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What’s Your Niche? Jarob Ortiz, National Park Service Photographer

June 4, 2018

By David Walker

Jarob Ortiz witnessed the decline of the industrial economy in Milwaukee, where he grew up during the 1980s. He began photographing deteriorating factories in Milwaukee and Gary, Indiana, after taking up photography a decade ago. When the National Park Service opened a search for a new photographer in 2015, Ortiz was selected from among nearly 5,000 applicants. His job is to work with National Park Service architects, historians and engineers to create a record of historic structures and sites throughout the U.S.

PDN: What drew you to industrial architecture?
Jarob Ortiz: As I was learning to use the 4×5 camera, I started to photograph these sites. When you spend a lot of time in the same structure, you realize [it takes] on a different mood and feel as the seasons change. So I was trying to find the perfect time [to photograph each place].

PDN: There was a lot of media coverage about you being “the next Ansel Adams” when the National Park Service hired you. Did you feel pressure when you started the job?
J.O.: I would be lying if I said there wasn’t pressure. Lots of news organizations were talking to me at that time. CBS This Morning came out to film me [making] photographs at Ellis Island. I definitely was thinking: I’m in way over my head and there are a lot of people watching. This is kind of terrifying.

PDN: How did you handle it?
J.O.: My instructors at school would always say: You need to be uncomfortable in order to make the next jump in your art. I started to extract all this information that I had learned, and trusted it.

PDN: Whose work has inspired you?
J.O.: Julius Shulman, who [shot] contextual views to give you a sense of how a piece of architecture relates to its surroundings. And Edward Burtynsky, who [makes] these beautiful abstract views, and has a way of finding the beauty in something that people think is an eyesore.

PDN: What’s your process? And how do you balance the documentary imperatives with esthetic considerations?
J.O.: I get to a location and I’ll feel it out a little bit. I’ll look at areas where I know the lighting isn’t going to change much, and do those photos quickly with lighting. While doing that, I’m paying attention to where natural light does come into the building and how that light is changing. The art of it is in recognizing what the characteristics of the space are, what the mood is with natural lighting, and what kind of light will accent the details. The technical side is figuring out how you bring that supplemental lighting in. There are some well thought out lighting schemes that I come up with.

PDN: How do you do your lighting?
J.O.: It’s super complicated. It’s all metered so it looks like natural light, not flash. I use Profoto D1 Air heads: two 1000 W/s heads, two 500 W/s heads. I also have the Profoto B1 250 W/s packs. I will measure each light, determine how many pops I need per head, and use the Profoto remote and count out the flashes. For some views, I do 60 or 80 [flashes]. The exposures are sometimes up to 30 minutes apiece.

© Jarob Ortiz

A view of the Statue of Liberty from Ellis Island, one of the first sites Jarob Ortiz documented as the National Park Service photographer. © Jarob Ortiz

PDN: What location have you photographed that illustrates that?
J.O.: Ellis Island. One small section is open to the public, the rest of it is in pretty rough shape. There’s no light inside, and no electricity. So we’re talking about completely pitch-black areas with [boarded up] windows. They’re huge spaces, and they’re beautiful inside, and the history that’s there—that inspires me to take the best photo I possibly can.

PDN: If it’s so dark, how do you get a sense of the place?
J.O.: Sometimes I’ll look around with a flashlight, or turn the modeling lights on and light the whole space so I can get a view, and compose it. What I’m trying to do is create light that is directional from where a window may have been. Some people might say that’s not realistic at all, but it lends itself to a better photograph than clicking the shutter and leaving a whole lot
of black areas.

PDN: And you don’t know if you’ve succeeded until you develop the film?
J.O.: Yeah, but I fill journals and journals with meter readings of every single light. I ratio all the lights, I meter the ambient light, and I balance it all. I do everything by numbers. I don’t shoot on Polaroid film to check the shot, but I’m pretty confident it’s going to turn out, just based on the amount of time I’ve been doing photos like this in this format.

PDN: How did you learn to do lighting that complicated and precise?
J.O.: I got an associate’s degree in the applied science of photography at Milwaukee Area Technical College. The instructors had us study the physics of light,  and how to measure it and calculate the exposures. First we were taught the Zone System of black-and-white photography, to the point where we were shooting hundreds of sheets of film on gray cards, measuring the amount of silver in each negative, developing film at different intervals, and figuring out, based on the film emulsion and the metering, exactly what the exposure needs to be for any given shot, and then how to manipulate the development to get all the detail out of every single exposure. And then figuring out how to bring in lighting and manipulate these values even more.

PDN: Besides the technical challenge, what are other challenges of the job?
J.O. I [work] a lot of weekends in the office and I’m out on the road quite a bit. I think the hardest part is the logistics: trying to organize the shoots, figuring out how many days, and scheduling. I’m typically overbooked.

PDN: Do you work with assistants?
J.O.: No, it’s just me. I have to print, scan and label the images, and write the captions for them.

PDN: Why is the National Park Service still shooting exclusively with film?
J.O.: Not until recently have there been digital cameras that can match the resolution of 5×7 film. The second issue is the archivability. How do you build a digital infrastructure to make sure that information is maintained for 500 years? Because this is a national record.

PDN: Is there a push to switch to digital photography?
J.O.: It’s only a matter of time before [5×7 E6 transparency film used by the National Park Service] goes away. And repairing old view cameras is getting more difficult and more expensive. So we’re looking at the Phase One XF 100 megapixel view camera backs. But there’s going to be a huge testing phase. This is not going to be a quick transition.

PDN: What advice do you have for photographers who aspire to photographing historical architecture?
J.O.: This kind of photography is very technical. You have to understand the science behind it. You have to be able to focus on the esthetic rather than the technical side of it. It’s a matter of doing it over and over, and being your own worst critic, and having that drive deep down inside to make a perfect photograph. It’s also about working in a team. You have to be open to the ideas of other people. It’s so easy to think: My part of this is the most important part. But it serves a photographer to be a little more humble.

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