James Fitzgerald III
An intimate conversation on faith, art, and personal craft.
09 November 2016
James Fitzgerald III is a photographer based in Portland, Ore. Along with his brother, Parker Fitzgerald, Ransom Limited ( a photo & print house ) was created. Most known for their Overgrowth series, Ransom was started in 2013 "with the idea of forming a small, agile and collaborative group of creative professionals devoted to visual excellence, the production of uplifting work, and the pursuit of beauty." I oftentimes see James & his wife, Joy, at Door of Hope, and have been anticipating this conversation for some time. James & Parker's work has been of much interest to me for years now -- so I was excited to sit down and have a chat. The following is a condensed version of the dialogue we shared.
Can you explain a bit about your faith background?
Several times I found myself moving away from Christianity, most of my teenage years I never took it seriously. It was through a couple of dramatic instances which caused me to make it my own & devote my life to faith. I always considered myself a Christian, but there are constantly those times where life tests you. I was raised in a Christian home, but living into that life - a life of expectations - was hard. I got lazy. I was married when I was 22 ( we were both Christian ), we went through college together, we were figuring life out. I went to college at the University of North Florida and after a few years she left me. She totally drifted from the faith, didn't believe in marriage anymore. And that really left me in a dark place. I kept thinking "what now?" Was I only doing these things because it was the right prescription for life? Afterwards, I genuinely felt an audible voice from God. I was totally drifting, then all of a sudden finding myself. I soon after moved out to Portland to live with my brother. I remarried, and started to attend Door of Hope here in Portland where I got plugged into a wonderful community.
Film by James Fitzgerald.
How did Overgrowth and Ransom Limited start?
Parker shot the whole Overgrowth series -- I was more of a 'producer' figure. I previously had worked for Merrill Lynch and transferred branches from Florida to Portland. When I moved in with my brother, his career was just starting to pick up. He didn't ( and still doesn't ) have much patience for the administrative end, so I offered to do admin work for him as well as assist in photo shoots. There was a summer after I had moved to Portland where Parker let me use play around with his collection of film cameras. I had been shooting for fun with my own digital camera, but loved using film. That's actually the stage I was in when Parker spoke at George Fox ( John Bennett's class ). All that to say, Parker ended up teaching me everything he knew about photography — I started getting my own clients, and then we decided to join under one brand rather than being two separate entities. And here we are.
Ransom was started out of the idea to create a small photo house, focused on photography. We ( Parker & I ) got together and formed a partnership with the intent of it growing in the following years. This past summer we partnered with another photographer, Parker Woods. We're currently experimenting what it's like to sponsor other artists rather than doing all the work we publish, ourselves. We're still young as a business, and you always want to reach that place where you can relax, but we haven't got there yet. Then again, you never feel like you have 'arrived'. We accept that the company itself has been successful, but we still want to do better.
Overgrowth ties into this story -- when Ransom first became a thing, Parker wanted to start this series. We both became interested in creating an outlet which wasn't solely reliant on people hiring us. Sometimes you have a lot of clients, sometimes you don't. If your brand is completely wrapped up in someone else / some other company, and they go down, then they will take you with them. We wanted to create our own content & identity, and hence Overgrowth began. Now it's an art book. It's been, as an art piece, very successful. It's gone well, but we were also very naive in the process, we're continually figuring out the ins and outs of being a bookseller. This project consumed Parker for almost two years -- but it became what we wanted it to be. We kept pushing, we wanted it to be big. If you look through the photos you can see how every shoot is trying to be better than the first. My role was mostly of production and assistance — helping get people together, paying them, etc. That's Overgrowth.
Advice in regards to the publication process?
Overgrowth ended up getting printed in Portland at a place called Premier Press. They did an amazing job, but were a little pricy. The other books we've published, 'August to August' & 'Momo Tokyo', were through PrintWest in Seattle. With them, we hit a good middle ground with price, and service -- and their customer service was really really good.
If I had a "on the fly, give three bits of information about printing books", it'd be 1) definitely have a budget and stay within it, because printing costs and all the money you make are very rigid. 2) Get your publication printed somewhere close, especially with photography books because then you can go and get print checks often, you'll want to be there all the time through the process. And 3) distribution is interesting. It's, it's a challenge. I mean most of our sales come through our website, and not to be too discouraging, but you don't make money off of books. You can make some, but it's mostly marketing for artists rather than a big return on your investment. We use it more as outreach for showcasing other photographers. And that's even for selling them at a small, premium rate. These are a few things we've learned through our experience.
Collaboration between Ransom photographer Parker Fitzgerald and floral designer Riley Messina of Erba Studio.
AUGUST to AUGUST
Follows the second year of life for little James "Nunu" Fitzgerald as his mother and father learn to embrace the beauty and challenges of parenthood.
Documenting a journey of over a hundred walking miles, Parker Woods contextualizes his first encounter with Japanese culture by incorporating a single peach-colored backdrop into every image.
When did you consider yourself an artist?
It's actually really interesting, I had mentioned earlier that I worked at Merrill Lynch for a while, so I would only really call myself an artist for about a year now.
Parker has always been good at everything artistic, and my younger brother has always been good at music. Parker's path was first as an illustrator, he's, as you'd say, an artist in the classical sense. His mind is consumed by it -- and he's good at it. And he can pick up new things. Growing up with a brother like that, I felt the need to occupy my time with something else. I went to school for marketing, got a job in finance. I wanted to be the "even keeled" brother of the group. My personality tends to be towards security, so the artist lifestyle was hard for me to come to terms with. It's challenging. If I have to be absolutely honest, maybe the end of las year, early this year, I actually believed that I was artistic. It was super interesting going though a self identity shift when you're 29. So, I'm an artist now, ( laughing ) nice to meet you.
How do you integrate faith into your art?
In regards to personal craft vs. commission work -- it's a constant struggle. I mean, especially for designers I'm sure, with photography it's a little more fluid. You need to find your hope in Christ and have a real rock amidst all the chaos. Even in a service oriented craft where people are putting their faith in you, there's just no stability. If you rely purely on your career, then it's sourced through these big organisations or random people, but if you rely on your own ability then you're going to fail and disappoint yourself. You need something real to hold on to, and I say that easily but it's in fact very hard. It's been a challenge ... where do you draw your identity from and how do you control it?
Another challenge that Parker & I are talking about all the time is where is the line ... the world of photography is a strange one to try and be faithful in. It was a big discussion around Overgrowth, Parker & I thought the line was at different levels.. not so much where is the line as in what can't you do, but rather how can you truly promote what you believe though photography. And although it may seem somewhat self-gratifying, that is what I'm trying to do with August to August. Trying to not just dodge bad things, but glorify good things.
We always have the mindset behind everything -- truth, beauty goodness, are the things we want to exude. How obvious we want to be with that is a struggle. Like Overgrowth for example, a lot of traditional Christians might wrestle with the content, but the goal of it was to glorify beauty. Parker and I never wanted to skirt the edge of fetishes or weirdness. You look through the photos and you never get that feeling. And that was on purpose. That comes with challenges. Although it's not overly Christian, some people on the opposite end think it's not as dark, not as gritty as it should be, Avant-Garde. Many of the photographers in the industry are constantly pushing the boundaries. It's a tough balance. We really want to be successful and not have to compromise, but it's our goal to be inspirational and change the industry in our direction. But it's a constant internal struggle.
Joy Fitzgerald by James Fitzgerald.
On goodness, beauty, and truth.
How do you be successful in the photographic -- or rather art world? What we've concluded is that you need to showcase what you believe and not hide it per se, but not necessarily shove it in people's faces. You want people to ask "what is the source of this goodness"? And we're still in the midst of finding this balance. I wish I had a really good 'quote' to give you, but the truth is that we're still praying for direction. And with all honesty, no matter what you're trying to say with a piece of art, if it's obvious it's not going to be successful -- and that's what happens with a lot of Christian art.
Parker and I have to ask ourselves when we bring any image into the world, does it have one of the three elements — is it truthful, it beautiful, is it good. It's so easy in our day and age, in the photographic world, to just portray beauty. People are like "oh, that's beautiful" and capture it. I would definitely say that truth is harder to show, and it can be shown without beauty or goodness. We tend to air towards beauty, it's pleasing, it's an easy place to escape to. It's not necessarily challenging, but then the challenge is becoming truth–pushers rather than simply beauty–makers. That was my attempt with August to August; they're beautiful images, but they also showcase truth. Almost 95% of those photos were snapshots of our daily life, and only 5% were purposeful because I knew I was making going to make a book.
Excerpts from August to August.
August to August
In regards to August to August, you were actually the first person to buy it ( myself, smiling ). You were the first order! It's strangely vulnerable, that whole process. I found myself with a collection of photos throughout the year of my son, and Parker said I should make it into a book. They are all from his second year of life, from August 2015 – August 2016. Having parented him beforehand, it was a beautiful experience catching his 'wonder' through his second year. To be honest, I just love the concept of wonder. I think it's something we all lose as we age ... and it's one of the most obviously sinful things. As humans, we let things lose their beauty, we see something and think it's so beautiful, but how quickly that feeling goes away. And it's a travesty as a human -- how quickly we can lose our sense of wonder, how quickly we can become jaded, unimpressed. It's something I want to fight against, and is something that's truly great about having a child because you get to see it everyday, the wonder through someone else. And that makes you want to experience wonder all over again.
You know, people tell you when you get married that you aren't your own anymore, but when you have a child ... when you have a child you are no longer allowed to have your own priorities come first. My biggest struggle is having guilt-free time alone because now all of a sudden you're either paying to have someone else watch them, or putting the burden on someone else. It's been amazing though. I wouldn't tell someone to have a kid to experience what it's like, nor I would tell someone who's scared about having a kid that it's easy. But also if you do have a child, you will experience life in a way that's unfathomable in any other context. It's been amazing.
Moving forward with Ransom -- in all honesty, we're always in the "what's next?" stage. Our plan has always been to expand, to try and become a voice for other artists, to partner with other artists, to create more print content, and eventually take on more photographers, to become like another Magnum. We'll see though, we'll see if we continue to be more of a photo house or more of a general production company that includes video, design, etc. We are constantly figuring it out because it's always involving. Our goal is to eventually have enough clientele to be able to support other artists and pay them what they're worth. There's always more work to be done, to work with reputable people so that we can push our ideas into a bigger sphere. That's still our plan moving forward, that was our plan last year, and I think we've made great steps in that direction, but it's still crazy how long it all takes. Yes, in many ways we are successful, but it's realizing how long of a haul it will continue to be.