In the latest Photographer Spotlight, Flylords caught up with world-renowned photographer, Jeff Lipsky. Once a fly fishing guide, he now specializes in celebrity and lifestyle photography. Lipsky’s portfolio consists of many well-known actors and actresses for high-profile magazines, along with several outdoor companies. Check out our conversation below.
Flylords: Tell us what a typical day in Jeff Lipsky’s life looks like.
Jeff Lipsky: A typical day? I’m a father of three, so the first part of the day typically involves my wife and I getting the kids ready for school. At the same time New York is open and I’m in LA, so things are going full swing back east where my rep is located. There are always pre and post productions happening and business to take care of simultaneously. Trying to juggle family and work in the morning can be a challenge. But I thrive on chaos, and somehow it all comes together.
I have a nice little studio office in Santa Monica and I go there to hunker down sometimes to be creative. I’ll redo my portfolios, work on new imagery, and keep things fresh. I’m also teaching a Santa Fe Photographic Workshop, which is an honor to be able to do. It’s called, “The Editorial Portrait.”
Flylords: Let’s back up a little bit to your Colorado days. It sounds like you were in Telluride, so what brought you there?
Jeff Lipsky: Oh my God, good question! I moved to Telluride the day I graduated college. I went to Boston University and wanted to live in a ski town badly. It had to be a town where the ski runs came into the town. I wasn’t even thinking of fishing at that time and was furthest from my mind. I just wanted to be a ski bum.
Telluride was one of those rare places where the town was next to the mountain. I pulled into town, got a job, a place to live, and that winter all I cared about was being on the mountain. Then I met my friend, Frank Smethurst. He was a Georgia boy that was already a fishing guru at the time. I got him snowboarding and at the same time he basically educated me on fly fishing. The San Miguel River flowed right through town and I would spend 120 days a year skiing or snowboarding and then I spent the rest fishing. I started guiding pretty quickly after that too. I learned the ropes through Telluride Outside, did my river training, and started guiding on the Black Canyon section of the Gunnison River.
Flylords: What did guiding teach you?
Jeff Lipsky: Patience. A lot of patience. It also taught me how to communicate with people. Being a guide really helped me become a photographer; by talking to people, giving them what they want, and meeting an expectation of catching fish. It’s not always easy being a guide while never getting a chance to take a single cast. That’s always the hardest part when you’re a guide. You’re on beautiful water, see crazy hatches going off, big bows are coming up, and you have a client that can barely cast… I gained a lot of patience. It made it that much sweeter when I got to go fishing myself.
Flylords: Were you into photography way back then? Or did you pick up the camera for the first time in Telluride?
Jeff Lipsky: I had taken one photo class in college and really didn’t take any pictures until my last three years in Telluride. I started shooting with a Nikon camera as a kid. Then, I bought my first real camera (F5) from a photographer named Ace Kvale, a living legend. A lot of my earlier works were landscapes of rivers, like the San Miguel. Something about that river was mesmerizing to me and it wasn’t just the fishing, it was the nature around it.
Flylords: Do you remember the first photo you ever had published?
Jeff Lipsky: Technically, the first of my photos to ever be published was a cover of a local magazine, Telluride Style. My first editorial magazine cover was of a photographer who’s no longer with us, T. R. Youngstrom. T.R. was the huge up and coming ski/sports photographer, but passed away in Chile in a helicopter crash.
He was walking down the street with another friend of mine and T.R. gave me his camera to take a portrait of them together. The photo later on became the cover of Telluride Style. I’ll never forget that feeling of having your picture on the cover of a magazine. Since then, I’ve shot at least 80 covers for magazines.
Flylords: What made you finally say, “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life in Telluride and I’m moving to LA.” What was that defining moment for you?
Jeff Lipsky: I realized that I didn’t want to be a fishing guide, snowboard instructor, and waitor forever. I wanted to be a photographer and have a family. I didn’t think I could support my family doing what I was doing in Telluride. The burning passion for me to take pictures overwhelmed everything else too. It sounds corny, but if you love what you do, you become really good at it, no matter what. I loved fly fishing, I think I became a pretty good fly fisherman. I loved snowboarding, I became a good snowboarder. To be a good photographer I decided to move out to LA and begin shooting with photographers, working in studios, and move up the ranks. It also helped that I had a lot of connections from my old fly fishing clients in LA.
Flylords: How old were you when you made that decision?
Jeff Lipsky: 33… I shocked a lot of people. I think it took me a good year and a half for my goggle tan to go away.
Flylords: Was there a moment where you think you had your big break in LA?
Jeff Lipsky: Becoming an assistant for big photographers was a big break. Years went by where I was shooting and lighting all the Rolling Stone covers for a photographer. I was in a grind doing the top tier photography as an assistant. I then had a moment where I knew I could do this on my own. I got a Banana Republic spring campaign really early in my career which kind of set me up for future projects. Shortly after, Premiere Magazine called (celebrity portrait magazine) asking me to go to Sundance.
Flylords: Were you nervous during that shoot?
Jeff Lipsky: I felt comfortable because I was in my element. I had been around enough, I knew what to do, I felt good, and I had a great team around me. There can be a lot of pressure when you only have a couple minutes to take someone’s picture. If you have all day to photograph somebody, anyone could get one ok shot. However, getting a great picture in just a few minutes is what makes it stressful. I actually enjoy this aspect of these types of shoots. It’s almost more fun for me with the limited time.
I just did the Oscars the other day and the Academy hired me to do portraits of anyone who wins an Oscar. I had to build a studio behind the stage and when they win an Oscar, they come to me in my studio. I get sometimes 20 seconds or five minutes for shooting… You never know. It’s so exciting because there’s not much time!
Flylords: Is there another photo that was a defining moment of your career that you remember?
Jeff Lipsky: Shooting with Darryl Hannah was another one. When I first moved to LA, she needed a picture of herself taken for the Sunday Times. I went out with her to Santa Ynez to take a portrait of her and her horse, Jeremiah. I had a Hasselblad and five rolls of film in my pocket to take her portrait. The images I got from that really helped me with my career. I still try to go back to that because it was just one person taking a picture of another person. It was the perfect time of day, the setting was amazing.
Flylords: Have you had a moment where you were so starstruck by somebody that you were shooting?
Jeff Lipsky: I always get in awe of the great athletes, performers, and artist. I shot Chris Cornell’s last album, Packaging and we spent the day together at a really hot loft in New York taking his pictures. I was like, “Goddam, its Chris Cornell. Musicians get me the most, but some actors I don’t get that star struck. They’re just like us doing their jobs, in a way.
Flylords: Tell us about your craziest fly fishing experience.
Jeff Lipsky: The first one was with Outside Magazine, they asked me to go on an assignment with the writer, Peter Matthiessen. He was a famous writer who wrote The Snow Leopard. We were going to do this story on the Nomads of the Seas, which was a 240-foot private vessel with helicopters and jet boats. We started in the Porto Montt going in and out of the rivers in Patagonia. It was the high season, so the fishing wasn’t epic, but the characters that were on the boat were. All of these famous fly fishermen were on this cruise… I was literally afraid to cast in front of them. Unfortunately, Peter backed out last minute and we ended up doing just a photo essay.
The second greatest fly fishing experience were days on the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River. I would be with a friend or two and spend all day going down trails, floating in inner tubes, and casting for 24-inch beautiful bows. It was just perfect… To me, those days stand out. No one else around, just you and 1-2 other people, fishing, and not seeing another person in sight for a day. To me, that’s what it’s all about.