About five years ago, I was introduced to Johnny Utah’s work via Instagram. As an art’s lover, his work captivated me instantly. Johnny’s energetic shots document the gritty exuberance of New York City, a city I am madly in love with since birth. Highly influenced by New York’s City Golden Era, his images exemplified the energy of the city as well as the lives and complexity of its subjects. Even with his fashion and travel shots, his ability to document every single moment he captures into a story without a narrative it is for me what makes his work unique.
I have been fortunate enough to build with him and work together on a few projects. Most recently, Johnny was one of the panelists of Trailblazers, a Meeting of the Dreamers and Doers where he shared with our audience his journey and how by doing what he loves most he has achieved success.
Johnny has accrued a strong audience of over 30 thousand followers bringing attention to his work and landing collaborations with brands such as New Era, Nike, Puma, Adidas, Airwalk and The Peralta Project to name a few.
Today, we talked about his journey, his process and the way his eyes see the world around him.
WA: Tell us about Johnny, where were you born, what do you do?
JU: My name is Johnny Utah. I was born in Santo Domingo. I came to the United States at the age of 5 and been a New Yorker ever since. I’m a photographer based out of NYC and I wouldn’t trade this job for anything in the world.
WA: What was your career path? How did you get from being an aspiring photographer to actually doing it full time, for a living?
JU: My career path was all over the place at the beginning. One thing I always knew was that I wanted to work in the art world somehow. Ever since I was a child I was drawn to some kind of art. At first, I started drawing cartoons, wrestlers and action figures were something I enjoyed. Then it went on to cityscapes and finally to graffiti. All before the age of 12.
I was good with letters, so I would write all my friends names on their binders and loose leaf papers which then they would put up on their walls at home or keep in their trapper keeper. I went to college for graphic design and did it for a living for about two years, working with my friend, the great Andrew Thiele, but it didn’t grab me. By luck, I stumbled upon photography at the age of 31 and now I’m 38 and have been doing it ever since.
WA: How do you get the person, place or thing that is in front of the camera onto the film, chip or paper in just the way you want?
JU: I don’t have a method to get what I want with my camera. It isn’t something I try to do, I just do it. I capture what my eyes see. I have to thank God for giving me the skill to be able to see things in a different way. That can be my only answer to this question.
WA: What technology/software/camera gear do you use to keep focused on what you do best, as you photograph?
JU: I shoot with a Sony A7Rii and only edit with Lightroom. I rarely use Photoshop but it helps for certain things like skin retouching.
WA: What kind of tools do you use for post-processing? Explain your workflow.
JU: I don’t have a set process I do all the time, each process is different with each photograph. As far as post editing I use Lightroom.
WA: Which photographers influenced you, and how did they influence your thinking, photographing, and career path?
JU: Many photographers have influenced my work. The first was Helmut Newton. I love photographing women and the way he did it was tasteful and artistic which made me gravitate to his work. I also love Jamel Shabazz. He really captured a time in NYC 1980’s that is forever long gone and for me being a lover of this city, the city I remember as a kid, I can’t help to love his work. It really shows the life NYC once had, before the developers and the $5,000 a month rent for a studio. Annie Leibovitz, it’s also another photographer I love and who have influenced my work. Her portrait work is the best I’ve seen, along with Platoon and lastly, Chinese photographer Fan Ho, who was also a filmmaker. His black and white photos are very influential and it pushes me to be better.
WA: Exactly what it is you want to say with your photographs, and how do you actually get your photographs to do that?
JU: I’m not sure what I want to say with my style. I would say that I want to show you something different. Even if you’ve walked down a certain street a million times, with my photograph I want to you what you’ve never seen, the cracks in the walls, the color of the street, the guy in the corner store, the sky at sunset. I don’t have a goal when I go shoot, I just want to capture the world around me, the world we live in and how I see it.
WA: Among your works, which one is your favorite? Why?
JU: I don’t have a favorite photograph. It would be hard to pick my favorite work but one that keeps popping up is a photo I took of an old man in Chinatown. I caught him about 3 years ago during a day when the temperature was about 20 degrees. He was walking across the street and I just happen to catch him at the right moment. That photo just sticks with me for some reason. Its one of my favorites. I just recently edited in black and white and I love it even more now.
WA: What is the one thing you wish you knew when you started taking photos?
JU: What I wish I knew when I started taking photos is that not everyone you meet is your friend and that many photographers feel they are special. I guess social media and a ton of followers makes your head bigger. I’m fine with not knowing everything I know now, life is a learning process and learning is good. I love discovering new editing techniques. Every happens when it is supposed to happen. Trust the journey.
WA: We worked together at the Trailblazers event and you share so many gems regarding the pursuit of your passion, share with our readers the greatest advice you’ve received and wish someone would have given you when you start.
JU: I can’t remember a piece of advice that I received on my journey as a photographer. I’ve done it all on my own, but one thing I can share with your readers is to BELIEVE!! & FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS!! It may sound like a typical piece of advice but honestly, that’s all the advice you need. Don’t be scared to do what you love. God put us on this planet to LIVE not to work and die. Do what you love, be happy, enjoy yourself, smile and find your passion. Once you do, pursue it and when you get paid for it, you’ve made it.
WA: If you could take your art in any direction without fear of failure or rejection, where would it lead. What new thing would you try?
JU: If I can take my art in any direction it is and will be to become a photojournalist. I want to work for National Geographic and document this planet we live in. Every inch of it. I love visiting Cuba, that’s when I knew that I really wanted to take my art in that direction. Documenting life is a beautiful thing.
WA: How has photography influenced you as a person?
WA: Who would you like to Photograph, where and why?
JU: I would like to photograph many people, but Barack Obama is at the top of my list. I would love to photograph him in Chicago. his hometown. Why? because Obama is a living legend. The first black President of the United States!! To even say those words is history, twenty years ago, people would’ve laughed at you. To think of how black men were slaves, lynched and murdered at one point in this country and now to come to a moment where the President is black, that is something out of this world. I would love to just meet him, even if I get a photo with my phone, I’ll be happy.
WA: What’s on your Playlist?
JU: Man, that’s a question that by the time your readers read this, I will have a whole new playlist. I’ll just give them what motivates me when I work. I pretty much listen to it all. I like Daft Punk, Queen, Nas, Wu-Tang, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Pink Floyd and my latest go-to jam is a song titled Because I’m Me by a group named The Avalanches
WA: Last movie you watched?
JU: The last movie I watched was, umm… I can’t even remember. I haven’t watched a new movie in a while but I do watch a lot of documentaries. One of my favorites that I watched last year was ABSTRACT, it’s on Netflix, about 8 episodes and each episode, is a different artist: a painter, a stage designer, a photographer, and so on. Real good series.
WA: What are you currently reading?
JU: I am currently reading The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. I’ve actually been slacking on it, I need to finish it before the month is over. The Four Agreements and The Alchemist are next. I love reading books that teach me a lesson and make me a better man.
WA: What’s next for Johnny?
JU: To put it as simple as possible, more traveling. I want to travel more and document more. Also, my first art show which has been in the making for 3 years now. I also want to release a book with my show. I want to do so much but all need to happen at the right time.
You can find his portfolio on Instagram: @johhnyutax
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