Interview with ON1 Guru Jim Welninski

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Recently we sat down with Jim Welninski of Altered Space Photography, and newly minted ON1 Guru. His story is both fascinating and inspiring and we’re so excited to share it with you. Jim has always been an artist. From drawing, to video, and now photography, he considers himself an artist who uses a camera. You will simply love his unique and amazing imagery. 

Who is Jim Welninski?

I’ve been an artist my entire life. I began drawing at a very early age and kept it up until I realized I wasn’t very good at it. Music became the center of my life, and that’s how it was for a very long time. I knocked around in a few bands and then went into the technical side of the business as a recording engineer around 1980.

I started as a dialog editor. At that time, the tools of the trade were a grease pencil, a razor blade, and a roll of splicing tape. No computers! I ended up as a video editor and was also doing a ton of design and motion graphics animation. Spending those years in front of a video monitor taught me a lot about composition and storytelling. I had to learn how to use the frame effectively which, of course, translates very well into photography. That was also the time of the digital revolution, and I was on the front lines for all of that. I watched million dollar control rooms made obsolete by computers with Pro Tools, Avid Media Composer, and After Effects. Since I needed to keep working, I embraced the technology and never looked back. I started using Photoshop when Adobe released version 3 way back in 1995. We were so excited to have layers, and we didn’t get multiple levels of undo until version 5!

So I kind of slipped into the visual arts by default because of the demands of the work I was doing. The frame became my reference point for seeing the world. Everywhere I went I was looking and asking myself questions. How can I leverage this? How would I shoot this? What works here and what doesn’t? Why? I would get frustrated when I had to work with stuff that other people shot that wasn’t done correctly; stuff that wasn’t technically good or wasn’t shot with an eye toward the whole of the project. You know, things like “oh man, why didn’t you just move one foot to the right? Then the shot would have been awesome, and it would flow better into the next shot!” That kind of stuff drove me crazy. I was tucking all these things into the back of my mind not knowing how important they would later become. When my first daughter was born in 1994 I bought my first camera – a Nikon N50. I never did my own darkroom work, but I learned how to shoot using that. I certainly spent a fortune having bad photos developed! But I did realize that looking through the viewfinder and editing video was philosophically the same thing. I’m telling a story. What do I include in the frame? So I was drawn to photography out of a need to tell my own story.

I don’t really think of myself as strictly a photographer. I’m an artist who happens to use a camera. I grab onto my vision first, and then I make a piece of work about it. This approach gives me the freedom to use any tool I can get into my grubby little hands. I’d use a magic marker and a piece of newspaper if I thought they’d helped me get closer to my vision. After all, I’m making art, not photographs, which just happen to be my medium. The attraction to the subjects I shoot, which currently is mostly architecture, comes from the same inner place any artist taps into to find inspiration. That makes art-making an inner journey, which is really exciting because that inner place is never exhausted. I’m currently becoming more interested in portraiture and I have some very specific ideas about that kind of work so we’ll see how it goes.

These days I spend most of my time teaching. I conduct classes at R.S. Chicago Photography Classes in Chicago where I teach project based photography to intermediate students, beginning, intermediate, and advanced Photoshop, and advanced classes in both black and white and color post-processing. I consider myself really fortunate to be associated with that school. We’ve been around for 45 years so we’re really plugged into the Chicago photography community. I also run several architectural workshops every year and speak at photography conferences, including Out of Chicago, which is a great organization run by Chris Smith. I’m also conducting a workshop in the Scottish Highlands in June and we’re thinking about going to Prague, Krakow, and Budapest in October. That trip would include a visit to a couple of concentration camps. I don’t know how I’ll react to that because of the way I felt when I visited the 9/11 Memorial last year. I couldn’t bring myself to photograph it. I was overcome by it and shooting there seemed somehow trivial and disrespectful. Some of the photographers I was with made some really beautiful and moving work there but I just couldn’t do it. So it’ll be interesting to see what happens. I’ve been fortunate to win both domestic and international awards for my work so people seem to think I know what I’m doing. Of course, the dirty little secret of every artist is that we really have no idea where our work comes from. It’s not really ours. We’re just vessels. A lot of my teaching focuses around helping other artists connect with that within themselves. It must be working because some of my students are producing spectacular work. And a world with more art means a more beautiful world!

When did you realize photography was your calling?

Photography is really a very personal journey for me and it literally saved my life. The short story is that in 2009 my world fell apart and I hit rock bottom. My marriage was gone, I lost my house and my job, went bankrupt, and ended up trapped in serious substance addiction. It was really bad and it almost killed me. I literally lost everything. A lot of it was due to the fact that I had been denying the artistic impulse inside me because it was drilled into me at a very young age that being an artist was not a viable or acceptable way to live. That artistic impulse is so strong in me that it required a lot of hard work to bury it. I spent all those years working on other people’s projects because that was as close as I could allow myself to get to being an artist that really creates his own work. Making my own work was just not an option. I know that sounds kind of crazy but that’s how it was. Working on projects with other people took care of a lot of the artistic urge and the rest I killed with substances. Anyone who knows anything about addiction or psychology knows that the buried stuff never really stays buried. In fact, it finds a way to surface in the worst way at the most inconvenient time, which is exactly what happened.

I ended up in rehab with literally nothing. When I got out I had to rebuild my life from scratch. It’s funny how when everything else is stripped away and you finally wake up you realize who you really are. All I knew was that my artistic impulse, my muse, was louder than ever. It was all I had left. So I grabbed onto that inner voice and went back to the frame. I had a cell phone and began making photographs with it and it became my lifeline back into the world. Eventually I got a real camera and a computer and went back to Photoshop. All those skills I had developed were put to good use. The rest, as they say, is history. If you feel like I’m getting really personal here, don’t worry. My story is well known here in Chicago and the whole thing is out on my blog. Anyone who is interested can read it. I’ve had people tell me that they were inspired by my telling it and that makes me happy.

“If what I went through can help even one person have the courage to find their own voice and follow it then it was all worth it.”

So photography is my way of exploring my inner life. And my students will tell you that I wear that whole thing out in the open and that I encourage them to do the same. I’m not proud of my past but I’m not ashamed of it either. It is what it is and it made me who I am. All I can do is move forward and try to do the right thing every day. But I strongly believe that in order to make valid work, work that is uniquely yours and that is true to who you are, you must explore that inner landscape. Even, and maybe especially, the dark side. I once saw a documentary on The Eagles and Don Henley said he thought the dark side is where the real creative juice lives. That’s good enough for me.

Wow, that is a very inspiring story! And we’re very excited to start working with you, please share with everyone what you like best about ON1 Photo 2017.

I’m all about the “art” part of photography. So it’s important to have tools that don’t get in my way. I want to think about why I want to do something without thinking so much about how to do it. The big thing that attracted me to ON1 Photo 2017 was the ability to work on RAW files without having to import them and then really develop them without having to move from one piece of software to another. The ON1 interface is simple and easy to understand. I still haven’t even looked at the entire manual. I opened the software and started working right away. Everything seems so intuitive to me. Sure, there are always tricks and techniques to learn. But being able to get into a workflow without a steep learning curve is huge.

One big thing I really like is the “Apply To” controls on the local adjustments and filters. This allows me to really target whatever changes I want to make to the image. I always have an idea of where I want to take a photograph before I begin developing it so this is very important. Also, the masking tools are amazing. Making good selections is such an important part of being a good editor and the ON1 tools make that much easier. And of course I can never say enough good things about Resize. I’ve shown and sold my work in galleries and art fairs and Resize made that possible.

I think the one-stop model that ON1 has developed is the future of photo editing. Who wants to be technical when you can spend that time being creative?

How can people connect with you?

The best place to find me is either through my website, Altered Space Photography or where I teach in Chicago, R.S. Chicago Photography Classes. Drop me an email or, if you happen to be in Chicago, stop by! In the near future I’m hoping to get into a classroom or out in the field with the people from the ON1 community. I’m really looking forward to that.

10 comments on “Interview with ON1 Guru Jim Welninski”

  1. On April 27, 2017 at 9:54 am Anastasios Konstantinidis wrote:

    Very inspiring Story und awesome photographs. Checking the altered Spaces homepage is Really worth the time. Wish we could have you in on1plus as a guest coach soon. Keep up your wonderful work and great vision!

  2. On April 27, 2017 at 2:08 pm Jack Larson wrote:

    A powerful story. Jung called the dark side of us our “Shadow.” Even though it generally contains difficult and painful stuff, as Jung reminded us, it is pure gold.

    Many of us share a similar story of how photography has been profoundly healing, if not downright life saving.

    Thank you for your vulnerability.

    1. On May 10, 2017 at 11:01 pm Jim Welninski replied:

      Thank you Jack, for your kind thoughts. It is true that The Shadow is a place of awakening. One day I would like to hear your story as well.

  3. On May 21, 2017 at 1:27 pm Kim Braley wrote:

    Thank you for sharing not only your triumphs, but your struggles – very refreshing. One thing we humans all share is a lack of perfection, and it can be a powerful teacher. Congratulations on finding your true calling – your images are both beautiful and evocative – I look forward to seeing more from you on ON1. :)

  4. On May 21, 2017 at 7:51 pm Marcia Fasy wrote:

    Thank you for sharing your story, I too consider myself an artist who happens to use a camera. I look forward to seeing more of you on On1.

  5. On May 26, 2017 at 12:09 am Elaine Hutchings wrote:

    I became an artist while going through stressful times also. Your interview uplifts me.
    Thank you JW

  6. On July 5, 2017 at 12:12 pm Robert Rendahl wrote:

    I love your approach to photography. OnOne has been a great asset to me even before its OnOne evolvement from the early days of MaskPro. I think it is great that ON1 is supporting other fields of photography beyond landscape. Can’t wait for instruction from Nicole Young. And of course instructor emeritus Brian

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