Jesse Rieser: Darkroom Destiny

It's not enough to just be a photographer. You have to be about it.

ADC Photography Month is officially a wrap, and we’re making a grand exit with YG 9 winner Jesse Rieser. A Missouri native residing on the West Coast, Jesse is a seeker of subtleties: the unexplained elements, the unobvious expressions, the lingering mysteries in a photo because subtleties tell stories. They refuse to reveal themselves immediately. You can’t help but to be drawn to Jesse’s work and wonder about his subjects and their untold truths. Shooting since the tender age of 17, Jesse seeks to understand his subjects. Some call this empathetic. Others call it charming. His mom just thinks he’s nice. But we know this isn’t easy to master by any means, but when you find those special moments between subject and photographer as Jesse has, photos become arresting little worlds unto themselves. Here, Jesse shares his story, some sound advice and what a digital democracy means for us all.


Jesse Rieser, Photographer
Phoenix, AZ



When did you first become interested in photography and how did you foster it into a viable working gig?

Like many (before digital) the magic of the darkroom got me hooked. That one experience cancelled all my other career aspirations and helped me choose a major and career path. Assisting fashion and commercial photographers in London helped solidify my direction as a professional.

Do you remember the first photo you ever took? Tell us about it!

I do. It was an assignment in my high school Photo 1 class. It was a simple still life set up with household items in my parents kitchen. My background was in drawing and painting, and to a 17 year old me, it sounded like a great idea. Now, probably it’s not all that interesting.

“So you’re a photographer?” What is the strangest or most common question you are asked when someone learns about what you do?

“So like, Sr. Photos and Weddings?”

What type of photography is your specialty and how did it come to be so?

I don’t so much have a ‘specialty’ as a unique point of view that unifies the range of subject matter which inspires me to create. From expansive, surreal environments to emotional portraits, the underlying theme is part curiosity and celebratory of subjects and stories that go largely unnoticed.

Define your photographic style in 5 words or less. 

Curiously celebrating the ignored.

What is your favorite camera to shoot with? Any other ‘must-have’ tools?

I’m not a big gear or camera head. The freedom of shooting with a cellphone and Instagram is a nice way to simplify and enjoy a passion that turned into a profession. That being said, I do have a nostalgic connection to my Mamiya 7II medium format rangefinder. As for must have tools, I work in the West with harsh lighting conditions so anything that will quickly diffuse the sun and bounce and fill in the shadows. Batteries and snacks are pretty important too.

What is the hardest part about making a living at this? Any advice for new comers? 

I tell my students that they have to fucking love it.

With the advent of digital comes a digital democracy, meaning, there isn’t too much room for being solely a technician like so many commercial shooters were decades ago. You need to come with a vision that is yours and yours alone. This can be especially hard and make you vulnerable when you offer your unique point of view to the world as a currency or commodity.

Follow what inspires you and not the trends or what you feel is being asked of you. I know that sounds like a bullshit and cliché answer, but it shows up in your work, and it’s the only way to get to a place where people will recognize when an image is yours–without seeing your name attached to it.

Is there a project of yours of which are are especially proud?

While my Christmas In America: Happy Birthday, Jesus project is the most recognized and celebrated, I would have to say the work I am most proud of is my series Starting Over: Will Move For Work. It shows my parents packing up, selling the house I grew up in and moving from my hometown as a result of my father losing his job during the economic crisis.

What would be your dream collab or client? 

Damn…tough question. I would love to photograph President Obama. For commercial work, the products Adidas has been putting out over the last 18 months have been particularly exciting to me, in a futurist type of way. That would be rad.

What sparks your creativity? 

Not being in a studio. Humans are more fascinating.

Fill in the blank: “When I am not shooting, I am ________________”

Listening to rap music.

What photographers do you look up to and why? 

I love Nadav Kander’s work. The quality of work over multiple photographic disciplines and his longevity are wonderful.

What gets you up in the morning and drives your passion?

I like to give myself some time first thing in the morning. Meditation, a hike in the desert. It’s a good way to find clarity with your thoughts before the onslaught of emails and phone calls comes through.

For anyone starting out in, what would you say to them? 

You have to love it and trust your sensibilities.

Lastly, how has being an ADC Member helped your creative aspirations? 

From winning a Young Guns award, I have created many personal and professional relationships that have lead to collaborations and countless career opportunities. To be amongst a curated and high calibre pool of talent is endlessly inspiring and humbling.


Look out for next month’s theme of Typography & Lettering. Want to get featured? Become an ADC Member today!