The most satisfying, most interesting part of making photographs is working with the talent. 95% of what I do are people skills. In another life I could be a shrink. Its all about meeting someone, and in 30 seconds understanding what they need. Its about setting the table so that character can emerge organically. Its about getting real people to feel great about who they are. Its about contributing to the magic of actors transforming into someone else. Its about helping models to be more than just models. Its about asking someone to do something they never thought they could do. This is why I get hired. Its because I love the people I photograph. It’s my job to look for what is wonderful in the person, and to allow that to come out. All day long my gig is to make everyone around me, the crew, the talent, the client, all feel better about who they are. This is what doing this for a number of years has taught me. It is not about me. Its about everyone else, and this is the key to having a great day and a satisfying career.
It’s that time of the year when people put out their Best of 2014 lists. In the interest of keeping things simple and snackable, I share with you a list on one.
The prettiest, most beautiful movie experience of the year was Interstellar IMAX on 70mm film. It was shot on film, for the most part, on a huge IMAX camera. I searched for a theater to see it projected in IMAX format on actual 70mm film. Go here for a list of where to see it in that format. The experience was extraordinary, almost religious. Unfortunately, if you see a master film projected in this way, it’s pretty hard to see anything projected digitally and not judge it harshly. Which brings to mind Tarantino’s comment that digital projection is like watching TV in public.
Some of my writer friends slammed Interstellar as silly and unrealistic, which I find a bit odd. Science fiction is just that, its not science prediction. I am a visual guy and if you can seduce me with light and color, then I am in. Narrative is not my strong point, although I appreciate a good story. I thought Gone Girl was great. Narrative is the realm of the linear, what makes sense, what drives the action forward. Color and light, are really something else entirely, they act on my brain in a way that is hard to quantify. But then I can spend hours in a museum looking at pretty splashes of paint.
Resolution for 2015: Whenever possible see movies in the cinema rather than on DVD or streamed, see them projected from film. It’s just better that way.
This week’s theme seems to be expertise. Expertise is not something we are born with, it is something that comes from years of hard work.
“The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts. It will take you at least a decade to achieve expertise, and you will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in “deliberate” practice—practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort. You will need a well-informed coach not only to guide you through deliberate practice but also to help you learn how to coach yourself”
I recommend reading this wonderful piece from the Harvard Business Review in its entirety. It gives considerable evidence that the “gifted” people we hear about probably just worked harder or had early access to excellent teachers. It reminds me of a story I heard from a musician friend who had attended Berkley School of Music. He was a good drummer, but the other kids had grown up in families of famous jazz musicians, and they were in his words “steeped” in music. So as hard as he worked, he would never be able to make up the 10 year advantage that those other kids had. He astutely realized that he could never match their performance, switched direction, and went on to becoming a successful music publisher.
I often get email from students wondering what they should do with their lives. Valid question, and one that I wonder about myself. The letter below came from a student who had listened to a talk I gave about the value of becoming an expert. The most valuable and least likely person to be fired in an organization is the one who has a deep irreplaceable knowledge of an area that is of value.
Thank you for your email and your kind words.
Your question is very much to the point. What to become an expert on? This is a lifetime’s quest.
I would say that style is not an expertise. A style is a visual tendency. I am not familiar with what your area of study is, but for example, if you were an engineer and you became deeply knowledgable about a certain sort of circuit design, or perhaps if you were in UI and you really understood the needs of a certain market group, or perhaps you became extremely knowledgable about the problems of large scale 3d printing.
Expertise is generally driven by a person’s own desire to learn and master a certain subject. It requires an organic passion for the subject in order sustain the drive. This is where it is important to know yourself, what your interests are, and what part of these could be useful and relevant. The second part, the relevant part, is difficult if not impossible to forecast and I would not spend a lot of energy on fortune telling and tea leaf reading.
The best place to start would be to ask your instructors what you are particularly good at and what they see you are interested in. You are in a privileged position in your life now where you are surrounded by people whose sole job is to help you without prejudice of their own interests. This will not always be the case and you should use this time to engage with these people to the maximum degree that you can.
A few words on style- if you are a visual artist, photographer, filmmaker etc, style is everything. It is your brand. The very, very tricky part of this is to find your particular point of view and to make it relevant. I can not overstate how difficult this is. It is really, really hard, and if this is your path it will be something that will be of concern for the rest of your career. Again, you are in a privileged position of being surrounded by instructors and fellow students who can help guide you. Once you are out of school this changes and you will be very much on your own. Use your time now wisely and appreciate what people tell you.
I hope this is helpful.
We have now produced a quite a few GIFFS for different clients. The great thing about digital is that there is an immediate and fully quantifiable response. You know right away if your Giff is connecting with the audience or not. With considerable feedback data now, we have a good idea of what works.
-Don’t be cheesy. It needs to be organic, a bit crazy, and totally modern. This is the single hardest thing to impress upon clients. They are so used to having images that are pre-conceived to death, that they really have trouble getting their minds around the spontaneous and the organic. It goes against the first rule of the ad exec: Not failing is more important than trying something new that may really connect. But in the digital economy, its all about cutting through the noise to conect to your customer. Be different, be cool, the data says that works.
-Movement in 3 areas is best. That is the camera moves, there is something moving in the background, and the subject moves. The blinking girl we locked on a tripod because the background movement was too much with the type, but there is still a bit of movement in the background which I really like.
-Non-linear can be fine. For most of the GIFFs we do, it is a straight linear sequence. But the 2 guys with guitars are not. We found that by skipping whole groups of frames and making it more VINE like, it got more hits. Go figure.
-Accidents are great. So if there is one frame out of 15 where the autofocus messes up, that is wonderful. Its the off bit that makes them compelling, not making them perfect.
Dreamt up more than 100 years ago by a German journalist, in 1913, it say that innovations in media never wholly replace what came before them. “So radio did not supplant newspapers, film didn’t supplant radio and so on”
Photographs and Memory
I was editing some work this morning and Nam June Paik came to mind. Nam wrote “TV is not TV”, which has me thinking photographs are not photographs- they are memory triggers. This principle is ever prescient in advertising photography. An effective ad triggers memories with a lot of people at once. Evoke a response linking positive memories of the past with the desires of the present and you have a winner.
Images are captured in a fleeting moment in the rushing flow of time. I find it fascinating how we are not necessarily aware of the present, but throughout our lives build huge baskets of woven memory where we spend most of our mental time.
Good is the enemy of great. Why settle for good? Because its easier and safer than great. Walter Gropius, Mr Bauhuas, wrote that if we build better buildings, people will become better people. Gropius aimed high, he wanted to change the world. I read this when I was 19, and its stayed with me. I thought “If I take better pictures, I can improve people’s lives.” I know this sounds a bit grandiose, but its something that drives me. If I settle for good safe images, I will never make great memorable ones.
When you aim for good in whatever you do, you’ll most likely produce something less than good. Good has a way of changing into good enough. When you aim for great, you’ve made a commitment to push beyond safe, and possibly get you to something new, memorable and impactful.
Today I want to share with you a story that happened while on set to shoot this picture for the AT&T campaign I’ve been working on. It’s a sunny day and we are on the roof, trying to get the talent to give us an honestly expressive moment. There I was working the ground, climbing on things, telling jokes, but nothing was working. Suddenly I thought, let me ask the producer to get us a couple of Super Soakers. When they finally arrived I handed one to this beautiful girl on set, another member of our talent for the day, and told her “here, take this and when I give you the cue, shoot him in the chest.” She looked at me, “Really?” Yup, empty the entire thing at him.”
I picked up the camera and began working with the talent. I got him moving around the set, and then as he hit the mark “NOW!” Water flies, he is taken by surprise, and boom, I capture the perfect reaction.
Sometimes the only way to evoke an organic expression is to provoke a moment of genuine emotion.
To whom are we responsible? I have a photographer friend, successful nationally known artist, who feels that his greatest responsibility is to the viewers of his images. I know many photographers who would say that their responsibility is to whomever is paying them. Or, for some people I would imagine their reflexive answer would be to say it is to themselves.
Photographers have an extra-ordinary amount of power in how the outcome of their images effects the subject. We are making the context, we are editing the circumstance of how this person will be seen. If the picture is published widely, it can have a tremendous power. In the case of working with models, there is a collaboration. Its a group effort that I as photographer lead. Even so, I don’t think I would be comfortable asking someone to do something they would not be proud of doing. Its just bad karma. When working in portraiture, it is even more important to respect and in a way, to love , the person being photographed. They have given me the enormous privilege of letting me into their world. Without this permission I am nothing. It is a space to be respected and protected.
On my commercial jobs, I will ask, I will plead, I will cajole to get a moment to happen, but I will not try to get someone to do something that would open them to ridicule or shame. Its not my jam. I know some photographers thrive on that scene. I don’t. My first agent also repped Guy Bourdan, a first class sadist, whom I heard all the stories about. Great images, but did he really need to tie the girl to the tree for 8 hours? Really? Yuk.
This is a bit of a touchy subject that will probably get me in some hot water, but the most important thing to me is how I feel about myself. Taking a great picture makes me feel great about me, humiliating someone, or trying for that gottcha moment makes me feel like a creep, and I really really don’t want to go there. As I often quote from the great Ed Kashi “ To be a better photographer I need to become a better person”.
These are some out takes from my HOUSE of GOLD project for Los Angeles Magazine. There are more posted on my site. Gold’s Gym Venice-The Mecca. Its the most amazing place. Last summer during the Olympics, they had a board in the lobby with a medal count for the members of that gym. It was more than most countries. I see action movie stars in there all the time. Robert Downey, Sarsgaard, Mickey Rourke and that crowd. Mike Tyson is there early in the morning. Gabby Reese and Laird are there in the summers. Its wack. No matter how crazy you think your workout is, there is somebody like Apollo Ono doing something that seems humanly impossible.
Anyway, Google bought the building and it is unsure how long this scene is going to be around. Thus the magazine piece.
Massive thanks to LA Mag, Golds Gym management and all the amazing athletes who so generously gave their time.
Doing the #probikini #npccompetitor #abworkout at #themecca. Yea, I was also taking pictures from time to time. Sorry about the lack of sound, but you get the idea.
Thank you to AP-AI and to the judges for your support. To the other creatives out there, I encourage everyone to find the subject that intregues you and then go deep into it. Obsession is a wonderful thing. The drag and speed world has been mine for the better part of the last year. There is a film element that I am still working on that will be part of the overall work. Then it will be on to the next interesting sub cult. Photography has the wonderful gift of opening up worlds, both to the artist and to the audience. It is one of the things that keeps me coming back yearning for more, year after year.
I look forward to seeing all the other winners and their obsessions at the 2014 AP-AI launch.
This series grew out of my curiosity for the workings of tribes. As with all my work, these images are concerned with discovering beauty and honest moments of humanity. The drag and speed world is in many ways of another earlier time, despite the technology involved in the vehicles. It is a world of close families, of individual style, of pride of competition without prize money. It is a world of fetishized machines where style and speed are both valued.
My deepest thanks to all racers and families of the drag racing and speed testing fraternity who shared their world with me.
See the entire series at www.dhstewart.com/americandrag
Welcome to My World
I help companies build their brands through powerful visual story telling. I work with a range of companies from technology, fashion, retail, sports and automotive to help them sell their products and increase awareness of their brand identity through visual story telling. I work with advertising agencies, digital agencies and directly with clients to help them to tell their story, and then to work with the creative and production teams to carry out the vision. My work is characterized by the authentic recreation of reality that defines a brand, a product or a person. From my background in engineering, my initial approach to projects is an analytic data driven understanding of who the customers are, what the story to be told is, and then how to achieve it. From here I then work with the team to identify the cast, location and feel of the shoot. Through being a careful listener on set, I create the trust needed to harness the best creative ideas of the team, the agency and the client to tell the story in its most authentic form.