Interview with Yankees Photographer Jim Petrozzello
August 23, 2018
I’ve always advised assistants and young photographers to take a day for themselves whenever working for a photographer. I explain further that working to learn lighting, more about making images and the business of photography are all things assistants should be absorbing when working for photographers- but if they neglect their own work, and their intention is to become a fulltime photographer then they need to devote time to themselves to stay on track. One former assistant I had the pleasure of working with is Jim Petrozzello. Jim came on set and he clearly knew his stuff. I always loved looking at other photographer’s work, we began a dialog about his work. At that time, I was working as the Chief Photographer for a media company and on occasion could give assignments out to other photographers if the staff couldn’t handle the assignment because of schedule or otherwise. Jim and I got a chance to collaborate in that manner just once before the company went out of business and I continued to work with Jim and follow his progress. One thing I can say for certain is that a big key to his success is that he continued to work on his photography- more than most. It was during that period he told me he was up for a gig with the NY Yankees. Being a die-hard fan, of course, I was jealous!
It’s funny what you see in people early on, Jim was clearly a thinker, eager to learn, and lover of photography- which ultimately leads to success.
Ian Spanier: Give us some of your backstories, how did you first get interested in photography?
Jim Petrozzello: I always had an interest in the role imagery played in society and a curiosity about people and culture. Photography was a natural fit as a way to explore those interests. I didn’t realize it until my very last semester of undergrad at Washington University in St. Louis. I took a black-and-white photo class, and the moment my first image revealed itself in the developer I was hooked. It was like magic. I started carrying a camera everywhere, photographing friends and bands and any and everything. I came back to New York and I was working in publishing but spending all my lunch breaks and free time wandering around, shooting in the street. I was really into Garry Winograd and Joel Meyerowitz back then. I kept my day job in publishing which paid for me to take evening classes at ICP and SVA. I volunteered in the equipment room at ICP in exchange for darkroom time. I just tried to learn as much as possible and take advantage of all the resources New York had to offer. I was reading everything I could about photography and going to galleries and museums all the time.
IS: Tell us a bit about your assisting experience. I know you worked with Arnold Newman and Nadav Kander for a period of time, that must have been incredible.
JP: I answered an ad in PDN for the job as Arnold Newman’s full-time assistant. I spent a week trying out for him. I was printing photos he had made of Bill Clinton for the New York Times Magazine. At the end of the week, he told me to come in the following Monday and I asked him if that meant I had the job. He told me that I wasn’t very good, but I had potential and I was hired. It was very demanding as Arnold was tough. He had been in his studio for decades and every pen and pencil had a home, and if anything was misplaced he knew it and didn’t hesitate to express his displeasure. But it was an amazing experience, I spent a lot of time printing iconic images and I really enjoyed processing his 4×5 film. I learned to pay close attention to detail and how hard you have to work to be successful as a photographer. I think Arnold was 82 then, and he still worked a full day every day. When I started he had just finished a book with Taschen and was in the midst of hanging a career retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery in DC, so all of his work was laid out on tables in the studio. It was a great education to see his life’s work and help him select prints for the show. He was a meticulous archivist and when he was away lecturing, which was often, I would finish my work as early as possible and then spend my free time poring over his contact sheets, examining his sittings with Joan Miró, Max Ernst, or Carl Sandburg. I studied how his shoots evolved and how Arnold selected and cropped images.
I worked longest for José Picayo. He was constantly experimenting with old cameras and processes. On an editorial shoot José would do the assignment, but also be shooting glass plates or paper negatives, experimenting with vintage cameras. I’d be lugging around Pentax 67s, an 8×10 Deardorff, a Gowland Flex 4×5 TLR, or some Polaroid passport camera. I really learned a lot about the history of photographic processes from José. He has an appreciation for timelessness that I relate to, and I always admired his ability to find beauty where others saw nothing.
Nadav came at the end. I had worked for him once or twice early on, but I had transitioned out of assisting when Nadav’s agent, Bill Stockland, called to see if I wanted to assist on a project for the New York Times Magazine. Nadav was to photograph fifty-plus members of the incoming Obama administration to make up an entire issue of the magazine. It was a call back to the famous Avedon Rolling Stone “The Family” issue. I loved Nadav’s work and the project was something I couldn’t say no to. It was a complicated shoot, photographing up to ten people per day in locations in DC and Chicago. The other assistant and I went through security checks at the crack of dawn and then loaded in, set up, broke down, and loaded out a full photo studio each day. When Nadav returned to photograph Obama after the inauguration I was with him in the Oval Office. That was thrilling, even as the assistant. Everyone on that project was so excited to be working on it. There was so much hope around Obama and his staff, and we all fed off that energy. I really liked watching Nadav work, in particular, the way he interacts with his subjects. His images are somehow simultaneously peaceful and tense, and it was fascinating to see him create that.
IS: How did you become a photographer for the New York Yankees?
JP: A friend who worked for the Yankees called and asked if I wanted to shoot a game for them. Even though I didn’t have experience shooting with long lenses or in sports photography outside of shooting some street basketball, I recognized what a great opportunity it was, and I said yes. I was pretty bad at first, but they gave me a few chances filling in, and I worked hard to improve. I was persistent in asking them to let me do a portrait of one of the players. I knew I could offer them something — they weren’t doing any formal, set up portraits. I don’t know if they got sick of me asking, or if they really wanted to try it, but they hired me to shoot a portrait of Jorge Posada for the cover of the magazine. I was so excited. Posada is a tough, old-school player. He was a veteran at that point, he had won multiple World Series, he was already a Yankees’ legend. I try very hard to approach every assignment in a manner and style that is true to the subject, so I used an old tungsten Fresnel and shot with an extremely shallow depth of field. I got a very sympathetic, almost sad expression out of him. The Yankees loved the portrait, and from there the relationship really took off. I pitched them stories like shooting the deconstruction of the old stadium. They really embraced my ideas. They work very hard to put out a legitimate magazine rather than a simple game program. They are a fascinating subject and I am fortunate to have had a window into that world.
IS: What’s a few days in the life as a part of the Yankees organization?
JP: I’ve been lucky to shoot so many different kinds of work for them. I’ve done everything from portraits, action, features, still life, documentary, aerial, even fashion shoots. They’ve sent me to the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, Alaska, and all over the lower 48 states. I’ve flown on the team plane and ridden overnight on the bus in the minor leagues. At the stadium, I’ve shot concerts and soccer games and a Papal visit. A lot of the work I do for them occurs in the offseason. This past November I traveled to Scottsdale to photograph Yankees prospects playing in the Arizona Fall League. In the winter I went to the Dominican Republic to shoot human interest stories and the offseason workout routines of Luis Severino and Estevan Florial. In February I was in Tampa to shoot portraits of all the players at Spring Training. Regardless of the shoot, my job is to make the players and the organization look good. The Yankees team is as much an icon as they are a sports franchise. They rightfully take their image very seriously and there is a responsibility in representing them appropriately.
IS: Has being with the Yankees opened up other opportunities for you in advertising, editorial and so on?
JP: Absolutely. Fortunately for me, everyone wants to be associated with the Yankees. Through them, I have photographed Bill Clinton, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Henry Kissinger, and lots of interesting people you would not associate with baseball.
The creative director at FILA liked my sports images and he hired me a few years back. That has been a great ongoing relationship, and I have shot a lot of advertising and catalog work for them. It is a lot of fun working on bigger productions. I’ve also done two video projects for FILA. The first was a series of videos about a boxer which was also turned into broadcast television ads. Seeing the ads on TV was a thrill. The YES Network, which televises Yankees games, hired me to shoot portraits of the Brooklyn Nets last year, which I really enjoyed because I have been a Nets fan since I was a kid. Last year I shot an editorial on the Yankees for the German magazine No Sports. I’ve also done advertising shoots for Yankee sponsors like Indochino and JBL/Harman.
IS: What’s the best advice you ever got as an up-and-coming photographer?
JP: This is more of a lesson than straight up advice: When I was first getting to know José, I wanted to tell him about a class I had enjoyed where I was taught the method of Philippe Halsman, how he interacted with his subjects and just his whole manner of shooting. José wasn’t interested. He didn’t want to hear anything about it. At the time I didn’t understand, but I came to realize that he believed, and he wanted me to understand, that you learn to be a photographer by shooting, not by being told or reading about how someone else made pictures.
IS: What’s the hardest lesson you learned from your time assisting and/or as a fulltime photographer?
JP: To be persistent and not to give up. I may have learned that more from observing baseball players. The best players, even Hall of Famers, go through prolonged slumps where they can’t do anything right. They flat out stink. It’s just part of baseball. They have to be mentally strong enough to not spiral downward. They have to maintain faith in their abilities and keep working, and eventually, things do take a turn for the better.
IS: What else do you do outside of photography, any cool hobbies?
JP: I surf. I moved out to the Rockaways about a year and a half ago and being close to the beach has been a wonderful change. Besides being able to get into the water more, just having the ocean nearby has been beneficial. I have been shooting on the beach a lot too and people really respond to those images.
IS: Are you working on any personal projects?
JP: I thoroughly enjoy my assignments, but sometimes I need to explore an idea or experiment with a technique. It’s important for my creativity to take something on independently. Things I learn in my personal work often bleed into my assignments.
I’m currently working on a project with the artist Rachel Oneika Phillips called AfroClassicism. We are addressing issues of social injustice by reinterpreting iconic art pieces. Oneika approached me with the idea at a time when I was looking to do something focused more on social responsibility and it has been a great collaboration. Our first image was in a group show at BRIC [https://www.bricartsmedia.org/blog/open-call-truth-viewers-choice-winners-oneika-phillips-james-petrozzello] and we won the viewer’s choice award.
I had always loved the wet plate process and when I got my studio in Sunset Park I finally had the space to make them so a couple of years ago I took a wet plate workshop with Lisa Elmaleh through the Penumbra Foundation. Learning the process and playing with its possibilities and limitations has been great. I explain how it works to my subjects, but they don’t quite get it until they see the first plate. Once they see how beautiful it is they really get involved. I think the slowness of it has helped in my other work. It is a reminder to be patient and consider each frame.
I’ve also done a long-term project on the Caribbean Carnival culture here in Brooklyn. I started it when I was working exclusively for the Yankees and I wanted to shoot something that I could revisit again and again, a documentary project where I had total autonomy. Carnival was perfect because it incorporated so many things that interest me: music, culture, identity, community, DIY, fashion, street theater.
A few rapid-fire questions:
IS: Craziest shoot you’ve ever been on?
JP: Probably some of the stuff I’ve shot for the Carnival project. J’Ouvert in particular, which is an overnight party in the streets with steel bands and people throwing paint and powder and oil all over the place. It is raucous, and I love being in the center of all the chaos. There is something both calming and exhilarating about shooting in situations like that.
IS: Favorite photographer(s)?
JP: So many. Ralph Eugene Meat yard, Eggleston, Weston, Harry Callahan, Ray Metzker, Nadav, Penn, Mark Steinmetz, Todd Hido, Larry Sultan, Sally Mann, Avedon. Loads of others I am forgetting.
IS: Favorite photograph you made- and why?
JP: Can I give you two? That first Yankees portrait of Posada, it was my first cover, I was outrageously nervous, and it came out really well and led to a great relationship with the organization. And my portraits of the Fela Queens, which was my first serious personal undertaking. That project gave me a lot of confidence and created relationships that continue to bear fruit.
IS: Favorite camera(s)?
JP: Graflex RB, Mamiya 6, Konica Instant Press, Polaroid Big Shot, the Century 8×10 I use for tintypes, Yashica T4. I could go on and on.
IS: the Best day as a photographer?
Probably the days I spend wandering the beach in the Rockaways when the light is just right, and everything feels peaceful.
IS: Finally, what would you tell young photographers today about finding their road to success?
JP: Just that. It’s your road, not anyone else’s. Just keep shooting, find something that is meaningful to you and explore it. You are going to take a lot of bad pictures before you make good ones. It’s ok. Do the work.
Check out more of James’ work at www.jamespetrozzello.com
Ian Spanier is an award-winning advertising and editorial photographer based in Los Angeles and New York City and a PhotoServe member and contributor. As comfortable as he is in the studio, he can face any challenge presented on location. Ian’s first full book of published work, Playboy, a Guide to Cigars, documents his travels to nearly every country that manufactures cigars and is available at fine cigar shops and at major bookstores. His second critically acclaimed book, Local Heroes: Portraits of America’s Volunteer Fire Fighters, is out now in stores and online. You can visit the book’s Tumblr Page here. Spanier is a member of the Lowepro Team, Photoflex’s Pro Team, and Imagenomic’s featured photographer list. He has been the recipient of numerous awards from such major photo competitions as American Photography, SPD, The International Color Awards, The International Black & White Spider Awards, PDN’s World in Focus, Planet Magazine, and Seeing the Light, to name a few. Finally, he is a regular lecturer for SMUG, as well as for The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Ian Spanier is available for assignment. Questions or comments, e-mail him at email@example.com. To see more of Ian Spanier’s latest advertising and personal projects, visit his site at www.ianspanier.com.