Interview: Greg Lutze in San Francisco

Photography by Steven Turville

Founded by Greg Lutze and Joel Flory in 2011, VSCO plays a big part in the evolution of mobile photography. The app can be seen as a technology tool empowering people from around the world to create, discover and connect. It also allows the community to express art in different forms via a photo editing app with myriad filters.

Hello, Greg! Tell us about yourself. 
 Hey! I’m Greg Lutze, co-founder and part of the product design team at VSCO. I like to create things. I like to help others express themselves through art, design, photography and music. In this day and age, when people are so quick to judge and tear others down, I believe creativity can help break down walls between people. Before VSCO, I was an art/creative director. I live in Oakland now, though the mountains of Colorado will always be home. I’m a dad to two girls and a boy. I’m also a husband, a brother and a son - I’m all about ohana (family) and the idea that no one is ever forgotten or left behind. 

VSCO seems to have taken over the visual world. How long has the idea been brewing before actually coming to life? 
 Thanks, that’s really kind of you [to say it]! Some ideas come to life very quickly, others may take a long time to come to fruition - literally years. We can build new products pretty quickly now, as our team works together really well. We always have a million ideas brewing, but sometimes it’s more about saying “no” to an idea. Focus and execution are more important than a fresh idea.

What’s the difference between past VSCO and now? 
 We’ve grown up a lot in the last couple years, but our mission remains the same; we exist to empower people to create. That will always be at our core. We aren’t a little startup company anymore. We started VSCO in 2011, as a small group of friends working out of our apartments. I remember how proud we felt when we rented our first office, a 200 sq ft office crammed with IKEA desks. Now we work out of downtown Oakland, in a beautiful, light-filled space. The people who work here are incredible — so intelligent, so creative, so passionate. I am grateful to work alongside them everyday. 

Your office looks stunning! How does the daily routine at the *VSCO office look like? 
 My day often starts with “All-Hands,” where the whole team comes together and gets on the same page. From there, I usually jump to various meetings — everything from design to product to various reviews. I try to carve out time in the afternoon for designing and grabbing coffee with people on the team to see how they are doing. (So, basically I just drink coffee and talk to people all day).

 *VSCO's Oakland office was designed by Debartolo Architects and built by Flory Construction, which is owned by VSCO co-founder and CEO Joel Flory's father.

VSCO creates beautiful tools and has connected millions of people from around the world through its platform. What is the ethos that works for your team?
 We are a mission-minded company, so our desire to help people express themselves runs through everything we do. Every day we ask ourselves, “How does this help the creative community?” That question is at the core of VSCO's culture. The more we help, the more people create and as a result, the more inspired we are to continue building for them. It's the circle of creativity.

Frankly, I only use VSCO to edit my photos. It practically changes my life. Why did VSCO focus on mobile photography from the very beginning days? 
 We were challenged to make mobile a legitimate form of photography, as in the early days it was largely seen as a gimmick. Mobile photography opens up the playing field to so many people who are amazingly talented, but don’t yet know it or can’t afford a fancy camera. Mobile photography is accessible and most importantly, it gives people a voice.

I started my magazine by publishing the photos taken only using mobile phone, iPhone 5 to be precise. What’s your opinion on the current mobile photography “industry”?
That’s phenomenal! I love hearing stories like that. Mobile photography has opened so many doors for creation, and I strongly support that. The industry is still in its infancy — mobile photography remains so new and technology moves incredibly fast. In a few years, perhaps we will be using holographic cameras implanted into our eyes or some sort of weird science fiction thing. But regardless, the heart of photography has less to do with technology and more to do with emotion, with moments, with life. The camera, in whatever form it takes, is a tool to capture what we feel and what we wish to see.

Currently, mobile photography is synonymous with social media. It is an interesting but odd marriage, as popularity metrics and creativity are two very different things. Posting a photograph that gets a lot of likes or views doesn’t always mean it’s a great image. Creativity is a beautiful form of human expression and we do a disservice to ourselves when we tie it to what other people think of us. Tying our creative self worth to a public popularity poll is dangerous and ultimately destructive to innovation and honest expression. 

This is why you won’t see public numbers on VSCO — because it simply doesn’t matter. Having five followers or five million followers doesn’t make you a better photographer. You can follow people on VSCO, but we don’t make that public. You can favourite someone’s image, but only that person knows and there is no number attached to it. It’s very freeing to be able to create without worrying what other people will think. 

Your team is growing and expanding. How do you foresee the near future of VSCO?
 We’ve spent a lot of time listening to our community from all over the world. Literally, we’ve spent hundreds of hours this year asking creators what they want and what they need. We will be adding a Discover section, an area within the app to see a broad range of interesting content from our international community. We are also adding new ways to capture and create content. Photography will always be at the core of what we do, but we are interested in other creative media as well. Lastly, we will continue to improve VSCO X, a new premium membership we launched this year.

I think travellers have become an important part of the VSCO community. How has travelling inspired you at VSCO? Are you an avid traveller yourself? 
—When you travel, your eyes are opened to so many new things. I love travelling and love meeting people who see the world very differently than me. Recently, my wife and I went to Kyoto, Japan, and spent time walking through narrow, empty streets. The smells, colours and architecture were magical and so different than what I experience in the United States. I am rather tall, so I always felt so monstrous! My favourite memory was having lunch with a friend in an apartment restaurant that had wooden panel walls and authentic mid-century furniture, as if nothing had been updated in over 50 years. It was a special moment, largely because it was so ordinary — an authentic “local” experience.

What’s your secret for inspiration? Have you been complacent throughout the process? 
 Stay humble! If you think you know it all, you aren’t open to new, unexpected things. You just fall into the trap of being comfortable. It’s also far too easy to fall into being cynical, where everything is negative.
Negativity doesn’t foster inspiration.

Now, let’s get personal. What’s the perfect day like for you? Who’s Greg Lutze if he’s not at work?
 My life is pretty simple. I spend time at work, with my family and friends, and occasionally at the gym, trying to stay healthy. I’ve tried to eliminate everything but the essentials. A perfect day is one with my kids — all the laughter, tears, snuggles and snot. 

What do you think about zines nowadays? Do you have any favourite title? 
— I love them. I made a photocopied music zine in high school called Sakura, and that’s what got me into graphic design in the first place. These titles aren’t the classic photocopied zines, but Franchise, a magazine about basketball; Victory Journal on sports & culture; and Maekan, an online magazine on creative culture, are my current favourites.

I’m really looking forward to what VSCO has to offer in the future. Any special notes for the readers?
Hello friends in Kuala Lumpur! Thank you for using VSCO to give us a glimpse into your part of the world. Keep creating!

*This interview appears in Musotrees Vol 4, The Home Issue.

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