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Photographer Graham is Living His Dream Job

Fresh off receiving an honor at the International Photography Awards for his photo "Golden Gate Commute, Mill Valley resident preps for ICB Winter Open Studios next month.

Jay Graham, 65, lives Mill Valley and works in his small, clean, neatly organized ICB Sausalito studio. Originally from Santa Cruz, he first came to Marin to escape his home. Since then, he's fallen in love with Mill Valley and its proximity to Mount Tam. We caught up with Graham in his studio and got his take on his life as a photographer and living in Mill Valley.

Mill Valley Patch: What brought you to Mill Valley from Santa Cruz?
Jay Graham: I wanted to get out of Santa Cruz because it was too close to home. From there, I went to school in Chico, and then I moved to Tahoe and lived there about nine years. I liked it a lot there, but I met a woman from down here and moved down here. This area just seemed like a home. I like it because you do things all year around here.

MVP: How long have you been involved in photography?
JM: I quit general contracting 27 years ago. When I lived in Tahoe, I had a partner, and together we were designing and building spec houses: small, inexpensive homes that were well insulated and well designed. Up there, we could afford to buy a lot, build the house and sell it. And when I moved to Marin, I couldn’t afford to do that anymore. At that point, I had two partners and a construction company based in Novato. But I was just bored. It was mainly remodeling and a little bit of new construction and stuff, but I didn’t get to the design process – in Tahoe I got to do everything. 
I had always been interested in photography. A month before my son was born, I decided to quit contracting and go back to school to learn about photography.  I went to both the Academy of Art and the CCAC to see the one that was best for me. CCAC turned out to be the best option because I needed to make money quickly. I took courses I thought would be useful, spent two years assisting, and, after that, went on my own knocking on doors getting work as a photographer.

MVP: What drew you to photography, originally, even when it was just a hobby?  
JM: I just loved photographing things, capturing memories on trips, playing with things on the darkroom – I did a little bit of that in college, and just really enjoyed it. I wasn’t much of an artist as far as painting and drawing goes, but photography was just a natural mix for me.

MVP: What was/is the hardest aspect of our work?
JM: None of the learning processes were tough for me. And in terms of finding things to shoot, you sort of go in waves of being able to see things and not being able to see things. When digital came along, I was quick to switch over. Those things were hard but fun, but the business aspect was the hard part - marketing and finding new clients.   

MVP: What is your specialization?
JM: Until I moved into this studio in Sausalito four years ago, I didn’t do any fine art photography. I did all commercial assignments for architects, designers, and magazines. The move here was to have a studio amongst a group of artists. I do more of a blend now.

MVP: In your interview with Marin Magazine, you mentioned how you sort of stumbled onto your award0winning shot of the Sausalito bicycle commuter (at right) at 6:30, but you were originally there to photograph your wife and her double’s partner row. How many of your best pictures are random like that?  Can you tell us about a chance shot?
JM: Random things happen, and sometimes you have to catch those as quick as you can. Like that [pointing] picture of two young monks with bright umbrellas in the rain. I had been out shooting for an hour, shooting the monks in different places with different backgrounds. I was just heading back to the hotel walking down some steps and I heard these two come along, turned around really quick, saw them, snapped it literally from my hip. Looking back, I realized it was the best shot of the morning. What I have learned, though, is working the subject is really important. Sometimes you’ll find something that is really great, and you need to shoot it quickly, but if it isn’t something that is time sensitive, it is important to keep looking at it from different angles, shooting it, and finally you will come up with the right shot.

MVP: Judging by your website, it seems that many of your pictures have been taken abroad. Are those taken on a freelance assignment, or simply while you are traveling?
JM: A little of both. I shoot hotels on location, and I‘ve been hired to shoot a couple of books in Asia [for example, Indochine by Jay Graham (2008)].

MVP: To get paid to travel and take pictures, isn’t that the dream job?
JM: Yeah. Most of the time it is really enjoyable… it’s almost like being on vacation. At the same time, there are some jobs I do that pay the bills that aren’t as fun and exciting, but you just have to do them. The logistics of a shoot can always be tedious, but when I’m photographing… that’s always fun.

MVP: After traveling to all of these places, you still come back to Mill Valley?  What about this place is so appealing to a world traveler like you?
JM: I always enjoy coming back. I can’t imagine living in a better spot than where we live. My wife Eileen is a writer, I am the photographer, and we do a number of jobs together right here, right on the mountain, for instance. Being there is like being miles away, yet it’s only 15 minutes away. The area offers a lot year round. I can’t imagine any place else that offers as much as Mill Valley does.

MVP: What is your favorite thing about Mill Valley?
JM: Location accessibility to the mountain. I love Mount Tam. I like , , I like shopping in the downtown area, , and then all of a sudden, you go straight from there right up the mountain.  And it feels calm and quiet. There’s not a lot of hustle.

MVP: If there was one thing that you could change about Mill Valley, what would it be?
JM: It would be nice to have a Trader Joe's [laughter].

MVP: What are your future plans?
JM: Keep shooting, try to work more with my wife. We are going to do a book on Camino de Santiago in the Northern part of Spain. It is a ninth century pilgrimage, and we just did about 120 miles of it during the week we were there. We would like to go back and do it on stages, or if we could get enough time, do the whole thing.  

Learn more about Graham's photography and to see his work and that of other artists at the ICB Art Center Winter Open Studios event on Saturday, Dec. 3, at 6 p.m.

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