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For a longer interview from Gray, check out this podcast from F-Stop Beyond.
Carmen Suen: You say that you are not a photographer, but an artist. What do you think is the difference?
Gray Scott: Obviously, photography is my medium now, but I didn’t start as a photographer. I actually started as a painter. My background is oil painting. I come from a very trained, technical background. Using the medium of photography has been really interesting for me because it’s faster. It’s immediate gratification.
I’m actually starting to realize now that the concepts that I have in my fine-arts series are very similar to if I were to go back to painting, or do both — that’s always a possibility, for me to do both, they would probably be very similar.
I’m interested in the human form. I’m interested in psychology, mythology, icons, symbology, and all of that. I guess for me, it’s just a difference in medium choice. I’m technically a photographer by trade, but in the scheme of things, the entirety of my work, I feel like I’m an artist.
You can see from my work that I’m not just taking pretty pictures. There is subtext to my pictures. And I’m hoping to push that further with a new series of fine-art photography that I’m working on. I’m hoping to push that to an even more aggressive place. Hopefully in six months to a year, I’ll be able to produce that.
CS: Could you tell us about your fondness for contrasts?
GS: I like polarity. Hot and cold; good and bad. I like switching things around and pushing polarities around. I have a new piece in my latest promotion campaign that is a good example to explain that.
In the picture [above], the woman is the executioner. You seldom see women in that role. And when you look at the man in that picture, he’s naked and vulnerable. But she’s also exposing herself. To me, it seems that in our culture, for a woman to be that aggressive, she has to bare everything. She has to expose her entire self. Whereas men don’t have to do this. Men could just be aggressive without being exposed.
CS: When you want to refocus yourself, you’ve said you like to read art books. What kind?
GS: I read a variety of books, but I go to Caravaggio all the time. I think the reason I like Caravaggio so much is the drama in his paintings. The characters in his work are always in some sort of trouble. They’re either being executed or suffering. It’s not just a pretty picture. They’re actually going through some traumatic or beautiful experience.
Outside of art books, I read a lot of psychology. And I also like to read Aldous Huxley because he has such a dimension to his work. Some people would call him jaded, but I would say he is indifferent to people’s false morality, which I really enjoy. I think for any young photographers, their work is going to be stronger if they have some stories to tell.
Carmen Suen: Why did you decide to open Avalence Studio?
Gray Scott: For me as a photographer, it’s just almost impossible to financially keep up. A lot of times you’re scrambling to find a studio when a magazine contacts you to do a shoot. When I first started, there were several times where I couldn’t find a studio to shoot in, and I had to turn down the magazine shoot. It’s not a good thing for any photographer to turn down work because they work so hard to get their name out there and get work. I wanted to provide an affordable space for photographers to do their shoot.
CS: How is the studio an affordable option for photographers?
GS: One of the most important things about the studio is that for a $750 day rate, from 9am – 5:30pm, you get an Octabank, a stand, a power pack, sandbags, V-flats, and a wardrobe styling station with a steamer, robes, and slippers. So basically a young photographer without a lot of money can come into the studio with their model, their hair and makeup person, and their stylist, and they can produce a shoot without any extra expenses.
For one price, you’re coming in to Avalence Studio and you can produce your whole shoot. Whereas a lot of times, when I have gone to other studios, the base rate is just for you to be in the space. It could start at $1,200 to $1,500, and then every single thing costs more, whether it’s a pitcher of water or an apple box. You think you’re spending $1,000 to be there, but when you walked away, you ended up spending $1,800 for the shoot.
The idea of this space is that it’s sort of an artist workshop where everything is provided. You come, and you shoot, and you pay your day rate. That’s pretty much it. The only extra is if a photographer has specific equipment they want to rent, that is added on top. They have the option for us to rent the equipment for them; or, if they want to do it themselves, they can have the equipment delivered here.
CS: Aside from the price, what makes Avalence different from the average photo studio?
GS: One of the things that I think is very exciting is that we are in a neighborhood where we are surrounded by other artists. You are constantly bumping into artists that you know: stylists, hair and makeup people. There’s an independent record label right beside us. There’s a video production beside us. So it’s a community of creative people in the building, which is really exciting.
The studio itself is a very clean open space. But it’s not concrete and sterile. We have hardwood floors that have been painted white. There’s an industrial feel to it, but it isn’t cold. The place has a warm feeling.
CS: What are the future plans of the studio?
GS: I’d like to eventually have 10 to 15 photographers that we work with on a consistence basis, who fit into the studio space, who have the same goal as the community that we are trying to create, which is sort of a younger editorial feel. That’s how the space is.
The space is very private. We try to find photographers who may be working on books, or private work, or some of their editorial work is very sensitive and they don’t want people to know they’re working on certain things or certain campaigns. Our first client was Spin magazine. They said they loved shooting here and that they look forward to shooting here again. I have a feeling that they will be a repeated client.
Another goal is to have the studio also be a gallery space for young photographers. We have such a great space and so many white walls here that I think eventually I would like to have an addition to the Avalence website where we do private showings of young photographers’ work. In the next few months, I would like to find photographers that are doing fine art photography. We’ll do an opening ceremony for them and have 10 to 15 of their pieces presented in the space. It’s nice to have a space where you can have all your peers together and show your work. I think that’s definitely down the road for us.
During my career I have been accused of being cocky, self assured, and overly confident. To which I respond; yes I am, I’m a photographer.
The only way to infuse yourself with the confidence necessary to navigate the photo world’s rivers of advancement is to shoot, shoot, and shoot some more. Take two photographers, each with equal knowledge and natural skill. The one that has shot the most will always win. They’ve done it. They’ve clicked the shutter a thousand more times and solved a thousand more problems in their head.
These were my thoughts in 1989 when I was showing my fashion portfolio to a group of peers looking for a photojournalist. “Fashion and photojournalism are very similar,” I volunteered. I kept my arms down so no one could see I was sweating waterfalls under my arms. My entire career up to that point had been about sprinting to a location and conjuring a fashion story through my camera on the fly. Photojournalism seemed to be a derivative of that, except easier because you didn’t have to make up the story, you just had to capture it. I was wrong.
My confident (cocky) pitch about the relative similarity between fashion and journalism worked. I got the gig, and was sent to Russia. My first few weeks at Novosti Press International in Moscow were remarkable in that I was consistently producing rubbish. I was mildly panicked that my fashion/journalism theory may have been flawed and all I had really achieved was a successful con job.
Ego annihilated I sought the help of the senior Novosti Press shooters. In a Russian accent: “Louie, you need to shoot, shoot, drink a little, and shoot more. Then drink more for celebrating shooting.” I did. And they guided me with the kind of quality advice and criticism that can only come from decades of experience.
Knowing when to stow your ego is as important as invoking it in the first place. Without the humility from my desperate realization that I was tanking my first big journalism assignment, my career would have taken a much different path, and I would probably be writing about the multiple backdrops offered at the Sears portrait studios. As it turned out, I went on to shoot journalism for another two years. Enough time to augment my ego and gain the confidence to con my way back into the fashion industry.
This is a question I get a lot from readers. Do I need to move to LA or New York or other big fashion market to have a successful fashion photography career?
In the past I have offered a diplomatic answer because I know the question is coming from a place of apprehension, and I hate to be one of those arrogant asses who throw out an answer that will potentially change someone’s life without being sensitive to their context. But the question came up again in reverse form this week via email: Do I need to stay in Los Angeles to start my career, because I’m really over this city. So it’s time to address the question definitively. The short answer is, yes.
If your goal is put out a shingle and make a nice living as a local fashion photographer, then there are alternatives to moving to a big market. But if you’re looking for myriad opportunities to turn your talent and training into a career, you must immerse yourself in an epicenter of the industry. I say this with conviction because, had I moved back home instead of staying in Los Angeles after I graduated from school, my career would be a shadow of what it became.
Big city big opportunities for you and thousands of your peers
Aside from the obvious factors of logistics, knowing no one, and not knowing the terrain, moving to a city where there is an advertising or fashion/celebrity market is intimidating because you’re not the only one trying to make it. In fact there are a lot of you trying to make it, and you’re all probably pretty good at making pictures. These are your comrades and your competition.
Despite what you’re probably thinking, jumping into a pool with so much good talent is one of the healthiest things you can do for your career. Not only will you be exposed to styles and methods that you’ve never imagined, you will lose sleep trying to sort out how to compete. And that is where the magic lies: in the Darwinian epiphanies where you conjure an idea that’s better than the next guy’s. That’s one kind of creative motivation that can only come from the pressure of friendly competition.
More entry-level job opportunities in your field
Big markets, especially L.A. and New York, have a lot of of entry-level job positions in your field. This is valuable for making a buck, staying abreast of the industry gossip, getting exposed to the names of the industry players, and generally understanding the vibe of the career you’ve chosen. These jobs also carry little expectation of a long-term commitment. As soon as anyone who works for me starts exhibiting flawless performance, I know they’re about to depart for the next level of their life. You should go into these jobs with the same attitude: expecting to leave as soon as you’ve learned all you can, or you’ve saved enough money, or you’ve built your portfolio enough to start showing — whatever the reason, have an exit strategy. But, like I say in my book, never forget where you come from either. If you move past the people you work with, never lord your success over them. Remember you would be nothing without them.
More opportunities to shoot for money
I am forever grateful for the vast headshot market in Los Angeles. During lean times when I was seriously questioning how I was going to pay my bills, I was saved by the actor community. Headshots are not the most glamorous of shooting jobs, but it is a market you can break into fairly quickly and cheaply. All you need is a nice location with good natural light and a camera. Do a good job with one actor and they will recommend you to their friends. Clients usually pay in cash on the day of the shoot and the gig is a short term commitment. Best of all, it doesn’t adversely affect your reputation like shooting an ad campaign for an Alpaca porn DVD. (I’m not admitting anything here.)
Masters and heroes live in the big markets
Large markets tend to attract the heavy weights of the industry. Not only will you probably get to meet one of your heroes, you will interact with all kinds of editors, art directors, and writers who are masters of what they do. You can’t beat this type of exposure. Not only for your career, but for your sensibility as well. I can write volumes of what it’s like on the other side of magazine and agency doors, but you’ll never really feel it until you experience it for yourself.
If you can, transition slowly
When I first moved to L.A. from San Francisco, I was visiting model agencies trying to expand my model testing career on the side while going to school. It certainly made it easier to get my ass kicked in the real world when I could always return to the safety of school. I highly recommend this path, it lessens the shock of the transition. If you are out of school or not going to attend school, the transition to a new city can be tough. But once you get through the first year of emotional tumult, you’ll be acclimated and focused. That’s when the fun begins. Be smart, always keep in mind why you moved, and keep your eyes open — golden opportunities rarely present themselves the way you expect them to.
Q: What do you see as your greatest success from your eight years of personal work?
Dietmar Busse: The most important thing that came out of that time was that I found my own language as a photographer. There was so much I had to learn about who I am as an artist and as a human being. For example, I don’t like to be in a crowded place with a lot of people I don’t know — and I like it even less if I have to take pictures there. It makes me completely nervous and I just want to leave. On the other hand, I really enjoy being with just one person in the room and taking their picture. I learned how to create the right atmosphere for my shoots, and consequently my work has become much more focused.
MJ: What has your experience been now that you are moving back into fashion and commercial photography?
DB: In many ways it’s much easier now. Getting some distance has helped a lot. I think I am much humbler now, and I appreciate every opportunity to do my work.
The most difficult thing has been to get access to the “right” people. So much of this business is social networking, and it’s a real challenge to rebuild a support system. But once I sit down with an art director or editor, I feel really comfortable. I think my work has a definite point of view, and people either like it or they don’t — it’s pretty straightforward. I am almost a bit embarrassed to say it, but I absolutely love showing my work now, and I am sure clients notice that.
MJ: Do you have advice for young photographers who are in a similar situation to you when you started out?
DB: I think it is very important to know what you want. Be honest with yourself. Why do you want to be a photographer? Why do you take pictures? Are you interested in the money, the models, self-expression?
At least for me it took quite some time to figure this out in my head, and later to build a body of work that corresponded to that. But I believe it was totally worth it. As we know, so much of our culture is about being richer, more beautiful, more famous, and all of that. People are divided into winners and losers. It’s important not buy into that. I think building a strong sense of self helps you to be immune to that and will hopefully lead you to create something unique and photographs that are meaningful to you.
Q: What was it like working entirely on your own?
A: It was both very exciting and very scary. Exciting because I felt free to create and explore whatever I wanted. There was no one in the room other than me. No one with any expectations or agenda. I played around with flowers and painted all night long, and it was really very exhilarating at times. Many nights I didn’t even want to go to sleep and just worked and worked.
At the same time it was very frightening. No client, no editor, no agent for feedback or guidance. And then, though I lived in a small, cheap place in Brooklyn, I still had to pay the rent. This was not the ’60s and my savings were running out fast, since I was spending lots of money on flowers and photo supplies. But somehow I always managed to get by and I saw my work evolving.
Even though I was working on my own, I did stay in touch with a few people in the commercial world who liked my work. One art director had my flower photographs all over his office, and one day this lady who was a book publisher saw them and within a matter of days I was working on my first book.
Q: What was the book publishing process like for you?
A: It was exhilarating to think that the work I was doing would end up in a book. The difficulty was that when I was approached by the publisher, they wanted all the material immediately in order to make the deadline for the spring market. One moment I was just minding my business figuring out what images I wanted to make, and the next I was on a rushing to deliver my first book. That was quite stressful, especially since I tried to make more new photos while the creative director was already working on the layout.
Everything was being rushed and finally sent off to the printer for the first proof — then suddenly everything was put on ice. Why? Because it was early 2003 and it was evident that George Bush was going to start a war. Consequently the companies involved with the book project were suddenly not sure if it was the right time. This went on for awhile and then, again suddenly, the publisher decided to just go ahead, which was great. Unfortunately there was absolutely no time for any corrections and the raw layout became the book.
It was not the ideal scenario, and I was quite unhappy about that. It took me some time to be able to appreciate all the good things that came from the book. I think the experience will serve me very well for my second book, which is in the making. After the first book was published, I also got some nice write ups, and, through that exposure, I was contacted by a gallery, and offered a group show, which later turned into a 2-person show.
When I started getting hired as a photographer, I really was not very well prepared. I was far from clear about what I wanted. I had not created a vision nor had I developed a clear photographic language. In some instances, everything would fall into place: the right subject, the right stylist, the right creative direction. There were moments of real magic.
Often, however, it was much less perfect. When I did not like what I saw in front of me, I did not know what to do with it, and often other people would take charge because I was not able to. For example, the stylist would impose his or her ideas on me, or the hairdresser, or even the model. Needless to say, I was not very happy with that, and it often showed in the results. All this was a lot of stress and I wasn’t getting rich, so there came a point after a few years when I got really fed up. One day I was trying to make a beautiful photograph of flowers for my mom and send it to her on her birthday. I bought a bouquet of flowers, put it in a vase on a table in my studio, and began photographing it. Because it was for my mom, it had to be super special and gorgeous. Nothing I could come up with met my standards at the time, and I got so frustrated that I just took the entire bouquet and ripped it apart.
What a drama! However, as I sat there ready to put the whole thing into the trash, I started playing with the bits and pieces. On the floor I reassembled the petals and stems and just sort of played around. Then I took the camera and photographed my creations. This looked new and fresh to me, and it reminded me of the drawings I used to make for my mom when I was little.
Out of this incident grew an entire body of work. I would lock myself in my studio at the end of the day and make up flowers that don’t exist. I recreated scenes from my childhood and glued hundreds of flower petals and leaves on my body, then photographed myself. I loved just creating things without anybody around — nobody making any demands or having expectations.
At that time, when my agent sent me to meetings with clients, I showed my commercial portfolio and I either got the job or not. But at the end of the meeting I would show my little flower creations and often people would ask me if I would sell them, so I did. Encouraged by this, and somewhat frustrated by my fashion and commercial work, I decided to take a break. I moved to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and glued flower petals on myself and on all the walls of my railroad apartment. I think I learned a lot about myself during that time. I had to.