Erik Almas

Posted on: August 1st, 2007 by: Zack Seckler

Written by Jess Tsai
Edited by Nisha Chittal

Final imageFor Erik Almas it’s all about location, location, location. “I try to go somewhere that I haven’t been before. I try to do something new, something that’s better than what I’ve done in the past,” he says. So, it only makes sense that he loves working in the advertising industry – a career that lets him delve into his passion for photography and travel. His clients include top industry brands like Nike, Harley Davidson and Hilton and he was chosen as one of “PDN’s 30” in 2005. His background includes a degree from the Academy of Art University and an apprenticeship for over two years with renowned advertising photographer Jim Erickson. “[Assisting Erickson] was more important than anything in my career” Almas says, adding, “It opened a brand new world to me.” Now, years after leaving Erickson and only in his mid-30’s, Almas has made a name for himself through his “contemplative and thoughtful” style, which reflects his own preference for quiet moments captured in beautiful surroundings.

For a photographer who so carefully composes and plans each of his images it comes as no surprise that our featured image was inspired by paintings. The photograph, a piece from Almas’ personal work, emerged from paintings of Sirens – water deities born from Greek mythology. Almas originally intended to shoot a woman as the foreground subject to pay tribute to these mythological figures but soon became enchanted by the very people Sirens were famous for getting into trouble – fisherman.

Creating this masterful piece was an arduous process – it’s actually a compilation of about twenty different A handful of the photos used to create the final imageimages. “I usually don’t go as crazy,” he says of his process. To get things started Almas took pictures of many different waves, rock formations, skylines, and other coastal imagery with a Contax 645 medium format camera attached to a Phase P25 digital back “you [envision] the picture in front of you, and then you just start gathering pieces to recreate that,” he says. The exposures ranged from a few seconds at f/22 to create depth of field to 1/125th of a second at f/4 to capture the moving water. Almas photographed the fisherman using a Canon 1DS – Mark II set to 1/60th of a second at f/5.6 and used ambient light supplemented by a reflector to open up the shadows. After he collected all the images he wanted, Almas spent one day roughly fitting all the pieces together in front of the computer. Then, for the next few days thereafter, he worked on making the image seamless. The final image was cropped into a panoramic format, appropriate for capturing the sweeping background.

The fast-paced demands of the advertising industry make it difficult for Almas to indulge in personal projects like the one featured here. So when it comes to his personal work, Almas sees it as an opportunity to explore the possibilities of photography and push his talent to the limits. Still, no matter what his photographs are for, Almas brings his unique style into each piece and thrives on the rewarding feeling of knowing that he’s created something beautiful.

Almas was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:

TFS: How did you get your start as a photographer?

Almas: I used to be a DJ and one day I had this moment of realization that I couldn’t do it anymore! I can’t work nights forever, what else can I do? Photography sounded like fun. I moved to the U.S. and started studying photography. It’s a decision when I made when I was 21. I came here without really knowing very much, and after four years of school, I assisted Jim Erickson for two and a half years. I then decided to venture out on my own. Now as I have matured and sort of figured out what I like to do and what my vision is, I’d say, I think I have an eye and sense for design and composition.

TFS: Was assisting Jim Erickson really helpful for you?

Almas: Absolutely, it was more important than anything else in my career. To work for a guy like Jim, first of all, it sets the bar for everything you hear in school about photographers. Then you realize what kind of lifestyle you can have, and all the fun you can have and what you can create. Suddenly I saw that it opened up a brand new world to me. He was also really good at nurturing that – he let me borrow his equipment, gave feedback on images, and was a great mentor.

TFS: After that, did you immediately start doing advertising work?

Almas: Yeah, that was the only thing I knew from working with Jim we hadn’t really done any editorial work at all. So that’s what I wanted to do. It was a little on and off at first; I had one job, then it was half a year without any jobs, but during that time I did a little bit of retouching on the side mostly for Jim to help supplement my income. However the snowball started rolling and I got more  and more work.

TFS: How do you like working in the advertising industry?

Almas: I love it. Absolutely, I’ve been at it for five, six years now, and I love it. I can see how people get tired of it sometimes, especially when you have to compromise yourself every day fulfilling all those criteria by marketing executives who have no art background. You feel that what they want to accomplish with the pictures is not always right for the images. But it’s so rewarding anyway, you get to travel and make a great living. I get to create great pictures a lot of the time. I think those compromises image-wise is fine, but then I get to do personal work on top of that. I love advertising.

TFS: Do you think that you do need to do personal work to offset that lack of control that you get in advertising?

Almas: I don’t think I’ve been good enough at doing my own personal work because I have been so crazy busy. It’s just myself and one other person. It’s not like a big operation. When I worked for Jim, he had seven employees. So he had a lot of time to always work on his pictures. It’s just my studio manager and me, and I do a lot of the other stuff as well, including retouching. But yes, I think it’s truly important.

TFS: So, tell me like what it’s like doing a typical ad shoot.

Almas: I’m pretty lucky in the sense that clients come to me for my unique style. When people come to me I usually get to do an approach with the pictures, like I’d do if I did it on my own. There are compromises, but it’s usually fine with me. So they come in with a layout, they talk about it, I try to understand what they’re trying to accomplish. Then I find the best places to make it happen.

TFS: Do you usually do one-day shoots? Or do you have to come back as lighting and weather changes?

Almas: I like to do one picture a day. It’s not like a catalog shoot where you just run around to create ten pictures a day. We get there early in the day, or the day before. I always do a tech scout and we lock down our picture and say, this is the best picture we can create in this place. Then we figure out where we would put the people, and how we are going to actually do it. Then we just use the afternoon almost exercising, just shooting the people over and over again. By the time it gets late, people know what they’re doing and I’ve established a rapport with them. Then it all comes together at sunset usually. That’s how I approach it.

TFS: A lot of your images have a panoramic format, what draws you to that look?

Almas: It’s just a great form of storytelling that evokes the imagination. Most of my pictures are a foreground element and a background element that helps support what the foreground element is doing. So often there is a person in the foreground. There’s a house, a lake or a landscape. There’s something that helps tell a story about the person in the foreground. All of that is better done in the foreground I think. I do have verticals for every one of the images or most of the images as well, and then sometimes stuff gets cropped out. You know other times we use the computers and they move all the stuff you need to fit into the frame. So they can still tell a story in that smaller format. I think it’s too bad. I shoot what suits the images. The fashion stuff I do, well that’s mainly done vertical, if  I shoot a person, it’s in a vertical kind of format.

TFS: Are you always shooting 4 x 5?

Almas: Almost. I love to. I mean, that’s something I have to fight on almost every job now,  my desire is to shoot 4 x 5 or 6 x 8. Most of the time they say, sure whatever you want, as long as you’re going to accommodate our timelines and blah blah blah. Everybody tends to think that digital is so much faster. It is, if you shoot a catalog and you can see it straight on the screen. But for me, shooting the frame is just half the job, because you use the computer afterwards to add clouds and color and all that. So you don’t really do things a lot faster if you’re shooting film or digital.

TFS: Did you always shoot with 4 x 5? Or did you start out with another format?

Almas: No, no. When I started in school, they always taught me to medium format. I think it just lends itself better to my style. Jim shot quite a bit of 4 x 5 then and I was using it. It seems that all the people who shoot images that are similar to mine, tend to with 4 x 5. When you see the picture upside down, it becomes more about the elements and how the shapes are, rather than looking at the picture and it being on a cumbersome tripod. It’s a slower, more deliberate process. When you shoot digital, it becomes so disposable you just get trigger-happy shooting, and you look at it later, and for me at least, it goes too fast. I don’t really look then, you know? I do jobs where they want me to shoot digital. I’ve shown them my 4 x 5, and I do that and I do Polaroid’s and work as if I’m shooting 4 x 5. Then when it comes actually time to shoot, I just move the 4 x 5 out of the way and start shooting digital. The whole process of finding the picture and all that, I do on 4 x 5; it really helps me find the image and work through it.

TFS: How much does a computer come into play in your work?

Almas: I don’t try to capture everything in camera. But it’s not always as extreme as the fisherman shot (featured image), though. I would say there are usually three elements to every thing I shoot. There’s the landscape, and then there’s the cloud if you’re not getting beautiful clouds there. Then there’s the foreground element. Often I like to shoot them separately so that I can focus on the landscape and then the lighting. I shoot the landscape 4 x 5, I shoot a little bit of the person 4 x 5, and then I supplement that with digital. I get a lot more versions and I can shoot a lot faster and capture more moments with digital. Then I stick the person into the landscape. Those three elements are usually what I work with. The fisherman image was an idea more than it was the picture taking.

TFS: Do you do a lot of your own retouching?

Almas: Yeah, I do pretty much all my own image making. So when I first get the contact sheet I talk to the art director about what we like better. Then I have it scanned and I put all the pieces together like adding the clouds and the color etc. If there are a lot of images in a campaign, I would do all that initial work and then I would hand it off to one of the retoucher’s I work with and they  help me make it seamless and all that.

TFS: So when you’re doing your personal work, do you approach that differently?

Almas: I think the difference is that I come up with the idea. Then I try to go somewhere that I haven’t really been before. I try to do something new, and something that’s better than what I’ve done in the past versus the advertising people. In advertising, they usually have one or two pictures that I’ve done already in their mind and say, ‘we love these pictures, can you do this for us using this and this and that element.’ So in that sense I think advertising is looking backwards, redoing what you have already done. Personal work is something that pushes me forward – something that I could use for marketing, or I could try to experiment and create beautiful imagery. I think that’s the biggest difference, you know. When it comes to the tools and the techniques and stuff, it’s pretty similar.

TFS: Do you come up with the idea first? Or do you come up with a place you’d like to go first and then come up with the rest?

Almas: It varies a bit, but mostly for me it’s often location driven. I see an amazing place and wonder, what could go on there. The fisherman image was a little different. I really wanted to do a fisherman image. So that one was idea driven personally, but often it’s location-driven.

TFS: You used twenty different images to create the final image, is that the most you’ve ever used?

Almas: No, I did these pictures on golf courses. I did maybe twice that amount then. As I said, there’s usually three elements to my images. But with the fisherman image, I used so many more. It was three like little coves sitting next to each other and each one I wanted to shoot at. Then I thought, why don’t we put that arch into the other scene. So I decided I’d shoot in pieces. A wave like this would be perfect next to that, and this would be perfect next to that…you just see the picture in front of you, and you just start gathering pieces to recreate that. Then of course it didn’t look exactly like that because when you sit down with it on the computer, you have this framework and you start building the puzzle and putting all the pieces in. It was a fun exercise to do. That could never happen, though, if you start out shooting pieces and then try to create a picture. You really have to see the picture and photograph for that and then you put it together. I think I sat at my computer for a day, and I just put it together, and then I spent a few days making it seamless.

TFS: Your fashion images are interesting, because they are all focused on the person, whereas in almost all your other work, the person is part of a greater landscape. How do you approach fashion differently to your other more location, landscape-based work?

Almas: The attraction to the landscapes is the landscapes themselves, and the attraction to the fashion stuff is the women. Both are beautiful. I think if you break down the essence of it, I’m shooting two different beautiful things. The landscapes I shoot in one way, and the people I shoot in another. I think still my white qualities and color palette and all that stuff is applied to it. I think I like the outside type stuff more, like landscapes. But I mean how can you not like shooting beautiful women? It’s also very liberating because all the pictures are pretty much done for a magazine in San Francisco. They give me complete freedom. They just pay for the model to fly from L.A. or New York and the model shows up and it’s the stylist and I that work closely together. We figure out what kind of pictures we want to create. We try to do something that’s less constraining than the advertising work; it’s just art. Those pictures are just pure fun, and great exercise too! Usually we shoot for one day, so we have a ten-hour day and we create as many pictures as we can. Instead of contemplating things and really finding it out, it’s more like going into a great space and start taking pictures straightaway.

TFS: You’re imagery always exhibits a mastery of composition. How did this style evolve?

Almas: I don’t think I evolved the style. I think I am very conscientious about what I’m attracted to and that became the style. In school once, we did this great exercise where everyone ripped out ten pictures from a magazine that they likeed and wrote down why they likeed each one. At the end of the class we were told that all the keywords we wrote down was what our actual style was. So I think that exercise really helped to bring it into consciousness. You know what it is you’re drawn to, and then you just start acting on it. It’s not so much like, oh here’s something I like and now I want to create this style around it. It has to come from inside you.

TFS: So how would you describe yourself? What were those words that you wrote down?

Almas: I think I’m drawn to beautiful places. I’m drawn to more quiet moments, not a lot of high impact there. I think that everybody who sees my pictures sees them as contemplative and thoughtful. Even if the person is active, like running you know they’re a small piece of a bigger serenity.

Simon Harsent

Posted on: August 1st, 2007 by: Zack Seckler

Written by Lloyd Wise
Edited by Nisha Chittal
Diagram by Gil Andrei Fontimayor

The work of English-born, New York-based photographer Simon Harsent spans the genres of portraiture, fine art,Image used in Levi’s ad campaign photojournalism, and elaborate commercial shoots—but it wasn’t always this way. When he began his career, Harsent specialized in photographing still life, shooting exclusively from within his studio on a 4 x 5 camera. But one day he met a sports photographer who inspired him to grab his old 35mm, leave his tripod at home, and get out into the field. Harsent attributes this meeting not only to expanding his repertoire, but also with helping him approach his subjects inside the studio with a greater inventiveness and flexibility. “I love to grab a camera and jump in the car and go off driving,” remarks Harsent. His portfolio proves it: whether the photograph be part of a glossy commercial campaign, a moonlight-drenched seascape, or a gritty documentary shot of street kids, Harsent’s photographs possess an energy that has made him a name in the industry.

Our featured image was shot for a Levis campaign. We are inside a mine, and before us is a beautiful model who has just swung a giant pick-axe. In the background a man is straining to push an almost-overflowing mine cart. The composition is tight and triangular, with de-saturated colors and delicate lighting. And with a closer glance we find that this duo is mining not for silver or gold, but distressed denim: the mine cart is filled with designer jeans and above the man’s head more are embedded in the rock.

For this “very, very complicated shoot,” the set took more than a day to create, with fake rocks to place and a track and mine cart to build—all while using special care as the cave was part of a Overhead viewnational park. Given that the track couldn’t be moved, Harsent was under additional pressure to pick an angle before the shoot had formally begun. The subterranean cave had to be lit artificially, and Harsent chose to do so with several Profoto heads attached to battery powered Profoto 7B packs—two heads behind the camera bounced off of white boards, and two closer to the foreground with Magnum reflectors (one behind the girl with a half CTB gel and one behind the cart). Harsent also added two bare heads equipped with full CTB gels. He sculpted the light with cookies and cutters while running a smoke machine to suggest dust. The exposure was f/13 at 1/6th of a second on the 100 ISO setting of a Leaf digital back. He used a 50mm lens. Retouching, which he did himself, was kept to a minimum. With a few deft Photoshop maneuvers the color was adjusted, and some cosmetic work had to be done on the talent.

Though Harsent enjoys the intimacy of the one-on-one portrait shoot (his dream is to shoot each player in the Chelsea football team for an Adidas campaign), he finds a different kind of pleasure in staging elaborate commercial shoots like this one. “Something like the Levis was fantastic” he says, “because you’re more like a director of a big production than you are a photographer.” Appropriately, the location had been used for the original television classic “Batman.”

Harsent spoke with our Editor Zack Seckler about his personal and professional work:

TFS: How did you get started as a photographer?

Harsent: I grew up in England and went to Australia when I was 21. That’s when I started freelancing. I started primarily as a still life shooter. I’ve worked with a lot of photographers who spend 15 hours a day polishing the fucking subject instead of facing it and shooting it, and it drove me crazy. There’s no spontaneity. We’d shoot one hundred sheets of film with the camera locked up on the same tripod with different variations of light. To me it was staged. Even when I’m doing commercial work, you’ve got 70 different parameters you have to work with, and so many different things you have to fulfill. I try to get into a stage where there is a certain amount of realism about it. It’s sort of a forced, faked photojournalism…There’ve been a few people I’ve met in my life who have inspired me and helped me along the way. One guy in particular, he used to shoot sports for a newspaper. Meeting him, seeing how he approached his work, just having that freedom, getting the camera off the tripod really meant so much to me. It opened so many different doors. As did moving into digital, I used to shoot primarily in black and white. With the invention of computers and everything, I came out of the dark room. I kind of do in Photoshop what I used to do in the dark room for black and white. I see it as a way of playing around. One of the things that I consider a failure is when I’m looking at a shot and I can visualize all the C stands and all the cutters. You know when you look at your own work and you can remember the day? I try to take that and create something outside it that then re-news excitement about the shot. I also don’t really do smiles very often. It’s not because I’m fucking manic depressive or anything like that, I just feel it’s a little forced, or manufactured and that’s exactly what I’m trying to get away from. Even though we are working in the realm of advertising and we are manufacturing things, I’m trying to make it look as if it isn’t. Meeting the guy who is a sports photographer gave me the push to get me out of the studio and get the camera off the tripod – a really more edgy gig.

TFS: How do you like doing commercial assignments?

Harsent: I like the collaboration that commercial work brings; working with talented people on a common goal is a lot of fun. I guess the hardest thing about shooting commercially is if the collaboration doesn’t work and I don’t get the result I want, that can be frustrating. The difference between commercial work and personal work is that with commercial work there are so many different factors it’s easy to be dismissive if the result isn’t quite what I would have liked, as there are other people involved it’s not one hundred percent mine. But if I shoot something for myself and no one likes it, I’m to blame and no one else. To me, there is a sort of kind of sadistic intrigue with that feeling, and putting yourself in a position where you are that vulnerable as an artist. I like the feeling, but I’m very scared of it.

TFS: How is it shooting in the US versus in Europe?

Harsent: For commercial work here in the States people just want to book you for exactly what you do, what’s on your website. It’s almost as if they have to see it in your portfolio first. That is just how it is structured here in the States, and in Europe they tend to look at the overall body of work and see what the emotional feeling is amongst that body of work. That really frustrates me about some of the commercial clients in the States.

TFS: Do you frequently shoot with a tripod?

Harsent: Not very often these days. The thing is I started out as a still life shooter and I still do it, I enjoy being in the studio. I enjoy playing around with all the toys in the studio, you know, all the toys and gadgets that photographers like. I’m at my happiest on a portrait shoot on location though. Something like the Levis was fantastic because you’re more like a director of a big production than you are a photographer. Then I like those really quiet moments when it’s just really one on one with the subject. I do a lot of portrait shoots for myself. A lot of that is just for myself and the sitter. It’s whatever comes out at the moment. Portraiture is my favorite subject of the moment.

TFS: On your website there are a lot of landscapes incorporating human elements in them, tell me about that body of work.

Harsent: These days, one of the greatest things that has happened to me is digital, it’s just completely re-inventing my excitement. I can walk around now and I don’t have to carry shit loads of gear. I’ve got my Canon 1DS – Mark II- I have that, a couple of zoom lenses, and a tripod, and I can just walk around and shoot things how I see it. But landscapes, I’m very into isolation. That’s why I do a lot of singular portraits. If you notice in the landscapes, there is a lot of isolation, there is a lot of barrenness.

TFS: What is it about barrenness that appeals to you?

Harsent: There’s a French expression which describes the work, it translates to: “between the dog and the wolf.” It describes dusk. It’s when the domestic dog goes home and the wolf comes out at night. I lived in Australia for 11 years and I still travel there very frequently now because my son lives there. It dawned on me that there is so much beauty in nature, but the man-made sculptures that we’ve created for ourselves are often scarier than our perception of what nature could be. So it’s kind of like getting lost in the woods with the wolves. It’s kind of an irony, a stereotype that the domestic dog isn’t as comforting as we’d like to think he is. A lot of the darkest nooks and crannies can be found in man-made sculptures. So that’s why you’ll see a lot of abandoned walkways, barren stuff. You might see the nature man in me as well, so there might be a shot of trees, or there might be a stone structure or foot path or even just a stone pillar. It’s kind of an interruption on nature. The whole kind of dusk-night thing, that kind of very eerie, not really knowing quite what’s there, it’s the danger, and also the beauty of it as well. There are so many different contrasts on that. That’s pretty much what they’re about. I’m also a complete insomniac, so it’s a good time for me to go out and shoot.

TFS: Do you prefer to light your subjects artificially or do you prefer to shoot with ambient light?

Harsent: Lighting for me is always determined by the final image. Nine times out of ten I have a really good idea of what I want the final image to be, or thereabouts. Then depending on what I have to deal with, I’d probably use a lot of natural light and maybe just use artificial fill light in some places. I don’t want to have to work the light too much, I want the light to do the work, if you know what I mean. Sometimes I shoot with keno flos, sometimes I use flash, sometimes I use tungsten. I used to use a lot of tungsten early on in my career. I used to really enjoy it because I could see what the light was doing. Flash for me was very difficult to get a good grip on. To me hot light is so much easier. I’ll look at something and have a rough idea about what it is I want to achieve. Then I’ll say, what’s going to best help me achieve this? More often then not I might go into a scenario and I’ll just see what the ambient light is doing, and see where I need to do from there.

TFS: Tell me more about your personal work.

Harsent: I normally start out with an idea and that might come from going to the theater, or reading a book, or seeing a movie, that triggers something. Or it might be some kind of political statement or social statement or something. To me photography has to create a romance, I guess. And to me that’s what art should be. It should first be a beautiful image and then the context should add an extension which corresponds to the meaning of the work. My work is so moody at the moment, it’s borderline commercial/personal for commercial clients. I had an email this morning about a portrait job for 30 portraits and they’re like, ‘can you show us some stuff that’s a little bit brighter and got people smiling?’ I get that all the time. Advertising is all about making people feel better. It’s all about being inspirational. I get to shoot a lot of medical ads where people look ill. There is a serious side to certain campaigns as well. Most of the fashion stuff which you know, someone like Nigel Perry does real well, doing this celebrity, sort of kind of moody black and white, does very, very well. There’s definitely a market for it, but the majority of the market is in happy, feel good lifestyle imagery. It’s the nature of what advertising is. I think it’s always going to be like that. To sell someone something you have to make it inspirational. You have to make it something they need to make their life better. If you got someone who is incredibly moody and looks pissed off, or whatever, it’s not necessarily going to sell.

TFS: Do you struggle with trying to get assignments that allow you to reflect that moody quality?

Harsent: I’m sure I missed out on a lot of stuff. But the thing is, I just don’t do that, and I’m not good at it. It’s kind of like me deciding I’m going to shoot lifestyle stuff on a beach. I just couldn’t do that. All I’m going to do is not fulfill my potential. That’s the hardest thing about being a professional photographer – just doing what you do and doing it well. That’s the only way you’re going to be successful and have an edge over anyone else, is if you just do what you do. If they start replicating everyone’s style, okay, I can do a bit of this and I can do a bit of that, but it’s never really one hundred percent you. I always say to my assistants, the only thing that defines you from anyone else – we can all learn the techniques, we can all learn Photoshop, we can all buy digital cameras – but the only thing that determines one photographer from another is the composition of who they are. That’s the thumbprint of each photographer. My father’s a poet, and he said to me very early on when I started my career in photography, he said, ‘ah yes, photography: big tits in color it’s pornography, small tits in black and white, it’s art.’ That’s how I feel about smiles: high color and smiles it’s pornography, sulky black and white it’s art.

TFS: Has your style always been moody? Has it evolved, and if so, how?

Harsent: For someone who is actually as social as I am, it’s actually quite solitary. I think it’s always been that way as far as when I started off as a still life shooter. I think a lot of these still life photographers are kind of like these hermits who hide away and studios and stuff. I feel like I’ve kind of snuck out of the studio. I love to grab a camera and jump in the car and go off driving. Sometimes I’ll plan out a trip, or I’ll try to tag on a couple of days at the end of a shoot if I’m in a foreign country. My goal is to make people feel something. If I could shoot one photograph that some kid somewhere looks at and says, I want to be a photographer, then I’ve done what I set out to do.

TFS: Are you working on a solo exhibit?

Harsent: I’ve actually got three projects that I exhibit through a gallery in Australia. I have yet to find a gallery here that I’ve got a relationship with. I finished soft moon which is still yet to be exhibited but is on the web site. I’ve got two other projects as well in the making, one which is just starting and another one which is starting next month.

TFS: Do you have one ideal assignment that you would love to get?

Harsent: Photograph the Chelsea football team. Yes, moody portraits of all the players from the Chelsea football team. I’m a massive Chelsea fan. It’s funny because they just sort of got newfound success. I’ve been supporting them since I was a kid and they never won anything. 1997 was the first time we won a Cup in 26 years. Prior to that I was five years old when we won and I don’t even remember it, now we’ve got this massive success. Yes that would be my ideal job, photographing the Chelsea football team for Adidas.

Agency: BBH Singapore

Agency Producer: Rebecca So

Creative Director: Todd Waldron

Art Director: Hoon Pin Kek

Account Director: Francis Great

Paolo Ventura

Posted on: August 1st, 2007 by: Zack Seckler

Written by Lloyd Wise
Edited by Nisha Chittal

Ventura titles this: “The home of the poet GV” - Courtesy Paolo Ventura/ HASTED HUNT Gallery NYCBefore he is a photographer, Paolo Ventura is an image-maker. From hand-drawn sketches he meticulously builds miniature sets, that, when lit by uncomplicated means—with tungsten table lamps and open windows—are photographed with his 15-year-old Pentax 6 x 7. The trappings of photography are secondary to the obsessive attention he gives to shaping the image itself, which present a staged “ir-reality,” an “illustration” of his fantasies and dreams. His “California,” “Winter Stories,” and “War Souvenir” series—images from which we feature here—can be compared to the output of contemporary photographers like Jeff Wall and Thomas Demand, who have used the photography medium to stage or recreate reality—not document it. Having established himself as a fashion photographer first, Ventura is no stranger to posing figures and constructing sets, and has an eye for imbuing his tableaux with a unique, and arresting kind of drama.

Ventura titles this: “Tuscan-Emilian Apennines. The body of a German Soldier killed by partisans.” - Courtesy Paolo Ventura/ HASTED HUNT Gallery NYCThe images in Ventura’s War Souvenir series are characterized by their long, deep, shadows and brooding atmosphere of film noir paranoia—a moodiness appropriate to the fascist-era Italy they are intended to represent. Specifically, the photographs from in this series were influenced by stories of living in Tuscany on the German Siegfried line, told to him by his family. Several photographs in this series, one of which is featured here, display the romance and erotic commingling of two young lovers. Another shows a soldier staring at a book in a ransacked apartment. These strange, open-ended images do not aim to illustrate his family stories literally; rather, Ventura’s goal is to convey the impression their tales have had on him: it is “more a feeling…the color of the air, the color of the wall, the feeling that they had at the time that I tried to recreate,” he says. One of the photographs we have featured shows a dead soldier, half-buried in the mud. Ventura conceived of this image partly because he and his family had found helmets, mortar shell casings and other ephemera from World War II in the fields surrounding his home, a reminder of the violence that had occurred there. With this image Ventura is trying to acknowledge the history that has been—literally—buried beneath this idyllic Tuscan landscape.

One of Ventura’s setsDetail is essential to Ventura’s work—”It’s my obsession,” he says. Indeed, his sets, made from clay, cardboard, foam board and plastic, reveal his finely honed eye for the minute. In one of our three featured photographs, we can see that he has carefully etched away paint to convey the worn floorboards of a cafe. In another, swaths of wallpaper hang from beaten up plaster and a cup of water sits on a radiator. And the gear attached to the dead soldier is all historically accurate.

The process of capturing the photographs is done with little sophistication. His lighting is simple, and his f-stop, shutter speed and lens are almost always the Ventura titles this: “Vicenza. Lovers in the Bar Nazionale. Giovanni Degrada, the waiter, dies in the spring of 1944 in the bombing of a train on the Venice-Milan line.” - Courtesy Paolo Ventura/ HASTED HUNT Gallery NYCsame: he puts a 105 lens on his camera and keeps the aperture at f/64. He almost always uses Fuji film, which is usually exposed for 10 seconds. What is not so simple, says Ventura, is picking the camera angle. He makes the decision based on Polaroids, and it usually takes him several days of tweaking to get things just right. The photograph of the dead soldier is unique with respect to the rest of Ventura’s work. It was not staged in his studio—but rather on site, in the fields near his family’s Tuscan home. He happened to have a ring flash, and found that mixing it with daylight created light appropriate to the image “I wanted all the details to come out…it was almost a medical picture.”

All while continuing to work as a fashion photographer, in the last year or so, Ventura has witnessed substantial success as an artist. His work has been published by The New Yorker, Harper’s and Aperture and a book of his War Souvenier photographs was released in 2006 by Contrasto. He has had solo exhibitions at the Hasted Hunt Gallery in New York, the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome and the A-3 Gallery in Moscow. He hopes to begin work on a children’s book soon.

Ventura was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his art and his career:

TFS: How did you get your start as a photographer?

Ventura: I think I started like everybody, working as an assistant while I was in college. I had a friend who was working for a photographer and needed some help. I started without any particular interest for photography. Because I was in Milan, it was a good moment for fashion photography. It was a lot of work, a lot of magazines. The photographer that I started to work with, he was kind of working for some magazines. So it was a natural place to start. I did that for ten years. It was a good ten years; I did well, I paid for my life, it was nice, it was exciting, I traveled a lot. For ten years I was competitive and maybe because it wasn’t my kind of work, the career that I wanted, I lost focus. I was just bored with the work, and I decided to move here and change. Change completely, drastically.

TFS: Did you see anybody creating images from models shot on sets before you started doing it?

Ventura: Not before, I discovered it myself. After I started friends told me they had seen somebody else that did similar things. So I went to see somebody else’s work. Before that I was not really interested in recreating, reconstruction, models, and all that stuff. I discovered Thomas Demond, for example. I discovered there’s a group of people that work not with reality but with ir-reality. So I think many photographers right now are working not with reality but with invented realities. They get the picture from real life and then they make it into something else.

TFS: Do you ever build a set and not like how it turns out?

Ventura: Yeah, many times. In the beginning it happened a lot but not now. As I did it more I began to know more of what I wanted.

TFS: Tell me about your artistic process.

Ventura: The whole process of creating an image takes about a week. I sketch an idea and then I go looking for materials. I build the set and when it’s together I put the lights in and take Polaroids. I may spend days taking Polaroids before I shoot film. Taking the picture takes more time than building the set. It’s difficult to find the right point of view. Maybe when you imagine something you build it and then the space is not exactly what you thought, so you need to readjust something.

TFS: Some of the detail is really incredible. The look of the rifles, the grenades, the torn up posters…how do you create this detail on such a small scale?

Ventura: I think detail is very important. I use clay, cardboard, foam board and plastic. I find objects in flea markets, on the street. I use action figures and sometimes I change the face, soften their face, or make it a little more interesting. I’m a little bit obsessive about detail. I remember when I was a kid, this picture of my grandfather in a war. I remember very well that the thing that impressed me was he was sitting there with cross legs, and there was a hole under his shoes. I remember that hole more than the picture.

TFS: Did you have any training?

Ventura: No, I think it’s very easy to create these kinds of models. You just build what you need, no more. If I need a house, I don’t make the entire house I just make the façade. So it’s like a drawing. You see something and you draw it on the paper. You just do it. I don’t think there is this specific ability to do this. I had never built a model before when I started. I learned by myself, just by doing.

TFS: Tell me about how you light your sets.

Ventura: The lighting is very simple. I usually use a table lamp or a ceiling light. I’m not really interested in being precise, in using flash. The important thing for me is that my light comes from above so it gives a certain heaviness to the set. The shadows give it some stability. But then I also use everything — I even use Christmas lights sometimes. I don’t need a lot of lights because the set is small. So two or three table lamps together is more than enough. I use different kinds of lights to give the image a different color, sometimes more green or more yellow. I use tungsten mostly but sometimes the light comes from windows too. I also like to mix light sources to give different color combinations like yellow-bluish combinations.

TFS: In your image of a soldier with his face on the ground, did you specifically choose to do this shot where the war actually did take place, on the actual earth where soldiers were? Was that significant to you?

Ventura: Yeah. I think I wanted to recreate that kind of emotion that happened sixty years ago in a countryside where you never would expect something like this to have happened today. When you see Tuscany right now, it’s beautiful sweet hills and English tourists. Everything is the opposite of what it was sixty years ago. There was a war, it was terrible. It was a big contrast from today. But under the ground, under the surface of beauty there are still bad memories. So the trace of what it was sixty years ago was kind of a contrast I didn’t expect. It’s kind of like a metaphor to life.

TFS: What was your goal in creating the War Souvenir imagery.

Ventura: I think that my first goal is to tell a story. The story is about a war. It’s about love, it’s about life. As a writer, or as a poet, your first need is to tell a story that is inside you that you want to get out. I remember this Italian journalist. His parents were involved in the war and he saw a lot of his own stories in my pictures. He saw his own mother as being alone…so everybody can see what they want. Somebody’s touched because they have a personal story about the war, in Italy, because the war was really there. And other people see other things. But my first goal is to tell a story.

TFS: Why did you pick World War II as your first major body of work?

Ventura: All my family was involved in the war as was ninety percent of Italian families at the time. So I grew up with the story about war and it was kind of like the soundtrack of my youth. When I started to think about the work, I was thinking about it like I was almost there, because I was so familiar with the story. I kind of absorbed emotion and the feelings of the time, even though I wasn’t there. So when I start to think about the World War II in northern Italy, I felt like I almost knew everything. Maybe because of my fantasy, my grandmother telling me stories, maybe I was creating the scene around the story, so it was something familiar for me. It’s easier working with something that you are familiar with.

TFS: Tell me about your new body of work titled “Winter Stories” that will be published sometime in the near future.

Ventura: It’s a simple story of a man that’s going to die. When he is in his bed dying, 15 minutes before he dies, he thinks about his life. It’s a series of images that he thinks of before dying. His life was always in Italy, he never left where he grew up. So there are all these little stories…it’s kind of like a story of a neighborhood in Italy, and nothing specific happened. It’s not a sequence, each image is its own story, just like a slice of life. It’s taken me almost two years to do it, more or less. So now it’s almost finished. There’s a publisher that’s interested in publishing the book. We are just trying to finalize the arrangement.

TFS: Is there one thing, one over-arching theme that you want people to understand or you want people to see or feel?

Ventura: No, I think it’s important that you try to tell story, and you do it. Then everybody can see what they want. I don’t have any political message from my picture. I try to set my story in the past for sure, so you are away from the present. In the case of War Souvenir, it’s a specific period but in my new work, it’s not. It could be the 60’s, or the 40’s or the 30’s. I choose the past maybe because I’m more personally attracted to the past. I think it’s coming from the same origin; re-interpretation of reality.

TFS: How did having a book published influence your career?

Ventura: I think it’s important. It’s a good way to show your work. But I think a long time ago it was even more important to have a book. When there was a new book, there was a lot of attention. It’s like movies. Movies now stay out like two weeks, three weeks, months, then it’s gone; before it would stay out for a year. So you had more chance to show your work. Before if you had a book it was a big deal, and it stayed in the bookstores for like two, three years. It was an event, since there were less books. Now it’s more of a supermarket selection. After two months, it’s not in the bookstore anymore. I think it’s less important than before. You have a book, and maybe nobody notices. So you need to be everywhere. There’s more competition now and there’s much more work around.

TFS: Would you ever go back to doing editorial advertising?

Ventura: Yeah, actually I have a contract with Italian Elle. I have a contract to make 70 pages for them every year as I want. It is good because it’s a good distraction a couple times a year.

TFS: So tell me how is it to be in the fine art world as a career, how is that different?

Ventura: In fine art it’s more about yourself. In advertising, you work with other people and you work with a layout. When you work with other people, they’re more involved with your own work. They contribute to your work, and affect whether it’s good or bad. With the art world, I think you are more free. They encourage you to just sell your work, they advise you, they support you, but they mostly just sell your work. They don’t really contribute to the creation of the object. You are more yourself. I like that. I like the idea that I can decide everything about my work. Not depending on other people’s ideas. When you’re working in advertising your picture is not good or bad because you’re a good or bad photographer. It depends on many other things, like the model, the makeup, the styling. They make the picture incredible, or not. It’s not just you and I don’t really like that.

TFS: How does it feel to be a very successful fine art photographer?

Ventura: It feels good because you have more freedom. Your life is the same, it’s the practical things that change. Maybe you have more money to pay your rent and you’re more stable. The only thing that changes is your satisfaction with yourself. You say, ‘I did something good that people like.’ It was really hard before, I’m going to be honest. I practically started from zero when I came here and I left the fashion world. There’s a lot of competition and it’s extremely hard to find a way, your own vision. When you see so many things around you, it’s difficult to isolate yourself and do something that comes from you. So you have to really look deep inside yourself and find your dream, your obsession, your nightmare, and try to give it some shape.

Staudinger + Franke

Posted on: August 1st, 2007 by: Zack Seckler

Written by Jess Tsai
Edited by Nisha Chittal
Diagrams by Gil Andrei FontimayorFinal image used in ad

The Staudinger + Franke studio has received a slew of major international awards for their advertising work and have been named one of the “200 Best Ad Photographers Worldwide” by Luerzer’s Archive. When the team of Robert Staudinger and Andreas Franke started their careers in Austria seventeen years ago, they needed to shoot a wide array of subjects to survive in their small market. After entering the US market, where most photographers were specializing, Staudinger and Franke decided not to sacrifice their diverse interests. They welcomed the challenge of having to shoot a Boeing airplane one day, and then a portrait of a baby the next. “I try not to fall into one niche; I try for something new every day,” Franke says. The key, however, is to be able to do everything and anything and still maintain the style that ultimately brings it all together and keeps clients coming back for more.

Stuffed scorpionDesigned for an ad agency seeking to hire a copywriter, the featured image had it’s humble beginning as rough sketchs on lined paper. Franke needed to shoot two images, one of the scorpion and another of a pen tip that would later replace the scorpion’s stinger in Photoshop. Franke firstSide view of lighting needed to find a scorpion that looked very real and very intimidating. Instead of having to hire a prop maker as he does on most shoots he got off easy, he managed to find a stuffed scorpion in a taxidermy shop. Since the scorpion itself was quite small (3.5 inches), Franke couldn’t shoot it with a large format camera alone because the quality would suffer when the image was reproduced “if the size of the camera format is much larger than the size of the object, it won’t be in focus.” To circumvent this he used a medium format digital back, a Phase One H25, attached to the back of his large format Sinar P2 using a flex adapter to capture a smaller portion of the total image area. This meant the size of the scorpion was close to a 1:1 ratio with the size of the image area (because of the H25 back).

The pen tip which replaced the scorpion’s stingerSide view of lightingShooting such small objects required precise control over the lighting. Franke used dedo lights, which are built for their focusing capabilities and high output, as his main lighting tool in both shots. For the scorpion and pen shots he used translucent Pexiglass in between the dedo light and the subject to create a “perfect reflection.” Franke left one bare light (with no lighting modifiers) in each shot to bring out more detail in the subject.

When most of his peers hadn’t even decided what college they’d like to attend Franke had already chosen advertising photography as his life long career. What draws him, aside from creating beautiful images, is capturing something that will benefit the client and allow them to “sell more products and be successful.” His work is also used to advocate causes for the public good, such as campaigns for children with skin disease “that’s a great feeling, when you can really help someone through your work.”

Editor note: Robert Staudinger and Andreas Franke have parted ways and have been working independently as of January 1, 2007. Andreas Franke continues to work as sole proprietor and managing director of the successful Staudinger + Franke studio.

Franke was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:

TFS: How did you get your start as a photographer?

Franke: When I was 12 years old, I got a Polaroid camera. It became absolutely my favorite hobby and I spent a lot of time shooting. Then when it was too expensive to use Polaroid, I bought my first real camera. When I was 13 or 14, I shot my first still lives on a table in my room, with all these gadgets, so very quickly I started to focus on still life.

TFS: What did you like so much about still life?

Franke: With still life, you have more time. You can have more to time to think about what you want to do. You have more time for lighting…I was also always a little bit more technical. I love to do all my own props whenever it’s possible, and play with things. That, more or less, is the big difference with still life. If you shoot people, you have to get a lot more done in a very short time. You have to create everything very quickly. I’m more of a conceptual photographer; I have my sketchbook, make my sketches, and shoot afterwards. I have a sketch, I have a vision, then I hope everything looks the same as how I saw it.

TFS: Did you always want to go into the advertising industry?

Franke: Yes, I think so. When I went to photography school when I was 16, from this point it was relatively clear that advertising was the way I wanted to go, because advertising photography is closer to still life photography. You have products, you have design product, and that’s the way; it’s not an art, it’s not art photography. In Austria, there were less still life photographers. There were only photographers that photographed everything.

TFS: Do you work exclusively from sketches?

Franke: Yes, more or less. There were some still lives I did earlier, where everything went out of focus. This is something that you can’t make in sketches. Fourteen years ago, that was very popular. Then my work became much more focused; everything was very sharp, very in focus, very bright and everything popped out of the background. I also really like to shoot stuff on white and have these products or objects photographed with special light and a special angle for the product. Whenever possible, I try to find an angle that appears impossible, and it sometimes makes those products look more special.

TFS: What kind of stories or themes do you like to communicate through your still life?

Franke: For me as long as there is an idea behind it, then the whole thing is interesting, and I love to do it. I’m not as happy if I get just a very normal job. But the moment I get a really complicated job where you need retouching, prop making and all kinds of other stuff then it gets really interesting.

TFS: You were working with Robert Staudinger for 17 years. What was it like to work with a partner?

Franke: In the beginning he was a photographer but 12 or 13 years ago he started working with me as a retoucher and has been doing so ever since. It makes sense to start with a partner because you learn much faster and you can act much faster. This gives you and your partner a lot of experience, and everything goes twice as fast.

TFS: How did working with a retoucher change your approach to shooting?

Franke: It sounds funny, but it changed nearly nothing because I try to do whatever is possible in camera. It’s very important to know the right prop makers for each of the problems we have to solve, or to create. We need a prop maker more or less two times a week. A lot of people ask, ‘oh, can’t we do this on computer?’ But I’m absolutely at a point to do as much as possible with the real shot.
So in the portfolio there will be some images where nobody will realize that this is more photography and much less retouching. And of course on some images there will be retouching, quite a lot.

TFS: How would you describe your style as a photographer?

Franke: I hope I act like a photographer who tries to find something new and find a different angle. I try to bring all my professionalism in. It’s always a challenge to create something new and see it from a different viewpoint. I try not to fall into one niche; I try for something new every day. We work with people from Germany, from England, and the States, in Vienna. A lot of people ask why we can’t do more things on the computer, but I’m absolutely at a point where I like to do as much as possible in camera. I love doing it that way so everything is real. Computers are good to edit. I think especially with photography it’s so easy to take a light and turn it half a meter and it looks absolutely different. Whereas, if you do the same thing on the computer, it takes hours.

TFS: Please tell me a little bit more about your process.

Franke: So of course there is an image in my mind and on the sketch. And half of it is improvising…Lighting is hard to know beforehand because the materials react a little bit differently than you think they would. We do have a huge range of flashlights. We have long strip lights, we are very open to, because we’ve collected them for 17 years. At times we do a lot of airbrushing, light brushing, mix it with dedo lights and all this stuff. At the beginning I was scared because it didn’t work as well, but I’m more and less back to this. So we work again and I love it, I love being able to have things immediately in this digital generation. In earlier times you did a Polaroid and okay, this was nice, then you shoot, it was not so nice. You reshoot this and the colors were different, especially if you use lighting that isn’t consistent. So this is what I really love to do now; I love to have these all possibilities that we’ve had in the past but everything works out much faster with today’s modern technology.

TFS: Do you shoot much personal work?

Franke: Whenever I have time I will. I shoot still life for my portfolio and also for myself. It’s mostly still life. On my website there are all these personal pictures I did on white with a white surface. If you do personal work in still life, you have to organize everything and everything must be on set…then you can start to shoot. You must know before you start exactly what you’re doing.

TFS: You’ve been really successful with a wide-range of subjects. Tell me, how do you think that’s been possible for you?

Franke: I’m coming from a very small market in Vienna. Therefore you have to work a lot, and you can’t specialize. You have to shoot cars as well as make portraits and a lot of still lives. If you have a lot of experience in this it helps a lot. When we got here (to the US), we saw that we should specialize, but we never did this. It’s quite seldom that people shoot a wide range of things, like a car and at the same time a really tough still life. The kind of really tough still life where you need a prop maker, food stylist, and so on. And then the next shot is a people shot. It’s like a one-stop photography shop. I think it absolutely makes sense. One day we were shooting at Boeing in the huge plane factory, and the next day we were shooting a girl or a baby. Not many photographers will do this kind of wide range of styles. You have to find what it is that ties all these things together. You have to have the same style in these very different subjects. I try to have a cohesive look.

TFS: How have you been able to break into the U.S. market, which typically favors specialization?

Franke: I think some of the work is very clean. But on the other side it’s conceptual and slick. It carries some impact. That’s good for the market I think. I want to find an idea in the picture I’m creating so it’s not the same normal picture of a glass of water. Rather, there is an idea behind it. This is maybe what people see here; they see ideas behind everything, and I think this helps a lot.

TFS: What do you like about advertising photography?

Franke: Often clients speak with us and say we have a very good idea, and they want to work with us. We just try to sell our creation to the client to get experience and credibility. On the other hand, yeah, we have also won a lot of prizes this way. And that’s nice and fun. For me I really love the challenge of having the power to do something really special for a client, to make something that will really help them sell more of their products. Maybe it sounds a little bit crazy or not so artistic, but this is really what I love about this job: that your work allows the client to sell more products and be successful. For me it’s the whole process, and that definitely makes a lot of sense. I also do pro bono work. I like both pro bono and advertising. With pro bono nobody will say ‘no you can’t do this,’ or ‘my boss doesn’t like this,’ or ‘that’s not the way we want to go.’ We do quite a lot of pro-bono. We have a lot of ads done for children who have skin disease which you will find in our portfolio. That’s a really great feeling, when you can really help someone through your work. It’s perfect.

Demner, Merlicek & Bergmann, Vienna/Austria

Demner, Merlicek & Bergmann, Vienna/Austria

Art director:
Francesco Bestagno