Written by T.K. Dalton
Edited by Nisha Chittal
For a young David Stuart, success came slowly in what he thought would be a solitary medium. He turned to photography after quitting a rock band, assisting several photographers over a period of four years. After being asked to bid on the same job as one of his bosses, Stuart decided to try freelancing. Currently, his clients include internationally-recognized magazines, corporations, and record labels.
Commercial success has its costs, though, and Stuart remains wary of creative exhaustion. He has recently begun concentrating on his portfolio again, with images like our featured piece, Girl with Dolls. In the next year he hopes to do many more personal pieces like this one. “It’s critical to do portfolio stuff. This is the first piece I’ve done for myself in probably a year and a half,” he says. “When you’re showing art directors stuff, they want to see commercial pieces on one hand but at the same time they want to see what you can do, so when you’re doing a portfolio piece there are really no restrictions.”
Girl with Dolls showcases his intense collaboration with retoucher Scott Dorman. “It wasn’t just my piece, but ours,” Stuart says. “We had a couple concepts we were batting back and forth and we found a strip of buildings that work as a location or setting for the image.” After spending three days casting and hunting for props, Stuart spent three more days shooting. For the buildings, Stuart used a Mamiya RZ with a 110mm lens and Kodak 160vc film; for the rest of the background shots, he used a Cannon 5D with a 24-70mm 2.8 lens. Most of his exposures fell around F11/F16 at 1/200, 1/250. Stuart spent another day shooting in the studio with a 50mm 1.4 lens on the Cannon 5D at an exposure of f11 at 1/160. He lit all the studio elements from overhead with an Octabank and a Pro-7A. Stuart spent four days working post-production with Dorman, who manipulated Stuart’s images with Photoshop CS 3 on an Apple Mac Pro workstation. The final composite image combined 57 files.
There’s irony in a man forced out of music by the hassle of “having to deal with a bunch of guys” now busily collaborating during his second life as a photographer. These days, in fact, he has grown fond of collaboration. His new focus on personal work seems likely to benefit from extra hands and eyes. And if Girl with Dolls is any measure, Stuart’s portfolio work will shine in a bright, shared spotlight very soon.
Stuart was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
F STOP: Tell me how you got your start as a photographer.
Stuart: It was almost a substitute for music. I used to play in bands and I got kind of tired of being on the road, having to deal with a bunch of guys. When I got out of that, I was back in school, sort of flapping around trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I went to Georgia State for my undergrad in bachelor of art, major in psychology. I had enrolled in a photography program but the first day it was just too structured and too restricted. I also kind of burned out on school, so I just withdrew. At the same time I had a photographer friend of mine, who said I could assist him for a couple of weeks on the job which was cool, I get paid to learn versus sitting in a classroom, which I was bored of.
F STOP: Do you recommend assisting for people who want to become pro photographers?
Stuart: I can only recommend that for me. For the point I was at in my life, I really wanted to be doing something versus sitting in a classroom, so for me that was the best route. I didn’t have a lot of practical experience seeing how photographers interact with clients, where you’ve got these deadlines that are different than school. At the same time, had I been a little bit younger, just finishing high school or something, maybe art school would have been great. I was just a bit tired of school at that point. I’m sure they’re both great experiences – working and going to school. For me, I felt that real world experience is something that I needed more of.
F STOP: When you actually broke off on your own did you jump right in to doing portraiture?
Stuart: It was sort of gradual. I started shooting right away; I put up a web site and I started getting some work right away. I posted my work on AdAge and Alternative Pick, Black Book, and WorkBook, stuff like that. I started shooting a little bit right away. I also just started assisting as many different people as I could. I really didn’t work with one person full time all of the time because the idea is to learn as much as I can from different people. I was assisting for about four years and taking some shooting jobs, until I finally got to the point where I didn’t have time to assist anymore because it was interfering with the shooting! One day it was like, “that’s it, I’m not going to assist anymore. I’m busy enough shooting.” It was a gradual sort of transition and then all of a sudden, that’s it, I just can’t assist anymore.
F STOP: From looking on your web site it seems like there’s quite a different range of work. You’re based out of New York and Atlanta. Is the market in Atlanta more open, and less about specialization than the New York market?
Stuart: For me there is a bit of a range in my work, but I usually get called to do what I do. I think it just depends on what you’re doing. I think most people specialize to some degree in one thing or another. Atlanta is definitely not as big a market as New York.; it’s probably harder to work here–most of my clients are not from around here anyways. But if you’re just trying to work in this market in Atlanta, it might be difficult to do something that’s too edgy.
F STOP: How do you approach a shoot where it’s composite? With the featured image, it’s a piece of personal work, right?
Stuart: Yeah, that is personal; my goal this year is to work on more personal pieces. On this one piece I have to give equal billing to Scott, the one who does the retouching. It wasn’t just my piece, but ours. A lot of time we start with a concept and find a background to work with that. So we had a couple concepts we were batting back and forth and we found a strip of buildings that work as a location or setting for the image. We started with that. It’s funny we actually shot that about a year ago. I’ve been so busy, Scott’s been so busy, we hadn’t had time to finish this up. So finally we said, we have to take some time and finish this. We jumped back in a couple of months ago and started knocking it out. We started with that background strip of images. Once you’ve got your background you can start putting different skies and things like that. The main thing is the background, and having a strong concept for the entire image. So once we had the background and got that all pieced together, we started putting these other elements in there. That’s kind of how it worked. You start with a background and go from that. Normally, to me, that’s the best way to do it.
F STOP: Were the background images all shot at the same time of day?
Stuart: It’s funny, I shot some of that film, so I think what you’re looking at is that strip of buildings that were all put together. That was shot and filmed in the middle of the day, which was very overcast. The rest of the stuff was shot digitally. So we started out shooting the film. I was going to do the whole thing on film, but it got to the point where there was too many pieces and we were trying to get stuff on location really quick.
F STOP: The exposure on your background images seem to vary, what was the reasoning behind that?
Stuart: That was probably one of the more difficult things when I started shooting digital, is understanding that you have to overexpose just a little bit because you don’t want to lose that detail in the shadows. So I’ll overexpose things just a little; I’ll err on the side of being slightly light or overexposed because that way you can always take it down in Photoshop. You want the detail to be there. It was overcast that day, but you can just see there’s a difference between the way film works and the way digital works; that’s the nature of it. I had to find a point in the day when it was overcast. I obviously didn’t want a shady or an overcast shot on the building and try to drop sunny grass in there. So everything was pretty overcast when I shot it.
F STOP: Was consistency with camera angle and height a big factor when you were shooting?
Stuart: We were trying to be consistent on how things matched up, but it’s funny, sometimes you shoot one piece and then say you shoot with those buildings in the background – it almost doesn’t matter because they were so far back. You could take them up or down and change the granulation so it wouldn’t matter; it’s just a point on the horizon. But a lot of times I found that I will shoot something and if I match up say the ground exactly where I shot the background it doesn’t visually look right, so I may adjust the height down a little bit. We had to actually shoot the ground a lot lower than you would think. I was pretty down low on the ground when we shot the stuff. When you put it all together, it worked out like that and seemed to mesh together pretty well. What we were doing is we had laptops on location and we were shooting pieces of ground together. We pieced those together with the retouchers and decided whether or not it was going to work and whether we needed to re-shoot it.
F STOP: Were the retouchers always along with you when you were shooting these individual images?
Stuart: Some of the stuff yes, some of the stuff, no. Because it’s a portfolio piece, obviously we had a little more time to work together on it instead of a job where I’m not seeing anyone ever. But the retoucher was there for the studio stuff and the buildings and some of the ground. The sky was something I shot separately. I think I shot that sky coming back from Fort Lauderdale, I believe, at the airport.
F STOP: Do you get the same kind of fulfillment creating an image as a composite compared with doing it all in camera?
Stuart: It’s definitely very different, although I like them both. One of the things I love about photography, especially going out of music, I wanted something I didn’t have to depend on a bunch of guys to do. “Man, I can just shoot this by myself.” But as it turns out you really don’t do photography by yourself. You have assistants, stylists, re-touchers, all that stuff. So I mean I found I really do love to collaborate. It’s more the thing about photography I love. It’s just the interaction with people someone puts his two cents in and it’s like “wow, look what we did together!” Collaboration is a bigger piece of the process than I ever imagined. I love collaborating; it’s just different. It’s just a different type of satisfaction. It’s kind of fun to do different things. I like jumping back and forth.
F STOP: How important is it to create an image specifically for your portfolio? What’s the return for you as opposed to just doing it for yourself?
Stuart: I think it’s critical to do portfolio stuff. This is the first piece I’ve done for myself in probably a year and a half. To be honest, I’ve been so burned out at certain points just doing what everybody else wants me to do. Obviously I try to approach every piece like it’s a portfolio piece. But for me it pays off in the sense that I have the satisfaction of doing something with photography, which is why I got into this in the first place. In that respect it’s great just to recharge my creative juices and go “wow, look what I can do!” I think a lot of times when you’re showing art directors stuff, they want to see commercial pieces on one hand but at the same time they want to see your personal work so when you’re doing a portfolio piece there are really no restrictions. I think this image is a great selling piece. I’ll enter it for an award, and use it for my portfolio and do promotional work with it. That’s my goal this year and next year, to really work on a lot of portfolio things, as many as possible.
F STOP: Do you think that creating composite images is going to continue to proliferate and be part of what photography is in the twenty-first century? Do you think it’s here to stay?
Stuart: It’s not going anywhere. Art directors have these concepts they want to do. Now that they know what you can do with digital, there’s no way they’re going to go back to not being able to use it. But there’s still the need for the traditional photograph. People are going to want to see just the straight photograph, and they are always going to want to manipulate things and do whatever they can imagine.
F STOP: You work with a lot of musicians and actors, how do you find working with big egos and personalities?
Stuart: With kids, you have to work pretty quick with them, especially young kids because they’re going to get really burned out. If you’re lucky you might have them for a half an hour. You should try to nail them in about fifteen, twenty minutes. If I’m shooting hip-hop I can pretty much count on the shoot starting four hours late. If I’m shooting CEOs, I know they’re going to be there exactly when they say they’re going to be there. There are differences with everything that you are shooting. Sometimes their egos are really big, sometimes they’re really down to earth. I guess there are some generalities you can say from genre to genre, but it also gets pretty specific with the individual you shoot. A lot of times I haven’t met them before I shoot them. You just have to be adaptable and go with the flow.