The Photography of Jay Philbrick
New Hampshire photographer Jay Philbrick is on a mission to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary.
Claire Martindale stands on toe point about 400 feet from the valley floor on a small shelf of rock on Cathedral Ledge in North Conway
Photo by Jay Philbrick
Imagine you’re on the edge a cliff, beyond the reassuring boundaries of the safety fence. It’s dark and a little misty, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you look at it. On the one hand, you can’t see the valley floor some 400 feet below. On the other, you’re about to step out into what appears to be a vast nothingness. Sure, there are ropes, harnesses and safety measures. Rationally, you know you’re not going to fall. But still. That animalistic side of you that only deals in flight-or-fight style survival instincts is saying, “this is a really, really bad idea.”
But that’s why most of us aren’t rock climbers. For ex-Air Force pilot and climbing-guide-turned-photographer Jay Philbrick, this is just another day at the office.
Dancer and high school student Claire Martindale is equally unfazed. She didn’t just imagine the scenario detailed above, she lived it. In ballet shoes and a tutu, no less. Claire is the focus of several of Jay’s gorgeous and, if you have a problem with heights, anxiety-inducing photos of a ballet dancer gracefully balanced on an alarmingly small sliver of rock on Cathedral Ledge. We’re not talking about the part of the famous North Conway cliff that any regular person can walk up to — Claire and Jay were both lowered down, over the edge, to a tiny shelf that’s inaccessible by any other means.
PhotographerJay Philbrick is in the foreground with dancer Claire Martindale and climbing guide Marc Chauvin. In addition to securing and training everyone, Marc often serves as Jay’s on-cliff assistant, providing extra light and help with wardrobe.
The photo was taken by Jay’s wife and other half of Philbrick Photography, Vicki.
Claire’s descent took place well before the sunrise, as dawn is one of Jay’s favorite natural lights. Claire and her mother, Nora, arrived at the cliff top at 4 a.m. with headlamps strapped on to begin the process of hooking Claire into the ropes and harness that would deliver her safely down over the edge and onto the shelf below.
“She just did it,” says Nora, a little surprise and amusement mixed up with pride in her voice. “She really didn’t hesitate. She gave one little ‘ah’ noise and, of course, my heart sank but she was fine. She just went right over that ledge in the dark — it was a total leap of faith.”
Claire’s leap of faith was likely made easier knowing into whose hands she was jumping.
Before his photography career began about 10 years ago with a family wedding, Jay was a climbing guide in New Hampshire. It was on one of his climbs near Cathedral Ledge when he spotted the shelf of rock that would, years later, inspire Claire’s shoot.
When Claire and Nora showed up at 4 a.m., Jay’s former boss — Marc Chauvin of Chauvin Guides International — was there to explain the equipment, safety procedures and belaying to Claire. Chauvin, a North Conway local, was a familiar name to Nora. He is a big part of the reason why she felt comfortable with letting her daughter participate in what many might consider a dangerous endeavor. Chauvin’s climbing, instructing and guiding career is impressive and includes world-renowned locations such as Mount McKinley, Mount Everest and the Himalayas. With 30 years of experience behind him, he is the only internationally certified guide east of the Rocky Mountains.
Though you won’t see harnesses and lines in the final photos, Claire was, under Marc’s expert care, always safely hooked in — even during the three costume changes, not counting when she had to change in and out of her street clothes. You’d think one outfit would suffice, considering she was changing (she wore a body suit under her outfits to make this possible) on a piece of rock 400 feet in the air that’s barely wide enough to stand on, but Jay doesn’t do anything if he can’t do it in a way that exceeds your expectations.
Before the ballerina photos, Jay first tried the cliff shoots with newlywed couples looking for some out-of-the-ordinary wedding photos. Alison and Michael Ryeberg, pictured, were the third brave couple to take part in one of these sessions.
In case you feared for the outfits, no expensive dresses or suits were harmed during the making of these shots. As pictured below, Alison’s dress was safely tucked away until it was time to take the photos.
Photos by Jay philbrick
As Claire settled in on the shelf, Jay’s wife and assistant, Vicki, took Nora to another ledge so they could observe the whole process. Vicki, who is also an accomplished photographer, was able to document the process of Marc hustling up and down the cliff face, fluffy tutus secured to his belt as Jay also hung from ropes, taking photos from various heights and angles. If nothing else, Vicki’s photos are proof that these cliff shots are completely — terrifyingly — real.
For more than two hours Claire stood on the shelf, striking various poses in her many dancing costumes. “It was so beautiful,” she says, explaining how she could bear standing there for so long. Ironically, what made it easier she explains, was the scenery before her simply didn’t seem real — “It just looked like a picture,” she says.
Where did this crazy idea come from?
After Jay’s guide days, that little natural shelf — just asking for someone to stand (or dance) on it — stuck with him, as do most of what he calls his “projects,” growing into a concrete plan over time, always there in the back of his mind. Combined with his love of “taking the ordinary and doing it in an extraordinary place,” an idea for the cliff photos started to take shape. All he needed was the right person, or as it turns out, the right pair of people. A few years back Jay was hired to photograph a wedding — in a lucky twist of fate, the clients happened to mention how much they enjoyed climbing.
And that was it. Bride and groom were lowered over the edge and the first series of cliff photos were accomplished, though the weather conditions, says Jay, were not ideal. Happily for Jay, he was eventually able to perfect his vision. Two other couples — neither of them climbers — saw the cliff photos and hired him for their own dizzying day-after-the-wedding photo sessions.
You could say Jay’s day job is as a conventional photographer, taking senior portraits, shooting weddings and helping models build portfolios. But, just as Jay likes to take the ordinary to unexpected places (i.e., dancers and newlyweds on cliffs), he also makes seemingly ordinary things shine.
Jay is never satisfied with just taking a photo — he wants it to mean something. His mission is to give people more than photos — he wants to give them an experience to remember, whether that involves climbing down cliffs at dawn or a meaningful session in his studio.
An emotional moment that sticks with Jay involves a woman who came to his studio for what’s called a boudoir shoot, intimate but tasteful images typically meant as gifts for a (very) special someone. When she was out of the room changing, her friend confided in Jay that she was anxious and was hoping the photos would come out well since her friend was, she said, suffering from some self-esteem issues.
Weddings are one of Jay’s favorite things to do because of the emotional impact the photos have on his clients who are also on the edge — of new lives. With the aid of his wife and partner Vicki, they take time to beautifully light and pose photos to give couples something unexpected, like in the black-and-white photo above. Mirrors are frequently involved in Jay’s photos (top photo) — he likes how they add depth and extra layers to a photo that might otherwise be more ordinary.
Photos by jay philbrick
When it was time for the client to come back to the studio to pick up the photos, Jay had a surprise waiting. Instead of just unceremoniously handing over the shots, he set her down in front of the computer where he had a slideshow of the finished photos, set to music she liked, ready to play.
“I wanted to present them in an extra special way,” says Jay. “She turned around and she was sobbing — in a good way,” he adds. “I had to leave the room because then I was starting to lose it. It kind of makes it all worth it.”
People are what inspire Jay. He is, he says, completely uninterested in shooting landscapes (unless there’s someone in it). When he and Vicki traveled to Tuscany for their 25th anniversary, he still couldn’t bring himself to shoot just plain old boring Italian countryside. So, they did what any couple would do on the romantic trip of a lifetime — they hired Italian models and conducted a photo shoot.
It’s weddings, says Jay, that really give him the greatest satisfaction. “It’s such an emotional high,” he explains. “It [his work] has such an incredible impact on them.” He adds that anything he can do to have “an impact” on someone is his favorite thing to shoot.
If you’re imagining a wedding party “lined up like they’re facing a firing squad,” says Jay, you’ve got what he does all wrong. “It’s not,” he adds, “Just smile at the camera and say ‘cheese’ thing.” Jay’s wedding photos, as always, go well beyond the normal expectations. Along with Vicki’s assistance — who has a photography degree herself — they take the time to set up remarkable, out-of-the ordinary photos that capture the deep emotion behind them.
Sometimes exceptional lighting is what makes a gorgeous photo. One of Jay’s favorites is a newlywed couple dancing in what appears to be an empty reception hall. It’s in black and white, and Vicki has lit the scene in such a way that only the couple and the glowing centerpieces on the tables surrounding them are visible. It’s beautiful, intimate and perfectly captures that romantic “you’re the only person in the world I see right now” feeling so many happy couples have likely felt in moments such as this.
UNH senior, dancer and Miss University Melissa Beauvais has worked with Jay a number of times, including a couple of her own cliff shoots. “All he had to tell me was that no one was ever able to be on point shoes on the edge of the cliff and I was in,” she says (below).
Photos by jay philbrick
Then there are what Jay calls his projects. The cliff shoots were one such project — they’re not something he talks about much in advance. These projects are usually a progression of an idea, like Cathedral Ledge. It started out with the couples and eventually merged with another one of his favorite subjects — dancers — and ended with Claire.
The projects, he says, sometimes come in the middle of the night and he begins working on a shot “wish list.” He writes down ideas, photo techniques to try and files it away until the time is right.
They are, to put it mildly, typically a little unusual.
Jay is drawn to mirrors and reflections, to the extra layers of interest they add to photographs. One recent project he completed combined both dance and mirrors — he had Claire, the dancer from the cliff, pose on point on a mirror that just so happened to be on the bottom of a lake. In October. In New Hampshire. It took two days, two mirrors and 207 shots to get the final photo. To solve the pesky buoyancy issue, Jay had Vicki and Nora Martindale take turns holding him under “until we either saw bubbles or thrashing,” says Nora.
Claire, a lifeguard used to cold water, says she wasn’t actually that cold. Jay, though, “was shivering like a leaf.”
Why do these things to himself (and his willing subjects)?
“I don’t know. I’m not very smart?” jokes Jay. “I have a lot of these projects and I just want to get them down. It’s not like I’ll make a million dollars or anything, it’s just a project I want to complete. And I’ve got a bunch still.”
One project idea he will share involves those time-lapse photos of the night sky with the stars that seemingly swirl overhead. But, being Jay, he’s working on a way to incorporate a person into the shot. It will probably take 12 hours in 30-degree weather, but it will be gorgeous and everyone involved will love every minute of it.
Well, maybe not love, but definitely tolerate in the pursuit of something exceptional.
“No one would ever know what I had to go through to get there,” says Melissa of the ice cliff photo shown above. Though it looks like she was simply dropped out of nowhere onto the snow, Jay put crampons on her shoes and helped her climb to that particular spot. It wasn’t, says Melissa, an easy thing to do. “That day with the combination of the cold, and how strenuous it was to do all that — and in a tutu — I was more sore after that photo shoot than when I take a dance class.”
Photo by jay philbrick
“He’s taken me on the most ridiculous adventures,” says University of New Hampshire senior, dancer and Miss University title-winner Melissa Beauvais. “He comes up with the craziest ideas, and he’s the type of person who won’t stop until you say, ‘Hey, I’m tired!’”
But Melissa isn’t being critical — it’s a part of what makes Jay such a great photographer. He has a vision and the blinders go on until that vision is a reality — and captured on his camera.
“There’s really nothing negative I could ever say about him,” adds Melissa. Even though, she says, the time he put crampons on her shoes and set her climbing an “ice cliff” in “zero degree” weather dressed in a tutu didn’t exactly endear him to her, at least not in that moment.
“That day with the combination of the cold, and how strenuous it was to do all that — and in a tutu — I was more sore after that photo shoot than when I take a dance class.” Despite the extreme effort it took to capture, the resulting photo is serene. A lovely dancer, posed as if on stage, seemingly dropped out of nowhere onto a mountain of ice. “No one would ever know what I had to go through to get there,” adds Melissa.
The resulting photos are amazing, but there’s another reason people willingly dangle from cliffs, wade into a New Hampshire lake in October or climb a wall of ice with Jay. The combination of professionalism, enthusiasm and friendliness is infectious. You may not get his vision right away, but you feel and share his excitement as the shoot is coming together.
Model Diana Templeton has worked with Jay and Vicki a number of times and now counts them among her good friends. “He really doesn’t have an ego,” says Diana. “He’s not pretentious. He’s just a really laid-back, all-American kind of good guy.” Unlike some photographers, says Diana, Jay is willing to listen to ideas and to try anything at least once.
“He’s just a really kind person,” she says. “A lot of photographers might get frustrated because they think you should always know what to do,” she adds. Jay, though, takes the time to explain what he wants and doesn’t expect anyone to instinctively know how to pose.
Even if things aren’t going exactly right — which usually means the weather isn’t cooperating — there’s never a negative word directed at anyone. On photo shoots he’s constantly supportive, telling whoever’s in front of his lens that everything is beautiful, this is going to look great, you’re doing a fantastic job — but maybe could you step an inch to your left into that beam of light and move your arm just slightly higher?
Naturally, Claire Martindale was a little hesitant when first considering whether or not to work with Jay. “I thought, some older guy taking my picture might be kind of creepy,” she says. But, she adds, it wasn’t like that at all — she was immediately at ease. “He’s super funny, really nice and very friendly.”
He is, in short, the type of guy you’d happily follow over a cliff (with the proper safety gear, of course).
Photographer Jay Philbrick preparing for one of his many outdoor shoots. In the back is the other half of Philbrick Photography, his wife Vicki. “It’s totally a partnership — a lot of these ideas are as much hers as mine,” says Jay. “It’s great to have an extra photographic mind that’s thinking about things I’m not so we can make shots better.”