John Polak’s model sits very still during a photo shoot in his large, airy live/work loft on the fourth floor of Eastworks. He turns the model to the right and then to the left. He adjusts the light. Satisfied, he steps back and peers into his camera.
The model isn’t a person; it’s an object. On any given day, it might be a ceramic pot or a woven basket or a silver pendent necklace. Over the last 20 years, John has become the go-to commercial photographer in the Pioneer Valley for artists, craftspeople, museums, galleries and publishers.
“My photography is very specialized,” John says. “It’s all about the lighting and creating objects to look almost better than they really are. I evaluate the objects and decide the best way to present them.”
His work appears on numerous websites and in a growing collection of DIY and how-to craft books, such as The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook and the Circular Knitting Workshop. Yes, he’s the person who photographs the hundreds of step-by-step images that teach readers how to knit a scarf or sweater.
The most rewarding thing about his work, he says, is “seeing the pictures that I take advance the careers of the artists that I work for.” His photographs have helped clients get into graduate school or into the galleries that formerly overlooked their work.
“I help artists get a little bit of an advantage over someone else’s pictures,” he says.
John noticed artists needed a boost while he was photographing collections for a string of museums early in his career. “These pictures would come in from artists [showing their work] and they were terrible,” he says. “It was one of those things where I thought, ‘Jeez, these people need some help.’ That’s when I really got started photographing for artists.”
Originally, John went to college for landscape architecture at UMass Amherst, but he noticed that his drawings looked like cartoons compared to his peers. His photographs, on the other hand, stood apart. He had a natural instinct for composition and he switched gears to photography, cataloging art collections for museums before working for an ad agency in New York City for ten years.
Eventually, he struck out on his own, and he moved into his loft in Eastworks in 2006.
“It was a way for me to combine a studio space with a living space,” he says. “I like the high ceilings. These windows face northwest, so the light is really good. And the freight elevator is convenient for clients who have to bring artwork to my studio.”
Paintings from several local artists adorn his walls and a stack of books that contain his photography sits next to the coffee table. When he’s taking pictures, he sets objects on a black shooting table the size of a Ping-Pong table and uses sheets of Formica to create backdrops. He says he welcomes his clients to be present during the shoots so he can get immediate feedback.
“There’s a lot of art that goes into what I do,” John says.
And he’s grateful that he’s been able to sustain himself doing it. “It’s rewarding for me in that I’ve managed to stay self-employed since 1992,” he says. “Nowadays, that’s unusual for an artist to be able to make a living from just their art.”