Photographer Jason Buff aims to create the kind of portrait that you don't want to just post to your Instagram; instead, you'll want to mount it and hang it above your fireplace for posterity. “I want to take photos that have the presence of that person,” Buff says. “I want to create someone’s defining photo.”
Every summer, Buff comes to Sarasota to visit his family, teach photography workshops and work on projects with local artists. But for most of the year he lives as an ex-pat, running a photography studio in Mérida, the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatán.
Although he spent his entire professional life in the visual arts, it took Buff a long time until he felt ready to pursue his passion for photography. “I’ve tried on a lot of shoes that didn’t fit,” he says. As a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the 1990s, Buff’s ADHD made it difficult for him to pursue his goal of creating a feature film, which requires at least two years of dedicated focus. And while he loved taking pictures, the editing process at the time was cumbersome and involved lots of sitting in darkrooms. So Buff turned to graphic design.
His life changed after he bought Deke McClelland’s Total Training for Adobe Photoshop, a giant series of VHS tapes. “All of my friends were going to bars, enjoying their 20s, and I was watching this. This was just everything to me,” says Buff. Wanting to see more of the world, he packed his bags and moved to Mexico, where he learned to speak Spanish, met his wife and did graphic design remotely. “All the anxiety from my mid-20s melted away,” he says.
Buff wanted to get back into photography, but felt insecure about changing professions at his age. Eventually, he worked up the courage to ask Mérida's symphony orchestra if he could take studio-style photos of Pagliacci actors in costume. At first, Buff thought the photos were horrible, until he went home and edited them with Photoshop. “All of a sudden, the details I missed before just popped out,” he says. After Buff posted the photos online and received a glowing response, the orchestra hired him to take photos of the entire cast.
For the last five years, Buff has devoted himself exclusively to portrait photography. When working, he prefers constant movement and cinematic looks. “I love creating drama though things like movement, expression, texture,” he says. To achieve that, Buff uses fans, plays with flashes and creates interesting environments during photoshoots, as well as afterward, with Photoshop.
During a shoot, Buff isn’t afraid to embrace a bit of darkness. He likes to ask subjects to think of something that is weighing on them—not to purposely make an angry or sad face. This was a technique he used with actors when he made short films. “My goal is to create images that evoke emotion,” he says.
After what he considers a lifetime of making mistakes and avoiding his passion for photography because of fear, Buff champions people with the courage to switch careers later in life. “You can be 80 or 90 years old and start photography anytime you want,” he says. “You should fail often, and don’t get intimidated, because other photographers will always show you their best shots."
Buff is leading two upcoming photography workshops in the area: The first runs 9 a.m.-5 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 17, at Fotofinity, 6709 E. State Road 70, Bradenton. The second runs 9 a.m.-5 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 20, at 1878 University Parkway, Sarasota. Registration for each workshop is $375.