North Philly native photographer CJ Wolfe says he would have picked up a camera a lot earlier if someone had shown him the ropes. That’s why the founder and leader of the Kensington creative agency Immortal Vision Studio — when he’s not photographing NBA players or neighborhood nonprofits or small businesses — works to expose newcomers, especially city kids, to the industry.
Throughout the year, Wolfe and his team provide internships and educational programs. But this summer, they went big: Armed with cameras, professional lighting, backdrops and props, Immortal Vision hosted 30 pop-up learning events across the tri-state in just 60 days.
Immortal Vision first advertised their tour on social media in June, with “studio activations” at events like the Millennial Juneteenth Festival in Kingsessing and Change Our Future Fund’s 3rd Annual Sneaker Ball. They spent the rest of the summer taking pictures of plucky college students, shooting the Danny Rumph Classic basketball tournament, capturing Chelsea Football Club’s July visit, and teaching the basics to anyone who wanted to learn. It’s the most recent example of the studio’s effort to showcase their love for our city and region.
“We recognize that not everybody can make it up to Kensington or afford to rent out the studio. So if we take it to them, we can give our brand more exposure, and we can touch more people,” says Wolfe, 27.
Over the last two-and-a-half years, Immortal Vision (@immortalvisionstudio) has become one of Philly’s most booked photography studios. Their 2,000-square-foot headquarters is a burgeoning creative hub, feeling like a playground and laboratory all at once, with high ceilings, huge windows and walls replete with their work. Sets and props can be found throughout, and there’s a computer lab, offices for editing and team meetings, and even a shop, where visitors can grab some of their merch.
Wolfe’s dream is starting to become a reality: He is setting an example for the next generation — and serving his city in the process.
Following a dream
Growing up, Wolfe’s (@cjxwolfe) main focuses were sports and popularity. But somewhere between basketball practice and business classes at Gwynedd Mercy University, he started messing around with a camera. He’d snap pictures of friends, parties and sporting events. Soon, his hobby became somewhat of an obsession. Without guidance or instruction, he’d experiment with different styles and approaches: He taught himself photography.
After graduating, Wolfe worked as a financial advisor — but never let go of photography. In his spare time, he sought out freelance gigs, answering callouts on social media, sometimes offering his services for free. When a trainer posted that he needed someone to come shoot a workout with collegiate and professional football players like NFL veteran and Philly native Will Parks, Wolfe was first on the scene. He hit it off with Parks, who admired both his work and his hustle. Wolfe began creating content for Parks regularly, which snowballed into more exposure and opportunities — and a pathway out of finance and into photography.
As his portfolio grew, he had the chance to create content for childhood heroes: Allen Iverson, John Wall, Dion Waiters, Lou Williams, Meek Mill. He decided to bet on himself and left his comparatively stable job halfway through 2021 to focus fully on Immortal Vision. Today, his studio primarily works with small businesses, entrepreneurs, fashion brands, local artists and models.
Wolfe’s vision starts and ends with Philadelphia. For him, working with clients like Rahim Thompson has been a labor of love. Thompson runs the Philly summer basketball staple The Chosen League. The two met while Wolfe played in the league as a teenager. Thompson’s been a mentor ever since, and Wolfe credits Thompson with his own passion for work and commitment to community. Immortal Vision recently helped revitalize The Chosen League’s website, which helped them secure a critical grant to continue funding their operations.
Thompson compares his mentee’s work ethic to that of legendary producer Pharell Williams. “That calmness and confidence, that talent and drive for perfection — that’s what I see in him,” says Thompson. “Everybody that works with Pharell talks about how inclusive and welcoming he is with people, and that’s what CJ really reminds me of.”
Paying it forward
Photography is not an easy — or affordable — hobby, let alone career. Cameras and professional editing software can be expensive. A professional degree in the craft is even more expensive. It’s much easier to pursue a more traditional job, one that requires less investment or hustle. Immortal Vision’s internships, established in 2021, aim to combat such obstacles to entry.
“We started our internships the first day we started the business, to be honest,” says Wolfe. “It’s to bridge the gap, because I really didn’t know anything when I was getting started, but now I’m in a position where I can be the sort of mentor I needed.”
So far, 40 Philly high school and college students have participated in the hands-on experience. Interns receive credit for working 20 hours a week over the course of three months. They also get the chance to earn money while working on projects the studio takes on. (Immortal Vision accepts applications on a rolling basis: Apply here!)
Some of Immortal Vision’s former interns transition into full-time employees. Graphic designer Claudy Duré interned as a student at Central High School. (He currently attends the Community College of Philadelphia.)
“As a mentor, CJ’s been really helpful. He’s guided me through how to handle high pressure situations and working with bigger-profile clients,” says Duré, who was eager to find a way to more permanently join Immortal Vision’s staff. “The internship was really valuable to me, as somebody who wants to work his way up but wasn’t really sure how.”
Growing and giving back
Having grown up in the city, Wolfe’s well aware of the stigma surrounding Kensington. But he sees the neighborhood’s reputation as an opportunity — sure, to rent a more affordable space, but more importantly to meet people where they’re at. He says, “Whatever you might think about the area, that doesn’t mean that we can’t have an impact here.”
Immortal Vision got to work right away doing their part. They began simply, with clean-up efforts around their new home. Neighbors took notice, wandered in, and some began coming back for informal lessons and workshops. As the agency’s presence and reputation grew, they recognized the broader role they could play in the community. So, what began as picking up trash evolved into an annual community weekend.
To date, Immortal Vision has hosted free banking classes and networking events, food and school drives. They now have their sights set on rebuilding local resources. Last year, they partnered with the City to restore the basketball courts at Hissey Playground to their former glory as a haven for the neighborhood.
“We gotta take care of our backyard first, and for us it was really about seeing what needed to be done and wanting to be the change to help it,” says Wolfe.
The studio is seeking to expand their community building in the new year. In addition to bolstering their internship offerings, Wolfe is planning to establish a regular schedule of onsite classes with interactive lessons with equipment, and guidance for aspiring entrepreneurs. Immortal Vision also plans to turn that curriculum into an educational e-book to further expand their impact. With Wolfe at the helm, it’s clear that building community and creating opportunities will remain the driving force behind one of the city’s most exciting young businesses.
MORE BUSINESS FOR GOODStudents from Lincoln University surround CJ Wolfe (center front, in red pants) during the summer tour. Photo by Immortal Vision.