From parties to corporate events, a photographer finds success is in his versatility

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Whether it’s street scenes, landscapes, weddings, or food styling, a lot of professional photographers often end up finding a niche. Then you have those like John Tyler Curtis (who just goes by Tyler), whose versatility is the key to their success. As a longtime Chicago editorial and event photographer who recently relocated to Los Angeles, Curtis has shot everything from fashion to music to lifestyle to celebrities.

What’s work like for Curtis? He recently shot a Ke$ha concert, then a week later saw him photographing the Electronic Entertainment Expo. In the past, he has done everything from parties at the Playboy Mansion to events at the White House. He unique blend of artistry has also been tapped by brands the likes of Absolut, Best Buy, Fender, Hilton Hotel Group, and IGN for his work.

Curtis got into photography in a serendipitous way. After high school he enrolled at Indiana University to study theater, oil painting, and seemingly everything else but photography. After having to deal with an alcohol problem, dropping out of school, getting sober, and losing his mother, Curtis’ soul-searching saw him leaving work early one night – a job on a cruise in Chicago’s Navy Pier that he didn’t like – to attend a party, where he’d meet the influential photographers who’d help guide him into a career as a photographer.  

But Curtis says he doesn’t consider himself a great photographer; in fact, he questions anyone who does, attributing much of the job to differing individual visions and “serendipity.” Yet, Curtis is clearly doing something right, having carved out a name for himself in the world of photography.

We chatted with Curtis in June after he gave a presentation at the “Experience Intel. Look Inside” tour stop in Chicago during the city’s famous Blues Festival. He talked about how his versatile career as a photographer all came together

Tyler, this is the first time you – a photographer and creative professional – are working with Intel – a tech company. What was your presentation about, and what’s your relationship with tech?

I’ve worked with TedX Midwest for the last three years here in Chicago, which is the spinoff of the Ted (Conferences). It was important for me to take the idea of philosophy and technology and how it actually applies to making people better. And that’s what was really important, because when we’re dealing with the singularity complexes and what actually enables us to do our jobs, that seemed to be the most important thing, but how do I get the impact on those people? And the impact was – well, who do I work for and how did I get there? That was the common theme.

That’s kind of deep.

I work for the most demanding people in the world – indirectly, directly, doesn’t matter. I have expectations, and I have to have technology that delivers that. That in itself is how I got around to [doing the event].

We’re at a tech-ish event, so tell us about the tech you use.

I was a Nikon guy for six years until I left it in a cab. Then I had to kind of automate with my former creative partner. So I went to Canon. So I use Canon 1Ds, 5D Mark IIIs, 7Ds. I’ll use anything I can get my hands on. I’m not above third-party lenses. They’re making great ones. I use Sigma. Tamron 24-70 is my baby – the one that just came out last July. It is spectacular for video, because it’s got image stabilization, which the Canon doesn’t have, and it’s half the price.

Let’s go back to the beginning. You overcame a lot of personal life challenges at first. But photography didn’t come into the picture until much later, right?

[Eight years ago] I got a text message to go to a cocktail party with some high-end artists here in Chicago. I got this first-generation digital camera my father had just given me, and I went to this cocktail party. And I met Michael Hettwer from National Geographic. I met Marc Hauser, who is a very famous portrait photographer here in Chicago, and Jon Lowenstein, who is this insane documentary photographer. So I’m around these three guys, and I’m suddenly looking at their books that are laid out on the glass table at the party, and I’m like, “I want to do this. How do I do this?” So that’s when I asked those questions of “How do I get there?” And Hettwer, who’s actually now my mentor, was the one who said, “Write down what you want to do. Write down what’s brought you the most happiness.”

Sure enough, serendipity would be my master that day. We would go to a nightclub opening, and I would be taking creepy pictures of girls, and a publisher of a local scene magazine called Chicago Scene came up to me. We had known each other because I had worked in nightclubs, and he said, “Hey man, what are you doing?” I said, “I’m just shooting for shits and giggles.” He said, “Do you want to work for me?” This is within seven hours of me [leaving my job early to go to the cocktail party]. And so it was like the universe delivered this great, huge message that that’s what I was supposed to do. I’d already declared it earlier at that party, and then boom, this guy gave me a job within minutes. And so I’ve never stopped, and I’ve never stopped being grateful for that moment.

A lot of photographers focus on something very specific. Conversely, you’ve done a little bit of everything. Is there a particular area you like shooting more than others?

Tyler Curtis

No, I mean, you’ll always like shooting something more. You like control. As you evolve as a photographer, you like being the studio, you like being able to implement your vision. But what I have found is that being a one-man studio and moving on my own and being able to do food, fashion, and events – it’s kind of like what I call the Joe McNally approach. Joe McNally is the Time Life photographer who does everything. It really benefits the way I shoot everything else. So if I’m shooting corporate for Aon, I’m looking at it in a way that I might shoot a runway show in Paris. People say, “Oh, isn’t this so boring?” Well, no. Everything is a challenge…for me, versatility is what fuels me.

How did you come to work with the brands you do?

It was all smoke and mirrors. When I started years ago, I wasn’t a very good photographer and I was just trying to get out there and push myself on people. And I wore a lot of eye makeup. I was kind of gothy and punky at the same time. And in Chicago that stands out. So people saw that and thought, “Oh, I’ll use this guy.” I was doing liquor companies, I was doing nightclubs, and then it started to build into – I was doing Playboy. I was doing things as legitimate as Manchester United for Aon. That rock ’n’ roll lifestyle seemed to be something that people were drawn to. And then they decided, “He’s a market man himself; let’s use him as that vehicle.” I’m not the best photographer, but I definitely know how to market, and I think that is what has helped me.

Who do you look to for inspiration?

I believe in that great statement, “Always surround yourself with people who are better than you.” I’ve worked with guys like Randy Olson. I have friends and younger guys I look up to. Everyone’s got a singular vision. You could put seven photographers next to one another and everyone is going to give something great. And that, to me, is what’s always inspiring. Nothing bothers me more than photographers who talk about how great they are, because I don’t think any photographer is great; I think we’re all lucky. It’s all about that serendipity of capturing that moment, and everyone has a singular vision of captioning it. Just enjoy it.

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You’ve had a lot of work in print during a time when everything is digital. Is that medium still viable?

What is the value of print anymore unless you’re in a fashion editorial? It’s really hard. And I’m actually at this point where I’m beginning to believe that paper is kind of a waste. I do everything on my iPad, from books to magazines, and it looks just fine to me. Why do I need to cut down trees to see things in print anymore? It’s all shifting, and I’m just kind of waiting for that shift to wrap up and see where it lands, but I’m not concerned whether I’m in print or not ever again. I don’t think anyone should be. I think they should be more concerned about what the exposure is.

You also run party photo blog /agency, Darkroom Demons – how did it come about?

I was working for Chicago Scene in 2006. My former creative partner and I were struggling with the idea that Chicago wasn’t cool enough. Clayton Hauck was doing and we really liked what he was doing, but we felt because we did so much branding that we had an edge in that A-list crowd here in Chicago. And I was half-asleep with my now ex-wife laying next to me, and I was going through names to compete with Napkin Nights in Vegas, just like this three-syllable thing – right? And I was like, “A, B, C, D, Darkroom, Demons, Darkroom Demons.” I went to the computer and grabbed the domain, and that was it. And so Matt Reeves and I would build that company over next six years. We were slow on delivery, but that’s what people liked; they liked the quality of the pictures. And that’s what was more important.

What sets Darkroom Demons apart from other fashion and party coverage online?

I have the brands’ interests at heart a lot of the time. We live in a consumer society. Whether we choose to ignore it or not doesn’t matter. With Darkroom Demons, I’ve battled; I’ve gone back and forth from the smut to totally corporate. And what I’ve found is that there’s a delicate balance in there. I want companies like IGN, Intel, Microsoft, and all these guys to think, “We want to be on that site.” So that’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for that as a vehicle. They say, “You know what? You’re an artist. You’re edgy. We want to hire you for that. We don’t want to just throw our photos up there.”

How do you obtain access to the things you cover?

I went from the White House to the Playboy Mansion in the same two weeks. It was like you’re going from one crazy place to another. That’s what it is. When you’re in this world, and the world starts to tighten itself up – thanks to technology, especially, that bridge is constantly being crossed by both sides – you’re able to keep in contact at a rate that’s exponential to the amount of work that you want to do. I just try to keep those relationships going. That, in and of itself, builds the word of mouth. That one touch is what’s most important. Reaching out to someone like – tonight I’m shooting Ke$ha, but I’m shooting Ke$ha because I know people in her camp. They say, “Listen, he’s cool. Shoot with him.” And then the relationship starts from here. That’s pretty much how it always goes. It’s always about actual human interaction.

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As you grow as a photography, what have you learned so far?

Never stop shooting. There’s nothing that you can’t shoot. That’s what I had to do. I’d go out and shoot at the zoo. I’d shoot at parks. I would shoot people. I’d do street stuff. And then you start to learn how to shape your vision. Also, learn how to crop. The other thing is – get a mentor and continually try to be educated by someone better than yourself. You can do it on your own, but there’s nothing better than being taught and being shown where the error is and being criticized in a way that you can actually make something out of it.

(Copyright images via Tyler Curtis/Darkroom Demons)

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