"Named after the average salinity of the Great Salt Lake’s south arm, 13% SALT serves up quick-hit, eye-catching doses of things you might otherwise miss, as well as creative images of local celebrities and heroes. Each post features one or two photos, with an ever-so-slightly extended caption; nothing more than that."
And the man behind 13% SALT? Photographer and writer Austen Diamond. Austen hopes to create an iconic digital archive of the people, subcultures, and communities that make Utah unique. Austen believes that web-based niche blogs and publications have flourished to keep people informed, connected, and excited about the world in which they live—much of his reason for starting the local photography blog. Think of 13% SALT as the photo department of this new form of journalism. So poke around this Utah-based blog and read on to learn a little bit more about Austen and 13% SALT.
Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get into photography and also journalism?
I’m a photographer by way of journalism, although I’ve been taking photos longer than I’ve been a professional writer. It’s an intricate relationship, and the two arts dovetail nicely—each inspires and informs my craft of creative storytelling. My love of photography and writing began at the same time. I was traveling around the world at every chance I got in college and was trying to make sense of it all through the lens. But this was before high speed internet was readily available and you could just post pictures to a blog or social media, so I had to put it all to words and really enjoyed painting scenes and stories with prose. I had my first gallery showing in 2006, where my travel photography was on display at the World Grotto Gallery in Knoxville, Tennessee, and it’s been uphill ever since.
Fast forward to 2009, and I began writing for the City Weekly, where I eventually became the music editor. I dove full bore into photography late-2012 and early-2013, because, essentially, I wasn’t getting the shot that I had in mind for my story. As I mentioned before, I think that the two forms of storytelling dovetail nicely.
Do you specialize in a certain type or genre of photography? Do you have a favorite?
I like taking photos of people, especially thoughtful and creative portraiture. If you told me to take a photo of a landscape, I’d suggest we put someone interesting in front of the camera, like a person. Plus, rocks won’t ever cut you a check.
I’m an on-location photographer and my lighting rig is one that I can take to whatever remote location a gig or story demands. I also really enjoy photojournalism and documentary-style work—I think there’s a lot of creativity demanded there as well.
Tell us about 13% SALT. How did you come up with the idea and what's your hope/ultimate goal for the photo journal?
13% SALT is a photo journal with the intent to create an iconic digital archive of Utah’s subcultures, communities and modern pioneers. There are weekly features that showcase elaborate photographs —at the heart of the project— with a long caption to provide context. Although there are a bevy of incredibly talented photographers in Utah, I’m not aware of anything like this. I hope that people will say, "Wow, Utah actually is really vibrant and interesting."
13% SALT is loosely modeled off of HoCo360, the photo journal created by David Hobby, known widely for his informative lighting blog Strobist. I liked the idea, because, aside from being unique to Utah, it gives me creative license. I have tons of, well, odd (maybe I should say "unique") ideas of a photo for particular people. If I’m just some guy, I can’t call up Mayor Becker and say, "Hey, I’d like to dress you up in a knight’s costume with a joust and put you on a too-tall bike riding through downtown." But if I tell him about 13% SALT, he might, hopefully, say yes. So now I get access to lots of amazing individuals in Utah, and for my style of photography and for photojournalists, access is supremely important.
I don’t charge for features on 13% SALT (although I’m open to doing work with them later on), so I get to work with whomever I want and whom I feel deserves the attention. And then I provide the images to them, which is like a nice kick-back for them.
Between commercial, portrait and editorial photo assignments, I happily shoot for 13% SALT—a labor of love and a playground for my imagination. I love taking pictures of people, and in my personal body of work, I also try to capture images that focus on the intersection of humanity, nature and technology.
Why do you keep posts short and sweet on 13% SALT?
I’d like to think that the photos are good enough to make someone stay on the page for awhile and come back to it. That’s where the real story is. The captions are short and sweet to help keep the focus on the image. Plus, it’s a practice of self-restraint. As a writer, I could go on and on with words, and that’s not always the most important part of a story.
Why do you love SLC?
I am passionate about the arts and about adventure. I think that Salt Lake City and Utah has an incredible arts community and people grow up here learning to appreciate the arts, which is not necessarily the case where I’m from in Tennessee. I also love the access to the mountains and wilderness. Where else can you do two shoots in a day and be able to ski in between?
What is the biggest benefit of being a photographer in SLC and shooting here?
Pictureline. (laughs) I had to put in a plug, right?
What is your take on the SLC photo community?
I’m sort of a hard-working outsider, and I mostly just know photojournalists. There are some Facebook groups for local photographers to share and ask questions, and everyone seems really supportive.
Where does your inspiration come from?
Hmmm, maybe being an only child with a very vivid imagination (laughs). Some of my photography heroes are Joe McNally and David Hobby, and fans of them and 13% SALT can probably see that. I also pull inspiration from magazines like Life, NatGeo, New Yorker, and, of course, the place where I cut my teeth in journalism, City Weekly.
What gear do you use for your shots?
Nikon all the way, and I’m "all in" with speed lights. I shoot on a D600 and only use Nikon glass. I primarily use Nikon’s CLS system on five speed lights, which range from the new 910s to used—and incredible still—800s. I have tons of light modifiers (and it feels that way when lugging gear around), but the ones that I couldn’t live without are the Lastolite 20in EzyBox, the Lastolite TriGrip and the Orbis Ring Flash.
What is the most important thing to remember when shooting? Top photography tips?
I think the most important thing is to shoot what you love. If you do that, people will resonate with it. Also, maybe more important while actually shooting is that everyone on the set takes cues from the photographer. If you are in a good mood, that will trickle down. If you are frazzled, people will take that on. I always arrive early to scout a location or set, but it’s more about having the time to build rapport. Honestly, I’m not super good at multi-tasking, so that time and making time to talk during breaks is really key. For me, a lot of my photography is about building relationships.
Any words of advice for aspiring photographers? Especially SLC based photographers?
I get told something to the effect of this a lot: "I took 500 photos at a shoot, and only five were awesome." And I’m like, "You got five awesome shots! Nice work!"
Also, don’t be afraid of flash. When I hear people say they are a "natural light" photographer, I really hear that they are afraid of the confounding nature of flash. Natural light is one kind of light, and it’s not always around when you might want to shoot.
Finally, marry rich. Photography is expensive.
What can we expect from you and 13% SALT?
Aside from the weekly posts, and there are a lot of really cool ones coming up, 13% SALT will be featuring guest photographers this year. Also, I’m hoping to have some pop-up gallery showings starting in the summer, in places like shipping containers, abandoned warehouses and establishments that were featured on 13% SALT. I’m also crafting a cocktail that will pay homage to some of the great things about Utah—like beets, honey and High West whiskey—and it’s called, of course, 13% SALT, and I’m hoping to have featured in some bars/restaurants (it’s all about guerrilla marketing!).
Anything else we should know about you and 13% SALT?
If your readers have a need for photography that strives to be thoughtful and creative, I’m for hire for commercial, event, documentary, portraits, etc. Horrible plug, I know. And I need to say THANK YOU to everyone who has been supportive and visited the site and subscribed to the newsletter and liked us on Facebook and followed us on Twitter. And thank you Pictureline for the great interview. This has been really fun.
If your project or personal needs could benefit from photography that strives to be thoughtful and creative, feel free to contact Austen Diamond Photography. Try me. If I can’t help you, I’ll suggest a local who might be a better fit.
More importantly, enjoy 13% SALT. Thanks for celebrating my art and our community.