We feature some pretty great people and businesses on this site, and we enjoy pairing those articles with some great photos. Being fond of photography it being important to us, we were thrilled to have the opportunity to sit down with one of our favorite photographers in town who also has a passion for highlighting and helping the great people of our region. You may or may not have heard of Luke Copping before. If you haven’t, then it is highly you’ve likely seen his work somewhere. It’s outstanding. And now, you get to learn a little something about Luke and how he became a commercial portrait photographer, and why he does this in Buffalo. Not only is he a very talented photographer, his heart is in the right place, and he’s one of those people that makes Buffalo a better place for the rest of us. Luke let us share some of his work on this post. So enjoy those as well!
“I was born in a town just outside of Toronto called Brampton, Ontario. I lived there till I was about twelve or thirteen years old. But I’ve lived in Western New York most of my life since then. This is home for me. I’ve lived other places, I’ve studied elsewhere, I’ve worked everywhere. But this is where I come home to. People in my industry constantly ask me, “Why do you live in Buffalo?”, and the only answer I can give them is “Because it’s awesome here. You don’t know what you’re missing.” I have friends who have converted, friends who left New York, who left Queens when they were writing for New York Magazine, when they realized, “Oh my god, I can go live in Buffalo and I can buy a six bedroom house for 85,000 dollars?”
“There’s so much potentiality here. I think what’s so fascinating about the city right now is that it’s this amazing untapped state of undifferentiated potential. There is a lot of talk about Buffalo being on the upshot, and I don’t know if that’s the right way to talk about it, because we do still have a lot of problems here. We have governmental issues, economic issues, environmental issues. At the same time, people are coming in and making something new here, which is really fascinating, and I want to be a part of that. So I want to stick around and see what happens.”
Tell us about Luke Copping Photography
“I own and run Luke Copping Photography, and I’m also Vice Chair of the National Board of the American Society of Media Photographers, which is one of the oldest trade associations of photographers in America. I’m a commercial and editorial photographer based in Buffalo, NY. I primarily work for clients in advertising, publishing, and public relations. I’ve worked for clients locally, like the Albright Knox, Independent Health, and First Niagara Bank. Nationally, I’ve worked for CNN, NBC Sports, A&E Television, Forbes Magazine, and Popular Science, to name a few. I take pictures of cool people who make or do cool things. It’s what I do. I also do a lot of volunteer work with rescue animals, especially with dog shelters in Western New York. And I’m involved in photographer education, campaigning for copyright reform, and artists’ rights. I have three allergies: pets, penicillin and being bored. I can’t sit down, I can’t sit still, I talk way too fast.”
How did you become a commercial portrait photographer?
“I studied photography, and I always say it was destiny because I have the same birthday as one of the inventors of photography, Louis Daguerre, November 18. I studied photography in high school and it was kind of the only thing I was good at. I wasn’t a sports kid, I was okay at academics. I was either going to go into Science or Art. But I was really, really good at photography. I went to RIT and studied to become a still life photographer. ”
“After I graduated, I worked in a studio for a couple weeks, and then I quit because I hated it. I was so burned out after going to photo school, I went and worked in a factory where I worked in positions that ranged from marketing to janitorial. I didn’t touch my camera at all for four or five years. Eventually I started shooting again and thought “maybe I can get back into this”. I found that I really liked shooting people, so portraits were my thing. I finally found something that I personally related to in what I studied. It wasn’t just a job anymore. I started shooting portraits with friends, bands, whoever wanted a picture. After a while, I started to get calls for work. Around this time, too, I got laid off from my full time job. So I went full time, and I started my photography business. I did some odds and ends; I managed studios for other people, I assisted for a lot of photographers in Buffalo including people who became my mentors to this day, really experienced folks. I went out on my own a couple years ago and things have grown quickly.
“My business really took off when I started focusing on bringing the aesthetics that I had from working primarily in the style and beauty genre, and brought them to photographing ice cream makers, carpenters, and people who were doing really interesting things in Western New York. They were either coming out of other jobs where they were successful, but they wanted to chase their passion, or there was something they had always wanted to do and people had been like, “You’re crazy, why would you do this in Buffalo, let alone anywhere?” But because they believed in it, they made these successful businesses. Some of the earliest ones I worked with were Lake Effect Ice Cream. Erik and Jason, who run that place, are still full time high school teachers and running this exploding ice cream empire that’s getting huge industry recognition.”
“Another early subject was Sean Wrafter from Wrafterbuilt who was an incredibly successful salesman working for companies like Block Club and City Dining Cards, but he was also a big believer in the trades, in working with your hands. He had worked as a carpenter, and he had these designs in his head that he wanted to start making, beautiful stuff. He also knew there was this housing crisis in Buffalo that was just destroying these beautiful old buildings and the old wood inside that he could rescue. So he started his business based on that. I worked with him just after he started his business and he has just grown so much. It’s so great to see retail stores like West Elm carrying his stuff now.”
“Damian and Vicky Parker, who run what’s now called Parker’s but it was the English Pork Pie Company when I worked with them, are another hidden gem of Buffalo that so few people know about. But it’s an astronomically successful businesses that’s selling English Meat pies to companies like google and the US Military and selling sausages to Gordon Ramsay. They were flying under the radar for so long.”
“Much like you guys, what would happen is I would work with someone, and they would most often point me to my next story. I remember I worked with the guys at Lake Effect, and they would tell me about Jill at Nickel City Cheese. Sean would tell me about Tommy Rotter Distillery, who I’m going to be working with soon. One thing would lead to another.”
How do you think that you have benefitted from working in Buffalo?
“I think that’s one of the reasons that businesses can be successful in Buffalo, because there’s a support net. If you move to Buffalo tomorrow, and you say “I want to start a business”, there are people here who are going to help you. They are going to be excited about what you’re doing. They’re going to point you in the right direction to find resources. They’re going to help get the word out about you. I don’t think you could do that if you suffered the anonymity of a big city. There’s something to be said for the hopefulness of small cities and small markets that may be economically depressed. There’s so much room to grow because, really, there’s nowhere to go but up. People move here and they’re passionate because it’s affordable, because you can start a business with low overhead here. Something that wouldn’t necessarily be a viable business model in New York or Chicago suddenly becomes very successful here. So I think there’s something to be said about Buffalo as a fantastic city and as a business incubator. I think that’s why you’re seeing an organization like 43North, the world’s biggest business pitch contest being based here. I would love to pitch them on having me shoot all the winners and do profiles of them. You should cover them, because that is exactly what you write about.” (oh, we will! Already in the works)
“In many ways, it’s not just about my own blog now. I’ve tried to also become an evangelist for Buffalo because I work with national clients and I market aggressively to them. Even if I’m not immediately working with a magazine, chances are I’m sending them images and keeping them updated about the stories I am working on.. And what I’ve been doing is taking these roundups of these local stories, and I’ve been sending them out to people who I think should know about them. Like the Food Network, or design and business magazines. Even if they don’t pick up a story, they’re now aware of this really cool business in Buffalo. That is great for those companies to have reach outside of the city. A couple years ago I published a small newspaper that collected a bunch of the stories I had done abou local small businesses, and I sent that out to a few hundred major magazine editors, and the response was great, people were writing back and telling me how interesting the found the stories and that they never expected something like that to come out of Buffalo.”
“I see businesses that, by all rights, should be direct competitors, teaming up and being synergistic about what they’re doing in the city. It’s fantastic. And there really is a thriving – and I don’t want to call it a startup community because I think that is a very loaded word, I think it carries a lot of connotations, specifically to tech — but there’s an amazing entrepreneurial enthusiasm here. It’s a city full of people who want to make their own way. The people that thrive here are welcoming to people who want to rough it, too. You come in and there’s going to be this amazing welcome by people who are enthusiastic about what you want to do. It’s up to you to get your business off the ground, but people are going to be rooting for you the entire time. No one’s going to stand in your way here if you want to be a part of changing this city.”
– photos by Luke Copping
So, on a personal note, you just got married?
“I just got married to my long time girlfriend Erin in August of last year, and now we have a baby on the way!. She’s a Western New York native, a Cheektowaga native. Her family owns McPartlan’s Corner. It’s one of the older Irish bars in WNY. It used to be in South Buffalo in the space that Valle of Mexico is currently in, but it’s now located in Cheektowaga. She was a food blogger for a long time, and she’s incredibly active in animal rescue and adoption programs. She was the one who initially got me involved in creating adoption portraits of the dogs at the city shelter, which is just around the corner from my studio. Now I donate a lot of time working with rescue dogs at a variety of rescue programs and recently found myself working on an amazing campaign with Kate Glaser, a previous interviewee of yours, from Diamonds In the Ruff Animal Rescue that features people like EJ Manuel from the Bills and Rob Ray from the Sabres, Really good photography helps adoptions. It’s just a fact. It lets people connect with the real personality of these animals.”
– photos by Luke Copping
“There are long term wards of these shelters, some have been there for over a year, that we’ve been able to help find homes for in a surprisingly short amount of time. A dog that’s been there for fourteen months can sometimes get adopted in just a couple of days once we get his new pictures out into the world. There’s such a strong community of animal lovers in this city too, including some of it’s brightest entrepreneurs. There are people in town like Brandon and Patrick from Block Club, Sean Wrafter, David Horesh, and Erin Habes who share these images that we create for the shelter, and they all have huge online networks of their own, so we see this exponential growth in awareness for these dogs in need. We’re so grateful for everyone who helps us to get to word out about these animals. People become attached to these dogs, even if they don’t adopt them, there are people who become active advocates for these animals. It helps spread the word. I’ve gotten national attention for my dog work that I’ve done with the shelters here, the images have been on the covers of magazines, and have won awards by professional and trade groups.. An issue of Shutterbug Magazine that featured one of my adoption portraits was nominated last year for an Editorial Folio Award for best issue of the year in it’s category.”
It seems like your opportunities just kind of lead to more and more.
“Well I think that’s what you have to do in a place like Buffalo. And photography is not an easy business. A lot of people think that the economics of it don’t make sense, in a lot of ways. For a long time, especially in the commercial world, it was based on licensing and limited use, and the internet changed that in so many fundamental ways that we’ve had to kind of develop new ways of making money, new ways of marketing. I think there’s a really organic way you can do that, and I think your opportunities do lead from one to the next if you’re willing to take risks and to say yes those things that the fearful part of your brain tells you to run from. There’s always a story to tell, and I think that’s what a lot of photographers lose sight of when they think of their work as only an image or an aesthetic. There’s nothing wrong with that; I’m obsessed with aesthetics. But I think you need to be able to say something more with your work. I think that’s why I withdrew so much from shooting style and and beauty work. But there came a point where I just found a story about two high school teachers making ice cream and starting this exciting company that came out of a friendly rivalry between them that’s employing people and building a great reputation. It is so much more interesting than photographing a screw.”
“I wanted to make stories that weren’t disposable, and I think that there are so many stories in Buffalo that aren’t disposable. Even if these people stumble and don’t make it, there’s something really fascinating about the journey they’re on that’s genuine that I think people connect with. Everyone loves an underdog story. When I interview people, the most fascinating thing is when they tell me where they screwed up, the things that they would have changed. There’s something really endearing about failure. You can’t become successful without failing a thousand times.”
– photos by Luke Copping
On that note, tell us about any failures.
“I think my biggest failure is that, for a long time, I suffered a really bad case of self-doubt and a dissatisfaction with what I did that really got me off my path for a long time. Part of the reason that I didn’t work in the photography industry for so long was because I didn’t like the industry. I didn’t like the experiences I had in it up until that time of transition. It made more sense for me to work for a manufacturing facility than it did for me to be behind the camera. But then I realized that I had so much more power of choice in what I did. Just because the industry said, “You have to get out of college, you have to assist, you have to work at a studio, and then you have to shoot catalogues of screws and machine parts to make money in this business in Western New York, because that’s what we do”. And I think that’s the same thing that a lot of people suffer from in a variety of businesses. The mindset is changing, as is the way that people think about education. I think when we were all younger, the story was: go to college, get a good job. I think now the narrative has shifted, college is a great option, but the trades are also growing as are opportunities for those who want to build something of their own. There’s so much room for entrepreneurial spirit. There’s room for creation. There’s room for whatever route you want to take to get there. I think what’s much more important is genuine enthusiasm and a passion for self-education. I learned more outside of school than I ever did in itl. And I was lucky enough to go to one of the few photography schools that gave me a technical education, not just an artistic one. But I didn’t learn much about actually being a business person until I started meeting people who took the time to mentor me and helped to set me on my own path.”
“Getting involved with ASMP was also a big catalyst for me. One of their core missions is educating photographers about business, about how to build a successful business, and how to not go out of business in one year flat – which a lot of photographers do. But this happens in all sorts of trades, people get enthusiastic about the medium and the craft, but they don’t know how to send an invoice or get insurance. They don’t know how to pay taxes correctly — all those little things that every small business person has to do. That changed things for me. At one point I thought to myself, “Okay, I don’t have to stick with this mindset. I don’t have to stick with this narrow view of what photography is. the way I was trained may not be the only way” I don’t have to say, “Okay, I’m not in New York or LA, so I can’t shoot anything fun, I live in a post-industrial, somewhat economically depressed city, which means I’m relegated to shooting very narrow style” But I wanted to do something different. So I said, “I really like shooting portraits, I really like this frenetic energy of the music and style worlds, Why can’t I take that aesthetic and apply it to portraits of entrepreneurs?” So when I realized I had power of choice over what I was doing, it was extremely liberating. I was able to depart from everything I didn’t like about what I was doing: the archetypes and tropes of the industry. the sense that you had to walk a very conservative path to be successful, and I adopted the philosophy that I was going to be much more successful by finding my own way and by diverging from those set paths. By being a strong business-person, and by making sure I had the fundamentals taken care of, I then had the freedom to do whatever I wanted.
Do you have any predictions or goals?
“Yeah, I mean, right now I’m really fascinated with the restaurant scene in Western New York, so I’ve been more shooting more food stories. Which is something I haven’t done in a long time. In the past, most of the food stuff I shot was in the retail or manufacturing realm, stories like English Pork Pie Company, Nickel City Cheese, Blue Table Chocolates, and Lake Effect Ice Cream. Right now I’m really fascinated with the actual restaurants of Buffalo. I’ve recently completed stories on The Black Sheep, Marble + Rye, and Handle Bar.. I think that Buffalo is a city that people are starting to pay attention to as it is going through an epochal change. There’s a hook and a regionalism to every city, and that can be wonderful, but for for a long time, anytime you saw Buffalo mentioned on TV, it was wings, sometimes Beef on Weck or Tom & Jerry’s. Very old school, regional things. They’re wonderful things, but right now we have these really cool people doing really cool things. They are making the choice of bucking that narrow definition of what it takes to be successful in Buffalo “You have to do pizza, you have to do wings” There are now people saying “I don’t want to do that, I want to do something for me, and I want to edit it to my taste and hopefully people will like it”. And they have. And that’s why you see people, like Christian and Michael from Marble + Rye who that bootstrapped their business from a catering business to a food truck to a really cool brick and mortar restaurant. And people like Steve Gedra who came back to Buffalo and just annihilated the public’s conceptions of dining here through his talent. They were all just so good at what they did that there was no way anyone could ignore it.”
“Definitely Ben from Blue Table Chocolates. I think he’s wildly fascinating. He’s one of the most interesting interviews I’ve ever done.”
“I would say that Jason Wolf and Erik Bernardi from Lake Effect Ice Cream would be huge. Just because it’s such a developed business. It’s so well-regarded outside of the area. They’re so unbelievable in everything they do.”
“Gary White, who’s the hat man. I don’t know if you guys know this guy, he’s over on Broadway. He is an old-school hat maker. He made Indiana Jones’ hat, he made all the hats for Boardwalk Empire.”
“Steve Gedra, because I think Steve is hands-down the finest chef cooking in the city today, and I’ve been saying that for a long time.”
“Definitely Sean Wrafter, too.”