Jason Peterson on the Art of a Good Insta
Last week was a pretty cool show for the Royalton Hotel. Long time New Yorker and Instagram powerhouse Jason Peterson had his first opening ‘New York in Black and White’, a portion of the series Concrete Jungle, that consists of 15 photos celebrating the timelessness of a magical city we all can’t help but be a part of. However, that’s not all Peterson is known for. While, yes, he is an Insta-star with nearly half a million followers, he also holds the title of CCO for Havas, a huge advertising agency. It’s no secret that he’s an advertising master, with things like the hilarious Statefarm ‘Hot Tub’ commercial under his belt.
Milk Made’s Jordan Mack got to talk to him about his opening. We got to hear everything about the social media wizard’s art, inspirations, and method. From social branding to playing at the beloved CBGB when he was 17, Jason Peterson goes deep.
What made you decide to do a solo show now? How did it all come together?
I’ve been showing my photography in group shows over the past couple of years. The Royalton reached out to me maybe five months ago, about doing a solo show and I just liked them, y’know? All of these are my black and white New York shots and my relationship with New York is kind of interesting. I had been to the Royalton in 1993 or something crazy like that. So I was like, ‘Wow the Royalton is still around?’ Then I found out they renovated and there was something very special about it to me. To me the Royalton is very timeless. I thought it was cool to have a nontraditional gallery. It just felt good.
Most of your work is in black and white but you do sometimes add a touch of color. How do you know when a picture needs that splash, and what colors do you personally like to work with the most?
I’ve seen other people do that thing and I’ve even done it before and thought, ‘ehh it doesn’t work.’ To me it’s based around when it’s tasteful and really adds something versus doing it to have a spot on color on black and white. Sometimes I’ll shoot stuff and think, ‘this looks better in color, this isn’t a black and white shot.’ At that point I’ll usually hang on to it, keep it in my personal files.
That’s awesome. What are some of your favorite places to shoot?
There are definitely places. I love Grand Central Station. I love hanging out there late at nigh, when no one is there and there’s people just randomly wandering through. The thing is, I’m not a ‘photographer photographer’ that’s sets up lighting and all of that. I don’t even understand how to do it, though I respect it. I’ll be walking down the block and I’ll see the way the light is coming down a certain alley. Usually it’s about waiting for all the people of the city to walk out and for the right person to be there. I’m waiting for that moment to happen, this thing that happens for a second and then boom, it’s gone. The minute I get it, I know it and then I’m done.
You have nearly half a million followers on Instagram. What drew you to Instagram first? What makes a good Instagram?
I’ve been taking photographs since I was 15, and I’m an old dude now [laughs]. I have a massive library and photo book collection. I feel like a photo historian. But, I’m super busy and have a low attention span, so I have rolls and rolls of undeveloped film. Maybe three years ago, a friend said, you should check out Instagram. At first I thought it was corny, just a bunch of stupid filters. I didn’t even know what a follower was. One day I was walking on Lake Michigan and I took a photo. I did a quick little edit on Snapseed, my editing program, and it looked exactly like a Hiroshi Sugimoto shot. If someone had asked me, I would have said, ‘yeah it was probably exposed for 12 hours’ [laughs]. I was just blown away by the quality of images. You know, it’s not a horizontal format or anything. How do you make those small squares on your phone look massive? I’d shoot a lot of tiny little bikes, I’m a big bike guy, with huge massive cities or oceans. My success on Instagram is because I created a brand. I wanted to do this persona, ‘follow me into the dark.’ You know, people see my photos on Instagram and they’re like, ‘that’s definitely yours.’
People, when they talk about social media, often use the word ‘personal brand,’ if you had to use three words to describe your own brand, how would you describe it?
That’s tough. I would say, ‘Dark, urban, emotional photography.’ I don’t want that to be my trademark or anything, but what I try to do is find really human moments, even if they’re small. There’s this one shot that I have that’s in the show that was taken last winter in Washington Square Park. It was in a snowstorm but I just wanted to go for a walk and take some pictures. I was shooting the arch and the lighting was beautiful with the snow coming down. So I was shooting it, and then this guy walks right to the middle, and I was like, ‘oh my god perfect!’ Then his girlfriend walks up, they kiss, embrace. I got maybe three photos before they just continued with their life and walked away. That moment is just a perfect representation of what I try to get. A real, emotional relationship that was just there for a second and then gone.
Social media has been changing the advertising industry super rapidly. How do you think the industry has changed for you, and where do you think it’s headed?
It doesn’t sound romantic but it was very calculated. With Boost Mobile, it was this cool hip hop vibe, with Ludacris and The Game and Kanye before he was really anyone. All of these digital agencies are rising and these guys are coming in to work on them, but they aren’t creative. They just know how the tech stuff works. I decided that I was going to understand it better than anyone in the industry. How I can offer you something that you’ll see yourself in and want to take part of? When I post of photo on Instagram, people got apeshit. They’re normal people, but they’re really into it and that’s my community. The people I’ve met through this is crazy. Ad agencies don’t really get that. For Havas, we’re killing it because a client will bring up social media and we ask them ‘okay well why do you have 200 followers?’ You’re doing it wrong if my 15 year old son has 2000 followers. You’re talking to people in an old manner.
You’ve also mentioned that you listen to music a lot when you shoot. What do you think it one album that everyone needs to listen to?
Ah shit, that’s really hard. I grew up listening to a lot of American punk rock bands. I played CBGB when I was 17. I love hard core stuff. Minor Threat changed my life when they came to the scene. It was this pivotal moment when I was 15 that sent me on this DIY, anything is possible kind of attitude. So I’d have to say that. When I’m shooting though, it’s either really hardcore hip hop, or more emo indie rock. Modest Mouse is the big one, any early Modest Mouse is perfect to walk around a city to. It’s very cinematic.
A lot of people feel like the city is becoming too commercialized, with things like the closing of Pearl River Mart. How do you feel about watching New York change?
Here’s the thing, I moved there when I was a kid. It was 1991, pre Giuliani. I remember beings one Avenue B and 13th being chased down by a bunch of kids trying to mug me. Now you couldn’t get mugged in Manhattan if you tried. It’s easy to jump on New York and say it’s changed. It’s true and it’s not true. I think the best times in New York are always right now and you don’t realize it until after it’s gone. I was there with my wife last week, and we thought, ‘oh my god, my favorite cobbler! I can’t believe it’s a juice bar now.’ But New York is still an awesome and amazing place. The energy about it is just magical.
You can see Jason Peterson’s work hanging at the Royalton until May 31st
All photos courtesy of Jason Peterson