Jessica Zollman (aka ‘Jayzombie’) was employee #5 at Instagram and is now a successful L.A.-based photographer and influencer. With vibrant colors and geometric precision at the heart of her work, here Zollman takes us on a revealing journey through her life, art and career.

Beginning with the classic nature vs. nurture question; are great photographers born or made?
Coming out the gates with the most difficult question to answer! Like nature vs. nurture, it’s nuanced and entirely dependent on the person and their upbringing. I was surrounded by film cameras as a kid thanks to my Dad’s casual interest in photography, but didn’t find my passion for it as art until I was in college. I do believe that some people are just naturally talented when it comes to understanding visual aesthetics, but I also know through first-hand experience that those skills can be learned and improved upon with lots of practice and dedication.

Although photography has been an intrinsic part of your life since very early childhood, can you describe the defining moment when you realized that a passion could become a paid profession? What was the trigger? Was it a particular commission that was a game-changer? Or a sudden creative swerve, for example?
It was absolutely my first paid commission. When I was asked to join Tinker Street*, my incredible photo agency, back in 2013, I was nervous and excited to start my new career path. At the time, joining an agency felt like a great opportunity to try my hand at being an artist full-time, but I didn’t feel like I was a professional photographer until the first time I worked for a client. I was given the opportunity to photograph The America’s Cup in San Francisco for Nespresso, and chasing after racing boats along the pier with an iPhone for a client was the game-changer.

Do you prefer working more with people, or with ‘things’? Your published portfolio arguably suggests you are more drawn towards capturing objects rather than humans. Is this a fair observation?
That’s fair! I love geometric patterns, bright colors and interesting light / shadow. I enjoy taking photographs of my friends in natural situations incorporating those elements, but when I actively seek photographic situations, I’m almost always drawn to buildings, florals, and cityscapes. Most of my favorite images, however, have obscured or anonymous people in them. I’m drawn towards simplicity, timelessness and an anonymity that makes an image relatable.

Do you prefer shooting in natural or artificial light? Why?
I’m a natural light fanatic. I’ve been experimenting more with using a light stick for some dramatic colors as a fill, but I’m still coupling it with natural lighting. It’s likely because I’m self-taught, so working with artificial light still feels like this big scary thing. I’ve shot with studio lights, and am totally able to recreate the kind of natural, dramatic light I’m drawn to, but I still prefer the real deal.

My approach is typically off-the-cuff with minimal research and little to no overhead prior to shooting.

Does your approach to work veer more towards a choreographed and ‘stage-managed’ style, or are you a more spontaneous and free-flowing ‘point-and-shoot’ type?
Point and shoot has always been my preference. I love collaborating with other artists in an interesting setting or backdrop and watching the magic unfold while we pull our collective creative concepts together, but my approach is typically off-the-cuff with minimal research and little to no overhead prior to shooting. I get too caught up in the little details if I dive too far into the production process. Every time I over-work a shoot or a commission, the results often end up being less magical.

Looking at your work to date, do you think you have what may be considered a signature photographic ‘look’, and if so, how did this uniquely “Jayzombie” signature look come about? And if you have a ‘signature’, was it accidental or designed?
I do have a signature look! It’s taken years for me to finally find a flow in terms of my style and my “look”. I genuinely think moving to Los Angeles played a huge role in helping me hone the style I was always trying to achieve in San Francisco, but simply couldn’t quite get due to those signature overcast skies. I won’t claim that my style is one-of-a-kind, and it will forever be shifting and changing as I do.

My look is a bit of an accident and a bit of intention; I edit my images according to some indescribable aesthetic-based feeling. Are the whites bright enough without losing detail? Are the shadows too crunchy? Too black? Too contrasty? Is the vibrancy somewhere between “WOAH COLOR” and “pretty pastel?” I also prefer my images to be a bit on the cooler side in terms of white balance, and a little pinker in terms of tone. All of these decisions are just made based on some invisible guiding light. I basically ‘Donnie Darko’d’ my way into finding a style that makes me happy!

 

Losing my dad when I was five years old led me to distrust the world as I perceived it. Everything was disorganized, nothing could be planned, life was chaos.

 

Your portfolio strongly suggests a mathematical subconscious at play; carefully constructed compositions of precision and form, not least in many images that focus on symmetries, fractals, geometric patterns, straight lines, angles and clear delineations. Is this your way of capturing ‘order’ in an otherwise chaotic world?

Am I in a therapy session, or is this a casual interview?! Yes. Absolutely. The geometric, symmetric, and angle precision in my work is 100 percent my way of creating order in not just a chaotic world, but in my personal life. I used to exhibit OCPD-like tendencies as a teenager and in my early 20’s. I applied my over-organization to things like my personal space (everything had a place!) or my excessively organized lecture notes and homework, or my over-planning and over-preparing for travel. It definitely helped me get on the honor roll and avoid missing flights, but it did not help me work through my deeply-rooted inner turmoil and trauma.

Losing my dad when I was five years old led me to distrust the world as I perceived it. Everything was disorganized, nothing could be planned, life was chaos. My way of feeling like I wasn’t spiraling was to control everything and anything I could and try my hardest to let go of the things I could not; though it is easier now, that loss of control manifested in constant anxiety and many anxiety attacks. Thanks to some recent work in therapy to get through a lot of my feelings / fears around death and the chaos that surrounds something as uncertain as death, I’ve let go of a lot of that over-control in my personal life. But it absolutely still exists and manifests itself in my work. I’d much rather work through those deep fears in healthy ways, like through my art, than in ways that negatively impacted my general enjoyment of life!

Is there a conscious ‘battle’ for supremacy, in terms of technicality (i.e. 30%) vs emotionality (i.e. 70%), when striving for the defining or iconoclastic image?
Any technicality that exists in my work is only there because of an emotionality. I’m such an emotions-based artist. I create art with my heart, first, and anything else that follows is pure instinct.

Have your photographic methodologies or technological considerations changed over time, or does this sound too geeky / scientific?
They’ve absolutely changed! I went from taking photographs on Polaroid and film cameras as a kid, to disposable cameras as a tween and teenager, to a 35mm film camera for photography classes in school, to a crappy point-and-shoot camera in college, every generation of iPhone and eventually a Canon 5D Mark III. My editing process has followed a similar path. I didn’t think much about editing until I took film courses and got to work my images in a darkroom. When the App Store came to iPhones, I downloaded every fake-Polaroid and filtering app that existed, and after I got my DSLR, I downloaded Lightroom for the first time.

Now, my arsenal includes my 5D Mark IV, iPhone, Lightroom Classic and Lightroom Mobile, Loupedeck, and Priime photo filters on both desktop and mobile. Oh, and I still have an entire bookshelf filled with film cameras, old and new, that I’ll forever cherish for teaching me all about photography through much trial and error.

It has been well documented that back in 2011, you became employee #5 and Community Evangelist at Instagram. After leaving the company in 2013 (following the buyout by Facebook), do you feel that your historical links to Instagram have been partly a ‘blessing’ or a ‘burden’ to you in terms of career since?
It’s absolutely been a blessing. Building the Instagram Community, especially working with professional photographers on the platform, has helped me make incredible connections and friends who have given me invaluable guidance, job opportunities, and a community of commercial photographers I’m so blessed to call my friends here in Los Angeles.

Working in a corporate (but youthful) environment like Facebook, even if it was only for nine months, helped me develop communication skills that I use all the time when working with ad agencies and clients. Being responsive and clear with my communication, as well as generally professional, but still fun, keeps clients coming back to me. At least that’s what I like to tell myself. The pretty photos might actually just be enough!

The first thing that captures the attention when looking at your work is the rich suffusion and intensity of color that permeates nearly every image. There is an almost otherworldly / fantastical hyper-realism at play in some images…the ‘pinkest’ pink, the ‘reddest’ red, the ‘greeniest’ green. Why is this?
I touched on this a little bit already, but I’m mostly just following my gut on those decisions! It’s absolutely intentional, but I’m not exactly sure why. Mostly, I just find it pleasing. It’s what I’m most drawn to, so I keep going back to it.

Likewise, it is hard to find anything in your portfolio that might be labeled ‘black-and-white’ in the traditional sense. Why is this?
Oh, that’s a great follow up question. Sometimes black-and-white makes me feel like my personal expression is being stifled or stuck. I learned my technical skills shooting black-and-white film, and I loved it at the time, but I also know that while I was shooting black-and-white, I was very much out of control of my emotions. I was manic, reckless, and young. The technicality, structure and limitations of black-and-white film photography and development helped provide me with some much needed structure, but I wasn’t putting any of my feelings into that art. I was following the motions but not seeing myself reflected. I see myself, my personality, my fears, my optimism, and my joy in my colorful work.

What were your very first impressions of the Loupedeck console?
My Loupedeck was a gift from my husband after a dry spell in work. He wanted to get me a gift that would reignite my passion and help me WANT to sit at my computer and edit my photos. It worked! I opened the box and thought, “Oh, this is going to be so helpful and fun!” We set it up in less than five minutes and I spent the rest of the day editing photos from a trip I had completely ignored for months.

Do you still look at every single raw image yourself as part of the editing process? If yes, why? If no, why? Has Loupedeck had an impact on how you tackle the processing of raw images?
It depends on a few factors. If I’m taking photos on vacation, I’ll really only look at them once, send my selects to my phone for quick editing and posting, then proceed to neglect them for years. If it’s for a photo shoot for a client, or for myself, I’ll pick some favorites and rate them in-camera during the shoot, but will always review all of my RAW images in Lightroom for rating and editing later. Loupedeck has encouraged me to stop neglecting those vacation photos! It’s so easy and quick to edit images that I can’t really use time or convenience as an excuse anymore. I’m far more excited to dive into an image set on my computer now.

Loupedeck has changed things totally! It has sped up my editing process significantly and has transformed this part of photography from a chore to a joy.

When you first began to properly integrate Loupedeck into your work, what was the first ‘revelatory’ thing you noticed?
I love using preset filters to enhance my photo, then I tweak to get my finalized “signature style” from there. Clicking endlessly through my most commonly used filters got so tiring and I’d often end up giving up on an image if I couldn’t find a style I liked quickly. I programmed all of the P1 – P8 buttons to 16 of my favorite presets, and now diving into a photograph has been much more enjoyable. Tapping a button quickly between two styles, without taking my eyes off of the image, is so much more enjoyable than the endless clicking around – moving my eyes from sidebar to photo to sidebar – that I was used to before!

Essentially all photographers will agree that the editing part is often the most ‘draining’ and ‘time-consuming’ element in terms of photography as a profession. How has the Loupedeck console changed the overall methodology and processes related to your post-shoot workflow?
Loupedeck has changed things totally! It has sped up my editing process significantly and has transformed this part of photography from a chore to a joy. I’m also a very tactile learner – I took sign language in high school because verbal language just did not click in my mind. While Lightroom is a very visual platform, clicking and pulling sliders with my mouse just wasn’t as intuitive as I would have liked. Turning that exposure knob without having to shift my eyes off of the image – and now that I’m so used to editing with my Loupedeck and not having to look down at the keyboard – has easily cut my editing process time in half.

Does the knowing that you now have Loupedeck for post-processing allow you to be more experimental, or daring, or otherwise ‘different’ in your approach to work, or during a shoot, in the here and now, 2018?
I’ll always prefer to edit my RAW photographs in Lightroom, on my desktop, as opposed to editing JPEG on my iPhone, because there’s so much more data to work with, especially with the way I overexpose my images and drag down the highlights to maintain details. I used my iPhone for editing out of convenience and speed, but now I find myself waiting to get back to my computer with my CF cards after a shoot so I can jump into my RAW files. I also more strategically rate my photographs in-camera during a shoot now, knowing they’ll be the first ones I edit, thanks to Loupedeck.

Now that you have become very familiar with Loupedeck, are there certain functions on the console which are now absolutely indispensable in terms of efficiency of workflow and productivity in general?

The ‘Export for Web’ button! I just can’t memorize even the easiest keyboard commands in Lightroom. I don’t know why. I still have every single word from the Spice Girls’ 1996 album ‘Spice’ in my brain, but Lightroom keyboard commands for me are non-retainable. Having a simple button to press for export is a game-changer.

Any last comments Jayzombie?
Thank you for letting me share my story, my art, and get vulnerable with you.

You can follow Jessica on Instagram @jayzombie