By Anne Telford
As we speak, on October 4, John is preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Matthew, bearing down on Florida and the South Carolina coast. Having previous experience with Mother Nature he is sanguine but focused. We’ve been trying to connect for a month, during which time he has worked intensively on a photography library. Blais excels at capturing genuine moments in perfect lighting, of real people celebrating, reflecting, working, relaxing, living complex ordinary lives for clients including Microsoft, Pepsi, Hyatt, Pillsbury and many more. His roving eye captures the pulse of urban and rural life, and it’s evident that he brings joy and respect to each assignment.
In many ways Blais operates more like a director than a photographer. A very hands-on director. An auteur. He is involved in every facet of a production, giving special attention to casting.
Patty Widyn, vice president art buying manager of New York-based Wunderman relates, “He will fly there and look at all 300 people. He looks at all these people from day one. He likes to work with people who have real chemistry. He’ll make his own selects and he’ll remember every single person. He’ll say, ‘That person can dance.’ It’s not just the look, it’s like he knows them.”
It seems Blais has always excelled at portraiture. But his budding career nearly ended when he burst into the bathroom to snap his mother taking a much-needed bubble bath. “I was seven years old and I had my dad’s Brownie camera. I used to go around taking pictures everywhere. My mom had six kids; she is in the bathtub. I run in the bathroom and take a picture. It takes two weeks to get it back, ” he remembers. The results won her over. She told him, “You can take a picture of me whenever you want. It’s the best picture that’s ever been taken of me!”
“She would take me to places to photograph. I just loved it. By the time I was ten or eleven she entered one of my photographs in a national contest, and it won,” he recounts, a note of awe still in his voice. That sealed it. In college he majored in photography, with a minor in sociology. After he graduated, John relates, “My grandma had me come over and told me my gift was in the basement. [Down] there were three view cameras, including a Kodak 1889 from Paris that was signed by the man who made it. Her father had been a photographer in France!” His grandmother had downplayed the connection because she had pushed her son to like photography. Although John’s uncle was a competent photographer he pursued another field. When John had clearly chosen his own path, she bequeathed him her father’s cameras and a box of his uncle’s negatives.
Keeping it a family affair, Blais works with his wife Jennifer Pracht, who is his producer. “Jennifer is the communicator,” he claims. They have three children, two boys 12 and 7 and a 9-year-old daughter. “We are a big tennis family,” Blais says. Following in his mom’s tradition, the family goes on photographic explorations. “When we go to the tennis tournaments, whoever is not playing we go into town, to diners and take photos.” This had led to a book on diners coming out soon.
Despite, or perhaps because of his innate shyness, he claims he is more comfortable interacting through a lens. “I have an inner peace when I have a camera. There are very few times that I’ve felt intimidated,” he says, despite who or what he is photographing, Owen Bly, senior producer at Pereira & O’Dell in San Francisco Bay Area says, “John’s one of the best real people photographers I’ve ever worked with. On the big shoot we did, one of our days was in a classroom. We had cast real people kids and teachers, and we shot all day—hundreds and hundreds of shots. I don’t remember one of them that wasn’t a keeper. He connects with a subject incredibly well, and that shines through in his photographs.”
“His aesthetic is such that you are drawn in to the action and emotion of the subjects of his images,” agrees Kathleen Candelaria, senior art buyer FCB Chicago. “He has a knack for getting to the ‘heart’ of people’s personalities, and showcasing that in the images he captures.” Widyn concurs, “One of the reasons why his pictures are so genuine and so natural, he knows these people. He knows how to make the talent very comfortable. He himself has a lot of energy; he spills that over into the casting and the dynamic of the talent on set.”
Candelaria concludes, “John will go the extra mile to do what it takes to get what is needed. He hustles on set, and works extremely hard to make some rather impossible requests happen.” Hoping that the possible does not happen, at this point in our conversation we return to the subject of imminent hurricanes and we say goodbye. I have no doubt he will approach the storm preparations like a shoot and make sure every detail is buttoned down.
If you would like to see what he has been up to lately, be sure to link through to his website.