More from my series on photographers making the break. I’ve always wondered about photographers who have very strong work that is from a single subject. I wanted to know how you land your first big commercial job with that kind of specific work. Scott Pommier’s motorcycle photography is a perfect example of this so I asked him a few questions.
APE: Tell me how you got started as a photographer?
I shot skateboarding for about ten-years. First just borrowing my mom’s camera and shooting my friends, then shooting for some small local magazines before starting to contribute to magazines like SBC Skateboard, Thrasher and Transworld.
APE: Ok, can you tell me more about being a skateboard photographer? I’m really interested in this because there seems to be a lot of talented photographers in that genre and compared to other sports an emphasis on lifestyle, shooting film, strobes, medium format cameras? What’s up with that?
Skateboard photography, is collaborative. The skateboarders are often performing a trick, solely so that it can be documented. They’re really invested in the process, so as a photographer you’re not relegated to the sidelines. Also, skateboarding magazines have always been driven by the photography, and the editors have tended to be photographers who have continued to allow and sometimes encourage the use of film. So budgets, space in the magazine and story ideas, have revolved around what would make for good pictures, and not necessarily, compelling copy.
The medium-format thing is tied in with that and can be traced back to a photographer named Atiba Jefferson. Many photographers before Atiba had experimented with different kinds of cameras. But when everyone saw the crisp images that he shot on Provia with his Hasselblad 30mm lens, the new approach spread like wildfire. And was quickly adopted other action-sport photographers. As an added bonus, the magazines would often run the images un-cropped. So the large square image would take up one full page, and a 1/3 or so of the facing page. The negative space was filled with the copy for the story and a few incidental shots, and the equation seemed to work out about perfectly for the largely photo driven editorial, it didn’t hurt that partial spreads pay a little better than a full page image either.
As for the emphasis on lifestyle, I’m not sure, but I have a few ideas. I guess it’s partially that the photographers and the skateboarders spend a lot of time together both on and off the clock, so they have access that maybe someone who shoots baseball or something like that doesn’t really have. Photographers will go on tour with a group of skateboarders for weeks at a time,–like rock-and-roll photographers used to– and within this specific world, these guys are rock stars. Style and personality have always mattered in skateboarding, many analogies have been attempted, I don’t think any of them have really captured the essence, “skateboarding is an artform,” “it’s like dance” or “it’s a lifestyle.” It’s not quite like any of those things, but it’s also not exactly a sport. It’s always attracted creative and interesting characters, and that’s always a good starting off point for photographs with some depth and some flair.
Shooting skateboarding is actually quite difficult. I tell people it’s photo boot camp. The bar is pretty high to get your work published, and you have to be able to deliver in any kind of situation. You’ve got a moving target, many times you have shoot a photo that explains the action–you’re shooting a stunt of some kind–so, you need to show exactly how dangerous it is, you need to get the timing just right, you’re shooting in un-permitted locations, so you’ve got security/police to worry about you don’t have much time to setup, sometimes you only have one shot at something. So, there can be a lot of pressure. But you learn how to think and work quickly and how to juggle all the factors that go into making a successful image. It’s a skill-set that translates very well to other kinds of photography.
APE: Cool. Keep going with the career. What happened next?
I got arrested for trespassing while shooting with Ed Templeton. My gear was confiscated and my car impounded. While I was awaiting my trial, I bought a motorcycle. Something I’d always wanted to do.
On my first motorcycle trip I borrowed my brother’s fully manual Contax SLR with a 50mm lens, (because none of the cameras I shot with were light enough to strap over my shoulder) and realized how much you could do with a simple setup like that. I had been known for carrying around a lot of equipment, always trying to up the production value of my shots. It felt tremendous to be freed of all the concerns of what lens, what camera, what lighting I should use and to concentrate on making pictures in a much more spontaneous way. That ended being a real turning point.
Initially, I had thought that what I brought to the table as a photographer was the experience I had shooting dynamic action photos. Punchy, carefully composed shots; in short, drawing on my background in skate photography. But shooting the motorcycle stuff so transformed my whole way of working that the action photos I worked on for so many years, ended up being my education in the mechanics of photography and the more stripped-down approach that stemmed from the motorcycle shots is what really defined the way that I work now.
With skateboarding I learned how to create shots, when I started shooting motorcycles, I learned how to find shots. In my commercial work, I feel like I draw on those two approaches equally. Anyways, so right around the time I was arrested, I lost my retainer with the skateboarding magazine I’d been working for, so I floundered for a year while I tried to figure out what I could shoot to pay the bills. I made a list of companies I wanted to shoot for, and the first name on the list was Harley-Davidson. I googled: Harley-Davidson+ad agency and came up with Carmichael Lynch, went to their website, got a phone number, called the front desk and asked to speak with an Art Buyer (I’m not sure where i’d picked the term up from, but i had very little idea of what an Art Buyer actually did.) They put me through to Andrea Mariash, I asked for her email address and sent her a link to my site, along with a little note about why i wanted to shoot for Harley-Davidson.
I don’t know quite what I expected to happen, I think I really just called and emailed, so I could cross it off the list. like, “okay, tried that,” so I wouldn’t have to wonder what might have been. A week later I got a call from a different art buyer at Carmichael about a Motorclothes shoot (Harley-Davidson’s apparel line). I think she was trying to figure out if i was a just a kid, or if I had any real experience on a commercial shoot. I was pretty much just a kid, and I didn’t have any real experience on a commercial shoot, but I faked my way through the call as best I could, and talked about some work I had done for Vans in conjunction with a broadcast spot they’d done. I remember thinking I’d done really well on the call, but in hindsight I totally gave myself away. They had me bid on the job, so I made a frantic call to the one commercial photographer I knew and he put me in touch with a producer, so I could put an estimate together. I didn’t get the job, and I was crushed, but a year later, Andrea called me out of the blue, woke me up actually, and told me that they’d been following me, and that there were some really big projects coming up, that turned out to be brand ads for Harley-Davidson, which were part of a new line of bikes they were unveiling called ‘Dark Custom.’ And that included a catalog shoot and a book project. It just so happened that they’d been looking for someone who shot skateboarding and motorcycles, and when I’d first contacted Carmichael, this new project was just starting to take shape. That the very first call I made to an agency ended up with me being awarded three jobs with my dream client is something that I can really only fully appreciate now, three years later.
APE: And if that wasn’t enough your motorcycle images were getting spread around the internet on blogs and your other big jobs came from clients calling you. Come on, Really?
Yeah, one of the art directors at Goodby found some of my motorcycle photos on a blog and I ended up shooting the Dickies campaign then the same thing happened with Converse as well. For the most part it seems like even with all the re-posting of my images, the photo credits have stayed intact.
APE: Amazing. I feel like I should end this with some kind of “don’t try this at home” warning because this is definitely not the norm but still fascinating to hear about.