Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Interviewed on a Czech blog by Michal Fanta

This interview was recently published in the Czech Republic. The author/interviewer, Michal Fanta, was gracious enough to provide me with an English translation that I am including here.

First the link to the original blog post in Czech (with photos).

And the interview in English:

I wasn’t sure whether to use the full length of the interview or whether to edit it to a shorter version. It is really long! Nonetheless the interview contains a great life story and experience from which every photographer will benefit. I’ve personally learned more about photography then from any photography book or workshop from talking to today’s photographer. I truly appreciate it and am strongly convinced you’ll benefit from the interview too (hence the full version). Enjoy!

John Cornicello is a photographer who’s been photographing for more than 30 years based in Seattle WA, USA. He is known mostly for his portraits and figure studies. He has an unusual point of view on photography which opens the eyes of other photographers. You also can see John assisting Jeremy Cowart on creativeLIVE (he was the one with all the answers for our questions). :) John was also participating on the charity event Help-Portrait 2010 in Seattle.

Why have you decided to become a photographer?
That is a tougher question than it first appears. I know a lot of photographers who talk about seeing their first print come up in the developer tray. That didn't phase me. That's what was supposed to happen. Others talk about "to get the girls," but I started when I was in an all boys high school. All I can really recall is that a classmate had a 35mm camera and I saw it and thought it looked kind of interesting. Before that, I had some Polaroid cameras (anyone remember the Big Swinger?), and my dad's Kodak Duaflex. And now that I think about it, back before high school I also played with an 8mm movie camera. I used to set up and photograph model cars on interesting backdrops that I found around the house. I hadn't thought of that before. Guess that's why I initially went into still life as I started going professional after college.

Have you been taking pictures in high school?
So, back to high school, I got a Hanimex Praktica SLR and probably a 50mm lens. It was around $65 and had a built-in selenium exposure meter. Soon after that I got a 400mm f/5.6 lens from Spiratone. And shortly after that the kit was stolen from the school's darkroom. I lost interest. Started playing music instead. I was a keyboard player in some local garage bands. But about a year later, I decided to ask for another camera for Christmas. Dad was a little reluctant at first because of the first one getting stolen. But the parents gave in (they were always very good about letting me make my own decisions) and I got a Canon FTBn with three lenses (28, 50, 135) that got me through the rest of high school and into college. Of course, I added a 400mm as soon as I could. They seemed so cool back then.

I understand that... so after that you went to study photography in college, right?
When it came time for college, I was looking at music schools, such as Berklee College of Music in Boston. My real interest was in electronic music. I probably didn't have the musical talent for Berklee, but it seemed interesting. Instead, though, I found a closer school (Ramapo College of New Jersey) that had a modular Moog synthesizer and was affordable (we had very little money). My first year was mostly music classes. But there was a photography department in the school of Contemporary Arts. The two teachers I remember were David Freund, an art photographer, and Ed Scully, a technical guy. I took some classes with each. I found I had no interest in the art side then. But found Ed to be a wonderful mentor, and by sophomore year I was pretty much out of the music classes and immersed in photography. Ed was a tough teacher with a military background (Navy, I believe). He was very critical. But he instilled concepts that I still use today. I remember one student asking why Ed never patted anyone on the back and another student replied because he's too tired from kicking your ass. Well, that worked for me. I eventually graduated to a Canon A1 and a Mamiya C220 dual lens reflex camera (the only medium format camera I've ever owned) to finish college.

After finishing college did you go straight to work?
Out of college I went to an employment agency in New York City and got an interview at a catalog house (Kranzten-Gould) on 23rd Street, west of 10th Ave. It turned out the guy interviewing me was someone I knew at Ramapo and I started working there as a photography assistant using large format (11x14, 8x10, 4x5) cameras photographing items for Montgomery-Ward catalogs. I really got hooked into that and pretty much put away the small cameras for a while. After a few months assisting at the studio another assistant and I decided to apply as photographers at another catalog studio and we worked there for around a year before deciding to get our own studio space. So, I guess by this time I had become a photographer. But I don't know just when the conscious decision was made.

I really like your life story of becoming a photographer. It sounds to me that music is an important part of your life. Would you say that your love for music influenced your photography? Do you get inspired by music?
I don't know if they overlap all that much. I enjoy photographing muscians and other performers. But often times while in the studio working with a portrait subject I totally forget to put any music on in the background. As I think about it, I think they are separate items for me. Music I like gives me a sense of energy. It makes me want to be on stage playing that song. On the other side of the lights, as it were. I have a music room at home and I have a photography room. But they don't seem to overlap. I didn't mention it before, but I took some time off from photography and music. That was due to some new fad called personal computers. It started with a Commodore 64 that I initially used to do some database work. I kept client contact info and billing, and things like that. And I found myself spending more time inside databases than doing photography. A few of the photographers I assisted at the time started hiring me to do computer work instead of photo work. From there I got a PC-compatible, and discovered Aldus PageMaker and started doing typesetting along with the database work. I left the NY studio, went back to New Jersey and worked at a couple of advertising agencies and then started a type setting and service bureau shop with some friends. During this time I just had a pointand-shoot 35mm camera and a Casio keyboard. All of my reading was in the computer field.

Most of my playtime was with computers, too. That led me to move to Seattle, WA where I worked with a company called Thunder Lizard Productions where I worked on PageMaker conferences. I know this seems a little off-topic, but shortly after I moved to Seattle we started also doing Photoshop conferences, and I was involved with Aldus and Adobe in their forums on CompuServe and AOL. Being introduced to Photoshop got me looking at photography again. Two people I worked with at Thunder Lizard, Steve Roth and David Blatner, wrote a book called Real World Scanning and asked me to take a photo of them for the back cover. A few months later I left Thunder Lizard and started working at Adobe, handling their online communities and social networking (though we didn't call it that 16 years ago). I'm still working at Adobe overseeing their online community forums.

...and now back to photography?

A few years later I started getting involved in the local arts community in Seattle and fell into a group called the Cirque de Flambé. This was a fire circus that got its start at the Burning Man festival. They had a band that played all original music that I fell in love with. At some point I went out, bought a new keyboard, and just started showing up at circus rehearsals and became part of the band. It was great. But also tough, as I wanted to also be photographing the circus. After a few years of that, I came to realize that the photography side was more important. Or at least that I had much more talent and knowledge on the photography side. I rationalized to myself that playing music was kind of ephemeral. If we were really good, the audience didn't notice us, we were just part of the experience and it was over when the show ended. With photography, on the other hand, I always had a lasting impression that could be revisited over and over. By this time the Circus had faded away and many of us from that group had moved into a vaudeville and varieté festival called the Moisture Festival (playing off the weather conditions in Seattle). I played in the band there for a couple of years and also started taking photos on the days the band was off (we had rotating house bands, so didn't play every show). At one point I started trying to take photos while playing in the band. That's when I realized it was back to photography. The Moisture Festival is now going into its eighth year and I am one of three photographers covering the show (the others being Mark Gardiner and Michelle Bates, who is known as the "Holga Queen" and has written a popular book about toy cameras). I wasn't totally satisfied with only photographing live shows. So I also started building back a set of studio equipment to do portraits and figure photography. I also worked with some of the variety acts to do conceptual pieces to promote their upcoming shows.

Wow, I am quite speechless while being amazed by all the things you've done. From looking at your photographs one can't miss you are a people photographer. What inspired you to photograph people and what do you like about it the most?
I'm not sure where that came from. As noted, I started out as a commercial still life photographer. I didn't work with many models. Maybe a hand or foot model here and there. I'd also do some head shots and things like that for friends. But no big projects. After my hiatus from photography I was just photographing anything around me. But I am not a landscape person at all. And there isn't much call for still life outside the commercial world. So I guess people was the direction to go in. I used to consider myself pretty quiet/shy/introverted. But once I started getting involved with the artists around Seattle, that all changed. I was surrounded by great characters, beautiful people, wonderful performers. I just started taking photos of everyone around me. A friend founded a company here in Seattle called Utilikilts ( and was planning their first anniversary party. He asked if I would come down and take photos of the guests. I already had some lights, but I wasn't sure what to do about film and getting prints to people, so I went out and got my first dSLR (a Canon D30) for that party. After that I just started getting invited to a number of other parties around town and found myself taking a LOT of people photos. And I got to be pretty well known for these party photos. When I got started with that, I really didn't know a lot about lighting people. But I lucked out with my somewhat random placement of lights (usually determined by the tiny space the photo booth had to operate in). I also looked around at others doing party photos and didn't like what I saw. Often using what I refer to "copy stand" lighting with two umbrellas and flat lighting. That made me go out and start reading everything I could on photography and lighting. I sometimes feel that I keep some local bookstores in business, as I've built up a library of more than 350 photography books. Books of all sorts. Individual portfolios, how-to series, composition, lighting, just about everything. My lighting kept getting better. I learned all the rules so that I could break them and know why I was breaking them. I got to know more people. More people got to know me. I started inviting performers over to do staged photos instead of just performance. And it just grew.

Who or what are your influences?

Inspiration? Other photographers. Edward Weston, Ruth Bernhard, Richard Avedon, Arnold Newman, and the like.
Enjoyment? Getting to spend time with my subjects.
Over the past year or so I've done my "Friends" project where I started asking Facebook friends to come over and be photographed and spend a little real time with me. For me, photography is mostly a process, though the product is also important. I enjoy the interaction with my subjects. The time spent picking out clothing and props. The whole process of making the photo. That we have a nice photo at the end is just icing on the cake. I sometimes think that I don't even need to see the images afterward. It was the experience that was important to me. I don't know if all my subjects would agree. They may prefer the results.

I really love the part where you talk about the importance of the experience of taking photos. But... Do you remember the first photograph you made that took your breath away or that made you say: Wow! If so, what was it?

I initially thought this would be a tough question. But almost immediately I thought of a photo I took in high school of a runner. I can't remember if it was a sprinter in a 100 yard dash or a hurdler. Probably the sprinter. It was taken from beyond the finish line with a 400mm lens and showed the strain and determination on the runner's face. And to be cliché, my favorite image today is the next one I create. But the experience, again, will be more important than the image.

Has being a part of the community of photographers on flickr helped your photography?

Yes, I think that Flickr has helped. I also joined my first "camera club" about the same time I got onto Flickr. And while I don't really like all the judging and competitions in clubs, it did help me focus and be more careful with my framing and things like that. Facebook has also helped. On Flickr I often feel like I'm just showing my work to other photographers and gear-heads. On Facebook I get feedback from folks who are in my photos or who could become customers. Just in the past few weeks, though, I've pulled back a bit from both Flickr and Facebook and have been devoting more time to my blog at And going forward I would like to do more teaching or mentoring.

I am really glad you included the camera club experience. Would you like to add something to the interview I didn't ask you about?
Other things important to me are concepts like it isn't all about the gear. We can make great portraits with simple and available light. But you should know and understand the gear you use. And that should become second nature. Think about the gear before you start photographing. Forget about it while you are. The interaction with your subject is what is important. Make them feel comfortable. Don't hide behind the camera. Engage with them and keep everything positive. If you aren't comfortable, your subject is going to sense that. Practice, practice, practice! It is like being in a play. Rehears, rehearse, rehearse. And then go on stage and perform. One thing I don't think we talked about is the iPhone. I've really enjoyed using that as a camera and look forward to doing more things with the iPhone.

That`s right. What inspired you to start making photos with an iPhone and what is the best thing about shooting with it for you?

Since getting a regular cell phone with a camera in it, I've been intrigued by it. But at first I didn't have any sort of data plan, and no idea how to get the photos off of the phone. My original carrier dropped their cell service and I found myself able to jump over to the iPhone. That made it so much simpler. I started with an iPhone 3Gs, so had a decent camera that could focus. I had it with me everywhere, so started taking photos with it everywhere. I am usually a "telephoto" type of person. I like lenses on the longer side (100-200mm). The phone has a pretty wide field of view, so it gets me to look at things differently. It also takes away a lot of control and lets the image happen without fuss. I can throw away all the technical stuff that usually flashes through my head as I lift an SLR up. The camera phone is what it is. It has probably 90% replaced my point and shoot (Canon G10), though it is usually with me. Even in the studio I like to take a few photos on the set with the iPhone when I remember to do it. I don't expect it to replace the SLR, but it gives a new point of view.

I have to say, I don`t use a point and shoot anymore, I call my iPhone the modern polaroid camera. :) What is your favourite app? Do you do the post processing on your phone or in Aperture or Photoshop?
I have a little collection of apps that I regularly use for post-processing. I start out with PhotoForge with its levels, curves, etc. Then I might go into TIltShiftGen to narrow the focus and play with the saturation. Then I go into PhotoMarkr to add my watermark. Then I use Best Camera to put a white frame on it and upload to Facebook or Twitter. I sometimes do extra work in Lightroom. What's Aperture??? (sorry, I work for Adobe).

Thank you very much for the interview John.


  1. Hi John, thank you very much again.
    btw. we are not Czechoslovakia anymore - we've been separated since January 1st 1993 into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. :)


  2. Thanks, Michal. So much for education and keeping up with current events. Corrected!

  3. No problem. :) By the way: I am just watching you live with Vincent Laforet.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.