How Julia Chesky Turned Early Social Influence Into Photographing Content Brands Love

Julia Chesky’s early days on LiveJournal and Tumblr inspired brands to work with her to create social specific content. 

For the past two decades, Julia Chesky has watched and rolled with the constant shifts of the digital industry and the increasing demand for buzzy, of-the-moment content. For Chesky, it’s an exciting challenge. The impermanence of her work and trying to create something that will stop consumers in the scroll is a fulfilling process.

The Luupe speaks with Chesky on her journey from her personal work on Tumblr, to working with brands like Samsung Mobile, On The Rhox, Chloé, Calvin Klein, Toyota, and Nars Cosmetics.

© Julia Chesky for On The Rhox

The Luupe: You’ve been active on Tumblr since 2009. How has your handle, Blackberryvision, changed since you started it?

Julia Chesky: The account itself has never changed, the ethos was “stuff I see from my phone in real-time” and then some DSLR stuff that I just couldn’t get with a Blackberry at the time (now from a Samsung). I launched BBV nearly 2 years before Instagram even existed. Call me a futurist – or a dummy for not becoming a billionaire – it can go either way. I recently updated my layout a tiny bit after having the same one since 2009 because it had a weird coding error that couldn’t be resolved, but otherwise, it’s nearly identical to the original in every way.

© Julia Chesky for Nars Cosmetics

The Luupe: As a professional photographer, do you think Tumblr is still a beneficial platform to reach potential clients?

Chesky: In terms of leveraging it to get me work as a photographer, it’s never gotten any clients for me that I’m aware of. But it has built an incredible audience and community that I’ve somehow convinced to follow me wherever I decide to throw my photos, and that’s an incredible experience. Meeting people who have said things like, “I moved to NY because of you” or “I didn’t move to NY because of you” is mind-blowing and I’m always shocked when someone knows what it is or tells me they’ve been following along for 7+ years, a few even 10+.

I’ve had people tell me the advice I gave them years ago changed their lives, it’s just an incredible feeling and I’m honored that this little blog could do so much for others. I will say that as someone that works in digital/social media marketing, it’s been instrumental in my career and helped craft some of the concepts I’ve created for Samsung and others.

It’s a great challenging project that I hope can live in the MoMA or a book someday. I created a lot of trends before they were even a possibility without a blueprint of any sort and this is often my proof when showing people my “personal work” and I approach it.

© Julia Chesky for On The Rhox

The Luupe: How did you come up with the concept for your On The Rhox shoot?

Chesky: Rhoxy and I were sitting at her job when I was visiting LA last August, talking about doing something different and not featuring people for her launch. I immediately thought of fruit and how it was an unusual way to showcase fine jewelry. Especially since everyone was taking the same photo of really close ear shots with multiple piercings.

We wanted to focus on creating work that reflects a side of her people don’t see unless they personally know her. Someone that is warm, fun, bright, silly, and incredibly happy. A series that would create a little “huh?” and intrigue were the requirements and I think we did that. A lot of the fruits/colors came to me while I was sleeping and I’d wake up and write them down. It was very organic from start to finish, no fruit pun intended.

© Julia Chesky for Nars Cosmetics

The Luupe: What social media campaigns have you shot for? 

Chesky: I’ve shot for a lot of brands: Samsung, Nars Cosmetics, Flamingo, Huron’s social launch, Belif, Kopari, Saint Jane, etc…the list is fortunately long. I like the idea of creating commercial work that is a bit ephemera. It’s impactful but no one cares about it after a few days.

I’ve worked a lot with Snap/IG stories for clients as well. It’s honestly one of my favorite mediums to work with because it’s so challenging and exciting. So much work and planning goes into it and then it’s gone in 24 hours. I don’t approach anything differently, it’s all the same briefs, just a different output than say a catalog or a glossy magazine.

© Julia Chesky for Nars Cosmetics

The Luupe: What draws you to this type of work?

Chesky: I’ve been creating content for the internet specifically since 2001 through Livejournal, but as a photographer, I’ve been visual creating content for the internet since 2006. It’s amazing to see it becoming an industry when I was literally told I was wasting my time by nearly all of my professors at Parsons for starting blogs and focusing on creating projects for online specifically.

Big Boi for Samsung (photographed on a Samsung) © Julia Chesky

The Luupe: You have photographed many well-known musicians for Samsung. What was it like working with them? Was there a particular highlight/memorable experience or an artist you particularly jelled with?

Chesky: Most of the time I’d have a few minutes and then we’d go our separate ways. What we were doing back in 2014-2016 was pretty revolutionary because everyone was running with massive cameras or medium formats to capture artists and I was like “hello, I’m here with my cellphone for Samsung” and it wasn’t seen as a legitimate instrument. The photograph of Future, I got off 4 taps, he walked away and said he wasn’t feeling well and that was it. That’s it, that’s the experience. Others were more collaborative. One of my favorite memories is of Big Boi, although there were a few amazing experiences across the board with these artists.

Outkast had just reunited and I saw them at Coachella and spent over 3 hours trying to get out of a parking lot afterward with my rental car, that I just learned how to drive that weekend [I had a license but never drove until I was in my mid 20s] Cut to a few months later, I was in Austin for ACL, a slightly better driver, and excited to work with Big Boi.

We got a photo earlier that day but I didn’t like it, so I politely requested we do something better than a fake paparazzi shot. His team appreciated the care and I was whisked away to his trailer, introduced to all of his security, and told you have 2 minutes – go! I’m inside of this dark trailer, that’s unphotogenic because it’s a music festival set-up, and I don’t know what we can do.

So I asked him, “what’s a pre-show ritual that probably no one knows about?” He took off his handkerchief and said something along the lines of “I iron mine every time before I go on stage” so I asked him to recreate it for me and we got the shot. In the end, the client didn’t like it, so I had about 15 minutes to run 3-4 football fields, in the dark, with an insane inebriated excited crowd, to get access to the Honda stage. Which I didn’t have the proper credentials for, all to photograph him during 3 songs with a cellphone. That’s a story I’ll save for another time because it was absolutely insane and I don’t know how I did it.

© Julia Chesky for Toyota

The Luupe: What prompted you to start your new project “Shallowthings?” How has your audience reacted to this new content?

Chesky: I’ve been teasing Shallow Things for over 2 years now, maybe 3 years. Originally it was going to be a Podcast before Podcasting became “a thing” and I wrote out 6 episodes. I recorded one about a fashion designer I find to be problematic and had a friend review it. I shelved it after that listening because I realized that I would never work in fashion, perhaps even as a photographer, ever again if I made my thoughts permanently public. I’ve had these very same conversations openly with people within the industry, but knew they wouldn’t support me if there was a backlash.

Once COVID forced people to re-exam things, I realized I don’t care if I get canceled in the middle of a pandemic or possible apocalypse. There were, and still are, so many things happening at once, who would care if I asked some of the hard questions or pointed things out that most people probably don’t pay attention to. I decided to start collaging to visually get my point across, some posts take up 15 hours between the countless rewrites and finding all the photos I need, then making it all fit [2200 characters is under 400 words, it’s hard!] And figuring out how to cram 30+ photos into 10 slides. Who doesn’t love a challenge when you suddenly find you have all the time in the world.

My audience that knows me or has spoken to me, is incredibly supportive because this is who I am. I write exactly how I speak. The thoughts I’m sharing are how I react to things and really what goes on in my mind or through 50 threads of DMs on any given day. The people who don’t know me, are discovering me as a writer, which is really weird because I don’t consider myself to be a good writer.

I’m also using this experiment to become a better one in the process, hopefully. I think people are enjoying seeing a point of view that isn’t a witch-hunt to cancel someone but to figure out what’s actually happening and why. I did have someone tell me they were a long time fan of mine but this project turned them off. Which is fine, but you must have never read any of my captions on my Tumblr or my twitter. It’s not for everyone but the people that do get it, those are the people I want to surround myself with.