Like many creative professionals, Jason Landry wears a lot of hats. Gallerist, collector, photographer, and most recently, writer. Don’t Take Pictures interviewed Landry about his experiences writing his first book Instant Connections.
Tell us about your transition from photographer to gallery owner. How did you come to acquire Panopticon Gallery and what curatorial experience did you have prior to purchasing the gallery?
My desire to own a gallery came while I was getting my undergraduate degree from the Massachusetts College of Art & Design. At that time, I was labeled a “non-traditional student” as I was in my 30’s when all of my classmates were between 19-22. Prior to going to college, I worked for a Fortune 500 company in sales and marketing. When I was in school, there really weren’t any business or marking classes that taught you how to market and sell your artwork when you left college. All that was really taught was how to use your equipment, how to develop your negatives, and how to somewhat critique your work. I thought to myself, how will some of these students survive as artists if they don’t have any business know how? That’s when the idea of owning a gallery came to me. I wanted to be able to exhibit great photography, but also mentor emerging artists and help them with their careers.
Once I graduated from MassArt, I started graduate school and I also was asked to be on the Board of Directors at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University. Here is where I learned about the ins and outs of running a photo business. I watched how the PRC curator planned shows, and I was able to meet and network with all of the major collectors, curators, critics, patrons, printers and artists. I then stepped down from the board to take a job as the Education Manager at the PRC, then became the Programs and Operations Manager.
Lastly, I had told the Executive Director of the PRC my desire to open a gallery. He told me, when the time is right, you’ll know. After I completed graduate school, I was approached by the former owner of Panopticon Gallery asking if I’d be interested in purchasing it from him. It was one of the greatest moments in my life.
Running a gallery leaves little time for one’s own work. You mention that you moved away from photography as the gallery took more of your time but writing is also time consuming. How and why did you begin writing?
When I bought the gallery, I told myself that I was setting aside my own personal work in order to concentrate on something more important. It was like a higher calling. This isn’t a religious statement, rather, I just knew that I could do more good as a person who helped others. I have stated in the past that “I live vicariously through the successes of my artists.” That statement is true, however, after a few years, I started to miss being creative. When you have spent half your life doing some form of art, and then you aren’t doing it, you feel something missing inside.
One day, my wife said to me, “Jason, I want to shut the cable TV off. Reality TV is dumbing us down.” Although I knew I would miss my sports teams, I went along with it. After a few weeks, boredom struck. I said to her, “What am I suppose to do with all of this free time?” She suggested that I read and write more.
To be honest, I never enjoyed reading or writing. With reading, I was never the type to just sit down for an hour or more, quietly and read. I am a high-energy type of person. And for writing, that wasn’t one of my strong points either. When I was in graduate school, the director of the program told me that my writing wasn’t academic enough because I wrote the way I talked, and that was a no-no.
Anyhow, I took my wife’s advice and started to write about all of the different things that had happened to me through photography. Then I started to feel like I had content for a book. My wife then suggested that I read Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. This book described his life in the culinary world. Although it had nothing to do with photography, the non-fiction nature of the book, coupled with the fact that I enjoyed his TV show (when we had cable) kept me reading. As I read it, I said to my wife, “Honey, Bourdain writes the way that he talks.” And she said, “No kidding. You can write a book the way that you talk. It doesn’t have to be academic.”
And that is how it all happened. Writing has become my new artistic outlet and I enjoy it just as much, if not more than I did when I was making photographs.
What was the evolution of the book; interviews followed by essays or visa versa?
It was a little of both. Some of the interviews I did when I worked at the Photographic Resource Center. I was in charge of bringing the big named lecturers to town and when they arrived, I would interview them. We never did anything with the interviews while I was there, so I kept them on a hard drive for future use. Other interviews happened later on, such as the interviews with William Wegman and Leonard Nimoy. The essays all happened later. The first essay that started this whole book was Exposing Yourself at a Portfolio Review Event.
At what point did you realize that you had the beginnings of a book?
When I printed out the Word document and realized I had over 150 typed pages. I freaked!
Instant Connections discusses a range of topics in the world of the fine art photography. Who do you think will find this book most helpful; collectors, emerging photographers, or curators?
I think the number one demographic would have to be students earning their degrees in Photography and emerging photographers. I’m trying to open up their eyes to things that they don’t or didn’t learn about in school. And the stuff that I discuss is not proprietary information––it’s just no one had written about it before. Also, this book is not a critical theory primer on photography. It’s not what I call “heady” and doesn’t have deep, thought provoking concepts that will twist your brain. I wanted to write a book that was serious, yet fun and sometimes funny that others would relate to.
Curators will find it entertaining (I hope) and collectors will get an insiders look into how I think, and how other collector’s think. They will also learn about what photographers go through to become established artists.
Many photographers support their fine art practices with commercial work. Why not devote a chapter to commercial photography?
All of the chapters had to do with the concept of “connections” and learning or understanding how to build your “network”. Each chapter also was something that I personally experienced. Since I only did a few commercial jobs, it wasn’t something that I felt I could write a good essay about. Maybe I will write one in the future. I’m not done writing.
Most of the time you are the one discovering potential in an artist and cultivating their career. As Doolittle Press’ first book, how was your experience as the one being cultivated?
Well, I probably would have felt better about it if a major publisher picked up the book. Since it was independently published, I worked with a team of people who could manage, edit, design and produce a great book. My team made sure that the finished product look good. That’s all I cared about.
What was it like working with Debbie Hagan? So often, you are the editor for photographers. What was the process like having your work edited and critiqued by someone else?
Debbie was awesome! I had known her for quite a while, way back when she was the Editor-in-Chief of Art New England magazine. We would often run into each other at various gallery and museum openings. Then, as I was knee deep in the book writing, I talked to her about finding an editor. That’s when she offered to read a few chapters. At that time she was working at a museum and couldn’t take the editing job. I was bummed out, because she was the only person I knew in the writing industry. But then, a few months down the road she came to the gallery for a visit and told me that she was kicking herself for not taking the job of editing the book, that she really enjoyed the sample chapters. I was then able to tell her that I still hadn’t found one and the job was hers.
Since I had never worked with an editor before, she helped me tremendously and although the thousands of edits in the form of track changes in Microsoft Word took longer to edit than in did to write the book, I found it extremely rewarding. I couldn’t have done it without her.
Does Doolittle Press have any plans to publish books by other authors?
Possibly in the future.
In your book you discuss the importance of creating a creative network. When you stepped into an industry where suddenly you had none, did you apply the same advice to beginning your literary career as you would give a photographer beginning their career?
YES. I knew only Debbie Hagan. I asked her what I should do and she suggested that I visit Grub Street, a Boston-based non-profit writing center. I signed up for a few workshops, met some more writers and authors, then attended their yearly The Muse and the Marketplace event. It was like a portfolio review event for writers. Since I was serious about writing, I wanted to immerse myself with other like-minded individuals. I was able to have a few literary agents read my manuscript and give me valuable advice. Lately, I have been meeting with authors to interview them and ask them questions about best practices. Having the right connections and building your network is important in any industry that you are in.
You have interviewed some key players in the photography community. Were you ever star-struck with any of your interviewees?
There are four interviews in the book. The first two: Harold Feinstein and William Wegman I knew personally, as I exhibit and represent their work at Panopticon Gallery. Getting to meet Vik Muniz when he was in Boston and interview him then sit at his lecture at the Museum of Fine Arts was fun. Most of the time, artists are real, down-to-earth people. Yes, some have major egos, but for the most part, they are not flashy, celebrities.
But for my last interview with Leonard Nimoy, I was dealing with someone who was a celebrity. As Spock from the television show and movies Star Trek, he is known worldwide. Very few people know that he was raised in Boston, Mass and is a photographer. When he called me on the phone, it was surreal. I first had to admit to him that I knew nothing about Star Trek, as I never watched any of the movies, and maybe had only seen a handful of TV episodes when I was younger. He didn’t seem to mind, because he was excited that all I wanted to talk about was photography. He was very generous with his time and I got a great interview. He is very passionate about his work, both as an actor and as a photographer. My goal was trying to find a handful of photographers to interview who had very different ideas, goals, styles and personalities. I think I succeeded.
Finally, what is next for you with both the gallery and your writing?
The gallery is humming along. We are doing about four exhibitions a year. Besides the gallery, I was hired last year to be the Director of the MFA in Photography program at the New Hampshire Institute of Art. So I am busier than ever.
As for writing, I write blog posts on photography occasionally for the Huffington Post and essays for various magazines. And for long-form writing, I am tackling a new book idea—a historical fiction book.