With Texas roots going back to the early 1800′s, it might be a bit difficult to quickly find other photographers with a bigger stake in the state. Now living in Austin, Jay B. Sauceda grew up in southeast Houston, and went to the University of Texas. He’s all about the Lone Star State, and loves having it in his viewfinders.
Studying political science, Sauceda took one photography class at UT. The professor was Dennis Darling, a photojournalist. Darling was able to bring Harry Benson to campus for a lecture. Benson discussed becoming close friends with John Lennon and what he witnessed in the Ambassador Hotel the night Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Intrigued by the prospect of witnessing and documenting critical events, Sauceda attention shifted. “I thought that was fascinating and it kind of sparked my interest in photography,” he recalls.
After graduating with a degree in political science, he remained in the capital. Initially engaged in political work, he quickly saw running campaigns wasn’t for him. He switched gears and started assisting for photographer Casey Dunn. He became friendly with a small cadre of photographers whom he claims have more technical training on different types of cameras. These friends helped guide Sauceda, and got him shooting medium format.
Initially interested in learning by seeing what others were doing on Flickr, Sauceda was guided by his friends. “There’s a lot of bad information out there on some of those Web sites,” he says. Talented friends like Dunn, Adam Vorhees and Matt Rainwaters “gave me a lot of good advice,” he recalls.
With his assisting days behind him, Sauceda’s paying jobs are primarily commercial work, with some additional editorial assignments. He keeps very active with personal work because he’s generally hired to shoot portraiture and environmental scenes. Always working with eyes open, Sauceda tends to be able to squeeze in personal work before or after a paying assignment is done.
With Austin being the music mecca it is, it’s no surprise many of Sauceda’s subjects are musicians of name. He met Doyle Bramhall II, and through him, guitar slinger Charlie Sexton and Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble’s drummer, the incredible Chris Layton. The three comprise the Arc Angels, a band which released their first album in 1992.
Although his portrait work is identifiably his, Sauceda’s product photography and food photography ranks among the best you’ve seen in any magazine. As opposed to working with portraiture subjects, Sauceda finds the technical challenges and tweaking he can do when photographing products as one of the main draws to that type of work. “With product photography, it’s just kind of crazy to me how much goes into it to make something look as good as it does. It’s fun, and I really love doing it. For me it’s kind of a change of pace. I like shooting people, but it’s also nice to just dim the lights in the studio, and work with product. You’re not really with dealing with anybody; you’re just working by yourself. You get to be a lot more meticulous than you do when you’re shooting people, for the most part.”
As a fifth generation Texan, the Lone Star State is never far from his heart or his work. Sauceda is currently working on a book of Texas furniture from 1850-1875 for the University of Texas. While traveling the state to document furniture, Sauceda began an unrelated series of photos on hand-painted building signage. Painted primarily on brickwalled buildings, these relics from past eras of advertising hawk everything from Big Red soda to Star Biscuits. Found on county roads and small state highways off the Interstate, Sauceda sees this project as a labor of love. “I really like Texas culture and Americana,” he says. “Finding a lot of these little brands and things like that on the sides of buildings has been kind of fun for me.”
In a stroke of good timing, Sauceda finds this type of work becoming popular now. When showing his book, these images draw many positive comments. “Most of the designers that I’m showing my work to end up being really interested in that series, mainly because it’s typographically pretty interesting to them from a design standpoint,” he says. “I like it because it’s general interest. Even if you’re not a designer it’s just interesting because you don’t really see that kind of hand painted work done anymore.”
The majority of photography Sauceda creates these days is done with his Mamiya 645ADF II. Half his current online portfolio was shot with a ZD Back, and the other half with a Phase One back. Sharing a studio with two other photographers, “Pretty much all our stuff at our studio is Mamiya-friendly,” he says. One exception is a friend who shoots a Canon 5D Mark II. “It’s kind of a running joke at the studio,” explains Sauceda. “When we shoot anything with the Mark II, we have to ask him, ‘Hey man, is this sharp for a Canon? Because it’s not sharp for a medium format or a large format lenses.’ We rag on him about shooting with 35mm stuff.”
Sauceda shoots his Mamiya with just two lenses, the 80mm and the 55-110mm zoom. He prefers the 80mm, which came with the system. “And it’s tack-sharp,” he adds quickly. “You always end up with these kit lenses that came with the camera, and this is the first kit lens I’ve ever been really impressed with. I shoot with that if I don’t need to do a lot of zooming, and then I shoot with the 55 to 110, but the 80 my workhorse. I shoot pretty much everything with it. Most the time, if I just want the camera to be a little smaller, and I know I don’t need a lot of range and focal length, I’ll shoot with that 80mm. I can focus a little bit closer with it. I’ve never even really needed any other lenses.”
Believing in shooting what feels most comfortable, Sauceda will be sticking with medium format. “I’ll get into little discussions with some of the guys here in Austin who shoot 35mm. They think I’m crazy for shooting medium format, and all that sort of stuff. They’re like, ‘Oh, how do you shoot with that?’ and ‘You don’t have a high enough ISO to shoot with this and that, blah, blah.’ To me, I just need a system that can mimic what it was like to shoot on film, because that’s how I learned. I don’t really need ISO 3200 or 6400. I don’t need a nightvision camera. I just try to keep my systems really simple. It just makes it easier. I’m not going to lose track of stuff. The less stuff I have, the less that can go wrong in my opinion. I’ve never been too much of a gear guy. I like the system I have, and I feel really comfortable with it. I’ll sell it to people if they’re asking me what the merits are on it. But, for me, I like my because it’s simple and it’s durable as heck.”
Sauceda also applies this minimalistic ethos to his lighting. “I try not to go too crazy with my light setup,” he explains. “If I’m doing something outside, I’m not the type of person that would want to overpower the sun. Because generally the sun already knows what it’s doing and it does a good enough job making everything look great. I’m just there to try to help make it look a little bit better. For outdoor work, it’s pretty simple: just fill with softboxes and that kind of thing, and scrims and stuff to cut light. For the most part, I just do a lot of clamshell lighting where I just do a key light and some fill. I work with one softbox, and I’ll generally just key everything up with one softbox—just kind of fill everything in with a huge umbrella. I’ve been going through a hard light phase recently where I’ve been shooting everything without light modifiers, and then just fill in the light with a softbox or something. I light people really hard because I like the shadows really, really gritty. Then I fill it in, so I don’t make everybody look really unflattering. I’m generally a little bit more reserved when it comes to lighting.”
Sharing gear with his studiomates Adam Voorhes and Casey Dunn is common for Sauceda. “We float equipment back and forth. The Profoto D1′s have been pretty incredible. I’ve used them on location a couple times. The assistant was super-psyched because he didn’t have to do anything because we had the little remote control for it. Being able to manually adjust the light settings and stuff like that was really nice, with me not having to move anywhere, and my assistant just having to set everything up.” The group also has a Sekonic light meter at the studio.
Sauceda sees himself pushing his commercial work as the future unfolds. He likes shooting lifestyle and environmental photography. Shooting people is where his passion rests. As far as location, he won’t be leaving Texas, or even Austin any time soon. “Obviously, New York is like the Mecca of photography,” he says. “There’s no lofty expectations Austin is overnight, going to become some sort of photographic hub. What we’ve been trying to do over the last few months—and really the last couple of years—is just show people in other cities that you don’t necessarily have to go to New York or Los Angeles to find that caliber of photography. We’ve been working to raise the caliber, and not just shoot everything, but just shoot some high level stuff to put Austin on the map as a creative hub. Don’t get me wrong, I like New York and I like L.A., but in my book Austin wins out against all of them.”
Brimming with Texas pride, this native points out the sheer economics of operating costs in Texas versus more traditional commercial photography centers in the United States. Even when location travel is factored in, the cost of Austin overhead is so much more reasonable than in other cities, it makes Sauceda and his fellow shooters competitive with other pros around the nation. “Plus, we like being able to go swim in May and hit the pool and that kind of stuff until November,” he says, laughing.