The elevator operator in the Artcraft Building will know precisely where you’re heading if you’re holding beer. “I see you’ve got your fee–third floor?” he’ll ask. Knowing you’re about to sit down and have a beer with a guy who is arguably Cleveland’s biggest commercial photographer, you’d expect models moving hurriedly around the studio. Instead, all that exists on the third floor is a white door and metal sign that reads “James Douglas Studio.” The welcome party was a fluffy, blonde dog named Ginnie, a tall barefoot man, and his assistant, Jacqueline.
The barefoot man, James Douglas Shields, didn’t grow up thinking of being a photographer, even though the family business revolved around printing National Geographic. In a time before Instagram or functional internet as we now know it, James had full access to the the best photographs in the world. However, a photography career wasn’t even a thought. James was on his way to the Junior Olympics as a skier.
“I was a racer,” James says. “You know… The guys wearing skin tight suits.”
However, tragedy struck around his 17th birthday in Stowe, Vermont. James hit a tree going about 45 mph while skiing, cracking his femur, humerus, three ribs, and two vertebrae. Goodbye, gold medals. The injury made him toss those dreams aside, but led him to a new path.
“Instead of doing dumb shit like going 60 miles an hour on skis, I started taking photographs of my friends doing dumb shit on skis,” James explains.
After the accident, James’ mom and dad were on board with him avoiding physically demanding sports. As a result, he learned how to take photos by climbing mountains with 40 pounds of camera gear.
Initially, the photos he took on the tops of the mountains created a desire for his work among many influential companies. James was the youngest person to have his work featured on the cover of skiing publication Powder Magazine, which got the attention of some major brands. When Patagonia and North Face called, James was unavailable because he was still in high school. When you’re asked to come to Zermatt, Switzerland, the home of The Matterhorn, and have to say no because you have class, that’s a sign you found your calling. Still, James didn’t even go to school for photography. He went to the University of Delaware for art direction. He believes the attention to small details he learned while there is what draws people to his work.
After finishing school, James used his relationships to go into commercial photography. In 2014, James started an ever-growing project called The Dark Portrait Series, which consists of photos of Cleveland’s high-level movers and shakers. James says the cost for your portrait was “a six-pack and an introduction.” He even had someone offer $10,000 for a dark series portrait, but he turned it down. In short, people can’t just buy their way into the series. James lets the project grow based on the connections made over a six pack.
James does not consider himself a full-on Clevelander, as he was born and raised in the D.C. area. He’s spent less time here than in New York City. Still, James was into Cleveland before it was cool, starting with when he met his wife in Manhattan.
“I asked her where she was from,” James recalls. “She said North Olmsted. I said ‘what is that, in New Jersey?’”
Before LeBron came back, James was here. A North Olmsted Girl got him here and the opportunity is what made him stay. In that time, he changed the thought process of the people who need high-level photo work. James is a New York-by-way-of-D.C. transplant who is making the Cleveland corporate world stop looking to the coast for the stunning photography they’ve always been able to find right here in town.