A Conversation with Garrett Cornelison

Garrett's life seems to be like one big adventure after another. A few weeks ago he manned Coachella's official Instagram account and in the past he's worked with brands like Land Rover and Aeropostale on a variety of marketing campaigns.

He's a world famous photographer and an Instagram superstar, but he's also just a really good dude. He never talks about his success without first mentioning all of the people who helped him along the way. In that sense, he hasn't strayed very far from his Midwest roots. I think that's what sets him apart from others.

Good art isn't impossible to create, but living a good life can be. But there are some who find a way to create good art and live a good life, too. When you find someone living that way, well, it's kind of amazing. 

(all pictures provided by Garrett)

I was reading an old interview you did and you mentioned how many of your personal and professional relationships seem so accidental. Could you explain that a bit more?

I saw an image from this guy’s photo documentary on a friend's Facebook and decided to email him offering help in any way I could. He answered within an hour saying he was in Ames, Iowa. It's crazy because he was on this huge year-long 50-state adventure and that evening he happened to be 20 miles away. We became friends and soon I was traveling around with him all over the country. While I was with him in Nashville, I ended up meeting the guy who I'd end up doing a majority of my work for down the road. That guy I just bumped into at Santa’s Pub while he was carrying an armful of Busch Lights and, well, I needed a beer. (Laughing)

Tell me about some people who you look up to.

My dad is a true Renaissance man and that's really impacted me. He cultivated interests in music, writing, wood-working, automobiles and turned them into careers. People will say that you need to figure out the one thing you're good at and then devote your entire life to that one thing. But growing up both my parents excelled in so many different areas and seeing that really freed me from the pressure of needing to focus on one specific talent. I watched my parents zealously pursue roving passions and constantly re-invent themselves, which has provided me so much inspiration.  

I would say that I owe most of my success to a family that's full of artists. My parents (a jazz musician and an illustrator) not only instilled in me the importance of art, and allowed me to follow my own distinct passions but more importantly they gave me room to mess up.  When I look back on my youth, it's like one long art class and we have an attic full of messes to prove it! (Laughing) 

I've been interested in a lot of different things and for now photography's the one that's stuck. But what I like is that within photography, there's so much room to move around and I've made sure to go out and shoot all kinds of things because I haven't wanted to lock myself in. 

After high school I did attend college to study marketing and advertising and that's helped me to speak the language of different brands that I work with. It's also helped to create trust between myself and those that employ me. With my work I’m constantly trying to evoke a feeling, or tell a story, but as a commercial photographer there is usually someone on the other end trying to push a needle or move a unit. I don't know where I fall on the whole debate of art school or going to college or not going, but I know that on some level, it taught me how to communicate with that someone on the other end.

Right now you live in Los Angeles. Was it hard adjusting to living in such a big city after growing up in small-town Iowa?

In Los Angeles, everyone has their own neighborhood, so I'd say that the city doesn't feel so big. I choose to live in Venice because it has the feeling of being a small town and I've always been drawn to that sort of place after growing up in St. Charles. I don't know how well I'd do in the hustle of downtown.

Traffic is so crazy that if you have to drive twelve miles across town, it better be really worth it. Like the people you're going to see better have just had a baby. (Laughing)

But Venice is also just so photogenic. The light out here is otherworldly. 

Tell me some of your thoughts on creativity.

On some level, good art is about just having little bits of courage to produce your work and to let others see it. It would be a lot easier to let all this shit collect dust in your basement. But taking portraits and making art, that all takes courage.

Really courageous art comes about when you're honest with people about YOUR story. When you make that commitment, it's amazing who will come to be your audience. People are always looking for that honesty because there's a connection to be made there. What we're doing right now - sharing our stories and disseminating information - there will always be a market for this. The medium may change, but this will never go out of style.

What do you think of your popularity on Instagram?

The Instagram thing is funny; I never planned any of it. For a long time it was about posting great photos you took with your cell phone, and for a long time - I had a shitty cell phone. At the time if I deemed something worth photographing - it was probably worth photographing with a real camera. So when I finally created an account, I felt like a latecomer. 

At first I didn't get it, but pretty soon it started making sense because it was a great place to connect with different people and different places. It eliminates some of the barriers between artists and the people they want to work with and vice versa. Getting an image to the lead singer of one of your favorite bands used to be impossible - but now, because you follow them (and maybe they follow you back) it’s never been easier. You used to have to go through an agency to find a model, but now you can reach out to people directly and that's very empowering. 

Also, if you're going to try online dating, I would go straight to Instagram because it’s hard enough to decipher authenticity these days but if you give someone a camera and tell them to point it at the things they find important, over time you’re going to glean a lot about that person.

Hope you enjoyed this chat as much I did. You can follow Garrett on Instagram here at @reallykindofamazing. 

Garret, thanks for making good art and living a good life, too. Your story is a great one.