The Portrait of a Photographer
Along the rough path of shaping diamonds, every once in a while, we walk in the shadow of a fascinating personality, whose course through passion and relentless choice, has captured the one we know. We meet two bright blue eyes who still reflect a child’s dreamlike and heartfelt spirit. She is portrait photographer Jane Shirek. By now her love to work with people has become somewhat of a trade secret or simply written, an innate talent. Many decades ago while an undergraduate painting major, Shirek dreamed to become the next Annie Leibovitz and at a book signing in Atlanta, received her blessing too, titled to her in handwriting “…to the next Annie Leibovitz.”
Today she lives up to her own legacy. With decades passing Shirek created photography that has made an impression on portraiture history and most importantly in the hearts of her subjects. The 1999 platinum album cover of Jazz Pianist and Singer Diana Krall ‘When I Look in Your Eyes’ photographed on Clint Eastwood’s home and backyard cliff was a special mission, one only Shirek could fulfill. Krall had achieved international acclaim in the jazz community but was more introverted in front of the camera. She had previously photographed Krall for Neiman Marcus’ The Book, a photoshoot planned one year in advance that had to overcome a few other challenges. “The rain was so intense, it was almost like the monsoon that day. My assistant had to rollerblade to the hardware store down in Tribeca. We had to build giant tarps to put the equipment under,” says Shirek.
The result was outstanding and a portrait which Krall cherishes to this day. In a long black coat on a smoky New York street, Krall appears frozen in time. Amidst the storm with rain drops at her feet Shirek captured the depth of the famed jazz musician unlike anyone else. “She tells me to this day – I just saw her a couple of months ago at a concert in Jacksonville – to this day that is her favorite picture taken of her. She said, ‘it’s my James Dean picture.’”
Later after the album cover The New Yorker called. They wanted to see more. “What they said was, ‘this is the only picture we have seen of Diana Krall where she actually looks relaxed and joyful. We wanted to know if you have a portfolio of well-known people that hate to be photographed.’ That was a prerequisite!” says Shirek.
Humbly however it isn’t a niche that she wants to be necessarily identified by. When she talks about photography there is a certain limitless ambition in her voice. After college while working for Delta Airlines, Shirek could choose to travel her favorite destinations. The first was New York City where she was told that in order to become a photographer you would have to move to either Paris or Milan. Her second destination was Milan. “I was married at that time, but I told my husband, ‘I’m going to quit my job at the airlines and I’m going to move to Italy, get a portfolio and you will visit me.” Milan shortly paid off although upon arrival she didn’t know a single soul and was still among the few female photographers in the industry. “There were all these up-and-coming models, photographers and stylists. I started testing with modeling agencies and then I finally landed a few pages in Vogue Italia. It was everybody’s dream,” says Shirek.
“They were known as the most beautiful and creative magazine in the whole world, above American Vogue. At that time every magazine thought, I wish we could be Vogue Italia.”
Shirek was also published in L’Uomo Vogue and acquired quite a large portfolio of male models coming from London that were starting to launch their careers such as Michael Schendel.
The three-year journey to Milan produced Shirek’s first fashion portfolio. Upon her return with a stop in Atlanta and then in the Big Apple a plethora of opportunities awaited. Her work began to publish in American Vogue, Vanity Fair, Men’s Journal, HBO, Entertainment Weekly, Seventeen, Glamour, Bloomingdale’s, Nine West, Neiman Marcus and at Macy’s in collaboration with Art Director Brad Harrison. She also directed a commercial for Macy’s West in Hawaii, music videos for Grammy award winning singer Jessie Harris, band Joy Zipper and with then vice president of Verve Music Group Creative Director Hollis King she photographed some of the world’s most celebrated jazz musicians, Diana Krall and Melody Gardot. “Hollis is a very important person in my life and a fascinating one too,” says Shirek.
Her photography has also been showcased in various galleries and shows throughout the United States.
While working for Neiman Marcus, creative director Margo Weathers recognized Shirek’s distinct reportage talent, different from the more stringent commercial fashion photography. At the suggestion of Weathers, she began shadowing writer Annette Tapert of Neiman Marcus’ The Book for her stories. She photographed designer Bill Blass, Pamela Dennis and socialites of New York City. “It was kind of like journalism in a way. Bill Blass was like a giant child, a child at heart. I love people that are very childlike, like they get a big kick out of life. They’re a catalyst for fun,” says Shirek.
Growing up in Jacksonville Florida, Shirek has been surrounded by quite a few family portraits. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, the beloved governor of Florida between 1906 to 1910, and his wife First Lady Annie Douglas Broward, a force in the struggle to win women’s rights, are her great grandparents. Like them her portraiture mirrors a new generation of American royal fineness but edgy relentlessness. Later at the University of Florida, a campus whose two residence halls are also named in honor of her great grandparents, Shirek majored in painting and minored in photography. But during her first nude art course “where you weren’t supposed to look at the model but feel the lines of the paper,” she says, “I only drew the faces.” Her professor exclaimed,
“‘Jane, where’s the model? We have a nude body here.’” “I’ve just only been more interested in the face than the body,” she replied.
“When I first started drawing, I mainly just drew faces. I just liked the human face.”
From the sketches of a pencil to that of a camera lens, her virtue to portray the human face and soul has bloomed along the years. “I always felt, I was different from other people. I can’t explain it. I never joined groups or felt like I connected heavily with other people or understood them. I always felt like an outsider,” says Shirek. “Even when I was younger like 19, I wanted to go to Europe and I went to nine countries by myself. I just had this restlessness in me. I thought there was more out there. There was more to see, more to do, more to experience then just where I was. I still feel that way actually.”
In her portfolio is also fashion designer Dianne von Furstenberg, an image which unfortunately was lost during a storage fire with some of her archives. More photography includes an intimate portrait of actor John Leguizamo for Detour Magazine and Lilly Pulitzer’s ‘Guess Who Has Palm Beach on the Brain?’ fashion campaign. After 9/11 and a declining economy, among a pool of talent, Shirek landed a job as a historical novel ghost writer in Los Angeles. On this new journey and through a Craigslist post she made a lifetime friend, filmmaker and co-founder of PassionFlix Tosca Musk. Musk’s advertisement read: “Wanted roommate, mature, no partier and animal dog welcome.” They clicked in an instant, shared a house in LA and a few creative story projects. Shirek describes Musk an easy-going person and a professional that has worked for many years to build a career as an independent filmmaker.
Inspired by the city of angels’ Hollywood scene, Shirek finally found the opportunity to discover a new medium which had always deeply interested her: the motion pictures. Among her influences in photography is international cinema and mesmerizing images such as of Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray. With a newfound love of writing and her unique ability to portray any story visually, Shirek hopes to adapt her screenplays into novels. To tell the story behind the characters of her portraits. Regardless of medium or format, an Italian lesson she has taken a pledge of allegiance to years ago while in Italy, as they say with ‘buon sapore’ is that whatever one presents has to be done in a beautiful way.
For the next generation she glances back for a moment to remember a distinct portfolio of portraiture. The streets of New York filled with stranger passers byes fully connected to the rhythm of the roaming streets, a city that has challenged her to take a chance and travel the world. Shirek comes from a time when an image and its concept had a more careful approach. There is much to learn from a pair of eyes whose work goes past snapping a shutter. “You will look at some photographer’s work and you will see the ones that actually connect with their subjects, then people who are just taking pictures,” says Shirek.
Her challenge to those that want to follow in her footsteps and find their own path is simple, “Look up and see.”
Last month Shirek was among the 15 photographers that celebrated the Jacksonville International Airport’s 50th anniversary. The Let’s Go show at the Haskell Gallery explores places, faces and a love of travel. It was Let’s Go Shirek that had portraits of a beach balancing act, motorcycle ride and passengers of 20th century aviation. What makes Shirek special is her constant quest, to grow and challenge. A dream with which whether by chance or choice, she always has in sight a new destination.
Photography by Jane Shirek. Header image by Photographer Christopher Dinerman.