Written by Zack Seckler
Edited by Joann Jovinelly
Clients ranging from McDonalds to Rolling Stone seek out Chicago based photographer Saverio Truglia for his distinctive brand of ironic and often dark sense of humour. His signature images include a cow standing in a grocery store aisle stocked with ground beef and an open casket funeral displaying only the fashionable shoes of the deceased. Truglia’s imaginative humour along with a penchant for creative problem solving have been fruitful, winning him many awards and a long list of repeat clients.
His problem solving skills are particularly apparent in our featured image of an innocent young girl lying in her bedroom next to an ominous looking snake. The image, a self-promotional work created for marketing purposes, is deceiving. It appears to be a well-executed location shoot but was actually shot in Truglia’s studio following a week of production. One could imagine doing this for a deep-pocketed commercial client but Truglia pulled it off on a shoestring budget of only $1500.
In our interview Truglia starts out by revealing all the details of creating the featured image; covering everything from production to lighting. We then learn all about his marketing strategies, his creative process and his advice for young photographers.
Seckler: Please explain how you came up with the idea for our featured image – your self-assigned image titled Yellow Bird and the Snake?
Truglia: I had been working on a series of pictures about kids. I wanted to make a picture about a young girl on the verge of adolescence and toying with something dangerous. I had an idea of a girl on the floor of a bedroom with a snake. The inspiration for the details came from different places. I was inspired by the idea of recreating a tiny kid’s room in an attic with slanted walls. The photo was taken on a set that I designed and built.
Seckler: This image involves many expensive elements: custom-built set, set design, exotic wildlife, talent, etc. and you were paying for it all out-of-pocket. How did you bring this together on a limited budget?
Truglia: I started by painting with a really big brush, trying to put the bigger pieces together, like the set and talent. I’ll often look for talent on Flickr by searching with keywords to get ideas. I found a series of self-portraits of a young girl who photographed herself in abandoned spaces like old warehouses and broken down apartments, looking innocent and all sprawled out on the floor. I sent the images to Angela Finney, a prop and wardrobe stylist I work with in Chicago. I explained that they represented the kind of spaces I wanted to recreate, especially the lighting, and we discussed it. Meanwhile, I kept going back to the girl’s Flickr page, thinking, ‘Wow, photographing this girl would be great. She’s probably in her early twenties, but she looks like she’s twelve, and I can direct her into something that’s a little sexual without it being totally inappropriate.’ I learned that she lived in Chicago and wrote to ask if she would consider being in my photo. She said she’d do it.
The set was built in my own studio. I made some drawings for my set builder. He combined those ideas with wall pieces that I owned and wall pieces that he fabricated to make the diagonals. It was assembled in one day. Angela, my stylist, brought a window that she had owned and we added it. Styling the set took three days. We thought about who the girl was and what her hobbies were, how old she was, what time of day it was, and the overall color pallet.
[Next] I needed a snake, so I found the Chicago Herpetological Society, which is a group that handles reptiles. The next day I got an email that included seven or eight photos of snakes. I requested several, a yellow albino snake and two different Pythons. I didn’t know how the girl was going to deal with the snakes. I had told her she was going to be photographed with a snake, but I didn’t provide details. Fortunately, she was comfortable.
Seckler: Tell me about the lighting…
Truglia: My plan was to make a warm sunlit room, so I chose to use as few lights as possible. When you’re shooting in the sun there’s only one sun. You often don’t need more than one light. I used a pair of Speedotron 2400 Ws packs powering a quad tube head with an 11” reflector and a layer of ½ Atlantic frost, set 11’ feet from the subject and 11’ high. This served as my sun. I pointed it through the window to cast a patch of light on the floor and project natural shadows around the room. We used several 4’ x 8’ white bounce cards off set to reflect this light back onto set and open the shadows as a small room would. The only other lights were one coming from camera right bouncing into a white v-flat. This light was another Speedotron 2400 Ws pack and a single 202 VF head and standard 7” reflector. A Speedotron 1200 pack with a 20” x 24” Photoflex soft box was outside the window illuminating the fake tree and a small white flat. There was a tiny Morris slave light gelled pink in the clip lamp you see above the aquarium illuminating the alligator. This was the little guy’s “heat lamp”.
The exposures were 1/125 @ f8 on a Canon 1Ds Mark III using a Canon EF35mm f 1.4L USM lens. The only significant plate I used was a nice bright patch of sunlight from a clean plate exposed a stop brighter than my main plate. Retouching was relatively simple and consisted of manipulating color and I did it myself. Since we built the set so specifically there was nothing I wanted to dramatically alter in post.
I shot 300 or 400 frames [during the shoot]. The snake kept changing positions. Eventually it stayed still and I could reposition it safely. Snakes are like lumps of meat—you can pose them however you want.
Seckler: In the end how much did this all cost?
Truglia: [The budget for this shoot] was about $1,500, which included building the set, paying a donation to the Chicago Herpetological Society, buying lunch, plus a little honorarium I gave to the talent It takes a lot of begging, borrowing and stealing to bring everything together.
Seckler: Was the photo meant to be self-promotional or something that you wanted to do creatively?
Truglia: It was self-promotional. Usually, even if I do something great for a client, there is always a lot of lag time before I can use it. When I take photographs, I like to think that I set out to make pictures that haven’t been made before, which is the ongoing exercise. I wanted to recreate, in a technical sense, a simple lighting situation that wasn’t going to hem me in creatively.
I also think about what I’m telling the market. What do my images reveal about me as a photographer? In this case, I wanted to make a picture that didn’t look like the lighting was laboured; I didn’t want it to look artificial. I guess it’s a response to a lot of the work I see in the world—I unconsciously made a decision to go against that.
Seckler: You created this self-promotional image been successful for you?
Truglia: I shot it in the spring of 2009 and used it in a promotional poster. It has become one of the images to which people, even non-professionals, most refer. I think something about animals and children resonates with most people.
Seckler: Where do you market your work?
Truglia: Even when I’m not shooting there’s always some promotional effort going on in the background. It could in the places where I pay to advertise, such as At-Edge.com, workbook.com, and wonderfulmachine.com.
Seckler: How valuable is that paid advertising for you?
Truglia: That’s the million-dollar question that I cannot answer. Art directors who want to work with you won’t tell you how they found you. If you’re chosen to work with somebody it’s probably because they saw your images or heard or read your name repeatedly—multiple references to you or your work that happened in unison. Maybe they’ve read your name in a blog or maybe they saw your image in Archive. Eventually those media references reach a critical mass. Getting hired is never from one reference. No one has ever told me they hired me because they saw my image in At-Edge. If a photographer is chosen because his or her work appeared in one place, art directors still won’t trust you. They need to see your work in lots of spaces.
Seckler: Why do you think that is?
Truglia: The market is saturated with talented photographers. Art directors want to work with people who are most committed to their craft. I don’t think that photographs occur to art directors any differently than Pepsi occurs to a consumer. Why do you think MacDonald’s needs to continue to advertise? They need to keep on advertising or their sales would drop off sharply. As a photographer, you have to be everywhere. Whenever possible, you have to be on art directors’ minds, which is probably the greatest challenge. There are just so many good photographers.
Seckler: What else do you do to promote your work, aside from advertising?
Truglia: There’s my website, which changes every couple of years. The website I’m currently using is two-years-old. It will be completely replaced by May 2010; I’m already working on a new one with a different design, look and feel from the current site.
I meet a lot of young photographers who are active in Chicago, including in the art and trade schools and the trade groups, like the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) and the Advertising Photographers of America (APA). I always tell them this business is about photography. It’s about being an artist, but it’s a battle of perception—trying to win the battle of perception. There are a lot of talented photographers who go unnoticed because they didn’t win that battle of perception, which has everything to do with marketing—how your work shows up or how often it is seen. It has everything to do with your Facebook postings. You have to build your profile. We all have a public face that must be maintained.
Seckler: How do you use Facebook to market your work?
Truglia: Facebook is just a supplementary place for marketing. I use Facebook as a business tool. I communicate with friends, but I keep those conversations offline. If you read my wall posts, they all have something to do with my business. Sometimes I use Facebook more than I use my actual blog, which is yet another outlet for marketing, such as posting videos or behind-the-scenes photos.
Seckler: Do you do any other direct self-promotion?
Truglia: Books are still important, though I think they are less relevant today. I made five copies of my last book. For a short while there they were all circulating, but nowadays I can’t remember the last job I got where they called in my book. Repeat clients don’t need it. Book requests sometimes come from new clients who want to be involved in choosing a photographer.
Seckler: When did you notice that people stopped calling in your books?
Truglia: It stopped two years ago, shortly after I made some bound books. Now I don’t invest a lot of time and money into revamping bound books. I keep one book up to date; if I make a new picture I will print it and put it in there. Bound books are useful only for a limited time.
Seckler: What I love most about your photography are your clever, unique ideas. Can you describe your creative process?
Truglia: Usually, when I get the inclination to make an image for a personal project or a get a layout or concept from a creative, I try and disconnect my brain and my heart so for a moment so I am free. I push the concept as far as I can go with it—even into the realm of the absurd. I learned how valuable it is to push your ideas beyond practical reality so that when you come back and settle on something it’s already out of your safety zone. I consider where am I most comfortable making a picture, how comfortable I am while directing that talent, how am I explaining the concept to people. Some people don’t pitch risky ideas because they won’t actually go through with them. I push myself to the point where I am uncomfortable with the whole undertaking.
Seckler: A situation where you know you’re challenging yourself…
Truglia: Yes. I like to challenge myself. For example, I shot this cover of a magazine last week and I had to replicate a Playboy cover. In the end I wanted to create a picture of a pin-up girl holding a stack of books. It was a story about a librarian who collects Playboys. We were doing this conceptual picture of a bookish girl, which they ended up not using because the headline changed. But the situation put me in a place of discomfort—like the Snake picture was a little uncomfortable—because I didn’t know what the snake was going to do. For that reason it was like a logistical discomfort. I knew I had to give up some control and that’s when good stuff happens. I prefer situations where I can potentially lose control.
Seckler: How did you get started as a photographer? How did you break in?
Truglia: I went to college at Mass Art in Boston from 1990 to 1994 where I studied photography. I originally became interested in photography by an exhibit, Polaroid 20 x 24 Portraits. Up until that point I was a graphic design major. I immediately changed my major to photography. In 1995, I moved to Chicago because I had friends living here. I was 23, and I started working at an art gallery photographing art. Years later, I worked at another art gallery, a very blue chip gallery, where I photographed Picasso’s and such. That exposure launched my first business—photographing artists’ sculpture and paintings. Although I was earning money, the work was tedious.
I almost gave up photography completely until I reinvestigated what I was photographing in college. I had always made portraits, so I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I had been experimenting all along with a Polaroid. I always had a camera with me, but I never took it seriously. I threw together portfolios, made postcards and sent them out, and a couple of them hit. My career started in 1999 when I started doing editorial work. By 2004, I landed my first advertising job.
Seckler: What were those first four years like? I think people always wonder about those “in-between” years…
Truglia: Fortunately I didn’t assist anybody, because if had I, I’d probably would have given up on photography. I would have realized early on how hard the job was and would have been dissuaded from pursuing it. I had to figure out everything I needed to learn from first-hand experience. I spent a lot of time with Vanity Fair looking through the eyes of Annie Leibovitz, trying to figure out how she might have lit something.
Seckler: So you did a lot of self-teaching?
Truglia: I bought a digital camera and started using it exclusively. You can teach yourself much faster with a digital because you have an immediate response to your technique. Digital photography has made me a better photographer, because what used to be a risk—like moving a light somewhere or bouncing it off something—was no longer risky.
Seckler: You started out in fine arts and ended up doing largely commercial work. Are you still interested in fine art photography?
Truglia: I don’t participate in that world. If I make a picture for myself it’s always a picture that I think could hang in a gallery, like the picture of the snake. That’s the sort of image I would make if I were to remove the commercial aim from my work. That image interests me as an artist. My personal work would not be a radical departure from my commercial portfolio. I try and have my photography be all one thing, a reflection of who I am.