Morgan & Owens
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Morgan & Owens

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For husband and wife team Morgan & Owens, life is a bit of a fairy tale.

The two met while working in a café in New Orleans, got married and moved to Brooklyn in 2000, where they began their careers in the publishing industry. Within nine short years, James Owens and Jessie Morgan-Owens have shared the privileges of photo editing, assisting for some of their favorite photographers, earning M.A. and Ph.D. degrees respectively at New York University, and shooting editorial assignments near and abroad.

As if that weren’t enough, this year, they’ve moved their home base from New York to Singapore, where Morgan-Owens will teach at Nanyang Technological University. They were also named among Photo District News 2008 PDN’s 30 Emerging Photographers to Watch.
 
Talk about a whirlwind.

Switching seamlessly between assistant and photographer, artist and business executive, this husband-and-wife team has fed their sense of adventure by capturing everything from timeless travel imagery to chronicling a word-of-mouth network of artists.

“Everybody asks us how we both shoot.  Do we pass the camera back and forth? And the answer is yes,” Morgan-Owens jokes. “I don’t know if there is a name for what we do.”

An Editor’s Eye [Back to top]

Though both studied photography in college, it wasn’t until they spent time photo editing at Travel + Leisure Magazine that their real education began. 

“I learned so much,” Morgan-Owens says. “I was coming from Louisiana with a photojournalism background.  And even though I wanted to photograph editorially, I didn’t really have any understanding of how the magazine world worked. The whole system was a complete mystery to me.”  

“I got to see a ton of portfolios,” she adds. “I took the time to look at every portfolio that came through, and thought about how it was organized, what its narrative was, what was wrong about it, and what wasn’t. I also got to do a lot of assigning and working with photographers on the job,” Morgan-Owens says.

Working closely with the photographers also offered some additional advantages.

“It allowed me, who had come from the outside, to make acquaintances with photographers I admired.  And basically talk their ears off! I would ask them what kind of camera they used, if they pulled or pushed a stop when they were processing, all that stuff. They were the kinds of question that I felt safe asking, because I had worked with them. So, when we finally decided to make the leap and go totally freelance, we already had a wealth of knowledge,” Morgan-Owens comments.

Years later, their editing experience proved to be vital as they began to explore a new direction in their craft, although, Owens jokes, “It doesn’t help us now when we try to edit our own stuff!”

Honing a Vision [Back to top]

Once established as a team both personally and professionally, it was time to establish a style.   

“We did a couple of small jobs around the city and then we went to Europe for three months to hone what our vision was going to be,” says Morgan-Owens, “We shot a ton of black-and-white on KODAK PROFESSIONAL T-MAX 400 Film, and just kept shooting until we figured out what it looked like to be Morgan & Owens. From there, we built a new portfolio and started building our client base.”

That client base started with two premier travel magazines — Budget Travel and Travel + Leisure. The business of travel photography meshed perfectly with the couple’s personality.

“I think that being a travel photographer requires you be a jack-of-all-trades. On any given shoot, there will be food shots, restaurant shots, portraits, lighted portraits, more formal shots, and also street shots. You have to have the gear for all those different jobs, and you have to wear all those different hats. And then you have to make sure that everything fits into the style of the publication,“ Morgan-Owens says.

Due to budget constraints, they often find themselves responsible for everything from uncovering great locations from the locals, to securing free-of-charge “models” from the crowd.

“We refer to it as a scavenger hunt because you have to reach out and engage the community you’re photographing. There’s no way to just follow a to-do list and only stop by the places that have been chosen for us. You don’t get a sense of place that way,” Morgan-Owens says.

“I think because we trained as documentary photographers, as photojournalists, we feel like it’s our job to engage with the community and figure out the best way to represent them because our images reflect their lives,” Morgan-Owens adds.

She continues, “We’re not going to change their lives.  But we do honor them and their experience by pulling out our gigantic camera and setting them up in their space. We’re honoring the fact that their lives are beautiful and worthy of being remembered.  And worthy of being recorded.  These are people who become a part of our lives.”

Owens says, “When you’re holding the camera, you’ve got to be willing to show something in a new light. You’re going to have to investigate a little bit, dig in a little bit, and the only way to do that is to feel authorized, to assume a role of investigation.”

He adds, “A lot of times it’s like an improv dance experience. You really have to be adaptive and be willing to bend a little bit to experience something new from someone else’s perspective.”

But to Morgan & Owens, all the hectic chasing, investigating, and shooting of travel photography is well worth it at the end of the day.

“It’s not every day that you meet 20 people in one day, who are all excited to see you,” Morgan-Owens jokes, “It’s the best energy in the world.  And these people, without them, we could not do our jobs.”

Collaboration as an Art Form [Back to top]

“Collaborating is a major part of our lives,” Morgan-Owens says, “We collaborate as photographers on all of our projects, and I think that it enhances the work. I know a lot of artists would not agree with me. But for us, it’s really been the source of our success. We’ve been able to combine our two rather different styles into something new and make a stronger voice together.” Owens adds, “On almost every shoot, we both carry the camera and take the shot. I think we’ve pretty much developed a style and a methodology for work that really makes the partnership work out well.”

As husband and wife, sharing the business duties was a natural experience. Except when it came to one thing, “The thing we hated the most was the accounting! So we began to outsource that,” Morgan-Owens jokes. One thing that they try not to outsource is their printing. “My entire office is lined with boxes of KODAK PROFESSIONAL Paper,” Morgan-Owens says, “There was a time when we thought maybe we would paint the room, but now it’s just literally Kodak yellow. We have shelf after shelf after shelf. When we do need to outsource our printing, we use the SUPRA ENDURA Paper at our printer, Peter Goldman at aporia inc. print lab. We pretty much use it exclusively.” As for film, Owens says, “We shoot all of our black-and-white with Kodak. I prefer the KODAK PROFESSIONAL T-MAX 400 Film. It goes back to working with a documentary style in our earlier years. There’s a history embedded in the way that the KODAK PROFESSIONAL T-MAX 400 Film operates, it makes it look right. And when we want the saturation and colors to really pop, we’ll use the KODAK PROFESSIONAL PORTRA 160VC Film.”

New Adventures [Back to top]

Always on the lookout for a new adventure, Morgan & Owens found their next journey across the world. In July 2009 Morgan & Owens moved across the globe to Singapore. 

 “We were looking for a new adventure, and they had a job opening there for Jessie. So we said, ‘Hey, let’s go find out, let’s go talk to Asia, and see what happens,’” says Owens.

Morgan-Owens has been teaching various courses on and off at NYU for the past four years, so making the move to teach at a university in Singapore seemed like a natural next step for the couple. 

Though she jokes, “It’ll be interesting to see how that works out. Every weekend, I think the beaches of Bali and Malaysia will be calling us.”

But as they begin their time in Singapore, they are leaving behind some ongoing projects that they are equally excited about.

“We created an art network project where we take a portrait of an artist in their studio, and then we ask them who they think we should photograph next. Who was inspiring to them, what other artists have they really found to be an important part of their practice. They give us two names, and then we track down those two people, and photograph them.  It became a sort of crazy chain and, to date, we’ve photographed artists from all over — Mexico City, Greece, Long Island City — twice,” Morgan-Owens says.

“For another project we select people to interview, and ask them to identify their favorite selections from books or novels. Then we try to do an adaptive recreation of the image from the perspective of the interviewee,” Owens says.

Morgan-Owens comments, “There’s a really interesting way that people take the settings of their novels and map them onto a New York City landscape.”

But for now, the projects remain unfinished, as they turn their attention to Singapore.

Whether the beaches of Bali begin calling, or the trail in the artists network picks up in a new exotic location, Morgan & Owens are sure to go with the flow to uncover their next adventure together.

Reflecting on a career that began small and eventually transformed the pair into photographic explorers who have navigated the world, Owens comments on the unique dynamic of finding a truly artistic partner.

“If you’re working with an agency, or a studio manager, or a partner, it’s great to have someone to bounce ideas off of. Because, as artists, we get stuck. It can get a little nutty.  But also, it allows you to share some of that burden. I highly recommend it for somebody who’s trying to make it. Find somebody you can trust to bounce ideas off of, to look at work with you, to share some of that load. Then you can do what you do best, which is make art.”


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