Recently named one of the decade’s top 30 inspirational photographers by Photo District News magazine, Jose Villa documents weddings with the flair of an editorial photographer. His unorthodox approach, coupled with an artistic eye and commitment to shooting exclusively on film, yield photographs radiant with detail and the frisson of unguarded moments captured.
Villa shoots 40 or more weddings a year, many of them destination events that take him around the world. From Solvang to Singapore, he photographs his subjects with natural light and a minimum of posing.
“I only shoot what feels right to me,” Villa says. “My clients respond to that, and maybe because I shoot film, they see an emotional impact.
“I want my clients to get a box full of proofs and lay them out and look at them,” he explains, his words tumbling out in a high-energy cascade. “I want them to keep those images for the rest of their lives, share them with family and friends. I love that.”
Villa, 31, was five when he arrived in the Santa Ynez Valley after traveling with his family from central Mexico. He still remembers his first glimpse of Flag-Is-Up Farms, where his father would work as maintenance manager and the family would make their home.
“It was green, beautiful, gorgeous,” he laughs, “and it was bright. Maybe because I was in a car all night long.”
Even as a teenager, Villa treasured the rural peace of the Valley and the proximity of his parents and four siblings.
“As young as I was, I loved it,” he says. “I knew this was where I wanted to live. Partly, my decision to be a wedding and portrait photographer was based on that.”
Villa discovered photography in high school when he took an elective that he hoped would provide a break from his college prep classes.
“Basically, I wanted an hour to goof off,” he smiles, “but I ended up falling in love with it. Near the end of the year, the teacher, Mr. Burton, said, ‘You might want to consider Brooks Institute of Photography. I’ll take you there.’ And he did. He’s a great guy.”
Despite his parents’ misgivings about the practicality of a career in photography, Villa attended Brooks, where he quickly realized he needed to forge his own style.
“I knew how to take really good pictures,” he says. “Brooks trains you to do that. But I felt like I had my creative thing and I didn’t want to do what everybody else was doing.
“Brooks trains the best photographers in the world,” he continues, “so the mentality is that you’re too good to shoot weddings. You need to shoot fashion, commercial, editorial work for magazines, but that means I can’t live in Solvang.”
While in school, Villa worked full time at the Solvang Rite-Aid as a stocker, pharmacy technician, and film/photo guy.
“I had some clients who would come in and I didn’t want them to know I worked there,” he laughs, “so I would hide, sometimes in the freezer. I got caught a couple of times.”
Before graduating, Villa interned with a San Francisco-based photographer who worked for top fashion magazines, such as Marie Claire and Harper’s Bazaar. During his internship, Villa confirmed his aversion to the complex staging required for commercial photography, the fleeting nature of the finished product, and the hectic pace of big city life.
“I wanted to have my own clients, my own studio in the Valley, and use natural light,” Villa admits. “Make it as simple as possible. I wanted to photograph real moments, real people in their environment, and have them value those photographs for years.”
Villa graduated from Brooks in 2002 with a B.A. in Fine Art and Portraiture, but not before winning first place in a national photography contest held in New York City and open only to senior photography school students. Once out of school, he began refining his skills by photographing children, subjects he found to be delightfully nonjudgmental and not the least bit worried about looking fat. As he let them run freely, he developed quick reflexes for snapping spontaneous shots.
Villa opened a studio in Solvang, while continuing to supplement his income at Rite-Aid. He shot his first wedding in 2003, charged $400 and lost money, but enjoyed the gig and resulting photos so much that soon he was handling 25 weddings a year.
By 2004, Villa had purchased a house, quit his side job, and begun speaking annually at the Wedding and Portrait Photographers International convention, where he champions the pleasures and advantages of shooting with film. He speaks under the aegis of Fujifilm, whose principals praise his images for conveying “fresh perspective” and “unexpected joy.”
In 2008, American Photo Magazine named Villa one of the top ten wedding photographers in the world, while Rangefinder magazine has celebrated him as among “the hottest young photographers in today’s wedding industry.”
Two years ago, Random House contracted with Villa to produce Fine Art Wedding Photography: “How to Capture Images with Style for the Modern Bride”, an inspirational book for both photographers and blushing brides. Villa managed to complete the book on time despite a full schedule of weddings and the popular photography workshops he offers several times a year.
Dazzled by his unique portfolio, the editors of the major bridal magazines–including Martha Stewart Weddings, Grace Ormonde Wedding Style, Elegant Bride and Pacific Rim Weddings- now come to Villa, not only to publish his destination wedding photographs, but to hire him for commercial jobs as well.
“I’m taking lifestyle photos for magazines,” he says with delight, “but instead of having a huge production team, I’m shooting on location, with two assistants, a model, and natural light.
“If I can continue to take beautiful pictures,” he adds, “that’s all I ever wanted to do.”
INFO: Learn more about Jose Villa on his website which also links into his popular blog: www.josevilla.com