Chad Ress

Posted on: June 15th, 2008 by: Zack Seckler

Written by T.K. DaltonFinal image used in Purina ad campaign
Edited by Jesi Khadivi
Diagrams by Gil Andrei Fontimayor

Success came early for Chad Ress. He moved to New York in his twenties, with the intention of applying his photojournalism background. Editorial success led to advertising assignments, quickly leading to more work than he anticipated. “I ultimately burned myself out a little bit,” he says. “At the end of about 2 or 3 years in New York I looked at the work that I had accumulated and I realized that I wasn’t controlling my work anymore, so I took a break.” Ress turned away from advertising commissions to reconnect with his artistic side. After two years, Ress returned to photography intent on creating fresh imagery, and determined to maintain control of his own work.

He has no regrets. “I managed to survive in New York but looking back half of the work doesn’t mean anything to me anymore,” he says. Now, he’s focused on creating personal and commissioned work that’s truly fulfilling. In some cases, however, the cost of being creative can be “a bit torturous.” “my commission work is almost easy compared to the personal work a lot of the time,” he says. “Everything is put into a nice little box for you when you go into a commission job. I have to create my own parameters with personal work. I have to try and predefine what that box is.”Side view of lighting

When shooting on location for Purina, the dogfood company asked him to create images of “Best of Breed” dogs perfectly posed in a variety of stunning landscapes. The photographer, known for “heroic” landscapes, wanted to retain maximum verisimilitude, albeit with canine stand-ins. Our featured image is a composite of two images: the Dalmation shot in the studio and the landscape shot in California. “One of the most crucial things was realistically seeing how that dog might cast a shadow on the environment,” he says. “My goal was to be realistic. If I over lit the set on location I would need to over light the dogs in the studio.” Both images were shot on a Hasselblad 500 with a Phase One P45 back and a 80mm lens. The Overhead view of lightinglandscape image was fairly straightforward, the exposure was f/16 at 1/30th of a second at 50 ISO and reflectors were used in the foreground to open up the shadows. The shot of the Dalmation in the studio was much more complicated. A combination of twelve lights by three different manufacturers, Broncolor, Dyna-lite and Speedotron, were used along with a kid-in-a-candy-store selection of lighting modifiers: two umbrellas, a Broncolor Satellite, V-flats, a grid and a 20’ x 40’ flat typically used for car shoots. The exposure was f/16 at 1/125th of a second at 50 ISO. All of this lighting equipment went to very good use, the end product is a seamless composite image that looks incredibly natural. Though Ress recognizes the importance of recent advances in digital postproduction, “my approach is that the end results need to feel like the dog was really there.”Dalmatian in studio

Though he works frequently in his studio, Ress thrives working on location. “By nature working in the studio forces you to start with that kind of predetermined idea. A lot of times shooting in the studio means you start with nothing, and that’s not always the way I work best. I like to respond to things that are in front of me.”

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

F STOP: Let’s start by talking about our featured image of the Dalmatian, one image from a series you did for a Purina ad campaign.

Ress: Purina came to me about a year and a half ago with an idea to portray their best of breed dog in a heroic situation, grand landscapes. It basically reflected the nature of the dog. They need to not only use dogs they sponsored, but also award winning show dogs. And you know these things are bred to be notLandscape shot in California much more than show dogs. Even though they look, run, dribble, bark, and wag their tails like any other Golden Retriever or Dalmatian, they don’t really lead the active outdoor lifestyle like normal, everyday dogs of their breed. They weren’t available to go on location, so we designed a production strategy that had the dogs all photographed in the studio in a more controlled environment. We got the positioning and the sensibility of what Purina wanted to show (in the studio) and blended that in with what we shot on location. We got to the location with roughly sized stunt dogs and used them to frame up the scene and give us an object in that position with similar features and textures that would capture the real light we created on location, you know, as far as highlights and shadows. One of the most crucial things was realistically seeing how that dog might cast a shadow on the environment.

F STOP: Did you bring any lighting equipment for the location shoot in California?

Ress: The only things we brought were basically general reflectors and fill. My goal was to be realistic. If I over-lit the set on location I would need to over-light the dogs in the studio.

F STOP: Were the dogs shot on a white seamless or on top of the rocky looking mound that you see in the image?

Ress: One thing we had to contend with was the weight distribution of the dogs’ legs in relation to the landscape that we were placing them in. I shot them all against a light gray seamless in the studio. It gave me the opportunity to control the tonality of the area around the dog’s outline. I should preface this by saying that all the dogs had to be shown in what they call the “stacked position.” Stacking means a dog’s default pose when it’s being shown. They’re very particular about the positioning and posing. We did very low landscapes to fit the dog’s pose.

F STOP: Did you shoot the dogs or the locations first?

Ress: We shot the locations first because you can’t control the weather. We shot those first to see what kind of light we were getting and then the studio lighting was set up to accommodate that kind of lighting. We also had to come up with some scenarios where we didn’t have sun at all. It had to be a very versatile lighting scenario in the studio.

F STOP: Why do you think that you were chosen for this campaign?A commission Ress did for X Games

Ress: At the time a lot of my landscape and people work tended to have a heroic quality to it. The landscapes were beautiful and on a large scale. A lot of times with my landscape work I don’t just photograph a landscape, per say. It’s the color palette, the printing technique, and the overall sensibility that I try to get in my image which I’m trying to show in that landscape. When I achieve it properly, it has an ephemeral, even an inspirational quality. They probably also looked at me because I do have a history of doing digital, but in such a way that I’m not really highlighting that digital work. Photoshop and digital postproduction has become one of the most powerful tools that photographers have ever had to add to their creative abilities. It’s changed photography dramatically in many ways and it continues to do so. But my approach is that the end results need to feel like the dog was really there.

F STOP: How did you get started with photography?

Ress: It was always around me. My grandfather was a photographer. There were a lot of creative things floating around in my family. I don’t think I made the decision consciously to pursue it until college. I spent the school year going through this rigorous photojournalism program and then I would spend my summers and breaks assisting commercial photographers. I think the reason I chose the photojournalism program over a more technical or fine arts focus, was that I felt that telling a story is really important in photography. Photojournalism school taught me how to tell a story.

F STOP: How do you think your work reflects that storytelling aspect now?An image from Ress’ personal portfolio

Ress: I’m not the type of person to sit down and storyboard something. I’ve tried that before and it doesn’t work for me. The work ends up becoming cold and sterile when I stick to those pre-focused ideas. So I might write down some visual descriptors of things or objects or maybe even location or scenarios that support or contribute to an idea. It’s almost like a stream of consciousness. I’ll mull that over, shoot a little bit and I’ll see what works and what doesn’t.

F STOP: Do you pick out a location before or after you come up with those scenarios?

Ress: When I’m doing commissioned work, I usually take time either before or after a shoot. Usually before, because agency requirements are usually very tight. The extra time allows me to acclimate a little bit, not only to the time difference but a lot of times even to the weather. It also gives me opportunity to go out and potentially shoot some stuff on my own not only as kind of a warm up, but just to get like the sensibility for a place that I’m in. For example, the light. Light is totally different everywhere you go.

F STOP: A lot of your personal work is outdoors on location based but I do see that you’ve done a lot of studio work as well. Do you prefer the locations to studio work?

Ress: I do, only because of what we just talked about previously. By nature working in the studio forces you to start with that kind of predetermined idea. A lot of times shooting in the studio means you start with nothing, and that’s not always the way I work best. I like to respond to things that are in front of me. Basically once I’ve got those things in front of me, I’ll play with them like a stage or, you know, a set and see what I can create out of it.

F STOP: Is it a totally different process when you are doing commissioned work?An image from Ress’ personal portfolio

Ress: No, I try for it not to be. I have to tell you the truth. The big difference for me between my commercial work and my personal is usually the budget.

F STOP: How long have you been shooting for?

Ress: I’ve been shooting for over 10 years, but I had a slow start to my professional career. I did a lot of traveling after college. I went to a lot of different places and shot some things, and actually experimented with shooting. When I first started off I was predominantly shooting people. I was in New York for a while and I had quite a bit of success. I went there I guess when I was 24 or 25 with a make or break attitude. I was a little bit more successful than I was prepared to be. Within 6 months I was starting to get my own shooting work. The funny thing was I went up there just to potentially get editorial work. I got a little bit of that, but I also started getting a lot of advertising work. I shot a Visa campaign when I was 24 and things for some other big clients. For a photographer coming out of college, those first few times that you start to realize the value of what you do is an interesting transition period for a young photographer. I ultimately burned myself out a little bit. At the end of about 2 or 3 years in New York I looked at the work that I had accumulated and I realized that I wasn’t controlling my work anymore, so I took a break and studied graphic design. Two years after that I decided to launch back into photography with the intent to keep control of my career this time.

F STOP: It sounds like a pretty gutsy move to turn away from lucrative advertising work to go back to school.An image from Ress’ personal portfolio

Ress: At the time it wasn’t that hard. I was young and single. I hadn’t built up a lifestyle that revolved around this cash flow. The idea of getting married and starting a family wasn’t on the list of things to do yet, so I traveled, for about 8 or 9 months non-stop and then I went back to school for a while.

F STOP: Did anyone say, “Chad, what are you doing? You’re crazy to stop doing this?”

Ress: Some of the photo editors that I worked with. I managed to survive in New York, but looking back half of the work doesn’t mean anything to me anymore.

F STOP: And now you’re doing work that does mean something to you.

Ress: Yes. For me it’s been the biggest change mentally in my career and I can honestly say that it was absolutely the right thing to do. I won’t say it’s any easier now. In many ways maybe it’s even harder, but it’s always a goal to not only maintain the personal work, but also to try and take commissions that are in line with what I might be thinking or doing at any moment. It’s not always easy to sustain

F STOP: We have a lot of emerging photographers in our audience. Do you have any advice for people just getting out of school or into the industry?

Ress: I think photography is at a transitional point right now. With the transition to digital and online the amounts of money that get put into photography for different uses is going to change. It’s already changing.

F STOP: You mean they’re decreasing?A commissioned image Ress did for Moller Industries

Ress: Money that is traditionally spent on broadcast or print media is migrating to the web and online. That can offer some really interesting opportunities for still photographers. Still images, interactive images, and video is going to combine in some way. I think we’re all going to have to realize this and find creative ways to stay a part of it. I also see a huge growth in kind of the fine arts world. Also, younger publications such as yours are able to come together and create a voice and a place for the distribution of good photography online versus a traditional print media format.

F STOP: How would you suggest that the emerging photographer take advantage of the situation you were describing with advertising going online and new media. How would you suggest photographers survive and thrive in that environment?

Ress: I don’t know much about new media. It’s something that I think about personally, but I don’t have all the answers. From what I’m seeing so far, the Internet isn’t demanding the caliber of creative that traditional media kind of requires. In other words I feel like people aren’t putting a great deal of kind of their creative efforts into online marketing right now. But I think that’s going to change. I’m interested in seeing how that changes.

F STOP: Are there any projects that you’re working on now that you care to discuss?

Ress: I’d be happy to tell you what’s torturing me right now. If I can be clear about that, then doing personal work for me is always a bit torturous. I used to tell an art director friend of mine that my commission work is almost easy compared to the personal work a lot of the time. Everything is put into a nice little box for you when you go into a commission job. Sometimes the box is bigger and allows for more creative input, and sometimes the box is smaller and might not have any wiggle room. I have to create myA commission Ress did for Bugaboo own parameters with personal work. I have to try and predefine what that box is. At the moment, I’m going back to people a little bit more. I think landscape tells a big story, but I think that you know to tell the whole story you have to include people. So I’m looking for ways to incorporate the human element back into the story that I maybe started with landscape.

F STOP: Your work has continued to change over the past few years do you have any idea where it’s going to go in the next few years?

Ress: I would be lying if I said that sometimes I don’t look at my personal work and put it to the commercial test. It was always my goal to blend the two. Recently I’ve noticed that a lot of the personal work that I have been doing is difficult to find a commercial application for. That has me a little intrigued. One of the things could be that I don’t see a ton of interesting creative work coming out of the advertising industry these days. Another thing could be that perhaps I’m just stepping outside that box a little bit to see what I can do without a commercial application. If I keep going in that direction, I would imagine that fine art might start to become more a part of my future.

Morgan Silk

Posted on: June 1st, 2008 by: Zack Seckler

Written by JoAnne TobiasFinal image
Edited by Jesi Khadivi
Diagrams by Gil Andrei Fontimayor

Not everyone gets a second chance with a team of Navy Seals. But, for photographer Morgan Silk, inspiration is hard to shake. It wasn’t enough that he’d shot the special forces as they reenacted a hostage rescue scene. Silk wanted to get down from the director’s platform, away from the commercial constraints and create his own intense, individual portraits.

After completing the Sony Playstation shoot for TBWA/Chiat/Day, Silk re-recruited the Seals for a second, more personal session. Unlike the complex scenes shot for the strategy game, Silk’s portraits reveal the power of the individual. “These guys are all in the same kind of uniform, they act as one, they follow the same orders, but they’re all individual guys with a different personality,” says Silk, “They switch off from what they’re trained to do and they talk to you like anybody else.”

They may talk like anybody else, but Navy Seals sport some pretty intense gear. Silk wanted to focus on the power of their weapons, their special training. In order to let these elements emerge, Silk kept the setup pretty basic, blending natural and artificial light. “I just wanted to concentrate on the subject. I didn’t want to complicate it.” Silk shot with a Hasselblad H2 with a Phaseone P45+ back tethered via Capture One software to a MacBook Pro. He used a 80mm lens and an exposure of f/11 at 1/60th of a second. The lighting was straightforward: a beauty dish directly above the camera acted as the key light, two ProfotoImage before post-production heads slightly behind the subject added edge light and a reflector below the subject added some fill. The sky was shot separately on a Canon 5D using a 16-35 LII lens and was composited with the portrait images in post.

Once the basic portraits were in place, it was time to tweak the images in post-production. Silk added layers of contrast, saturation and sharpening until he’d produced the grit and grain that added to the psychology of the portrait. “I wanted to almost enhance blemishes, if you know what I mean, rather than polishing them out.”

Thanks to years spent as a highly sought after digital retoucher, Silk had no need to hire out post production. Retouching for global ad campaigns, Silk was known for his ability to translate the photographer’s style to the image. Working for a range of photographers meant he built an enviable repertoire of treatments. Tools that he now applies to his own work.

Venturing beyond observational landscapes and fine art, the London-based photographer discovered a new inspiration in the gritty. “I spent years polishing things to perfection for advertising. It’s like it’s therapy to get out there and find something that’s a little bit shabby and dirty and…real. And then maybe just enhance it in a way.”Background image used in final composite

For the last six years, Silk has focused exclusively on his own photography, leaving behind the career in digital retouching. Getting discovered by Young & Rubicam London led to shooting his own global campaigns instead of retouching them for others. “Like I say, it’s a journey. And you know, doing formal portraits one day and then maybe hanging out of a helicopter the next,” says Silk. “You can’t just sit in front of the computer all your life.”

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

F STOP: Let’s start discussing our featured image, how did you approach creating this image.Side view of lighting

Silk: In September I was in San Diego shooting a print ad for SoCom, a strategy game for Sony Playstation. We used real Navy Seals in a shot and the whole thing had to have Pentagon approval. It was a massive complicated job with lots of multi-part comps, a film and movie lighting crew, and a big set. There were about 15 people in the shot. I ended up directing this thing from a cherry picker platform, so I never got to chat with the guys and shoot some stuff with them separate from the job. I spoke to my agent afterwards and told him I wanted to shoot the Seals. He got in touch with them and they organized for a regroup at the sameOverhead view of lighting location where we shot the ad. I wanted to get these guys back together and look at them in a different way without commercial constraints

F STOP: What was your approach to lighting?

Silk: I wanted to analyze everything about them in terms of their power. What they were wearing was important. I wanted their gear to look worn, not too clean. So I lit it with that in mind. I used a Profoto kit, it was a basic three light set up. I did two standard profoto heads side lighting from slightly behind the subject. I kept it simple and symmetrical because I just wanted to concentrate on the subject and didn’t want to complicate it.

F STOP: Tell me about the post-production. It’s a very distinctive look..

Silk: I do all my own retouching. My background is partly post-production, so it’s affected the way I shoot. For this image, I wanted to bring out the textures in everything. I also wanted to work with the idea that these guys operate at night and always do their missions under darkness. The Special Forces guys have a reputation that’s got a sort of mystique to it. I wanted to take a combat field, gritty and enhance the blemishes, rather than polish them out. I used different layering. I played around with contrast, saturation, sharpening, and grain. I would take it almost too far and then pull it back. I might end up with something that’s way, way too graphic, then I can overlay it with the original and then fade it through and find a happy medium that works well in print. I feel my way through until I know something is right. There’s no kind of system in place. Post-production is important, it’s something I wouldn’t want to hand over just to anybody.

F STOP: How long did it take to do all the post-production on this?

Silk: It took about a day. I worked on it on screen to a certain level and then printed it. I looked at the print, went back to the screen again and then worked to the print from then on. My color is pretty good from screen to print, but there’s a very different feel to a print than a monitor obviously.

F STOP: If I’m not mistaken this is the most formal portrait in your whole body of work. It seems like a real departure for youAn image from Silk’s portfolio of personal work so tell me what your idea behind this project was.

Silk: It certainly was like going back to where I started. Because I started out studying photography at college and thought I was going to be a fashion photographer.
It’s been quite a long time since I shot any portraits. I thought, “Hey, I’ve got these guys here, let’s do this,” because it’s not very often you get the chance to shoot these Navy Seals. I didn’t just want to get them doing stuff because these guys are all individuals. They’re all in the same kind of uniform, they act as one, they follow the same orders, they do the same things, they drill, they repeat, but they’re all individual guys with a different personality and they switch off from what they’re trained to do and they talk to you like anybody else. I wanted to do very simple, very straightforward portraiture because I hadn’t done it for so long.

F STOP: Is this going to be a new direction in your work?

Silk: I’m going to incorporate more people into the work. That’s definitely something that I need to do from a commercial perspective as well.

F STOP: Why do you need to do it?

Silk: Every time a book goes out to agencies, they ask, “Oh, have you got any more people shots?” It’s been such a long time since I focused on photographing people.

F STOP: I’m curious to know how you arrived at your distinctive look.

Silk: It’s quite an organic process when you work on your own images. A lot of it happens subconsciously. You find a way of printing your work that you’re happy with.
I was doing a lot of retouching for different photographers and so I’d work on different photographers’ images. I had to adaptAn image from Silk’s portfolio of personal work to different styles of retouching to different photographers’ work for different commissions to set up specific feels. I developed my own treatments to suit them.

F STOP: Do you have certain techniques that you generally gravitate towards?

Silk: A lot of my work is shot on film, so the scanning stage is very important. I’ve adopted a lot more digital capture these days, but a lot of the work that you see on the website and in my portfolio was shot on film. It’s only just recently that I’ve been shooting digitally for clients. So it all starts with the film and the way that that’s treated. For instance, the zoo images, were all shot on transparency, medium format film, and then I pushed it for a grainy look. It suited the mood to sort of bring out all of the imperfections. I’ve always been into manipulation of images before digital.

F STOP: Are you still primarily shooting film?

Silk: I just invested in a Canon 1DS Mark III. I’m going down that road now because I’m quite interested in experimenting with HDR and stitching, and other techniques in post-production. It changes the way you shoot things and how you handle the camera. It’s an exciting voyage.

F STOP: Tell me about your transition from retouching to shooting?

Silk: I’m 38 now. I left college at 22. Time flies. I buried myself under some books about Photoshop for a couple of years and did some teaching, and moved to London. I was assisting for a couple of years. After 10 years of building this up, working in post-production and working on my own I had to get back into shooting because I missed it so much. It’s like a therapy, you know. I bought myself a Mamiya 7 and went off to Italy and shot a load of stuff.An image from Silk’s portfolio of personal work

F STOP: When did you start shooting again?

Silk: 2002. I stopped for about 5 years. It’s great though, because if I had just stuck at what I was doing then, I wouldn’t be shooting the same stuff I am now.

F STOP: So all the images up on your site are basically from the last six years?

Silk: Pretty much.

F STOP: A lot of them are found images (non-produced imagery) right?

Silk: Yes.

F STOP: So tell me about your process of creating this body of work. What kind of equipment are you using?

Silk: It’s a similar philosophy to the idea of lighting those portraits. I kept it to a basic one bag, one camera, one lens set-up. I focus on things that most people would think was kind of mundane,. But it was fresh to me because maybe I’d go to a different country and go and look at the landscape and see what there was there.

F STOP: So your basic process for creating your personal images is to simply go find things that interests you?

Silk: Pretty much.

F STOP:Do you have a particular goal or a message that that you are looking for or are trying to fulfill?

Silk: Of course. The goal now is to keep shooting. I enjoy the mystery and excitement. When you first get into photography, you can’t wait to see how something is going to come out and you watch the image appear on the paper. It’s magical I don’t know if that answers your question, but in terms of philosophy, it’s more about looking for things that aren’t perfect: anomalies, imperfections, textures, quirky little things.

F STOP: What appeals to you about that?

Silk: I spent years polishing things to perfection for advertising. It’s like therapy to get out there and find something that’s a little bit shabby and dirty. I’m continually trying new stuff out and learning. You can’t just sit in front of a computer all your life.An image from Silk’s portfolio

F STOP:Tell me about how that sitting in front of the computer has affected how you shoot now, because you obviously have a wealth of experience from doing all this post-production for these global ad campaigns.

Silk: In terms of personal work, I’ve developed more of an interest in digital photography, so now I’m stitching images, and overlaying the exposure brackets and capturing a wider range than I used to be able to on film. I like to keep personal work a little looser, more free. Those Navy Seal shots are the first personal images where I’ve actually comped stuff together, and that’s partly due to the location. Other images I’ve produced are pretty much as they were shot and I comped it slightly and adjusted the colors. I like to keep it simple if possible, but on jobs it’s very difficult these days. There’s a lot of reliance on post-production. It’s almost become a way of life in the industry, you know. People just fix everything later. Whereas I try to fix everything as much as possible at the shooting stage.

F STOP:It seems like a lot of your images are in the American West, what do you like about that location?

Silk: I’m like a kid in a sweet shop when I go to a new place. I just have my camera with me and I’m just constantly looking for new things to shoot.

F STOP: Was it difficult to break in with your first advertising job?

Silk: It took a while, but I got a break when an art buyer from Raney Kelly found a picture from my zoo series, which won a gold AOP award. It was unheard of for a new comer, so my portfolio started getting called in. They liked my treatment and the way I approach things and they had a small budget job that they wanted to try me out with for Land Rover. It didn’t involve an automotive subject. There was no car in the shot. It was a shot of a grassy mountain with rugby posts, because Land Rover was an official sponsor of the England Rugby team.

F STOP: Do you have any fine art exhibitions?

Silk: I shot an award winning series of aerial landscapes in Cape Town last year. I’ve been asked to exhibit them in Shanghai, at the ninthAn image from Silk’s portfolio international photography show. Up until now I’ve exhibited locally in small galleries.

F STOP: Are you moving in the direction of portraiture for your personal work?

Silk: I don’t really want to become pigeonholed just yet. I’m going to play for a little longer before that happens. I’m working on pursuing some projects which involve a little more of a narrative. It’s all experimenting at the moment. Not so much formal portraiture, I don’t think it will all be down that road. I think I’m going to incorporate people into the landscape, into the location.

F STOP: Why haven’t you done many people shots up to this point?

Silk: It wasn’t a conscious thing. I produce a lot of images with people in them, but they’re not the main subject. I really enjoyed working with the Navy Seals and have started some new people based projects. The more you work in the industry, the more people you meet and the more involved you get with people, so you incorporate more into your work. When I got my camera, it was more therapy. It was about getting away from the computer and looking at other things. Looking at and focusing on creating new images for myself and getting out there into the world. It’s a solitary existence when you’re doing post-production and working for yourself.