Our Industry Has Lost One of Its Best and Brightest, And I Lost a Very Dear Friend
Above: My dear friend, colleague, and mentor, Jim DiVitale in a portrait I made backstage at Photoshop World for a personal project I called “Sessions” — it was a series of portraits of famous photographers who were also musicians (a pair of drum sticks in Jimmy’s hands).
My heart sank when I heard the news that my dear friend and colleague Jim DiVitale had passed away after a long tough battle with cancer. Jim was one of the brightest, most passionate, most helpful photographers on the planet — a working commercial photographer, dedicated educator, and just one of the nicest, most down to earth guys you’d ever want to meet. Respected and admired by his peers, and loved by his students around the world. We have lost one of the greats.
There will be so much written about Jimmy’s career, and his countless contributions to photography, education, and the photography industry as a whole, and what a pioneer he was in leading the transition from film to digital and introducing photographers to Photoshop. But here I want to share some very personal stories of how Jim directly impacted my career, and my life, and how Jim wound up touching so many people without even realizing it. It’s a story of how he planted seeds that grew into mighty oaks in my life, and my company’s history, and it’s a story that gives you some insights into the extraordinary person behind the gifted photographer and educator Jim truly was.
I’ll always remember the day I first met Jim
It was in Atlanta, at the Georgia World Congress Center attending a trade show held by “The Printing Industry of The South.” My business partner Jim Workman and I had flown up there to get some pointers on how we could improve the Photoshop World conference, which had just been launched earlier that year. Jim and I are walking around the show floor, when a man recognizes me; stops me and says,
“You don’t know me. I’m Jim DiVitale, and I was at your Photoshop World conference in Orlando a few months ago, and it was great. Really great! But you only had one class on digital photography. Digital is the next big thing, and it’s so important, and well…your instructor was just terrible. He seems like a really nice guy, but he’s a terrible teacher. I’m sorry, but he was just really, really bad.”
I didn’t get upset at Jim’s critique of that class, because I knew he was right. I had read every attendee’s evaluation form from the conference, and I knew that particular class was the lowest rated class of all. Then Jim started to pitch to me how next year he should be the guy to teach the class. In fact, he said we really need more than just one class, but he’d help us put together some really solid classes on the topic, and he told me about how he had been teaching for PPA at their conference, and about these workshops he was doing, and it all sounded so great that I looked at my partner Jim, and he smiled and nodded, and I said…
“OK, you’re hired. You’re our digital photography guy for next year’s conference.”
Jim kept going like I hadn’t said anything, and he continued on with his resumé and what he would do if he had the chance, and I told him again. “Jim. You’re in. You’re hired. You’re the guy. I’m serious!” I don’t think he fully believed me, but I got his card and told him I’d be in touch soon. That was 1999. Jim has taught at every Photoshop World ever since. He was everything he said he would be, and then some.
It was Jim that helped us grow our entire curriculum of photography at Photoshop World, and he brought on guys who have been mainstays at Photoshop World for years, guys like food photographer Joe Glyda (one of the greatest guys ever), and fashion photographer and ace educator Kevin Ames (more on Kevin in a moment), and it was Jim’s idea to create a panel where we didn’t teach at all — instead we would celebrate the art of our incredible group of instructors. Well, “The Art of Digital Photography”panel, moderated by Jim himself, was born, and it soon became an institution at Photoshop World, where Jim shared the stage with celebrated photographers like Jay Maisel, Joe McNally, Jeremy Cowart, John Paul Caponigro, Moose Peterson, Joe Glyda, Dave Black, and many more and he was the host for an evening that often included roars of laughter and tears of joy; standing ovations and gasps of amazement; and a night no one in the crowd would soon forget. He was an incredibly gracious, and humble host, and the crowds loved Jim, and they loved seeing his work presented in this creative atmosphere.
Jim literally built my first studio. In one day, no less.
In Photoshop User magazine, we had been doing product reviews for many years, but we had to rely on contacting companies and getting them to send us product shots to use alongside their reviews. The quality ran from top notch to terrible; from high res to low res, and usually they had to ship them to us via mail or UPS, and that often delayed the magazine from going to press. We finally got to point where we realized we needed to be taking our own product shots for the magazine in-house, but I had never used studio lighting (only flash), and only then for shooting portraits, so I had no idea how to set up a product photography studio, let alone take the shots, but I knew Jim, and that’s who I called.
Jim, and his soon-to-be bride, the wonderful and talented Helene Glassman (a well known, highly respected portrait photographer herself), flew down to Tampa to our headquarters for the day; took me out to buy the materials we needed; came back and set it all up, and in one day literally built a small product photography studio, and then taught me how to light and shoot products for the magazine. This tiny table-top studio was built right on the other side of the wall of my office; using the first studio lights I ever owned. While it didn’t look fancy, or cost a lot, the product photos came out great, and it transformed the quality of our reviews in the magazine overnight, and we wound up doing so much more for the magazine with that tiny little studio; from artwork for feature stories, to shots for ads and for our mailers. After getting the studio up and running, Jim and Helene spent the rest of the day, and into the night, teaching me portrait lighting; Helene teaching me posing techniques, and Jim talking me through all the settings in the camera.
I just couldn’t get over that they would do that for me. All on their own time, all on their own dime, and they never asked for a penny in return. They were so patient, and answered my every question. As I stepped on stage two days ago in Dallas, Texas to teach 250+ photographers how to light and shoot a portrait, just an hour after learning the heartbreaking news that Jimmy had passed away, it wasn’t at all lost on me that I wouldn’t even be able to stand on that stage teaching portrait lighting at all, if it weren’t for Jim, and Helene, and that day. I’ve written bestselling books, taught numerous online courses, and done many live workshops on studio lighting (this was my 2nd year of teaching a Studio Lighting Master Class at Photo Plus Expo in New York, and speaking about studio lighting in Canon’s expo booth), and that’s all from the seeds Jim planted that day.
Looking to Jim for Guidance on my most-important book
After transitioning to digital myself; getting totally immersed in shooting again (I used to shoot film back in the day); and teaching so many photographers how to use Photoshop through my live seminars back then, I finally realized it was time to put all this into a book that would be called “Photoshop for Digital Photographers.” I had learned first-hand from the photographers that came out to my seminars, what the Photoshop challenges they were facing; what they were trying to accomplish, and of course I would include all that in the book. But if I wanted this to really be the book I wanted it to be — one that would help folks moving from film to digital to be able to really use Photoshop, it would have to include the stuff the pros would expect to be in there. I knew I needed to call Jim and get his guidance and input before I wrote the book.
A few days later, Jim and Kevin Ames (mentioned earlier, and a new Photoshop World instructor who really knew his stuff from both the camera side and the Photoshop side), flew to Tampa to help me out. They spent the day with me listing all the techniques I should include. Getting this type of feedback from Jim and Kevin, two working pros, was unbelievably helpful. The outline for the book was really starting to come together, and I think the three of us all realized that this could be that breakout book to really help photographers start using Photoshop for processing their digital images. Then Jim said,
“You know what would really set this book apart? You should include a tear-out gray card in the back of the book! Maybe one that’s perforated so they could tear it out and use it on shoots.”
I looked at Jim and said,
“What’s a gray card?”
After Jim and Kevin stopped giggling, and explained what it was and why it would be important, I was able to convince my Publisher, the wonderful Nancy Ruenzel, to include a gray card in that first edition of the book, published back in March of 2003. It’s been in every edition ever since, including the one that went to press just this month. There’s also a tear out gray card in my Lightroom book, too. Always has been. It’s there because of Jim. That Photoshop book was my biggest hit yet, and it opened a new world of post processing for hundreds of thousands of photographers around the world (it’s been translated into dozens of different languages over the years) and I owe a lot of the thanks to Jim, and to Kevin, who graciously shared their insight and ideas, and without whom the book never would have reached the worldwide audience it did. Jim did so many things like this, behind the scenes, to help our industry, to help his friends, to help his clients, and he had a impact on so many lives and careers — more than he would ever know, or take credit for.
Bestowing an honor well deserved
About three weeks ago I flew to Atlanta to see Jim, and to personally present Jim with a trophy he would have received in person in Orlando next spring, as he was to be inducted into the Photoshop Hall of Fame for his contributions to the art and education of Adobe Photoshop. I wanted to present it to Jim now, in case he wasn’t feeling up to making the trip down to Orlando. I also wanted to have the chance to let Jim know how much he meant to me, and how I would never forget the things he had done for me, my business, my family. I reminded him of the stories I just shared here with you. Jim was so humble and so gracious, and while of course he remembered all those occasions, from our first meeting, to teaching me studio lighting, to the book ideas, his column in Photoshop User magazine, and the Photoshop World conference all these years, he wouldn’t take credit for any of it. He didn’t see it as the big deal it really was. He’s just such a humble, down-to-earth person. Sharing like he did, helping and teaching other people — that’s just who he was.
He’ll never know how many people he inspired, informed, and helped along the way, and the seeds that were planted through this work will continue to grow for many years, and he leaves behind a legacy to be admired, celebrated and imitated. I will miss Jim, and I know so many of you that looked up to him and thought the world of him, as I did, will miss him, too.
When his wonderful wife Helene takes the stage in Orlando next spring to formally accept the Photoshop Hall of Fame award on Jim’s behalf, I know that hall will be filled with people that have been touched by Jim’s work; his teaching, and his heart for sharing what he had learned over the years, with an industry that meant so much to him.
I consider it a great blessing to have known Jim, and it has been an honor to call him my friend. Our industry and our lives are better because he was in it.
Jim, I shall never forget you. None of us will.