UNB Photographer Profile featuring JC Norton of Musclehead Graphics
We sat down with JC Norton, photographer and the man behind Musclehead Graphics, to discuss his successful start in photographing bodybuilding competitions, valuing relationships and collaborations with models, and his genuine passion for his work.
UNB Kyle: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me about your work. What was your first photo shoot and how did you come to get it?
JC: I think the first modeling shoot may have been with IFBB Pro Tricky Jackson. He was not an IFBB Pro then, of course, as this would have been in maybe 1999 or 2000. I met Tricky at the old Power House Gym in Lexington KY, now long closed, and we started talking about photography. I’d done a few informal sessions with other models and was interested in getting into it more seriously. Tricky said he needed new pics and it went on from there. I shot with him a couple times and you can still see some of those images on his website.
Kyle: A chance meeting at the gym leads to a wonderful opportunity. What made you want to pursue photography?
JC: I’d been taking pictures all my life; landscapes, wildlife, travel pics, but was always interested in figurative work and in the fine art side of photography. I had shot a few bodybuilding competitions for the fun of it and, after photographing Tricky in the studio and the gym, I started shooting his annual show in Lexington as the official photographer, selling images to the competitors. It was called the Bluegrass Muscle Classic in those days, but it’s now the Tricky Jackson Classic. That led to shooting other competitions and now we shoot virtually all the shows in the state. At the same time, I started developing modeling portfolios for some of the competitors as well as others I met through sites like One Model Place and Models Mayhem. I established Musclehead Graphics as a business and launched the first website to promote both the models and my photography. Out of the modeling shoots came images I could also use in making fine art prints, both figure studies and photo-collage work. I’ve had some success in that arena and am in quite a number of collections around the world. So, I guess to answer the question directly, I wanted to pursue photography to create art primarily, but also have had a good time working with models in creating portfolios and selling shots to competitors.
Kyle: It looks like we both have something in common by helping models get their work out there. The Musclehead Graphics website is very nice and you have done a great job with it. Which shoot do you consider your breakthrough in your career?
JC: I don’t think there’s been breakthrough, maybe still waiting for that one, at least from the point of view of commercial photography. It’s been more of an evolution, really. As our reputation for competition photography has grown, the number and quality of the models we shoot has grown with it. Many of the most extraordinary models Musclehead Graphics has featured are men and women I met at competitions. A number of them have gone on to work with some of the best photographers in the business, so I feel like we’ve been a launching pad for some guys and I’m really proud of that. To a great extent, this is an avocation for me and, frankly, I would not want my income to depend on commercial photography. It’s a super competitive business, as you know, and is heavily concentrated on the coasts. I like being in KY and feel like we provide an excellent service to models and competitors in the region.
Kyle: That is a great way to think of it. It’s kind of like wanting to remain a small business and valuing that versus being too big and losing that personal touch and commitment. How about any favorite shoots?
JC: Wow, that’s a tough one. I’ve shot well over 200 models over the time I’ve been doing this and a great many of the shoots have been just incredible experiences. If I had to pick a few that stand out, I guess I’d list the two shoots with Todd Tinsley to start. He’s a guy I met at the Kentucky Muscle in 2010 and shot twice in 2011. He is an astounding physical presence and takes to the camera totally naturally. We got incredible stuff and I’ve sold a number of fine art prints with images of Todd, ditto Nate Knierim, another cool guy with natural talent and a great attitude. I had the good fortune to shoot twice with Tommy Jeffers, an inspiring natural bodybuilder. At the second shoot back in 2007, he was near contest condition and the images are jaw-dropping. Joe Daniels is another bodybuilder who figures in the fine art collection of images frequently. I shot with him in 2009, just before he won his class at the huge Northern Kentucky show and he was amazing. Josh Miller is a NGA Pro Physique Competitor and trainer who promotes a natural show annually for which we are the official photographers. I’ve worked with him a number of times, always getting great images. I have to mention Cory Mason and Austin Roush from 2012 – both amazing models. Cory has gone on to make a mark in the fitness industry, working with incredible photographers and establishing a training business. Another really memorable and enjoyable shoot was the couple shoot with Ryan Gutwein and Bethany Fickle, and Kyle Alexander, with whom I’ve got a current ongoing collaboration is another fantastic model. I recently shot him in the process of getting some tattoo work done, which was really interesting experience. So, a lot of cool models, but probably the all-time favorite would be Oli Clay – an amazing model and a good friend. I shot with Oli numerous times from 2005 to 2010 and have a number of fine art prints featuring him. In all these cases the, ‘Why’ would be the same. The models approached the shoot as a collaboration and we had a good time. That’s really critical to me. If the process isn’t a pleasure, I’m not interested in doing it.
Kyle: You really value the collaboration aspect which is nice to see. It creates a common goal and relationship which as you describe is long lasting. Which shoot has been your most challenging? Why do you think so?
JC: Hmm. There really haven’t been too many that were challenging and I’m for sure not going to name names. The, ‘Why?’ though, is pretty much the same each of these very rare cases – the model comes in with a bad attitude, is uncooperative, is unable or unwilling to take direction. And, of course, there is the occasional, ‘no show, no call,’ individual who is the bane of every photographer who works with models.
Kyle: I am sure those situations make for a LONG day! Any embarrassing or funny photo shoot moments to share?
JC: Hmm. Can’t think of one really. The models might say something different in response to that question lol.
Kyle: Apart from some of the bodybuilding and getting into more commercial photography, are there any brands or models you would like to work with that you have not worked with yet?
JC: Of course. There are loads of great models out there and it would be awesome to work with Trevor Adams, Jay Amato, Shawn Russell, Eric Holman, Stefan Kauffman, Bryant Wood, Joel Evan Tye – it’s endless. On brands, I’d love to shoot for Unico, PPU, Calvin Klein, Diesel to name a few.
Kyle: Some good names on that wish list! When you are getting ready to do these shoots, how do you prepare creatively and determine your environment for the shoot? Is it determined by you, the brand, or a collaboration?
JC: That’s a really good question. I’ve not worked for a brand to date, but for a portfolio shoot with a new model, I have a pretty standard routine in the studio and outdoors, weather permitting. I always ask if the model has any particular thing in mind and, if so, we work really hard to make that happen. If the model is a competitor, particularly a bodybuilder, we usually get the mandatory poses as well as more artistic poses for his portfolio. Also, there are often things I want to do from a fine art perspective and we work that into the shoot as well. For example, I do an annual image called, ‘Lean Torso.’ If the model has the look I need for that, we will do images to go into the mix for selecting that image at the end of the year. Kyle Alexander is the model for, ‘Lean Torso 2014,’ and Josh Miller was to model for, ‘Lean Torso 2007,’ and ‘Lean Torso 2008.’
Kyle: I love that you take the model’s wants into consideration. When you aren’t behind the camera, what are some of your interests?
JC: I’ve got a very rewarding career in academics, enjoy travel, music (play the drums very badly lol) and cook up a storm.
Kyle: So you will be cooking for everyone after your next shoot right? We have several up and coming models out there and you work with a lot of up and coming models and they are always looking for advice. What are some tips you give models in order to be comfortable in front of the camera whether as a new model or for more intimate/revealing shoots like in underwear?
JC: Good question. When working with models who compete, it’s rarely an issue as these guys take the stage in pretty minimal clothing, particularly bodybuilders. Also, if they come in to do a photo shoot that includes underwear and/or nudes, they’re guys who want to do that. For first time models, though, I spend some time talking about posing and, while shooting, I show them images as we take them, so they can see what works and what doesn’t and we talk about the why of it. Just about every first time model who has worked with me has said that he had a good experience, that the shoot was more comfortable than he expected and I feel good about that.
Kyle: Sounds like you take a great amount of pride in really being a mentor and teaching these models. Very hands on which is great to hear. How about life behind the camera? Any tips for people wanting to get into photography?
JC: Sure, don’t sell the farm. It’s very, very tough to make serious money out of this, particularly if you don’t live in a major market. Most of the photographers I know end up doing a lot of weddings and senior pictures and that sort of thing to pay the rent. That’s fine, if you like doing it, but, if you want to limit your work to fashion, fitness, fine art and so on, it’s a tough go.
Kyle: Valuable advice! You have mentioned your business Musclehead Graphics a few times. Can you tell us some more about it?
JC: I think our site tells the story pretty well. We shoot quite a few competitions and do a lot of portfolios for models. The site gives models some exposure and we do get inquiries that are passed on to the models to pursue. That said, we always make the point very clearly that, it they want to have other modeling opportunities, they need to use the images to put themselves out there in other ways — Facebook, Models Mayhem and so on.
Check out more of JC Norton’s work at Musclehead Graphics. We are looking forward to featuring some of his models in our future profiles. Stay tuned for updates!
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