A stampede could be heading straight for his shoot-site . . . the celebrity he booked could suddenly fall ill during a major ad campaign. . . or his backup camera could inexplicably go south moments after his main camera. . . still Texas-based John Langford would figure something out.
His easy-going approach and flexibility combine to enable Langford to quickly adjust to any situation. This uncommon talent for coming away with fun, whimsical photographs that really give a sense of who the subject is—no matter what else is going on—gives this commercial and editorial photographer a decided business edge. Clients such as Tamron, Whole Foods, and Keller Williams simply can’t get enough of his capture style.
“Being able to roll with the punches, and think on one’s feet is a crucial personality trait,” Langford explains, “The nature of the photography beast is that it is constantly changing, and if your ideas are set in stone it’s just going to be a miserable experience.”
On a recent editorial assignment for Texas Monthly, any other photographer might have fallen victim to what Langford calls the “X factor,” something about the subject or the shoot that he has no control over. The photo titled “Cutter of Locks” (right) is a good example of what happens when the X factor moves into action. This shoot was to be one of 24 Langford had scheduled within a three-day period. When he arrived at the salon selected for the image, the subject hadn’t lined up a model as agreed, hadn’t left room in his schedule for the shoot, and women were everywhere—waiting to get their haircut. Langford calmly assessed the situation: “I saw this tall, statuesque woman emerge from the salon. She looked perfect for the shot, so I chased her down the street and explained my situation,” he says.
It was at this point Langford’s ability to connect at high speeds enabled him not only to convince her to get in the car with him, but also to try on clothes. “We drove to a woman’s clothing store nearby and I charged $600 worth of clothes, shoes, and accessories with the understanding that I would bring them back in an hour,” he recalls. As it turned out, the woman happened to be a model. According to Langford, “She was the perfect substitute because she was so tall and he was so short, it added a comedic edge to the photograph.”
Or take the photo of Kinky Friedman (bottom left), a Texas icon, singer, songwriter, and candidate for Texas governor. Things started out a little rocky and progressed in accordance with Murphy’s Law. Langford recalls, “I had never met Kinky before, and when I arrived at his house there just wasn’t anywhere inside that was going to work. His whole entourage was there and a million other distractions.”
Shortly after deciding to move the shoot outside, it started to rain. “I dragged Kinky onto the patio and he was just pacing back and forth like a caged animal,” Freeman recalls. “Keeping him in my viewfinder was like trying to hit a moving target. Meanwhile, I’m just trying to avoid being electrocuted by my high-voltage equipment.” Finally, with raindrops clinging to the brim of Freidman’s hat and him sporting his patented, go-to-hell look, Langford captured the real Kinky. The photo generates the same response from everyone who knows him: “Oh, that’s Kinky.”
Best Laid Plans
The irony of is that Langford does more than enough planning to put each shoot to bed smoothly. He starts by getting as much information from the client as possible, regarding their vision. “Sometimes the client has a specific image in mind and I’m the technician just trying to give it the John Langford flavor. Other times, he or she will only offer the vaguest details and it’s up to me to come up with the concept,” says Langford.
After 10 or 15 email exchanges, 15 to 20 minutes on the phone, or both, Langford has what he needs and is able to shift his attention to other affairs.
“We have to put things on the calendar, and sometimes that means booking photo-shoots before we even know exactly what we’re shooting, or how much time they are going to give us.” But Langford takes it all with a grain of salt. “The key is not to take yourself too seriously. This isn’t brain surgery. No one is going to die if it doesn’t work—which is not to say we don’t bring our best effort to each photo shoot.”
Last, but perhaps most crucial to any shoot, is the talent. Langford narrows down the pool of people, based on head shots sent to him by the talent agency. Then he makes a point of seeing the candidates in person before the day of the shoot. “Lots can change,” he explains. “Sometimes they’ve gained weight, cut or dyed their hair, or look much older. This is particularly true with children. Maybe you’ve found a picture of the perfect six-year-old, only now he’s eight. That’s a reality.”
A Tangled Web
Speaking of making plans, Langford made a strategic move when creating his website, purposely turning his “about me” section into “a glimpse of the bubbling crock pot of crazy stew that’s in my head” to screen out clients that would think his work is too strange or too kooky. “They either get it or they don’t. If they like what they see, we have a match. Otherwise we don’t,” says Langford.
He and his staff are in the process of marketing his work regionally and nationally through an online mailing list he subscribes to at adbase.com.
“For $1,000 a year, I can have access to all the photo buyers in North America. We’ve just sent out 2,500 post cards and are following up by contacting some of those folks,” explains Langford.