Jeremy Cowart: Making a Living by Making Ideas Happen
Diversifying has become the new normal
You need only a small portion of work to represent you as an artist
Success can be paralyzing
Do I really need to introduce Jeremy Cowart to you? It seems like everybody in the world — from Ryan Seacrest to Britney Spears — already knows this guy. In a relatively short period of time, Jeremy has made a name for himself as a photographer, a designer, an app creator … it might be safest to call Jeremy an artist. Or, as he told me, “I’m more focused on making ideas happen.”
I think the moral of Jeremy’s story might be something along the lines of "if you build it, they will come." Jeremy didn’t carve a career path for himself. He made one thing after the other and went wherever his interests took him. All these years later, his approach hasn’t changed.
This is our conversation with Jeremy Cowart.
I don’t know why, but I thought you were a West Coast guy.
I’m in Nashville actually. I’ve lived here my whole life. I was born here.
So, okay, when did you first get the bug for making things?
Well, I wanted to be a painter after high school. I think my parents were afraid of me trying to make a living as a painter, though. So they told me about graphic design, and I decided to study graphic design in college. I kept on painting and drawing, but design became my focus. Out of college I worked for a few ad agencies. I was a design grunt, a basic entry-level junior graphic designer. I was just doing random things — whatever they’d have me do. Then I went to another firm, and I was designing air-conditioning websites and random small business websites here in Nashville. I wasn’t into it at all. It wasn’t what I’d call a good time.
There are some people who’d think they’d “made it” after landing a job at an ad agency. Did you feel like that at all?
Not really. I mean, for me, I felt like I’d made it when I was able to start my own thing and pay my own bills. There’s a perception that working for an ad agency is a super-fun, sexy job. I found it to be quite the opposite actually. I found the ad agency world to be extremely boring and political and all the things I wasn’t interested in. After a couple of years, I ended up starting my own thing. So I guess art and design have always been a part of my life. Photography never really was until about eight years ago.
Did the photography thing happen on accident? Or did you decide at some point that photography was something you wanted to do?
It was a bit of an accident. When digital cameras came out, I bought one just to scan textures and shoot things that I could incorporate into my design work. Through doing that, I fell in love with the process of shooting portraits of friends, and it took off from there.
A lot of people can probably relate to having multiple interests and talents like you do. Do you think it’s important to hone in on one thing?
I think it used to be the right thing to pursue just one thing, but diversifying is becoming the new normal. You kind of have to. It’s very, very challenging these days to make a living — a good living — as a freelance photographer unless you get a comfortable job somewhere that pays your salary. So for us freelancers, we need to do multiple things to make ends meet. Of course, those multiple things can fall under the umbrella of one thing. But still, you really have to think more like an entrepreneur these days and have multiple streams of income.
How could someone learn that — the entrepreneurial side? Is there a really good book or something?
I’m sure there are endless books on the topic. I’m not really a book reader, so I can’t list any books. I mean, just based on the community around me, it seems like we’ve all had to figure it out. It’s just one step at a time, you know? That’s how it’s been for me. One idea leads to another; and the next thing you know, you’re doing five different things. That was never the plan or a goal from the beginning. It’s been a natural progression, at least for me.
Do you see your work any differently now that you’ve had some success?
I don’t think I see it any differently. It still feels the same. I mean, I’m like any other artist who generally doesn’t even like his own work. Most of the stuff I create I dislike the next day, and that’s always been the case. In fact, more of my work that’s known as “successful” is the work I dislike the most. It’s usually the more personal projects and personal work that I tend to be more drawn to.
Is it harder for you to put stuff out in the world now that you’ve set such a high bar?
Yes. That’s always an issue. Even just a simple Instagram post — if it’s not some amazing photo, you start to wonder if people will be like, “Oh, Cowart is losing his touch. His photos suck now.” I kind of feel like literally everything I put out there has to be amazing.
That sounds paralyzing.
It can be. I look at it more as a challenge to put out only work that I can at least look at again later. I go back and delete work all the time — even in my own iPhone photo app, OKDOTHIS. I’ll post images and then go back a week later and delete all of those images. Even if they have 500 comments or 500 likes, I’ll still go back and erase them.
Like delete them completely? No takebacks?
Yes, because I can’t stand to look at them.
Could you take a guess at what percentage you keep and what percentage you throw away?
Gosh, that’s hard. It just depends on the situation. I’d certainly call most of it fat that I cut away and keep only the very best. I try to, at least. I think you have to. I mean, there’s so much work that we all create as artists, and you need so little work to represent you as a portfolio. It’s kind of crucial that you do that.
So, okay, do you feel like you're becoming a better artist? Or are you becoming a better curator of yourself?
I hope both. It's weird for me to say either way. But I think just through growing and learning, anybody automatically becomes a better artist. I hope I am. (Laughs)
Is there any advice you’d give young creatives coming up behind you?
I think a lot of people don’t really learn the ropes; they just dive in. That’s especially true for mobile photographers. I mean, I’m a big fan of iPhoneography and Instagram and all of that stuff, but a lot of these photographers are so in love with apps and iPhones that they’re never going to take the time to learn lighting and F-stops and shutter speed. I think that’s going to get a lot of them in trouble. Once a client comes along and actually hires them to shoot something legit, they’re not going to have a clue because all they know is how to push buttons on an iPhone.
It’s important to go beyond your digital device. If you want to be a photographer, you’re going to have to put down the iPhone and actually learn photography. Learn lighting. Lighting is crucial.
So what does success look like for you now at this point in your career?
I’m more ADD and scatter-brained than ever. I’m pursuing multiple projects and ideas all at once, and some of them don’t have anything to do with art or photography. So I consider myself just an idea person, and sometimes those ideas are for photos or for art or for business ideas or for apps. So right now, I’m not even focused on photography whatsoever. I’m more focused on making ideas happen.
That kind of sounds like a mess. How do you stay organized?
Oh, it is a mess, but it’s just who I am. I’ve learned to accept that it’s always a mess, and I don’t think there’s any organization to it. It’s just how I operate. That being said, I’m a die-hard Evernote user. Everything in my life gets dumped into Evernote. It’s life-changing. I mean, it’s crazy. The beauty of it is that nothing goes on your computer. If my computer were ever stolen, I couldn’t care less because there’s nothing on it. Everything is either in DropBox or Evernote. It’s a great way to keep everything secure.
So, last question — do you have any advice for the young Jeremy Cowart sitting in one of those ad agencies, wondering what the next thing is going to be?
I think from a financial aspect, I would have made some smarter financial decisions, maybe even studied money more. I went into debt to buy all my photo gear. Now, of course, I’m not in favor of debt. Most artists don’t have a clue about money. All they want to do is change the world with their art. And when you’re single and young, it’s easy to scrape by and kind of make ends meet. As you get older and get married and start a family, there’s a lot more to providing for a family. I think I would have been a smarter businessperson all around.
There’s really so much to learn in every aspect of creative work. I saw a quote recently by Picasso that says, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” I think that’s the best advice I’ve ever heard.