When Lightning Strikes...
THREE FIERY, RAIN-SPLATTERED MAPLE LEAVES; A MONARCH butterfly poised on magenta petals; lightning illuminating stormy skies: Dramatic images fill Longmont resident Jim De Lutes' photography. His scenic photographs emphasize contrasts of light and dark, of height and depth. In his Southwestern series, for example, intense sunlight fills most of the shots, attracting the eye to what's lurking in the shadows. His mountainscapes contrast harsh rock with delicate wildflowers.
Jim describes his work as "natural beauty" photography. His close-up photographs usually picture one to three items, such as flowers and leaves, enlarged to fill the entire frame in startling detail. And, although he enjoys looking at photographs, he doesn't analyze their style or technique. He considers himself more of an artist than a photographer. "I look at paintings more than photography. Film is my canvas and light is my paint," he says.
Born and raised in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a middle child with four sisters, Jim moved to the Front Range 25 years ago, shortly after finishing high school. "I traveled all over the States," he says, "and this is where I most wanted to live."
According to Jim, he has always seen life as though through a camera, and is an admirer of the work of many Life magazine photographers. He himself, however, didn't even pick up a camera until he was 19. A self-taught artist, he jokes, "I took 17 years of bad pictures, basically. Well, they weren't really that bad, but they weren't what I wanted." Once he had honed his style and technique, Jim's natural eye for aesthetics helped him more than anything else. "It's about personal taste for me. I try to stay away from the `rules.' Having never studied [photography], I don't know them," he smiles.
Although well-meaning marketers have encouraged Jim to research what potential clients may want and what sells well, he tends to ignore their advice and simply shoots what he likes, hoping that others will like it, too. "I'm not into producing a product," he explains.
So far, his non-strategy has paid off. With an average of 20 invitation-only shows per year and his website JDLphotos.com — Jim's professional photography business is thriving in its eighth year. His work is displayed at Denver's St. Anthony's Hospital and Longmont United Hospital, and he has also shot promotional photographs for the grand opening of Denver International Airport. Some of his most successful shows have been held throughout Colorado, including the Cherry Creek Arts Festival in Denver.
At one particular show, a woman held up one of his photographs already mounted in a colored mat and asked him, "If you were to mat this picture, what color would you mat it in?" Answered Jim, "Probably that color," indicating the photo's current mat.
He admits, "I try to screen the dumb questions out of my memory."
Although he does travel extensively, he shoots outdoor photography mostly in the West. "I've been at home in the West ever since I got here," he says. "[I love] the diversity and contrast." In a land of bright sun and dense shade, rocky heights and dainty mountain blooms, Jim has made good use of the region's landscape. He hikes with his camera just in case. "I look for something that moves me," he says. "I don't have a preconceived idea of what I will shoot." Unlike his close-ups, which are photographed in his studio, "I just capture the outdoor stuff," he adds. "Nature has done most of the work."
He enjoys putting extra effort into his photographs of storms, as being a stormchaser is "one of those things you're just born with. The photos really have nothing to do with storm-chasing; I would watch them even if I weren't a photographer," he grins. "But since I do photography, I capture them that way."
Often, when Jim hears a late-night thunderstorm rolling in, he dresses hurriedly, jumps into his truck, and drives until he finds the best angle for his shot. "I have to get on the right side of the storm for it to work." He once drove 100 miles chasing a storm and still didn't get his lightning shot. "If you're not passionate about it, you don't do it," he explains.
Jim's other hobbies have aided his photography career. Fly fishing lets him get close to nature and helps to generate more scenic photography ideas. He's loved road trips since he was old enough to drive, although he admits "I didn't know I was in training then."
Jim is adamant about never manipulating his photographs; what you see is what he sees through the camera when taking the picture. No computer enhancement or interference mars the photos' natural quality. Using standard 35mm Fuji film and no special filters, he shuns using any special techniques for the developing process as well, sending his film to local professional labs for processing.
Occasionally, he uses colored gels on one of several lights. To enhance the color of an iris, for example, he may dab a small amount of lavender gel on one light. A filter would make the entire photograph appear lavender, not just a single petal, he explains. Even though the resolution of digital cameras keeps improving, Jim does not plan to buy one any time soon. "I'm not a tech-head," he smiles. "If my camera does what I want, that works for me."
His only real photographic equipment — other than his subjects — are his camera and tripod. "People ask me all the time if the butterflies I photograph are alive. I tell them, `Sure, and I give them a tiny biscuit if they sit really still,"' jokes Jim. But rest assured, Jim's butterflies, raised at a butterfly farm, die of natural causes. "They have a life span of only three weeks,'' says Jim, "so you don't have to be very patient." The flowers he shoots are dried also, and Jim keeps a collection of both.
"Getting started on a shoot is the hardest part," Jim confesses. After setting up his lights, he snaps a few hundred shots in an evening, tweaking his setup in between each shot. Usually, the last two or three are his best. "They are nowhere near what I started with," he says. "It's a journey."
Because he spends so much time traveling, Jim introduced his website in April 2000 with the aid of former art circuit exhibitors Chris Maher and Larry Berman. Having an insider's knowledge of art circuits, the enterprising pair now uses their web savvy to help other artists market in a less time-intensive fashion via virtual galleries. "The website helps me work smarter, not harder," Jim says.
Having received an average of 200 hits a day on his website, Jim was astounded to discover that on July 4, he had 3,500 in just a single day! He later found out someone in Japan had "told a lot of people to go to my site. There was something [about my site] on Yahoo! in Japanese. I don't know what it said, but they [all] went to the lightning shots. I don't know why."
Jim views the website as an interactive color brochure. People browse virtual galleries, order his photos online, or see when he will next be showing in their areas. Interior designers and decorators find the site helpful as well. "If they aren't ready to buy, they can go to the site and see the picture when they are ready. They don't have to wait for the next show," he says. "They can even bring up the image on a computer in the room they're (actually) decorating to see how it will look on the wall."
His website has also helped to alleviate Jim's biggest professional problem — finding time to market. Since he is a one-man show, matting, driving, showing, and shipping eat into his shooting time. "The website should help me be in more than one place at a time," he says. "It's a show that doesn't end."
Meanwhile, Jim continues to travel from his Longmont home and studio to numerous shows a year. After a week to two weeks of showing, he returns to catch up on a slew of missed e-mail. But the frequent traveling is a small price to pay for doing what he has wanted to do since he was a child.