Photographer shoots to skill

Leaven freelance photographer Jay Soldner grew up attracted to the high-quality photography in such magazines as National Geographic and Sports Illustrated. At The Leaven, he’s known for his willingness to go the extra mile and find the unusual angle.

by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. —  Freelance photographer Jay Soldner’s work is not just to be seen, but also to be felt. With his camera, he captures strong, evocative images that tell stories of humanity and faith.

“I’m always looking for strong composition,” said Soldner. “I’m always looking to add some element of human feeling like humor, sadness or happiness — something that strikes a chord, other than just, ‘Hey, that’s a cool picture.’”

Perhaps that’s not surprising, because growing up, he was attracted by the high-quality photography displayed in such magazines as National Geographic and Sports Illustrated.

“I just was in love with the photography,” he said.

One of Soldner’s favorite photos is this one of a Bishop Miege jumper at the 2017 state track meet in Wichita. “I pre-focused on where I thought the athlete would be in the air and then composed the photograph before he began running down the runway. I wanted a photo of him flying through the air and it worked out almost perfectly.”

Surprisingly, he didn’t take it up, however, until he was a student at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

“I was an advertising journalism major, and I needed some electives to fill credit hours, so I took photojournalism,” said Soldner. “Just getting a camera in my hand and being forced to do stuff for assignments — I found I was naturally good at making compositions and timing things well.

“I fell in love with it right away.”

He was particularly influenced by the cinematography of Stanley Kubrick and photographer Robert Frank through his 1958 book “The Americans.”

“He captured symbolically powerful images that, to me, were way more than the proverbial 1000 words,” said Soldner. “These [photos] read like novels to me. I could tell what he was trying to say with them. They really struck chords with me.”

A woman is captured by Soldner as she venerates a cross during a 2018 Good Friday service in the archdiocese.

Soldner took photo art classes, honed his craft, and bought lenses and darkroom supplies — this being the age of film. He graduated with a bachelor’s in journalism in 1999.

After graduation, Soldner became a full-time photojournalist with the Olathe Daily News.

“It was super fun and I got to be creative,” he said. “I got to fully immerse myself in my craft.”

After working at the Olathe Daily News, Soldner and his wife Thuy married and opened a business. Soldner also became a Catholic. Today, they are members of Corpus Christi Parish in Lawrence. They have two sons, Alex and Andrew, who attend Corpus Christi School.

Although no longer a newspaper photojournalist, Soldner never stopped shooting. He used his photographic skills to benefit his parish. When Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann confirmed children at the parish, Soldner sent the photographs to The Leaven’s production manager Todd Habiger and managing editor Anita McSorley.

They were impressed. And they asked if Soldner could do freelance photography for The Leaven.

Soldner captured this photograph of fans at the St. John Catholic Club in Strawberry Hill during the World Cup game that sent Croatia to the final in 2018.

“Jay is ‘Mister Reliable’ for The Leaven,” said Habiger. “He often takes assignments on short notice and brings back wonderful photos. I know I can always count on Jay in any situation.”

Soldner also does freelance work for nonreligious clients and settings, but he approaches his assignments for The Leaven a little differently.

“I always pray before I shoot,” he said. “When I shoot for The Leaven, I turn the radio off when I drive there. I pray to be at one with grace and to allow these photos I make to be what they are supposed to represent, and for me to be composed and be ready for that decisive moment.”

“I can’t leave an assignment until I know I’ve got something I love,” he continued. “I just can’t pop in and shoot for 10 minutes and leave. I’ll shoot until I feel that I’ve got something amazing.

“Sometimes I won’t even shoot. I’ll set the camera aside and absorb what’s going on until I feel an overall sense of what I’m doing.”

A man gets ready to serve cake to the homeless at St. Mary’s Food Kitchen in Kansas City, Kansas in this photo taken by Soldner.

One time, a person asked Soldner not take photographs of people praying. He assured that person he was on church business and would be respectful. Soldner never forgets the sacred nature of the liturgy or situations involving prayer, even going so far as to consult his pastor when he had questions.

“There’s nothing Jay won’t do to get a good photograph,” said Habiger. “He’s always respectful, but he’s always looking for a unique and interesting image.

“He’s not afraid to ask for access to areas where other photographers might not think to go. Most often, people will say ‘yes’ because Jay has a great rapport with people.”

A photo recently published in The Leaven is a good example of Soldner’s ability to recognize a decisive moment, get the shot and capture an image that tells a story and evokes deep feeling.

Soldner accompanied Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann and some Little Sisters of the Lamb to a juvenile prison in Topeka. The Sisters brought a statue of the infant Jesus with them — and it, too, had to be run through a scanner to be checked for contraband.

“When I saw them put it down on the scanner [conveyor belt], I ran around to the other side and grabbed my wide-angle lens,” he said. “It turned out exactly how I wanted it to.

“It was one of those decisive moments I couldn’t prepare for . . . I had to make it happen. [The photo] had that element of humor — scanning the baby Jesus — but it also had an element of seriousness.”

A baby Jesus doll is scanned at a juvenile prison in Topeka as the Little Sisters of the Lamb can’t help but crack up, all captured by Soldner.

Soldner is glad to be working for The Leaven and to have the other talented freelance photographers as his colleagues. It’s a privilege, too, to meet the archbishop and so many priests and religious, and to attend events like last October’s archdiocesan convocation and many liturgies.

“I can’t believe I’m being paid to photograph events that are spiritually important to me,” he said.

Tips for budding photographers

1. Know your subject and photograph them accordingly. That means making the subject prominent in the photograph.

2. Use the basic rule of thirds.

3. Stabilize the camera and then shoot.

4. Consider taking multiple exposures.

5. Be mindful of composition and depth. Photograph with something in the foreground, the background and in between.

6. Go ahead and shoot with that cellphone. The key is the artist, not the equipment.

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