“I regularly spend more time looking at something than I do shooting or lighting it.”
I greatly admire the work of Christopher Griffith, but I never had the opportunity to work with him when I was photo editing. Each time I tried he was booked solid. He shoots a large variety of subjects yet they all seem to come from the same place. His intense graphical imagery is an Art Directors wet dream. Recently he has launched a new imprint of fine art photography books called Auditorium Editions where he published Blown, an intense graphical study of roadside blown-out tire detritus.
APE: Tell me about your background as a scientist and how it effects the way you work as a photographer?
I was a research biochemist in a previous life. I was in a postgrad program in London when I fell into photography. I had this split life of studying for my degree during the day and doing photography at night and on weekends. I think aspects of my process remain which are very scientifically based in that I really like to explore a variety of things in photography. It is why my career is slightly schizophrenic. I seem to get equal opportunity to shoot still life, architecture, portraits with the odd fashion shoot thrown in for old times sake. It can be really exhausting as I feel I never spend enough time on any single vocation because I am rarely doing the same thing twice. The upside is that we have traveled the world, have gone to some crazy locations and have a real cross section of clients who come to us for a real variety of projects. I guess that is the payoff in not getting pigeonholed into any singular aspect of photography.
APE: You assisted a tiny bit. Tell me how that worked out for you?
I actually never really properly assisted. I started in London in the early 90’s where I was doing a post grad degree and had friends
who were actively assisting old school ad guys. I would occasionally get the opportunity to tag along and get on set and basically just watch what was going on. I did attempt properly assisting for Julie Fisher in London, I think officially for 11 days. She fired me. Apparently I had the air of not wanting to hang around for very long. I never assisted again.
APE: You haven’t always been a still life photographer so why did you make a decision to pursue it and become known as on of the best?
I am flattered that you might think I’m one of the best, but I think that is really a stretch. Still life is an odd one as I only began tinkering with it about 7 years ago and it was done as a way to keep me busy. After my book States was published, my career changed overnight from shooting fashion constantly to shooting a few big ad campaigns a year and there was a lot of time in between. So my agent and I thought it would be a good idea to see if I could treat small objects the same way as I had treated American landscapes in the book. It has gradually increased over time to become about half of the work that my studio takes on.
Years ago when I was shooting the ETRO campaign in the mid 90’s, the creative director Felice Perrini would always go on that I was really in essence a still life photographer. It annoyed me to no end, as we were shooting a fashion campaign at the time. But he was really right. I treat everything as though it were a still life. People, places and things. They are all objects.
APE: Your lighting and of course your backdrops seem incredibly minimalist and that leaves you with almost no room to work. What’s the secret to pulling this off?
I don’t see it as being limiting at all. It is exactly where I like to be. Stripped down and sort of naked. Sounds perverse. But I like to make things look big, bold and sort of heroic. I find it much easier to do this when they are stripped of context because I only have to concentrate on one thing. Truth is I regularly spend more time looking at something than I do shooting or lighting it.
Still life can quickly fall into pack shot photography if you are not careful. You have got to find a way to make it come alive and that comes from taking a really hard look at what is in front of me.
Way back when I was living in Paris, Jenny Capitan had hired me at paris Vogue. I was explaining that if they would just give me better clothes I could do great shoots. She replied, “this is Paris Vogue, everybody gets awful clothes and you are here to make them look amazing.” I have never forgotten this. It is sort of applicable to everything.
APE: It seems like most of the top still life photographers have projects where they explore themes and lighting styles, how important is this?
It’s not really. I don’t come from a still life background, nor a photographic one for that matter. So I have never really seen it done properly. I am always making it up cause I do not really know the rules. So it probably takes me twice as long to get there. I am not that interested in crazy complicated lighting, gizmos etc. I am more about really finding a new way to look at something, or finding new meaning out of things which would otherwise go unnoticed. This has sort of been a theme of all 3 of my books. Forgotten America, the fallen leaf and blown out roadside detritus.
In all honesty, I stick to one front light whenever it is possible. I just find that too many lights end up diffusing out the texture and volume of an object. One light, with grid head and lots of hand-held bounce back reflector cards. It’s not rocket science.
APE: I read about your preference for working with film and honestly I think anyone who grew up with film will always prefer it, but do you think digital will completely replace film at any point?
No, but it is inevitable that film will become an ever shrinking niche market, but hopefully a niche retained for professional still life photographers. There are simply things that digital does not do as well or easily as a plate camera. I am sure many will want to step in and argue here, but the fact is that if you have built your aesthetic on film, getting it right on digital kind of sucks. Yes, it is fast, and it is amazing how much time is saved not waiting for polaroids to cook, but there is so much that needs to be done in post to make it look right. It is amazing how much time is spent on digital files making them look like film. Just get it right on film. Done. With the added benefit that if your hard drives all someday decide to pack up in an electromagnetic storm brought on by the apparently imminent global shift in magnetic polarity… actually having a hard copy would be quite a good thing.
APE: Do your clients still let you shoot film?
Actually, recently clients have been requesting film as I think in this economy they have gotten savvy to the potentially higher costs of shooting digital. Again, I am sure I will ensue a riot with the digital converts here, but if you are shooting still life, digital capture is rarely the cheaper option.
APE: I know you were working on this Blown book project for many years and something disturbing happened, that I can imagine happens to photographers once in a while. You discovered that Horacio Salinas was exhibiting the exact same work at the NY Photo Festival last spring. Were you crushed or angry when you saw it?
It is pretty disturbing when you spend 6 years on something and literally as it is being sent to press as a book, an identical series of images gets exhibited in your backyard. You initially feel completely robbed. It could be sheer coincidence. I really do not know. Ideas are cheap. I am sure I am not the only person to have the idea to explore tires. But this project has been on my site for several years and the images at NYPF were conceptually and executionally identical. He is a really talented photographer, but this is really quite unlike his style. People will come to their own conclusions about the authenticity for both these series.
Blown is now being distributed international, so the only real downside is that the claim to authorship has been diluted here in NYC but, this stuff happens. It is not the end of the world. I am actually more disappointed with those running the festival, as they all knew about the conflict well before the show opened and simply chose to ignore it.
APE: Have you spoken with Mr. Salinas or the person who made the assignment about the pictures?
No. My biggest regret in this is that I did not immediately contact his studio when I heard he was shooting the same thing last February and lay down the book in front of him. I am not sure it would have served any purpose, but at least I would have looked him straight in the eyes and ask him what he if he thought it was such a good idea to continue. I did get to speak with the curator who commissioned the work who admitted to knowing about the conflict from my website, but had standing loyalties to Salinas. Fair enough, but it seemed to be an odd decision when curating an exhibit which claimed to be promoting new ideas in photography.
APE: Got anything cool you’re working on that you can share with us so we can knock it off?
Actually, Blown was the first in an ongoing series of books loosely based on the idea of organizing chaos. Each book from the series will be exactly the same oversized format and design. The idea was to have a generic undesigned look, which is repeated for each title in the series where the images are the driving force behind the book design. The second in the series will be Power Tokyo. It is a series on the insanity of the municipal power lines of Tokyo which I have shot over the past 3 years. It will be released by Auditorium Editions this September. It has partially been on line for some time, so I guess I run the risk again of prying eyes, but I somehow do not see lightning striking twice. I am also working on a show for this September in NYC which will be a more juxtaposed collection of the graphic industrial side of what has become a large bulk of my personal work and then there is a much bigger book project on NYC which I hope to have fully shot by the end of 2010.