Hopping the globe from Poland to New York to Beijing and back to the Big Apple, commercial photographer Jack Soltysik is usually armed with a camera, as well as a unique perspective on life and a borderline-insane memory for dates. Having started out as a passionate hobbyist, Soltysik has managed to build up a heavy-hitting clientele and develop his passion into a full-time career. We caught up with him here in New York City to hear more about what led him to follow his heart behind the camera, what makes a great photographer and how an aspiring photographer can become one.
How long have you been a photographer?
I don’t know the exact answer to that question – I bought my first camera on January 12th, 2013. The reason that date is seared into my memory is I was living in Beijing, and that was the day that broke the charts for air pollution in Beijing, and I realized then that I want to get a camera to start recording what I was seeing around me. I started doing photography commercially after I had shared some of my work online, and started getting recruited by AirBnB and The China Daily – so I can’t quite put my finger on when I’d started calling myself a “photographer”, because it was a continuum from being a hobbyist to picking up a couple of clients to doing it fulltime, but I’ve been doing this fulltime professionally for the past two years, and photographing in general since that day.
When did you decide you wanted to pursue it full-time?
I decided to do photography full-time after one particular photo-walk in Beijing a few years ago. Every single year, the Chinese government invites ten of the world’s best photographers to Beijing for a variety of events and one of them held a photowalk in an abandoned industrial district in Beijing. With a simple iPhone shot, I won that photographer’s own personal professional camera – it was a Sony a7R and I think that that’s what gave me the confidence boost necessary to really believe that this is something I should be devoting my energy and time to. I think that was really the kick in the butt I needed to push me forward and helped me decide to go full-time.
What inspires you?
People sometimes ask me what inspires me – I kind of like the quote that inspiration is for amateurs, and for the rest of us, we just go out there and work hard and make the shot happen, make the work happen. I don’t have the luxury of sitting around and waiting for a spark of creativity or a spark of inspiration, but I do have my go-to practices and techniques/protocols, that I know that when I run through them using my knowledge and experience, I can create great work for my client, that suits their purpose and ideally exceeds their expectations. So I don’t wait around for inspiration, I go in, I work hard and I use what I know to create great shots.
What’s your specialty or favorite type of photography?
I would say my specialty or favorite type of photography is long exposure architectural photography. That’s something that I do mostly for personal work. Everyone always told me that I need to “specialize” as a photographer in order to make any money from what I’m doing, but I’ve actually found the opposite to be true. I do a variety of work – everything from architectural work, which is more in line with my personal artistic interests, down to commercial work, portrait work, headshots and just about everything else. One of the things that I love about photography is that I’m constantly challenging my own creativity, what I’ve done before. I love that I can do different types of shoots for different types of clients, and never get bored. I’m proud of all the work that I’ve done, and I like not having one particular specialization, because that’s one of the things that makes this fun for me.
What is one tip you would give someone who is just starting out as a photographer?
One tip that I’d give to someone starting out as a photographer is to put away the Instagram: don’t go on photography-centric social media sites like Flickr or 500PX, because we are flooded today with millions of mediocre photos! Go to your local library and pick up photography books. Go to art galleries. Take a look at great photography. If you only look at mediocre photos, which we are surrounded by constantly on our social media feeds, that’s what you’re going to be inspired by, and you’re going to see the bar being set for photography as a mediocre one. If you take a look at great work and great photography, you’ll see how inspired minds work, what a photoset with a vision looks like, and I think just set the bar higher for yourself. So bottom line is, if you’re getting started, step away from Instagram and hit the library or buy some great photography books.
Do you have a favorite photographer?
I shoot across multiple genres, so I have different favorites in many genres, but there is one that I think is valuable to share here, and that is Garry Winogrand. He was a street photographer in New York City, and one of the things I like about him is that street photography before him was largely defined by a French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, that was more formal, very clearly informed by classical art practices, very well-designed compositions – Winogrand did all those things, too, but there is a playfulness to his work, and a spontaneity. I love how he took formal techniques, formal principles of design and classical art theory, and merged it with playfulness that is very characteristic of his work. I really enjoy that. Photography for me is fun, and I think that his photography – more than any others’ – showed me how much fun you can have taking photos, looking at great photos, and how much beauty there is all around us. That being said, he’s not just pointing his camera at everything that looks cool, looks fun – his photos are meticulously well-composed, but they’re also playful. Another reason I like Winogrand is that he worked really, really hard, and showed that you have to put in the hard work in order to produce great work. He died with 44,000 film negatives that were never developed – those are the film frames that he never even got to see, and so that puts a lot into perspective. If you’re just starting out, there are greats that have so many photos that they never even saw and have passed away, more photos than you’ve taken in your entire life. That puts into perspective how much work you have to put in to reach the level that you want to be at.
What do you like to do on your free time besides photographing?
I moved back to New York City from China on August 28th, 2016 – that’s another date that’s been seared into my mind. I don’t remember the first time I moved to NYC, or the exact date, but I do remember this one. Honestly, I’ve been sort of hitting the ground running and working pretty much non-stop since I got here, but what I love doing the most outside of work is cooking and taking my two dogs, Beezie and Hachi, to Central Park after 9PM, when it’s off-leash hours. It feels like the scene at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when all the crazies run out into the wild – that’s what Central Park looks like after dark, with all the dogs roaming free. I live in a small apartment with my two dogs so it brings me a lot of joy to take a walk with my girlfriend and with the dogs and see them run free.