Enjoying this series. Here’s the next episode.
Jonathan Blaustein: Why did you decide to move from Denmark to New York?
Asger Carlsen: I was working as a commercial photographer, and signed up with an agent here. They gave me a work permit, so I decided to try it out for a year. It seemed like a good idea at the time. This is five years ago.
JB: Is it the same agent you’re working with now?
AC: Yes, Casey in New York City. I signed up with them 7 years ago and that’s how I came to move to the states. The jobs we did in the beginning where more straight up assignments, but now it’s more based on my artwork ideas with a very strong post production concept to it. I even had one client in in london asking me if they had to provide the image material or if I did the photography part, so in away i’m more “material director” then a photographer. The challenge is to communicate that to the market.
Do You do commercial jobs?
JB: No, I don’t do that anymore. But everything I did was local, out here in the boonies. My skills were never such that I could have done commercial work in a major market.
AC: There is obviously great income potential to be made from the commercial industry- but ultimately I feel more related to the Art Scene and the sensitive forms of art.
JB: Yes, we all need to pay the bills.
AC: Yeah, but even maybe I’ll find something else. Teaching could be an idea, or something that could keep my creative side happy.
JB: Listen, I’ve been teaching for seven years, and the grass is always greener.
AC: Let’s say I want to spend 50% of my time doing Art, (if I could do art full-time I would do it) I could pretty much do anything. Teaching would be interesting, although the money is probably not as good.
JB: No. But it’s deep work, depending on who you’re working with. I want to start with a big question. I don’t know how much time you spend surfing the web, but I feel like there’s an idea that we hear a lot, so much so that it’s almost accepted: Every picture has already been made. Every photograph has already been shot. Every idea has already been done.
I think a lot of people believe that. I don’t. I strive to innovate, myself, but I think that anyone who looks at your book “Wrong” can’t believe that anymore.
How do you feel about innovation, and finding an original vision, as opposed to doing what everyone else is doing?
AC: It’s definitely the challenge. Like you, I’ve heard it many times before. Every picture has been taken.
When I started the project, the first couple of images, they were so different from my aesthetic, the direction that I was heading, so I didn’t show anyone the images for a whole year.
I don’t want to say that this is the newest work, and it’s so different from any other artwork you have seen. But that was the most important thing for me. The reason why I did continue that style, although I found it was not my aesthetic. It was important to me because it was new, compared to any other direction I had headed before.
So in away the innovation won over whatever problems I had with my new discovery. I also found out by working this new approach
The core of my work comes out of arrival materials or props I build in my studio. For my latest project all the materials is very short photo sessions with models done mostly in my studio.
All these photos becomes a pile of materials that I can work with in my studio. That new approach allowed me to be a hundred percent creative in my studio. Because I didn’t have to run out and find that one special picture to capture. Because I’m now mostly driven by ideas around that martial and in away it become my everyday knowledge.
JB: You say it was very different from your aesthetic, but you made it. What aesthetic of your own were you contradicting?
AC: You know, the way that you work as a photographer is that you pick a style, and then you continue down that road, and you try to stay consistent, because that’s the way you become known for a style, or get work, or become a good photographer. You can copy that style over and over.
I had a very straight style, more inspired by what they do in Germany. The Gursky, kind-of-landscapey photography.
JB: Does that loom over the Danish scene?
AC: You know, ten years ago, that was the photography that people were looking at.
AC: You know, large-scale formats, landscapes, Thomas Struth & Thomas Ruff, all those people. I’m sure you were inspired by those too.
JB: Sure. You were doing that work, showing it to the world, and then, in your little computer room, you were hiding away, working on your mad projects.
AC: I was almost embarrassed by the first two images. I didn’t show them to anyone. In the end, I thought it was more important to create these new things. Maybe they were not pretty images.
JB: No. They’re not pretty.
AC: They’re not photographic beauties, which was the aesthetic for that time. You were supposed to do really detailed landscapes. You would find this perfect viewpoint where you put up your tripod, and took these images.
JB: And I read in another interview that you were a crime scene photographer?
AC: People sometimes get that confused. I was a crime scene photographer, but that was when I was out of high school. So I was 17, and then did that for ten years.
JB: Who did you work for? A police department?
AC: Newspapers. I was a full-on newspaper photographer. I started out as an intern, and saw how it was done. Then I bought a police scanner, and would respond to the calls. Car accidents and stuff. Eventually, I did photograph a bit for the police.
JB: You’ll have to forgive me a bit here. My wife is a therapist, and my mother-in-law is a therapist, and now, being an interviewer, I’ve kind of morphed into this guy who tries to read the tea leaves. It sounds to me like there was a lot of darkness going on in your job, and in your head, and all of a sudden, it popped up out of the shadows, into this style that became “Wrong.”
AC: Certainly, there is an understanding of how those crime scene scenarios could look like. The work certainly represents my time as a newspaper photographer.
You can dig into that. You can see how I was standing in front of a car accident, photographing it. It’s just different objects.
JB: Did you photograph in Black and White for the newspapers?
AC: Yeah, it was all in Black and White. It sounds so long ago. This was the early 90s, and there was no scanners or anything, so everything was Black and White. The newspaper that I was working for, when I first started out, could only print color on the weekends.
JB: When I first saw “Wrong,” which I reviewed for photo-eye, I went to the whole sci-fi thing. They’re so techno-futuristic. William Gibson. Paul Verhoeven. I think I dropped “Total Recall” in the book review I did about it.
JB: At the same time, it’s almost like Weegee meets William Gibson. Old school, Black and White man on the scene aesthetic meets techno-futurism. A pretty original mashup.
While you’re not saying it outright, it becomes easier to see what the steps were that led you to an innovative breakthrough.
AC: For me back and white is very sculptural and that helps then become more like objects, which is part of my ambition about the work…. I have a lot of interns here, and when you talk about Black and White images, and the way they were printed, and the way you technically shot them, because you could only do certain things in a darkroom. They just don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. Do you know what I mean? The work is done that way because I understand that sense, and that quality.
JB: I have some students, and we were looking at some work last week that was really super-digi. Over-saturated, hyper-real, hopped up, textured and degraded. I talked about that, and these are younger students, and they couldn’t see it. That archive that we have in our head, of the cinematic and celluloid look, they don’t have that baseline. Their baseline is digital reality.
They can’t tell the difference between the super-saturated color look on the screen, and what you see when you walk out your door. Their brains are just different now.
AC: They are different. Do you think they understand my work differently than you understand it?
JB: Sure. I would think they have to. I showed “Wrong” to students last year, and they ate it up. Ate it up. I’m curious to see what happens when this generation of students, who has only grown up in the digi-verse, when they’re mature enough as artists to make shit that we can’t even imagine.
AC: I’m sure in ten or twenty years, the files being produced by these random Canon cameras, that’s going to be a style that people will try to copy again.
JB: The sci-fi reference in “Wrong” are so strong, and I don’t even consider myself a sci-fi geek. What did you read or see that ended up percolating into your work.
AC: I was inspired by painters, different art movements and all these obvious classical references. There’s a certain awkwardness in the work, and maybe that’s my attempt to try to fit into a photography style. Part of the reason why I became a photographer is that there was a certain loneliness in it, a searching for something. I think the work is a bit about that as well.
Trying to find my spot. Maybe I am a dark person? (Thinks about it.) I am a dark person.
JB: You certainly have it in there.
AC: I felt like an outsider when I grew up, for sure. There are certain things I’m good at, and photography is one of them. But I was not a success in school, not a success in many things, but there was this one thing I could do.
JB: So you were an artsy kid?
AC: Yeah. Maybe I said in an interview that it was my attempt to try to belong somewhere. I would say that there is some subconscious influence to the work as. That could refer to who i am and what live i lived.
JB: That sounds like something someone would say in an interview.
AC: (laughing) I’m still saying that.
JB: It’s funny, but the question was about sci-fi culture, and you didn’t really address that…
AC: Of course, I find Star Wars and stuff like that, Total Recall and Blade Runner, I find that stuff amazing, aesthetically. They’re not totally 100% perfect, but they have something else. Of course, I’m inspired by this Universe that can lead you somewhere, but is not an entirely precise realty.
JB: They do say that Science Fiction, historically, was like an Allegorical playing field. By stepping out of reality, it allowed certain authors and filmmakers to comment on a cultural moment in a way that was abstract enough to give cover to talk about real things. If we were going to say that about you, then the work casts a scathing eye on genetic modification, and the slippery slope towards cloning. The photos make it seem so real.
And yet, using the wooden legs, and bringing in the low-tech, was just badass. Do you talk about contemporary culture, when you talk about the work, or do you try to let the pictures speak for themselves. What’s your take on that?
AC: In general, I try to let them speak for themselves. People often have different interpretations of the same images. But I’m trying to be cultural commentator. If anything I’m trying to remove it from looking like contemporary. But there is a certain openness in the stories and maybe should be to explain.
JB: Ambiguity is crucial. We want to have enough information in our pictures that people really get where we’re coming from, but not so much that everything is tied up with a bow on it.
Do you have an artist statement for “Wrong?” Do you find yourself having to talk about it and write about it? That’s another buzz-worthy topic. A lot of photographers are caught in between this desire people have for us to be able to write and explain everything, as opposed to being simply visual communicators.
AC: Yes I don’t have to talk a lot about the work informs of interviews etc. I think a lot of creativity comes from a place there is hard to realize. I personally don’t always have the need to over read about why an artist made the choice of work that he did. Do you know this application Instagram?
JB: I do.
AC: Do you use it?
JB: I don’t.
AC: I use it a lot, and I think it’s an amazing application, because it’s just images. People can leave small comments, but it’s just pure images. Pure visual observations. I find that really interesting. I don’t want to hear the information about how the picture was captured, or the ideas behind it. That’s just how I am.
JB: I don’t use it, because I don’t have an Iphone. Instagram seems a little superfluous with my janky little LG phone. I’m glad you made that leap. Unexpected. But if we’re going to leap, why don’t we leap to the new work.
You have a new book coming out with Mörel Books called “Hester.”
AC: That is correct.
JB: This is your second book with them. Was it always your goal to have your work presented in book form?
AC: I have no plans, for better or worse. It just happened. This “Wrong” project, I just did if for myself. I didn’t have any hopes that it would be a book, or an exhibition, or anything else. I just did it without thinking that I could have a reaction to anything or anyone.
Then Aron Mörel of Mörel Books emailed me and asked me if I wanted to do a book with him. It took off from there. Kind of unexpected. I think Kanye West blogged about it, and I had massive emails and hits on my website.
JB: So are you down with the champagne lifestyle now? Are you partying with Kanye and Jay-Z?
AC: No. I live a pretty normal life.
JB: How will “Hester” fit alongside “Wrong?” Are they companion publications? How did you go about planning the second book?
AC: They’re definitely linked. The new work is more sculptural. In my artist statement, I say it could be a photograph of a sculpture, more than real photographs.
JB: Are you carving foam in all these images? Certainly in “Wrong,” there are all these creations. Are you making things with your hands, in your studio, and then over-laying it? Or is everything coming out of the computer?
AC: All the weird shit is coming out of the computer. Except for “Wrong.” Where I built all the props myself.
JB: You did.
AC: Wood, foam, meat, metal. They’re hanging here in my studio. I built them in my kitchen in my Chinatown apartment.
JB: What happened when people came over?
AC: My apartment was crazy at that time. All the walls were covered with references, and props that I built.
JB: It sounds like it was a pretty organic extension of who you are and what you care about.
AC: Yes. It was a turning point where I left my old routines as a photographer and started something I was not quit sure of at the time. like I couldn’t hold it up against anything. It just felt important for me.
JB: That’s a part of the philosophy. It has to be personal, and it has to be important, and it has to be authentic to us. One place where people do get caught up in being derivative is they’re making their work based upon what they’re seeing in the outside world. People they want to be like. They’re more reacting than creating.
AC: Yeah, I hear that all the time from my interns. They’re talking about this photographer, and that photographer. Two days later, they show me an image that they almost copied.
I just did this work because it felt right for me. It was the ultimate way of expressing myself, telling the world who I was, and what I found interesting or funny. I wanted to use photography in a way that it wasn’t used before or at least make the attempt.
I didn’t want to become Ryan McGinley, or someone.
JB: But both he and you have both photographed Tim Barber, so you do have that connection.
AC: Yeah, and we both live In Chinatown
JB: I had no idea.
AC: But the point I’m trying to make is that I wasn’t trying to be someone, or care about that stuff. It was just a piece of work that I wanted to do, and I had a lot of fun doing it.
JB: It comes through. Experimentation and risk-taking are ultimately what lead people to innovate. You can’t know what it’s going to look like before it’s done, in the beginning. You have to feel your way towards things that you don’t know how to do.
But I want to shift gears for a second. There’s something I want to give you a hard time about. You live in New York. You’re used to it.
AC: Give it to me.
JB: Some of the most striking images in “Wrong” depict nude women. Naked people. Your publisher, Aron, even told me, when I pointed it out, that one of the nudes is the best selling image.
In “Hester,” it’s all naked women, fused together with you. Is that right?
AC: Yes a pile of images of different models collected (photographed) over time. Including images of my own body like muscles, and my bone structure. For me its just process of gathering martial.
JB: It’s Frankenstein Art. But I also saw something on your agent’s website where you did another series for “S” Magazine where you did a whole set of manipulated nudes. Boobs on butts. That sort of thing.
JB: So here’s what I want to know. I saw on Twitter last week, where the Guggenheim was doing some Twitter promotion about the John Chamberlin exhibition. One tweet said something like “Chamberlin said his work was not about America’s car culture.” And my response was “Bullshit.” An artist can say whatever they want, but ultimately, if they’re good at what they do, the communication comes from the work itself.
AC: Sure. I also think that abstract expressions doesn’t need a concert reference. Other then maybe subtle gestures.
JB: So, you’ve been photographing a lot of naked women. But in one of the interviews I read with you, I have a quote where you said, “I have no desire to photograph naked girls.”
AC: I have no desire. That’s true.
JB: And yet you do it?
AC: And yet I do it. I can defend it.
JB: Cool. I was hoping to get you defend the statement. Especially as some of the women, at least before they were genetically modified, seemed to be young and attractive.
AC: Some of them were very young and attractive. I have no desire to photograph pornography, or naked women. No desire at all. Except for project I did called homemade that gives very strong associations to porn. But in fact most of the props I used was totally unrelated to a sexual realty. Like an empty illusion.
AC: my intentions was to create something timeless that wasn’t interrupted by contemporary culture. So, the choice of not having any clotting seamed necessary. Like more as seamless and sculptural statement.
JB: But you’re also keeping it within the continuum of Art History. People have been drawing, painting sculpting the nude body forever. Is that a part of it for you, to make it a Post-Post-Modern, Post-Punk version of Classicism?
AC: Yes it could be be post post modern, hester has strong sculptors ideas and i guess I’m trying to prove that there is no difference from a sculptor working in clay and shaping his sculpture from me working on my digitizer. I think if you work with photography in a way where you build forms and shapes in the traditions of art history I could be perceived as sculptural art. I know a print is still a flat surface, but my hope is that it will gain a value as an object.
JB: I have to think about that.
AC: It’s just different materials. It’s just because photography belongs to a certain idea, and there are certain people doing it. I think that doesn’t have to be true anymore.
JB: In every interview I’ve done, give or take, we always end up coming back to this idea of the words we use to describe what we do, whether it’s journalism vs art, or documentary vs art, or sculpture vs photography. It’s almost like people get so caught up in the language used to describe the objects that it detracts from people looking at an object and just taking what’s there.
AC: But isn’t that the problem with photography, still. Do you think? If you take it into the Art World, photography is still considered something on the low end, compared to someone who is doing drawing or painting.
JB: The biases do persist.
AC: Maybe people are getting over it. But then, I have been talking to a few high end photo galleries, and they all seemed very interested, and in the end, they all come back to me and said they don’t think they can sell their work to their photo clients because it’s too far away from photography history. The idea is not consistent with what you would expect photography to be like.
JB: This Spring, I was in Houston for this big photo festival, FotoFest, and I had at least five people ask me whether I thought my work should be in an art gallery instead of a photo gallery.
But this idea that photo dealers can only sell work if it’s attractive and conservative, and the further out it gets, the more it has to be consigned to into the Art World. It doesn’t seem very representative of today.
AC: Well, I know a huge gallery in London, which I won’t name. They represent big, famous, established photographers. I think it has to do with money. A lot of what they do, where they make money, is vintage photography.
They’re afraid if they bring in something like this, they’ll scare away their clients. That is the feedback I’m getting.
JB: Do you take that as a compliment?
AC: Yes, but it’s also a little sad.
Mark Seliger has a his own TV Show on YouTube called Capture (here). Looks very cool.
Gregory Heisler has spent the last quarter century photographing covers for magazines like Time, Sports Illustrated, and Life. In 1994, he was famously blacklisted from the White House press corps for shooting a double exposure of President George H.W. Bush (“The Two Faces of Bush”) for Time’s Person of the Year cover. Since then, Heisler, now 58, has seen photography shift from film to digital and magazines switch from staff shooters to freelancers. Since 2009, he’s been teaching portraiture at the Hallmark Institute of Photography, in Massachusetts. September 30 through October 5, he’ll be teaching a course at the Santa Fe workshops called The Evocative Portrait. —Grayson Schaffer
Grayson: You’re a professor now?
Gregory: It’s like camera school—vocational school. It’s for people who really want to take pictures for a living. They wouldn’t be there to become a curator. It’s very hands on.
Grayson: Like you’ll be doing at the Santa Fe Workshops.
Gregory: At the workshops there’d be a little more theory and a little more emphasis on the philosophy of it. The classes that I teach are that but the emphasis is more on craft.
Grayson: In your workshop, what kinds of skills will you be working on.
Gregory: It’s kind of a color week, the emphasis is on color, so we’re going to be looking at color from the subjective point of view as opposed to the objective. Not looking for correct color or accurate color, we’re going for color that’s more about feeling. So I would say, a lot of our time is going to be spent looking at ways to express ourselves, particularly in the context of portraiture. To express oneself creatively using color and light.
Grayson: What do you mean by color? Lighting, post production, or just subject matter?
Gregory: The emphasis is more on working with light in ways that are expressive. Not big deal lighting stuff with huge strobes. It could be ways of manipulating ambient light, it could be very simple. There’s sort of a whole spectrum of ways to do that.
Grayson: Where are you in your own work, are you still producing editorial pictures?
Gregory: Yes. Less frequently because I’m doing the teaching gig, but because I’m an artist in residence, I’ve still been able to accept commercial jobs, and what I’ll do is I’ll make little videos on the side that I then bring back to the school and show the students the next day. I did a cover for Sports Illustrated about three or four weeks ago of Lebron James. They called Friday for a shoot on Saturday, and the magazine was on stands by Wednesday. I had videos to show the class on Tuesday. It’s very timely. And the two things really dovetail well together.
Grayson: How has your work evolved over the years. You used to have that iconic, TIME magazine, medium- and large-format format film look. Is that still how you’re producing pictures?
Gregory: I was shooting lots of large format portraits then but I’ve since changed to digital, where you have so much more control. There are millions of things you can do with digital; you can be more spontaneous, and you’re more in control of your color palette. Also, sort of counter-intuitively, I’m now working more simply because of digital. I’m working less with strobes and more with continuous lighting—LED’s, Tungsten, etc. and working to make very simple images. I did a series of images for the National Arts Club in New York, of different authors, and writers, and those are some of my favorite pictures I’ve done in the last several years. They’re very simple, all done on black backgrounds, very quiet. But they’re really beautiful. It’s just a different kind of portrait for me.
Grayson: Interesting, so this Lebron cover, did you shoot that with a 5D or a digitial Hasselblad?
Gregory: That was actually shot with a Hasselblad and strobes, which contradicts everything I just said.
Grayson: It does seem like as you see people using smaller and smaller kits. That Hasselblad is used more for magazine covers than anything else.
Gregory: That’s probably true. It’s such a funky camera. They designed it from the ground up but they designed it in landscape view. It’s a landscape camera. And basically 99 percent of people use it vertically, and it absolutely sucks to use vertically. It doesn’t have a vertical shutter release, the viewfinder’s on its side, and the camera hangs off the tripod. If they were designing a camera from scratch they could have designed a vertical camera, or a revolving back, but they didn’t, which is kind of shocking. I’m sure somebody will come up with something like that sooner or later.
Grayson: When I look through your older work, it seems like people would hire you to do all kinds of images. I can’t point to one specific style and say that it was you who shot it. But these days it seems like art directors are hiring for a really specific look—a schtick. Is that something that’s changed over time?
Gregory: That’s a very accurate perception. These days it might be someone like Platon who might have a very specific look or style for the pictures that he takes and that’s something that people want. Twenty years ago it might have been William Coupon, who was doing things in a very specific way, on a painted background, and all his pictures were the same. That’s always been surprising to me because… well, actually, it’s not surprising. Art directors want a sure thing.
Grayson: Is it as simple as that? Art directors want to play it safe?
Gregory: Yeah, it is. I hate to say it because I think people are risk averse these days more than ever. Before they even pick up the phone, they know what the picture’s going to be. So there’s a certain comfort in that, a certain security that they can lay out the cover of the magazine and kind of know what it’s going to be. They can put one of his other photographs in its place and have an idea what it’s going to be, and they can sell that to their editor. The last thing people want is a surprise, these days. The weirdest thing to me is that magazines would never do this for their writers. They would never hire a writer who writes for another magazine; they want to have their own stable of writers. Newsweek would never hire a TIME writer, and TIME would never hire a Newsweek writer—but they would both hire the same photographer to shoot a cover for them. In fact they want to be in the club in a way. These magazines don’t have enough confidence to have their own style, so they use a borrowed style. That is shocking to me, but your perception is very accurate. It’s a way to be more commercially viable, but to me, that’s not having a style, that’s having a schtick. To me, style is like your fingerprint. Nobody else has it. A schtick is like gloves. You can buy them and put them on. Technique is like that. Anyone can set up their lights in the same way these folks do and come up with largely the same results. Not the same pictures, but largely the same result.
Grayson: When you come to a picture, it’s got to be more difficult if you don’t know, for example, that you’re going to put somebody in a chair and shoot them from ankle level. How did you figure out that you’re going to shoot Lebron over plexiglass in your recent SI shoot.
Gregory: You kind of figure out every picture from scratch, which is not to say I never do pictures that I’ve done before—but I really try not to. Whenever I get an assignment I try to think how to shoot this person for this story in this magazine at this point in time.
Grayson: Do you have a series of questions that you ask yourself? Ways you think about it?
Gregory: Those would be them. If you’re shooting Bruce Springsteen for Rolling Stone, it would be a different picture than shooting Bruce Springsteen for TIME or Fortune. There’s no reason those pictures should all be the same. One story might be talking about his latest release, another might be about his fortune, another might be about how he stays fit. Those are all different images, and that to me is what makes it interesting—trying to figure out how to tailor the image specifically for that person. There’s no reason you’d shoot Mother Theresa and Newt Gingrich the same way.
Grayson: How long does it take you to think of these things?
Gregory: Sometimes day, sometimes not until you’re walking into the room. And even then, sometimes it all goes out the window. A lot of the challenge and the reason for the success of those one-shot photographers is that their pictures almost have to be subject proof. Because you usually only have a few minutes with the person. You never know who’s going to walk into the room—whether they’re going to be friendly, grumpy, sick of photographers, or between meetings.
Grayson: On the opposite side of the spectrum from being subject-proof, do you have photo shoots that fail from time to time?
Gregory: I think they all suck. The picture I was hoping for is never the picture I get, but yeah, I think they fail all the time. Fortunately my clients don’t think they do, so I can continue to have a career. But I just look at them and think, ugh.
Grayson: You’ve had some fairly well known people work for you. Who were some of them?
Gregory: Dan Winters worked with me for awhile about 20 years ago. There’s a guy named Gregor Halenda. We used to joke that he hadn’t earned the “y” yet. He just relocated from Manhattan to Portland. He’s terrific. He does a lot of stuff with still life and motorcycles. There’s a guy named Monte Isom who just worked with me freelance, and he’s doing well. It’s interesting because it takes so much to be a good photographer. Some of it is the industry, some of it’s your personality. People aren’t hiring just a picture, they’re hiring someone they can work with. That plays a big role .
Grayson: Do you ever feel threatened by the success of your former assistants?
Gregory: No I think it’s gratifying. It’s awesome!
Grayson: It’s interesting, because you definitely meet both kinds of photographers—the proprietary kind and the generous kind—but it seems like the guys who are really at the top of their field recognize that they’re doing something that can’t be easily replicated and are willing to share what they know.
Gregory: My brother used to say some people have an “inferiority simplex.” It’s not that they’re under the delusion that they’re inferior; they actually are inferior and they secretly know it. I think that’s what those photographers are like. They’re very jealous.
Grayson: What about your work flow?
Gregory: It varies with the client. For SI, they’re on a very tight deadline, and they want raw send-offs. So they want files FTPd right from the shoot. That stuff goes off, and at that point let go of it. Later, I’ll send them processed jpegs with what I think it should look like, but it’s up to them whether they abide by that or not. In the case of Lebron, it pretty much looked the way it was supposed to look.
Grayson: So when you send them jpegs, you’re monkeying around in Lightroom or Photoshop, burning and dodging to get it where you want?
Gregory: Well yeah, in the case of Lebron, it was kind of done. We had five or ten minutes with him, but we’d spent the better part of the day messing with lighting, so as soon as he walked in it was good to go. We did a global correction with a digital tech on set and then sent them off. Normally I do all my own post work. It’s not that I do it better than anyone else, I just do it my way. I make decisions. People who print at labs are probably far better printers, but they won’t make my decisions mid-process. I don’t want to be out of the loop. I want to be a photographer and do all of it.
Grayson: On Lebron, what were you using?
Gregory: That’s a funny one. The picture was actually set up to photograph him with the NBA trophy, which ended up not getting used. The trophy is a highly polished golden globe—so I wanted a good reflection, which is more like a still life than a portrait. It’s difficult to cast the light. Even an octabank would leave a spot. So I got a 12-foot roll of white seamless paper and pounded the light through it. It’s very diffused soft light, but it’s incredibly inefficient. The light off him was like f4. But on the other side of the seamless it was like 90. The seamless is opaque for all intents and purposes. I don’t remember using gels.
Grayson: Were you an early adopter of digital?
Gregory: No. I went along kicking and screaming. Digital held no romance for me at all. I hated it. I miss my big cameras. The working process, I miss it.
Grayson: But you figured out how to do it?
Gregory: Yeah, I pretty much put a clothespin on my nose and took a plunge. It’s amazing, but it’s weird to be on the far side of a learning curve. And it’s always like that. If you learn how to use a Deardorff, you’ll always know how to use every 8×10 camera. You’re good to go. But if you learn how to use the 5D and then the 5DMKII, each one is a little bit different. They have different focus points. If you want to switch from Aperture to Lightroom, you have to learn how to do all that stuff. It’s a constant learning curve which I hadn’t signed on for. I wanted to grow in terms of making pictures, not adapting to new software and technology. But that’s the game now.
Grayson: Any look, any style, any era, all available at the touch of a button, now.
Gregory: Yeah, there are a lot of decisions to make, creatively. Now, with digital, you can really be the author of your own work. From the beginning to the end of the process, you control everything.
Note: We’ve partnered with Santa Fe Photographic Workshops to interview several of their instructors for upcoming workshops that we find interesting. If you want to join Gregory in Santa Fe for “The Evocative Portrait” go (here).
APE Ed Note: I’ve worked with Jeff quite a bit in the past, so when I heard about the inspiring lecture he gave at Chris Orwig’s class I asked if he would conduct an interview for us. He’s an amazing person to work with, so I know you will enjoy his perspective on the industry.
Learning photography is easy – there are so many articles, books, blogs, videos, workshops, and schools. Yet, becoming a photographer is a completely different story; it’s a journey that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a pursuit that requires a mixture of knowledge and experience. And one of the best ways to bolster your own skills is to spend time with those whose have forged their own path.
At the photography school where I teach, we take this concept seriously and therefore work hard to bring in photographers of all stripes to give guest lectures and presentations in order to inform and inspire. The guest lecture roster for our school includes a huge range of legendary photographers from people like Yousuf Karsh to Steve McCurry – you get the idea. One of the more enlivening of these lectures was recently given by Jeff Lipsky. Jeff is a highly accomplished photographer, and his images are authentic, down-to-earth, and full of life. A few of the students who heard Jeff speak said it was life changing. So after the talk, I decided to spend a few minutes with Jeff and asked him the questions below in order to try to capture a bit of what he shared.
CO – Take us back to the days of living in the mountains in Colorado, fly-fishing and snowboarding. How did you go from there to here?
It all started with a road trip. After graduating from college (Boston University), I strapped my skis on top of the car and didn’t stop until I reached Telluride. I wanted to ski for a season but ended up staying for 10 years. It was one of the best times of my life. Snowboarding had just been opened up on the mountains, so there were all these amazing ascents that hadn’t been snowboarded before. I snowboarded 200 days a year, and my biggest worry was whether to wear goggles or sunglasses. I was a free rider, and I wanted to float in the trees. The camaraderie and friendships were amazing. Along the way, I picked up fly-fishing, and became a guide met some fascinating people and became exposed to photography.
In the later years of my time in Telluride, I became more and more interested in photography. I was shooting landscapes and some portraits. I was inspired by a bunch of photographers; one was Ace Kvale. One day, Ace gave me his F4, which opened some new doors. I started spending 8-9 hours in the darkroom. I became obsessed. I decided that I wanted to become a photographer, which led me to working for the Telluride newspaper for a year where I became acquainted with the environmental portrait. I loved it. Then I made the leap and decided to move to Los Angeles.
CO – How did a ski bum from Telluride break into the LA photo scene?
I went to LA knowing that it was how I was going to learn photography. Instead of going to school, I worked in a grip room at Smashbox Studios. There, I was able to be a fly on the wall and see how it all worked. I saw how some photographers shot a huge campaign with a truck full of lights, while others didn’t use any lights at all. Eventually, I started assisting. At first, I didn’t know what roll film was, and the first photographer I assisted gave me his camera and said, ”Learn how to load it.” I was hooked.
I started assisting for all of these amazing photographers, working on everything from editorial to fashion. But I was also constantly shooting pictures. I’d ask for the left-over film after a shoot and then ask the assistant stylist and assistant makeup artist if they would help out. I photographed everyone I knew and friends of friends. I tested almost every girl and boy on the Ford model agency board at one time. I paid my dues testing so many models. I was crazy. Once, Ford sent me to Chicago and got me an apartment, and I tested 4-5 people a day for a week. I rocked it out. I tested nonstop. I was always shooting. I was trying to take photos that I like to look at. I was always trying to find my vision.
CO – How did you eventually find or clarify your vision?
As I progressed, I discovered that my vision was tied to who I am. What I mean is that I always wanted to do darker, moodier portraits like Paolo Roversi or Nadav Kander, but that’s not who I am. I like my photos to have more of an upbeat feeling… Something organic, natural and maybe whimsical. But at first, I didn’t have the words for it. Then I put together my first book and shared it with a few people. Someone told me what my style was before I knew what it was. Sometimes it takes an outsider to say it like it is.
CO- With that in mind, what is it that you’re striving for in your pictures?
I like to portray people in the best way for who they are, and I’m always searching for the real moment. I like people to be really laughing at a real joke. I like real emotion. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. Like recently, I wasn’t connecting with the subject until her boyfriend walked in and her eyes lit up! I had the boyfriend come next to me and talk to his girlfriend. If I don’t get it, I find other people to help out. Often, finding the real moments means looking for the break in between the frames when the subject isn’t staring into the camera but has emotion coming through. I keep shooting until I see that moment. Then I move on.
CO – Let’s get back to how you started out. After all that assisting and shooting, what was your first big break?
While I was assisting on a shoot, I happened to be talking with a magazine editor and we realized that we had a mutual friend. She said, “If you’re ever in New York, come by. I’d love to see your work.” I had to beg, borrow and steal, but that next week I went to New York and “happened to be there.” I called her up, and she graciously looked through my book and said it was good. She also said to feel free to send her my work. I sent them a package every week. Eventually, this connection led to a few others, which led to the big break.
Premiere magazine asked me to do their Sundance portfolio. Man, that was it! I went go to Sundance and found an abandoned office. In that space, I built a makeshift studio with floors and walls. There was a big window, and I had a few light sources. Then the talent came through, and I got to spend 15 minutes with each. It was unreal— Francis Ford Coppola, Jessica Lange, Bob Dylan, Al Pacino and so many others. From that point on, I was established. I began shooting more commercial and editorial work.
CO – For who?
For commercial, I worked for clients like Eddie Bauer, Haagen Daz Showtime, JBrand, 20th Century Fox. On the editorial side, I picked up work for magazines like Men’s Journal, Outside, Esquire, Glamour, Woman’s Health and Vogue. It’s been a pretty good ride.
CO – At our school, our students often discuss the business/money in shooting editorial versus commercial. What are your thoughts?
First, you should never be in photography for the money. Be in it for the passion of shooting. And sometimes the less money you have, the better it is. It gives you more drive when every shot you take has meaning to it. It makes you strive and set goals.
For me, editorial is my driving force, my lifeblood. I love the creative freedom of shooting editorially. It is an amazing outlet for creativity, and it helps me hone my advertising skills.
When you take something down to the bare minimum, it is better. In commercial work, there can be so much production. And in those situations, you have to shelter the subject from all of that. They don’t need to know that there are 5 trucks full of lights. If I’m shooting a big celebrity, a lot goes into making them comfortable. I’ll shoot at a beach house, even though I don’t need the beach. It’s the setting that helps to get them unguarded. Editorial shooting helps you to learn how to do that.
On the other hand, commercial work is more of collaboration. It’s important to be able to get the creative task done efficiently and in a way that the client is happy, that I’m happy and that some beautiful work has been created. So in a sense, for me commercial and editorial work go hand in hand. And there has to be some sort of balance. If you only shoot commercial work your work looks too commercial – same thing with editorial. The two balance each other out.
You also have to diversify within commercial and editorial. If your just one type of photography you’ll die. I do music, food, travel, celebrity, lifestyle… and in doing a lot you still have to keep your style. That’s one of the most important things you can do.
CO — What are you working on now?
I’m always working on something – that’s what keeps in interesting. I just shot an ESPN cover of Sharon Stone, which was really cool. And I just finished a great a great portrait series for an outdoor client of famous mountaineering families. It was with some of the most inspiring people you could ever meet – people who have been on top of Everest 5 or 6 times with out oxygen.
CO — It seems like you shoot such an interesting mix of things, what else have you been doing?
Well, a few weeks back, I finished up some album packaging for Lady Antellebum and Keith Irving. And I’ve done some recent covers for Outside Magazine, a few covers for Woman’s Health. I created portraits of Ohau North Shore Lifeguards for Men’s Health. And most recently, I just finished up shooting the cast of the Real L Word for Showtime. Next week I’m off to Mexico for another shoot. It is an interesting mix and that is one of the things that keeps me motivated and inspired.
CO – Any last advice advice to the aspiring student?
Target who you want to work for and go out and meet people in person. It is the single most important thing for getting work. And use every resource that you can to learn. Assist for as many other photographers as you can as a way to learn the business. And constantly shooting while you are assisting. I’ve always felt that it boils down to timing, tenacity and talent. You have to be at the right place in the right time. There’s a reason why I moved to Los Angeles. You need to be where it is happening. Tenacity – constantly produce work and get it in front of the right people. If someone doesn’t like your work, that’s ok. Have the self-confidence in what you do and press on. Talent – it comes from learning from your own mistakes. Go to photo editors and other photographers and ask them for input. Listen to their advice, yet stay true to what you want.
“I tend not to spend a lot of time with the sitter beforehand.”
“When I meet them it’s when they sit down or stand up in front of the camera and I let it go from there.”
“I’ve always chosen some lighting that I think is appropriate for the way that I want to see that person, but I’m often wrong.”
“Very often what I thought would be appropriate really isn’t and I rethink it. That’s when it gets interesting.”
Nadav Kander’s website is (here).
Michael Wolf was not happy about a move to Paris that he had to make with his wife who had a job offer there in 2008. He felt that a city that had been photographed as much as Paris and was full of clichés had nothing to offer him as a photographer.
He started exploring the city using google street view, one thing led to the next and he started photographing the scenes he saw on the monitor. It turned out to be a totally different way of looking at the city.
He’s been asked many times “when does a google street view picture become a Michael Wolf picture” and he says “as soon as I determine how I crop the image.”
Find out more about Michael Wolf and his process in this fascinating profile by Foam:
More can be found on Foam For You.
Foam For You is an online resource which features professional photographers providing inspiration and advice for amateurs looking to improve their own work. At the core of Foam For You’s content is a series of extended films about the work of three internationally renowned artists: Michael Wolf (USA), Jessica Backhaus (GER) and Melanie Bonajo (NL). They have given Foam exclusive access to their working practice in three fifteen minute documentaries. They explain the thinking behind their work and, in particular, how it relates to themes taken from different issues of Foam Magazine, in which their work appeared.
Photojournalist and Academy Award Nominated filmmaker (Hell and Back Again) Danfung Dennis and his fledgling immersive video company Condition One just received half a million in seed capitol from tech visionary Mark Cuban. As was first reported on GigaOm in a story titled “Is Condition One the future of video? Mark Cuban thinks so” Danfung just graduated from TechStars’ New York class last Thursday and is “embarking on a pilot program with Mercedes, Discovery Communications, XL Recordings, The Guardian and Popular Science.”
You can download an app showcasing the technology in the itunes store (here). It’s exciting to see a photographer pushing the limits of technology for storytelling.
Dennis believes this video can be used in a number of settings, from live music and sporting events to more traditional documentaries. He said creating video with Condition One results in a much more transparent portrayal of an event or story because it doesn’t involve traditional editing and framing techniques.
“There is less control and less ability to filter and it’s harder to construct a narrative,” Dennis said. “We’re taking the power of a still image and the narrative of film and marrying it with virtual reality to make a new experience that’s highly interactive.”
Known for his humor and pitch-perfect execution, Chris Buck is go-to photographer for any magazine that’s trying to illustrate an abstract concept. Ahead of Buck’s Santa Fe workshop, the first week of July, Grayson Schaffer interviewed the 48-year-old New York–based photographer on the subject of creativity and, specifically, how Buck has so damn much of it.
Grayson Schaffer: What are you working on right now?
Chris Buck: We’ll I’m actually not sure how to answer that question. I’ve got a couple of editorial things. Just finished shooting and now I’m preparing for another. One for GQ, and I’m trying to shoot for The Guardian weekend magazine. I’ve got a book coming out in the fall so I’m prepping for the release of that.
GS: Is that top secret?
CB: No, it’s a series of portraits of celebrities in which they’re not visible. Environmental portraits. The celebrities are hiding in the environment.
GS: Very cool. You’re sort of known for having a never ending stream of original concepts in addition to great lighting and execution. How do you come up with this stuff?
CB: You know, I guess I always have my eyes open. To some extent anyone who does interesting work it feels like there are interesting things that could be done or should be done that aren’t. Eighty percent of our culture out there is either not interesting or annoying to you. The other 20 is actually kind of interesting. But even within that you always feel like there are interesting things that aren’t being done. I think creative people kind of feel like they want to fill that void.
GS: So your creativity comes from noticing absences?
CB: Just trying to makes things more interesting where they may be underachieved. I’m sure people look at my work and feel that way. Sometimes they achieve great things with my work and other times they don’t. But the story still needs to run. What I’m striving for is to do something that’s a little new and exciting and maybe a little magical.
GS: But you also have a sort of humorous, highly irreverent sort of thing going on too—the Ken dolls for instance. Are you naturally irreverent?
CB: You know I never really intended to make pictures that would be perceived as being funny. I’m the kind of person where if I see a joke, I can’t help but put it in there. The humor ends up being subtle because they aren’t gag photos. Recently a person described my work as dead serious but totally funny at the same time. The work is clearly serious in intent and visually ’m trying to execute in a way that tells the story and is visual at the same time but it’s almost sort of like when you’re a young man and you’re not athletic, you sort of have to be funny if you want someone to pay attention to you. I’m just translating my juvenile class clown thing into my photograph. It was never intentional, I just can’t resist putting in a little humor.
GS: When most people try and execute a humorous photo, it’s usually too obvious and over the top and, as a result, fails. You seem to hit the right balance every time.
CB: Well thanks. I think it’s probably because humor isn’t the first aim. To make something a little odd and interesting. If humor can be slipped in, than it works. But many of my photos, I don’t feel like there’s humor in them at all. Like the series of hidden portraits, people are going to think those are really funny. It’s great, it’s certainly the most subtle humor ever. It’s like when a comedian comes on stage and people start laughing because they associate them with their previous work.
GS: For people who are going to come to your workshop, I would argue that you can’t teach that sort of spontaneity and creativity. What do you think?
CB: It is a portrait class, that’s the area I’m most interested in. And it’s called “The Surprising Portrait,” but my definition of surprising is not as narrow as one might imagine. I’m not looking for people to shoot more like me. The aim is to help them make portraits that will be surprising for their audience in whatever way that might be. It’s still looking to nudge them a bit and do something a little more adventurous. To engage with their subject. I’m very much about the finished picture and not about the process. Interacting with your subject is important but only insofar as it leads to better portraits. Different people do that in different ways. I’ve met great photographers who deal with their subjects by shooting them very differently than I do and they get great portraits. But there are certain things that lead to better portraits fairly consistently.
GS: Are you one of those light, funny, chatty guys?
CB: I think I vary it up. Sometimes I’m chatty, sometimes I’m quiet. But they’re all going to the same end. I’m looking to set my subject up in a way that gets the reaction I want or need from that particular session. Sometimes it’s relaxed and comfortable, sometimes it’s bossy and manipulative. Sometimes I want them to be uncomfortable. It depends on what it is. Sometimes I’m looking to establish that this is my shoot and I’m in charge. When I was initially shooting, as a young photographer, I was doing that, but it was less self-conscious. I have an end goal of this kind of picture and I’ll do whatever I have to to get there. It was sort of instinctual. But now I think it’s a little more self-conscious, though there is certainly still an intuitive aspect. The subjects are largely ready to go on the ride. I had my portrait taken yesterday by a former intern, and I recognize the fact that it’s their job to put me in the place they need to get the shot they want. Particularly with celebrities I think people often look the the celebrity to direct the shoot and that’s a very difficult road to go down. Most of them just want to be told what to do. They’re the passenger and as a photographer, you’re the driver.
GS: In your class, will you cover any of the technical side?
CB: I’m really focused on the aim of the picture. For me, I do a lot of post work, but the look is still natural. Sometimes I’ll shoot with natural light and do detailed plates and put the plates together in post, so the picture will look photojournalistic, but it will actually have been put together with a number of plates. The experience I want for the audience is largely pretty traditional and natural, but I’m not shy about using technology in the execution or in post to achieve the experience for my audience as I want it. The same thing for many of the photographers taking my class. I don’t have any pretense that the way I do it is “the way.” As long as the finished work is engaging for the audience. I never want the technical to upstage the work. For instance, Cindy Sherman’s work is very technical but it doesn’t get in the way of the work.
GS: Who should take your class?
CB: People who know they’re on to a good thing but are having a hard time closing the deal. It’s for people who have that vision and they want that vision on the page through their images.
To join Chris at Santa Fe Photographic Workshops for “The Surprising Portrait” go (here).
Note: We’ve partnered with Santa Fe Photographic Workshops to interview several of their instructors for upcoming workshops that we find interesting.
Montana-based photographer Kurt Markus has spent the last half-century photographing for magazines like Vanity Fair, GQ, and Outside. Though he’s shot fashion, sports, and celebrities, he’s probably best known for his iconic black-and-white photos of Cowboys and scenes from the American West. He’ll be teaching a course at the Santa Fe workshops, starting June 24, called The Portrait: Finding Your Voice. He spoke with Grayson Schaffer from the set of a Vogue Hommes shoot in Georgia.
Grayson Schaffer: What are you shooting today?
Kurt Markus: A cool young guy named Sean O’pry. I guess you could call him the current face of the moment. The idea of the shoot is to come back to his hometown, sort of like when Dennis Stock went to James Dean’s hometown’ in Indiana. I’m photographing him in the place where he grew up— a little town about 15 miles outside of Atlanta.
GS: All natural light?
KM: I bring lights every once in a while and do my best never to open the case. I consider it a retreat, the last card you want to put on the table. I just feel so much more inspired by the light that’s out there, if you just look and if you’re flexible enough to move around. I’m going to be shooting in this house tomorrow. I’ve got a little set up that I call the ACME lighting kit. It’s something straight out of a Road Runner cartoon. It’s like a hardware floodlight with a daylight bulb and a stand. That’s my idea of lighting.
GS: You can get away with that?
KM: I’ve paid my dues. Believe it or not, when people ask me to do pictures for them, I think they just assume that’s what I do. It’s kind of great. I’ve entered into a zone that I think probably some photographers wouldn’t mind being in. And since I’ve got this pass, I’m using it.
GS: People assume you need 2.1 gigawatts of electricity and a room full of octobanks. In my mind, you’re an exception to the rule. A lot of the better known people use a lot of toys.
KM: There’s been a trend there, really, since Annie Leibovitz brought in auxiliary light during the daytime. Her look became so popular that it became the thing to chase if you were a photographer. I think at a certain point that sort of lighting took over and if you couldn’t do it, you weren’t going to get hired. Now, it’s a difficult situation to retreat from if you want pizzaz because that kind of light made color beautiful.
GS: No matter what the natural light was doing, you had a sure thing.
KM: It just made color beautiful because of the photographer’s control of the light. You could push it into a certain tonal range. And the warmth of the light no matter what the natural light was like at your location. But that’s never been my kind of idea of a portrait, so I was never tempted to do it. I feel like I’ve kind of ridden out the storm. And now I’m doing the best work of my life. Something happens over time that you can’t exchange for the moment. And that’s just loving the person that you’re photographing—not spiritually, but you have to really be into that person because the act of doing a portrait is truly collaborative. And that collaboration may be very subtle, but it’s there. There was a time when I never wanted to do a workshop again. It exhausted me. The digital age was really kicking in, and I didn’t feel like I had anything to offer a beginning photographer because everyone wanted to know about histograms and pixels and I had no language, no experience for that. So I said, let’s not do this again. But I got talked into it again last year. What I found was that no one in the workshop really cared if it was digital or not, and figured “OK, I can do this. I’ve got something to say and it’s worth saying.” I’m believer in workshops. It’s a very energizing and valuable experience that you can’t really get any other way. You go home and sift through the wreckage of the week and pick and choose. And it’s good to know there are others out there trying to be the best photographers they can be.
GS: Your work really is more so about the interaction and the moments and the gestures, rather than the technology. Do you think that sort of knowledge is transferable?
KM: Well again, I don’t want to psychoanalyze this whole thing, but if you think that you can make every picture just based on the technique, like “I want to be Irving Penn so if I do everything just based on Irving Penn’s technique I can do Irving Penn’s pictures,” you’re badly mistaken. It’s a lesson to learn, because you see where he uses light, you know what kind of film he uses and you think you can crack the nut by cracking his nut, but it never really works. That may be frustrating but for some people it’s a revelation that “hey, I’m unique, I do my own pictures.” That’s a difficult lesson to swallow, and I think most of us chase other people’s pictures.
GS: Is that something you did early on? I know you’re self taught. Did you start by trying to emulate other people and over time find your own thing?
KM: I think it’s unavoidable. You, as a writer, are influenced by what you’ve read, in certain cadences and word choices. You may pick up the energy from Hemingway or Cormac MccArthy (if you want to drop some punctuation). And photography is like that too. You get some juice from somebody by, for me, Andre Kertesz, a Hungarian photographer who’s not that well known, but he did these really light, lyrical pictures that were very inspiring to me. Just the idea of being lighthanded that I get from Kertesz that I can actually use. I can’t think of setting up a person to pose for Satiric Dancer, which is one of his photos. I would never want to duplicate that. The title of the workshop I’m doing is “Finding Your Voice,” but it’s actually “finding yourself” and learning to express yourself through your work. Trying to figure out what that is.
GS: What actually is going on in terms of how you run your workshops and how you teach ?
KM: The digital era has really helped to make a teaching process out of it. The first workshop I did, they had film. We had to process it, look at contact sheets, it was labor intensive and by the time you were done, you’d kind of missed the moment. My approach to “Finding Your Voice” is to break down the portrait into subcategories. For instance, the Environmental Portrait. I like the idea that you always have a backstop, something to fall back on. Let’s say you’re photographing artists. Someone like Arnold Newman, who photographed artists, is a really good person to look at. His photographs are very architectural, they’re about shape and design and that’s they key. It’s not about a moment, it’s about a moment made. Arnold Newman organizing a photo to make a very strong statement. There’s that sort of picture making and then there’s picture making in a studio environment where you have to light it yourself. So I’ve got examples of different photographers and how they approach the portrait. Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe which is an intimate relationship, and that’s going to affect the portrait too. And then we have assignments like “make an environmental portrait.” It can be hard to move people off center because we can’t help ourselves. We get in a groove and fall back on what we think works. I really try to limber someone up to take chances. A portrait is an extension of every kind of picture ever made, because in a way, even a landscape is a portrait. It’s a portrait of the photographer.
GS: What about the technical side and process? are you still shooting film, are you shooting digital? What’s your process look like?
KM: I shoot film. I don’t think I could do work that I really believe in with the feel and the look that I want if I was shooting digitally. There’s a certain resistance that I’ve got. But the light coming through a 6×7 Pentax lens hitting on film, is something digital can’t duplicate—and I love the look of it. Then I’ll scan the negative and send the file to someone, they can use it in a publication. It’s pretty rare that I try and make prints anymore because they seem to get in the way. But for I picture that I really love, there’s really no substitute for going into a darkroom.
GS: And you do some of your own printing?
KM: I do all my own printing. At one point I had people helping me, but when I go into a darkroom, it’s my print. I don’t really want people helping me. I don’t retouch. I don’t try and manipulate the image into something I like afterward. 6×7 is a very forgiving medium. Black and white film, these lenses, a slow shutter speed. I’ll photograph women and a lot of time they look flawless, but real. When you’ve had a great experience photographing someone, you don’t want anything to get in the way of someone thinking that’s great looking person.
GS: So if someone brings a film camera to your workshop, is there a way to accommodate that?
KM: Oh I’m sure, but I don’t think that’s an issue, I don’t think anyone is shooting film at a workshop. But I’m teaching portrait making not technique. Everything looks good on a monitor, not everything looks good in print. But if you’re going to live with your photograph it can’t just be a screensaver.
To join Kurt at Santa Fe Photographic Workshops for “The Portrait: Finding Your Voice” go (here).
Note: We’ve partnered with Santa Fe Photographic Workshops to interview several of their instructors for upcoming workshops that we find interesting.
This project isn’t about making actual images, it’s not about creating the worlds largest camera it’s about doing what you love.
I worked with Andrew Southam quite a bit in the past, so when he told me about a personal journey he recently underwent, I asked to publish an account of it on the blog. I think you will find his honest and humble account of what happened to him inspiring.
APE: Briefly tell me about your background in photography, how you came to it and when you found success?
Andrew Southam: I started out in Sydney, Australia in the early 80’s. I was incredibly fortunate to find a job assisting a photographer named Grant Matthews who became my mentor and great friend. I arrived in NYC in 1986 with a decent book and just got on the phone to all the magazines. A lot of people met with me and I dropped my book off everywhere else. I got assigned portraits for Rolling Stone and Vogue, some small fashion pieces for Conde Nast magazines and that began my career in America. A year later Sassy Magazine was started by an Australian publisher and art director I had worked with in Sydney, another piece of incredible luck. I started working solidly for them doing everything from covers and fashion stories to photo essays about teen suicide and a girl on death row in Indiana.
Would you call what happened next a midlife crisis or is it the result of a shitty economy and shrinking photo industry?
When you’re young and new in this industry you have a kind of allure you don’t know you have, I certainly didn’t. I had a lot of success early on which I took for granted. I just assumed it would be all up and up. I went along like that for about 15 years. Of course I had flat spots but I was what you’d call a working photographer with a good reputation. What happened next was really a kind of burn out. I started out taking very personal pictures, shooting very much my own way. This had as much to do with not having the technical skill to do it anyone else’s way as any artistic ideals! But of course over time you learn technique and wind up doing work that you have less personal investment in, money jobs. What happened to me was I lost my sense of ownership of my work, was less invested in it. Inevitably the assignments I was getting reflected this, less exciting work, not being hired to bring any point of view to the job. More being hired as a good technician who could get all the shots finished on time, run a crew, answer a budget, work with talent. All that’s great but I was feeling steadily more unhappy with myself and my career. I can’t blame the economy or changes in the industry. Of course I’ve felt the changes like everyone. But finally I wasn’t feeling inspired and it caught up with me.
What did you do to break out of the funk?
I was feeling pretty desperate. I never cared that much about the money. In the midst of this period I had some good years. But I was really unhappy with the work I was getting and doing. Finally, all credit to my wife who said “just go and stop talking about it!” I went off on a week long road trip from LA to San Francisco. The first day on the road I felt a real panic that I couldn’t take a picture without a client, an assignment, a deadline. I’d spent so many years shooting actresses, models, portraits of people for magazines, I didn’t even see the scenery at first. But after a day I slowed down and started seeing the world and then looking at it through the camera. Then the huge pleasure of just looking through the viewfinder, composing in that rectangle, paying attention to the light returned to me and I got really excited again. It sounds so simple but it really felt like a kind of rebirth at the time.
Tell me more about the dream project you dreamt up?
While I was driving and shooting, I started to see the journey as a road movie. I imagined a man, a woman, a car of a certain kind, motels, restaurants, the road, all the emotional stuff that happens on a long journey. Maybe it starts out romantically, but at some point you’re just so over being in that car and stuck together, you sort it out, you don’t, you have sex, you argue, on and on. So when I returned home, still with that “my life is at stake” energy, and having unplugged for a week from the whole white noise of our lives now, realizing I could do that and just be a photographer and not an e-mailing machine, I buried myself into using the pictures I’d taken as a story board for a series with the man and woman. I worked with a friend who is a great stylist, Kelly Hill formerly at J.Crew. We found two actors, a real life couple, we found a 1968 Cadillac and talked the guy who was selling it into renting it to us for a few days. I wrote a page and a half treatment for my actors describing the trip, this crisis point in their relationship. It was fantastic because then everyone knew what they were feeling, they sort of lived it and I just shot away as if I was making a documentary about them. Because we were together all day, seriously all day, they stopped noticing me which made the whole thing really intimate. I had no crew except my stylist and my tech who like me is great at becoming invisible. My very large edit was then shaped by designer Matt Taylor at Matt Varnish. He helped me refine the narrative, gave the images a treatment to feel like vintage prints left on a car’s dashboard, designed the book, located and supervised the printing, and was really essential to the project being the success it was.
And the job that followed, how did that come about?
My agent at that time had the promo book I made of these pictures at LeBook Connections LA 2011. An Art Buyer from M&C Saatchi, Jenn Sellers picked it up and put it in front of their Creative Director James Bray who was just then looking to solve a problem, how to shoot the men’s Uggs campaign? I was called in to meet with him. I’ve now just shot their second campaign in an on going series.
Is there a lesson here? Did the industry change to be more receptive to this type of thing, did you find different clients, or did you change how you take pictures?
The lesson was pretty profound for me. Clients are out there looking for ideas and photographers with ideas, with a particular way of seeing. There are SO many photographers, so many great technicians and digital has only made this easier. What there are less of is photographers with a distinct point of view. You have to really dive into yourself and find out what you have to say or show that is your own take. My friend June Newton, Helmut’s widow says “shoot your desires, shoot your perversions”. Obviously that served Helmut well! I am not the first photographer to shoot a road trip story but I really made it my own. So when clients saw it, it was exciting to them and they recognized something they could use. So yes, the industry is super receptive to a photographer with a body of work that is their own peculiar, fully expressed take. There is SO much imagery out there now, you can only imagine how they must be scratching their heads in advertising agencies and design companies saying “how do we do this in a different way?!”
I am finding new clients. It’s a process and I feel like I’m just beginning it in lots of ways. Which I’m very grateful for after shooting for 27 years! But I have a handful of great new clients who are asking me very specifically to do my own thing. I couldn’t ask for more than that.
I have changed the way I shoot, or rather I’m evolving. I’m trying to see photographs now in series, like a set of film stills, an unfolding narrative. Rather than trying to get the “perfect moment” I’m trying to be much looser, look for the “mistake” that will make the pictures more exciting. Now I’m arriving prepared with a treatment for the story, a clearer intention of what I want to say.
What does the future look like to you?
It has to come from me. If you look to the industry to see what will come next, it’s too late, it’s already happened. I can’t worry too much about trends, about what other people are doing. I just need to go off alone and think about my take on life and how to express that in photographs. It requires self discipline I have to work on constantly. It’s a muscle you have to develop and that never ends. It’s too easy to sit in my “beautiful cave” as portfolio consultant Beth Taubner calls it, and push around post-its and respond to e-mails. I have to shoot more often for myself and develop that part of my brain and just keep doing it. My advice to anyone in the funk I was in would be: don’t wait to get assigned your “dream job”, it may never happen. Assign yourself and go and do it. I fully appreciate this can expensive but you have to find a way. I am always asking favors of people and seeing how I can cut corners to save money. Some friends will work for you for free. Your excitement is contagious. But clients are unlikely to assign you work if you can’t show them you’ve already done it. The good idea is hugely important in all this.
The other part is get the help and support you need. I’ve recently teamed up with photo rep Sarah Laird, someone I feel really lucky to know. Sarah’s agency is artist driven; the photographer must be absolutely clear on their point of view before she can represent them. She’s into building a career around that, finding the right audience for each photographer’s work. Sarah directed me to Beth Taubner who I’ve worked closely with and I would recommend to anyone looking to reconnect with their work or deepen it. I’ve been working on portfolio and website redesign with Bryan Fisher at Perfect Holiday who is amazing and definitely lifted my presentation. I feel like I’ve surrounded myself with great people who can help me take my work to another level. After already having had a long career I feel really excited and grateful to be doing this.
Congratulations to this years class of 30 photographers to watch:
Meiko Takechi Arquillos
Dominic Bracco II
LaToya Ruby Frazier
Peter Ash Lee
Chloe Dewe Mathews