How personal work helps Jenny Risher stand out from the crowd
When you ask Detroit-based portrait, editorial, and advertising photographer Jenny Risher what makes her work unique, she starts talking about banana pudding.
“To be a really successful photographer you need to have something that sets you apart from the competition; something that makes your work unique,” she says.
But what’s that got to do with banana pudding?
“It’s something I tell my fashion photography students: If you want to be noticed you have to bring something to the party no one else is bringing. If everyone else is bringing plain old potato salad, you bring banana pudding. Be different. Have fun.”
“Say you are with a group of photographers who are shooting the same model on a white background. How do you make your image different from everyone else’s? How do you add your own twist? I might shoot the model so part of her is in shadow. Or I could use a filter, gel, lens flare, or other unique lighting decisions. I’m always looking to add my own twist.”
Flipping through the diverse portfolio of the 45-year-old photographer’s work, it’s clear she’s succeeded in adding her own twist to photography for prestige clients that include the Ford Motor Co., Kenneth Cole, Chevrolet, Martha Stewart Living, the State of Michigan, and scores of others. She’s also found time to photograph for charities and produced two self-financed books of her personal work, “Heart Soul Detroit: Conversations on the Motor City,” and “D-Cyphered.”
After earning a BFA in photography from Detroit’s College of Creative Studies in 1997, Risher spent a year as an assistant in a Detroit auto photographer’s studio. “I was the low person on the totem pole,” she remembers. After a year of making countless pictures of tires, she moved to New York City, where she’d earlier spent a semester studying at the Parsons School of Design. She landed one-year gigs as an assistant to legendary fashion photographers Francesco Scavullo and Patrick Demarchelier. “Those were invaluable introductions to the world of fashion photography,” she remembers. “I learned so much about photography as well as people skills.”
After two years as a photo assistant she set out on her own and landed commercial work such as catalog shoots and still lifes. Veteran photography agent Ralph Mennemeyer, who eventually represented her for 15 years, remembers meeting Risher for the first time. “Jenny was always unfailingly polite but persistent,” he explains. “And she was clever enough to ask me to look at her portfolio because she wanted my advice. Most photographers just want you to look at their work. They rarely ask for advice. Even more amazingly, she took my advice on improving her photography and portfolio presentation and returned several more times with changes. That never happens in this business. I was impressed with both her attitude and her work and felt she had what it takes to make it in this highly competitive field. And I was right.”
Risher kept busy shooting in New York City and the work continued to roll in. She recalls the day she walked through Times Square, looked up and saw photos she had done for Ford’s “Warriors in Pink” campaign displayed on seven massive billboards. ‘Everywhere I looked, I saw my pictures,” she says. “It was a magical experience.”
She continued taking on lucrative work but began to feel something was missing. “I was photographing shoes and purses all day and paying my mortgage. The money was good, but I felt that this was not why I had gotten into photography in the first place. I looked at all the commercial work I’d done over the last decade or so and I decided I didn’t want that to be my legacy. I wanted to have fun, to be creative, to stretch myself. I needed a change.”
In 2010, after talking with friends about the bad rap Detroit had been getting in the national press, she began thinking about doing a series of portraits of famous Detroiters.
“There were so many amazing people that had come out of Detroit, and the idea of photographing them tugged at me,” she remembers. She made a list of people she hoped to photograph: Lee Iacocca, Iggy Pop, Eminem, Lily Tomlin. “I decided to reach out to five of them and if they said no, I’d drop my idea. They all said yes.”
Risher applied for but failed to get a grant to finance her project so she jumped in and began interviewing and photographing her list of 70-some iconic Detroiters as she had the time. “This was a grassroots project,” she explains. “I couldn’t afford a staff so I taught myself how to interview. I used my travel miles and was smart about cutting costs.” Three years later she published her first book, “Heart Soul Detroit: Conversations on the Motor City.”
Rave reviews and some exhibits of Risher’s Detroit portraits, including one at the Detroit Historical Museum, followed the book’s publication. “The project changed the direction and course of her career and ultimately her life,” says Ralph Mennemeyer. “Suddenly she was having Thanksgiving dinner with Lee Iacocca and hanging with Iggy Pop, Smokey Robinson, and others. And she was producing work she loved. Again, it was her persistence that paid off.”
Risher explains, “The work fed my soul. It reminded me why I had gotten into photography in the first place, that it was a fun, creative outlet that fed my curiosity.” The work also got her noticed by agents and potential clients. For example, after photographing Eminem for her book, she was hired to shoot album covers, promotional material, and concerts for his management company.
“A book gets people interested,” says Risher. “It makes you more interesting than a mere selling piece does. It helps separate you from other photographers. Essentially, with a book, you are creating your own narrative and designing your life.” Risher’s current agent, Detroit-based Anne Roche of The Clik Group, an agency that specializes in auto commercial photography, agrees. “Actually, Jenny’s book was the first thing that attracted me to her. A lot of our clients are looking for personal, real-life situations and that’s what I saw in Jenny’s book. It was personal and also a great calling card.”
Risher moved back to her hometown two years ago and completed another personal book project, “D-Cyphered,” a collection of portraits of Detroit-based hip-hop artists. She now boasts an impressive client list that encompasses portrait, commercial, and advertising photography. In what she terms “coming full circle,” she also teaches a course in fashion photography at her alma mater, the College of Creative Studies.
As she sits in her studio, taking a much needed break from her busy schedule, she confesses that she has another personal project in mind, one that’s recently blossomed. “I need to start it soon. My intuition keeps telling me to start working on something personal,” she says.
Any hints about the subject of her next project? “I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to jinx it,” she answers with a laugh.
Expect a hearty helping of banana pudding.
Robert Kiener is a writer in Vermont.