I am very fortunate at times.
We all browse online, scrolling through countless images of art and photography that interests us. Most of the time we pause, marvel, and then move on. We usually don’t think we’ll be working with the same artist that amazed us, much less develop a friendship with him/her.
Yet that’s exactly what happened when I ran across the stunning noir photography of Mark Krajnak. At the time I was looking for possible photos to license for the cover on my novel The Troubleshooter. There was something about Mark’s ‘Man in the Fedora’ images that stood out against the crop of similar work. It was grittier, a touch more dangerous than other staged noir shots.
Narrowing it down to a single word: authentic.
I summoned my courage and contacted him through email. To my surprise we hit it off right away, and to make a long story short, Mark’s striking noir self-portraits supplied the perfect look for the title character, and gave Mick Trubble a face for the name. Combining that with the art and design skills of Parisian artist Stefan Prohaczka , The Troubleshooter’s unique covers and promo art ended up far beyond anything I could have imagined when I was simply browsing online for stock photography.
But enough about me. Without further ado, it’s my pleasure to introduce my readers to the man himself in this interview.
Let’s open up with your love and pursuit of photography. Has it always been an interest, and when did you start taking it seriously?
Mark: I’m a late-comer to photography…at least I think so anyway. Photography wasn’t really “a thing” when I was growing up in Northeast Pennsylvania. In my family, cameras only came out during birthdays and holidays. Just family-style documentation. It was when I got my first corporate communications job in 1998 that the spark happened. I’m a journalist by training (I’ve written for newspapers and magazines) but I’ve been doing corporate communications for nearly 20 years now. One of the first projects I worked on the company annual report. In addition to writing parts of it, I would accompany the professional photographers on the photo shoots for the report. These projects took me on travels around the world with these guys and gals. Watching them work, hearing about their lives and stories, something clicked in me.
It was around 2000 that I started to take photos on my own. I’m self-taught, never took classes. My first “real” camera was a Canon Rebel single-lens reflex (SLR), a film camera. I’ve progressed from there. I think digital has had a lot to do with my passion. I like the immediacy of seeing my shots, and then going into the “digital darkroom” to work on them.
I still work with professional photographers a lot, overseeing and art directing photo shoots. Sometimes, though, I get to do the photography as well. Of course, I still do family-style documentation of my wife and kids.
Your passion for the craft certainly shows in your work. You’re a self-described ‘visual raconteur’. Explain what that means, and what you look for in your search for perfect shots.
Mark: Well, a “raconteur” is a storyteller. When I hear that word, I think of old guys in cowboy hats sitting around a campfire telling stories. Now that people sit around their computers, I try to tell stories with my photos. Be it documentary photography, photojournalism…trying to tell a story in one photo or in a short series of photos, like how it was done in the old LIFE magazine, that’s what I like to do.
A good friend of my, Joe McNally (he’s shot for National Geographic, TIME, Sports Illustrated, etc.) talks about shooting “entire-to-detail”. You want to set the broad scene then hone in on the details of the scene to further tell the story. Most times, I like to shoot in sequence, entire-to-detail, telling the story.
As for what I look for, I think the first thing I look for in a shot is the light. As I’ve progressed in photography, I’ve become more aware of light—how it looks during the day, the glow neon gives off, what it likes bouncing off of buildings, how I can shape it and control it in a studio setting. If I can find—or manufacture—good light, that’s half the battle.
You make shooting noir-styled photos look easy. What does ‘noir photography’ mean to you, and what mistakes do you see other photographers make when attempting the same?
Mark: I appreciate your saying I make it look easy. You never see all the frames that DON’T look good. Noir photography, to me, should hearken back to the fantastic movies of the 1940s and 1950s. I love to watch these movies – films like The Killing, Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, The Third Man, Sunset Boulevard—and am influenced by how they are lit and how they are shot. Film noir was born after World War II, and much of the low-key, stark lighting is a result of lack of budgets at that time. Film companies didn’t have money for grand lighting, so that influenced how the films were shot.
Much of my noir photography again comes back to this type of lighting. I often shoot in abandoned buildings and other locations where the natural light is just magical. Other times, I use simple lighting, like a goose-neck desk lamp or a $5 set of LED lights, to get the light I like. I keep it simple. That’s what works best for my images. Others have their own styles—not right, not wrong. I just think these images that purport to be noir are overly produced or lit, and they lose that authentic feel. There’s nothing wrong with big productions…I just don’t know if noir photography—at its heart—needs it. Everyone is trying to find their own style, though. So whatever works for them, that’s great. I just try to follow my own path and keep it simple. That’s what works for me.
You’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with a number of writers and publications, including cover art (with a partnership with the uber-talented Stefan) for my Troubleshooter novels. I won’t put you in the hot seat and ask what your favorite collaboration was, but what kind of project would you consider a dream to collaborate on?
Mark: Hmmm, that’s a tough one. I certainly enjoy collaborating with you and Stefan on the Troubleshooter series. We all seem to have the same vision and we all bring something unique to the table. I also enjoyed contributing images to the anthology Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Based on the Songs of Bruce Springsteen. I was happy to have my images be part of a book with such acclaimed authors. I think my dream project, though, would be to work for a cool magazine and have carte blanche to shoot what I want in a location, to tell the story of the people, the places, the details. I’d be happy to do that in the town around the corner from me in New Jersey…or on the other side of the world.
You’ve been submitting blog posts at JerseyStyle Photography like clockwork for a long time. How do you keep it fresh and interesting?
Mark: It’s true I’ve been blogging for a quite a few years now. Back around 2006 or 2007, I opened a Flickr account and started posting photos there (I cringe when I look back at some many of those photos.) After a while, I wanted to talk more about my process, tell the back story of the images. It goes back to my being a writer. Flickr isn’t really the venue for that, so I started my JerseyStyle Photography blog. There’s a lot of “noise” out on the Internet now. I’m thankful I have people that keep coming back to the JSP blog to see what I’m putting out, and commenting. As long as that is happening, it’ll keep going!
I used to try to keep to an editorial calendar, but that quickly went out the window. Now I try to stay topical. If something is going on in the news, I might have something in my back portfolio that I can relate it too. Or if I’m traveling, it may be images from the road. And, of course, I still try to keep Friday Noir going to some degree—a new noir image every Friday. Two years ago, I published a new noir photo and short story every Friday. That got to be a bit much and it was hard to sustain, so I had to cut back. But I still like to drop a new “Jersey Noir” image as often as I can. I have more 120+ images in my backlog so the well hasn’t run empty yet.
Speaking of New Jersey, you take a lot pride in representing your state with your work. Tell an outsider what makes Jersey so great.
Mark: Yes, I do love New Jersey. I grew up in the coal towns of Northeast Pennsylvania, and then lived in Philadelphia, PA, for 10 years. I love both areas. When I took that first corporate job, I had to move into New Jersey, and I’ve been here since (save for one year in San Francisco). What do I love about New Jersey? The diversity. We have larger cities like Newark, Jersey City and Camden; small-and-midsize towns, and of course the beach towns along the Jersey Shore. I live dead-center in the state and am about an hour to New York City, and hour to Philadelphia, 35 minutes to the beach and an hour to the Pocono Mountains. There is a ton of history in New Jersey as well, especially from around the Revolutionary War time. But I’m partial to the beach towns, especially Asbury Park.
You frequently use Bruce Springsteen songs as inspiration for your blog posts. How has his work influenced yours?
Mark: Bruce, to me, is a modern-day poet and fantastic storyteller. His songs talk about everyday people, hard-working people, and their basic struggles. His lyrics are rich and vivid; they inspire me to capture that with my photography. My series called “Springsteen Noir” is a collection of noir-themed photos using his song lyrics as the captions. Bruce was a fan of film noir, and the theme of desperation is found in many of this songs. Sometimes there’s redemption…sometimes not. One of my personal goals is to do a visual representation of the song Backstreets. Hopefully I can pull that off sometime.
What projects do you have lined up for the immediate future?
Mark: Well, I’m waiting to hear about the next Troubleshooter project to get started on! Aside from that, I’ll be shooting a triathlon in June (that’s another aspect to my portfolio, what I call Adrenaline Events.). I’m also continuing to do portraits of local writers and musicians. I’ve also started a new personal project, a look at small-town life in my hometown of Allentown, New Jersey. I’m excited to capture this little town and the people in it. I’ve even started a hashtag for the project so people can follow along on Instagram and Twitter: #allentownnjlife
Questions on the Industry and Tools of the Trade
Break down the camera for us amateurs. What kinds do you use, and what would you recommend for someone interested in pursuing the hobby?
Mark: The not-so-old adage is the best camera is the one you have with you. You can’t take great photos if you’re not ready to do so. With the continued progression of camera phones, people usually have a pretty good digital camera right in their pocket. Pair that with a selection of filters like Snapseed, and one can create some nice photos. That said, I don’t take many phone photos. Instead, I always have a small point-and-shoot, the Canon S110, that takes amazing images. I’m a Canon guy and have been for years. My workhorse camera has been a Canon 50D DSLR. I also always have a little point-and-shoot, a Canon S110, in my pocket. It’s a great little camera. I’ve been using a retro-styled Fuji camera, the Fuji X100T, which is a fantastic fixed-lens camera. I also collect old cameras and every now and then, I’ll load one up with film and see what I can get with that. It’s hit-and-miss.
What do you think of the technological leaps in photo manipulation? Do you think it aids or inhibits photographers, especially those who leap straight to easy-to-use filters and Photoshop tools?
Mark: Photo manipulation, in some form, has always been around. Photographers dodged-and-burned their way to their photos back in the darkroom days. The great nature photographer Ansel Andams, was a master at darkroom manipulation to get his images to what he saw in his mind’s eye. I still think you need to have the basics of composition and looking for the light mastered, or even filters won’t help the image. Filters give you that little extra with a photo, but if the basics aren’t there, they won’t help.
What is the hardest part about picking or staging a shot?
Mark: Often the hardest part is just getting the shot. Especially if I’m out and about and I see a cool scene. I have to take the shot right then, because if I say “Oh, I’ll get it later”, it won’t be the same shot most likely. The clouds will have moved, the people won’t be in the shot. It’ll be different. So I have to grab it when I can, or it bothers me that I missed it. Drives my wife crazy!
I think many a creative person tends to drive their spouses mad, lol. Like many other creative outlets, the Internet has enabled anyone with a camera to call themselves a photographer. Does that make it difficult to find an audience and/or work for skilled photographers, and what if anything can be done about that?
Mark: It definitely makes it challenging. And maybe I fall into that category too—I stared posting my photos, got good reactions, and it spurred me to keep going. I think photographers have to shoot what really interests them, and it’ll come through. That’s why I do a lot of “noir-themed” images. That’s my niche, and people/clients find me. But with my people and event photography, I want to get my camera in a new place, not shoot the same old boring photo that I might have seen before. There are ways to set yourself apart. Now, does that mean you can make a career out of it? That’s a whole different set of obstacles. You have to keep hustling, shooting, getting your work out there. A photographer definitely has to find their own look and style. You now want to “stop someone’s scroll”—shoot something so interesting people have to stop scrolling and look.
What’s your view of the future of photography? Will technology completely alter the way things are done, or will traditional cameras survive?
Mark: There’s no debating: We are a visual society. Photography has a long life ahead of it. Whether its people using new and interesting filters, or going back to shoot film, this creative medium will always be there. Technology will always shape it; always has. But the basics of composition and light will always be there and people will continue to record their lives.
Any advice for up-and-coming photographers?
Mark: Take pictures. Every day. Do the roadwork, as I like to say. Put yourself in the situations to get interesting photos. Don’t follow the same route, literally, every day. Take a different road, see new things. Talk to be people. Be curious. Always have your camera with you. Look for the cool light. And print! Print your images! Even if you have to go to the local drugstore, or upload them to a site like AdoramaPix, make prints every month of what you shot. 4×6’s, 5×7’s anything to have a physical reminder of what your shot Even with so much digital photography out there, there’s nothing like having actual photos in your hand. Plus, those hard drives won’t last forever.
Tell us where we can find your work.
Mark: I’m out and about in a number of places online:
My formal portfolio: http://jerseystylephotography.zenfolio.com/
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about photography and my work! If anyone has questions for me about anything I’ve touched on, feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Always a pleasure, Mark. I appreciate you taking time out for this interview and allowing my readers to get a better picture of the man behind the fedora.
Big thanks again to Mark for taking his talents to this blog. That’s it for the month of April, so see you in May! And as always, my name is Bard Constantine, and if you’re reading this you already know that Bard Writes Books.