By Ashley Hunsberger
John Hartley was finishing up a shift at the local coffee shop. As he hung up his apron and peered over the counter, he noticed something. That guy, the one who came in almost every day, was still staring intently at his laptop screen, immersed in…well, John wasn’t sure what. True, it was normal to see freelancers scattered around the shop sipping their lattes without ever taking their eyes off their computer screen, “but this guy,” John thought to himself, “his shifts are longer than mine!”
The next day, John was on break, scrolling through street photography images on Tumblr. As soon as he had stumbled across the genre, he knew it was for him. It would be his greatest creative outlet. But the big plans rumbling around his head were abruptly cut off by a coworker with no respect for 15 minute breaks. “Dude, there’s a huge line building up, can you help us take some orders?” John sighed, and headed out to the cash register. As fate would have it, his first customer was the guy who spent forever at his laptop almost every day in the coffee shop. His name was Kesler Ottley. John took his order and then, unable to bear the curiosity any longer, asked him, “Hey, what are you always working on in here?” He replied, “Oh, I’m a photographer, mostly I’ve been working on editing some images.” Little did they both know, their shared interest in photography would soon lead to a close friendship and an amazing creative partnership.
So, now is probably a good time to mention that those first two paragraphs were only based on the true story of John Hartley and Kesler Ottley, or as they are affectionately known on “the ‘Gram,” Johnodactyl and Keslerbear. It was how I imagined that fateful meeting based on what they told me. And I say fateful because from that unlikely encounter (Then again, was it really unlikely if Kesler was in there eight hours a day for days at a time? We can debate another day.) a pretty incredible dynamic duo of creativity was born. One that cranked out a top-notch street photography project in only six weeks!
From the Mountains to the Street
Kesler picked up his grandfather’s old film camera in 2011 during his first year of college. He was living in Logan, Utah and landscape photos were his images of choice – that and his hiking buddies out on the trails. Four years later he was a full time photographer back in Salt Lake City, shooting weddings, portraits and the like.
Meanwhile, John had discovered street photography on Tumblr and was instantly obsessed. He had met a professional photographer at the coffee shop, asked if he could pick his brain, maybe shadow him and to his surprise the man offered him a job as his assistant. John accepted the job and learned a ton about advertising and commercial photography. Eventually, he took up his own photography work, shooting streets and portraits.
When John and Kesler’s friendship began, their photographic journeys merged. The first time they headed out to shoot together they drove out to the mountains to shoot landscapes (Kesler’s idea). But soon enough, they found themselves on the bustling downtown streets of Salt Lake City.
Ok, rewind, the streets of Salt Lake City are NOT bustling. This was a big challenge for the guys. Even during “rush hour” there are no crowds of people. Unlike New York City or LA, there aren’t hundreds, not even dozens of people or tourists walking the streets, so a couple of guys with cameras are, well, conspicuous. And that makes getting up-close, candid shots of people really challenging. In some cases, even your most discreet hip shot on the barren streets of Salt Lake City is just as alarming to people as a Bruce Gilden flash in the face might be on the streets of New York. But that didn’t stop Keslerbear and Johnodactyl from prowling around and capturing the downtown areas. They worked with what they had and the results were pretty amazing.
In fact, only about two weeks into shooting the streets of Salt Lake for fun, John and Kesler noticed that they had been building a pretty interesting body of work. Salt Lake has a definite feel to it, an essence uniquely its own, but neither of them had really noticed it until they were out there on the streets every single day.
Which leads me to the first moral of the Keslerbear and Johnodactyl story:
Moral #1 – Shooting street photography is an amazing way to get to know a city, any city, anywhere in the world.
The Birth of a Project
John and Kesler wanted to do something with their photos and they talked about creating a zine with their favorite images. It was a project they could produce relatively quickly, but one they could still put a lot of thought into. There was no official timeline for their project but they decided tentatively to continue shooting downtown during the months of April and May and then learn to use Adobe InDesign in June. They didn’t set a final deadline.
Moral #2 – If you have a rough idea for a street photography project floating around in your head, start working on it today! You don’t need to plan out every last detail to get started.
April and May flew by and at this point, John and Kesler had selected most of the images they wanted to use for their zine. Now came the hard part, creating templates, designing the layout of each page in the zine, curating and sequencing the images. The guys spent hours pouring over these details and watching online tutorials. (And on that note, shoutout to Nick Exposed for creating a super useful photo zine how-to series on YouTube.)
June was now slipping by and it was starting to feel like they were just slogging along. As John says, “Ideas are easy to come by, but execution is the hard part.” Both of them were feeling it, so one Tuesday afternoon, John exclaimed, “Dude! We’re putting this out Friday. Let’s do this thing!” Motivation renewed, the two set out to create their final project in just four short days.
Moral #3 – If you lack motivation to bring a project to life, look for a creative partner who can help you stay motivated and feel accountable.
John focused on sequencing. It was a difficult task, creating a cohesive story from a project they had shot, essentially, with no clear purpose or goal in mind. But he challenged himself to sequence 10 or more photos at a time, turning them into a story that would flow naturally.
Kesler focused on design and layout, taking the chosen images and placing them on each page in a way that brought the story John had discovered and sequenced to life.
As they spent time on these elements, more interesting details started to stand out. They began to notice little themes in textures, colors and composition – themes that appeared in both photographers’ images. It was an interesting detail that could be the product of Salt Lake’s uniqueness or the photographers’ close friendship creating a shared vision, or perhaps a bit of both.
It was an intensive learning experience and no easy task, they admitted. They ended up working somewhere around 14 hours for each of those four long days to complete it. But both John and Kesler agree, if they hadn’t decided to get it done fast, if they hadn’t set such a close deadline, they probably never would have finished their project – at least not in this decade. But as it was, by Friday the zine was ready to publish.
Moral #4 – Unfinished photography project laying around the house? Set a deadline. Put in the work and finish it by the end of the week.
The big question is, was it worth all the work? I mean, it was all for a plain old, online, digital zine of some street shots of Salt Lake City that hadn’t even been taken for that purpose, right? Wrong. John and Kesler gained so much from this project. They discovered that team projects are amazing, especially when you realize your partner is your best catalyst for creativity. They learned valuable new skills, like how to create a story by giving thought to the sequence of your images and their layout on each page. And most of all, they gained confidence. Having experienced the creative process for creating a zine, they are both inspired to work on future projects. They also got a great response from those who saw the zine, myself included.
What did I love?
- The sequencing and layout of the images. I know we’ve talked a lot about that here, but seriously see for yourself. Both factors really contribute to the impact of this small story about downtown Salt Lake City.
- The fact that I can’t tell who shot which photos. It’s amazing how their work weaves together so seamlessly.
- Pages 21 and 22. You got me.
- The textures and colors throughout. They are so delightful and add emotion to the story.
The success of this project has inspired Keslerbear and Johnodactyl to start looking towards their future projects already. I imagine they will get started as soon as John returns from his Chicago camera honeymoon with his beautiful, recently acquired LEICA of his dreams. (A story for another day, friends.) For now, the creative pair (that is John and Kesler, not John and his Leica) are thinking about visiting new cities together, shooting the streets for several days, and then creating city specific zines that double as travel journals. Whatever final project their idea leads to, I am looking forward to it.
John and Kesler’s zine is a great example of the many benefits of putting together a photo project and of working with other photographers for creative inspiration and motivation to keep on going. Some of the images in this article are from their zine, but trust me, they’ll make more of an impact on you in their intended format. You can see the zine, titled, “What Should We Call This?” with your own two eyes by clicking here (John’s site) or here (Kesler’s site).