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Memphis Art Spotlight {S.Julian}

Memphis photographer S. Julian is one of the best local talents I've discovered, but unfortunately, only a small percentage of Memphians will care to uncover an unknown artist. If you join me on this journey inside his creative mind, I assure you that you'll find incredibly fresh imagery created through his love for storytelling, culture, and philosophy.

I wanted to post our email conversation as unedited as possible to keep the intimate and raw vibe. Below he shares his thoughts on photography derived from our initial conversation on the challenge that photographers face of the unwelcoming Memphis perspective of photography in the art world or in their world.

Photography as the Medium for Creative Expression
I didn't really get into photography b/c I knew that was what I wanted to do; I basically took a career test and it all lead towards the creative. I've always enjoyed drawing and sketching but I didn't know I wanted to do photography right off. Actually, I didn't even buy a camera until I was 18 and out of high school. Initially, I wanted to be a philosophy major and that was pretty much what I declared once I got there. I had so many questions about truth, life, what does it mean to win, lose, why do we need God, etc.

With that said, I have always loved imagery. I, like many people, collect magazines. I've always been intrigued by fashion and culture magazines in particular. One day I kind of said to myself, "I could do that." [I also figured I could decorate my own living space inexpensively with my own stuff]. I loved the idea of a pictorial and also the fact that fashion didn't necessarily make sense. So, shortly afterwards photography became my medium.
A week long trip to England also solidified my goals as a photographer. The still frame truly captivates me. I suppose the precursor to that is cinema and my love of movies. Particularly, Alfred Hitchcock and old Twilight Zone episodes. Their use of camera angles, lighting, production values and wardrobe was always an amazement to me even if I didn't know what I was looking at the time. I see my life in scenes, stills and themes. I feel very strongly one day I will direct a short movie and do very well. Photography is my main medium. I actually love painting and would love to do it more, but I don't have any room for it. I've already got a storage unit full of photography materials. I'm running out of room!

Approaching Portraits
Well, I wouldn't really call myself a portraitist at all. I ultimately like to think conceptually with time, place and location. I do whatever works to get what I need. I don't really have a specific approach per se. Sometimes, I give scripts to the models, sometimes I talk them through and sometimes I ask questions to elicit a specific response in20body language. And once they are fairly comfortable, I embellish off whatever they're already doing. I'm still trying to learn how to really shoot portraits..lol.

Photo background: “Candy Killed Her” Revisited {Third Set Left Photo}
The chocolate death was an idea I had about a year ago called "Candy Killed Her." I had set up a lot of drug overdose productions and used pixy sticks, M&M's, milkshakes and lots of other candy. Subsequently, all my computer gear was stolen and I had to start over with many things. This was a recent reshoot. I don't think many people will admit this out loud, but violence/death is intriguing and interesting. Most everyone loves a good action movie, especially, when it's glamorized [Watch Pulp Fiction or Casino]. I don't want to get too much into it, but chocolate is the most basic of sweets and has somewhat of a sexual nature to it. People can become obsessed by candy and for this man it might have taken his life...or, is he dead? I like to play onto the psychology of things like that. My images are about choosing your own adventure.
Memphis as Backdrop
I consciously choose certain places in Memphis that have a recognizable appeal or make Memphis look a bit different or "big city." I like to shoot on location primarily and give authenticity to /for the viewer to make them say ''hey, he really went there."

Photo Background: “Hail to the King” {Top/First Photo}
The idea that turned me on to the Elvis photo was, here is this man who was a walking phallic symbol and even 20+ years later and people still worship him. I actually call that image "Hail to the King." Elvis is still a phenomenon and cultural icon to this day and looked at as a very strong sex symbol just as James Dean or any other relevant rock star today. I also think the image is quite funny.
Changing the Memphis Perspective
I'm sure the readers are gonna hate me for saying this, but Memphis isn't looked at as a cool city. It's just the truth. With all the history of music, movies being filmed and art that's in Memphis; Nashville gets all of Tennessee’s glory. Also, Memphis is not only Beale Street. Much the problem is the mentality of a lot of Memphians. But, while I'm here I want people to see my perspective on how I look at landmarks and places I think are interesting.

I really believe we need a new way to look at the city. My Elvis photo is another way to look at a landmark. I don't know about you, but I'm sick of the same post-card pictures of the Pyramid and the Mississippi Bridge. Anybody could shoot that stuff - literally. I feel like I have a fresh perspective and more importantly a progressive and contemporary one. So, I will continue to shoot the landmarks my way.

Well, I don't think it's as easy as Memphis is not as receptive to photography as art, I think it's the kind of photography/art that people are willing to buy. When people will buy Thomas Kinkade and not spend the same amount on something original that really says something. We spoke about this briefly; people are always worried about art matching their furniture. And at the root of that is - "will my friends like it?" I know it sounds childish, but Memphis [in general] is a very cliquish city and it outstretches regionally, so it’s hard to get things done. Which also creeps into people not working together, crime goes up, murders, etc...but, back to the point, we have to raise the bar and let go of many things. I feel like I have many contemporary and progressive ideas with my photography and also the success of art in general and to add to that, I don't believe in finding a solution to this, but being a solution.

"If I had my way?"
A great deal of the photography here is very typical blues, southern folklore imagery - and I wouldn't do away with it, but lets just be honest, you can get that stuff anywhere. So, I would limit the amount of that kind of work coming in and being displayed. In a way, you've got to be bias and also make sure the work coming in is on the level technically and aesthetically. Or, at least a fresh perspective to an old idea. I think a lot of people are just getting by. We also have to educate clientele when they talk to us to open their minds and expand their mental palette. It's just like many of our radio stations that play the same 15 songs all day. If that’s all you hear, that's what people will think is good. As far as I know there's not an association for Memphis photographers or for that matter big photo exhibits that pass through the city on a semi to regular basis.

Also, for some reason the public thinks photography is easy, and there are lots of fundamentals that are getting pushed under the rug. Almost as if - you've got a camera, got Photoshop? Ok, you're good to go! Sad but true.

I would also force galleries to have at least 2 to 3 photography shows a year and educate people that the best art is not an abstract painting that can virtually match anything in your house. With that said, there actually are some galleries downtown that have photography in them - but they are hardly ever open, while complaining that business is no good. Although, Sue Layman Designs [where I've sold much of my work] has always been open to photography and anything different. I've had a few shows there and Sue truly keeps an open mind to photography and anything well executed in art."

The Memphis Flyer always showcases 25 recognizable Memphian's every year and they typically seem to be restaurant owners, news people, but never many artists or photographers for that matter.

But honestly, I still have great hope for my art being accepted and represented in a major way in Memphis. Things are slowly but surely changing in this city with firms like ModoHome
, influx of people to the city, and even many of our restaurants and bars have a new and different feeling to them. It's getting better.


One of those few Memphians uncovering the homegrown talent is Justin Timberlake who with Jessica Biel purchased an editorial series of six photographs of his on their visit to Memphis last fall at Sue Layman Designs {photo above from that series "Kate and Gloria"}. You can become a supporter of local photography as well by purchasing one of his pieces or commissioning him for your next project: integrate custom work in your home or art collection, document live music performances, shoot band covers, or any promotional material. You can help change the Memphis perspective to value real talent.

S. Julian

Web Portfolio

“I love being a ‘gun for hire’ - as Helmut Newton would say.” ~ S. Julian
Related Link
Sue Layman Designs
125 G.E. Patterson #103
South Main Arts District, Memphis
All photos courtesy and property of S. Julian. Thanks S!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. bravo....
    this is great. finally a photographer from memphis getting some shine (while he's still in memphis)


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