Norman Jean Roy talks to PhotoVideoEDU about the importance of recording life's journey, how he broke into the photo industry, and how a single magazine issue changed the course of his career.
Few photographers’ careers have ascended skyward as meteorically as that of editorial and advertising photographer Norman Jean Roy. Named by PDN magazine in 1999 as one of the 30 most promising photographers under 30 years old, the now 31-year-old New York-based shooter is certainly fulfilling that confidence. Though he has been working professionally for barely five years, he shoots regularly for an elite roster of top advertising clients, among them: ABC TV, Clairol, Coca Cola, Redken, Microsoft, Nike, and IBM. His celebrity portraits and fashion images have appeared almost constantly in the pages and covers of top magazines, including GQ, Esquire, Vanity Fair, Premiere, Entertainment Weekly, George, and Newsweek, to name just a few.
Interestingly, though his subjects regularly include the world’s most famous celebrities, Roy describes himself as a "documentary portrait" photographer rather than a celebrity shooter. His mission, he says, is not to become master of a particular genre, but rather to faithfully record his own life’s journey. "It’s not the photography that matters; it’s the journey," he says. "I’m just using photography to document it."
Marked by a style that seems deceptively casual, even impromptu at times, Roy often works his subjects with the experimental temperament of a jazz musician, improvising ideas and themes on the fly. Rather than constructing elaborate themes and situations, he often uses what he describes as a "run-and-gun" approach, feeding off the energy and moods of his subjects. "I am just very honest in my own photos and I capture things the way that I see them," he says. "It just so happens that people like that vision—I’m very lucky."
Although he has had a passion for photography throughout his life, it was never something he thought he could earn a living at. Instead, he studied both architecture and later graphic design. It wasn’t until seeing an extensive essay on famed photographer Richard Avedon’s work in a 1994 issue of American Photo that Roy committed to a career behind the camera. "Seeing that essay changed my life overnight," he says. "It was the single most important event of my photographic life."
Indeed, within a few months after seeing the essay, Roy quit his job, scraped together the last of his savings, and moved to Europe to begin his new career.
PhotoVideoEDU: How do you describe yourself as a photographer?
Norman Jean Roy: I’m a documentary portrait photographer. If I had to describe my photography in one word I would say I am a documentarian. Although I shoot celebrities and fashion, I’m not a fashion or music or celebrity photographer. I look at life as one huge process, and my duty as a photographer is to document that process. So whether I’m shooting a celebrity or someone on the street, or going to Africa to document a climb, to me I’m documenting the journey through my eyes.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do you think of everything you shoot as documenting your life, as opposed to merely capturing a moment in someone else’s?
Norman Jean Roy: Right now, for instance, I’m going around the world shooting portraits of CEOs that are going to run in the Wall Street Journal. To me, that’s the same thing as documenting a family of natives deep in a remote part of the Andes. In both situations you learn something new about yourself. I’m a photographer. I document moments. I witness events. I record them.
PhotoVideoEDU: Why is it so important for you to record your life’s journey?
Norman Jean Roy: Nobody knows why they’re here. I certainly haven’t figured out my purpose in this life. I hope as I get older and become more in tune I will get closer with my purpose. Throughout it all however, I will record it. I think part of figuring out who you are and where you’re going is to see where and how far you’ve come. You need to see what you’ve experienced and how it has changed you.
PhotoVideoEDU: So photography for you is more a matter of capturing a specific moment than interpreting it artistically?
Norman Jean Roy: The thing about photography that is most incredible to me is the way that it captures the immediacy of the moment. Photography is about freezing time; it takes an actual moment that did happen and it freezes it forever. So however you set up your shot, or however you interpret what you’re trying to shoot, the moment you photograph it and freeze it, you have documented an actual moment in time. To quote Avedon, photography is "all accurate, none is truth." The events portrayed in a frozen moment are the interpretation of both the photographer and the viewer—and an explanation may reveal its accuracy but rarely reveals the truth. Only the creator of the image knows the real truth (or at least the intended truth).
PhotoVideoEDU: What things inspire you in photography—where do you get your ideas?
Norman Jean Roy: I get inspired the same way anyone else gets inspired. When you go on vacation and you take a beautiful photograph of a landscape, that’s because it inspires you. It’s the same thing for me. I think that professionals are perhaps a little more in tune with recognizing moments that other people wouldn’t find enticing.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do you feel a need to get each moment on film?
Norman Jean Roy: For me there is a very fine line between feeling the need to get it on film or just have it in my head. I think there’s something gratifying about being a photographer and having the ability to record it, but choosing not to. That’s powerful—to be able to recognize a moment and to choose not to capture it. You’re constantly filling the well.
PhotoVideoEDU: When you were growing up as a kid in Montreal, did you have any interest in photography?
Norman Jean Roy: I started taking pictures at a very early age. I think I was six when I first started. I never thought of it as anything more than taking pictures for fun. But that’s when I got addicted to the idea of freezing a moment; there was something about that concept I thought was cool, to just go click, click, click and know that you’re stopping moments in time. When you’re young, you certainly don’t look at a magazine and think about the people who are shooting those pictures or even think that one day you might do that. I was the yearbook photographer in high school. I always loved taking photos, but I never thought of it as something one could do commercially. So I went to school and studied architecture first and then graphic design, but I never stopped taking photos.
PhotoVideoEDU: You worked as a designer for a few years after college and then suddenly your life shifted to photography. What drew you into photography?
Norman Jean Roy: It happened very fast. I was working for Saturn, the car company, as a designer, and one day just quit my job, bought a camera and decided I would become a photographer. From there I started shooting. At first I worked with modeling schools. I did that for a couple of years and then just as quickly, I quit photography altogether because it wasn’t going anywhere.
PhotoVideoEDU: So you just left photography?
Norman Jean Roy: Yes, I felt there was only a certain amount of money I could make. So I quit and decided I would try my luck at golf. I did that for about six months and then in 1994, American Photo published a cover-to-cover special issue on Avedon, and that changed my life overnight. That issue literally changed my life. I read it cover to cover twice and everything in there made sense to me. Everything became so clear to me. I woke up the next morning and decided to commit to becoming a photographer. I scraped up all the money I had, shot two stories, made a book, took my last $400, and moved to Paris.
PhotoVideoEDU: Why did you choose Paris?
Norman Jean Roy: Well, since I grew up in Montreal, French is my first language. I had decided I was going to be a fashion photographer, so the logical choice was Paris. Plus, I had been living in Nashville and I wanted to get to another city, to another continent, where there was a completely different approach to everything. I also had a friend there that was a scout for Elite, and she took me under her wing.
PhotoVideoEDU: What were you hoping to accomplish in Paris and how long were you there?
Norman Jean Roy: I was there for about a year and I basically went there to jump-start my career. I made that decision in August and on January 6th I was living in Paris. I often move with blinders.
PhotoVideoEDU: Did you assist other photographers there or were you working on your own?
Norman Jean Roy: I’ve never assisted a day in my life. I don’t believe in assisting—at least not for me. And I don’t think most people should be assistants. However, if you’re going to assist, you shouldn’t assist for more than two years. You should also try to assist a photographer whose work you admire. However, if you choose not to assist, then be a photographer.
PhotoVideoEDU: Was your time in Paris successful—were you able to make much headway?
Norman Jean Roy: I wasn’t very successful. It’s a hard business to break into. I worked editorially for various magazines trying to break into the fashion industry. Paris was great; with French as my first language it was very easy for me to do business there. Things started to work, but for personal reasons I came back to the United States.
PhotoVideoEDU: What happened after you returned from Paris?
Norman Jean Roy: I went back to Nashville, where I had been living before I went to Paris. I returned and decided I would make a go at it and really focus on photography. I started pounding the pavement and doing promo pieces and getting serious about making it. I also began shooting fashion and portrait stories and working entire portfolios rather than just shooting randomly. Everything I did became a lot more calculated.
PhotoVideoEDU: The promo pieces that you did back in Nashville got you a lot of national attention—including a story in PDN, correct?
Norman Jean Roy: Yes, I think that everybody probably has a number of major turning points in their lives, their careers, and that was definitely one of mine. Although I worked in a very calculated way, I never over-analyzed anything I did. I thought I needed to do a strong promo piece. I certainly didn’t expect what came out of that to happen. PDN did a cover story on me. Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected that to happen.
PhotoVideoEDU: You’ve been a photographer for just five years and you’ve come a very long way in a very short time. Are you surprised that this much success has come your way?
Norman Jean Roy: No, only because the people whose careers have inspired me had very similar starts. Annie [Leibovitz], Richard Avedon, Mark Seliger—all of them started their careers quite early, and all had success at an early age. Richard Avedon shot Vogue covers at 19 and was contracted by Harper's Bazaar at 28. It was a different time, but he did start very young. Being at their level has always been my goal.
I believe that you either have what it takes or you don’t. You have to hunger for it. Every once in a while I pinch myself and think of how incredible all of this is. I work so hard for my goals, day after day, night after night, seven days a week, twelve hours a day—and have for years. When your goals start to materialize before your eyes, you almost can’t believe it’s really happening; but you’re also not surprised.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do you ever have any fear of failure, that you could wake up one day and it will all be gone?
Norman Jean Roy: I think at the end of the day, being afraid of failure is failure itself. If you focus and believe you can’t fail, it’s impossible to fail. If all of it disappeared tomorrow you still wouldn’t be failing, because it would be part of the process and it would just take you someplace else. You can never be afraid to leap forward into unknown territories. Even if I lost everything tomorrow, even if the whole deal went up in flames and everybody I knew and all of my clients never wanted to work with me again, my life would still be a success because the process would continue. And it would still have been such an incredible gift to have learned what I have in the past few years. How can that ever be a failure?
PhotoVideoEDU: Can you think of a particular assignment where you realized that you had made it, that you had arrived as a photographer?
Norman Jean Roy: I was recently asked that question in another interview and I gave them the same answer: I don’t think I’ve made it. I’m nowhere near my goals. If you look at it as documenting your journey, then you have never really made it until the process ends. That’s when you’ve made it. That said though, there have been moments when I felt on I was on my way. For example, when I got an agent in New York, I felt I was making the right decisions and the right things were happening.
PhotoVideoEDU: A lot of the people you photograph are very famous. Is it fun from a purely fan point of view to be photographing people who you’ve admired?
Norman Jean Roy: I get excited every single time I get behind the camera, but I never get star struck about someone famous or notorious. It is fascinating, however, to be the one responsible for creating illusions, to think that someone, somewhere has your photo on their wall. It’s interesting to think that the way that you saw a subject that day may influence someone’s life. Photographers are creators of illusions.
PhotoVideoEDU: Is it important for you to keep up with who is a celebrity and who is hot at a particular moment?
Norman Jean Roy: I know who they are, but I rarely do much research on them. I like keeping things a little more raw and unpredictable. If you know too much about your subject, it can sometimes taint your approach. For me it’s another portrait and another day that I get to document my life. All I’m trying to do as a photographer is to provide an accurate record of what my eyes see. That’s far more interesting to me, to have a record of yourself, a record of what you’ve experienced.
PhotoVideoEDU: If you’re not planning your shoots, then you’re just working cold with your subjects, correct?
Norman Jean Roy: Yes, I really like to approach my shoots that way. It’s a lot more fun. Every once in a while we’ll build an elaborate set, and that can be very exciting too. But there is something really enticing about the whole run-and-gun approach to photography and the unpredictability of the moment, what that moment might give back to you.
PhotoVideoEDU: Celebrities are so over-photographed these days. Is it difficult to find a fresh approach?
Norman Jean Roy: There’s always a new way to approach someone. Just because someone else has photographed the same subject doesn’t mean you can’t do something different. Just about everything has already been done. The approach one takes ultimately remains the one thing that differentiates one shoot to another. And the fact is that there are countless circumstances that will vary one shoot to another. Your subject might be sad or angry or excited, and that probably will be different than the last time he or she was photographed.
PhotoVideoEDU: You recently did four different setups with Steve Martin in 15 minutes for The New York Times Magazine?
Norman Jean Roy: Yes! I have a lot of five-minute shoots. I just did the November cover of George magazine with the entire cast of [the TV series] "West Wing"—there were eight of them—and we had 12 minutes to do the shot. There is always something exciting happening on a set like that, and you only need one frame to get a great photograph.
PhotoVideoEDU: Talk a bit about your lighting. Do you bring a lighting assistant with you?
Norman Jean Roy: No, I light all the sets myself. A lot of people put too much emphasis on lighting and it’s very easy to overlight a photograph. I think it’s another thing to just react to light, to allow the photograph to be what it is. I think lighting accidents are fantastic. If you really allow yourself to be a little raw sometimes and just react to light instead of overplanning it, you’ll almost always get better results.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kind of lighting equipment are you bringing? Do you bring large strobe setups?
Norman Jean Roy: It depends. Sometimes I’ll just have an on-camera flash and I’ll literally run and chase my subject. And there are times when I’ll have elaborate subjects and have one shot lit with 10 packs or 15 packs.
PhotoVideoEDU: Your shot of actor Dennis Franz seems like it might have been shot in available light. It looks very journalistic. How was that shot made and who was it made for?
Norman Jean Roy: That shot was part of an annual ABC TV campaign I’m currently working on. It’s probably the greatest project I’ve ever been involved with. It’s a very large job for me, working two shifts a day, churning out 300 prints a day with an average of 10,000 prints a year. I’ve been working on this campaign for three years now; this is my fourth year. They’re using the images in black-and-white commercials (teasers) that are running between the shows and the commercials. Each one consists of a photo montage that is usually five to ten seconds long that shows the cast of a particular show. It’s just a great assignment I got three years ago when ABC decided to change their look. They brought me in to shoot all of the prime-time shows in very documentary style. I shoot around 1,100 rolls of 35mm which amounts to roughly 42,000 frames of film in four days. I also introduced 16mm Bolex last year as part of the look.
PhotoVideoEDU: That’s amazing that you’re shooting so much film in four days. It must be very fast-paced work.
Norman Jean Roy: I have the cast of each show for about two hours; they come onto the sound stages camera ready. I shoot a lot of different setups in that time: individual portraits, groups, different pairings, different backdrops. I usually do four different setups and within each setup do different combinations.
PhotoVideoEDU: Are you just directing the 16mm work or camera handling as well?
Norman Jean Roy: I’m directing while shooting it. What I’ll do is shoot 16mm and then hand over the Bolex to my assistant, grab a still camera, and shoot, shoot, shoot and then grab the 16mm again and shoot, grab the still camera and shoot, shoot, shoot. And this year I introduced double Bolex cameras, handholding two cameras at the same time. This year in addition to the stuff for on-air use, I shot the print campaign—a lot of it shot in medium format.
PhotoVideoEDU: Are you doing the shots on the sets of the shows?
Norman Jean Roy: No, we bring all of the cast members into sound stages. I have a crew of around 75 people that includes a large art department, five assistants, assistant directors, producers, production assistants, and a bunch of handlers! I use three sound stages—it’s a large scale shoot. I put out 200 to 250 rolls a day. In addition, we process—contact triple sets and one enlargement of each roll—and we turn around each day’s film in 24 hours. It truly is an incredible project.
PhotoVideoEDU: How did they choose you for this project?
Norman Jean Roy: They looked at 75 books. It was very exciting because nobody knew what this project was about. Even the production company putting it together didn’t know what it was going to be like or how it was going to turn out. It was new grounds for everyone involved. It was also very new for broadcast television. A lot was on the line. I certainly never anticipated the shoot to be of that magnitude; it’s a monster of a project! To be able to come through for a client and be able to do it all in-house is exciting. For about a month and a half—and then a few weeks throughout the year—my darkroom becomes locked down to just that one project.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do you review all that film personally?
Norman Jean Roy: I do not edit the film but certainly look at it. It’s mostly shooting for atmosphere, a lot of the shots are blurred or out of focus or very dark or very light—that’s the feel I want to create with this campaign. It’s all about motion. I’m very excited about this year’s look.
All the production is done in-house at my studio. They scan everything from actual prints, all of which are printed here. They do all the storyboarding and assembly on their end.
PhotoVideoEDU: Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Norman Jean Roy: I love that question, and anyone who knows me knows that’s one of the first questions I ask almost everyone I meet in photography. I just taught a workshop at the Maine Photographic Workshop and that’s the first question I asked my students: Where do you want to be five years from now? And I tell them to really think about it—whether or not it has anything to do with photography.
Where do I see myself? To put it in “black-and-white” terms, I see myself under editorial contract somewhere. I see myself working on my first book. I see myself having a very strong presence in galleries.
PhotoVideoEDU: Speaking of books, do you have any plans to put one together soon?
Norman Jean Roy: I’d love to put one together now, but I don’t feel my voice as a photographer has matured enough to make a statement. In fact, it has yet to reach puberty! I think your first photography book should be an intelligent body of work that truly represents a vision and not some “put together” thing just because you had a book dream. From there you can work on special projects. There is a bit of a book craze right now and everyone is doing a book—and I think it’s a bit annoying. I think until you can do something that makes sense, you shouldn’t do a book. A lot of people out there who are commercial photographers have put out books and I have no idea what they were thinking—they’re not edited properly, not printed properly, and it wasn’t seen as a body of work. I have no interest in doing a book like that. Photography to me is about recording my life, so until I have something to share that makes sense to me, there’s no reason for me to put a book together.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kind of advice do you give to young photographers who want to come into the business?
Norman Jean Roy: One of the most important quotes I’ve ever read was an Amy Arbus quote that was in the Avedon issue of American Photo, that "Dick taught us that we couldn’t just dilly dally with this thing we love called photography. You have a responsibility to not just be a good photographer but a great one." It’s an incredible responsibility that is bestowed upon you by being a professional photographer. You have the responsibility to record the world accurately and if you choose to be any less than that, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
It’s not the photography that matters; it’s the journey. I’m just using photography to document it. If you’re fortunate enough to have an ability that renders you a powerful voice for others to hear and you feel that you have something important to say, then say it. If photography allows you to do that then do it and do it well. If music allows you to do that, then sing it or play it. It’s your journey.
And if you make a little money at it, it’s all good.