James Porto

James Porto’s futuristic visions are infused with a dreamlike quality that interprets and informs our human relationship with the spiraling, omnipresent world of technology. Melding traditional and digital photography, his work is in demand by both advertising and editorial clients worldwide. Nike, IBM, AT&T, Compaq, Reebok, Sprint, Pepsi, Absolut Vodka, Clairol, CNBC, DuPont, Ilford, Kodak, Minolta, Nestlé, Prudential, Seagrams, United Airlines, Motorola, Sony, most major pharmaceuticals, record companies, and performance artists Blue Man Group have called on him to put a face on their products. Editorially, Porto’s mesmerizing images have illuminated concepts for Fortune, Glamour, GQ, Forbes, Rolling Stone, TV Guide, Runner’s World, U.S. News & World Report, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN and have graced the covers of Time (six issues), Wired (nine), Health, Newsweek, New York, Psychology Today, and others. Last year, he was featured in the Communication Arts Photography Annual.

I spoke with Jim recently at his airy, light-drenched studio overlooking the Hudson River in lower Manhattan. We discussed the differences between traditional and digital photography, advertising and editorial work, self-promotion, as well as how to keep a photography business alive.

Photo Insider (PI): When did you know you wanted to be a photographer?

James Porto (JP): Very early. At age 11, I saw a print of my hand come up in the developer at school and I was hooked, forever. Until I was 15, I lived in Saudi Arabia, where my father worked for an oil company. After high school in the United States, I went to college at RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology), where I worked in black and white until my third year.

PI: What was your next step?

JP: Even as a kid, I was never happy with a straight photograph. I wanted double exposures, solarization, triple printing. I revered the work of Penn and Avedon, but I owe my love of multiple-image photography to Pete Turner and Jerry Uelsmann.
Since there were no computers when I was at RIT, I had to find ways to create multi-image effects. I used multiple slide projectors, multiple exposures, and in-camera masking. After graduating in 1982, I moved to New York and assisted for two and a half years. I bought a color enlarger and taught myself to do pin-registered composite photos with Kodalith masks and duplicating film, in my studio apartment. The enlarger was in the kitchen; I processed the Kodalith in the bathtub. I really wanted to do this badly. That’s what I tell young photographers today. You’ve got to really want to bring your visions to life.

PI: So, you were doing all this work at night and on weekends, after spending all day as an assistant?

JP: Yes. And by the time those years of assisting were up, I had a portfolio of 20 photocomps [composited images each made by combining several different photographs] that looked really tight. My masks were amazing—no lines.

PI: Seamless?

JP: Yes. I would show the book, and people would be amazed. I didn’t want to assist anymore. I felt the advertising world was rather conservative and that the only market for my kind of work was the pharmaceutical companies. I was repping myself, taking my book around, and I was full of energy, very enthusiastic, I wanted to do any job.
It was 1985; I took a small loan and opened a studio in New York. I was hustling; I didn’t want to lose it. Focusing on the drug companies was right. I was able to get enough work to sustain the studio.

PI: How did you know what to charge?

JP: From a photographer that I had assisted full time, I learned about estimating, production, stylists, the whole operation.

PI: Did you do any mailings or promotions?

JP: Not until the second year, when I hired a designer and developed a card with my image of New York City at the edge of a forest of broccoli. It was mailed to 3,000 art directors in New York, and the phone rang for two weeks! Although I was very young and they were nervous, I netted a Seagrams consumer ad campaign by convincing them I could do it. I worked every day for five weeks to create five billboards, done in multi-image on 11×14-inch color dupe film.

PI: How did you choose the art directors? Did you focus on any special industry?

JP: I bought a list. Except for geographically, it was a shotgun approach. And it really worked. Up till then, my girlfriend, photographer Beth Ava, and I had been just struggling; everything had been sacrificed for the work. Once the Seagrams ads hit, she got an engagement ring and we got a summerhouse.

PI: You started out with traditional photography. At what point did you move into digital, and how are you using both now?

JP: After two or three years of photocomping with dupe film, I realized that it was way too hard to sustain. Every project was taking two to three weeks, and I wasn’t getting paid any more than a guy shooting a still life in one day. So I transitioned; I developed more in-camera masking methods. I did this in 4×5-inch format with up to two different images inside the camera being double-exposed onto the subject.

PI: You would take a chrome and put it inside the camera?

JP: Yes. There’d be a 4×5 transparency in the camera. I developed a whole system where in a single exposure I could put a person in the studio anywhere—in a field of flowers, on the streets of New York. And I could change the scale.

I was getting some nice advertising gigs, but it was a struggle. In the years from 1987 to ’89, I was fighting for my life. Every month it was down to zero. You might look at me and say, “Wow, this guy’s in The Black Book [catalog of top photographers]; he’s doing these national ads.” But every year I would just make it by the skin of my teeth. Part of the problem was the time and labor-intensive way in which I was working.
Although I’d never touched a computer, in 1991 I took a Photoshop class. It was the depth of the recession. I had to break my lease because my original studio was too expensive. I moved into a much less expensive place, and I changed my whole attitude completely. I realized that although the rates were great, so were my expenses. Furthermore, I couldn’t really be creative in advertising, so I set my sights on editorial. I also decided that I would take any reasonable job that came in, not just the $3,500 advertising gigs. I was going to fight. I was not going to go down; I was going to stay in the game.

PI: How did you pursue the editorial markets?

JP: I just dropped my book off, and the response was successful. It sustained the studio.

PI: Before the editorial emphasis, how did you channel your creative energies?

JP: I did a series of fine-art portrait prints for which I constructed elaborate frames of stone, metal, leaves, even one of copper tubing. The textures and forms of the frames repeated elements I had originally exposed into the portraits with in-camera masking techniques. After submitting this work to the New York Foundation for the Arts, I got a $7,000 fellowship. It was an important affirmation for me, and it came at a good time, when my wife was pregnant with our first child. I felt I could continue pursuing my art, which I’d considered abandoning in order to do more commercial work to support the family and the studio.

I took the money and bought a computer. I taught myself Photoshop literally overnight. I had so much experience in photocomposition and masking, which Photoshop made much easier.

PI: What was the result?

JP: The year 1992 was really a turning point in my business. My portfolio already looked like it had been done with a computer, even though it hadn’t. I got a lot of work rapidly. For the first time in my career, the market was really looking for my kind of work. After two or three years, I set my own editorial minimum rate and dropped some lower-paying clients. Furthermore, I got more advertising work.

PI: What is your workflow today? What is traditional and what is digital?

JP: I shoot all the elements myself on film and then scan it here.

PI: For conventional photography, what equipment do you use?

JP: Almost everything is shot 2 1/4 on Hasselblad or 4×5 on Fuji color transparency films. I use ProFoto studio strobes.

PI: And for digital?

JP: All Macintosh computers, G3 and G4, Wacom 9×12 graphics tablets, Adobe Photoshop, a Scanmaker drum scanner, and Epson printers.

PI: Do you use a digital camera or back?

JP: I haven’t found one yet that renders light the way I like
it. Anytime you have a luminous quality on flesh or any
metallic surface, the digital chip tends to deaden and flatten those areas.

PI: What staff do you have?

JP: One digital and photo assistant and one studio manager/producer who handles all the paperwork. Everything else is done by freelancers—stylists, makeup artists, model makers.

PI: How do you promote yourself?

JP: Through ads in sourcebooks and a rep. We’ve used The Workbook, Single Image, and The Alternative Pick. We do some limited, occasional direct mail using The Workbook mailing list.

PI: How do you get the assignment, layout or other specs, and directions? How is the concept or treatment decided?

JP: For advertising, which is about 60 percent of my work, my agent gets a call asking me to bid on a job. They fax over layouts. Before we work on the numbers, I contact the art director to find out how he or she wants me to interpret this project. From a point of salesmanship, I also try to connect personally so that they will want to work with me. Next, the estimating process takes several days, during which I calculate with my rep how much the job will cost. My rep than presents the bid to the art buyer at the agency. They go back and forth negotiating while we cross our fingers. We land about half of the jobs we bid on. Once we do get the job, we immediately go into production. My producer on staff arranges casting, stylists, props, model making.

PI: With human models, are you usually the person who selects them or is it someone from the ad agency?

JP: I’m here at the casting and at the end. I submit my three favorites first. More often than not, one of these is picked, but not always. But that’s OK. In the advertising scenario, they know what they want more than I do. Once the models are selected, we book them. Wardrobe comes in. We do the shoot. Because most of my stuff is conceptual, I may also be shooting backgrounds and other elements. The photography process usually takes one to three days. Then I do a low-resolution sketch on the computer. Once it’s approved by the client, we execute a high-resolution image, and then go back and forth with the art director to tweak it. When they’re happy, we send them a disk (a CD containing the Photoshop file) or a transparency output from the digital file, and we send them the bill. Payment is usually made in 60 days.

PI: Does all the billing for stylists and props go through you?

JP: Yes, except that the models are often billed directly from the model agency to the ad agency.

PI: How is the process different for editorial?

JP: They call me and say, for example, “We’re doing a story on toxic waste and want you to illustrate it.” It’s a lot more interesting for me, but it’s also a lot harder. I propose an idea, fax them a drawing. Usually, the first is accepted, but sometimes we have to work on it. I have a lot more independence with editorial. Generally, they don’t even come down to the studio, they just let me make the image. Of course, it’s more risky, too, because it’s mostly on me.

PI: What personal projects are you working on now?

JP: Since 1994, I’ve been working on a series of black-and-white images called “Winged Women.”

PI: These are haunting and elegant nudes in surreal landscapes including the desert, mountains, and a volcano.

JP: In fact, I’m looking for a publisher to do a book of this series. You can see examples and buy prints at my wife’s gallery on the Internet at http://www.avagallery.com.

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