Jana Cruder "What bucket do I fit into"

Last November, when the Rochester Institute of Technology’s alumni organization reached out toJana Cruder, class of 2003, to find out what the Los Angeles-based photographer was doing professionally, she replied, “I think the [real] question is what am I not doing professionally.”

Her response was on the mark. Cruder has been building a career shooting commercial and editorial work, mostly fashion. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. She’s edging her way into the fine-art world with projects about the cultural programming of women and how technology is reshaping the human body. And she has been busy shooting motion, both for commercial clients and for personal projects.

On the one hand, the variety of the work is exciting—“It opens the door to all kinds of possibilities,” Cruder says. On the other hand, it presents her with a question that many talented young photographers must ask themselves as they explore their creative identities and their career goals: What is the next step, and how do I take it?”

“My rep and I met recently to try to put me in a bucket,” Cruder says. “But what bucket do I fit into?”

The answer she’s looking for is not about her skill set. “I can go out and I can document and create a great image. I can find the light, I can connect with the subject, and I can create a great image,” she says. If she’s searching for a professional niche, she’s also finding out about herself as an artist—“about what I’m truly good at,” she says, “and what I truly want to do.”

Looking for Greener Grass

Cruder says she was truly interested in fashion photography as a kid growing up in rural Pennsylvania, hanging out in the magazine aisle of the supermarket to page through Vogue while her mother shopped. She aced her high school photography course, but when she announced that she wanted to become a professional photographer, her father objected. “He said, ‘No daughter of mine is going to become a starving artist,’” Cruder recalls. “And I told him, ‘Who says I have to starve?’”

When she was looking at colleges, though, it was her father who pointed her to RIT. “He said, ‘Look, if you’re going to do this, you’re going to do it right,’” Cruder says.

She did four years of RIT coursework in just two—“I maxed out because it’s a very expensive school,” she says—and then moved to New York City with most of her classmates. “There was this mass exodus of highly trained photo students to New York. And I was like, ‘Wait a minute, this doesn’t make sense. There’s so much competition. Then I talked with an RIT friend who was in LA, and she said, ‘I can’t guarantee that the grass will be greener here, but there’s definitely more grass.’”

Cruder works out of her home in Santa Monica and on location, renting studio space when she needs it. “The kind of space you need in LA is way beyond what I can afford,” she says.

The city’s photo market, as she describes it, is dominated by what you might call the one percenters: big-name photographers, many of who fly in from New York to shoot high-end advertising and editorial jobs. “But there’s this underbelly of young amazing photographers who are leading the industry in a new way,” Cruder says. “We’re following the direction of the market.”

And that direction, she says, is toward motion. “I’m learning that it’s a step ahead in the game to offer more robust, all-inclusive solutions for companies,” says Cruder. She learned the hard way, when, back in 2010, she lost a number of jobs to photographers who could guarantee clients both stills and motion from single-day shoots. “I got frustrated and threw my camera off and said, ‘I need to learn this,’” she recalls. “But I was also like, ‘I don’t want to do it; it’s so hard. I’ll have to go back to school, and I don’t want to go back to school.’”

She ended up taking a filmmaking workshop in San Francisco covering everything from storytelling and storyboarding to lighting and sound capture.

Hyper-Realism With a Sense of Soul

Cruder describes her commercial work—both stills and motion—as being “hyper-real with a sense of soul”—polished, but with a story always lurking in the background. A fashion feature she shot recently for indie magazine Zooey  was, for instance, built around a circa-1970s tale she conceived involving a woman waiting to hear from her boyfriend fighting in Vietnam. “I was thinking about what it must have been like in that situation before emails and texting,” she says.

Cruder’s commercial aesthetic carries over into her fine-art work. Last year she created an experimental black-and-white motion piece called Â ME, which she calls a story about a girl “on a search for a soul.” Her still series “Great Expectations” brought Barbie and Ken to life to explore sex roles, while her most recent project, “The Way of Modern Man,” studies the impact that wireless technology has on human physiology. In the portrait series, nude subjects are seen engaged with their cell phones, texting with someone unseen—Cruder herself, it turns out. Projected over the images are emoticons that underscore our digital identities.

The breadth of Cruder’s output, her scope of subject matter and creative dynamism, is impressive. And that’s a good thing. The question she faces is whether it also confuses potential clients about what kind of photographer she is.

“Jana and I have a constant conversation about how we should brand and market her, because she does so much,” says her rep, Devon Day of LA-based Day Reps. “I think that’s something you have to do when a photographer dips his or her toes into many genres of photography. On the one hand it looks like they have range, and on the other it looks like they lack focus. What I’ve found over the last few years is that the people who are working steadily and who are gaining ground in their careers, they all have what I feel is a very cohesive portfolio.”

That ongoing conversation has been an important learning experience, Cruder says. Slowly, she is arriving at a vision for her future, one that ties together strategic career goals and artistic aspirations—not two separate buckets, but one bigger one. “In my perfect world,” she says, “I’m trying to blend all these aspects of my work together. I want to be able to do fine-art work, and to work with brands that want to collaborate with an artist who is talking about culturally significant ideas.”