Interview with Jet Lowe

Photo taken by John O’connell Link: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/24/George_Washington_Bridge_from_New_Jersey-edit.jpg

If there is a word of advice to give to a person wanting to engage in the hobby of photography, it would be this:

1. Look the surroundings. What do you see beyond the naked eye? What is most unique about the surrounding that is worth photographing?

2. Choose an object and/or a person you find attractive. Why choose this subject and how unique is it from the eye of a photographer?

Photography has become a popular hobby for many people, as they find the best spot/subject for a good photo opportunity and after taking dozens of snap shots, find the best photo that they are proud of- that they display for others to see, and benefit from the prize money from the photo contests sometimes. 🙂

For Jet Lowe, photography has been a major part of his life for almost five decades. Ranging from skyscrapers to bridges, Lowe has produced some of the most unique shots of his subjects from angles that even some of the amateur photographers today can even dream of doing.  Lowe was selected as the winner of the 2014 Ammann Awards in the category of Lifetime Achievement for his role in photographing hundreds of bridges in the US, Europe and elsewhere, and the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles had an opportunity to interview him about his experiences and the secret to being a great photographer. Here is what we found out about him:

1.      Tell us about yourself: how did your career start, and how did it lead you to HABS-HAER?

I owe my career to an academic trip to Haiti in 1966.  A faculty member of the school I was attending loaned me his Pentax h3v with which to take pictures.  It was a one month trip, film was expensive so I rolled my own cassettes of 20 or more black and white tri-x, a dozen rolls of kodachrome and basically got hooked.  This was my first year of college, from that point on I knew I wanted to be a photographer, did not know exactly how to go about it so I ended up majoring in Art History which in retrospect was a great choice.  Straight out of college I landed a job as the staff photographer for the Georgia Historical Commission doing museum photography as well as photographing historic districts for the then new federal program of the National Register of Historic Places.  It was working for the Historical Commision that put the bee in my bonnet about how it might be neat to work for HABS some day ( I did not know about HAER at the time which in retrospect was a much better match).

2.      How did you become interested in photography?While traveling in Haiti with my professor’s loaned camera I found myself ending up in places that I might not have been in had I not been in search of images,  and meeting people.  The Haitians although quite poor economically have a strong and magical spirit.

3.      A large portion of your photos posted on HABS-HAER have been historic bridges. Are they your primary targets, or do you also photograph other historic places, such as buildings, stadiums, etc.?As the staff photographer for HAER our mandate was and is to photograph the engineered and built environment of the United States. From windmills to the Space Shuttle,  No small mandate!  I like to think of bridges as a subject matter for HAER(Historic American Engineering Record) like houses have been for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS).  Bridges tend to encapsulate the structural engineering thought of any given time period.  

4.      Which bridge you photographed was your favorite?The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson always comes first to mind for its complexity, significance, as well as photogeneity.

5.      Which bridge was the most difficult to photograph? How did you overcome this difficulty?  I would have to say the Brooklyn Bridge because it was my first major documentation of a nationally significant bridge.  The documentation was to involve getting to the towers via walking up the cables.  Never having done this caused me a bit of anxiety in the week leading up to the day of working on the bridge.  The maintenance men who were my hosts drily assured me they had not lost any one yet walking up the cables.  The Brooklyn Bridge was also the first one that I photographed from the air using a world war II vintage aerial camera.  One thing that helped in overcoming the more difficult hurdles of the assignment was a week spent in New York getting as many photographs completed on the ground before climbing the towers.  When the big day finally arrived I was at least fairly familiar with the structure.  One of the great privileges of my job at HAER was the opportunity to climb around on numerous other big suspension bridges,including the Takoma Narrows,  Oakland, Golden Gate, and Verrazanno Narrows to name a few that are now housed in the HAER collection.

6.      Which bridge that you had photographed but was later demolished was one that you wished to have preserved and why?The Bellows Falls (Vermont) arch suspension bridge was amongst the most elegant of bridges I have photographed and represented also one of the greatest losses to our patrimony.

The Bellows Falls Bridge: one of many bridges photographed by Jet Lowe. Photo taken before its demise in 1982. Source: HABS-HAER
7.      Many other photographers, including James Baughn (who finished second in the Lifetime Achievement category) and (Nathan Holth, who finished third) have done a great deal of contributions of photos for their historic bridge websites. How important has photography been in addressing the importance of historic bridges and ways to preserve them? Photography is still the most palpable way of showing us the way a bridge structure looked, and occupied its environment.  I think the photographer David Plowden deserves credit for being one of the first photographers to focus attention on the contribution and richness that bridges add to our built environment.

8.      If someone is interested in photography as a profession, what advice would you give him/her and what is the outlook in your opinion?I think there will always be a market out there for photographers that have a special vision and are obsessed with their work. Young photographers should look at the work of others and study the great prints in the museums and also think in terms of converting their favorite images in to a photographic print, not just an electronic entity.   It is probably even more difficult to break into the discipline as a means of making a living now because of the dilution of the medium via iPhones and the internet.  The outlook is difficult, however I can not stress enough the rewards for following one’s muse.

 The last sentence stated by Jet Lowe could not be any clearer than that. With social networks and iPhones dominating our livelihoods, many of us have a canny for selfie shots, shooting events in our lives, or even getting some shots of places of interest while travelling. However, the quality of real photography has declined because of the flooding of pictures that would be considered null and void in the eyes of the professionals. However, it does not mean that professional and amateur photography will die off. Many of us will specialize in areas once considered unknown, such as night photography, landscape photography and forms of architectural photography (and in particular, bridge photography) because they are important for people  interested in not only looking at them on display but also to document the historical importance, using them as a springboard for preservation efforts. Therefore, one should not be afraid of engaging in such a unique hobby. It may not be a full-time profession, but it is one that will satisfy the interest of the photographer and those interested in taking a look at his/her work.  So to close the interview, take the camera, take your girlfriend out with you, take some shots of what you think is beautiful and show her life from your perspective- from your own lens. You may never know what your photos will look like, let alone be worth when selling them on the market or entering them in a contest. Henceforth, click-click!
Photo taken by the author in December, 2014


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