Of John Black Photography, Jackson Avenue and Smokey . . .

John Black Photography, 514 W. Jackson, Knoxville, March 2016
John Black Photography, 514 W. Jackson, Knoxville, March 2016

In the months since John Black Photography moved from their five-year Union Avenue location, I’ve missed seeing both John and Amanda Taylor – and Molly, their large tail-wagging family member. Last July at the end of a five-year lease and facing increased rent, they moved to the Jackson Avenue Workshops at 514 W. Jackson. It’s out of my most-traveled range, so I dropped in to see how the business is going and learned some interesting details about their area and, of all things, Smokey. Yes, the actual dog.

Many of you may know John for his accent. It’s not one we run into often in east Tennessee, though it’s one with which our east Tennessee ancestors would be have been very comfortable – and may have shared. Born in Irvine, Scotland, when he was very young his family moved to Killarny, Ireland, his father’s native area.

He wasn’t always a photographer. After high school he worked as a night porter in a local hotel and often drew the job of showing tourists around town. Such was the case when David Andrews, an American (who currently has a photography business in Chattanooga), came to town. It was a pivotal moment for John who not only established a life-long friendship, but also set a course for his career. The two took photographs as they toured and John was disappointed to see his developed photographs didn’t match what he’d seen.

He soon registered for and began a three-year photography program at St. Kevin’s College in Dublin and after graduation worked for a local wedding photographer. John now references the photographer as a great model of how not to run a business and often the product suffered. After taking a year off to care for his mother, his life would take another turn on her death in 1987.

John Black Photography, 514 W. Jackson, Knoxville, March 2016
John Black Photography, 514 W. Jackson, Knoxville, March 2016
John Black Photography, 514 W. Jackson, Knoxville, March 2016
John Black Photography, 514 W. Jackson, Knoxville, March 2016

He called his friend David, who by this time lived in Knoxville, Tennessee. David invited him to come to the States and live temporarily in his attic. John began work for photographer Charlie Brooks whose clients included Bike Athletic and the predecessor to Scripps Networks. During these years he traveled all over the country and learned the skills which would later lead to his success.

2002 would be another watershed year in that it was both the year he started his own business and the year he met Amanda Taylor, who would become his partner. Amanda was living in St. Thomas and working as a professional nanny when she visited Knoxville to see her mother. Her agent (as a professional nanny she had worked for two of the wealthiest families in Italy and France) told her to get an updated head shot and she asked John to take it. After she moved to McGowan, Texas for a nanny job, John visited her monthly and their relationship grew.

John mainly shot commercial jobs in the early days, but agreed when a soccer buddy asked him to shoot his wedding. Surprised to realize how much he enjoyed the shoot, he increased that portion of his business. He hired a long-term second shooter for weddings who worked with him for nine years. When that ended, he used friends for a while as seconds – including his friend David – but ultimately needed a second he could count on.

One morning, having breakfast at Pete’s, he asked Amanda if she’d shoot as his second. She’d been designing the albums and listing the shots they needed, so it seemed like a natural shift even though she didn’t have a photography background. She shot a wedding with David as her back up, stayed up late into the night post-processing the photos, selected her top twenty and showed them to John. He said nothing as she went through them and she was “nearly in tears,” when she finished, fearing the worst. He said of the experience, “I was panicked thinking maybe her shots were better than mine!”

Amanda feels having two different perspectives adds to the quality of their shoots. They think differently. noticing different kinds of potential shots. The result is that people get all the possibilities. As they continued to work weddings and commercial shoots, people began asking for photographs of their children. After resisting at first, John began taking photographs of families and children and found a passion for doing so.

smokey 3 Smokey 1

In 2010 they moved the business from their home and into the Daylight Building on Union Avenue. They’d attempted to lease the building on Gay Street which eventually became Nama. When they learned they didn’t get the lease, they walked through the city, discouraged and looking at other buildings. The boards had just come off the Daylight Building windows and they loved the light. David Dewhirst happened to be inside at the moment and after meeting him they signed a lease as quickly as possible.

Amanda says she recruited the Happy Envelope from Clinton to come to the building, as well as Reruns (later) when Nancy Solomon was looking to re-locate. With the advent of Union Avenue Books and Just Ripe, a strong initial lineup emerged for the building and the business did well. Still, she said it took a couple of years to understand how to benefit from the foot traffic on Union. As they built the portrait business, they eventually had to limit weddings to fifteen a year, which is what they currently maintain.

One highlight for the couple was an unannounced visit from Bev and Tim Walden who Amanda says are revered among portrait photographers. They’d heard about the work John and Amanda were doing, found themselves in Knoxville and decided to drop by. It was a great compliment.

As their lease ended and they searched for another downtown location, they ran into photographer Bruce Cole in the grocery store who suggested they look into a soon-to-be-open space in the Jackson Workshops. They loved the new space with its dynamic light and signed a lease. They accepted the loss of the Union Avenue pedestrian exposure, but felt they had built their reputation to the point they weren’t dependent on the foot-traffic.

While that was true, a funny thing happened along the way at their new location: foot traffic developed. The opening of Knox Whiskey Works gave it a noticeable bump. More recently, the opening of Balter Beerworks has led to a major upturn in foot traffic and more business, with all the people parking along the road and in the public lot down the hill and walking to the brewery.

They’ve also had an interesting recent experience in the world of animal photography. They’ve taken numerous photographs of pets over the last few years and that business grew to the point it captured the attention of the The Torchbearer magazine at UT. They asked John to photograph Smokey for their most recent cover. What seemed like a straightforward job turned into an online burst of interest in the resultant images.

John Black Photography, 514 W. Jackson, Knoxville, March 2016
John Black Photography, 514 W. Jackson, Knoxville, March 2016

For the first time ever, they are selling signed prints, which are, of course, the shots they took of Smokey. Each will be numbered and a limit of 250 will be printed for each pose. They’ll be available as a print alone, matted or framed and range in price from $800 to $1350. You’ll find the link very soon on their website.

I’m happy to have them still around downtown and enjoy both their work as well as their friendship. As you’re walking along Jackson to Balter, Knox Whiskey Works or Sweet P’s stick your head in and say hello, take a look at their prints or talk to them about your next photo session. They are open Tuesday through Friday 11:00 AM – 6:00 PM and Saturday from 10:00 AM – 3:00 PM.