Vintage Photograph. Part One.
There are these billboards scattered about New Jersey, and they’re near where you are, too. They appear to be cranked out of a God-sized typewriter on blue-lined paper, which, when you think about it, is pretty trailer. The big, faux Smith Corona font states, “Recession 101: Bill Gates started Microsoft in a recession.” There’s no branding or logo, and until I broke down and did an online search, I’d heard no mention of who funded these roadside rah-rahs of economic encouragement.
The breakout shooter in me who’s chomping at the bit to trade in his creative director time sheets for full time on-location shooting wants to take their messages to heart and come out feeling like a buoyant Rosie the Riveter. But I’m a contemplative sort; they produce more of a stiff upper lip kind of feeling in me to “soldier on” and keep building the portfolio, keep luring the right clients. And with that feeling of Churchillian resolve, I pat my Nikon in the passenger seat as if it were a warm gun.
You see, now’s a really, really sucky time to be a startup photographer, or rather, a collaborative startup photographer. Stock photography is now the default choice for designers and art directors in small to mid-sized agencies, everywhere, and even for many magazines. Many photographers who in recent years were focusing exclusively on partnering with publications and agencies to craft custom imagery, are now attempting to supplement — or work exclusively – as suppliers of stock images for massive image databases like Getty or Veer. The formerly “privateer” stock photo house, iStockPhoto, that would accept images from virtually anyone if they met certain qualifications, and would then sell the images for a comparative song, has recently been acquired by media giant GettyOne. The prices have gone up a bit. But it’s still not a collaborative venture between a storyteller and an image maker.
Think of it this way: instead of being part of a storytelling team, where you’re given some juicy intel on a client, a product, and a message, then asked to craft the visual that ties that story together, you’re given some loose parameters that define a series of photo buckets. Then you go out, shoot as many versions of bucket bilge as you can (admittedly, really excellent bilge) and attempt to sell those images to the biggest stock service you can, at the best price. If you’re fortunate, you’re going to get a royalty, a teensy one, for each image that’s “licensed” that you shoot.
I don’t want to shoot for stock. I want to shoot for people. I want to have visual conversations.
This is all a tough thing for me to face, having been an advertising creative since I graduated from college in August of 1985. (Krikey, that means I’m starting my 26th year in a business that is facing more changes than an engaged bride in a David’s Bridal closet.) I want to shift from ad crony to creative picture painter, but it seems the pictures aren’t respected enough by those who need them most.
After all, doesn’t your cell phone take a decent picture?
Walking through the park and reminiscing…
25 years ago, commercial photographers were the glamour boys of the industry, and stock was something you turned to simply because your client was cheap, and didn’t realize the power of a custom-derived image. The huge color catalogs from the stock houses that regularly inundated the agency creative department back then usually found more worth as either massive paperweights, repositories of executions for stealing, or if the book was from a photographer’s representative, dream-fodder over a rushed lunch.
Back then, I may have worked for tiny agencies, but for every client, there was an appropriate photographer.
Commercial shooters were the ones who, next to illustrators, were the brave souls; they maintained a face of stalwart creativity as freelance contractors in a world where ad agencies were the engines of creative messaging. The agencies would craft the story, but the photographers literally made it come to life, with light and panache. They stood solidly in the gap between fine artist, commercial designer, writer, and the as-yet-undreamed of online designer. They were living embodiment of the image and all its persuasive power. What’s more, they pretty much accomplished all of this on their own schedules; an aspect of the creative life that I crave every bit as much now as I did as a wide-eyed kid.
Who inspired this hero worship in me?
Bad, bad LeRoy…
The late LeRoy Anderson, or “LR,” as his students came to know him, was the Chair of the Commercial Art Technology program at one of the University of Kentucky satellite colleges, scattered throughout the state. The Louisville edition was where I first experienced the notion of real advertising life, and no other faculty member exuded the joy, the sinew, and the angst of the professional life to come more than LR Anderson.
LR both cut his teeth and made his mark as a commercial photographer for Kentucky’s famous bourbon distilleries working under the luminary Lin Cauffield. Cauffield and Shook Studio captured everything from famous celebrities to natural disasters over a very long and illustrious 75-year career. They brought a sense of photojournalism to their commercial work which was unique in its day. LR, as a professor, brought a pride of heritage and a sense of craft to his students. But first, he’d weed out the impossibles.
Everyone’s first brush with LR came during the first day of Photography 101. It was a course with no prerequisites, but LR intended to hone commercial shooters of Cauffield and Shook mettle, and nothing less. The overcrowded room on day one was filled with a dog’s breakfast of humanity, some toting their “martini mixers,” as LR would say; one-shot consumer grade cameras that did everything for you “and none of it well,” and some toting only a hope to come and take better pictures of their pets.
LR would have to be cruel to be kind. He’d have to scare them away.
He’d had a stroke many years prior, an experience that paralyzed part of his facial muscles. It contributed to his screechy, rusty-gate voice which also carried a taint of southern drawl. He was tall, walked with an odd limp that somehow he’d managed to carve into a saunter, and his red hair seemed to add heat to his rattle gun commentary.
Waiting until the room, uncomfortably full of young, black-wearing art snobs paired with middle-aged shutterbugs had grown restless, he entered 5 minutes late with a scratching, auditory Howitzer, but only after the door had slammed shut behind him.
“For most of you, the only bit of useful information you’ll get from me today is – Drop / Add is right down the hall.”
He went on to pipe unfathomable concepts that many professional photographers to this day don’t understand:
“If you think this is all about pitchers of puppies n’ unicorns, lemme set you straight: you’ll have to explain to me principles of light, such as the law of inverse square, the rule of 16s, the rule of threes in terms of composition, and other things a bit more intense than saying ‘cheese.’”
Over the course of the next 3 classes, that full room would be whittled down to the 12 or so diehards who were not only committed to the art and craft of photography, but fully committed to LR Anderson.
Once you’d earned his respect as a serious student of how light behaves on film (digital cameras for professional use weren’t even spoken of, yet. There was no internet. No cell phones.) and could demonstrate a proficiency in capturing what you saw all the way through the darkroom, he’d become your greatest advocate. He’d speak to you about the vagaries of the photographer / client / agency “three way,” how best to sell your concept for a shot when some narrow-minded Art Director was hell bent on their execution, or a little-known tip or trick.
He’d also bust your chops:
“If you’d have bothered to bring the subject into focus, you might have noticed that the composition was for shit.”
“This print is so bad, if I could fold it any smaller, I’d use it to pay a stripper.”
Once, after inviting me into his office to give me some advice regarding the upcoming portfolio review—which counted for half of your grade—he invited me to sit near his life-sized cutout of Gina Lollobrigida. After lauding my compositional abilities, he began to playfully rip into my glaring weaknesses as a darkroom technician.
“Ya know, this shot had such promise; well cropped, great depth of field, but it’s as black as burnt Guinness.”
To be sure, the negative was so underexposed, no amount of “mashing on the gas,” with additional enlarger time (his phrase, of course) in the darkroom could save it.
I was taken aback to be complimented by the man. But there was a bit too much testosterone mingled with my stop bath, and I attempted a weak defense with an honest confession: “I didn’t know what to meter on.”
Smirking, he pointed over my shoulder to Gina’s ample enlarger lamps.
“Hell, son, you can always just meter on the palm of your hand.”
Derbytown Shooters Ball
After graduating and completing an internship at the local CBS television affiliate, I took my first (and only) Louisville agency position in September of ’85. It was an absolutely tiny little shop that had an interesting mix of clients, from construction companies to political candidates. Small as it was, it knew that every discipline had experts, and that you should rely on the experts.
There was the former Navy photographer who returned from ‘Nam to shoot something far less intimidating: gourmet food. In an impressive he-man juxtaposition of hubris and education, he answered my inquiry regarding “durable Japanese equipment.”
He took the lens off his frightfully expensive Swedish Hasselblad 500CM, held it above his head, and dropped it onto the poured concrete of his studio floor, just a few feet in front of the chicken cordon bleu he was shooting for one of our restaurant clients.
As if he had just dropped a fork while eating pie, he wordlessly picked up the battleship of a camera body, clicked the lens into place, and went back to shooting.
There was the shooter who resembled recently-deceased French cycling hero, Laurent Fignon, complete with professorial glasses and ponytail. He worked in a hovel of a studio, crammed with decades of sweeps, backgrounds, props that were never returned, and mounted prints that said, “I once hung in a grander, sexier studio.” He worked nearly silently, with nods and grunts for responses to your questions. He was as methodical as he was quiet, and while he adjusted his lights without an assistant, I would meander, investigating other camera / tabletop setups in adjoining rooms, and his displays of vintage cameras in large, oak and glass cases.
We used him only for the “tabletop stuff;” images of products on white seamless. Never conceptual work. I was too young to realize it then, but we were clearly under-utilizing someone who had shot much bigger stuff.
Then, there was The Big Shoot.
Which demanded The Big Photographer.
Our agency had just been thrown a health care bone; my years-long foray into pharmaceutical advertising, which would ultimately lead me to “America’s Medicine Chest,” aka New Jersey, would start there at that humble little agency in Louisville.
A very famous international ad agency, with a Louisville branch that handled some regional health care accounts, gave us some excess collateral work for an equally prestigious global pharmaceutical company. I recall that it was a media kit that dealt with women’s diets and their link to osteoporosis. I was the graphic designer. That was cool.
My boss, the Art Director, had selected the photographer, widely accepted as one of the city’s most prestigious.
I was nervous.
It was my first “real” shoot: I had designed an image that required a model, so I had to “select talent.” Flipping through a modeling agencies chop book, I found the handful of faces that I thought were most appropriate. I cleared them with my Art Director, and the Account Executive ran them past the client. The most glamorous one was chosen.
I was nervous-er.
The design called for a very tight face shot with the hair “blown out” of the image. The focus was on the eyes, the nose, the cheekbones. She had to appear confident, eternally young, and in control of her health decisions.
During the shoot, I was essentially an onlooker. I watched with requisite awe as the photographer made the most efficient of directions to those assistants that circled him like moons; the makeup artist, the lighting specialist, the juniors that prepped the film cartridges. He was this Michelangelo figure: he only spoke when he had something to say, he didn’t seem to like the fact that you couldn’t just read his mind, and he silently resented the fact that the Pope got to make any creative decisions, at all.
When it came time for the shoot, everyone stood back behind the photographer, who disappeared behind a black drop cloth, covering his head. It was a 4 x 5 Sinar view camera, and he used Carl Zeiss lenses. 10 feet in front of him, bathed in brilliant modeling lights, was the model, hair pinned tightly back, shoulders bare. With the exception of the makeup artist nearby, she stood out there, alone. She appeared vulnerable and exposed. And she was flawless. My sketch layout come to life. She was my first Galatea.
The Photographer began to speak from beneath the cloth.
There were significant pauses between his commands. I wondered if she could stand it. Behind the lens, we certainly held our collective breaths.
“Open your eyes, wider.”
“Wet your lips.”
Then, without warning, :::bam!::: The powerful Broncolor studio strobes popped, followed by the impossibly high-pitched sound of the thyristors cycling back up for another exposure.
With The Photographer motionless under the cloth, an assistant pulled and flipped the film cart for another exposure. And the oddly sensual ritual repeated itself; command, subtle adjustment, again.
Afterwards, with the model dressed to leave, and the client already having left, The Photographer began to wax rhapsodic about what it’s like, under the cloth and behind the glass, staring down the barrel, as it were, at a woman of great beauty, having her obey your words, all the while realizing that this intimacy was to convey an essence for a third party. Eventually, after a few exposures, the communication between him and the model becomes wordless. The camera becomes the intermediary. And the client becomes the beneficiary. Hopefully, the audience’s life…is richer.
It is a dance.
And I wanted to lead the dance.
But something happened that changed photography, and delayed even further my prospects at leading those dances with light.
It was called “desktop publishing.”
Next week, my thoughts on how stock photos on CD-ROM, and ultimately, search-able images on the Web have affected the shooter’s craft, today…and how I’m not daunted one lil’ bit.