I caught up with Ben Lowy in August. He’s a busy man, juggling family and personal projects with a super-charged career. In the last year alone, he was in Libya, on Jon Stewart, won the photojournalist of the year award from the ICP, and had his book, “Iraq Perspectives” published by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke.
Jonathan Blaustein: Forgive me if I’m a bit slow today, but we’re about to have a kid, so my mind is frazzled.
Ben Lowy: I absolutely love being a Dad. I love having two kids. They’re both in the tantrum stage right now.
JB: Because you bunched them up, right?
BL: Yeah, the oldest one’s about to turn three. And the youngest one is about 15 months.
JB: Oh my goodness.
BL: Yeah, they’re right together there. I love it. The thing is, I have no social life. By the time we put them to bed, at 7:30 or 8pm, we don’t want to go out or do anything. We’d have to do it separately anyway.
Whatever free time we have is either with the kids, or working on the evaporating work environment of photography. You’re holding on by this much. There’s no time to go to museums, or go to a movie. There’s nothing coming in to inspire you.
JB: That was one of my questions for later on, so we can touch back in on that. It might be really interesting to talk about it in depth, because I’m a big believer that input is really necessary to make us grow.
Let’s start with the obvious. You’re in Denver right now. What are you working on?
BL: I am shooting a UFC fight. A cage fight.
JB: When you said Denver, I assumed you were there for the aftermath of the latest psychopathic episode.
BL: I think that was covered right away. And the follow up is just the memorial. I think the American news cycle has moved away from things like that. There’s so much content on the wire services, and people who are out there. It’s sort of like the death of spot news.
JB: So they hire Ben Lowy for the action, not the reaction.
BL: I’ve been here twice, and neither time was for Aurora. I was here last week to shoot Broncos practice for Peyton Manning.
JB: You got to hang out with Peyton?
BL: No, no. I was working for ESPN, and the Broncos blew off ESPN. I got 20 minutes on the training field. That’s how high brow they think they are.
JB: You know why? Because John Elway is John Elway. He doesn’t even need ESPN.
BL: (Pause) C’est la vie.
JB: That was a big pause. Clearly, my amateur response was not quite it. There are more details there, and you’re not saying them.
BL: I wish there was more to it. You know, I’ve been shooting cage fighting on and off for the last 5 years.
JB: I didn’t know that. Is that a personal project for you?
BL: Yeah. I had really bad PTSD after a bomb in Iraq in 2007. And I had no one to talk to about it. My wife was going through her own battles with depression at the time, and was hospitalized. I don’t know if you saw the project she had done on it.
BL: She was in the hospital, and I really didn’t have anyone to talk to. I was starting to feel really guilty about surviving. And then also taking care of my wife. I started, at night, going around the city of New York picking fights. Because I wanted to get beaten up because I felt so guilty.
JB: I wanted to talk to you about how you protect and deal with your psyche. Before I could ask, you started talking about it in ways that are pretty extreme.
BL: I’m an open book. I’ve got nothing to hide. I was pretty fucked up by things that happened in 2007. And I felt really guilty about surviving.
JB: A bomb attack?
BL: A bomb attack. When I came back, I had no way to process it. I tried to work through it, but it just kept getting worse. I used to be a man of infinite patience, and found myself losing it. Little mundane things. Like if I dropped a glass while washing dishes, it would send me on a rant, and I’d end up punching the walls of my apartment. I was so angry.
A lot of it was feeling guilty for surviving, and feeling angry for being out of control. One of the leftover effects, after going through therapy, is that I can’t drink or do drugs. I just can’t do it. And it’s not because of a moral choice.
This bombing happened. This series of IED’s, that destroyed five of the ten car convoy. The last car I got in, I was sitting behind the driver, and was watching how he was driving. Turning the steering wheel here and there. He could have driven over any IED. I had no control over whether I lived or died. My life was in that guy’s hands.
JB: So we’re talking about a convoy of multiple humvees, five of which exploded, and everyone died, and you survived.
BL: A lot of people died, and were injured. Yeah.
JB: And you were there by choice.
BL: Yeah. Yeah. I had just gotten out of a vehicle that I didn’t want to be in. I wanted to be a bit further up to the front, where I thought I’d be able to make better pictures. The vehicle I’d just gotten out of was actually destroyed. Five minutes after I’d gotten out.
JB: For your photography, your method of expression, you’re putting yourself in situations that 99% of our readership are not going to understand. Myself included. But I don’t necessarily want to ask you why you do that, because that stuff has been covered. Do you ever get tired of trying to explain yourself?
BL: (Pause) You know, right now, I’m staying in a hotel. I’ll sit at breakfast with a bunch of other businesspeople. We’ll all be schmoozing, and I’ll tell them what I do. They’ll say, “You were in Iraq?” and I’m like, “Yeah,” and they’ll say, “What was that like?”
JB: That’s what people are going to say.
BL: That question is annoying after a while, but at the same time, how can you blame someone for asking that? You want people to be genuinely interested. You want them to look at your pictures and read the stories.
The one thing I would never ask a soldier is what it’s like to kill someone. That’s a very private thing. Everyone asks me what it’s like to photograph dead babies, or to see people being killed. It’s a very hard question to answer, because we’re all sensitive and empathetic in our own way to different things.
I always knew I was going to be a war photographer, when I first got into photography. I picked up a copy of “Inferno” by Nachtwey, and I thought, this is what I’m doing. I don’t know what it is inside me that let’s me operate. I feel a certain contentedness in doing this work.
Not all combat photographers or photojournalists are close friends. Definitely there’s animosity and rancor and jealousy and envy between a lot of us. It’s a very competitive field. But when you’re in the field, and you’re under fire… I don’t know if you read Sebastian Junger’s book on War?
BL: He talked about the brotherhood of soldiers. Regardless of where you’re from, when you’re under fire, there’s an intense brotherhood. Definitely with photographers, when you’re in the field, and you’re working, there is an intense comradeship. Is that a word?
JB: Dude, it’s the 21st Century. You can make a word just by saying it. Ready? Blart. To blart means…
BL: We’re blarting right now.
BL: But there’s an intense comradeship. You’re part of this organic group, covering something very dangerous.
JB: To be honest, I am less interested in asking you why you do it, and more interested in the effect upon you, which is where you started.
BL: I was picking fights, and ended up joining a fight club. Then a friend of mine introduced me to cage fighting. I started fighting in it myself, but I’m not much of an athlete, and was getting my ass kicked. Which is what I wanted.
Then, I just started photographing it, and it’s been a catharsis for me. Not really the professional level, where it’s more of a sport. But the amateur level, where it’s more of anger. More of an explosive pride and frustration that builds inside the fighters’ hearts. Being around that helped me tremendously.
JB: It sounds like it puts together two different incredibly powerful aspects of your life. One is the anger and aggression that you’re talking about feeling, and the other is raw, primal nature of what they’re doing, which is gotta be what’s driving you to make a living the way you are.
You’re a very bright guy. You know there are a lot of things you could do. It’s not just that you’re capable of doing what you are, but it must be answering some sort of compulsion, no? There are a lot of things you could do, and yet you keep going back.
Kevin Bacon and Bob Gruen talk music photography, shoot backs, cameras, John Lennon and more on Episode 4 of Capture.
A fresh and informative look at the art of photography and the stories behind the images. In each episode, renowned celebrity lensman Mark Seliger invites a fellow photographer and celebrity photography-buff into his NYC studio to share the story behind their images and discuss their common passion.
Jake Chessum is a photographer you will find near the top of all photo editor lists and that’s why I’m so excited he will be joining me Fri, Oct 26, 2012 from 1:30 PM to 3:30 PM for a panel discussion on “Making a Career in Editorial Photography” at the Photo Plus Expo in NYC. I had the opportunity recently to sit down with him at his studio and discuss his career.
APE: Let’s start at the beginning. When did you first get interested in photography?
Jake Chessum: I was 17 years old and I went to see an exhibition by the British photographer John French. I clearly remember going home and saying to my mum, “I want to a photographer.” I had been taking my own pictures for about a year before that, but this was the first time I clearly remember deciding on a career.
But before that, my dad worked for this company that would hire photographers and he used to work with this guy, Chris Morris. This guy always seemed glamorous. He had a sports car and he lived in Holland Park, which is super fancy West London.
Because of this my dad had access to photography. He’d always had an old Pentax 35mm camera when we went on family holidays, and he would shoot black and white and come home with enlarged 16 by 20 contact sheets and massive fiber based prints of all our holiday snaps and our personal photos. This was from when I was about 6 or 7 years old onwards.
APE: You’re kidding. He would make enlarged contact sheets? Why would he do that?
Jake: He enjoyed taking pictures, and because he could. He worked for Wates, which was a home building company and they had a photography budget to shoot an internal magazine, and pictures of the new developments.
APE: So, he’d take in the vacation film as well?
Jake: They were really good photographs. And it was mostly black and white. That’s what probably sparked it. I liked to see prints and see photography.
At the time I was at an all boys private school in Croydon where art wasn’t considered a career path, but when I was 16 I moved to another school where art education was taken more seriously. There were a couple of art teachers there who were really enthusiastic and really encouraging and made it seem like it was a real proposition to make a career out of it. They’d been to art school in Central London.
APE: So, you decided to go to art school in London?
Jake: There was an art school in our town but it was rubbish so we all realized that we didn’t want to go there, so had to put a terrible portfolio in or concoct an excuse why you had to go to one of the London art schools.
APE: How does that work? I don’t understand. Do you automatically get to go to school?
Jake: No your portfolio had to be accepted.
APE: So you would give the local school a crap portfolio?
Jake: That is what the smart people did but I went by the rules. I put in a good portfolio and got in but then I wrote to the local council and explained that they didn’t have a good textile department and I wanted to be a textile designer and this school was not going to give me the opportunities. Miraculously they believed me, as it was a lie. So I was able to attend The Central School of Art and Design (now Central St. Martins) for my Foundation Course.
APE: Did you know that you had a talent for photography? Was it evident then?
Jake: I guess. A decent part of my portfolio was photography. I did this project where I went day and night taking photographs on Chelsea Bridge, and I showed this work to my tutor and she told me, it’s very difficult to define what makes a good photograph, but you know what it is, you can do it. And I thought wow, really? [laughs]
That was ’86 and I remember I started buying The Face and Vogue when I was 16, because I was really into magazine design. So, when it came to choosing a degree, I’d looked at photography courses, but they were all kind of ridiculous, because to make it a valid educational qualification, they had to give it this kind of bogus scientific basis or some kind of quantifiable, gradable quality.
It was all based on technique and technical stuff, and I knew I wasn’t particularly interested in that side of it. I was more interested in the images, making the images. I didn’t really care to be graded on black-and-white printing or that aspect of it. So, I thought the next best thing was the graphic design course at St. Martin’s which had a photography unit, so that’s what I went for.
APE: So, you went into graphic design.
Jake: Yes, I did a graphic design degree kind of knowing that I wanted to do photography. But the great thing about St. Martin’s at that time was it was kind of a free-for-all, do you know what I mean? After the first year I was really unhappy because I was following the course, trying to do the projects and failing miserably. But by the second year a couple of friends and I worked out that if we just went down to the basement darkroom and printed, no one would bother us.
Jake: I mean, it was very vague. They would set a project, and you would either do it or not, and I decided not to [laughs].
APE: But, if you didn’t do the project didn’t you fail?
Jake: You didn’t really get into trouble. I don’t know how I didn’t get into trouble, really. But everything was judged on the end of year show, and I always had a lot of work to show. At my second year show I put up photographs and some type designs. One of my fellow students, Graham Wood (now of Tomato) told me he thought I should ditch the typography and stick to photography. Good advice.
But it was definitely laissez-faire. And I remember people thought that I didn’t do any work all year, but it was because they never saw me because I was in the darkroom all year. I was just standing in the darkroom after taking pictures of whatever on the street, or portraits. I cast a few people in the school that I’d seen around just to try and just get together a portfolio. I also did tests with models as St. Martin’s was in Covent Garden where all the model agencies were.
APE: So school gave you an opportunity to just take pictures?
Jake: It was an amazing time. Now I’ll get calls from people once in awhile saying “What should I do, Should I stay in college or should I get a job?” It’s difficult to advise them to do what I did, because college was free then. I left college in London with a debt of 800 pounds. It’s nothing. So for me…
APE: And three years of taking pictures…
Jake: Yeah, three years of freedom and it was free. It was paid for by the government.
APE: Amazing. That still happens?
Jake: No, now I think you have to pay 9,000 pounds a year. But even that’s nothing compared to here in America.
APE: Do they produce a lot of photographers, is your country just swarming with photographers?
Jake: No, no, and again, it was so long ago, this is 1990 and there were a lot of magazines, like the Face, Arena, ID and Blitz. They had no budget and they attracted up and coming people who were willing to work for pictures because they gave you creative freedom.
Jake: It was a great era. There we so many photographers starting out at that time who are still really successful: Craig McDean, Richard Burbridge, Glen Luchford, David Sims, Juergen Teller, the late Corrine Day. It was an amazing era to be a young photographer shooting in London. It really was a very creative period.
APE: Tell me about your first job?
Jake: I put together a degree show in June of 1990 but I had worked for a few people before that because St. Martin’s was in the center of London and there were a lot of people who had studied there and had good jobs so they would come back and throw a couple of bones to the kids at school.
So I did a few shoots for short-lived magazines. Actually, the day the degree show opened, Phil Bicker gave me my first “real” job for The Face, which was to take a train to Macclesfield, which is a kind of grim, northern town and take a picture of a young rapper. I had to get up there as early as possible, shoot the picture and come back to London for the opening of the degree show. I went on my own with a borrowed Pentax 6×7, a 90mm lens, a 135mm lens, a homemade reflector and a few rolls of tri-x.
And The Face actually wrote a piece about me. They did a double-page spread about six graduates from London art schools and they featured me. Which at the time I was completely blase about. Which is funny because now I’d be super-psyched
APE: So, that was your first job. You graduated from school, got a job and got written up.
Jake: And then I’d go and see people with my portfolio, and I got a few calls from that for jobs. And basically, for the first two years I was green as hell. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know how to run a business, we never had any lessons on running a business, invoicing, nothing.
APE: You just spent all your time in the darkroom.
Jake: Yes, so suddenly you’re like, shit, what do I do? But the amazing thing was, suddenly someone’s saying, oh, can you do this job, it’s 400 pounds a day. That’s still decent money, do you know what I mean?
APE: That was a ton of money for you at the time.
Jake: Then I scored my first ad job off the back of my show, which is bizarre. I got a job for Neutrogena shooting four ads.
APE: Why would they pick somebody who just graduated?
Jake: God bless them, I’ve got no idea. I mean, I think they wanted to use a young photographer. They’d got in a load of books and they got me to do it, and paid me 1500 pounds a day.
APE: Was your work that good back then? If you looked at it now, would you think, OK, there’s some good stuff in there?
Jake: Yes, there are some good pictures. But I didn’t know what I was doing…
APE: As far as running a business…
Jake: Yes, exactly. And running a set, dealing with hair and make up artists, stylists, clients…
APE: You just knew the picture part.
Jake: I’d done a bunch of nudes and portraits of friends, and they were all natural light. But, Jesus. [laughs] I wouldn’t have hired me. I was 23 and green as hell, but I was very enthusiastic.
APE: That was big money.
Jake: Yes, it was 1500 pounds a day for four days at a time when I’d never earned anything. But the funny thing was, they kept saying, we want to do really natural girls, we don’t want these supermodels. So, we did the casting and we cast a 16 year old Kate Moss.
APE: [laughs] No way. That was your first ad job? Kate Moss. Ok, I think there’s some stars aligned for you.
Jake: Yes, maybe.
APE: Something’s going on.
Jake: She was so amazing, she was so charismatic and beautiful. And I remember the casting, because I’d met her like, three or four times. She lived in Croydon where I lived, so I’d bump into her on the train once in a while, although I’m absolutely certain she has no recollection of this. I remember talking to her on the tube platform at Victoria Station one day, I bumped into her and she said, “I’m sick of this, I’m going to give up, I’m getting nowhere,” which is deeply ironic.
So, at the casting, she came in and saw me and said hello and came over and kissed me on the cheek. And the art director’s like, “Who’s that girl, how do you know that girl? She’s amazing, how do you know her?” She was obviously something pretty amazing.
So I did that and I was a living at home so I had no rent to pay and I think in my first year I made 25,000 quid, so for the first year out of college, that’s not bad 20 years ago.
APE: What’s that in US dollars?
Another big break was in December of 1990. I got a call from Dylan Jones who was the editor of Arena. He said, “Do you want to shoot Gary Oldman?” I was like “yeah” until I found out it was at a restaurant and it was lunch with Gary Oldman. He would be sitting there eating his lunch being interviewed.
I said, “Oh, all right, yeah, yeah.” It’s tough. At a restaurant. I didn’t know how to use light or anything. I had no system. So I turned up at this job to meet Gary at the restaurant.
I was first there, and when he walked in I introduced myself: “Hey Gary, I’m Jake. I’m here to take your picture.” He said, “What do you mean? They didn’t tell me there was a photographer. I was like, “Oh, OK.” I said, “OK, I totally understand. Can I just tell you something? I just left college three months ago. This is one of my first jobs, and I know that they told me they want to put you on the cover, but they don’t have a cover shoot. Will you do a cover shoot with me?” He said, “Yeah, call me next week. Come to my flat and we’ll do it. I’ll give you half an hour.”
APE: You talked him into it?
Jake: Yeah. I met him in Chelsea. It was a shitty day. I took my friend, not an assistant and we put a piece of white cardboard up on a children’s playground in Chelsea. No groomer, no stylist, shot a head shot of Gary Oldman, and they put it on the cover. [laughs]
Jake: That was a huge deal for me, first of all that I talked him into it, second that he was an actor who I thought was fantastic. I loved “Sid and Nancy” and “Prick Up Your Ears” and it was the cover of Arena. The main magazines I wanted to work for at the time were Face and Arena.
APE: That’s great. You never assisted anyone?
Jake: I did one day with Kevin Davies. He said to me, “Why do you want to do this? You are already shooting.” I remember, I assisted him on a test and I had to go to do a job in the afternoon so I had to leave to shoot Gabriel Byrne [laughs]. But he was cool about it.
APE: One day of assisting your entire career?
Jake: Yeah, that was it. I went to see another photographer who was well known and I remember, I said, can I assist you? He said, “Fuck off, you’re a rival now.” Those are his exact words to me.
Jake: I’d done one job so I didn’t consider myself a rival. I thought he was amazing.
APE: You’ve probably met a lot of assistants and young aspiring photographers who go to school here. It’s completely different.
Jake: I dread to think what it’s like now to try and start. It must be so hard.
APE: Do you feel like back then the industry was tighter?
Jake: London was kind of small. I think there were a group of magazines that were looking at younger photographers and I think the fact that there weren’t that many photo studios and everybody used to shoot at Click Studios meant there was a sort of camaraderie.
I remember hanging out in the office at Click and Glen Luchford was there and he said, “I sent in one print.” and I was like “What do you mean one print?” I would send in the whole shoot. I had no idea that you should send in an edit. I was completely clueless. I thought, “What are you talking about? That’s ridiculous. How arrogant to suppose that you know more than the art director”. But of course he was right.
APE: So you just picked up little pieces here and there. How to run your business and how to do an edit?
Jake: Yeah, it was a very gradual process. I think in those first few years I was very fortunate that I got to shoot a lot of people who were about to become very famous. Quentin Tarantino, Beck, kd lang, Tricky, for example. So I quite quickly had a celebrity book going. Being trusted to shoot big names, and getting publicist approval is a huge hurdle to jump for any new photographer. But there was also a time where I would shoot anything that was offered to me. I was shooting some terrible pictures, and taking terrible commissions. Because first of all, I didn’t know how to say no. I didn’t have a cell phone and there was no email. If they called you and you picked up the phone…
APE: You had to have an excuse if you didn’t want to shoot.
Jake: Yeah, it was really hard to say no, plus the money was good. I was happy to be asked to do stuff. After a couple of years, I had a conversation with somebody at Arena. I think it was one of the fashion editors I worked with on a job. She’s said, “Why are you doing all these shit jobs, because you’re watering down what you’re good at.”
Then I got to know Grant Scott, who was a great mentor to me, and the Art Director at British Elle. I went into see him after I’d been working maybe two years. He said, “You’re at the point now you’ve got to decide. Do you want to be a working photographer or a good photographer? A working photographer does what they’re offered, a good photographer picks and chooses.”
That was a real big moment for me, because I was only 25.
APE: Then you start turning down jobs?
Jake: Literally that week, I had accepted a job shooting some corny feature for a Women’s magazine, about women who have affairs with their personal trainers or something. The guy called me to talk about the shoot and I said, “Look, I can’t do that job for you.” I had to make a decision and not do this shit anymore, and stick to it. So I said no to that. It was the end of 1992. The economy went to shit and literally I didn’t work for six months. [laughs]
APE: Oh my God. Did you freak out?
Jake: Yeah, I was really freaked out.
APE: You were thinking that was horrible advice.
Jake: No, I thought it was good advice but I was still freaking out.
APE: You didn’t know if you could make a career turning down bad jobs.
Jake: Yeah, yeah.
APE: So what happened? Six months, hardly any work?
Jake: I was making like three, four hundred a month.
APE: Still living at home?
Jake: Yeah, I was fortunate to be still living at home, thank God. Gradually it started to pick up again and I found new routes into different clients, being a bit more picky.
Then Lee Swillingham became art director at The Face and he started to call me fairly regularly to shoot portraits.
In late 93 he called and said, “Do you want to go to the worst area of Los Angeles to shoot Ice Cube?” “Yes.” [laughs] I had been to America twice on holiday. Suddenly I was flying to LA to shoot Ice Cube. I went with the writer to South Central and we had a 20-minute shoot with Ice Cube on the street.
APE: How was it?
Jake: It was incredible. I’d never been to L.A. and we sat with him and he kind of started doing the hip-hop gangster poses. And I said, oh no, I don’t really want to do that, can we do something a bit more…And he went, “you mean, a bit more reflective.” I was like, yes, exactly. So, he sat on the curb and he just hung out.
APE: And you made great pictures.
Jake: Yes, they were good pictures, and then about three or four months later they asked me to shoot The Beastie Boys again in L.A., so I went out with a writer and we went to Mike D’s house. And actually, that’s one of the pictures [pointing to a picture on the studio wall] and that’s the print that The Face ran. I think in that period I shot for The Face literally every month for about three years.
APE: You already have your style here. It’s in that picture.
Jake: I guess it’s a kind of very loose, not overly directed. You kind of work with them just to let their personality do the talking. And they were really funny guys. They were into it, just pissing around for an hour or two.
APE: So, you just kind of fell into that style?
Jake: I think, yes.
APE: It just happened, there was nothing planned about it?
Jake: In the beginning I would look at a book of photographs I liked the night before a shoot, going, what am I going to do, what am I going to do? But that didn’t really work on the day, as all my preconceived ideas went out the window. So I just think, not consciously, that I would go in and suss out the location, then meet and chat to who I was shooting and see where it went. But I talk too much and I’d start talking and kind of see what happens; try and get into a situation where something might happen.
APE: You talk too much, that’s part of your style.
Jake: That’s funny you should say that, because my wife just said, oh, you’re doing the interview today, don’t ramble.
Jake: You know, I just talk and talk and talk.
APE: Every single shoot?
Jake: Yes, if they respond. [laughs]
APE: What happens if they don’t?
Jake: It’s harder. I mean, you can work in silence, but it’s easier if they respond or start talking back. But I remember reading a David Bailey quote where he said he maintained a constant stream of encouragement and I think I do try to do that.
APE: I’ve never been on set with you, but now your pictures make a lot more sense now that you say that. Is that nervous energy, the talking?
Jake: When I do a shoot, the hour before the shoot is the worst hour of my life. I don’t want to be there. I want to go home. I’ll do anything to be on the other side of it. So I think it’s partly nervous energy.
Then suddenly you’re confronted with for example Robert De Niro. He’s walking into the room and you?ve got to do something to get the shot. I’ve shot him a couple of times. It’s intimidating.
APE: He’s not a talkative guy?
Jake: He’s not a very talkative guy.
APE: You’re just talking to him the whole time?
Jake: Talking at him. I’m trying to get something out of him. But what I’ve realized with he doesn’t want to hear how great of an actor he is. He knows how fucking good of an actor he is like all these guys. You don’t want to go in there — although it’s difficult sometimes if you’re a fan — and say, “Oh my god. I love you.” But I think the bigger the star, the smaller the talk. Talk about the weather, or what movie you saw last night, or what you’re doing for the holidays.
APE: You’ve done this for a long time but when you started, did you have some things in your head that you knew you were going to talk about? Or do you just read the newspaper and you know what’s going on?
Jake: Sometimes it’s just current affairs. If they talked to the editor or stylist beforehand, you just gauge what they were talking about and what their level of interest is, how talkative they are. Often I ask the PR, “What’s a good thing to talk about? What does he not want to talk about?”
I don’t overly research the people I’m shooting, but obviously I’ll read and find out something.
It’s funny. Since I’ve had kids, I talk endlessly about them. I’m boring. I’m the fucking worst dad bore. I love talking about other people’s kids because it’s a human thing. It’s not about work.
APE: So if they have kids, you’re talking about kids for hours?
Jake: And then if they want to talk about their kids, I love to hear about what their kids do and we can compare notes.
I say, “What have you got?” And they say, “I’ve got two girls.”
“How old are they?”
“13 and 17.”
I’m like, “Oh my god. I’ve got two girls. They’re seven and ten.” And they’re like, “Oh geez. You’re in trouble.”
If they’re willing to be personal, great. If they’re not…
APE: Does that make better pictures or does it matter?
Jake: I don’t think it really matters. I think it makes the session easier. I shot a big job last week for Sony, and I was editing with the client and he said to me that he noticed as the shoot went on, I just wear them down. You just keep going and talking until they drop and give in, which I had never analyzed as a reality.
APE: That always happens? Do you get your best pictures after you’ve worn them down? They don’t happen at the beginning of the shoot? Is that pretty common with you?
Jake: Sometimes at the beginning of the shoot and sometimes it’s five minutes from the end of the shoot. I haven’t really looked at the flow. But sometimes the shoot is only minutes long, so there’s not much time.
APE: That was just something that occurred to you recently?
Jake: It occurred to me that it was a possibility, but I hadn’t really thought about it until this guy said it last week. Maybe it’s true. I don’t know.
APE: We’ve jumped ahead to your style which I really like. I want to talk more about it, but how do you get from London to here?
Jake: I started coming out here to work and then I had two friends who lived in the West Village. They’re from England. They’d gone out to get jobs in New York and so I started coming out and staying with them to do appointments, to try and get work here with varying degrees of success because it was really hard as a foreigner. You come into this new market and you’re all excited. “I’m going to get loads of work.” And of course you go back to London and they forget about you immediately. This was in 1995. It was pre-Internet and pre-email.
I think the big break was when I had been coming and going for a year or two and then Matt Berman and John Kennedy Jr. started “George” magazine. Matt Berman was his creative director. He hired Bridget Cox, who was his photo director and then Matt and Bridget picked up every English magazine. They went through The Face, ID and Arena with a fine toothed comb and picked the photographers from England that they wanted to work with.
APE: Why would they pick only photographers in England?
Jake: I don’t know. It was just a thing. I think they thought it would maybe bring in a sensibility and those magazines were at their peak. They used American photographers as well. Of course there are really good photographers here, but they decided to get a little school of London based photographers they’d fly out to shoot.
APE: They’d fly you into the States?
Jake: It was incredible. Before the magazine launched, Matt called me up and said, “Do you want to come out and shoot for us?” He flew me out. I stayed with friends. In fact, they may have put me in a hotel for the week. I hung out with Matt in his office and we’d shoot the shit, chat about photography, design, art. He’s a great guy.
And then he sent me to Colorado to shoot a senator. I shot some portraits in New York and then I flew back to London. And then he’d fly me out again. I did Kofi Annan. Newt Gingrich with a lion. I did a bunch of people. They did these themed issues. I did like the ten top men in politics or something like that. They’d fly me all over the country and it was a real education.
So suddenly I was getting a ton of shoots here and I was getting a bit more exposure. And gradually over the period from the beginning of 1996 to 1999, I came here more and more until I was here for three or four months a year. I was picking up interesting portraits in London for magazines like W, and I got a great break when Kathy Ryan at The New York Times Magazine hired me to shoot a cover of Tom Hanks and Ben Affleck. I shot a series of covers for them from 1998 onwards. It was starting to get stupid because I was constantly away. I would literally get home, get a phone call and get back on an airplane. It wasn’t making my personal life particularly easy.
My wife and I had been talking about moving to New York so in the middle of 1998 we thought, “Fuck it. We’ll move to New York.” She’s a really talented designer and got a job working for The Gap. We got married on March 27, 1999. We went to Saint Lucia for a week for our honeymoon we flew back on the third of April and on the fourth of April, we moved to New York.
APE: Big life change.
Jake: We literally left everything.
APE: You felt you needed to move to New York to have a successful career?
Jake: I think my experience in being here and then going back and not getting any phone calls was like that Andy Warhol saying, “Success is a job in New York.” And I thought that was where it was at and if I wanted to shoot big names for big clients that is where I needed to be. I wasn’t a fashion photographer. I wasn’t a product photographer or a car photographer and in England that’s a big market. I wasn’t particularly technical and a lot of the advertising imagery in the UK was very precise and that’s not me. I thought there was a lot of personality based stuff for me to shoot here.
And it was financial. My first big job in New York was in the end of 1998. I got a big job for IBM where we shot here, in London and in Tokyo. It was just before we moved. I got that ad job which paid a lot.
APE: So you saw that most of your potential clients were here.
Jake: It was a leap of faith. It was partly financial, but partly opportunity. All the celebs are here. If you shot a celeb in London, it was in a hotel room for 20 minutes on a press junket.
One of the first jobs I did here after moving and I suddenly thought, “OK. This is working out.” It was for Nancy Iacoi at “Premiere” who called me and asked me to shoot Johnny Depp for a cover, so we flew out to Frank Lloyd Wright House in LA. Now, that’s a shoot. [laughs]
APE: That’s an amazing shoot.
Jake: It’s not 20 minutes tucked in somewhere. It was amazing to suddenly be here doing all that stuff.
APE: And you were shooting big time editorials, shooting for tons of magazines?
Jake: I was shooting for “The New York Times Magazine”, “Premiere,” “Newsweek,” “Esquire,” “Entertainment Weekly”, “Details” a lot of editorial.
APE: I want to get into the promo stuff and the custom portfolio books because these are really interesting. Let’s get into these books. When did you first start making the books?
Jake: ’97 was the first one.
APE: Describe the process. Why did you start making them like this with the color photocopies?
Jake: When I started working for foreign magazines from London, it was pre-email, pre-Internet. You would FedEx off the edit, so I was cutting out these pictures realizing that as I didn’t have two sets of contacts necessarily, that I would never see them again, and to have a record of what the hell I had sent them I made color copies and they were sitting around in a pile.
Then I said, “Hmm. I’ll stick them in a book.” So I started cutting them out and making these collages and arrangements which I think because I’d been to art school and done a lot of painting, drawing stuff that it was second nature to have a sketch book. It was kind of the first photographic manifestation of a sketchbook.
And within a few weeks, I started to get a thick little set of pictures. There were pages and pages of this stuff. I had always been frustrated with my portfolios because they were one or two prints from each sessions and it didn’t really reflect the shoot.
APE: You wanted to show the whole take?
Jake: Yes because I was confident at this point. It was following off my conversation with Grant Scott who said, “Do you want to be a working photographer or a good photographer?” He showed me a shoot that one of the guys who worked he’d with, I can’t remember who it was, had done with Antonio Banderas and this guy had everything. He had close ups, wide shots, back and white, color, different outfits.
And he said, “How long do you think they had to do this shoot?” I said, “It looks like all day.” And he said, “No. They had two hours.” He said, “You’ve got to cover more than one shot because what if you submit a color headshot and the magazine has already got 20 color headshots in this issue and they want a black and white wide shot? You’ve got to think about that.”
And I had never considered it. I was too dumb. This was early on in my career. I was like, “Shit. He’s absolutely right.” So I started shooting around and trying really to explore and shoot how he told me to, for him particularly. So I had all these shots that never saw the light of day.
APE: And that is also a signature thing for you is how many setups you do.
Jake: I guess it became that way just trying to give a variety.
APE: And is part of that you just wearing them out? Or are you just trying to find something?
Jake: It’s like, “I’ve got that. Let’s do something different.” I’m always thinking that there’s a better shot here that I haven’t seen yet.
APE: Back to the books.
Jake: I’d put these together and suddenly it became a tool. Not just for reviewing the work but for getting work. Art directors seemed to respond very well to it. They loved to see the variety, to see the outtakes, to feel it’s something that’s personal, which it is.
APE: It’s very unusual. I don’t think I know anyone who does it this way but again it just fits with your personality so well. And you did it out of necessity.
Jake: Yes. I had wound up the first one and then I think — “We need two of these,” so I’d do two. It got to a point where I think on one round we did six of them. It took weeks. It’s really labor intensive.
APE: And you’ve done one of these every year.
Jake: Yeah, pretty much.
APE: It’s amazing. That’s amazing just to have that record of your career.
Jake: It’s a good review. It’s good to look back just to try and find stuff. I’ve got a client that I am about to shoot for, and they’re looking for pictures of night views of cities so I just went through them last night and pulled out a couple. It’s good to review and find stuff.
APE: Night views of cities?
Jake: Yeah, it’s for a vodka client.
APE: Oh, to go in with your other shots?
Jake: Yes, so that we don’t have to shoot it because we’ve only got two days to shoot this thing.
APE: What about as far as promos and stuff? Did you just do the normal kind of promo cards?
Jake: Yeah, I did promo cards, although I think they’re of somewhat limited value. But, you’d hope to go into someone’s office and see one pinned up on the wall.
Jake: It was brutal back then. It’s so much easier now to get pictures out there because you either have a website, blog, or send them in an email and people are hopefully interested to get them.
APE: Right. Yeah, let’s talk about that next, that evolution into The Daily Chessum. It makes a lot more sense to me now, meeting you and seeing and remembering the proliferation of images that you produce. Doing something daily, that makes a lot of sense now.
Jake: There are a hundred pages in each of these books. So that became an end in itself and a promotional tool that came out of nowhere and seemed to pay off. But then getting a website took a while and once you’ve got it up and running it’s hard to update, it takes a real commitment. I was talking to my agent and she was saying “Maybe you should do a blog.” I thought “Yeah, that’s great, but no writing.”
Jake: I’m not disparaging any blogs where people write about their experiences, but I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to demystify the process. There’s a lot of stuff out there that you shouldn’t tell anybody. You know what I mean?
APE: Yeah. If you want to reach photo editors and art directors and art buyers, then you need to be showing pictures and not talking about the process.
Jake: Yeah as a consumer of some of those blogs, it’s interesting to read that stuff because it creates a kind of kinship and it’s good to know you’re not the only one dealing with that crap. But yeah, I don’t want to divulge that information. I just wanted to put pictures out there regularly to show what I was up to. It’s easy to do, look at, immediate. It’s my visual diary.
APE: It’s just another promotional vehicle.
Jake: Yes, and I was really happy that Tumblr sent me a little email saying, oh, we love your blog, we want to put it on our spotlight page. Which overnight, I went from, 500 followers to like, 3,000, and then the next month it was 5,000, and up to 22,000 followers.
APE: I talked to you a year or longer ago about it, and you were saying “I don’t know where this is going to go, but I feel like I need to participate.”
APE: And you said you’re making a mistake not trying some of these new tools out.
Jake; True, and I’m not an innovator in that sense because I waited so long to jump on the blog bandwagon.
APE: No, but you took the time to see all the other blogs and make a decision, how you wanted yours to work.
Jake: Yes, and I thought, if you don’t update, you lose traffic so, I thought every day I’d put up one image, because putting up more would be a sheer burden to come up with more good pictures. Do you know what I mean? I didn’t want to dip into the archive too much. I wanted it to be something current. I want it to reflect what I was up to within that time frame. And obviously, it’s a kind of a cheat, because when you know you’re going to be busy, I queue up my 10 ahead or sometimes 20 ahead if I know I’m going to be crazed.
APE: And it’ll do it automatically.
Jake: Yes, it updates once a day, every day.
APE: Right, that’s perfect.
Jake: And then yesterday I got a bunch of PDFs of something that just came out, so I pushed everything back a few days and dropped those in to come in sooner.
APE: And, the other thing that you told me was with your shoots there’s all these outtakes that don’t make it in the magazine.
Jake: You have to be careful with that because you can diminish the value of the outtakes. Or upset a publicist. Clients want to pay for exclusives.
APE: Well, I think it’s brilliant.
Jake: Thanks. But, yes, it’s just a really cool way of making you work as well and making you take pictures. If you haven’t shot a job for a couple of days and you need to post, then it’s time to go out and shoot some pictures.
APE: I want to talk just really quick about the transition to digital. Obviously, you’re not shooting very much film anymore.
APE: But then you were saying how much you like digital.
Jake: Yes, I’m psyched about it.
APE: When did you finally embrace?
Jake: I haven’t shot an ad job on film for five years. And I haven’t seen a reason why I would have to. So in the last four years.
APE: Once you embraced it you felt like, “This is amazing.”
Jake: It’s like a revelation. I’d read yesterday some photographer who went fully digital in 2001. I went, “Fucking hell. That was pretty early to really go 100 percent digital.”
APE: Some people don’t love the film and the printing. They never got into that. Obviously all that time in the darkroom, you love that process.
Jake: Years of printing black and white and processing film. Seeing it, holding it up in the darkroom for the first time. There’s a huge thrill. There always was in seeing the print come up, and actually going through the craft of washing it, drying it. All that stuff.
Letting that go took a while. But I think I went through a transitional period. I had a darkroom in London, but I never had one here, and as I got busier I let it go. I was also shooting a lot of color and I never printed my own color. Plus the printers I used were better at it than I was. But I’ll admit I was one of those sanctimonious douchebags back in the day who was like, “Oh my God, they never print. How can you call yourself a photographer? How disgusting.” When I had the kids, I didn’t want to spend a night in the darkroom. I wanted to go home.
APE: What was the revelation once you really got into it?
Jake: I had let control go to an extent with the printing and retouching when I was all film. But when I started shooting digital I felt I claimed it back. Getting the images to where I wanted them, even something as simple as making something black and white, felt like giving me a creative outlet within the medium that I kind of lost track of. I’d let that go for a bit and it was a revelation to get it back. Do you know what I mean?
APE: Yeah. I think that completes the circle. Thanks for your time.
This is the first in a series of interviews I’m conducting to promote my seminar at the 2012 Photo Plus Expo titled “Making a Career in Editorial Photography”. I’ve got 3 editorial photographers at the top of their game who I’m going to interview on stage about their careers and marketing methods. If you’re going to PPE, join Chris Buck, Jake Chessum, Martin Schoeller and me on Friday, October 26th from 1:30 to 3:30 pm.
Chris is somewhat of a regular around here, I really enjoy checking in with him, because he’s always honest with his answers. He’s got a new book out called Presence (get yours here), so I asked him all about creating it and finding a publisher. I know you will enjoy his insight into the process.
Rob: I remember from our previous interview that you place a lot of importance on personal projects and the promotional value you get from them. Can you talk about that and how you go about finding those projects?
Chris Buck: First, I’m trying to think of something that will be original, that’s a big part of it.
Rob: I was going to ask, does originality trump everything for you?
Chris: When I think of something interesting, I automatically assume that it’s been done already. This is a struggle for a photographer at any stage in their career – you want things that feel fresh and new, and not something that’s just a rehashing of what’s been done before.
But, one has to realize, nothing is entirely new, everything has a predecessor to it.
Rob: I gave up even writing about who copied who, because everything can be traced back further than the photographer who thinks they are the original.
Chris: I’ve attended lectures where well-regarded photographers talked about other photographers stealing their ideas and the whole time I’m thinking, “Seriously? You’re a legend. Get over it.”
Rob: A lot of the promotional and personal work that I see is photographers trying to put their own stamp on an idea that exists. I think it’s interesting that you are searching for an original idea completely.
Chris: That’s one thing I’ve realized when doing this and thinking about what I want to do next. Most photographers will find something interesting in the world and then construct a body of work around that. That’s not what I want to be doing and it’s not where I’m likely to make a unique stamp.
I’m going to do better by in my own quiet way, constructing something, or maybe constructing my own curious connection between things. I think that’s where my strength is.
A lot of the ideas I come up with, I’ve not done, because they’re not visual enough. They might be clever and funny, but they’re not visual.
Rob: Interesting, I hadn’t thought about it that way before. Before we get into this current project, how much does the end product play into it? You don’t just do this to entertain yourself. This is a business. This is part of the marketing. This is part of the business of Chris Buck photography, right?
Chris: Absolutely, but It’s hard to think about that until after I do it. There’s a certain level of faith that if I do interesting work and I put it out there, then work will come back my way.
Rob: Ok, let’s talk about this project. I want to know the germination of the idea, where it came to you. When did you realize that it was going to work, and that you needed to pursue this, and that you needed to talk all these celebrities during shoots into participating in your project? What was the beginning?
Chris: I was brainstorming ideas with my agent at the time (Julian Richards), and I had an idea that was very theoretical. It was just the idea of phoning it in. I liked the idea of literally not being on the set and giving instructions to an assistant, or whoever, as to what to do, what to tell the subject, and then whatever we got was the picture.
I liked it in theory, but I realized that the actual work itself would be wildly different based on who actually was on-set and did the execution, and also then, in most cases, it probably wouldn’t be very interesting.
And, just on a personal, selfish level, too, I wanted to control it. I didn’t want it to be entirely random, like a scientific experiment where the visuals wouldn’t have been that important.
So, I switched it. Rather than having me not there I decided to have the subject not there.
Initially, it was going to be a set where I just shot someone and they left. This is the room where I just shot George Clooney, or something. Then I realized it was a bit too esoteric, so I put the subject back in, which anchored it nicely.
Rob: Is this all happening in your head, or is this happening…?
Chris: This is hashing it out with Julian. Then the decision becomes, how much of them do we see?
Do we see an elbow and a top of a head? Are we seeing them peeking or something, and how much? Maybe not enough to recognize them, but enough to indicate where they are. But, I actually realized that I liked the cleanness of not seeing them at all. I also thought it was both funnier and a bit of a playful “F You,” to the audience.
Rob: [laughs] Oh God. I love that. We’re getting back to that, keep going.
Chris: I initially thought of it as a promotional piece, just 15 images in a little booklet, each one would be titled with the person’s name. It would be funny and kind of throwaway, and that would be the end of it.
The first one I shot was William Shatner, with these bales of hay. It was so rich with color and texture that I was like, “wow, even if a fraction of them are this interesting, this could actually have legs and become a full book.”
Rob: Tell me about the first shoot, though. The first time you told William Shatner what you were doing, and what you needed to do.
Chris: I’m pretty fearless about stuff like this, so, I just asked. Let’s put it this way, in my previous shoot with Shatner, I had him being arrested by two LA cops. So, asking him to hide in a scene was peanuts in comparison.
Rob: I remember from our previous interview, didn’t you ask him some other crazy things to do?
Chris: Yeah, I asked him to do a lot of crazy stuff and he just said, “No, I will not do that.”
Rob: So in comparison to what you normally ask celebrities to do, this is tame.
Chris: Right. Well, for one thing, they’re not even going to be visible. So it doesn’t matter how they look or what they’re doing. They can be crouching or standing, or whatever it is. It doesn’t matter , as we don’t see them.
Rob: Were some of the people reluctant? Thought it was stupid?
Chris: Well, a few of them kind of felt like, “If I’m not going to be in there, why waste my time with this?” But if they bothered to put up an argument, they ended up doing it. Because it mattered to me, and they just went with it. Whoopi Goldberg looked through my entire mock-up and she spent a good 10, 15 minutes on it and then wouldn’t do it.
I don’t really know what she was thinking. But she didn’t want to be part of it. Maybe she felt like she had worked hard to be visible and was not into being portrayed without being visible.
Rob: Then did some people get really into it and understand the whole concept?
Chris: Oh, some people totally got into it, and got really excited. Rainn Wilson I shot for New York magazine, and then afterwards I had him pose for the series. When he walked out of his hiding spot, he said, “We do a little business, we do a little art.”
Rob: So you finished the project. Tell me about approaching a publisher.
Chris: Well, I shot it in five years, and about three-and-a-half years into it, I began to look for a publisher. Remember, I contacted you early on asking you for some help and you have that list of publishers on your blog, which was one of my resources.
Basically, I made a list and started going down it. At first, I was approaching just one at a time, but pretty soon I was approaching three, four at a time. I’d go through a stack of mock-ups, and then I would stop and think, OK, what’s working, what’s not working? Then I’d make a new version of the mock-up.
In the end I made three different mock-ups, and was always improving on it. The last one I made with a designer and I hired someone to be my representative just for approaching the publisher (Alan Rapp).
Chris: Well, that’s because I had gone to seminars on how to do a photo book.
Rob: You went to seminars?
Chris: I’d gone to seminars over the years and it was made clear that one was expected to present the proposed book as a finished product – sequencing, layout, foreword or introduction, and cover design – everything.
One of the problems I think that I had with the publishers was it’s essentially an art book from someone who’s not an art photographer. They didn’t quite know where to put it. It’s a pop culture photographer making a fine art book, but they couldn’t sell it on my name as an art photographer.
Rob: Oh, I can see the pitch for sure. “A celebrity book?” “Yes.” “There’s no celebrities in it?” “Pass” [laughs]
Chris: Well, they’re in it. You just can’t see them.
Rob: Right. So, back to the process, because a lot of my readers will be interested in the book publishing part.
Chris: Basically, here’s the approach I took. I can put it very simply. I had never published a book before, so I didn’t really know that world. I knew editorial, and I knew advertising. I looked through my Facebook and through my general contacts, and I reached out to anyone I knew who had any connection to people who had been published
It was absolutely humbling and eye opening. It was such a good process for me. Not that I was arrogant, but I had a certain place in the editorial and advertising world and I had no place in the world of publishing.
Rob: Was that hard for you, to go back to square one after having your very successful career?
Chris: Well, the hard part is that while I’m well regarded in my field and have done well, a lot of people treated me really shabbily. Not responding at all or being rude.
Rob: Oh, my.
Chris: I found it surprising. You would expect people would at least think, “Maybe, I’ll cross paths with this person at some point in the future, I guess I should at least be polite.”
Rob: Absolutely. But, no that wasn’t the case?
Chris: Some people were, but many people weren’t. I found that amazing.
Rob: Right. Is that just publishing, they’re overwhelmed? They see so many projects that are horrible…
Chris: I don’t know. I think that these different areas are more separate from each other than we realize. Because my next step after that was trying to get a gallery, and that was the same thing just starting over from scratch. Again, contacting anyone I know who had ever had exhibitions in galleries at all. It’s contacting former assistants who are now as successful as me or more so.
Chris: Again, really humbling.
Rob: So back to the publishing. You had three mock-ups. You had an agent specifically for the book. You had gone through a series of publishers and then you finally found one who got the whole thing and was interested in you and the project. You just ran into them?
Chris: No, I did not run into them. What happened was I met with Darius Himes and Mary Virginia Swanson. They had just done a book called “Publish Your Photography Book”. I met with them as professional consultants and that’s what actually led to the introduction to Kehrer.
Rob: Can you tell me anything about the process of publishing the book? It’s a beautiful book.
Chris: Thank you. For people who are interested in doing a book, in terms of the actual execution of making it, I’d say the one thing that was a revelation to me in terms of the actual quality of the book itself, is that I made match prints for every visual for the book.
Now maybe that’s a norm, but when I was actually on press in Germany and the technician is working the machine he is standing there holding the match prints I made in New York. And, he did an amazing job of matching them. I went back and rescanned all the images from the original negatives and transparencies and worked on each file for hours at home. Then took them to Picturehouse.
B.J. DeLorenzo, who made the match prints there, would actually alter my files to make the match print look good he’d do what he had to do. Then those final files that made the match prints were the ones that went to the publisher.
Chris: The fact is I’m 99 percent happy with how the images look in the book because of the amount of care and time we put into making files I was happy with and then making match prints that matched those files.
Rob: So, how many did you print?
Chris: 1000 pieces.
Rob: Ok, that’s not very much.
Chris: It’s a small run. If people are serious about getting the book, they should get it sooner rather than later because it will sell out.
Rob: I want to go back to something that you said about the pictures being an “F-you” to the reader. How much of this project is in the outrageousness, the absurdity of taking pictures of celebrities where you can’t see them?
Chris: Well, it’s meant to be full on ridiculous and full on serious at the same time. I think that this ultimately comes across. I never even joke that the celebrity might not be in there. I take it very seriously. I spent five years shooting, two years looking for a publisher, and then a year and a half releasing the book.
Rob: Yeah, that’s no joke.
What about the fact that you’ve worked so hard and so long on a project that some people will think is the stupidest thing they’ve ever seen? [laughs]
Chris: I guess so. I like that.
Rob: Good, because I’m referencing the comments on article about the book on the “Huffington Post”.
Chris: Oh, God.
Rob: Do you enjoy that many people don’t get it?
Chris: Honestly, when I read through the comments, it actually is upsetting.
Chris: On a theoretical level, I like the idea that people think it’s a waste of their time or whatever. A lot of people obviously don’t understand what it is. One of the comments supporting me said something like, “This is a guy who’s been shooting celebrities for 20 years. You have to see the work in that context.”
I thought that was a nice way of framing it. But I don’t know. I mean, yes, at some level, it is fun that people dismiss it.
Rob: Well, it’s back to the “F-you.”
Chris: It’s never enjoyable to hear that people think you’re an idiot.
Rob: No. No. But there’s a little bit of “F-you” in the whole project, as you’ve said.
Chris: I suppose that I’m getting it back at me.
Rob: I think it’s an awesome project, and I do think it fits your personality so well. Obviously, as a promotional vehicle, it’s beyond the promo cards and the little booklets. It’s a full-on book that I assume you’ll be using it as a promotion as well as a part of your body of work.
Chris: Absolutely…but I do wonder. As I started Presence I was thinking, “OK, this is for creative directors and art directors in advertising who are top of the top, super creative, super imaginative, thinking outside the box. I want to show them I can really do work that’s outside the box.
Chris: Then I look at the finished thing. “What work on Earth would this ever lead to?”
Chris: In the long run I think it’s a really good thing only because I think it’s funny and it’s cool and it’s going to have a nice life to it.
Rob: Yeah, it’s memorable. It has great personality. It’s a standalone piece.
Chris: Even the relationship between the pictures and the names is actually relatively subtle. In a way people will complain and say, “I can see how the Jack Nicklaus one makes sense or the David Byrne one, but the rest of them…There’s no connection.”
I think that some people miss the point. When you look through the work you make your own connections. If you take it seriously and spend some time with it you can’t help but do that. That kind of subtlety will make the book interesting still in 10, 20 years.
Rob: After you launch this project is it just on to the next one? Have you already started the next one? You’ve got five years.
Chris: I’ve got other things going on, but I got a great piece of advice I got from someone who I reached out to in the book world who’s a curator and done a number of compilation books. She said, “One thing you have to do that a lot of artists don’t like is you need to stick with it. You worked hard to do this book. The book’s now done. Don’t just walk away because you’re bored with it”
I’ve taken that directive seriously. My New York book launch is going to be at the International Center of Photography, which took a lot of finagling and patience to pull off. I’m doing a book launch in Toronto in Canada, and doing a book signing in L.A., and I’m doing some workshops, and putting myself out there
I’ve seen friends do books where, the book comes out and does well, they get good buzz, but there are all kinds of other things they don’t do. They’re basically relying on inertia or word of mouth for their book to get played. I find that kind of shocking that someone is going to spend all that time and energy to make a book and then not put everything they can behind it.
Rob: Right. I mean, self-promotion is really difficult for artists and photographers.
Chris: It is. Maybe they feel like it’s below them to be doing that. I don’t know.
Rob: So, does anybody besides you and the assistant and obviously the celebrity know where they are on set and will you ever reveal that?
Chris: I will not reveal it. I don’t talk about where people are hiding. Obviously, my assistants and staff know where people were hiding. If they want to talk about it I don’t really care, but I’m not going to say.
I feel like the witness statement is enough. In fact, I purposely did not have the celebrities sign them. I wanted it to be someone who was observing. I felt like if the celebrities were signing for themselves then it’s almost too much proof.
I love a list of photographers like this. Not because I think there could ever be a definitive list of 100 photographers that most people agree on, but because everyone should have their own list. And everyone should spend time studying the masters. All of my favorite working photographers have the influence of the masters in their pictures.
For anyone who loves serious photography, we live in an incredible time. A quick google search on any of these greats will give you plenty of material to study.
1. Richard Avedon American 1923-2004
2. W. Eugene Smith American 1918-1978
3. Helmut Newton German 1920-2004
4. Irving Penn American 1917- 2009
5. Guy Bourdin French 1928-1991
6. Henri Cartier-Bresson French 1908-2004
7. Diane Arbus American 1923-1971
8.Elliott Erwitt French 1928-
9. Walker Evans American 1903-1975
10. Martin Parr British 1952-
11. Juergen Teller German 1964-
12. Nick Knight British 1958-
13. David Bailey British 1938-
14. Cindy Sherman American 1954-
15. Andreas Gursky German 1955-
16. Edward Weston American 1886-1958
17. Garry Winogrand American 1928-1984
18. Bruce Weber American 1946-
19. Man Ray American 1890-1976
20. Paolo Roversi Italian 1947-
21. Herb Ritts American 1952-2002
22. Annie Leibovitz American 1949-
23. Ansel Adams American 1902-1984
24. David LaChapelle American 1963-
25. William Klein American 1928-
26. Bill Brandt German 1904-1983
27. Ralph Gibson American 1939-
28. Stephen Shore American 1947-
29. Robert Frank Swiss 1924-
30. Andre Kertesz Hungarian 1894-1985
31. Chuck Close American 1940-
32. Robert Mapplethorpe American 1946-1989
33. Steven Meisel American 1954-
34. Peter Lindbergh German 1944-
35. August Sander German 1876-1964
36. Nan Goldin American 1953-
37. Weegee Austrian 1899-1968
38. Don McCullin British 1935-
39. Slim Aarons American 1916-2006
40. William Eggleston American 1939-
41. Joel-Peter WitkinAmerican 1939-
42. Anton Corbijn Dutch 1955-
43. Brassai French 1899-1984
44. Erwin Blumenfeld German 1897-1969
45.Duane Michals American 1932-
46. Mario Testino Peruvian 1954-
47. Mary Ellen Mark American 1940-
48. Larry Clark American 1943-
49. Mert & Marcus Turkish and British 1971-
50. Corinne Day British 1965-
Last Spring, I got to catch up with Asger Carlsen, the Danish artist behind the amazing 2010 book, “Wrong,” and the forthcoming Mörel project “Hester.”
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.