Profile: Julieanne Kost
If you think Adobe, it’s likely you think Julieanne Kost. As Principal Evangelist at Adobe Systems, a title given to a select few at the company responsible for the industry-standard digital imaging franchise of Photoshop and Lightroom, her task is a tough one – bridging the worlds of tech and creativity to inspire, excite and empower photographers.
To do this, she presents motivating and educational training sessions all over the world, and through her dedicated Adobe blog, techniques and tutorials for better understanding image editing technology. But at the same time, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Kost has also forged a path as a talented author and photographer in her own right. It’s something she says started with her parents, and their own unique approaches to creativity.
“My mom is an artist – she’s an illustrator and does silk screening and my dad is an engineer, but loves photography,” she explains from a crowded hall at Adobe’s annual imaging conference Adobe MAX in Los Angeles.
“I was given a camera in my early teens, and of course being in your teens you don’t want to do anything your parents do. So, when we were out photographing, my dad would be taking a picture of that, and I would try and take a picture of anything-but-that!” she laughs.
“Looking back though, this approach helped me because when I shoot now I’ll always take a grab shot first, and then I go and look for something else – I spend more time, and look longer for unique perspectives, and interesting details.”
Her mother’s art involved starting from scratch and building up her illustrations in layers.
“Her work is very graphic, and I try to mimic her style when making photographs by stacking and layering elements when composing the scene.” explains Kost.
But even though she wanted to study photography, her parents had ‘other ideas’, she remembers.
“I ended up studying psychology, which I enjoyed and still use today. But when I finished school, I still wanted to do photography,” she says.
While taking classes, one of her photography instructors told her about a vacancy at Adobe on the tech support line. At the time she was working at a medical imaging company, and already using Adobe products. She got the job.
“It was easier back then because the programme was in its infancy – I remember my cubicle was plastered in notes with answers from previous questions, so if a call came through I could glance over around the walls to quickly find ‘how to do a clipping mask’ for example, and it would be right there,” she laughs.
In 1996 she became an Evangelist for Photoshop and Illustrator.
“I like to think of the role as the person who takes everything the developers have put in the product, and then translates that into how a creative person might use it in the real world, with (hopefully) a little inspiration thrown in,” she says.
Of her own images, Kost says she likes it when people can’t tell the scale of her work. The subject could be a majestic aerial image or an abstract view of a puddle – it matters not.
“Of course, the ‘rule’ is that you should put something in the image to reveal it’s sense of scale, but I often find that by doing so, it reveals too much information about the scene – it removes the mystery” she explains.
“By forcing the viewer to engage with the photograph, it allows them to ask questions. And, they can then bring their own experiences into the image, whereas if they can immediately identify the subject in the photograph, they’re more apt to just move on.”
In shooting, Kost says she likes to first look at the ‘big scene’ first, before exploring the details. Her technique she says, is a bit like shooting a wedding.
“You’ll have all those shots you have to get [at a wedding], but then it’s up to you to capture all of the other moments to illustrate the story and make it unique.”
For many years she has also challenged herself to take one, and then three images everyday.
“For four years I took three images a day. I’d take the first one, and then I’d make myself take two more. The catch was that the three images had to be connected in some way; the colour, the tone, subject matter, whatever. It’s a great exercise for refining your eye, and you have a camera with you all the time (your phone), so there’s no excuse.”
She’s quick to mention that for photographers looking to improve, self-review is a critical part of the process. At the end of each year, Kost says she takes time to look at every image she’s taken that year: the good and the bad.
“When looking at an entire year of images, I’ll see themes and patterns emerge. I might notice that I’ve taken every image from the same perspective, and decide I need to change that, or I might realise I prefer images taken with a certain type of lighting”. I’ll also look at my discarded images and ask myself ‘why didn’t these work?’ ”
Technology and creativity
Part of the challenge many photographers face is finding a balance between the technical and creative sides of photography. For someone who has the technical side so dialled, Kost has a refreshing approach to balancing the two.
“A lot of my own work is very experimental,” Kost explains. “And if you know the technology so well that you don’t have to think about it – I believe that allows you to be more creative.
For me, there’s something empowering that comes from looking at a scene and knowing what I can make it into with technology.” But finding a balance can be tricky.
“It’s much easier to talk about technology, while the creative process can be very personal,” believes Kost.
“My advice is to remember that it is ‘your’ creative process, and you must give yourself permission to follow the process that works for you.
It’s also important to define for yourself what a successful image is. While images created for clients most likely have a specific set of criteria defining their success, the beauty of experimental images is we can define our own measure of success.
“This gives me permission to create images that, as long as they meet my criteria, I can consider them successful. It takes the pressure off – especially when sharing images because I can look at constructive criticism more objectively.”
In the passenger seat
In 2006 and 2015, Kost released two books, Window Seat - the Art of Digital Photography and Creative Thinking and Passenger Seat: Creating a Photographic Project from Conception through Execution in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.
At once a study of the beautiful world as seen from an aeroplane’s passenger seat thousands of feet up in the air, the books also looked at creativity and the practicalities and value of pursuing a photographic project. It’s something Kost feels strongly every photographer should take on.
“The biggest compliment I can be paid when I give a talk is someone saying you helped me overcome a creative rut, or you helped me pursue and accomplish a personal project.” she says.
“I wanted to show people you can weave a project into daily life. You don’t have to just travel 3,000 miles when the weather is perfect to take photographs. Of course, you can do those projects too – but sometimes short-term projects can be so valuable.”
As well as starting and following through on a project, the books also lifted the lid on Kost’s editing process.
On this, I ask her advice for people who want to edit their images better.
“Learn the power of local adjustments,” she replies. “Verbalise what you did and why, and then write it down. List out what you’re doing on the successful images. Build that into your workflow.
Just think about those classic Ansel Adams images, and what he did in the darkroom, and now think about what we can do with just a little brush, non-destructively in Lightroom – there’s so much power there, you just have to explore it.”
You can see more of Julieanne Kost’s online tutorials at blogs.adobe.com/jkost/. ❂