Jeff Lipsky Interview

- - Photographers
Jon Hamm

Jon Hamm

Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Zac Efron

Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Zac Efron

Kelly Slater

Kelly Slater

Kerry Washington

Kerry Washington

Zoe Saldana

Zoe Saldana

Ellen Page

Ellen Page

Jonathan Blaustein: I was ready to begin this interview the way I typically do, by asking some questions about how you came to photography. But in my last bit of research, I noticed that you had actually done an interview like that for APE in the summer of 2012.

Jeff Lipsky: Yes, I taught at Chris Orwig’s class at Brooks, and he did a little piece on me which was really nice.

JB: But I didn’t know that until six minutes ago.

JL: Oh.

JB: That means I’m up shit’s creek, because I can’t ask those questions, since you already answered them.

JL: (Massive pause.) Well…

JB: I don’t know what to do. I can’t ask you how you got into photography if we already published that.

JL: (Another massive pause.) That is interesting.

JB: We’re screwed, man. (laughing.) Listen, this is my thing. I’m just joking around. I’m not serious at all.

JL: (laughing.)

JB: Right. Now you’re with me. I was just messing around. The point was simply that we appreciate that you’re doing another interview, but we’ll have to take this one in a different direction. Otherwise, I become the laziest journalist in the history of mankind.

JL: Right. And my saying is, anyone can take a great picture or write something great under perfect circumstances. But when you’re thrown a curve ball at the last minute, like every photo shoot you do, it’s what you make out of it that counts.

JB: You, and the entirety of our audience will now be judging me harshly to see how I do. Can I hit the curveball? Because we now know the Denver Broncos’ center can’t hit the curve.

JL: Obviously.

JB: Obviously.

JL: I was on an airplane during the Superbowl, so I missed the entire game. I guess that was just as good.

JB: You know what you’re supposed to do next time then, right?

JL: Yes.

JB: Fly Jet Blue.

JL: Fly Jet Blue. That’s right.

JB: It would have solved your problem. Taking a look at your previous APE interview, as well as your website, it says that you were a, I don’t want to say ski bum, let’s say you were lifestyle skier in Telluride, Colorado for ten years. Is that right?

JL: You’re the first person to say that. A lifestyle skier. I love that. I’m going to use it.

JB: Feel free. I just made it up. It seemed more politically correct.

JL: It is very good.

JB: So you were there for a decade?

JL: A decade.

JB: With all the mountain towns in the US, what did you love so much about Telluride?

JL: I believe it is one of the best ski resorts in the world, as far as terrain goes. It produces great skiers, and I wanted to become a great skier/snowboarder at the time. Also, it’s one of the few ski areas in the world where the ski lifts go right into town. The town is not separated from the resort.

It’s a real town. It’s not like you’re living in a resort. People living there do normal things, and there happens to be a ski resort there.

It’s the most beautiful place in the world, too, as far as I’m concerned. Without a doubt.

JB: Without a doubt?

JL: Without a doubt.

JB: I’m not sure if you’re aware, but I’m conducting this interview from the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Taos, New Mexico.

JL: (laughing.) Taos is pretty close. It’s very similar.

JB: Right. But if you’re going to say “the most beautiful” and “the best” to someone like me, it’s going to get my back up a bit and force me to challenge you on some of those assumptions.

JL: {Taos Ski Valley Founder} Ernie Blake made it so I couldn’t snowboard at your mountain.

JB: He did. It’s true.

JL: So Telluride is number 1 for me.

JB: I don’t know if you heard, but Taos Ski Valley recently sold to a conservationist, hedge fund billionaire. Around here, I think the general consensus is that Ernie Blake built the ski valley, but also doomed it by locking out the snowboarders for 20 years. It was inevitable we would decline, after that decision.

JL: I think that they should have remained snowboard free. I just love that certain ski resorts hold their integrity. Even though I’m a snowboarder, I do think snowboarding sometimes brings down the integrity of skiing, because skiing is such a nostalgic sport for me.

JB: Well, we did give up our integrity, and I’m suggesting that it happened too late. We’re now hoping that this guy Louis Bacon’s billions will fluff up the place, because the terrain is amazing, but our resort stopped taking care of itself in the early 90’s, and that was quite a while ago.

JL: This is a big deal. It’s going to be a big resurgence for Taos.

JB: Indeed. I’m telling my friends with money, which is a very short list, that Taos real estate a really good buy right now. We’re pretty much guaranteed to ascend.

All those people out there who don’t ski or snowboard are probably asking when the hell these guys are going to talk about photography. Right?

JL: Right.

JB: But I didn’t really have a choice. Once I couldn’t ask questions about how you got started at Smashbox studios in LA, I was in a bit of a pickle.

Let’s just jump ahead. You live in Venice, and you shoot predominantly in LA.

JL: I live in the Palisades now, and I have three kids. I still have my connection with Venice, though. It got to be too much for me. Venice is a little spoiled.

JB: I heard that.

JL: I moved my production office to Main St in Santa Monica. I just love it.

JB: Do you surf?

JL: I do surf, but not enough to call myself a surfer. I photograph the surf world all the time, and am often with the biggest surfers in the world, shooting their portraits. But I’m not allowed to say I’m a surfer, because my assistants are huge surfers, and they know I don’t really surf.

I can’t walk the walk.

JB: You don’t surf well enough to use that noun to describe yourself.

JL: When I’m with them, I don’t even admit that I surf.

JB: But if you took them to Telluride, with all that vertical, they might struggle.

JL: They would. I know so. I was with Jerry Lopez when he came to Telluride to go snowboarding, and all these great surfers. I had them on the snow, which was really nice.

JB: Is that a part of your street cred with those guys, that you can handle yourself in the mountains? Because you’re an outdoor enthusiast, do they have more respect for you?

JL: I think so. Definitely.

JB: There’s a comfort level that translates into the photography?

JL: Yes. Exactly. Every once in a while, I do get a chance to incorporate my snowboarding or my flyfishing in photography. I’m not really an action sports photographer, though. I’m more labeled a lifestyle celebrity photographer.

Sometimes, I’m able to go on these great adventures. Eddie Bauer was a really good fit for me. Roxie was a good fit too. Shooting surfers on the beach for Outside Magazine. It’s an environment that I’m used to.

I just shot Olympic snowboarders for this Olympic package in Breckenridge, and one of the Dads and I had twenty mutual friends, because they were from Steamboat. It’s always nice to have a connection. You’re looking for that one degree of separation.

JB: Which is maybe not such a hidden secret anymore? How much the personal connection enables the photography to get going in the first place?

JL: Oh yeah. You look for a connection. That’s the number one thing.

JB: You dropped the c-word earlier. Celebrity. That’s the equivalent of you saying Beetlejuice. It opens the door for me. I know our audience is far more educated than your average bear, as far as understanding how photography works.

But anyone who goes to your website will be immediately overwhelmed by the collection of star power that has stood on the other side of your lens. Anybody would have a little Hollywood envy. So we kind of have to talk about it a little bit, if you don’t mind.

JL: When in Rome.

JB: I just didn’t know if you were the equivalent of a lawyer, and part of being able to do this work was there was some kind of photographer/client privilege. I was worried you wouldn’t be able to share some stories.

JL: Oh no. That’s the whole point of my workshop that I’m going to teach at the Santa Fe Workshops. I say how it is. I literally describe the whole process of shooting anyone. Whether it’s a celebrity, or an advertising shoot.

JB: I was curious about the real world charisma of some of these people. The first link on your site is to celebrity men, and you open with pictures of Jon Hamm, Ryan Reynolds, James Mardsen. These super-handsome movie stars. You’ve got some old school guys thrown in there, like Dustin Hoffman.

How much of inherent charisma is dripping off of them when they walk in the door?

JL: It’s interesting. A lot of actors, they obviously have “it,” but a lot of them don’t necessarily have “it” for a stills camera. They’re used to being in front of a moving camera. When they have to stand in front of a stagnant camera and look into the lens, it’s actually awkward for them.

The ones that are pros, and have been doing it for a long time, obviously, are used to it. But they don’t necessarily like it.

Most actors, I believe, don’t like being photographed. When they’re acting, they’re doing their skill. When they’re in front of a stills camera, it’s not necessarily what they want to be doing. In fact, my job is to make it as pleasurable and easy for them as possible.

I’m usually done shooting them before they think they’re going to be done. And I keep them moving around as much as possible. I’ll never have anyone standing around on a set for more than 10 minutes. Then I’ll have another set or scenario where I’ll put them.

It’s always moving and changing. We also play amazing music. Half the time we’re talking, keeping them entertained and amused. So we’re always goofing around.

JB: You’re describing it like they’re going to the dentist office. And you’re in character. Not them.

JL: Sometimes it’s like that. There might be 50 people on set, and all this commotion. But I’ll break it down to be as intimate as possible, and have the fewest people around me when I’m shooting.

Basically, it’s a closed set. That way, there’s one-on-oneness. Or, if I’m not connecting with someone, I might have my first assistant try connecting with them. He’ll be standing right there, and we’ll just chat, and try to include the celebrity in the conversation.

We make it so they’re there hanging out with us. Like, “Hey, what song do you want to hear next?” And I’m firing away at the camera. When I’m done, I want them to say, “That was a pleasure. That was so much fun. I didn’t feel like I was on a photo shoot. That was great.”

That’s what I like.

JB: You’re basically talking about people skills. Which is an open secret among professionals.

JL: To me, you already have to have your skills down as a photographer. It’s already known that you know how to take a picture.

I know my lighting. I’m very technical. I’ve already scouted the location I’m going to be at. I know what time the light is coming, if I’m shooting ambient, which is my preference.

I know exactly what time the sun is going to come through which window. I know what diffuser I’m going to put in front of that window. I know everything about it.

If it’s cloudy, I know which lighting package I’ll use. I know what cameras, what lenses. I already have these things in place, and a fantastic crew.

That’s a given, that you have that skill. And then, when you’re with a celebrity, you have to turn that off. You know you’re prepared, so you just have to be yourself. Be personable. You have to show a certain ease.

You want it to seem easy and effortless. In fact, it’s not, with weeks or months of preparation for that twenty minute shoot. You have to let it go. You know you have everything in place, and you just do it.

That doesn’t make sense, does it?

JB: It does. And it actually helps lead up to where I was headed, especially as you so carefully dodged my attempt to get you to squeal about anyone in particular.

JL: I’ll squeal. Like Dustin Hoffman, whom I’ve shot many times. The first time I shot him, I said, “Thank you so much for sitting with me, and letting me take your photograph.” He said, “What are you talking about? This is what I do.”

This is what I do. It was so nice that he said that. This is my job, he said. “What do you want me to do, Jeff?”

JB: Wow.

JL: Right. Dustin Hoffman. Then you get some actors who are like, “No. I’m not doing that. Absolutely not. No way. No.” They put you on the spot. I’ve had things happen to me where you just want to shrivel up.

Sometimes, I go to my happy place and go snowboarding in my head.

JB: (laughing.)

JL: I’ll be behind the camera, and my crew will look at me, and I’ll look at them, and they’ll see in my eyes that I’m dropping in on my first turn. Then I come back and re-think the situation.

One time, I was on a big set in New York, shooting a TV show advertisement. There was a cast of five or six, and I was supposed to start with the first actor, so I had it lit for one person. He was a tough actor to shoot.

I’m trying to get the shot right, and there were at least 45 people on set. The creatives are all staring at the monitor, but I didn’t even see it. They were seeing it first, which is really hard.

So someone said, “Put the whole cast in.” So they put the whole cast in, and I went, “Oh my god.” How do you compose all of those people in a scenario you’re not prepared for? I shot a few frames, and I see art directors turning their heads, going, “Ew. No.”

I pretended to look at my viewfinder, and for 30 seconds, I say absolutely nothing. I was drifting away on a powder turn, in a happy place.

JB: Awesome.

JL: Then I had to get up, take a deep breath, re-compose, and say, “OK. Everyone needs to be off the set. I’m going to re-set for one person.” Because you always want to start out taking good pictures, not crappy pictures.

I said, “Let me do what I want to do first. One person. Standing over there. And let’s go.” They said, “Oh. Ah. That looks great.” And then I was ready to put the other people in the shot.

Sometimes, you have to check out for a second and re-group.

JB: You’re talking about gaining the confidence to assert authority. You have to get comfortable enough in your own skin to know how to crack the whip among people who maybe aren’t used to being told what to do. Right?

JL: Oh my god yes. Let’s say I’m going to shoot the cover of a magazine that I’ve shot maybe 15 times before. Sometimes, I’ll get caught with my guard down, and someone will say, “No. I don’t like this light.” Or, “I don’t like the height of your camera.”

I’ve had that happen to me. I have to remind myself, I’ve been doing this for 11 years, and I know what I’m doing. You have to speak up. I’ll say, “You see that truck over there? I have a truck full of equipment to light anything I want. And right now, the light I have on the subject is the perfect light. Trust me. This is what I’ve been doing for a long time.”

JB: Let’s go with one more question about the celebrities, because I admit I’m curious. Do you watch “Mad Men?”

JL: A little bit. Yes.

JB: Well, I’m a season behind, and hopefully no one will spoil it for me, but I’ve always been amazed with Jon Hamm’s performance in the show. I don’t think he gets enough credit for how good he is.

His physicality as an actor is amazing. The way he manipulates his facial muscles and posture as Don Draper, so terribly tense. It’s totally different than when he switches character to Dick Whitman. Everything about the way he holds his jaw, and his cheek muscles. Everything changes. It’s the epitome of art, to watch the physical manifestations of his talent.

I know this is a long question, but because you’ve shot him, I thought you might have some insight into that skill set he has. Maybe he brings it with him to a photo shoot? Or maybe he doesn’t? I was curious about your observations.

JL: The thing about Jon is he can sometimes appear to be goofy. He’s such a good-looking guy, and he is easy to photograph, but he is kind of goofy. Some of the frames I’ll go through, you’ll see the goofiness he has, when you want him to be looking serious.

He’s so playful that in some sense, you’re not getting the frames that you really want. Like the picture on my website, where he’s laying back, in a jacket, looking over at me? We’re watching a World Cup soccer game, and he’s sitting on a bed in a really cool house.

He was talking about the World Cup, so I said, “It’s on right now. Kick back and watch.” He started watching, and I said, “Jon, look over here.” That’s the photo, because he’s so happy he gets to watch a few minutes of the World Cup.

Not that I would normally ever put a TV in front of someone, but it happened to be there.

JB: It says something about your improvisational skills.

JL: That’s why I like that photograph. It’s a fresh, real moment.

JB: Have you seen him literally turn “it” on and off in front of your camera?

JL: Yeah. A lot of people can do that.

JB: I got interested in the idea a few years ago, when I was watching “The American,” a movie that Clooney did. He turned his charisma off, 100%. It was chilling. I didn’t realize until I saw that film how many of these men and women are capable of adjusting their wattage like it’s on a dimmer.

JL: If you can have a choice to shoot someone in or out of character, I’d choose out of character. Because I’m always interested in who they are as a person. It’s easier to shoot someone in character.

JB: How often do you feel like you’re getting a glimpse into a real person, when their job is to obfuscate their personality for a living?

JL: I’m getting them as who they are all the time. I see it. That’s the goal.

But it’s different when you’re shooting a cover of a beauty or women’s magazine. There has to be a certain pose, and a certain look. You’re not necessarily shooting them. You’re shooting a look. That’s what’s so tricky about a cover.

JB: It sounds like a template.

JL: For the covers, yes.

JB: So much of your knowlege has been accrued over time, through experience. Going through the battles, finding your voice as a photographer, and your swagger as an authority figure. The Santa Fe Workshops is sponsoring this interview, and you’re going to be teaching a workshop there in March called “The Editorial Portrait.

How are you able to translate your experience in a workshop environment?

JL: It’s such a pleasure, and so much fun to do. I basically just dictate my approach to photography. I strip down exactly what I do. I don’t have any secrets. I don’t have a special “guru” light, and no one can know what it is.

All my stuff is pretty basic and simple, and I’m an advocate of “Keep it simple, stupid.” That’s what we say all the time. When I go to set, I usually bring the same things. You have a tremendous amount of equipment sometimes, because if something goes wrong, you have it.

I show how simple it is. I go through my photographs, and I simplify the process. I show them a photograph of Sharon Stone on the beach. It looks like beautiful light, and it is, but it’s just a piece of board bouncing into her face. That’s all it is. Nothing else.

JB: But you live, as you said, in Pacific Palisades. I’m guessing you use that golden, gorgeous, California beach light all the time.

JL: You have that, sure. But heck, I was just in Ireland shooting a “Game of Thrones” character, and I didn’t have that light. But I had the same light source that I always travel with. So I created it.

It’s true that in certain advertising situations, you have to have an arsenal. You have to know how to do the lighting, and it does get complicated. But generally, editorially, it’s more about getting the shot.

I keep it very organic, and let my subject know that’s how we do it. They appreciate it. If something’s not right, I won’t shoot it, and I let the subject know I don’t to waste their time.

I do that with my class, in Santa Fe. I teach them that it’s all about keeping your eyes and ears open for everything. I might put a celebrity on a couch, and someone says, “Hey Jeff, did you see that chair that was in the kitchen? It was really cool.” So we’ll go look at the chair. You’ve got to keep your ears open for all suggestions. It’s not a single-minded set. It’s everyone’s set, in a way.

I encourage that teamwork, as it’s very important.

JB: In your workshop, you have people work together like that?

JL: In the workshop, yes. I teach teamwork, and keeping it simple. We go through edits of photographs, they can see the mistakes I made.

JB: We’ve been talking a lot about how when the technical skills even out, the interpersonal skills dominate. That seems like a difficult thing to impart to others. I get that you do it, but I’m wondering a bit more about the specifics.

How do you teach your students how to be charming, and confident and relaxed, all at the same time?

JL: First, you need to be confident in your equipment. And you can only control so many things in your environment, so I teach people how to control the things that you can.

If you have certain things in place, what’s the worst thing that can go wrong? You need to put everything in place so that you can be confident about yourself. You do your due diligence, you’ve investigated who you’re shooting, you know where you’re shooting. You have your equipment that you know very well.

You know, if you don’t have any sun, that this light source works really well. You know that you have certain tricks that you can do. If you know those tricks, and you feel confident in them, you can be relaxed.

You can be yourself, knowing that you have everything in place. That’s the key.

JB: You use proper organizational skills, as much as anything, to mitigate your stress?

JL: Oh yeah. Beyond a doubt. I make sure everything is in place, and I have a team of people. If you don’t have a team, you have to do it yourself.

JB: When you teach your workshop, you’re able to go through the technical aspects of your work, you look at your student’s work, you present these philosophies, and they learn from you, even if they don’t have a truck full of expensive lighting?

JL: Yes. If I want anyone to get anything out of the workshop, it’s that photography is simple. It doesn’t have to be complicated.

When I was an assistant, and I worked in the grip room at Smashbox studios, I’ll never forget this one experience. Mario Testino was shooting the Gucci campaign. It was late at night, and I was loading the docks.

I remember that the campaign was already out, and I’d seen it. So I went into the studios, and I remember thinking, “That light is incredible.” He was doing some re-shoots, and I saw that he just had a single strobe on a C-stand with a reflector pointed toward the wall. That’s all he used for that campaign.

He could have had any piece of equipment, but he was only using that. That’s the day I realized, “That’s all you need. One light.”

I’ve come to that philosophy, if I have one light, and a couple of simple sources, it allows me to move faster. It lets me think on my feet, and change it up when necessary, to get the shot.

Keeping it simple is the hardest thing to do.

JB: So what’s coming up for you in 2014?

JL: I just came back from Kona yesterday, where I shot a portrait of a golfer. I’ve got a lot of great editorial coming out, but when you shoot celebrities, you can’t really promote it before it comes out.

It’s hard with social media, these days. I can’t say, “I’m on set with so and so, shooting so and so for this magazine.” I can’t do that. I have to wait for it to come out, and by then, I think it’s so old. That’s the downfall of shooting mainly celebrities.

JB: Well, I think I’ve got the perfect topical ending. You want to go topical, and keep it easy?

JL: Yeah.

JB: How about Bieber? You shot that kid. People can’t stop talking about him. What do you have to say?

JL: I feel sorry for him. I do. I feel sorry for all those kids that have to grow up in the spotlight.

He’s making mistakes. I don’t like to hate these guys.

JB: Understood.

JL: But I did ask him to give me a little smile, and he said, “I don’t smile.”

JB: (laughing.) There’s our ending right there.

JL: He was a punk. If you really want to know, he was a punk.

SFPW_APhotoEditor_Jan2014

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 4 Comments On This Article.

  1. Jeff, I know you have some mad creative skills but I didn’t realize that your photography background was so extensive. Very nice interview and thanks for sharing.

  2. Good interview JB. I like that you talked about the need for photographers to have good interpersonal skills, whilst also using your own to connect with your interviewee. Ultimately you were able to draw Mr. Lipsky out to the point that he’s calling Bieber a punk – nicely done!