These advertorial spots are a perfect example of where editorial is headed. That and I really enjoyed learning more about Jonathan Mannion.
thx, Addison for the link.
These advertorial spots are a perfect example of where editorial is headed. That and I really enjoyed learning more about Jonathan Mannion.
thx, Addison for the link.
Check out this behind the scenes video where Kid Rock has this to say about Clay Patrick McBride:
I love working with Clay McBride, because it’s fast, he gets it done. If a light needs to be moved he grabs it himself, he’s pleasant to the people he works with hes nice of course he takes great pictures or he wouldn’t be here. Once I find a good thing I kind of stick with it. They’re always trying to get me to work with different people at every level and I’m like if somethings not broke we don’t got to reinvent the wheel here. I love Clays pictures, he’s take a lot of great shots for me throughout the years album covers, magazines and other sorts of stuff, he’s just a pleasant person to be around. I consider him a friend and we work well together.
Heidi: With the CC52 Project did you start out with a grocery list of photography fundamentals that you wanted to explore in unique and challenging ways? For instance: The foil triptychs seem to be a pure light and shape study.
Craig: I’ve always worked on my own, the difference now is the seven day deadline to complete a project and move to a new idea within the next seven days. Whether I like it or not, it’s mood driven.
What has been the most surprising to you about this project and what have you learned about yourself as a photographer?
I tried not to fall into a routine and allow myself to have an open mind and find inspiration from different things. The most surprising aspect has been that I thought it was going to be easier. We are in week 30 and it’s a bit harder, but the images are getting better. Plus I enjoy the freedom. When shooting editorial, the amount of freedom or lack of, can be suffocating. By time the image flows through all the channels, it can get watered down. With this project I don’t answer to anyone, I’m doing it for myself, like or it not.
I enjoyed the distillation of the everyday experiences of a melting popsicle and a burning marshmallow. How challenging was that to achieve, and make it so simple and artful?
This is where the industry is going and we need things with movement. People have a hard time taking something abstract and making something of it. How do you take a marshmallow and make it interesting? Make things move and they become something more interesting. It also helps to have Victoria Granoff as your food stylist.
Have you always sketched out you ideas first?
When I sketch I mentally go through the photo shoot in my head. It’s here I decide to move forward or shut it down.
For CC12:Duct Tape: How long did each image take, and did you apply one piece at a time and then take a shot? How many rolls did you use, and whose car is that?
20 cases of duct tape. I had interns and lots of people to help. I spent 6 hours doing a very elaborate lighting for the car. In the very end, it was too fussy, the idea didn’t need lighting. I pulled it all off and ended up shooting it with one direct light. Two days of applying tape, 15 minutes to light it. The car took one full day. And it’s my car. No one would rent me a car like that allow it to be covered in duct tape.
In CC1:Ice Cubes Are those real ice cubes? How can you achieve that with no melt if they are?
Absolutely all of them are real ice cubes. Shooting quickly with 4×5, I simply made a pencil mark on the set and then built the columns. I had my assistant bring out 3 industrial sized racks of cubes, we used 30-40 cubes per take and had about 30 seconds for each take. Can’t even tell you how many times it collapsed. Unless its motion everything is shot on film, and at the end of this project I am having a opening with the prints.
Do you think there will be some sense of gravity for your last segment?
I don’t know that’s a great question, it’s so far down the road!
Do you know what that last piece will be yet, or are you inspired weekly and spontaneously?
Spontaneity is the number one important thing to me.
Tell me about this latest piece: The Vase.
Steve Meierdin, was my first assistant/ manager full time, now he freelances for me on special projects. It’s one of my favorites right now. I like it because its so simple. The base of the idea is just a white vase and white box, everything else happens around it. High tech meets low tech here, The editing had the biggest impact on that project. We adjusted the speed of the “cycles” for the editing and the audio was a stock waterfall that we manipulated. I wanted it to be unrecognizable, but paced with the video so it’s in your head but you are not quite able to place it.
Stephanie Rausser’s personal project Kiki & Coco, is an awesome example of how you can use the web and social media to see if there’s interest in something you’ve created then use that demand to evolve the project into other mediums. Also, there’s simply no better way to make a connection to clients than with a personal project, it speaks volumes about your passion for photography.
Rob: Tell me how the project started?
Stephanie: In November 2007 one of my closest friends, Debra McClinton, took her life. Our daughters were the same age and we had become good friends after she assisted me for many years.
I had realized things were bad for her, and I remember after a call in the summer of 2007, thinking something needed to be done – that things had turned for the worse. Three months later it was too late and to this day I have guilt and anguish over wishing I had done more. When we worked together we worked well together and often went on trips, taking turns photographing our daughters and after her death I have had this recurring dream where she moved in with us and we become business partners and photographed every job together.
At the time, I was wrapped up with my business and life and I did not intervene. What intervening would have looked like is hard to say but my choice not to has impacted me. Sometimes things happen in your life and they are an invitation to change things. Deb’s death stopped me in my tracks and it made me start to think differently. Like no other deaths I had experienced, it made me realize how fragile and delicate life is and how important it is to take care of yourself, those that you love, and to slow down. The Kiki and Coco Project came about because it was a way to not only deal with the grief and sadness that followed Deb’s death but also it was a way for me to do something out of the ordinary, something that allowed me to connect in a more meaningful and creative way.
This is how the trip to Paris with my daughter Kiki, and her doll, Coco, came about.
So, when you got back you made a video of the images from the trip (here). What was the response to the video?
The response was great. The French music we found to go with it was adorable and it seemed the images moved people. The video (slide show) was reposted on many blogs. I think too it was the final reason my agent Sarah said yes to working together. We had met many times prior but when I got back from Paris and finished this project, I sent her the video and we met one more time and that is when we started working together. I could tell she really resonated with the Kiki and Coco slide show. After the slide show was created, we designed the calendar, printed 3000, and sent them out to art buyers, art directors, family and friends.
What was the response to the calendar?
The response to the calendar was big and it was predominantly a female response. To this day, four years later, I still get emails from women wanting to know where they can buy the doll.
Moms especially loved the calendar. I must have gotten an email a week for months from moms asking where they could purchase the doll. They would email me and mention that their daughter would love the doll appearing in the photographs but after getting quite a few of these emails I started to wonder if it was really the mom who wanted the doll.
There is now an official Coco inspired doll and is still made and available at http://shop.jessbrowndesign.com/product/coco-inspired-rag-doll
There are also several knockoffs of the doll with the same name.
Another great response to the calendar was the ad jobs that came about. The conference calls with the art directors would start something like this: “I have your calendar and what you shot for it is in the same vein as the project we are doing….” I definitely got several ad jobs as a result of the Kiki and Coco calendar.
How did it evolve from there?
I did two more calendars after “Kiki and Coco in Paris.” One was with Kiki again in Italy (same idea: 20 days away, afternoon shoot every day, a story to tell with the preface to the start of every day being: how do I make my next photo even better and at the same time keep to the parameters of the story I have already created). I sweetened the deal for Kiki and swapped out the doll for ice cream cones, lollipops & popsicles and it was called “Sweet Italia.” Originally I had thought of taking the Coco doll to Italy but as time progressed I realized my daughter was not so interested in being photographed as I had hoped she’d be. I realized it was necessary to raise the ante; to her, ice cream and lollipops were more intriguing as she had a wicked sweet tooth. She gave me her all but after the Italy calendar project she begged me to find another model.
Also, although “Sweet Italia” was beautiful it did not have the same aura, draw, and sentimentality that “Kiki and Coco in Paris” had. I did my last calendar “I left my heart in…” (2011) in San Francisco with my niece, Zeli. Then, in the Spring of 2011, Cameron + Company, a boutique book publisher in Petaluma, CA contacted me to see if we could turn “Kiki and Coco in Paris” into a children’s book. I sent Cameron and Company the roughly 5000 images from what I shot over 20 days in Paris and from those photos they came up with a story that would appeal to children. They pulled their favorites (which I asked to re-edit because they originally wanted the photo to be from the perspective of the doll but the project was shot from the perspective of the girl and the strongest images were about the girl, not the doll) They then wrote a twist to the story that I took photos for and now we have the book, Kiki and Coco in Paris.
How do you see projects like these fitting into the job of professional photographer?
It is so important for a professional photographer to be able to tell a story that engages his or her audience, especially in the competitive and saturated climate today, where images and videos are at every turn.
When you take a big project like what I did in my three calendars, where I photographed each afternoon for 20 days, it is a creative process that is vital to honing your artistic skills. When you are in the midst of a project like this, you are constantly thinking, what tells the story the best? What can I do now that is even more unexpected or unusual within the set parameters – which in this situation with Kiki and Coco was a seven-year-old girl and her obsession with a cute little doll in the beautiful city of Paris. Where do we go next to help tell the story? What could be brought in to make for a funnier photo? What can I do that will make my viewer smile, or even better, laugh out loud? I think doing projects like this makes a photographer a better problem solver on top of the fact that when you are deep in the project, it is one of the most exhilarating places to be as a creative person. The process of narrowing down 14 final images from thousands of images (12 calendar months and a cover and back image) for each of the three calendars I did has been an enjoyable creative process like no other. If I had my way I would still be doing the calendars with kiki every summer in a far away location but it turns out she prefers to be behind the camera, like me.
Jonathan: For good or for bad, I think it’s helpful to start at the beginning. I haven’t yet gotten into the Tarantino-style, Reservoir Dogs-type narrative. So how did you get started? How did your photography practice begin?
Jesse: I got started as a skateboard photographer in Tucson, Arizona. I grew up in Connecticut, and then I moved out to Tucson to get away from the East Coast in my early 20’s. I took a photo class at a community college because it sounded fun and I needed to fill credits. Then I piggy-backed that onto my skateboard lifestyle, which was something that I’d been doing for ten years or so at least. It was a natural progression to start documenting the lifestyle, the social things that were happening with my friends, and the action shots, us hanging out, all that stuff.
So how did you end up in Tucson, of all the places you could go?
With the skateboard community, it’s so tight, everyone sticks together. So one guy followed the first guy, I followed the next guy, then a couple of guys followed me, and a couple of guys followed them. Before we knew it, there were a lot of Connecticut transplants in Tucson. I took a class, and quickly found it was something that I was interested in. I’d always been into art, but nothing so formal as a college course. That was it. I was hooked immediately, transferred to U of A, where I found a photo community and a whole different world. I got really serious about it. I was a bit older already, when I started to attend University of Arizona. I was probably 26 or 27, so I was older than the average undergrad BFA student.
Did they call you Grandpa Jesse?
No. My youthful demeanor kept that a secret, I guess.
Really? Did everybody make you buy them beer? That’s the obvious question.
No laws were broken.
I got a late start on a lot of things. I had the 15 year plan for college. It took a long time for me to get my act together. Once I found photography, I had a really good support system with my teachers at the U of A.
Do you want to give any shout outs right here?
Sure. Joe Labate and Ken Shorr.
These were your professors?
Yeah, they were really encouraging. And they could tell I was really serious about it. I had found something in my life, finally. Everybody’s looking for something that’s going to make them happy, something to pursue, whether it’s biology or medicine or law. Mine just so happened to be photography, and I found it in this sort of flukey way. They could tell that I was very serious, and I decided in my senior year that I was ready to go to graduate school. I had just started getting serious a couple of years earlier, and since I was a transfer student, I knew that it wasn’t the time to take a break and think about grad school, but to really seize it. And I just went for it, and they were totally supportive and helped me out. That led me back East to RISD.
And that’s where you got an MFA?
I bet you spend a lot of time on blogs and the Flak Photo Network, and I know I do. I feel like, on a regular basis, you see photographers asking questions like, “Should I get an MFA? What’s the point? What am I going to get out of it? Is it worth the money?” Things like that. I went to Pratt and you went to RISD. We both did get the degree. We both started late. I mean, listening to your background, it’s pretty similar to mine. Especially the East Coast moving West. You went from Connecticut to Arizona, I went Jersey to New Mexico. Not that different. So if someone asked you point blank, “Should I get an MFA? Is it worth the money? What will I get out of it?” what would your answer be?
People go to graduate school for various reasons, but two of them stand out to me. One is because they want to be an artist. And the other is because they want to be a teacher. In my case, I always wanted to be a visual artist. Teaching wasn’t even something that I’d considered, or was aware of, really, when I was applying to grad schools. For me, it was all about visual communication, and pushing that further. If you have an inclination to take a chunk of your life and a chunk of your money…I think of graduate school as a business decision. It was the first major business decision that I made. It’s so incredibly expensive in terms of finances and emotion and time commitment. If you’re ready to make that decision, then graduate school can be incredibly beneficial. It gives you a time to focus on just your artwork, where you don’t have to worry, (hopefully) about the other things in life, like having a job to pay the bills. It just depends on how you set up your system when you get to graduate school.
I knew that I needed time to work on a project. Similar to what you probably experienced, relocating from the East Coast to the West Coast is quite the culture shock. So I didn’t even know what I was getting myself into, relocating back home, to undertake a new life, with a goal of becoming a photographer. Everything I knew about photography was based in the desert of Tucson, so when I came home it was a little bit risky. Getting back to your question, “What do you get out of it?”, I think one can spend a serious chunk of time dedicated to a project, where there are no distractions. Part of what you’ll get is working in a very tight, serious community of professors and peers. You learn from other photographers, who hopefully have the same level of seriousness that you have. That’s one of the very few places where you can ever do something like that. It doesn’t happen so much in undergrad, because people are distracted, there’s a lot more going on. I think graduate school is serious business.
Do you need a graduate degree to become a good photographer? No. To be successful, or famous? Not necessarily. I certainly think it can help in many ways. It makes you a better photographer, a smarter individual, more worldly, more experienced. So all of those things will help you in your life, and your photo career.
So is it safe to say, you don’t think you’d be the artist you are or have the career you’re having if you hadn’t taken the time to get the degree?
In my case, absolutely not. Going to graduate school was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I would say the same thing. And am I right that you teach at RISD?
I want to get back to that in a second. When I go back and look, so many of the people that went to school with me are now not practicing artists, that I’m aware of. It seems like it’s an interesting conundrum. It costs so much money to get these degrees, and they can be a pathway. But some times, I wonder what happens to people who invest all that time and energy, and then go on to do something else. What’s your take on that?
Most of my friends, at this point, are either high school friends, skateboarder buddies from the past, or people I met in grad school. The majority of them didn’t continue down this path. There are so many elements involved. Some people can’t hang with how tough it is. It’s incredibly hard to keep that self-promotion wheel spinning non-stop. Not to mention coming up with interesting and meaningful work. Getting into grad school is one part of it. Getting out of grad school is the second part. Maintaining that would be a third part. Not everybody’s cut out for it. A lot of people still work in the photo industry or arts industry in some fashion. I’m not sure exactly what happens, but life takes over. Once you get out of the proverbial nest of graduate school, it’s a lot tougher to make your way through it when you’re in reality. Let’s be honest. When you’re in this cushy situation in graduate school, where you don’t have to think about real life, I didn’t have kids at the time. I had a wife, and she’s very supportive, but we didn’t have a mortgage, I didn’t have two car payments. This industry does not allow an easy segue from grad school into success, whatever success means. Shooting jobs? Having shows? Coming up with ideas? Something as simple as having a critique of your work just immediately disappears. Having that structured support system disappears too.
I want to come back to this idea of real life, and reality, because it’s an interesting through line in your artwork. But while we’re on the subject of RISD, what classes do you teach?
I only teach one class at RISD. My schedule is kind of hectic, so I’ve never really been a serious multi-course adjunct professor. I teach “Introduction to Photography for Non-Majors,” which is a really amazing course, because I’m teaching photography to people who are not going to be photographers. Architects, painters, lots of students from Brown University.
So you’ve got to be focusing on visual communication as much as anything?
Exactly. Why photography matters. What can you say with a photograph. Why is photography important?
Dude, you just opened it up. There it is. There’s my next question. Why is photography important?
We have this final project, it’s called “What’s important to you?” What I try to get across to them, when they leave my class, (beyond black and white analog skills for developing and printing film and a little bit of digital input) is understanding that the world is a dynamic and amazing place. Everybody’s story is important and that people care about each other’s stories. So what I try to stress is that what’s important to you is also important to me. I try to focus on having them figure out a way to share their personal interest, and things that are important to them, in a dynamic way to the world. Hopefully they’ll leave the class being a better architect, or a better language studies student because they can see how visual culture and photography help make the world go around. It helps them get their message across, whatever their message is, in a smarter, better, more visual way.
Cool. As far as I understand it, you shoot commercially, editorially, you shoot as a fine artist, and you teach. That, to me, sounds like the 21st Century Hustle. That’s it. It’s a little bit of everything, shake it up, and hopefully a few things are going to pop at any given time. How do you get it all done? How do you keep the balance?
I have to say, that has always been my end goal. I think that’s not true for a lot of people in the art world. They don’t want to shoot commercially. Obviously, a lot of commercial photographers aren’t interested in the gallery world. I’ve always felt that there’s been such an overlap, in terms of my photographic world, my married family life, what I like to do in my free time, what I’m interested in. All of those things overlap. My interest in academics. RISD in particular. All those things, for me, were always related. So I approached my career, even early on, from the standpoint that this is what I wanted to make happen. I wanted to have a gallery. I wanted to have a commercial agent and shoot cool jobs that related to my artwork. And then I wanted to teach a little bit to stay tapped into that academic world. I agree with you 100% that it seems to be the 21st Century Hustle, as you put it. I like that. Ultimately, it’s a really difficult balancing act. Inevitably, one takes precedence over the others.
Is that how it works for you? Does your commercial work make up the bulk of your income? Is it broken down into thirds? You mentioned two kids, two car payments. Let’s be honest. You’re living on the East Coast. That adds up. So how does it work?
Sure. Well, I will say I have a very awesome, supportive wife who has a regular 9-5 job. Without her, I don’t know if this would be possible, this freelance existence. In terms of breakdown for finances, I would say that commercial jobs make up most of my income. I sell some work through my galleries, and then RISD pays my teaching salary for one course. Which isn’t much across the board across the country. Just to be clear, I teach because I love it, not because of finances. I would do it for free if I had to, because it’s just that enriching to me. And I schedule enough time out for teaching because it adds a lot for me, and I’m giving back to the community. I think the biggest struggle, inevitably, in doing something like this, is balancing the schedule. The schedule gets really tricky. You need to have availability for commercial assignments, which means you could fly out the next morning. And then you have to be accountable to teach your class, every Monday, when you’re supposed to be there at 1pm. It can get a little crazy, but I think where there’s a will there’s a way. So for me, it’s a combination of financial reasons, but also passion that makes me keep this crazy freelance thing going.
Did your experience as a fine artist help enable to you make the jump into the commercial world?
Yes. As you go through your career and your life, as a photographer, I keep going back to this, but it’s a business thing. I think a lot of people don’t approach it from the perspective of “This is serious business.” Even your art career. Sure, you’re out in the middle of the woods, photographing dogs running around, or whatever it is you’re doing, but when you get back to the studio, it’s a business. I think you have to be smart about certain things. And approach them from certain angles where you can benefit the best. I knew that I wanted to be serious about commercial photography, and I felt that my work had enough of an overlap into the commercial market, and modern pop culture, that I thought I could do pretty well in terms of editorial and advertising photography. So I was really aggressive finding an agent. When I finally reached the goal of getting acquired by a New York gallery and having a solo show, I used that as a launching pad to find a commercial agent. This is just something that I thought was common sense. You’re having your first exhibition. This is your first foray into the real art world in New York City. Why not try to use that to catapult yourself in this other part of your career? It worked out, luckily for me. When I called and emailed people, they actually responded. Would that have happened if I hadn’t started the conversation by saying that I was having an exhibition in Chelsea? Maybe not. I think that’s just the reality of it.
That’s in the summer of 2010. You had a solo show for your project “Intertidal” at ClampArt. Coincidentally, I happened to be in New York that night and had the chance to come check it out. The place was thumping. So you were very strategic in the way you tried to leverage the exhibition as an opportunity to market yourself in the commercial world. I think that’s pretty interesting.
Yeah, I knew that this was a moment that I needed to capitalize on. I just knew, for me, that it was the first time that I thought it made sense to approach so and so and to try to make the most of my commercial potential, because of the gallery. And I found that I got a much better response than I actually anticipated. Due in part, absolutely, to having this exhibition. All of a sudden I had options.
Did you, in the end, benefit more through commercial connections through the show, or through selling prints in the show. Let’s talk about that. People want shows. That’s a given. But I think in 2011, people are starting to ask questions about production costs, and framing, and can I make my investment back? So it sounds like this is a great thing to know.
Yeah, sure. Both, maybe a bit more on the commercial end. But it’s a complicated question.
I know that. Look, to me it seemed like a positive way to ask what might have been a negative question. I can ask you “Did you make your money back from your show,” and you’re going to answer honestly or not. But before we even get there, you’re talking about the fact that you had a show and that got you work. So you’re telling us that having the experience of the big solo show in Chelsea automatically had a huge impact on your career. So it becomes less about feeling the pressure to sell the work off the wall. Is that a fair assumption?
The real question is, was it a worthwhile investment? Absolutely. I wouldn’t say that it had an immediate massive impact; it’s a building process. The thing that shocked me most about my career, that continues to shock me, is that you set these milestones for yourself. I’ve got to get a gallery in Chelsea. I have to get a book deal. I have to get an agent. I think those are difficult, serious, but “it makes perfect sense” type of goals. So I think the idea that I’m going to have an exhibition in Chelsea and that’s it, or I’m going to be in the Whitney Biennial and that’s it? Forget it. That’s not how it works. And I think a lot of people, myself included early on, didn’t understand exactly how much of an investment in terms of time and money all this stuff really takes. The end goals are still there.
Also, I have to say that I was really particular in my pursuit of the gallery. That’s a whole separate story, but back in the day, before I was exhibiting with ClampArt, I knew it was the right gallery for me for a lot of reasons. I just had to convince Brian, and introduce myself to him. That’s obviously the difficult part. But in terms of the show and a financial investment, it’s a serious chunk of change to have 30 pieces framed and exhibited anywhere. I think of that stuff as a personal business loan to myself, because that exhibition has an infinite ripple effect into my career many years later. The exhibition at ClampArt open opened up many opportunities for me in the commercial world as well. I’m working with i2i, in part, as a result of my exhibition. Lizzie, my agent, even said that to me. It certainly helped. I think that’s just the nature of the beast. And I accept that, and have no issues with it whatsoever.
It just so happens, other things from that exhibition also came to fruition. Things that are much more important to me than art sales, such as the inclusion in the “Truth is Not in the Mirror” exhibition at the Haggerty Museum (and Fraction Magazine). That’s directly because of my ClampArt exhibition. That’s the kind of thing that I don’t think I can put a financial price tag on, being included in a show that traveled, and had that much clout and respect when it was happening at the time. And showing beside some of my photo heroes, that’s not something that I could put into monetary consideration.
So it sounds like you’re really taking the long view instead of the short view.
You know, I think that’s really the only view, as far as I’m concerned. Because if you have the short-term mentality, you’ll quickly find out that it most likely won’t pan out for you.
So maybe that’s a lesson we could share with, I don’t know, the entirely of Corporate America?
So we just decided that the entire structure of the US Equity Market is wrong.
Basically. Can we do something about that? What do you think? Should we just fix it?
I don’t think so, man. Money talks.
You don’t think we could fix it? Just like that? Make a call?
Not two photo guys.
No. Probably not. Well, we’ll set that one aside for now. So listen. All this talk about business, it has a purpose, but we haven’t really talked about art. So why don’t we shift gears a little bit. In the beginning, you brought us back to skateboarder culture, and we can all imagine you cracking your head on some concrete in Tucson. Because Lord knows they have a lot of concrete in Arizona. But now, let’s talk about the project that you showed in New York. Let’s talk about “Intertidal.” How would you talk about what your work is?
“Intertidal,” for me, was something that came out of nowhere, actually. When I agreed to take up my MFA at RISD, I knew that I was moving home, so to speak, to New England. I grew up in Connecticut, RISD is in Rhode Island, which neighbors Connecticut, so in a sense, I was going back home to my family and friends. But I’d been gone for 10 years, and in that time gap, I became a visual artist. It was culture shock for me to get back to the East Coast, in a photographic way. I sort of stumbled into this project by accident. I had always been photographing my skateboarder buddies, and an exploration of who we were as skaters. But I left that behind in Tucson, and became a serious, full-time student. Neither grad school nor my body allowed me much time for skateboarding, so I just started photographing. And the only thing that I knew how to do was photograph what I consider part of who I was, my world. I just applied that formula that I had started in Tucson to my family within New England. I started to really scrutinize, through the guidance I had in grad school, what I was doing. And what exactly was I doing? And what exactly were these pictures of?
Drinking…drinking is part of it.
More specifically, drinking beer.
Coincidentally, I wasn’t. But drinking beer was really interesting to me, because I came from a family of heavy drinkers. Drinking was something that I knew a lot about, in a way, but didn’t as well, because I wasn’t really part of that. It’s part of why “Intertidal” came to be. Initially, I was exploring the differences between what I perceived as my identity as a man, and how I perceived my family, my father, my grandfathers, my friends, and the rest of the typical New England male archetypes. The fisherman. The logger. The blue-collar worker. These were things I didn’t really know much about, because I took off when I was in my early 20’s. And grew up into adulthood away from my family, away from this New England identity. So when I came home, I was initially exploring the differences between them and me. So inevitably, I became more familiar with my history, with their history. And then I started to explore the notions of masculinity. And that’s where “Intertidal” ended up at, it was an exploration of the typical ideas of masculinity versus the reality of being male. So this is where the drinking beer thing kind of gets funny, because beer and a lot of things, such as the forest, hunting, shooting guns, strength, these are all just vehicles for me to talk about what I’m interested in. Not necessarily participate in. You know what I mean?
It makes a lot of sense. It’s actually where I wanted to get to. We talk a lot about reality, which we were mentioning before. When we look at this work, and I like it a lot, you’re in the work. You’re in the work drinking. You’re friends are in the work, drinking. You’ve also got images of your daughter in a separate project. You’re willing to put yourself and your family in front of the camera. So that makes me ask questions like, “Is this even trying to be real?” I some times feel, when I’m looking at these portraits of you, that I’m seeing a character. And that they’re not even meant to be the “real Jesse Burke.” It’s a fictionalized narrative. Is that a read that you’re comfortable with?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s part of the truth behind the photographs. I think it’s important to realize that all of this work is a production. This isn’t candid photography. Not the landscapes, per se, but a lot of the portraits. It’s all staged. It’s all very conceptual in my head. This isn’t me following my dad around, documenting what he does. This is me having an idea about how I perceive my father, and then having him fill that role, whether or not it’s true.
That’s what I thought. One of the things that I’m wondering: we talk about masculinity, and I read a quote of yours that I have right here, where you see a world where “blood and sweat mix with sunsets and snowdrifts.” We’re past the metrosexual phase. People don’t even use that word anymore. So I’m curious. A lot of the portraits you take are of shirtless men. So my question is, when you show a fine art portrait of a semi-naked man to a logger or a fisherman, to some of your friends who don’t come from the art world, what reaction do you get?
It’s an interesting question. I don’t think I get any reaction. Ultimately, my family members don’t give me an involved, dedicated response to the work. Going back to the beginnings of this project, which is “Who am I? Why am I this artsy guy in a family of not-so-artsy guys?” I didn’t expect a big response from them, or the public, or “normal” guys. I just started making these pictures that I thought were fun, and talked about these ideas that I was interested in. Inevitably, what happens is they don’t really question it. They just sort of go, “OK. It makes sense.” I think the fact that the art and photo worlds have been gracious in giving me some attention, and some exhibitions, and a book, I think that gives it validity to people that don’t necessarily follow conceptual photography, or fine art photography. I mean, let’s be honest, who are we making this work for, besides ourselves. Who’s the market? Who’s going to buy it? Who’s going to display it? Who wants to buy my book? It’s certainly not the average Joe Schmo who works in Boston. I understood that I was getting into an elitist culture, and that wasn’t an issue for me, but I knew the art world is like that. And I could have some backlash from these people. Luckily I haven’t. But I have a really hard time answering the question of “How do they respond to the work?” because quite honestly, I don’t know. We’ve talked about it, but I don’t have a thorough understanding of how my uncles read my work.
Actually, I would disagree. I think it’s a good, honest answer. Look. We could spin off and talk all day about the marginalization and elitism of art within mainstream culture. We could. But I don’t know we would ultimately tell anyone anything they don’t already know. So let’s move along. One of the things that’s crucial to me as an artist is seeking great input. When I write these articles about going to look at art, I would be going to look at art anyway. I believe the better the input, the better the things that we see, the better our work becomes. What do you look at? Where do you get your inspirational input? How does that process work for you?
I get a lot of my input from living everyday life. I watch TV. Believe it or not, MTV. Lots of sports. So I get a lot of inspiration from media, magazines, TV, cable shows. Things like that. I’ve become sensitive to what I see as the rift in masculine perception. So I’m always sort of looking for it, wherever it might lie, whether it’s in a football game, or Jersey Shore, or hanging out with the other dads at the park with my kids.
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Your guilty pleasures can be fodder for your creative practice. Jesse Burke has just given you permission to watch as much MTV as you want.
Jesse Burke is a Rhode Island based artist. You can see a site-specific installation of Jesse’s photographs at ClampArt’s booth at Pulse Miami (December 1 – 4, 2011). He is represented commercially by i2i Photography in NYC.
Heidi: What made you want to create more of a browsing experience for your site?
Sam: First off, let me say I lament the loss of the independent bookstore, the takeover of the pawn shop by ebay, and the overall loss of the tactical experience of searching, discovering, and handling books, records, magazines, and the like. I am glad I grew up in an era when if you wanted to view the work of an author, photographer, or painter, you went browsing in a great bookstore. You may or may not have found exactly what you were searching for, but chances are you always stumbled on something accidentally that was equally inspiring. I wanted to re-create that idea a bit with my new website.
The site has nuances of the ibooks bookshelf. Was that so users would be somewhat familiar to this experience?
I wasn’t really going for that, exactly, but I was trying to create the experience of walking by a display window, and having book covers, magazine covers and other designed elements that catch the viewer’s eye. It has been an interesting experience trying to design these little icons in ways that make them feel like objects, and also entice the viewer to “pick them up” and browse for a while. It is an idea I have been playing with for a long time, and I finally realized that users want to have multiple ways to view content, so that they can pick the way that works best for them. So, the site is designed with traditional drop down menus, and a pretty sophisticated search function. With that safety net of knowing users could easily navigate the site, I was free to then try something a little different with the shelves.
I think it is important to realize that a website is not a portfolio. The Internet, whether you like it or not, is like a giant mall. There may be some non-profit booths set up on the streets, and lots of free performances and conversations, but let’s face it, there are a heck of a lot of storefronts. I figured, why not make the experience of going to my website more like popping into a gallery, a bookstore, a movie theater, etc.
All are the books on the shelf “books” with the exception of the images that have the grey layers, indicating multiple images?
The general layout is divided into three distinct groups of imagery. Books, which can be any length or size, and which open up and have page turn animation to be as close to the experience of reading a book as possible. Galleries, which are a series of large images in a white space that can be viewed right to left or left to right, like walking through a gallery. And Movies, which include commercials, music videos, short films, movie trailers, interactive pieces, and documentaries. I can also choose to put a single image on the shelf, if I feel it needs to stand alone.
The idea here was to be able to use the shelf in many different ways. I can change the display by moving the content of the shelves around. I can group content together (like placing a gallery of Tom Petty photographs on the shelf next to a Tom Petty music video). I can put the latest magazine cover I shot on the top shelf, indicating that it is something new. And I can use it like a blog: It is easy to see that there is something new just by seeing a new item on the shelf that wasn’t there on the last visit.
Because you do quite a bit of editorial, did that influence your embedded “book” style?
Really, the idea behind the books came from wanting a way to show people more pictures from a particular shoot. On any given shoot, I may try six or seven different set-ups. Invariably, only two or three get seen. That doesn’t always tell the whole story. I like having different options for showing the work. If you look at the book I made after I did my Elle Fanning shoot for Vanity Fair, you can see that I tried to make it just a little keepsake from the day, like a little journal. And with the Aaron Eckhart book, there are pictures from multiple shoots over several years. That book has a very different feel. And with the Tom Petty Mojo project, a gallery was the best way to show the work, because each image kind of needed to stand on it’s own.
The funny thing is that after creating the site, I realized it is already having an influence on the way I shoot. I am now thinking about how I will end up telling the story, and displaying the work. It makes me a better photographer, and it gives me an outlet to be my own designer, and to display the images in a way that brings out the character of the shoot.
Who created the site? Were the developers and the designers from the same group? Or separate?
I had a very talented designer named Ness Higson help me with the look of the site, the type, the layouts, etc. And his partner Josh Stearns, (who is a tech wizard, and also a photographer) had to figure out how to make all these ideas work. The three of us went back and forth, debating the merits of the shelf, the feasibility of having different book formats, etc.
How long did this site take to build?
Most of the time was spent on my end, trying to figure out what I wanted. I would say I mulled over the idea on my own for over a year before I even engaged designers and builders. Then, once we started I suppose it was about a four-month process before we had a working prototype. Only then did I realize the massive amount of time it was going to take to “populate” the site with content, entering information, tags, uploading and compressing video, and creating the books. And I am still a long way off from feeling like it is where I want it to be.
Are the images difficult load and change? how about for the small books
The beauty of this site is in it’s architecture. Josh and Ness made the uploading and designing of the elements so easy, and so flexible. This was crucial for this kind of site because I wanted to be able to easily experiment with different ideas and be able to quickly update the site. I couldn’t be happier with how it works.
Is this your response to the development of rich media? This interactive site and you being being involved in still and motion?
I think it is a natural evolution. With first generation photography and film websites, I think everyone was trying to establish a visual identity with varying degrees of success. Now we all want to find ways not only to reach an audience, but also to keep them coming back. For me, being somewhat of a schizophrenic in terms of careers (I was making films long before the 5D was in existence), I wanted to find a format where my photography and film could live side by side in a very natural setting. With the shelf concept, I think I have solved that problem. When a viewer finishes looking at my site, I don’t want them necessarily to remember whether a particular visual they saw was in a film or in a photograph. I just hope the whole experience can meld together, and what they are taking away is an understanding of the way my eye works.
I also like the idea that the site is deep, and expandable. There is no end to the amount of shelves I can have, and that also goes for menu items in the dropdown section. Additionally, I can use the site as a bit of an archive, by having pictures and films in there that may not show up in the menus or shelves, but if you search by name or keyword, you can find them.
I also plan on adding things as time goes on, such as limited edition printed books that you can get from the site, maybe a music element, and some other interesting sections.
The addition of type on your site is very editorial-minded with captions and chapters. Was that to allow viewers to be more informed and add to the browsing experience?
I have been a big reader my whole life. I was always as interested in the captions as I was the images when looking at books. When I first talked to Ness and Josh, I told them I wanted the ability to write as much or as little about an image as I saw necessary. So, we created opportunities in each format to write about the visuals. At the very least, I can give each image and film a title. And if I want to, I can write a whole book and just slap it up on the shelf. But the idea is, maybe there is an interesting story that goes along with a photograph, and now I have a way to tell that story. We tried to be as unobtrusive as possible with the text, and I am pleased with the way it turned out.
Are your printed books just as unique?
I feel like I am still in the infancy of the book design aspect. I have to say, I absolutely love the art and science of graphic design, and this site gives me an excuse to play with type and experiment in ways that I never had an outlet for in the past. I used to get funny comments from magazine editors because I would sometimes draw up a layout for a cover or inside spread and send it along with my edit. But the truth is, design and images are inseparable, and more often than not, I am imagining where the type goes and how the image lays out even when I am shooting it.
Right now, I have two printed books, “The Here And Now,” and “Non-Fiction,” which are both on the shelves, albeit in excerpted form. As time goes on I will ideally have more printed books and that maybe they will grow out of this website experience. Or maybe the two formats will merge (I am still trying to wrap my head around a digital version of a photography book—is it the next logical step or the end of our industry?).
Are you disappointed your site doesn’t work on the iPad
We had a big debate about Flash versus HTML 5, but in the end, we decided to go with Flash for a lot of boring reasons I won’t get into here. But I think an iPad version of my site should be different anyway, because the iPad is a different experience than a computer. I am trying to wrap my head around how to make something unique to the iPad, and hopefully that turns into another interesting experiment.
You mention this site has great range for your images because it can accommodate any photo you take.
On my old website, there wasn’t a lot of room for variation. There was a series of pictures that felt like a portfolio. I found that I couldn’t include too many pictures of one subject, because it kind of ruined the flow of the images. And I found, for example, with one-off images like the shot of the birds over the ocean in the Rob Lowe book, that there was no place for that image to live. On this new site I have the ability to create individual, stand alone experiences, and each one has their own identity, and their own flow. And perhaps most exciting, the site is now searchable, which makes finding an image so easy. I can now accommodate the client who just wants to quickly find one image or film, and also satisfy the person with way too much time on their hands.
Most portfolios / sites are very vertical in the way they are categorized, why did you want yours to be different?
Well, the drop-down menus at the top of the site are designed with the classic vertical categorization style. I wanted versatility, but I also didn’t want to exclude someone who wanted a normal photography website experience, so I made the dropdown menus in that spirit. I guess you can think of the dropdown menus as the table of contents, or the catalog of the site. The search function is for those who like to google everything, and the shelves are for those who want to browse, discover, and be surprised. Another way I thought of it was, the viewer can organize the viewing of the site the way they want to. The shelves are my personal space to curate the site the way I want to. That way we can all get along!
I know you just won VMA for the Foo Fighters, have you been having some bad days here in LA?
Ha ha, no…there is no personal message in that video. But I will tell you, ideas come from strange places. When I am trying to get an idea together for a video, I do all sorts of things. I examine the lyrics, I look at the band’s history, I watch films for inspiration, etc. In this case, I just looked at the title of the song, which is “Walk” and the movie “Falling Down” flashed across my mind, because in that film, Michael Douglas walks across Los Angeles. That was all it took to start an idea brewing, and I started writing an homage version that would have Dave Grohl just trying to get to band practice.
Do you think it has such great appeal because we’ve all had those days?
Interestingly enough, that film is not as widely known as I thought it was, and yet the comments about the video seem to lean towards a shared unity over bad day fantasies. I thought when I made it that everyone would get that it was an homage to “Falling Down,” and therefore would understand all the references, but it seems to work fine as a story, even if you have never seen the film.
How many days did it take to shoot this? How is was this different from your previous motion music pieces? Was this more story telling?
The hardest thing about making this video is that it is essentially a trailer for a whole movie, and where Joel Schumacher (the director of “Falling Down”) had two or three months to make this film, we only had two days. I wanted to have representative scenes from the whole film, so we were running around Los Angeles in a panic trying to get to all of our locations. Luckily for me the whole band is so good and so experienced at making music videos that we were able to nail most every scene in two or three takes.
I think every project, whether still or motion, is unique, and should be approached as it’s own animal. With the Foo Fighters, I had a real blueprint with the movie, and I spent a lot of time storyboarding and figuring out how to integrate all of the band members in the different roles of the film. Again, the biggest challenge was time. Most videos, if you notice, repeat set-ups multiple times in the course of a four-minute song. This video is six minutes long, and not one scene or shot repeats, so it was a lot of footage to shoot in a short amount of time, complete with effects and choreography. Preparation was really key to making our days work.
How much did you edit out? Was the Dave Grohl easy to direct?
We managed to squeeze most of what we shot into the video, but there were a few things that we just didn’t have time for, including a funny little bit at the end of the convenience store scene where Dave comes back in for a bite of the Slim Jim.
Dave Grohl was so easy to direct because of all of his experience, and also because he has directed some videos himself, so he knows how hard it can be. Having someone with experience on the other side of the camera is such a great luxury. Dave is also naturally funny, so he would find the humor in each scene. That was important because I never wanted the violence to seem at all real. I always wanted to play it for laughs, and there is no one better than Dave at doing that.
Music has always been a part of your life, I would image that plays a big role in your motion work?
I have played music since I was very young, and have played in many bands, and it is one of the most enjoyable things I do. One of the best parts about shooting motion is finding the right music to marry with the visuals, and I have been very fortunate to work on a lot of projects where I get to be really involved in that process.
One of the most satisfying musical projects I have ever worked on is the interactive video for the Cold War Kids. I have always loved multi-track recording, and I wanted to see if I could make an interactive, visual version of a multi-track recorder. The end result was that the user could make over 500 versions of the song, by combining different parts played by each musician (go check it out on the site, it makes much more sense to see it than for me to try to explain it). The fun part for me, besides figuring it all out, was collaborating with the band on the different versions of the song, and coming up with arrangements. That day was truly a melding of all of my interests, and I just love projects like that.
What is your best advice to any emerging editorial photographer in today’s market?
Don’t do it! No, I am kidding. But it sure is a different editorial world than when I started out. If you can find something that overwhelms you, consumes you, and excites you, then I guarantee good things will come of that. Find subject matter that really speaks to you, and immerse yourself in it, and the platforms for showing that work will appear. (And if they don’t, we now live in a world where you can create your own platform). I think it is important to spend as much time developing your interests as you do developing your craft (which is just a fancy way to talk about the philosophy of substance over style).
What is it about the traditional site that bores you and propelled you to do something unique?
I guess if there was one thing that bothers or bores me it is the traditional, antiseptic, linear site that makes me feel like I am doing research in the basement of the ICP. I’ve said this earlier in this interview, but the overriding motivation for me doing a new site was to create an experience where the viewer can browse the work like they are walking through a bookstore, or a gallery, and finding things in an organic way. I don’t want it to feel like work. Photography should be a breath of fresh air in our busy days, and now that we see the majority of pictures online, it is important to remember that looking at pictures can fun, inspiring, and really motivating.
You have away of opening your subjects up and allowing an unguarded moment to shine, is there a secret?
The secret is I tell them that if they will open up to me in an unguarded moment, and really shine, I will let them go home two hours early! Ha, no… there is no secret, but thank you for that nice compliment. I do believe that you have to create the right environment for the pictures you are looking to make. I try to make things fun, and easy, and have some good food around, and hopefully I make a connection with the person I am shooting.
We were so taken by Damon Winter’s photo essay in the New York Times Magazine that we recently featured on The Daily Edit (Where Steel Meets The Sky) we decided to ask him a couple questions about it:
Heidi: How long did the project take?
I was given access to their entire work day for 5 days (almost consecutively) in July. They were in the process of beginning construction on the 73rd and 74th floors.
How were you protected to take those shots?
In order to have access to the site I had to go through the OSHA 10 hour safety training which is a general work place safety course. I did that for two days. Then to be up with the steel workers, I had to do another 5 hour fall safety training course where I was qualified to use a harness to be able to tie off while working up there. I always wore protective gear, heavy boots, hard hat, glasses, hearing protection and of course the full body safety harness with a shock absorbing lanyard that I could clip onto the beams to protect me from a fall.
What was the most challenging or difficult aspect of working in that environment besides the height?
It is always tough when you work on stories like this with really restrictive access because you always have minders beside you watching you the whole time. It was hard the first few days because I had Port Authority public relations people watching me and safety enforcers watching me, but over the course of those 5 days they got used to me and figured out that I knew what I was doing and wasn’t a real risk or threat to them or their jobs and they really relaxed and let me go about my work more freely. The floor boss for the ironworkers was another story. His job is to supervise the whole operation up on the derrick floor and he is tough. I didn’t speak to him the whole time, just tried to stay out of his way and attract as little attention as possible. I’m used to building up good working relationships with people I photograph but anytime I talked to an ironworker or they talked to me while they were working I would get yelled at. The smallest misstep, if you were in someone’s way or standing under someone who was working would get you yelled at and at first I was under constant fear of getting thrown off the site.
Beside the view, what was the most impressive thing about being up so high?
Well the view was amazing but it was really watching these guys put together this amazing structure, seeing how every piece just fits together like a puzzle, down to the millimeter, was really the incredible part. They are so nimble and confident when they work. They shimmy up the columns and run across the beams without a second though….I suppose it really is second nature for them. When I was up there it was another story as I watched every footstep and walked slowly and deliberately. The way they move up there is a sight to behold….something that still photos can’t do justice.
Did the iron workers help you at all or were they concerned for you?
I wasn’t really allowed to interact while they were working so I really just tried to be the “fly on the wall”. Of course it wouldn’t work and the guys came and talked to me all the time. They were great with me, really nice and welcoming. Not too many people pay that kind of attention to those guys and they aren’t used to having someone up there with them for that amount of time. Most people come up there for a few hours, never to be seen again. I was there day after day and they appreciated it.
When I talked to Mitchell Feinberg recently he mentioned that he owned the world’s largest non-scanning color sensor array, something he created so that he could continue to shoot 8×10 film without Polaroid. Normally I avoid anything to do with equipment but this sounded interesting.
APE: Tell me why you created the 8×10 digital capture back and how it works?
Mitchell: When I look back, three years ago, it was crazy that I even tried to do this: design and manufacture the world’s largest color capture back, large enough to cover the 8” x 10” format, so that I could continue to shoot like my glass plate-carrying brethren a hundred years ago.
It was a race against the clock, or, specifically, a race to see if my stocks of 8×10 Polaroid would run out before the back was completed. In the early months of investigation most of my evenings were spent on meandering Internet searches. Months more were spent deciphering unintelligible technical papers. The few companies with the right technical expertise were eventually identified, but it was extremely difficult to be taken seriously. The experience felt like working at a call center, making unsolicited calls for storm windows. Eventually, one firm was convinced, and, after over a year of difficult design work, a first prototype was delivered in February 2010. The first production model was delivered about 9 months later.
The Maxback, as it has been named (the Brontoback, Velocicaptor and Back Scratch Fever were rejected), is the largest non-scanning color digital back in the world, with a capture area of over 8×10 inches. The largest commercially available color digital camera backs are about 4.5 x 6cm in size. It attaches without modification to a Sinar, and delivers high quality interim captures in under 30 seconds.
I use the back while I am working. Once I am happy with a photo, I flip off the back and then shoot a couple of sheets. In this way, I have the quality of 8×10 film, and the immediacy of digital capture. Crazy, right?
Well, the idea is not that crazy but I’m guessing the cost was astronomical. I shouldn’t ask but can you give me an idea on that?
The development and production of two backs (I wanted to have a spare) was equal to the cost of a good size house – before the housing crash. I know it sounds insane, but the financials on it are not so bad: I used to shoot on average 7.5 Polaroids per photo, and I shoot between 400 to 500 images a year. That’s at least 3000 Polaroids. At 15 bucks a pop. Or about 50K per year, minimum. Polaroid was at one point my highest single cost. I am depreciating the back, charging clients for its use, and I was eligible for the technology investment credit. I also took out a loan based on the projected income from the back, so I did not have a huge hit on my bank account. It is certainly not a fantastic rate of return, but the back is designed to last a very long time, so it should generate a strong profit over the long term (And that is not including the all-important photo-related issue that my clients love receiving 8×10 film).
The engineers and I discussed selling them, but no one wanted to bother with customer sales and support. I think there are maybe a dozen of so photographers who might have the desire and resources to buy one or two (I have two, so that I have a spare handy). This means we would not sell enough to start a proper production line, and it would be tricky to order small quantities from the sensor foundry, not to mention the main boards and other critical parts. It’s straightforward to make prototypes and hundreds of units, but five is a difficult number from a production/manpower standpoint.
We never set a unit price, but it would be in the low six figures. Anyone purchasing a device for that kind of money would expect excellent tech support, which implies that we would need to have backup devices ready in case there was an equipment failure. That would be costly. If I had an order tomorrow for ten of them, we could probably move forward with it, but it does not make much financial sense to pursue sales on a one-off basis.
Chris Buck has been in the news lately for his controversial Newsweek cover image. This promotional video shows how his enthusiasm for ideas gets his subjects to do crazy things.
I don’t really like heroic portraits, I find them really boring. I don’t think it’s interesting when someone is celebrated in that way. I like vulnerability, I like surprises, I like when there’s a sense that you don’t know what’s happening in the picture.
— Chris Buck
Rob: The book “After Barbed Wire” came out and your phone started ringing with a few assignments, then you had a gallery show in New York and more assignments, so did your career take off like a rocket after that?
Kurt: It was a great time to be a fashion photographer because skin was being celebrated. I mean sunlight on skin. Bruce and Herb Ritts were really responsible for that. There was a sensuality in naturalness that allowed me to enter, because I couldn’t tell you what the fashion point was in a particular dress, but I could tell you how I felt about the sunlight on her skin. And that’s what I was responding to, and that was a time for it.
That was a unique time in fashion.
Yeah, and you could feel the skin. The skin looked real, touchable. That was the point. And that paid for everything. It was my passport to all sorts of stuff. It’s a great training ground to do portraits in.
Were you shooting a lot of fashion?
Yes, lots. I was a traveling fool. I had to fly Delta everywhere to get out of Montana and there was a time when I would be met at JFK by a representative from Delta to escort me through customs.
I’m over a two million miler.
Wow, that’s epic. So, how soon after the book and gallery show, are you suddenly blown-up in the fashion world?
It really started to kick in like around 1988, 89. And then I’ve got about a 10-year time period there where I was flying non-stop. Fashion is this wonderful picture beast. Twice a year you’re starting over with new collections and the wonderful thing, nobody ever gave me a layout or anything. I mean you show up, and maybe you’d have some idea of where you were going to do the shoot, but once you got there you just made it up. I mean it was very free.
And I think most of the time as soon as you stopped shooting and the pictures were done and they appeared, you know the two or three out of 800 that you did, or 1000 you did, you know once that happened, the pictures are dead. They’re over, they’re gone.
That’s amazing, feed the beast.
But you’re making this incredible money and meeting incredible people.
I wanted to ask you about the fashion crowd, because those don’t really seem to be your people.
You know after awhile if you’re going to do fashion you wind up, at that time anyway, with your own team. You’d have somebody to do hair and makeup and probably a stylist, and that they were integral to your pictures because it required that kind of collaboration. You spent all this time together too, you take most of your meals together, you’re traveling together. So you better be with people you enjoy being with.
What about the designers, and the editors at the fashion magazines, they seem like a wacky group of people.
There are some, but my experiences were with people like Rosanna Armani, Giorgio Armani’s sister, who was just absolutely delightful. Funny, no bullshit, she had her crew, and if she styled someone, you can better believe that’s the way they were going to look. It wasn’t like, “Oh, do you like it with the hat on or with the hat off? Oh, let’s shoot it both ways. No, this is it.” And it was just so direct and so pure in that sense.
It’s a creative thing for them, but it’s a business too. And they’re like anybody else on this group that’s traveling and doing the pictures, they want it done well, but they have to enjoy the day. And if they’re creating dramas every single moment, it’s not going to be fun.
And it’s going to show up in the pictures. You’ll see the drudgery, the lifeless eyes of the model, the unfortunate person who you’re photographing; if there’s a bad vibe in the air, whoo, to me it’s just deadly.
And what about the pressure?
I didn’t feel it.
I mean I worked hard. I always showed up, there was never a single time when I didn’t show up, you know, or be present, and do the best. I’ve always associated the click of the shutter with “Yes,” that you like what you see. I never thought of photography as a job. And then when I’m given this chance to photograph these really great looking people, travel to nice places and eat well, I’m still trying to make the best picture I know how to make.
It never became a job?
That’s amazing. You’re lucky.
Well I think it’s absolutely essential.
You’re caught up in a very crazy industry and there’s a lot of money and there’s a lot of people fighting for it.
Well there’s the other thing. I’ve never thought of photography as a competition. They hired me because they wanted me, not because I’m the best photographer, but I’m a photographer that they wanted. And they could just as easily picked someone else, but they made individual choices where I’m not interchangeable with someone else. That’s why I don’t think of it as a competition.
It’s just different choices.
You were raised correctly, someone taught you well.
Well, thank you, but I don’t know where I get some of this shit sometimes.
That’s really healthy, you know? It’s really hard for artists not to take it personally.
I think most artists feel like it means that their work is not good enough but that’s not what the decision is.
What happened next? You got off the merry-go-round?
I think the world just went a different direction.
Right. I mean we’re pretty close to 2000, so things are really changing.
Yeah, 9/11 was big. I could feel the seismic shift pretty quickly after that. You know a lot of budgets got redirected, the trips got shorter and shorter.
And then it got more competitive, too. I mean the industry really changed in that way, and people were aggressively fighting for work.
Yeah. No kidding.
And we’re talking about the digital revolution as well. For a guy who spends a lot of time in the darkroom this has got to be disheartening for you.
It’s impacted how I make a living, but in truth I’m doing my best work right now. I’ve become a better printer, I think I’m a more interesting person. I photographed Mike Tyson not too long ago. I just really enjoyed it. I could appreciate that I’m the oldest guy around. And it’s cool. You can relax a bit, not be afraid of who you are even if you’re kinda dopey at times, just being human.
But I get shocked every once in a while. I had this workshop a year ago and I asked this group of people, it hadn’t even occurred to me in the first couple of days, but I said, “Raise your hand if you are making prints.” And one or two people raised their hand out of 17 people.
Oh, I would have thought zero.
That’s the revolution, because I’ve always thought of photography as an object. It’s not electronic information, it’s an object. I don’t believe in a photograph until I make a print. It doesn’t exist for me. It’s just like thin air. So from that perspective it looks to me like people are afraid. They’re afraid to commit to putting their name on an object and claiming it. They’re dodging the biggest bullet of all which is standing up for your work.
It takes guts to make a print. You know you have to convince yourself that this is you, that you’ve made this and that you’re putting your name on it, and you also have to believe that maybe somebody else either can appreciate the work you’ve done or can appreciate the fact that this is you. There’s nothing else to hide behind.
OK, but that’s Kurt Markus, the print is integral to who you are as a photographer. That’s not the case for all photographers.
But you know what, Rob? I’ll boldly say this. Those people are never going to make it.
Tell me more.
Because they won’t be satisfied. They’ll just get fed up with looking at their pictures on a computer monitor, because they’re going to surf the net, and they’re going to look at other people’s pictures, and they are going to wonder what’s wrong with theirs.
You don’t think photography can exist separately as an object and digitally?
Not by a practitioner. I think photography can exist that way to anyone looking at photographs.
If you make pictures, you have to make a print?
Yeah. If you make pictures, and pictures is your work, you might last for a few years, maybe even 10, but why would you want to be a photographer and not take it all the way, all the way to a print? I do not get it.
Well, I mean there are a lot of reasons, most people don’t have a work ethic that you have.
I don’t look at it as a choice, you’re either obsessed or you’re not.
I’m trying to think of some examples of photographers who are not printing.
I’m not saying that you can’t have someone else print for you. I’m just saying that if you don’t have a print and the image only exists only in a computer box that’s not sustaining.
You can’t make a career out of that as a photographer?
No. Obviously, as soon as I say that you can imagine someone doing it, but…
You only believe in photography as an object?
I believe in the rectangle. Filling that rectangle with a photograph remains the most challenging thing that you can do. Then you print it, sign it, and show it to somebody else. It’s a blank canvas. If you can make a straight photograph, fit it in the rectangle, and make it work, you have accomplished something.
If you have to go outside of that rectangle, bring in other things to put inside that using non-photography tools, it’s cool, I don’t have a problem with that. I just think that you run the risk of it being a gimmick when the most powerful expression is the simplest. For me, you can’t manipulate it into existence by going outside the rectangle.
It’s like a high wire act, and a safety net is not going to be there for you all the time.
How much of the effort for you is making the picture versus making the print?
They’re just inseparable but I’d say the moment of exposure probably is the key.
How long will you spend in the darkroom working with the negative?
Well sometimes I don’t have to do anything. It isn’t that I expect a labor or anything, or that it’s going to take a long time. I try to follow Paul Caponigro’s thoughts on just not expecting anything, and if it’s just there and it’s handed to you, please, I’ll take it. It’s your point of reference for photographs that you love.
Why do you love this Ansel Adams picture, or why do I love this Paul Strand picture? You can’t deconstruct those photographs into pieces. They’re all of one thing. And the power of it is that you can’t take them apart.
It’s magic, you know [laughs] ?
Have you done many workshops?
I’ve done a couple in Santa Fe.
And that’s a big part of what you’re imparting onto these photographers, is that you know there’s a lot of value, there’s a big reward for treating a photograph as an object.
Well, yes. It’s part of it, but it’s also part of the experience of being a photographer and what it means to hold a camera in your hand and ask Meryl Streep if she could look to the right, or look down, or stand here. It’s a trip. You know, the actual experience of it is just a trip. It’s not like anything else. It’s so powerful.
I mean, I feel like I’m transported when I do pictures. Sometimes even with the landscape, I just think, “Holy shit, man, the electricity’s running through your body.” And that’s got nothing to do with the object in a sense. It’s part of why you’re doing the picture, to feel that. And then to carry through with it is the object phase.
And you get that same electricity from the print.
I think if you allow it, you get that jolt in every phase. You can get that jolt from signing the print. You are keeping your hands on it as long as possible before turning loose with it. And then once you turn loose with it, well, maybe you’ll get a jolt walking into somebody’s house that has one of your prints up, and looking at it you feel like saying, “Yes, that’s pretty good.”
Tell me about this show you’ve got at Staley-Wise.
So, it’s me and a dead guy.
Yes [laughs] .
Which is cool.
It’s cool you’re not dead [laughs].
It’s with Hoynigen Huene, who was a big Vogue photographer. His estate has these platinum prints and the gallery thought it would be interesting to pair his work with mine.
You’re having a show, and you’re alive. Life’s good.
Yes, and you know, it was nice. I enjoyed looking through some of my pictures, because most of these pictures probably were never published. And I think one of my favorite pictures is one that they would never publish, because you really can’t see the dress. But I’m so glad I did the picture.
Is this a picture you did for yourself. You knew they would never use it, so you made it for yourself.
No, not really. It’s pretty hard to do that, to intend to have this feeling. Because every once in a while, you can sneak one into a layout, or they’ll put one in that’s kind of a throwaway picture, as in a mood picture. So I didn’t consciously think, “Oh, there’s no way they’re going to use this picture, but I’m going to do it anyway.”
There were probably variations that showed the dress in a more detailed way, but, it’s really nice to go into the darkroom with pictures you did 15 years ago, and like one and make a print. It’s encouraging to know that you should follow whatever instincts are guiding you. You should really respect those and be willing to fail, because you will really fail if you look back on your work, and you discover that you didn’t really try.
Let’s talk about your legacy. Staley-Wise seems like a nice gallery to have representing you.
It’s a pretty traditional, old school gallery. They don’t represent photographers who work conceptually, and I think my pictures fit in there.
Yes, I’m not embarrassed by that. The Museum of Modern Art isn’t calling me up, I’m not like Lee Friedlander or Gursky or some photographer who has a museum show every two years. And I don’t get critiqued by the soothsayers of photography. I can live with that.
Why is that?
I don’t think my pictures are challenging enough for some people. You know what I said about the rectangle? I still believe that, it’s immensely challenging to work within the frame. I don’t feel a need to break new ground technically or any other way. I can still go out and do pictures and be very satisfied doing that. I think that my day will come.
Hopefully you’re not underground when it comes.
Either way that’s fine. I would like the luxury of some serious thought being placed on my photographs. When someone really understands the whole body of work, I think it’s a pretty remarkable life.
Is it enough for you to take the picture, make the print, sign it and put it in the box. Do you feel satisfied at the end of the day?
Yes. That’s why I don’t need a show to feel satisfied. I don’t confuse that, ever. Because by doing it this way, I also get to revisit it from time to time, and I can see, “OK, that print wasn’t so good, I need to tear that up and do that one again.” Or, I’ll look and I’ll say, “Jesus, I’m glad I did that, because that print is really beautiful and I can’t do that one again.”
Do you feel that you’re at the apex. Making the best pictures and prints of your life.
Yeah. I’ve got a better chance of pleasing myself.
Amazing. Does it really take that long?
I feel like that’s the way it should be. You don’t want to feel like you’ve done all you can do when you’re two years into this.
Nice. You still take pictures of cowboys?
I’ve got a hankering to go back into it.
Just because I think I’m a better photographer.
visit Kurt’s website to see more of his work http://www.kurtmarkus.com
Rob: I want to start at the beginning. When and where did you start making pictures?
Kurt: I got out of the army in the early ’70s and I knew one thing, that whatever it was that I was going to do with my life, I wanted to love it and believe in it. That should tell you a lot about my army experience.
I enjoyed playing tennis, so I thought, “OK, there’s one thing I enjoy. Maybe I can find a job at it” and I got a job at a tennis company in California.
How old were you?
26. This was Billie Jean King’s company and it was during a time when tennis was booming. People were putting up tennis courts in little towns like Whitefish, Montana.
The company had retained a small advertising agency, but it got too expensive so they started doing a few things in-house. There was only six, seven of us and I had a camera that I’d gotten at the PX while I was in the Army. I did a few pictures of people shaking hands at the net and it was published in a newspaper. And I want to tell you: if you can get the first photo credit under your belt [laughing] early, with your name spelled correctly, it’s encouraging.
I’ll bet that was pretty exciting for you.
Well, it also became a responsibility because they were starting to count on me.
They were like, “That guy’s a photographer. He owns a camera.” [laughs]
I started to have a little bit of pressure applied to me, and I was looking at how-to books and that sort of thing and it kind of mushroomed. A year later I wound up at a horse magazine in Colorado Springs–which is a longer story–and was fortunate to have a really great bookstore, the Chinook Bookshop, where I memorized the photography how-to bookshelf. Then I journeyed off that shelf into the fine-arts shelf of photography.
And wow, that pulled some Gs.
What blew your mind?
Edward Weston’s “Pepper Number 30” did it.
I probably could have guessed that.
I was ready. I was ready to see it. And I was ready to respond.
It seems, though, that’s quite a leap coming from tennis camp and “Western Horseman”?
Exactly. And I grew up boxing groceries in a lower-middle-class family in a very small town in Montana. The idea of photography being taught in schools hadn’t really caught on, so nothing in my background prepared me for that experience. I think that those are the really valuable experiences, ones that just come out of nowhere while you’re plodding along on a journey. Even though I was doing pictures and I was really interested in photography, it was like I was on one planet and the next moment I had jumped planets.
I thought, “I don’t need anyone to explain this picture to me.” I could increase my enjoyment through a bigger understanding of who Edward Weston was, which I eventually got into big-time. But Pepper #30 was a straight-ahead photograph. I never looked at the picture and thought, “what lens did he use?” There was just something complete about it, and deeply attractive, and beautiful.
How did you get involved with Western Horseman Magazine?
The long story short with that is my first wife’s father was the publisher. The editor of the magazine had a family crisis and quit, so my father-in-law asked me if I wanted to work on the staff.
What was your job like?
When I first started with the magazine, the editor, who had been advanced after this other editor left, said that you’ll get one plum assignment a year. Plum means you can travel somewhere. OK. And the rest of the time, my job was to edit material that came in, and do layouts and some other stuff. Some of the incoming material was press releases from Purina, so you can believe that I was ready for my plum assignment.
Give me an example of a plum assignment?
One of my first was I had discovered a photographer named Bank Langmore, who had done these really great pictures of cowboys. And I convinced the editor that I should do a story on this guy. So, I went to San Antonio, where he lived, did a story and made a great friend who has been inspirational to me ever since.
Then I started to have a little bit of success when some readers responded, and I was encouraged to push my luck and get two plum assignments. And then I started really getting into it, and I’d take whatever time I could for myself and go off and bounce around the West.
Then eventually I was editor for one month, before it was “quit or be fired.” I have a rather unique distinction, because not many people can say they were editor for one month.
Wait, what? You became editor and got fired in a month? [laughs]
It shocked the hell out of me, and my wife Maria. I thought I was going to be the editor of the Western Horseman forever.
Why did they ask you to leave?
I got promoted to editor and I thought, “Well, I’ve got my budget. As long as I stay within my budget, I’m the editor, I can do whatever the hell I want.”
Well, I couldn’t do whatever in the hell I wanted. I redesigned the cover except I didn’t consult with anybody else. I didn’t consult with my former father-in-law, the publisher, or with any of the bean counters in the basement.
[laughs] And you thought that would work out OK?
Well, I knew they were going to give me a hard time because I was doing things differently but I wasn’t going to let them tell me until it was too late. Then I thought, “This is going to work out, just have faith.”
So you redesigned the cover.
…and the inside.
And the inside of the magazine, on your own, without anybody’s approval.
And once they saw it, that was it.
I don’t think that it was so much that they didn’t like it, it’s just that they could see that I was going to be uncontrollable.
That seems to be a theme in my photographer interviews.
And you can relate to that, Rob.
Conceptually, I’d like to think that I’m pretty open. But once you leap into the here and now it becomes real and not just a concept, then you start drawing the line, especially if you believe in what you’re doing.
Once I lost that job the bank foreclosed on our housing loan because it was contingent upon being employed, then it was panic time. I could have been working at Janitor’s Quarterly, because working 10 years at The “Western Horseman” didn’t open any doors.
What year was this?
1985, I think. Something like that.
We moved to Montana.
We had two boys and as a photographer I thought it was either New York or Montana. I had seen some people in New York try to cart kids around the city and I decided, “Montana’s going to be it.” And also money wise, I don’t think we could have swung it.
Do you feel like you had the chops to go to New York?
I don’t know about the talent, but I had the ambition.
You wanted to run with the big dogs.
You know, one of the things about photography that has stayed with me, although I question it from time to time, is that persistence really is valuable. Don’t you think?
You know that great classic quote, “F8 and be there”? You do have to be there. Being there is half and you can do that half. And I figure sweat is part of the equation. If you can be really cool and persistent, that’s great, but I was more like sweaty and persistent. I figured that I could maybe outmuscle it.
So you hadn’t had any gigs outside of “Western Horseman”. You didn’t try any advertising. You hadn’t shot any other…
Well, I got a break. I had this cowboy book published by Jack Woody, through meeting Bruce Weber. This is how it goes. You thrash around, then you meet people, and maybe you wind up becoming friends. You just don’t know where it goes. But I believe you’ve got to be out there thrashing around, creating ways for yourself.
How did you meet Bruce Weber?
He came to Colorado Springs while I was with “Western Horseman”. I got a call from Laurie Kratochvil who was at Rolling Stone. She knew me through this other art director who had been at Rolling Stone. His name is Hans Teensma.
He and I were friends, and Laurie Kratochvil had talked to him, so I get this call from her. She said, “I’ve got a photographer coming to do a portfolio on Olympic athletes.” They were training in Colorado Springs.
And Bruce was big time then?
I had no idea who he was. I said, “Sure, I’d be delighted to help you.”
“Well, he needs a place to set up. He’s going to have a portable tent studio to shoot outdoors and he might need some local services”
And I said, “Sure.” Whatever I could do. I had no connection to Rolling Stone or anything like that. I hadn’t done pictures for them at that time. I was just a guy.
So anyway, Bruce Weber comes to town and wow, what a trip that was. Maria, my wife, wound up spending most of her time with him because I had a day job. She’d come back at night and tell me stories “Kurt, you’re not going to believe what they’re doing to these athletes. Cutting their hair and making them wear these little outfits and stuff.”
Anyway, Maria’s having a good time, and she invites Bruce and his crew over for dinner. I hadn’t known you could have hairdressers and stylists and assistants with you when you did pictures, so this was a whole different world. But it took no time at all to become friends, we shared a love of pictures even though our paths were dissimilar. Bruce wound up opening doors for me. He’s been a constant in my life ever since.
You just connected with him then?
You know even to this day, we think quite similarly about photography, what kind of pictures we like to do and see.
How did he hook you up with the publisher?
Jack Woody had just published Bruce’s book, so he calls Jack up and says, “You’ve got to see this guy’s work.” That just fell into my lap.
Well, Bruce must have seen something in your work to recommend you to his book publisher. It must have been great work at the time. It must have been of the level of people operating in New York.
I think he saw potential.
So what was that book?
It’s called “After Barbed Wire.”
Right, so you’re in Kalispell then and you set up shop, and what? What was your plan?
I just was looking for a place to live because the bank had foreclosed on our house. I had some family here, but it was also a great place to grow up. I thought that the least I could do is try to give our boys a chance to grow up in a good place.
And then it started… because of the book, I started to get a little bit of work.
When the book came out did you send it to people?
It was distributed and Jack Woody had a pretty good fan base and some of the fans were art directors.
They saw the book and you got calls, like out of the blue?
[laughs] Your phone just starts ringing?
If it rang at all, you answered. I got a job from the advertising agency for Levi’s because they were coming out with a cowboy cut jean. And that’s how it works. They’re like, “Who’s that guy…
“Who’s that guy who takes pictures of cowboys? What’s his name? Oh Kurt. Right. And he lives in Montana. Perfect.”
And he’s cheap. Well, not that cheap, they paid me almost as much as I made in a year.
Oh my God. You must have been doing cartwheels when you got that Levi’s job.
It was a huge bonus.
How long are you up in Kalispell before this job?
Probably less than six months.
You lost your job. You lost your house. You move up there. The book comes out, and suddenly you start getting phone calls, and then you land a big Levi’s job.
Well, I mean, for me, it was big. I did the job by myself, I didn’t even think you could have an assistant or anything like that.
Didn’t you see Bruce Weber and his entourage?
But I didn’t think it was ever for me.
Right. That was not your style.
Bruce is shooting for fashion. The art director who contacted me never said anything like, “Do you have an assistant?”
“Let’s see what he does if we don’t mention an assistant.” [laughs]
Yeah, well, I probably could have asked for one but I didn’t know of anybody. Would it mean they’re going to have to fly somebody in here to do this?
So I shot about maybe 50, 60 rolls of film and I was really into doing my own black-and-white work so I didn’t want some lab to do it. I came back and the art director said, “By the way, we need this immediately.” I just looked at him like, “You’ve got to be shitting me.” He needed it in two days or something. And I’m processing this film four reels at a time. And, oh, by the way, I need two sets of contact sheets. I stayed up for two days straight.
That was a rather jolting introduction to the advertising business.
And then, because of the book, I got a job for a Yohji Yamamoto. The art director for this fashion guru in Japan loved Jack Woody’s books and asked me to do a bed and bath campaign for him. Then I took them out to, God help them, a ranch in Nebraska.
And it was just Maria and me.
And with the art directors and the main person from the company there, I just took a bed outside, Maria and I made it up, and I shot it. I put like a towel in the stock tank and threw it over this barbed wire and shot it. I just thought, this is the last job I’ll ever have. This is really, really awful. This is so unlike anything I’ve ever seen in any magazines. Well a month later I get this catalog that the art director put together and it’s pretty cool. And then, because of Yohji Yamamoto’s name in the fashion business, these catalogs were sent to some other people and I got a fashion job.
What was that job?
Joe McKenna, who is a stylist and a fashion editor, started working for Rolling Stone. He had seen the catalog and then he had gone to this show I had had in New York, and he asked me at the show, “What would you like to do?” I said …
Wait. You had a show in New York? Is this from the “After the Barbed Wire” book?
How did that come about?
Well, partly through Bruce, but not really. Jesus, this is more complicated than I realized.
You keep surprising me with these things that happened to you. They fell out of the sky on your head. How the hell does that happen?
It does, you know.
Before we get into that, I am looking at these pictures from “After Barbed Wire”. They’re at a very high level already and this is very early in your career. Did you, the magazine or anyone have any idea that you were producing such great work? I mean, you didn’t have any other assignments or any advertising work or anything?
No, I was left to my own devices. I spent about a third of my income in my “Western Horseman” years on books. I’m sure there are some other photographers that have a better or larger library of books than I do, but there aren’t many.
That’s what’s amazing to me. You’re purely getting this from books and how-to’s. Did you meet any photographers that influenced you?
When I was with the Western Horseman, I discovered Paul Caponigro. I loved his pictures so much that I created an assignment for myself to go interview him. I go there with a list of 147 questions that I had typed out. I thought this is a really cool thing and I want to be prepared and I don’t want to just waste his time. So I’m not going to let this pass without giving it my all. So I typed up all these questions and I get there and I pull out this list. And he said, “What do you got there?” I said, “Well, it’s my questions.” He said, “Well, I think you can forget those.”
He just went in such a different direction. He was so kind, and we’ve remained friends all these years. We exchange Christmas notes and stuff. I have to insert this here because I don’t want to neglect not saying it. It really helps if you know someone who is living a good life that is worth some sort of emulation. Photography is a strange business, and I met some people who were deeply unhappy being photographers. I thought, “Hmm, this could be dangerous.”
Right. Back to the army.
This should be… there’s no better job than this. And, anyway with Paul in particular, I thought, “If I’m really lucky, when I’m 70 years old, I’m going to be living like this. I’m going to have my dark room, I’m going to be making these prints, I’m going to really care about these prints. I’m going to have some quiet. And I’m not going to be on somebody else’s string.”
Anyway, Paul represented that to me and if no one you know is living that life, maybe you should think twice about what you’re getting into.
(Part 2 of 2 tomorrow) visit Kurt’s website to see more of his work http://www.kurtmarkus.com
Rob: I need to get into the history of Nick Onken, tell me how it all started. Where are you from? How old are you and when did you get into photography?
Nick: I’m 32 and from Seattle. I started getting interested in photography about six and a half years ago.
Yeah, I studied graphic design then worked as a designer for five years, then I got greedy.
Where did you go to school?
I went to a community college up in Seattle and there was a required intro to photography class as part of the design program.
Oh, dammit! They’re teaching that to graphic designers?
Yeah, but more just as a component. After graduation I designed book covers for a couple years, then went freelance. Then three years later, when digital started hitting the world, I picked up a digital camera. I had a bunch of small clients that I would shoot random, blurry, you know, textures and abstract stuff that I used in my design work for websites and brochures.
You didn’t feel like buying iStock pictures for a dollar? You just wanted to go shoot them yourself?
I knew what I needed. It was kind of more about me being able to get what I want. At that point I don’t think iStockPhoto was really that much into existence. Then I started shooting more and put some photos up on my website and somehow convinced a design client of mine to split the travel expenses to go to Africa and build them a photo library.
[laughs] Yeah, I had no idea what I was doing.
What were you shooting for them?
It was just people and places. no talent, product, or anything like that. The organization was a mission and the project was to capture the people and the places. So I had my Sony F707 – [laughs].
I suppose that’s a really bad camera, I have no idea?
It was like a glorified point-and-shoot. You control it manually, but you’d shoot through the screen on the back.
Yeah, and so how did it turn out?
It turned out great for the time. The client was super happy, I got back and I thought, “Wow, I didn’t know I could ever do that.”
Was a lot of that because you’re a designer and you know what’s going to make the design great or was it that you were actually a talented photographer?
The design part helped me see through the lens, imagining the final product and composing. I’ve always had more of a vision with my photography and had to catch up technically. There may have been some talent mixed in there somewhere.
Do you look back at that brochure and cringe?
Oh, yeah. I think I have maybe one picture or two from that whole trip that would still see the light of day today.
What happened after that?
It was another eight months before I really started looking into photography more. I was a graphic designer, it was not something I thought I could abandon. I hooked up with another photographer, Jim Garner, because I was doing website updates for him. He shot a lot of local Seattle projects, and weddings on the weekends. I started asking him questions and eventually he invited me out on set. He’s gotten pretty big in the wedding world now, but all the stuff I did with him was just the local commercial jobs such as products on the table, and then a few environmental portraits, and a little bit of architecture, etc.
He did everything because if you’re going to be a photographer in Seattle, you better shoot everything, right? So Jim took you under his wing and showed you some stuff, what happened next?
I was still on the fence about doing this photography thing, because I loved design. I was back and forth between the two for months. One day he leveled with me and said, look, you need to be a photographer and that’s it.
How did he come with that conclusion, did he think you had the skills?
I’d been hanging out with him and he’d seen some of the stuff that I was shooting personally and he believed in me and said you need to do this. That was a huge for me.
Was that six years ago?
Yeah that was 2004. I still assisted and helped him out on shoots and I was taking on a lot of design work to pay the bills during the transition, shooting a little bit of my own stuff here and there. Eventually I got a call from Nike to shoot all these athletes.
How did you get that job? Did you market your work to them?
No, I had a friend who was an art director at RGA, they were in a pinch and they needed somebody, so they called me a week before the shoot. It was the week before Christmas and I had three days to arrange everything. When I finished I thought, there it is I’m totally in, the ball’s rolling.
Little did I realize, I didn’t see another job like that for two years.
You thought “I made it, Nike, I’ve hit the big time,” then crickets for two years. What did you do during that time?
I took the money and moved to Paris for six months.
What? Are you serious?
I wanted to live in another country. I used that time to just take it in and learn, breathe, and explore. I shot a few personal projects here and there, shot some models from the agencies there. I traveled to different countries on the weekends and just kind of hung out. I think for me I wanted to do that as an artist, it’s kind of what we take in that comes out in our life and in our art. Living in another country was something I wanted to do.
Did you start freaking out thinking, OK, I need to get some jobs?
Yeah a bit. When a year blows by and nothing of the Nike status comes through, when you think the ball should be rolling, you start to worry. Around the beginning of 2006, I hooked up with Amanda Sosa Stone and she helped me get my bearings straight about marketing and gave me the low down of like how this works, how the advertising world works. She pushed me to go out on meetings and create a marketing plan and I started to do that with the very limited budget that I had.
Talk to me about your style of photography, from day one have you always shot lifestyle?
Yeah, it kind of evolved to be quite honest. I started doing model testing at an agency and it was more catalogy at the very beginning and then just evolved and evolved. Eventually I was doing more lifestyle conceptual stuff. I was still paying the bills with graphic design projects and assisting here and there for Jim. Then in March 2006 I moved down to LA.
You decided you needed to be in LA to make it.
I decided that to play at the top level where I wanted to be, I needed to be in either LA or New York. LA fit my style a lot more and I had a lot of friends down there. It’s not as much of a sink or swim city as New York. So I packed up my little Honda Civic full of all my computers and cameras and moved down to L.A. I basically started from scratch. I started hitting up some modeling agencies and trying to get a little bit of paid patchwork here and there. I was still picking up a lot of design projects. Looking back now, LA was a great stepping stone to my eventual NY relocation.
So when did it finally click? When were you able to go full-time photography?
It was probably three and a half years ago.
So two years after you moved to L.A., you finally got enough clients. Was this just hitting the streets, marketing, producing personal work and building your brand?
Yeah. I’ve always shot my own work, shot my own tests, and stuff like that.
Yeah, but it wasn’t just a lucky break, like Bruce Weber said “Hey, kid, here, take one of my $100,000 shoots, I don’t need it.”
No, it’s all been a lot of hard work. In 2006 I did a two-month trip to Asia for that nonprofit and that’s when I think I really hit my stride with travel work. I got a lot of really great work out of that. And then I think May of 2007 I picked up another Nike job, still in-house and a smaller Nike job, then the rest of that year was a bunch of other small stuff. It’s always been a hustle, and it never stops.
When did you land with Greenhouse reps?
Q3 of 2008.
How did you end up with them?
I had a portfolio meeting over at an advertising agency and I was talking to one of the art buyers. She was really friendly so I asked her who are the good reps out there? She gave me her card and said “Shoot me an email and I’ll tell you all you need to know.” So I emailed her, and invited her to lunch. When we went to lunch, she started telling me what reps were great then said, “Hey, wait, I’ll tell you what. I’ll just email some for you, how about that?”
She emailed them and said “Hey, I know this guy who’s really good”?
Yeah. She actually ended up emailing four other reps, who all ended up being interested, so I went and interviewed them with a set of questions.
Wow. Your work must have been strong then, that those reps were interested and obviously having an art buyer vouching for you is pretty huge, but still the work needs to stand on its own.
Yeah, the work was there enough for a high level Art Buyer to recommend me.
But also clients too. I mean agents aren’t going to take somebody on who doesn’t already have some clients and isn’t generating some work. It doesn’t make financial sense.
Yeah, I had that and I had my brand. I’ve always been big on branding.
So they saw you had your shit together. That’s probably a big part of their job, getting the brand and getting it all cohesive. You had that all done. So after you landed with Greenhouse, obviously a big repping firm, you turned full-time to photography. Take me through the last three years. Obviously we got hit with a massive recession somewhere in there. You were starting your photography career full-time right in the middle of the economy hitting rock bottom, right?
Yeah, and it’s been a great few years. I started at Greenhouse in October of 2008 and I got my first real ad campaign in December 2008 so it took a few months. I had been doing meetings for a couple years prior showing my books at ad agencies. Making the rounds and doing meetings and luckily they remembered me and saw where my work was at that time.
And so you broke into that Leo Burnett level of ad world and you’re in the club aren’t you?
Yeah, I mean the ball’s rolling for sure and a big asset is having a rep like Greenhouse that puts you in that top tier of talent. But, even up until I got that big job, I bid on at least 12 big ad jobs until I finally got that first one. I got so used to not winning the bid that when I did get one I thought, “Oh my God. They actually gave me a job.” In the end, as cheesy as it sounds, you gotta be in it to win it. If you’re bidding then at least you’re being considered.
So I want to talk a little about lifestyle photography just because I feel like, it’s a unique beast. There is a ton of cheesy lifestyle, but pulling off real genuine moments seems to be one of the toughest types of photography. And from my experience it takes a shitload of money to pull off.
Yeah, it’s crazy. I mean you have the casting involved. You have location scouting. I shoot mostly location work. Location is a huge part it. The productions are thousands and thousands of dollars, at least mid five figures. Depending on how many days and how much talent you have on set, all the wardrobe, and you have wardrobe per talent and hair and makeup. Yeah, it does get very, very expensive.
It’s just a ton of people working on it. I know, there’s probably advertising shoots where there’s just a ton of people hanging out, because they’re expensive shoots or something. I feel like in a lifestyle shoot there’s a ton of people working on the physical product, more so than anything else. What makes great lifestyle photography in your opinion?
In my opinion it’s that realism that you can create, real moments and authenticity. It comes from your taste in wardrobe, people, props, clothes, locations. Everything is about your taste, and how you see. Then that all goes into that picture and into that set. You’re creating an action, and a theme, and a story. And then you’re shooting it. And then you’re snapping that camera at the right moment, or a series of moments and then you’re coming back and editing, I think editing is a big part of it as well. I would say the key to my style of photography is me feeling that moment.
And we all know how photojournalists do that, but how do you manufacture that? That’s the thing, right?
Yeah, and that was actually a learning process for me. The transition from my personal work where I get talent running around doing random things at whatever time of the day to advertising photography, to where I’m given this specific creative direction, its very difficult to create a reality within that, because you’re so specifically directed. Luckily I’ve always pulled it off. It’s creating and putting the elements together and then getting the talent to do the action and create that story within those certain parameters, and then just snapping the right moment. And doing it over and over and over and over again until you get the right one. Now I’ve gotten it down pretty well.
How do you get them to act genuine. I mean, is it just casting?
Yeah, and I think casting is a huge part of that. For me, I like to cast people with great personalities that you can kind of see on video castings. Casting the right people with great personalities makes it easier to direct because the talent can move and have a good time on their own.
So, you have to be an expert at casting?
At least have a good eye and feel people’s vibes, what kind of energy they have. It can be hit and miss, but you get better the more you shoot.
Just based on meeting a lot of good lifestyle photographers, a lot of it comes down to the photographer’s personality. Somebody you’re comfortable around, who’s interesting to talk to, a good conversationalist.
Yeah, you have to be good with people. You have to make them feel comfortable.
I want to talk about your website (here) a little bit, because so many people dig your website. You designed this from scratch?
Yeah, I hired somebody called Knowawall to do it. It was a good six-month project.
Did you know exactly what you wanted, as far as functionality and different things you wanted it to do?
Yeah. I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted. I have a couple friends that used them to do their websites. Coming from a design background, I can see all the functionality, the animations, the loading. So, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted going into it.
I had my brand somewhat developed, and I hired these guys, and was able to use my design background to art direct, a bit. I gave them a very solid brief. I was actually pretty impressed with what they came back with in the first round. I knew I would be, because, it’s like hiring a photographer. You look at their portfolio and you will have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get.
Right. You saw they had solid work in there, super-refined.
Exactly, I’ve gone through so many websites and, coming from a design background, an impatient design background, I had a pretty good idea of the elements that I wanted to fuse into the website that would make it easier for my clients, and my potential clients, to digest the site easily and not have to worry about wait times too much.
And so it wasn’t cheap, right? I mean, you did pay top dollar, but it’s like hiring a good photographer.
Yeah, I mean it cost me more than my car. That didn’t even include the blog which was another little bit on top of that.
Add in a car stereo and some rims.
I launched in February 2010 and my whole idea going into this was that books are being called in less and less and people referring straight to the website. I had two or three jobs last year where people booked me without even calling in my book.
Yeah. A laundry detergent campaign.
Oh, nice. So yeah, you have a lot of confidence in it. You can send it out to anybody, they’re going to be stoked on it, and stoked on the pictures.
Yeah, defiantly. It’s the whole experience, you can also keyword search on there. There’s at least 2,500 images in the database.
How is it you have 2500 images on your website in only six years of shooting? Do you shoot a lot of personal work?
I guess. I have this ABS theory, “Always Be Shooting.” And I laugh because I get emails from people who say “I’m abiding by your ABS theory.” I think, oh man, I was slightly joking about that, but I guess those are good words to follow for the journey.
Do you have a pair of brass balls you bring out and say coffee is for closers?
Exactly. So I guess I’m always shooting. I try to bust out as many personal projects as possible.
Do you think that’s part of your success?
I think so, I would say the more work you’re doing the better you’re getting, the more your eyes see every time you shoot. It’s all those thousands of decisions you’re making before you click the camera. All your taste, the location, the wardrobe, the styling, the hair and makeup, the model, the direction. Every time you make those decisions you learn for the next time. And so the more you shoot, the more you learn. Did you do a post on the 10,000 hour rule?
I think. So you’re bought into that? That you need to be shooting all the time, because you need to log the hours, the reps.
Yeah, log the hours to improve. On top of that, the reps always love it when they have new work to show, so they can keep putting in front of people.
Talk to me about the blog. How does blogging fit into your marketing and business plan. What’s the purpose of it? Why did you start a blog? You seem to have one of the more active blogs for someone who’s not doing workshops or selling books?
Well I do have a book, but…
Oh, ok but you’re not sponsored by Canon or Nikon and doing workshops?
No. Have you ever read the book, Never Eat Alone?
It’s a great book on building relationships and networking and, you know, the biggest part of that is sharing knowledge with people, and giving something to people. I started it when I was back in my design days before blogs became popular, before anybody actually knew what they were (including me). I started this thing called “Shop Talk” and it was a static HTML page that I manually updated myself, then eventually when blogging became a norm, I rolled it into a TypePad blog engine.
Wow. Old school. It was based on that idea behind the book?
Yeah, kind of. There’s nothing there in the book that really talks about it, but it was based on the idea of sharing and giving back, and what goes around comes around. I believe that if you give people things, it’ll come back to you in some way. So that was the start of the blog. Just share things that I’d learned along the way. And as I keep learning, it can help other people. I don’t know if it’s really gotten me any direct work, per se, but I think it definitely sheds another light into who you are as a photographer, and a person, if a client views your work.
Do you think it’s part of the package that clients are using for hiring now?
Yeah, in a non-direct way.
You don’t have any direct evidence of landing jobs because of something related to the blog, or Twitter do you?
I did this email blast a few weeks ago and I got this kickback email from an art director, saying “I’m not really taking emails but you can Twitter me at this and I’ll be doing portfolio reviews via Twitter.”
No way, really?
Yeah, so I hit this guy up, “I got your email, here’s my website, check it out.” And he hit me back on Twitter with “Nice work, I have a campaign coming up, maybe we can collaborate on that” and so then we continued to have this dialogue via Twitter. But, that’s it. I have more photographers that follow me on Twitter than, art directors.
Sure. But you’re going to keep it up still?
I think part of the idea is creating buzz around your brand.
And could you ever see, relying on blogging and Twittering and Facebooking for marketing?
Its become a couple different channels, you know. You’ve got a photographer channel and you’ve got an art-buying, photo editor channel. It’s a whole different channel. I feel like the blog and the Twitter (@nickonken) and the Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/nickonkenphoto) stuff is more an audience of other photographers. So, for my book it’s been a good channel to distribute and promote that.
What’s the book?
It’s called “Photo Trekking,” and it’s through Random House. We launched it last year.
Oh yeah, you had that big party.
Yeah, we threw a big party for that and I used it as an excuse to have a special happy hour for art buyers and art directors in New York.
Oh, all right, so it’s a marketing piece for you?
Yeah, doing the book really was, it was having a PR piece but also, you know having a book under my belt with a major publisher is a pretty good deal. And just to be able to promote that to art buyers.
And are you selling a lot of books to photographers as well?
Yeah, I think we’ve sold a few thousand.
So things are looking up for you, you’re shooting campaigns for major clients now.
Last year I did a lot of major clients from car manufacturers to alcoholic beverages to sneaker companies to beverage companies.
Was that your best year ever?
Yeah, it was.
I think my readers will like hearing that. You built your business in the middle of a recession and when the economy hit rock bottom you were off like a rocket. Good for you. Well deserved.
Thanks. I appreciate it.
Are you following the Magnum photographers road trip “Postcards From America“? They’re almost halfway in and look to be headed towards Tucson. Check it out if you get a chance, it’s quite cool.
Outside magazine called over a month ago to ask if I would interview a photographer for their summer interview issue. I immediately pitched them Tim Hetherington whose work I admired although I’d never met or spoken with him before. The body of work he created in Afghanistan was so vast and varied, including an award winning Oscar nominated documentary (Restrepo), plus he’d made some outlandish statements like “forget photography” in the press that I just knew he was blazing new trails for photographers and photojournalism in particular.
When I emailed to setup the interview he said it needed to happen immediately, because he was going to Libya. After what he survived in Afghanistan and previous conflicts it never crossed my mind that Libya would be his last. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation:
ROB HAGGART: Hey, Tim, how are you?
TIM HETHERINGTON: Rob, I’m very well, man.
Good. Did you find a way into Libya?
Ah, I’m still trying to work out what to do. I mean, I’ve got a potential way in, but—I mean the thing is, the situation is moving so fast it’s very hard to know whether it’s a good call or not.
That’s the main thing at the moment.
And do you have an assignment or are you just going to go?
Yeah, it’s like a top-shelf documentary film. A director who I know who—and I said I wanted to go in. The problem is, unlike making still photographs, you don’t know what you’ll get in this kind of situation.
When it’s so fast moving, it’s very hard to structure a kind of narrative. It’s difficult to find characters—you know what I mean? I have no idea what’s going to happen. It’s like a complete fishing trip, so it’s also, like, not wanting to—for them back in New York, the director—for them to understand clearly that that’s what it is.
Right, they probably don’t understand that or maybe just basing it on your previous documentaries, right?
I just don’t want to set myself up for them thinking that they’re going to get something and then they don’t, because it’s impossible—it may be impossible to do what they want out of that. No second chances— like it’s so fast moving, it’s pretty crazy what’s going on. In terms of the government moving very close to Benghazi and who knows whether Benghazi is going to fall or whether the rebels will counter-attack or whether Gaddafi will buy people out in the town, you know what I mean?