Born in 1955, James Vaughan grew up in the idyllic surroundings of a small town near Akron, Ohio. His father was a scientist and director of research for one of America’s largest corporations. His mother was an artist and poet.
Vaughan completed high school a year ahead of his classmates and in 1972 left for Chicago and college. He studied both photography and journalism and while still a student his freelance work appeared in many of the city’s major magazines and newspapers.
After he earned his degree Vaughan took a job as an assistant with a large commercial studio. Then in 1977, during a long and cold Chicago Winter, he converted an entire floor of an old factory into his first studio.
Over the next twenty-five years he worked at the forefront of Chicago’s advertising and fashion industry and was commissioned for a wide variety of advertising and editorial assignments. “My original training in photo-journalism served me well,” says Vaughan. “It brought a sense of realism and sincerity to my work. I have always thought of myself as a storyteller. That’s what the word ‘photography’ really means- ‘to write with light.’”
“I can’t say that I was much of a financial success.” continues Vaughan. “Most of the money went to new ideas and experiments. We were all mad-scientists back then, pushing the envelope in search of the next break-through image.”
With the arrival of the 21st Century and it’s limitless Internet technology, James Vaughan has been able to return to his small town roots. Now back in Ohio, he has taught at nearby Kent State University and built a new state of the art studio. “This is the most important time for my work . Away from the demands and distraction of the big city I can be even more creative.” he says.
“After all these decades I finally have the skill and technology to catch-up to my imagination.”
- With a scientist father and an artist mother, do you feel that you have combined the best of both worlds?
Yes. They were both very supportive of my creative efforts. But in different ways. A left brain, right brain sort of thing. They made an extraordinary effort to expose me to a lot of interesting and educational adventures. Art and science are just in my blood- I take it for granted. Doesn’t everybody love atomic reactors and Beethoven? I think my parents were a perfect reflection of the 1950’s- 60’s American cultural experience. Technology and culture: together. Both striving for and believing in a better tomorrow.
- While going to school and planning your career, were you ever confronted by the idea that artists can’t make a reliable living?
I never really planned for or trained to be an artist with a capital “A”. My degree is actually in Photo-Journalism. So I always saw my creative efforts as part of a larger effort; a usage. It has always been about story-telling. Communicating. Sharing a vision, an experience. Writers ‘put it into words’ – I put it into pictures.
To be really good, you have to be really dedicated. Your art has to come first. To specifically answer your question. Yes, it has been frustrating; trying to make a living from my creative efforts. But honestly; I have just never made the making money part a top priority. I try but I am soon distracted by making the pictures. I wish I had understood the need and concerns of commercial art better when I was younger; it would have made my life easier. But I know people that became so successful it was a burden on their creativity. They became a product and a machine. Yes, it has been a great struggle, with a lot of insecurity and sacrifice. I do not think that most people would want to go through with it. You have to be “driven’. It has to be a “calling”. I never really had any choice in the matter.
PS – As far as priorities- more than a few times I have had rich people say they envy me.
- Was your life and career choice strongly influenced by the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions?
It was a huge influence on me as a child and young person. I tell people that this was modern mythology. We often do not stop to see what a combination of science and poetry the space program is.
With the cold War and the H-bomb I think that exploring space became a kind of salvation for mankind. Maybe a sort of religious phenomenon. Watch the NASA documentaries from that time and they always have a mystical, spiritual undertone. That is part of what I am drawing on in my art today.
I think it part of the truth of it all.
The early space program was part of America’s idealism. It was part of why I see life in romantic, heroic mythological terms. It may be something we want to re-install in modern life.
- How did your career change with the advent of digital photography and the internet?
It is a miracle. Beyond my wildest dreams. I look at the earlier ‘analog’ technology of my career as some sort of 19th century steam powered endeavor. Ha- we were all working in old converted factories and warehouses. We had chemistry labs called dark-rooms! Of course that experience was invaluable. It is part of history and will not be repeated again. Digital technology produces a much better image- but that’s just the machines, it’s not the art. But I do not miss the old ways at all!
People are always asking me about digital imaging and the Internet. It’s fun- like being around when they invented the wheel. The thing is that this is NEW technology. We are at about the same point as early Model-T Fords. I learn something new everyday! I think of a new opportunity or application for the Internet every morning before I finish my first cup of coffee. Creatively and artistically the Internet is still an infant. It makes a lot of money- but it’s still pretty ugly.
The computer engineers are being replaced by the businessmen – but the whole thing still has the aesthetic appeal of a 1939 phone-book. There are some real prejudices against art and creativity. They do not fit into a business-model or a search-engine program. Much of popular, contemporary, methods for education and management run counter to fostering and creating good art.
The Modern Art movement during the last fifty years has been about politics and psychology and has muddied the water and confused things. Noise and distraction has become an institution.
- For the book covers you’ve done, what kind of collaboration did you do with the author? Was it a long revision process with many changes, or were you able to plan what it would look like before doing the work?
It has a lot to do with who I am working with. The best covers have been where I have the most creative control. I am hired as an expert, and it’s best to stand back and let me do my job. But, I am always open to input. The most productive way to get input is to ask a lot of questions.
Having a lot of changes along the way is a bad thing. Book covers are a lot about design and balance. Changing this and that throws off the balance and it starts to fall apart. The longer a project goes and the more decisions that have to be muddled through the more it becomes hard work. Everyone gets tired. Tired people are not happy people.
Here’s something interesting and unexpected; I often come in very early on a writing project; sometimes when it is just an idea. My illustration becomes the first concrete manifestation and a cornerstone to selling the whole deal. It’s especially like that with screenplays and movies or TV.
Instead of someone just waving their hands around in the air and talking a lot, they have an impressive looking visual tool.
I try to remember that most people are not trained or fluent at visual skills. It’s the same thing when I have my car fixed. I have a vague idea of what the mechanic is doing, but I am not expected to be expert in auto repair, that’s why I brought the car to them.
The best thing is to show the client – to explain the picture with other pictures. The best clients are repeat customers who trust me and are happy and confident with me.
- Robert Heinlein is one of my favorite authors, and the images you created of Podkayne of Mars are stunning! The story is now more than fifty years old. What are these images for?
I cherish my childhood memories of reading classic science fiction. I did the Heinlein illustrations as a tribute to that experience. They are portfolio pieces, exercises. Demonstrations of how my creativity works. Every project is a learning experience for me. Every project makes me a better artist. Podkayne is a great character. I had a crush on her like most of the adolescent boys who read the book. I thought it would be fun to visualize her. I started with black and white photos of a favorite fashion model I ‘tested’ years ago. I changed this and that, played with colors, let things evolve.
The illustrations are also part of an ongoing theme to show the artistic potential of the Internet. It is an infinite canvas. In the past, covers for the books have been these little pieces of printed cardboard. A front and a back. Now we have this electronic world-wide visual communication system -what can a ‘cover’ be like now?
- Penguin Mischief is adorable! Was this piece for a client?
It may be surprising but the majority of illustrations I create are done on my own. Technically they are referred to as ‘samples’ something to show to potential clients of examples of what is possible. I suppose it’s like a musician’s daily practicing. If they only picked up their instrument when they were getting paid, they would not be a very accomplished musician.
The penguin photo got started because my refrigerator died. This was years ago in my Chicago studio.
An artist learns to utilize the resources they have available. I had an old refrigerator available. What story could I make up with an old refrigerator? I have always had a soft-spot for penguins. They are sort of little walking jokes. The light from the refrigerator creates an instant mini-stage in the center of a dark kitchen. It all sort of falls together.
- Some of your images are high-tech subjects that either don’t exist yet, or if they do, they are not yet ready to be taken to some scenic place (like space) and be photographed. How do you create these fantastic images?
This is where the magic of digital imaging really comes into it’s own. It starts in my head, in the imagination of the ten-year old kid that I still am. Then much like a kid with scissors and paste I start to pull together resources, different photos and CADs. I cut and paste and then get out my digital crayons and paint brushes. I pull and push and drip and scribble. I coax and cajole every single pixel until I have a completed picture of what was zooming around in my head.
There are times when I look up from my monitor and I cannot remember what I was doing or how I made something during the past hours. I am glad that I waited to start working with computers until they had become fairly sophisticated. I had friends who struggled with digital imaging back in the 1980’s. It was a painful and drawn out process. Today, the machine moves along at the same speed as my imagination.
It is wonderfully fun! I am really out there with these fantastic machines in these amazing places.
- Is it difficult for artists to get the rights or licensing to use space images from NASA and other agencies in commercial work?
That’s a complex question. The simple answer is; they are US Government resources and there are not many or any restrictions. If it is a commercial project, as in someone is selling a thrid party product, then it’s best to let the client’s legal department handle all the red-tape etc. Generally speaking, images that are produced by the government are done by the people and for the people.
- If you were given the chance to go into low orbit, or to the ISS, or beyond to gather images, would you take the chance?
First artist in spaaaaace? Of course! In an instant. They might have some problems with me packing a couple cartons of Marlboros in my duffle-bag. Can I take my espresso machine? The fun thing is that I already get to go there in my mind- and places that no one else can go! When I was working on the illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope for the cover of Science magazine I realized that no one is ever going to see this thing after it’s launched. It will be at a special gravity point a million miles from Earth. So there will be no photos of it deployed, no Instagrams or Facebook selfies. This is one of the ways that illustration still remains an important tool. I can create images that are not otherwise possible with conventional photographic techniques. I was working on an image of an SR-71 ‘Blackbird’ at an altitude of 80,000 feet, accelerating away from missiles shot at it. It was an actual event and I was speculating if the air entering the engine intakes would have an incandescent glow at that speed. I suddenly realized I was on my own with that question. No other aircraft could have gone faster to have gotten ahead of the ‘Blackbird’ to have looked back and seen such a phenomenon.
What I try to do, hope to do, is bring an element of imagination – some heart and soul- to these technological wonders.
- Do you ever create art simply for your own pleasure?
I always want what I do to be understandable, enjoyable to others. For me, art is about communicating and sharing what I find inspiring , beautiful and fascinating. I certainly make a lot of images that I never get paid for. I guess if you are a really successful artist everything you make is worth money and somebody will buy at sometime. But as I have said, I cannot imagine making good art if all you are thinking about is dollar signs.
The best art I make is what I enjoy the most. If I really like a photo-illustration I have done then I am sure that I have done a good job. Getting paid for it does not make bad art good, or good art any better.
- When I interview writers, I like to ask them what their ideal writing environment would be. Have you been able to create your own ideal work environment?
My work and my life are inseparable. I have always lived where I work, or vice-versa.
Now my studio space is part of an annex to a small house in a quiet Ohio college-town. I have a large studio building in the spot where a garage was, a small and lush garden patio to sit in and a computer center with large glass doors which face out to that garden. It is pretty much an ideal setting.
There are times that it seems a little too quiet and I miss the company and interchange I used to get with other artists in the city.
I like the work I am producing and that is the final ingredient that makes it ideal.
- Who shot first? Han or Greedo?
Han of course. And he would not have lived to tell the tale if he hadn’t.
Contact James Vaughan : email@example.com