64: Jeff Lipsky – 3 Things It Takes to Have a Career in Art
“I took one of my favorite pictures of all time with just myself and the subject, and that’s something I’m always trying to chase to get back to.”
– Jeff Lipsky
Welcome back to ONKEN RADIO, the podcast where we explore the body, mind, and soul of the creative entrepreneur. It’s my goal to help you take your creativity, business, and life to the next level. I’m so glad you’re joining me on this journey.
Today, I’ve got an extra special guest for you. He’s a personal creative hero of mine, and his work has massively inspired me in my own career as a photographer and creative entrepreneur. He’s an absolute master of the craft of photography, a creative genius, and also just a really nice guy.
His name is Jeff Lipsky, and he’s here today to teach you how to build a creative career and a life that you love. Let me just give you a little preview here:
“You don’t want to get stuck on, ‘Well, I can lean back and shoot this way. Or maybe I should shoot this way.’ … You’ve got to find yourself. You’ve got to stay true to what you like and your aesthetic. … It should always be shooting something that you love; it should never be about money. … It’s easier said than done, but it should always be that [you] love taking pictures.”
– Jeff Lipsky
It’s so true. Whatever your medium, whatever your craft, it is essential that your creative projects — at their core — are true to you. When you’re being your true, authentic self, that’s when artistic genius happens.
And you guys, that’s just a little taste of the wisdom Jeff has to offer. We’re about to dive into a ton of knowledge taken from a decades-long career in art and creativity. Jeff knows how to build a life you love by working in a creative industry. And today, he’s going to give us his top three things you’ve got to have to make a career in art. I know you’re not going to want to miss that, so let’s go!
Who Is Jeff Lipsky?
Jeff Lipsky is a photographer. Honestly, it’s tough to put him into a more specific category than that, because he shoots just about everything. If you can think of a celebrity, chances are Jeff’s photographed them. He’s photographed Ellen Page, Adrien Brody, Tony Hawk, Michael B. Jordan, Zac Efron, Emma Stone — you name them, Jeff has shot them.
But he’s not just a celebrity photographer. If you can think of a top magazine, Jeff’s probably shot for them too. He’s worked with People, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and Outside. He’s also shot for companies like Chase Bank and Oakley. He’s a prolific creator, and he knows how to bring his personal aesthetic of lightness and warmth to whatever project he’s working on.
And all that is insane, right? Jeff gets some of the coolest assignments. But one of Jeff’s most inspiring projects is actually his most personal. He has a photo series of images of fathers with their sons. As a father himself, Jeff loves the special moments that happen when fathers share their passion and wisdom with their sons, and he takes beautiful photos that capture those moments.
(By the way, you can — and should — check out all these different projects on Jeff’s website here.)
Jeff has built a broad career, but guess what? He started out as a fly fishing instructor. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. Jeff didn’t graduate from college and immediately jump into the world of professional photography. He had to start at the bottom and work his way up to the beautiful artistic life he’s living now.
Along the way, Jeff’s picked up some pretty great wisdom that he can sum up in just three words:
“… To me, there’s three words in photography — and [they apply] to a lot of creative arts and [they’re] in this order — it’s timing, tenacity, and talent.”
– Jeff Lipsky
Today, Jeff and I are unpacking those three words and uncovering what they mean for entrepreneurs like you — artists working to build creative careers. I know Jeff’s advice will be as incredibly helpful for you as it has been for me, so let’s dive in.
Timing: Jeff’s Story
How can a fly fishing guide in Telluride, Colorado become a career photographer in Los Angeles, California? For Jeff, it’s all about being in the right place at the right time.
“… I was an advertising major thinking I was going to go into advertising, and then my senior year, I’m like … ‘I want to go skiing somewhere.’ … So I moved to Telluride, and, lo and behold, that lasted over 10 years. I was a snowboarder, and I was a fly fishing guide, … and I met a lot of interesting people.”
– Jeff Lipsky
Little did he know, some of those interesting people would turn out to be amazingly valuable connections for Jeff down the road.
Jeff continued taking photographs and developing his craft during the decade he spent in Colorado, and only after all that time did he discover that he really wanted to be a professional artist. He reached out to some of the people he met in Telluride and started assisting on professional shoots. He’d been in the right place at the right time and met the right people, and that led him out to LA, where he could truly launch a career in photography.
Jeff spent a lot of years taking assistant gigs on photo shoots. He started out as a third assistant, then became a second assistant, and finally — you guessed it — he started getting jobs as a first assistant. And those years were too valuable even to quantify.
During his years assisting on shoots, Jeff learned everything from all the names of weird pieces of equipment to the value of using natural light to create really beautiful portraits. He also learned the essential nature of using your time wisely and continually doing something to grow as a creative professional.
“If [I] know I want to be a photographer, I’ve got to do something every day. … I may have a job working in a restaurant, but I’m going to spend a little time doing something about photography — and it doesn’t have to be literally taking a picture. It can be connecting with a photo editor, editing film, just something that you did for photography that day. And obviously, the more time you spend shooting pictures and the more time you spend divulged in that, the better [your] chances of becoming a photographer.”
– Jeff Lipsky
It all comes down to using your time wisely. If you’re building a career, seeking out as many connections as you can find, and constantly using your short time in this life to develop your craft, you’ll eventually find yourself in the right place at the right time, and you’ll be able to build the life of your wildest dreams.
Tenacity: Persistence Is the Key
But here’s the thing: growing your creative career doesn’t just take good timing; it also takes time. You have to be persistent and keep developing your craft even when it’s tiring. You have to be willing to take the hard jobs and keep putting your all into them, so you can learn, grow, and develop into the artist and creative you need to be.
“But then you learn. Because then people are nice on set and people know that you need to learn. And then you mentor other people. So you learn what the settings are, you learn the power packs, you learn how to do a whiteout. … When you start figuring out what lighting is, what different sources do, and … ‘What does this source do on someone’s face?’ And throughout my years of assisting, that helped — working with different photographers.”
– Jeff Lipsky
Working at your craft — often for years — is essential. And that’s true for all creatives, not just photographers. By working with people who are already doing what you want to do, you pick up the skills you need to create better and better art.
But you’ll never get there if you don’t stay persistent. You have to keep taking those assistant jobs and doing the less glamorous stuff until your moment comes.
Remember what Jeff said earlier? Doing something to help you build your creative skills every day is enough to keep going — even if it’s just making a connection with someone else in your industry. If you’re persistent long enough, your moment will come, and you’ll step into the creative life you were meant for.
“I always had this philosophy of — if you’re passionate about something and you love something, no matter what you’re doing to be successful at it. It might take time, but it’s going to definitely happen.”
– Jeff Lipsky
I really want to encourage you guys today to keep being persistent. Be tenacious. Keep on keepin’ on. If you are passionate about your creativity and love it with all your heart, don’t worry. You’re going to be successful! Just have faith in yourself and keep grinding and growing and creating until you’ve reached success.
Talent: Look At the Intersection of Your Gifts and Your Passions
The third and final piece of the puzzle is talent. You’ve got to have a certain amount of talent to make it as a creative — that’s just a fact. But here’s the good news: in today’s world, talent is way more about putting effort and love and passion into your craft than about any natural-born ability.
“There [are] so many talented photographers out there … I see moms taking pictures that are on Facebook [and] I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that picture is absolutely brilliant.’ And they’re constantly doing it. So there’s a lot of talent, but it’s about being persistent and getting that timing to become a photographer.”
– Jeff Lipsky
Find the place where your talent and your passion line up and pursue success from there. My gift is photography, but yours might be something different. Maybe you’re a writer or a musician. Maybe you’re a painter or a sculptor or a fashion designer or a filmmaker. Maybe you like drawing illustrations. I recently started making hats myself! The important thing is that you take your unique gift, and then focus on the Creative Alchemy that happens when you throw yourself into it and work to become the best that you can be.
That’s the essence of Jeff’s story. Remember that passion project of his I mentioned earlier, about the photograph series of fathers and sons? That project grew out Jeff’s sincere love for the relationship between parents and their children. He coupled that love with his desire to learn more about using simple lighting and achieved genuinely beautiful images.
“So I really had this fascination with the simplicity of lighting because I don’t like to use too many lights if I don’t have to. … You’ve got to just get out with your camera by yourself and start to take pictures or think of things you need to take. … So any time that I can be … just with a camera and … not have lights or not have someone holding [whiteboards] … it’s just you and the subject. And so I’ve been shooting family friends. … It’s a passion project where fathers are passing their passion to their sons … “
– Jeff Lipsky
Jeff knew he had a certain amount of natural talent, so he decided to develop it. He became fascinated with lighting and how minimal lighting can really produce a beautiful effect. And he used that talent and that knowledge that he’s acquired over years of working in the industry to create a truly incredible photo series that you can check out here.
You can do that too. Look at the intersection of your gifts and your passions, and create art from there. Remember — you’ll be successful if you just keep trying. So embrace your talents and use them to the fullest extent.
The Formula for Creative Alchemy
Jeff has so much wisdom to share, and I think that he’s given us a perfect formula for Creative Alchemy.
We’ve got three pieces: timing, tenacity, and talent. You need all three to have a career as an artist, and they all have to work together so that you can live your most creative life and build the business you want.
Now ask yourself: What am I good at? What are my talents? What creative skills do I already have? What skills do I need to develop?
Once you’ve identified those, it’s time to get to work. Be tenacious — work at it until you’ve mastered your craft. Be the best you can be, and develop a personal style and voice that are unique to you. As much as you can, base your work around your passions, and create things you can be proud of.
And from there, it’s all in the timing. Wait to be in the right place at the right time — that moment is on its way. It just takes meeting the right person or saying “yes” to the right assistant job to launch your career higher than you ever dreamed it would go.
When you have all three pieces of the puzzle Jeff laid out for us today, you become a creative alchemist. You’re blending yourself into your work and creating beautiful pieces of art that make the world a better place.
Thank you so much for joining me today, guys! I loved this episode so much — I’m proud to call Jeff a good friend, and I’m grateful for every opportunity to talk to him and learn from him.
If you loved this episode, make sure to connect with Jeff out on social media. He’s on Instagram, and you can see a ton of his incredible pictures there! And, of course, you can find Jeff and his awesome professional work on his website here.
And by the way, don’t forget to check out my website too. There, you can find a quick ten-question quiz designed and get some of my best free content to help you out on your creative journey.
Thank you so much for joining me today, guys. I hope you enjoyed this episode — if you did, please screenshot it and post it to Instagram and tag me, @nickonken and Jeff, @jefflipsky. And if you’ve got time, leave me a review on Apple podcasts. I’d love to hear your feedback.
I’ll catch you guys next time — now go live the creative lives you were meant for.
“If you’re passionate about something and you love something, no matter what, you’re going to be successful at it.”
– Jeff Lipsky
Some things we learn in this podcast:
- The amazing people Jeff has shot [3:40]
- His upbringing in a photography oriented family [5:40]
- Where his fascination with simple lighting came from [8:30]
- Why he loves simple photoshoots [10:15]
- Why you have to do personal work [11:00]
- Why you have to assist [14:50]
- How he prepared for his first real job [20:10]
- Why you have to move yourself forward every day [23:35]
- How timing, tenacity, and talent apply to the creative arts [24:05]
- Why everyone has talent [26:50]
- How lights and equipment can distract from the moment [33:30]
- Why you have to eventually push out on your own [37:55]
- Why you have to shoot for you, not for money [40:40]
- How to transition from editorial to advertising [42:35]
- Why your portfolio has to be consistent [44:50]
- How to work the angle to make everyone happy [45:50]
- Why he likes simple, beautiful, and timeless images [52:50]
- Why digital cameras mean less diversity in looks [55:50]
- Why he brings doubles of everything to every shoot [58:25]
- Why you have to be open to inspiration and ideas [1:02:20]
- Learn more about Smashbox Studios
- Marco Nicoletti
- Music Credit: Can’t Look Back Now by Christine Hoberg