An Interview with Julieanne Kost

By Julieanne Kost, Paul Schranz Back to

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When it comes to aesthetic digital collage and technical expertise with Photoshop, few can equal Julieanne Kost. Professionally a Digital Imaging Evangelist for Adobe, Kost not only knows her tools, but she incorporates her skill into some of the most sensitive narrative collages exhibited today. I recently had the opportunity to spend time with Julieanne, and she answered some pertinent questions and offered insights into her artwork and her life at Adobe.

PS: You were originally a psychology major. Tell me how you went from earning that degree into a career in photography.

JK: I have always been interested in photography and grew up in a household that had the perfect combination of left and right brain influences. My father is an engineer: very logical, pragmatic and disciplined in his work and he always encouraged me to master the technology necessary for a particular field of study. We had a darkroom set up in the laundry room and he taught me how to develop and print my images. My mother is a creative, imaginative and free thinking artist who encouraged me to explore different ways to express myself and communicate through many channels including music, drawing and photography.

During college I continued taking both art and photography classes along with the required psychology units. Upon graduation, I took a position at a medical imaging company where I was responsible for the capture, editing (in Photoshop 2.0) and archiving a large library of medical images while I pursued photography at a local community college.

In 1992, I learned of an opening for a Technical Support specialist at Adobe Systems and jumped at the opportunity. I have been with Adobe ever since. My early study of human behavior still helps me find ways to simplify complex techniques and procedures as I present seminars and workshops in Photoshop and Lightroom.

Twilight, Digital Print

PS: What does an “Evangelist” do at Adobe, and how did you attain that rank?

JK: The primary goal of any evangelist at Adobe is to help keep our customers informed with regards to our applications and technologies by demonstrating the actual products, as well as by showing examples of extraordinary and imaginative images created with the applications. Evangelism also includes serving as the liaison between the engineering team and the individual user of the product―making sure that features of Photoshop and Lightroom are under- stood by people who use them. The range of individuals who use Photoshop on a daily basis is extensive―from web, print and motion designers to law enforcement officers, artists, scientists, photojournalists, wedding and portrait photographers―all of whom have different needs. An evangelist should be able to recognize what features and components of an application are most beneficial to a specific group of users.

I also contribute to several publications and speak at conferences and industry events, photography workshops and fine art schools. I am the founder of jkost.com, publisher of the Daily PS Tip (blogs. adobe.com/jkost), and author of Window Seat― The Art of Digital Photography―which all help me reach a broad and diverse number of Adobe users. To complete the circle, I constantly gather customer requests and provide product feedback to the team.

PS: I know that you do analytic singular photographs, but you are best known for your collage work. Which of these styles do you prefer and why?

JK: The two styles of image-making are so fundamentally different that I can really only speak to my preference of certain aspects of one style over the other. For example, when working on the Window Seat project, all of the images were photographed from commercial airlines as I flew from one event to another. It was a very passive project, as I would sit in my seat and look out of the window hoping that something in the land/sky-scape would catch my eye. I had no control over the speed and route of the flight, the lighting or weather, or even which side of the plane my seat was on (although I do try to choose the shady-side).

My current personal project is photographing landscapes while sitting in the passenger seat of a moving vehicle (train, car, bus). I have some control, such as the f-stop and speed at which I pan, but the route is determined by the driver, the time of day and the lighting is dependent on my travel schedule, and my self-imposed rule is that I can’t go back to capture something that I didn’t see, or wasn’t fast enough to capture the first time. I appreciate giving up control in order to allow myself permission to simply experiment and take chances with my imagery. It’s the spontaneity and coincidence of this type of work that results in the gift of capturing a vision that would otherwise remain unseen.

The collage work is on the other end of the spectrum. I am able to control the exact elements that I want to merge together to form a cohesive message. As a result, I am able to create a composite image more powerful than its individual parts. The interactive process of selecting and assembling images is one of the most challenging and thought-provoking aspects of my creative exploration. Although overall, the images may appear serene and calm, the act of creation is anything but passive. I begin with a concept in mind, yet I may not know exactly how the pieces will fit together at the end. As the image takes on its own life, I often allow myself to explore additional directions, sometimes finding that the final image only faintly resembles the one first imagined. The composite images mentally challenge me the most.

Illusive, Digital Print
Isostacy, Digital Print

PS: Your collages are personal narratives. How are your ideas conceived and what is the process you use for gathering image information for the assemblages?

JK: I have created libraries of individual elements ranging from photographs of textures and landscapes, to scans of found objects, to encaustic paintings and charcoal drawings. When I am photographing (or painting or gathering) these ingredients, I do not know exactly what I will use them for. At this point, the photograph is not at all a final piece of work; instead they are waiting to take their position as a component of a larger message. The common thread is that as I photograph each individual element, it must evoke an emotional response. What that response might be (positive or negative, comforting or confrontational) is not important at the capture stage, because how the image will be used at that point is not clear.

In order to keep track of the individual elements, I import and keyword all of my images in Lightroom, allowing me to quickly filter and find the images that I need. I have also created collections of supporting backgrounds, textures, color palettes, etc. from which I draw components to build images and convey my idea.

I don’t begin assembling any composite until I have an idea/concept/statement that I want to make. After deciding on an initial topic, I move forward to select the primary image to be the subject of the illustration. Then I build the supporting scene, drawing from my library of elements. If, in the beginning, I want to try several wildly diverse options, I will roughly sketch these differing ideas and concepts (I am faster with a pencil than with a computer). And of course, many times I will photograph any necessary component(s) required to complete the image.

Then begins the process of working in Photoshop. I believe that the most significant recommendation that I can give is to master your tools. And since Photoshop is the single most important tool that I use to create my digital composites, I know that it is vital that I master features such as layers, masking, the pen tool, blend modes and smart objects. Once I am proficient in these techniques, the “tool” becomes invisible, and my mind is free to create without hesitating and stumbling over the technical process. Look at the masters in any field and you will see a beautiful relationship between the tool and the creativity―from the musicians and their instruments to the painters and their brushes. These experts of both the left and right side of the brain have a tremendous advantage over those who have to guess at one or the other. Knowing the technical behaviors behind any tool will set you free.

Because the photographer’s tool set is always evolving, I give myself assignments based on a word or concept such as “Drifting” or “Twilight.” It will be a topic that I am free to take in any direction, there is no right or wrong. I give myself permission to explore all of the different possibilities that the software might have to offer, and the computer allows me to discover what is possible in no other medium. However, because the digital realm is so forgiving, offering so many options for exploration, discipline becomes part of the challenge. The paint is never dry, the exposure is never fixed, and the print is never final―all components can be done differently at any point. Here the real art form is knowing when to stop and realizing when you’ve said what you set out to say.

Whisper, Digital Print

PS: You told me that you seldom use third-party software in creating your work. Is this true, and if so, why?

JK: I rarely feel the need to leave Lightroom and Photoshop to create my images―including both the individual stills and/or composites. However, I’m not against adding tools to my repertoire. For example, I have been learning Premiere Pro in order to edit some of the digital video that I have been experimenting with. What’s more important to me is that I won’t incorporate any imagery in my work that I didn’t take or make (through photography, painting, scanning, etc). I require my images to be entirely my creations and not a derivative of someone else’s work.

PS: Give me a discussion of this body of work in terms of an overall theme. What permeates the work, other than the fact that you created all of them, what holds this body of work together so tightly?

JK: In my work I try to construct a visual world realistic enough to appear familiar, yet obviously an interpretation of the physical reality that surrounds us. Because the images are not direct, concrete representations of people or places, viewers can interpret them as they wish―leaving the reality that they hold true to explore, if only for an instant, the visual placeholder of my thoughts and dreams. Because the images use photographic elements, they are almost plausible, yet the viewer knows that they are not indeed reality. Mystical, dreamlike landscapes with recurring subject matter unite to create a simplistically coherent, interwoven body of work.

Because the components are created at different times in different locations, I find that my work falls somewhere between the more traditional photographic practice of capturing a single decisive moment and the time compression techniques used to tell a story in cinematography. I create imaginary scenes layering elements together that are unconstrained by linear time and physical location that work together to form a cohesive message more powerful than its individual parts.

PS: You are known internationally as the top Photoshop instructor. How has working for Adobe while also being a practicing artist helped you to become such an excellent teacher?

JK: I believe that because I am not only a software trainer, but also a working artist, I can relate to many of the challenges that Adobe customers face both as creative image-makers and as businessmen and women. It can be difficult to keep up with technology in this rapidly evolving industry, so I try to make certain that the concepts I demonstrate have a direct relationship to the work done by each specific audience. With every lecture, my goal is to make sure that every single person leaves with a new understanding of either a feature, a concept or a technology. I try to make learning the software fun and appealing and to remove obstacles. With every new release, I try to demonstrate a technology that might ignite the imagination or give insight into a new and more productive way of creating the photographer’s vision.

Product Resources: Cameras: Canon 5D Mark II ; Lenses: Assorted Canon L Lenses; Software: Adobe Photoshop CS5, Lightroom 3.


About the Authors

Julieanne Kost
JKost
Julieanne Kost is an accomplished digital artist, as well as an internationally recognized teacher, presenter, writer and creative representative of Adobe. She was selected by Fast Company as one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business.” More of Julieanne's work can be see on her website www.jkost.com.
Paul Schranz
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Paul Schranz is a photographer and a photographic educator. He holds a BFA in photography from Ohio University, Athens, OH and an MFA in photography from Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL. He is Professor of Art Emeritus, Governors State University, University Park, IL, where he taught photography and digital imaging. He exhibits nationally and has received grants for documentary projects from the Illinois Arts Council. He is the former Editor of photo technique and Director of Mesilla Digital Imaging Workshops. Schranz is currently a faculty member at Dona Ana Community College, Las Cruces, NM, where he teaches advanced digital imaging, photographic composition, digital printing, image enhancement and manipulation.