By Alex Sousa
Jake Buntjer sits in an armchair that looks like a throne. Its cushion is velvety with a paisley design, some vintage treasure he salvaged from somewhere forgotten, no doubt. The wall to his right looks like a museum of sideshow oddities; shelves covered with old cameras, vintage photo frames, and pieces of bizarre, rusted Americana. Inside of an old medical jar there’s a set of chattering teeth mounted and smiling right at me.
Between us is a six foot coffin with a taxidermy deer head—made complete with the final touch of a marching band cap—mounted in the center above a tiny piano. The coffin is from a photo shoot, he tells me. Cory Mon and the Starlight Gospel’s album “Turncoats”—the shoot that really served as his introduction into the Provo music scene. Jake Buntjer is not a musician, but he is an artist, and he’s found himself in the company of local music royalty because of his talent and vision as a photographer.
It feels like Jake is used to living outside the spotlight. He’s wearing a wool vest, his dark pants are rolled up to the tops of his work boots, and he doesn’t look nervous, but it’s obvious that his natural habitat is behind the viewfinder, looking for that perfect moment—or, better yet, an imperfect moment that feels absolutely right.
“I think moments have become really important to me; the moments in between what everybody else captures,” he says, looking out the window into his yard where earlier a llama had been grazing. “The moment between—where no one’s posing, no one’s waiting—and not just candid, but things that don’t make sense. I’m looking at the dust popping at the wrong time, it looks just perfectly right for me. I’m looking for those moments.”
A lot of people are surprised to learn that Jake’s only been shooting for about three and a half years. It was a rough road getting there, and one that was discovering him just as he was discovering it.
“I went back to school to be a graphic designer. I took a photo class in the summer and just fell in love with it,” he says. “I like to tell stories. I can’t draw, I can’t paint, I can’t do any of those things; but, through the camera I can find and tell those stories”
Since then, Jake has become a dynamic photographer, a pioneer of the local art movement, and—perhaps most famously—as the premier documenter of the local music scene. That notoriety comes from his deep love and the strong friendships he’s created with the most influential members of the Provo music scene.
It’s a love that’s so intertwined with his life it’s hard to imagine where he’d be without it. From some of his darkest moments the members and the music of the Provo scene have been there to support him. It’s something which has not only influenced and shaped his art, but also the person he’s become.
“I went through a divorce, and met a couple really great people during that time. Cory Mon from Starlight Gospel—who is also divorced—he kind of took me under his wing,” Jake says. It’s a friendship that has helped shape the path that his life has taken.
At the same time of his divorce, practically living out of his car, Jake was heavily involved in 2010’s game-changing Forkfest, which was the most telling lineup of things to come for the Provo music scene. He’s been there—really—since the beginning, documenting the same bands whose music he was taking solace in during his most dire times of need.
With all his photography he tries to find those special moments, whether onstage finding the confidence of artists like The Moth & The Flame, Book on Tapeworm, and Polytype to working with vulnerability in studio sessions with the likes of Joshua James, Isaac Russell, or Lady and Gent. It’s a community he loves and respects and owes so much to that capturing those brief, pure moments of truth is one of the best ways that he can give back to it.
“There’s something so pure about local music. You know, 90 percent is guys still trying to figure out their sound,” Jake says, again staring out the window of his house filled with curiosities. “But then, as a person picks up passion and focus, something changes—which is what we’re seeing in the Provo music scene, this really fertile ground for people that are older or that have to put something on the line.”
He takes a moment to gather his thoughts. “Being a part of that community has made me a better artist, has made me a better person, really, and it’s welcoming to all, as long as you don’t try to tear it down.”
Jake’s relocated to Bluffdale now, living in a house on a quiet street off the highway. Across the dirt road is a farm full of goats, emus, and llamas—explaining the llama that was in his yard earlier. He seems like a man who might not know where he’s going, but who knows he’s ready for whatever road he needs to travel. He loves his two daughters and he loves his art, and to talk to him feels like that’s what he needs right now.
It’s beyond doubt that his art, wherever it takes him, will always be firmly rooted here. Because of the friendships he’s made, or because of the debt he owes to the music community in Provo, or even because it still functions as a sort of muse for him, he’ll continue to record the human experience that’s being lived and listened to right here in our valley.