work stood out to her because it wasn't airbrushed butterflies like some of her former album covers. She wanted a grittier thing. She had told me something about moving to Nashville in 1964 and wanting to get a '64 Cadillac, so I went and found a '64 Cadillac for the shoot. We did a bunch of other shots too, but we never used a lot of props. I usually go into a shoot and find a nice sort of tableau to work with, and then I just shoot. I don't think my work is overly propped or conceptualized on the front end. I just like an environment that allows me to get the kind of pictures I want.

H: How do you think the Internet has affected how you promote your photography?

JH: Well, it's great because you're able to reach out to so many people. Anybody with an I.Q. of twenty-five knows that if you want to find someone, all you have to do is type in their name with a dot com after it, especially if he's a photographer. So now I have people all over the world suddenly wanting to buy prints. People know that they can type in jimherrington.com and find my work.

H: Do people email you with interest in buying and then you quote them a price?

JH: Yes. They might tell me they want to buy a certain print, and sometimes it's some crazy piece I've forgotten about. It's great. It's very street level in a way. It's kind of like having a store-front studio.

H: How did people contact you about buying your work before you had a website?

JH: They wrote me letters.

H: But how did they find your work in the first place?

JH: They didn't. The Internet has been fantastic for that kind of thing, but I really don't like selling my stuff over the Internet.

H: Why? Do you think it takes away from how the photographs look?

JH: Well, every time I check my site from someone else's computer it always looks different. The images are sometimes too dark, too bright, or too contrasty. I can't stand that it doesn't look the way the prints do.

H: Did you design your website? Was it your vision?

JH: It was definitely my vision, but I didn't do the nuts and bolts type of stuff because I'm not that smart. (laughs)

H: The portrait on the first page is you, right?

JH: Yes.

H: It's an interesting portrait because the top of your head--

JH: --is split open.

H: Yes! Your shadow looks like it's being split open by a tree. It's pretty intense. Was it shot intuitively, or did you plan it that way? And why did you choose it as the opening image for your site?

JH: It works on a lot of different levels. Immediately, I think it shows the style of photography you are going to see after you enter. Also, you see the words "Jim Herrington" coming at you from infinity, growing bigger and bigger, like a John Ford movie credit. I obviously thought a picture of Jim Herrington should be in the shot. I think it would have been too distracting to start off with some other photo. To have my name coming over a photo of Dolly Parton wouldn't have made sense.

H: Right.

JH: It's me, but it's not really my face. It's a portrait, but it's also kind of a landscape, too. It's a person, place, and thing-- which is what you are going to find in the website-- all in one shot.

H: I really like how your site is broken up that way, into people, places, and things. I see a lot of your images as portraits, regardless if it's a person or not.

JH: I feel like that too, especially some of the shots of trees and photos in the "Things" section.

H: In Japan they believe that things have a soul, especially if those things were physically close to a person, like a comb or a shoe.

JH: That's everything about what I do.

H: Yes, like the photograph of Bette Davis' cigarette butt!

JH: Yeah, a lot of my photographs are kind of innocuous, I guess. Obviously, it wouldn't mean as much if it were just a cigarette butt, but it's Bette Davis' cigarette butt! It gives it more meaning... and hopefully it's also a nice photograph of a cigarette butt. My work is all about that. I like that Japanese point of view. I don't think it's strictly Japanese, but I know they look at things like that. That's what I like. I like stories and traces of people that have gone.


H: Many of the photographs on your site scream "story" to me. Some have stories you can read. I like that, but I'm wondering if you ever feel that the stories take anything away from the image?

JH: I think it does sometimes. There are some days when I wish I didn't have any of those stories up there, and then other times I kind of like 'em. (smiles) I change my mind. Like the Bette Davis cigarette butt photograph. If you just see it alone, it just looks like some artsy photo of a cigarette butt. But Bette Davis-- one of the greatest smokers of all-time-- smoked that, and I would want to know that if I saw that shot.

H: Yeah. It's hard to decide which images are strong enough to stand by themselves without explanation.

JH: Yeah. And some of the photos don't have stories at all.

H: Do you have any juicy stories that you can tell me now?

JH: No. After you turn off the recorder we'll get back to that. (smiles)

H: How would you explain your work to someone who is unfamiliar with it?

JH: I would rather just show them. I'm not a monologist; I'm a photographer. I hate words like "edgy" and "gritty" and all that stuff, because not all of my stuff is like that.

H: How do you balance your portraits of people in your personal work and commercial work? How do you find the people you photograph?

JH: I think my best work is when I am just doing it on my own. That's how all of the music stuff started, and it's always been that way. I started taking photographs when I was almost a pre-teen! After shooting Benny Goodman at 13, that was it. I began to search for people to photograph on my own, like going to Nashville and searching out all of these forgotten country musicians. When people see my work they don't think, "He needs to shoot Britney Spears." They think, "He needs to shoot Willie Nelson, another crusty-faced old guy."

H: So, I am curious what you think of MySpace.

Both: (laugh)

JH: I think it's an incredible waste of time.

H: Do you think it promotes your work at all?

JH: (laughs) To a bunch of slackers who can't do anything for you.

H: Really? (laughs)

JH: What do mean?!? You think anybody who can do anything for me is on MySpace?

H: I've found a little bit of opportunity through it.

JH: Well, I have found some models. Also, I had a job out in California where I needed certain people, and I found them on there. But overall, I think MySpace is a phenomenon. It's sort of like when you first see an MP3 player and then you see an iPod, and you think, "Somebody did it right." There are many other sites like MySpace, but nobody has it working as well or has all of the functions. It's very well designed. I've ended up finding all of these old friends that I hadn't seen in fifteen years. But there are thirty-five million people on MySpace! It's like that Andy Warhol thing: "Everybody gets their fifteen minutes of fame." And MySpace is the classic way to do it. You can set up your website and say, "Here's my pretty pictures at all my best angles." You can be whatever you want to be, put your best foot forward and show your prettiest side.

H: I will admit I have wasted a lot of time on it.

JH: Everybody on it has wasted time!

Both: (laugh)

JH: Who hasn't? Tell me. I want to know.

H: You know, I was thinking, if I were to make a bumper sticker I would have to make one that had the letters W.F.W. on it, which would stand for "Why the Fuck Wisconsin?"

JH: Oh yeah. I could put that on my bumper.

Both: (laugh)

H: Do you think you will stay here long?

JH: Really, I'm on the fence about that right now. It's a matter of living in a city where you can have space to work, or just move to where the work is. If you move to New York or Los Angeles it just sucks for having space, and I like a lot of room to work. I feel deprived right now because I don't have enough space to work. I could get it here [Milwaukee], Nashville, or some other town. If you move to New York it's just not going to happen. You're going to have a lot of work, but you'll never have the great darkroom or the big workspace you want unless you're [Richard] Avedon, or making tons of money.


H: Do you fly out to L.A. and New York a lot?

JH: Yeah, I work wherever.

H: Last time I saw you, you mentioned that you had finally broken down and bought a color printer.

JH: I wouldn't call it a color printer. It's a digital printer.

H: Right, right. Are you warming up to the idea of working digitally?

JH: I just spent $4,000 on a printer. You tell me.

Both: (laugh)

H: But you still only shoot negative film, right?

JH: Yeah. Definitely.

H: What kind of camera do you use?

JH: I use everything, from an 8"x10" down to a 35mm.

H: A lot of your photographs look vintage to me, like your photo of Gillian Welch.

JH: I do a lot with 4"x5" when I do portraits, but I don't use it because of sharpness. A lot people want to shoot with a bigger negative because they are looking for more sharpness. That is not what I am looking for. When I'm shooting 4"x5", half the time I'm shooting at a three-second exposure, so I could give a shit about sharpness. There's just something that happens tonally with a big negative.

H: So you don't use digital cameras at all?

JH: No.

H: Do you think you ever will?

JH: I don't think so. I'm not going to say never because I've put my foot in my mouth too many times. I'm just not into it. I don't really like digital cameras or electronics, and I am no where near liking the way digital cameras behave.

H: Have you seen the new $25,000 digital Hasselblad?

JH: Yeah. But there could be a $50,000 one out there and it still won't be what I'm looking for. It's like how a guy who needs a pickup truck will never own a Maserati because you can't put a bale of hay in it.

H: Do you think people can recreate images digitally that were once only created with traditional photography techniques?

JH: You can. And you can also do that sort of thing in the recording studio-- analog as opposed to digital. But the thing about digital is that everybody wants productivity-- about how easily you can recreate stuff. You can sit in a chair and use the same tools to check your email as you do creating photos. I love the idea of film photography. I really like knowing that light is going through a lens, hitting film, shining a light through that negative on to paper, and turning its silver dark when it gets hit by that light. I really like that quality. I don't want to recreate it artificially. I want to do it because I like the process. It's not just the end result that I like about photography; it's the process that I like. Even if I had a $50,000 machine that would make prints that looked like wet-plate collodion, I still wouldn't be interested in using it.

H: Do you think the developments in photography can be compared to the developments in painting? Like oil painting versus modern synthetic paints, like acrylic?

JH: There are just people who like working with material, you know? I just found this brand-new bread maker machine outside my building the other day. There was a sign on it that said "Works great!" So I carried it upstairs and made a loaf of bread with it. It tasted pretty good, but it was in a weird machine square. I said to my girlfriend, "It's great. You just dump in the eggs and the flour, and four hours later you have a loaf of bread." I just wanted to see if it worked but, you know, it's not all that sexy. I guess it is to some people, but I hate all these machines taking over everything. I really like the process. It's like if a guy likes working in oil paints, he likes the smell of the paint, he likes the way it behaves. It's hard work, but a lot of things are, and people enjoy doing things for themselves.

H: It still seems like you are a little open to doing things digitally and not completely closed to the idea. There are photographers out there who completely opposed to it.

JH: A computer is a tool. It's an amazing thing, and there are some artists and digital photographers that have made some great things with one. And it can be great for me, too. Like when I get these pinch jobs-- when you have to shoot the CEO of whatever and they need it by tomorrow-- it screams Photoshop. "You need it tomorrow? No problem." I don't like those jobs anyway, so the sooner it gets out of my house, the better.


H: Yeah, digital is good for a time crunch.

JH: People prefer digital now, and ten years from now you won't know any art directors who ever saw anything different.

H: But in most art schools you still have to learn traditional photography first.

JH: How long is that going to last? It's going to be like teaching brick masonry.

H: But don't you think they will continue to teach it?

JH: Why would they? What happens when our teachers now get old and retire? The new guys come up, and who's going to give a fuck? Kodak quit making black-and-white paper! At photography schools they want their students to be able to go out in the real world and make money and do well in the business.

H: You would think that schools would want to continue to teach it because it builds a certain kind of skill and discipline.

JH: I would hope so.

H: You have more at stake when you are dealing with film photography. I remember the first time I used fixer instead of developer when developing film....

JH: You can never go back.

H: I never did that again. It makes each step more sacred. You have to pay attention to what you are doing.

JH: It's a real craft, where you have to learn and you can't go back. But it's disappearing.

H: I have to admit that I have adapted to digital, but if money were no object, things may be a little different.

JH: Well, everybody's doing it.

H: Yeah. And it's not that cool, either.

JH: It's not about being cool. It's about being original, it's about what you like. I'm not knocking it. I've seen some really fantastic stuff. It's astounding what you can do with digital, but I'm a fucking 42-year-old fart, and I like to look at film. I like things not being perfect. Digital is all about perfection, and I'm just not that much into perfection. I mean, I like trying to make it good. I am very into making things look good, but I like battling against this thing that is very difficult. I hate when people put digital scratches in to make them looked damaged. I strive for perfection, but I like using materials that don't always want to be perfect and are always fighting against you. You just have to do your best.

H: If money were no object, are there any projects that you would like to pursue?

JH: (smiles) I have so many. It would be great to have a real darkroom to shoot gigantic glass-plate negatives-- 11"x14", 16"x20" gigantic glass plate negatives, like Carleton Watkins. I would love to become very proficient at that and shoot whatever inspired me.

H: Is there anything you hate about photography?

JH: Well, you could ask any 15-year-old hobbyist who is loving and learning how to do photography "Want to learn how to hate it? Do it for a living!" I've chosen it to make a living, so that makes you hate a lot about it. You end up hating calling people, you hate looking for work. Sometimes you whore yourself out to do these horrible things, and you might as well be flipping burgers at McDonald's for the love it gives you. It's different when I'm on my own doing photography. I'm always inspired by looking at other people's work, thinking about new photos. But there are some jobs I like. I'm really excited about doing this Florentine Opera thing, because they are letting me do whatever I want. I am shooting the whole season, and it's basically only one shot for each of the three productions: Don Giovanni, Macbeth, and Barber of Seville.

H: Do you think there is huge separation between commercial and fine art?

JH: There is because people say there is, but there never has been to me. The art world really bugs me half the time. It can be very pretentious. You have to listen to the rule makers and to what they've said. I find it bothersome, but I do listen sometimes. Richard Avedon was a commercial artist, Irving Penn was completely commercial, and Lee Friedlander was not. I like all three of those guys equally, and I also think all three of them are valid. I think commercial art is a good thing. Fashion photography can be an amazing thing. What I'm saying is, everything has the possibly to be art. Avedon's portraits that were shot specifically for a magazine are just as artistic as Friedlander's work.

H: Okay, so we're almost finished. Do you have any questions for me?

JH: Are you going to leave the good stuff in this interview?

H: Yeah, we do all of our interviews verbatim.

JH: Okay, next question: are you going to cut the bad stuff out?

H: I don't think there is anything bad.

JH: Well, how about all of the "likes" and "I means"?

H: Yeah. And the "ums" and all the awkward silent moments. (smiles)

JH: Put an LOL in there for me.

Both: (laugh)

H: So at TLC we always end our interviews with a certain question. In your opinion, do dogs have lips?

JH: The female ones do. Wink, wink.

H: (laughs)