From the Wilds of Africa to the Wilds of Hollywood
By Christy Rippel
Ask child and portrait photographer Judy Host (www.judyhost.com) a
bout her clients and you’ll get a list as diverse as they come: She’s shot everyone from the girl next door to presidents of African nations and A-list celebrities. But, while the locations and subjects have varied in the last 16 years since Judy started her business, her allegiance to her personal style remains constant.
“You need to know who you are as an artist –everyone has a style within them, and you are being paid by the client to know what it is,” says Judy, whose most prominent style characteristic is her preference for all-natural light. “I have nothing against using lights, but I really never warmed up to them. I’ve been able to accomplish what I’ve wanted to without them, and I’m so happy doing what I’m doing.”
Since taking the leap to open her own studio in Danville, CA, Judy has been wowing her clients and settling into the career she believes she is destined for. Like many of her peers, Judy was first bitten by the photography bug as a high school student when she’d watch the photos she’d taken come to life in the darkroom. In college she started out as a photojournalism major but ultimately changed paths and graduated with a degree in speech communications. “At the time, I thought I would teach instead… and that photography would be a passion, a hobby,” says Judy. “I wasn’t sure then how to live it and breathe it–and make money at it.”
After college, Judy worked for 20 years in the corporate world, climbing the ladder at Bank of America and Citicorp. Photography remained a passion and a hobby, but took center stage when Judy reached a crossroads in her life and took a leap of faith. “I had just turned 40, and I’d reached a point in my career where my only possible growth involved a move to New York City. I didn’t want that, so I quit my job and finally elected to do what I love.”
She describes those first months as “very scary,” with bills and a mortgage looming, but Judy threw herself headlong into making herself a success. Her strong business sense helped guide her. Within a year she was making a decent enough living to keep her studio going. And, before long, her repeat clients weren’t her only form of acknowledgement–Judy’s first of many awards was a lone print in Professional Photographers of America (PPA) competition that was published in a book.
“I was beside myself,” Judy says, thinking back. “PPA issued a press release that went to Diablo magazine, which was a local publication near my home in northern California. That was the first article written about me.”
Other prestigious honors followed, including three Kodak Gallery Awards and recognition as one of “Today’s Top Children’s Photographers” by Rangefinder magazine in 2004. If you ask her which honor has meant the most, she has a hard time narrowing it down. “I’m proud of them all, and it is so amazing to be acknowledged in that way,” she says, noting that seeing her clients happy is its own reward as well. “When a client comes in and looks at work of her child, and cries, that’s an honor too. It’s another way of knowing, ‘Okay, I’m doing the right thing, I’m moving in the right direction.'”
Like many successful photographers, Judy now shares her knowledge of the field through workshops in which she concentrates largely on available light, process and defining personal style. Judy also sells her own DVD called The Art of Available Light through her Web site.
According to Judy, defining one’s style is a journey that unfolds naturally. “New photographers coming into the business are exposed to many different styles. I advise them to find something that makes them go, ‘Yes! This is what I want to do!'” Judy says. “In the process of trying to replicate that style what happens is that who you are starts to come through. I try to teach students to be inspired by others’ work not intimidated by it.”
Judy may not be intimidated by other photographers’ work, but she admits that a pair of past clients had her wringing her hands. Judy was hired by actors William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman to capture images of them with their daughters. Judy remembers having to decide whether she was going to stay true to her natural light style or try to conform to what the clients might be expecting. “In the end I voted just to be myself because I can’t really be anyone else convincingly,” Judy laughs. “It was a great experience.”
Judy also believes that style extends a lot further than the photo shoot. “It’s not just how you photograph, it’s how you run your business, and it’s your entire brand.” The way Judy runs her business now is somewhat unconventional, as she splits her time between her studio in California and a home in Atlanta, GA. But the bi-coastal arrangement has yielded some unexpected perks. Judy explains, “My time [in California] is more limited and has created a sense of exclusivity… I find clients don’t cancel or reschedule as often.” Judy also turns around images in 48 hours for clients and delivers prints within a week. This way, she can still
have one-on-one time with a client to help them choose images and can wrap up the sale in one trip. Judy says that two days later clients are still
basking in the experience of the shoot and are excited to see the results. “It’s a great way to sell,” she says.
Judy has been enormously successful at selling, which is why her boutique business is healthy and growing. In addition to her talent with a camera, she effuses sincerity and warmth, which is likely why many clients have stuck with Judy for the better part of a decade, sometimes longer. “I am ‘Aunt Judy’ to some of my clients,” she says. “I don’t have children of my own and I love photographing other people’s children,” she says.
Where in the World is Judy Host?
Judy’s bi-coastal lifestyle isn’t the only reason she lives out of a suitcase. In the last few years, in working for various foundations, Judy has traveled all over the world. She has photographed the presidents of Uganda and Rwanda, African orphans, and has documented the progress of tsunami survivors in Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. It’s work that has fed her soul, and changed her profoundly.
“I love traveling and going to new places… it opens up a whole new world,” says Judy, who hopes to return to Rwanda. She was there in January 2005 as part of the Rwanda Project, an effort to increase commerce in the country. Judy was charged with documenting the devastation and recovery in the region post-genocide in hopes that the pictures would help the group raise funds. Judy’s pictures from the trip are both haunting and beautiful, which she showcases in a slideshow on her website.
“It’s a whole different world there,” says Judy. “It reminds you of how much we have, and how much we can share. I had such a sense of appreciation for the fact that I could expose people to this through my imagery, and could maybe even change what people think.”
Judy’s sense of gratitude is pervasive–she is more than just thankful for where photography has led her, she is grateful that her career is also her bliss. “I tell people that photography is not just a passion of mine, but being a photographer is who I am, it’s why I’m here. I’m so blessed to
wake up happy every day, and to do what I love.”
Judy Host will be teaching “The Art of Available Light” on Tuesday, February 17th, 2009 at 11:00am in Room #203 at the MGM Grand during WPPI 2009. Currently her MasterClass is sold out.
Christy Rippel is a Winston-Salem, NC-based freelance writer and public relations consultant who contributes articles to mainstream and trade magazines and websites. Learn more about Christy and her work at christyrippel.com.