By William Harwood
He stands six-foot-three, but that is no longer tall when lying on the living room floor in the fetal position. And, on that particular day in May 2014, that was what Justin Key was doing. A phone call two months prior helped put him there. It came from Big Machine Records. Taylor Swift was making a new album,1989. Could Key oversee the videos and the photo shoots?
Most filmmakers and photographers can only dream of such an opportunity. Key knows this. But he had already been there and done that, producing stellar work for Big Machine and Taylor Swift since 2007. It was why they wanted him back. And that was his dilemma. Key had just made a bargain with himself—to break free and pursue his own projects, meeting the needs of his own long neglected spirit. In addition, his friend had just told him that she was pregnant—and that he was the father.
On the floor, in the dark—between several conflicted emotions—well, curled up in that telltale position of fear and avoidance seemed like the place to be.
As well as a perfect place to obsess and to remember.
What started Key recollecting was the flyer on the wall at Watkins where, eight years earlier, he was studying photography.
The flyer featured an ethereal image of a comely blonde woman in a flowing red dress. Key tugged it down. An accomplished commercial photographer, Tony Baker, was seeking an intern. Key contemplated the flyer: Commercial photography? He was majoring in fine arts photography. He was going to be a fine arts photographer. This was his plan. This had always been his plan. But the best plans are plastic, lending themselves to the shapes of the moment, and Key decided to apply.
It was Baker’s producer who answered his application. “Bring your portfolio,” was nearly all she said. This could have been another fetal posture-assuming issue because Key didn’t have a portfolio. What he did have were plenty of examples of his creative work which he quickly collected between two makeshift covers.
The meeting went well. He could start, Baker told him, by sweeping the floors. So, Key swept.
Baker’s internship was meant to last only a semester, but the older artist recognized the young artist’s talent and work ethic and invited him to remain as his assistant. With his diploma from Watkins still hot in his hand, Key accepted. He became a sponge, learning everything he could from Baker, developing not just his images, but also his business acumen. “He taught me the commercial side of retouching,” Key recently recalled in a Nashville cafe. “How to not just blast a scene with light, but modeling it to give the subject and environment a constructed hyper-realistic look. It’s where the commercial and artistic worlds collide in my opinion, and it gives the photographers who can do it a greater edge.”
All this work went on, and went well, until 2008 when the Great Recession hit and jobs in Nashville, creative or otherwise, dried up.
Baker, however, still had a gig with a then little-known company called Big Machine Records and their new, promising artist, a young woman named Taylor Swift. Key, Baker said, should come along and help. So, Key went along and helped.
The shoot proved an elaborate one, taking two nights and involving flowing blue dresses and fancy cars with their high beams on, and fire trucks out of the shot but still within range to provide rain. It was that shoot where the folks at Big Machine got a chance to see Key’s work for themselves and, before anyone could say “Swift,” invited him to join what would become a juggernaut.
With his rare combination of artistic eye, technical savvy, and interpersonal skills, Key soon found himself working closely with Swift herself, accruing ever more responsibilities and the job titles and salaries which went along with them. By 2012, he was the pop star’s creative director, overseeing all the music videos and photo shoots of the mega-selling artist. His creative output was stellar, but there was a catch, one he had not considered when he had tugged that flyer off the Watkins wall: His personal life was declining.
Working ridiculous hours, often in distant countries where he was physically present but far too busy to truly experience, Key realized that almost all his human relationships were with people who were paying him to be there. “I had never left the country until I started to work for Taylor,” Key shared. “I like and respect her, but I was waking up to make rich people richer.”
So, in May of 2013, Key made another bold—some might say “risky”—decision: He gave Big Machine and Swift six months’ notice. He had saved his money and would go make a movie somewhere. Iceland sounded reasonable.
But achieving escape velocity from the world he inhabited was not so easily done. Because in March of 2014 the phone rang. It was Big Machine Records. Taylor Swift was making a new album, 1989. Could Justin oversee the videos and photo shoots?
Which brings us back to a man on his living room floor in the fetal position.
Does he capitulate to his challenges and be crushed by them, or get up and take them on? Key got up, having decided he would first put his creativity to work for Swift and then he would put his creativity to work for himself.
“We have a very finite amount of time on this planet, and we are really great at wasting most of it,” he observes, finishing his coffee’s last sip. “But Iceland,” referring to his documentary travelogue, North of Everything, “was the beginning of a journey to find myself. Of coming out of the darkness and into the light.”
These days, the aperture of Justin’s spirit channels lots of light. Along with co-parenting Wilder, his happy and healthy four-year-old boy, Key now shares his life with his girlfriend, Katy. He is also parent to his own production company, the Nashville-based Orangutan Creative, specializing in music videos.
One project about to be released is the film Magnolia, inspired by the eponymous Randy Houser album. The film was Key’s idea. In July of 2018, he sat in Houser’s den and proposed combining the six videos that the musician wanted made into a single work, one that tells a story of love and loss inspired by the country star’s songs. Houser loved the concept, a novel and potentially revolutionary one for the country music genre.
“I have an aesthetic disease,” Key explains. “I want my material to give an audience something to say ‘Wow’ about. The camera is no different than a paintbrush. It’s the dance the artist does with the brush.”
As for the curled-up-in-a-ball position, Key now saves that for bedtime, after yet another day of bringing his creative visions to life.