Oakland photographer releases new how-to ‘Do’ book
By Lou Fancher
An argument can be made for the benefits of young people who grow up feeling like outsiders. Struggling to find a place that is “home,” yearning to be a member of not just a family but a “tribe,” their outside-looking-in-perspectives create seminal artists, business and science innovators, cultural or humanitarian world icons, leaders of social movements and more.
Reducing that global positioning to a smaller scale renders an individual example in Oakland-based photographer Andrew Paynter. During an interview from his home in the city’s Crocker Highlands neighborhood, he says the first picture he took with the SLR camera given to him by his grandfather, Bertram Payne, was of his older brother, shirtless.
“Just the other day, I found a print of the first roll I ever took with that camera. It’s not a posed picture. The day I took it, he was just waking up, no shirt on. I walked in the front door and snapped the portrait.”
Far more thought and expertise acquired not through formal training but by self-led study and taking hundreds of thousands of photographs is behind Paynter’s work today. His clients have included Levi Strauss, Converse, Apple, American Express, The North Face, Rolling Stone and W magazines, Coca-Cola, Adidas and others. Separate decade-long projects with artist Geoff McFetridge and David and Clare Hieatt, founder/owners of Hiut Denim, point to the importance of time and timing in his career. Paynter’s new book, “Do Photo: Observe. Compose. Capture. Stand out. (bayareane.ws/2GTYkHK),” is one of 26 pocket guides published by the Do Book Co. and aimed at inspiring positive actions and philosophies.
As a young boy growing up in North Carolina, Paynter was into skateboarding and music and struggled to feel that he fit in. He worked for an indie record company, and, after being promoted and transferred to New York, he says in an online “Do” lecture that his mind “exploded.” He moved to San Francisco and reinvented himself as a photographer but kept his connection to music. A three-month tour with a band taught him early lessons in observation. His home was behind a camera, and his tribe was the artists and innovators he chose to photograph.
In an introduction to “Do Photo,” McFetridge writes of Paynter’s social intelligence and photos that hum like an amp and tell stories.
“You never feel that his photos need a caption. You don’t wish they were a video. You are glad they are still.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Paynter is mostly — and oddly — at home with his wife, Thao Paynter, a nurse at San Francisco General Hospital, and their two children, Sophie, age 10 and 5-year-old Liam.
“It’s created a great halt,” he says. “Our kids are homeschooled, and my wife doesn’t have the luxury of being at home. I’ve focused my attention on my children. It’s been incredible to have this much enriched time.”
Paynter is not a trigger-happy photographer-parent but says close, daily observation of his children reveals intricate layers of development.
“It’s like the subject matter of my work is domesticity now. I’m not trying to make a COVID documentary because it’s nothing to glorify; people in masks, mental health that’s devastating to all. Society has been on a treadmill that runs at an alarming pace. I quickly found the importance of accepting the halt and letting it be.”
Halt doesn’t mean full stop. Lucky to live in California close to nature and “outdoor spaces were kids can get dirty and climb trees,” he says, “nature always wins.” Because of that belief he studies nature’s adaptability and constant change over time, which informs his work with people and causes it to continue to evolve.
From his children, he has gained deep insights into “wasting time.” By not always being operational, by being still, patient, playful, invested, egoless — in daily life as well as photography — there is organic editing.
“You can look back at themes, places and people and see they don’t all have value. I didn’t want to become a father who worked and barely saw my children. Honestly, they matter more than my career.”
Even so, or possibly because of his altered awareness, Paynter has experienced flourishing creativity: authoring his new book of 10 best practices for crafting photographs with care, moving into directing films and music videos, and launching an ongoing personal series called Working Artists.
“You can sit in your house all day and watch how light changes the shape of things,” he says. “It allows things to become three-dimensional, and that illuminates our lives. My book is anecdotal: articulating the things that come from me. Business and craft and technique, you can learn on YouTube.”
While directing videos, Paynter continues to use light discriminatively. Just as he prefers natural light and certain times of day in still photography, attention is paid to textural combinations, sculpturing or mood-setting light and moving images that tell timeless, folkloric narratives. Music videos have allowed him to escape the isolation of a solo photographer and collaborate, create storyboards, integrate sound, and refine transitions from points A to B.
“You see your images come to life with music,” he says. “I get a platform to develop and grow, not just creatively but socially.”
Future projects include two books about and created with McFetridge, photos shot in the redwood forests on Oakland’s Skyline Boulevard, a possible long-term project with musician Chaz Bundick (known professionally as Toro y Moi) and dream aspirations to photograph primatologist Jane Goodall.
“If you think about what she did, the level of commitment to observing is in the highest form. I’m envious of her. If you could bring John Coltrane back to life, sure I’d photograph him, but Jane Goodall would be next-best.”
See a sampling of some of Paynter’s work at andrewpaynter.com online.