Jonpaul Douglass’s photographs really want you to look at them. Why else would his camera make a stop sign come to a halt, lying flat on the ground, still shouting its command? And what about the eye peeking out from a hole cut in fake fur, its lower lid pulled down by a pencil eraser? Oh, and then there are the pictures of the pug.
The Los Angeles–based photographer and director gives the logical and the absurd space to romp in images that narrate and free-associate, playing with the conceptual and the concrete within a palette that leaps from tart hard-candy hues to subtle tone-on-tones. It all basks in a dazzling high-noon glare. “I love minimalism, and try to make it happen on less-complex jobs, stripping things down to what’s most important in the scene, where it’s as simple as it can be, but also the most complex,” says Douglass. That’s the way he lives too, with his wife, Anica, a Netflix creative producer, in their modern California home. His 1,000-square-foot studio takes over the whole garage.
Since 2013, Douglass has attracted the likes of Google and Facebook, Heinz and Bush’s Best, and Dropbox and sweetgreen. Postmates is another. The San Francisco–based on-demand delivery service for local restaurants and merchants hired him in fall 2018 to create a new collection of Instagram images featuring Los Angeles foods. They cut Douglass loose, and he returned with zeroed-in shots of sushi, tacos and other iconic fare beside classic cars, bikes and skateboards to carry the “in transit” idea. Some of the photos aired in a commercial during the 2019 Oscars.
Kevin Byrd, creative director at Postmates, says, “I’m constantly looking for image makers who are doing new things that I haven’t seen before. Jonpaul is creative in this sense. There’s an inherent curiosity and desire for experimentation in his work, and the results are surprising. Color is a big part of where he excels. And there’s an artistry to his compositions, in abstraction, and a real understanding of dimensional objects. I love the way he collides items together in unexpected ways. There’s a clever optimism in his work.”
His photographs may radiate a sunny disposition, but that hasn’t always been so for Douglass himself. Growing up in Plant City, Florida, between Orlando and Tampa, in the ’80s and ’90s, “I was a quiet kid drawing little Bart Simpsons and knights in armor—an introverted artist, which I still am,” he says. By his preteen years, too much fast food made him obese. “That was a huge part of my life. And I was depressed.” Then he became obsessed with skateboarding, and nutrition and weightlifting, and he lost the pounds. Videographing himself and his friends riding around sparked his interest in photography.
Douglass was happiest being a health nut, however, and he wanted to help others overcome obstacles like he had, so in 2005 he went to the University of South Florida in Tampa to study psychology and become a therapist. He was good at relating to people, he found while working the phones at an insurance company, talking to stressed-out car-accident victims. “But the art thing kept coming up,” he says. So Douglass switched to design classes, “though I had no idea what I wanted to do.”
At his insurance-company job, he snuck onto the web a lot, and learned about off-camera lighting and strobes, fueling his photography. He took pictures just for fun, never thinking he could actually make a career of it. But why not study film? “I had this pie-in-the-sky dream of being a director, but wasn’t sure what kind I’d be,” he says.
Douglass’s portfolio of stills got him into the film program at the University of Central Florida, so he lived in Orlando, driving back and forth to his job. And he kept taking pictures. Making an easy $500 shooting a local hardcore band was enough incentive for him to forget college, after one year there, and quit his job in order to just go for it.
“I had no idea how the photography industry worked,” says Douglass, who immediately listed himself on Workbook. A year later, he had photographed more bands, as well as weddings, and lifestyle and product advertising for smaller local design firms. He also assisted in large-production commercials at Orlando’s Deeb Studios, learning the more complex cameras and lighting for filming. That readied him to create his own professional videos, using the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, which moved him into directing. Word of mouth propelled him on.
One big break for Douglass was photographing lifestyle scenes for Facebook, appearing in 2013. Then, Buck, a creative agency based in Los Angeles, hired him as director of photography for Facebook’s “Factory” and “Birthday” personalized video shoots, which launched in February 2015 and December 2016, respectively. Jenny Ko, group creative director at Buck, says, “There’s a strong design foundation in all of Jonpaul’s work, and a deeper story behind every image. His quirky aesthetic was a perfect match for us.” It has been for Instagram too, which also nabbed Douglass in 2013 to direct and shoot a promotional video for the release of Instagram Direct, its private messaging feature.
Meanwhile, he was always making pictures for himself, posing pizzas around Los Angeles, where he and Anica had moved to in 2013, which gave him a good reason to explore the city and its suburbs. In his photos of them, freshly baked, uncut Little Caesars pepperoni pies show up in the street, on a car hubcap, hanging off a run-down basketball hoop and sitting like a saddle on a miniature horse. He put his Pizza in the Wild series up on his Instagram account, and “that’s when I became noticed, and the floodgates opened,” says Douglass, who, in 2017, collaborated with self-publishing platform Blurb to create a book of the project’s 70-plus images.
In Los Angeles and San Francisco, contacts through photographer friends helped Douglass get known as “the guy who’d make professional-looking photos and videos, without some crazy-expensive budget. I was a hot deal,” as he puts it. Early on, his signature polished, colorful, harsh-sunlight look caught the eye of Samsung and car brand Smart, and those of many more clients after he joined the production and management company Giant Artists in 2019.
Even with a prescriptive brief, Douglass inserts his own style, especially in his colors and textures. He thrives on that creative freedom, and Kevin Butler, global group creative director with Google Pixel, wants him to have it. “The more nebulous the direction, the better results you’ll get,” he says. “Jonpaul has the technical side down, but he’s a creative at heart. He understands how to make things interesting, not just beautiful.”
In summer 2020, Douglass hit it head-on with his photographs for Captured on Pixel, a collection of screen backgrounds for compatible Android devices. Butler says, “We got 100 percent exactly what we hoped for, with a whole spectrum of color and tonality, and a great sense of humor in Jonpaul’s unexpected compositions and people doing weird things.” Among them are pictures of his pug, eleven-year-old Stella. She also appears in 22 adorable “Pixel vs Pixel” videos pitting the phone against the dog. For example, one lasts all day while the other sleeps.
First for Douglass with any new project is his desire to connect with the people working on it and be clear about everyone’s roles. Eclectic himself, he stresses that he functions best as a director. It’s all about orchestrating the crew, making sure they communicate and have the right information so shoot day is calm and pleasant. “Jonpaul has this amazing Zen mindset. It’s infectious. He’s an all-around stand-up guy with a wonderful attitude, a heart of gold. He’s also really collaborative, working together to provide solutions, which I appreciate. When he’s on set with me, I don’t have to worry about anything,” says Ko, speaking of pre-COVID-19 days.
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t slowed Douglass down. He’s filmed commercials for Bush’s Best and photographed for Mercedes-Benz, Mailchimp and about ten others. “The work comes in because people know I can do this one-man-band thing,” he says. “I’ve got a nice system down for shooting remotely, with the live feed and the camera, as I expand into more of a creative-studio operation. My crew and I are good friends, and we know how to operate really safely. But the day of the actual shoot, it’s just Jonpaul in the garage.”
He aims to maintain a balance. “I struggle the most with trying to avoid burnout,” he says. “I need to take time for myself; otherwise, I’ll become a workaholic and think I can handle it. But when you’re doing five jobs simultaneously, you’re not as effective. I want to limit the number of things I let into my brain.” So he meditates every morning. “I try to bring that mindfulness and equanimity into my work. By being present and not distracted, I’m calmer and can get more insight, more ideas.”
Those ideas are always going into his own projects, which make up about half of his photography. “It’s essential. It’s where my soul is,” says Douglass, who regularly posts these images on Instagram. “If I never did commercial work again, I feel very confident that I could make the photos I want, and I’d find the revenue stream.”
And if he wasn’t a photographer and director? “I would be a therapist,” he says, “or something where I can help heal some kind of human emotional pain.” He’s doing that already with three photographs from his collection of personal work, donating 100 percent of the print sales to mental health–based charities. “Mental health and human happiness—it brings me a lot of joy thinking about it. It’s a never-ending journey.” ca