— by Jordan Cameron, Marketing & Communications Specialist
Photo of Jess Williams holding a camera to their face, photographing a musician performing on a stage. The photo has a color gradient overlaid, save for a circle around Jess, acting as a spotlight around them.

Jess Williams is a NYC-based photographer and alum of Moore’s Young Artists Workshop, participating from 2012–2014. During their time at YAW, they were introduced to photography and were able to increase their skills and build a portfolio to help with their college applications.

After attending The New School in New York City, Williams received a dual degree: a BFA in photography from Parsons School of Design and a BA in journalism and design from Eugene Lang College for Liberal Arts. 

A photo of Michelle Zauner, the lead singer of the band Japanese Breakfast, smiling and in motion as she performs on stage.

Now Williams is a freelance concert photographer. “During my early years in New York City, I discovered a way to blend my two true loves of music and photography,” they said. “I began photographing concerts weekly and utilizing my journalism skills to accompany the photos with a live show review. It has now been eight years since I started photographing concerts and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

A black and white photo of a singer, backlit and partially in shadow, on stage. The singer's eyes are closed.

Their style has developed over time. “When I’m shooting, I tend to gravitate towards capturing on-stage portraits and rarely capture multiple band members in one photograph,” Williams describes. “Musicians can exude so much energy and it is my goal, when I’m in the photo pit, to capture those moments of emotive passion and those quiet moments that the general audience might overlook. Most recently, my work has been focusing a lot on detail images and how things like hands, ears, guitars, earrings or shoes can tell a story.” 

A closeup photograph of a musicians hand along the fretboard of a guitar.

Focusing on details is something that carries throughout Williams’s work, as they explore beyond concert photography. 

“I am living deep in the world of analog photography,” they said. “Deeply inspired by the New Color movement in analog photography around the 1970s, I enjoy creating colorful, Western-inspired imagery. Like some of my biggest photography idols, Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, I find beauty in the mundane—yet bright and colorful. Whether it’s an abandoned motel, a stop sign, a roller coaster, food cart or a random piece of trash on the sidewalk, you’ll find me taking a picture of it!” 

A photograph of a Do Not Enter sign on top of a One Way sign on the same pole. The signs are in front of a bright yellow building.

Williams says it’s a focus on color and attention to detail that tie their very different photographic practices together as an artist. 

Read on for a Q&A with Williams to learn more about how YAW shaped them into the working artist they are today. 

Editor’s note: this conversation has been edited for length.

What YAW class(es) did you participate in?

Throughout my high school career from 2012 to 2014 I took three photography courses, a figure drawing course and a portfolio prep course. 

What were your major takeaways from YAW?

My major takeaway is that I, quite literally, would not be where I am without YAW. When I started high school, I chose the visual art track, which meant that my creative studies focused solely on drawing and painting. My school schedule didn’t allow me to enroll in the photography program at the same time, which is how I found YAW. This program allowed me to delve into creative endeavors that I was interested in but unable to study in my high school. Taking the photography courses in YAW introduced me to photography and allowed me to fall in love with the art form. Additionally, the photography classes helped me to build a portfolio that I used to apply to colleges & universities nationwide. 

The figure drawing course that I took allowed me to explore a side of drawing that wasn’t offered in my high school. It allowed me to dig deeper into my studies and learn in a formal artistic setting. And the portfolio prep class was truly what I must thank the most out of everything. I recommend that all people in YAW who want to study art in undergrad take the portfolio prep course. That course taught me what made a strong portfolio, why certain things were better to include than others and how to present it in a mature and professional manner. 

The YAW courses that I took set me up for success beyond the walls of Moore, Abington Friends School and Parsons School of Design… these courses have set me up for life. They are the cement foundation of my artistic being.

What did you discover about yourself as an artist during your time in YAW?

The biggest thing that I learned about myself during my time in YAW was that I truly wanted to become an artist when I grew up. This program is great for exploring interests and it confirmed what I already knew in my gut—I was born and meant to be an artist. 

This program allowed me to learn in a formal art school type of setting. It was a sort of “art school trial run” for the high school version of myself. I was forced to dig deeper and think outside the box and I was shown the proper and professional ways to talk about yourself as an artist and the work that you create. YAW helped me be more confident and deliberate with my art.

How did your time at YAW make an impact on your current artistic practice?

YAW is my foundation as an artist and I truly would not be where I am today in my career if I wasn’t set up for success from a young age thanks to the program. In all aspects of my photography, but specifically in music photography, there are tons of young people trying to get their foot in the door. It can be extremely hard, nearly impossible, to break into the scene as a young person with no experience. 

What I learned in YAW is that sharing knowledge is caring. Everyone in the program comes from different skill levels and backgrounds and everyone shares their knowledge with each other. There’s such a community in YAW that is so admirable, and I’ve found myself keeping hold of that communal aspect of growing and learning as I get older. I take pride in helping other people younger or less experienced than me learn new things, be granted new opportunities and offer my knowledge and connections. We’re a huge community of creatives and we all lift each other up and support each other.

What’s one thing you’d like to say to future students of YAW?

To the future students of YAW, I know it might be hard to wake up early on a weekend and spend your entire day in classes but trust me: it’s worth it. Take as many classes as you can and absorb all the knowledge. Really dig deep and ask questions to get the most out of our classes. Push yourself to think deeper and more conceptually. 

Find inspiration in the beautiful city around you and make friends—these could be friends for life, and you could serve as inspiration hubs for each other. And, if you can, take that portfolio prep class. I promise it’s worth it! 

A photograph of a musician at a microphone holding a guitar. The musician is looking and pointing directly at the camera.

See more of Williams’s work on their website and follow them on Instagram.

Learn more about the Young Artists Workshop at Moore. 

Header image by Sarah Rodriguez. All other images courtesy of Jess Williams.