Archive for August, 2001

Michael Grecco

August 22, 2001

Michael Grecco has paid his dues to reach the lofty professional peak on which he now perches. His portraits—whether imaginative and quirky or classically clean and direct—are informed by years of work in the trenches, on location for newspapers and magazines. He photographs celebrities and scientists, business leaders and bands, boxers and rappers. It is a tribute to both his talent and desire to constantly find new challenges that his work encompasses corporate and top-echelon advertising markets as well as editorial.

Among these are Disney, ABC, Entertainment Weekly, Time, Esquire, Premiere, Kodak, Sony, and IBM. He has shot for magazines ranging from the cutting-edge Raygun, Buzz, Vibe, and Bikini to corporate bastions Business Week, Fast Company, and Worth. Grecco does a number of corporate annual reports each year and also creates images for the music industry.

I spoke with him recently as he sat outdoors by the pool at his California home. We covered his early days and his transition from a 35mm black-and-white photojournalist to a medium-format portrait master. We discussed traditional and digital photography, marketing, and how his lighting techniques and working approaches have evolved throughout his career.
Photo Insider (PI): How did you get started in photography?

Michael Grecco (MG): At a summer camp when I was 11 or 12, it was that magic of seeing an image appear on white paper in the developer. The next moment, soon after, was discovering the Time Life series of books on photography and seeing the work of master photographers such as Duane Michals and Ralph Gibson. That was when I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life.

PI: Did you study photography?

MG: In high school I had taken some photo courses. Although I got a degree in broadcasting and film from Boston University, I’d gotten hooked on photojournalism. I started shooting for the Associated Press while I was still in school. Then, in 1983, I joined the staff of the Boston Herald newspaper.

PI: Was it all black and white at that time?

MG: Yes, all black and white, all 35mm. I specialized in news coverage. But after a while I realized that it wasn’t me and that I wanted to live in California.

PI: What was the allure of the West Coast?

MG: There were definitely lifestyle issues, [such as the] weather. But I’ve always seen myself as a portrait photographer. And to be a major player, I knew I had to be in Los Angeles or New York. Having grown up in New York, I didn’t want to live there anymore. I’d seen the worst and the best.

GG: In the late ’70s. Since ’94 I’ve been working in my current space, which includes a rooftop-terrace daylight studio.

PI: How do you plan a shoot? For example, describe your nude portrait of Iman.

GG: That was part of a personal project of male and female nudes for the book Greg Gorman Volume Two. After years of being well known for doing close-up portraiture, I wanted to take a different direction, pull the camera back and focus on black-and-white nudes. Today, the fine-art male nude is one of the main subjects I work on when not doing my personality or advertising assignments. Iman was a friend of mine, and I called her up and asked, “Will you do some nudes with me?” In the studio I built in my home, I designed a glass skylight above a stone platform. The pictures were taken there using only natural light.

PI: So now you’re in the only place in the country where real estate is more expensive than it is in New York?

MG: You’re right, but I’m sitting out here, like I do nearly every day, in 72-degree weather with the sun shining and a fountain and my pool next to me.

To some degree, no matter how big you are—unless all you do is studio work—as a photographer, you schlepp. If you do location work, even though you have three assistants and they’re carrying everything, to some degree, you schlepp. And I didn’t want to schlepp in cold weather.

PI: Did you know anyone in Los Angeles?

MG: Having done what I had done for so long, I had contacts at some of the magazines, including People. As a news photographer, I often supplied People with images from some of my shoots. For the first three or four years in L.A., I continued to do photojournalism, but it wasn’t for the newspaper anymore. Now it was for People, Time, Newsweek, and Life. Around 1991, it hit me: Well, I’ve got half of what I wanted. I’ve got the lifestyle change, but I’m still doing work that isn’t me.

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I started to turn down jobs covering events, stories, or “a day in the life of….” I bought Hasselblad medium-format equipment and more lights, and decided that I was going to develop my eye toward being what I call a “stylized portrait photographer.” I wanted to not capture images, but create them, from the ground up. I wanted to be conceptual. No more would the image have to be about a picture story or a journalistically defining moment. I wanted my pictures to be more about the people and less about the story.

PI: “Conceptual” is a term that’s thrown around a lot, often without any basis. However, in your case, it really applies. Your book, The Art of Portrait Photography, is a great example. One picture that stands out conceptually is a portrait of a scientist who studies earthquakes. Through multiple exposure, you made it look like his head is vibrating—yet without distorting the face at all.

MG: That’s how I like to approach a portrait. It works really well when you make a connection with the person, or you capture a moment about them, or you’ve been clever in some way. The most amazing is when you’ve done all three. Recently, for a Nortel ad campaign, we shot a man upside down to show that he is 180 degrees out of the norm. For the CEO of icebox.com, we put him inside the freezer. I like dry humor, a sense of irony.
This is the sort of work I like to do in color. On the other hand, a lot of my new black-and-white work is simple and more about connecting with the person. It goes back to my Italian ancestry, that social nature.

PI: Several years after your move, you decided to pursue your ideal of portraiture and you switched equipment. Did you switch markets?MG: I decided that I had to say no to the journalistic jobs and to develop a whole new client base.

PI: How did you go about that?

MG: Calling people, showing the new work.

PI: So, once you moved to California, you were shooting personal work?

MG: During the transition period, I was taking jobs where I could do a lot of portraits. But instead of shooting them journalistically in 35mm, I was using medium format and shooting them the way I wanted to. I was working on more sophisticated lighting, developing the style, the mood, the drama. The more I shot with this approach, and I showed it, the more work I got. At one point, I finally said, I’ve got to say no to these other jobs. I’ve got to bill myself and market myself as who I want to be. Otherwise, it’s never going to happen.

PI: Was it difficult to switch to medium format?

MG: At first. It was a whole different flow.

PI: Do you use it on a tripod a lot?

MG: I may or I might handhold anything from 35mm to 4 x 5. It depends on the situation. Last summer, we traveled around Texas shooting real people for new work for my portfolio. I did it all with a handheld 4 x 5, a Graflex Super D, an SLR. I’ll try anything.

PI: That’s brave. Were you lighting it?MG: No, I was shooting with available light.

PI: During your transition to medium-format portraiture, how did you find the clients?
MG: A lot of them were clients that I’d worked with in other capacities. And, of course, I was continually knocking on doors saying, “This is my new work, I’d like you to see it.”

PI: Did you use any lists?

MG: No, not really.

PI: Do you advertise in sourcebooks?

MG: Yes. it’s gotten me some ad work and some corporate work over the years. But I get my favorite list like this: I go to a newsstand, find the magazines I like, buy them, and rip out the mastheads. That’s my list when it comes to editorial work.

PI: How long did it take for your new portraiture venture to take off? It was a big financial risk.

MG: It was a financial risk, and it took a couple of years. A turning point came with Business Week magazine. I had been experimenting with a Holga [a $20 plastic medium-format camera known for its light leaks and soft focus—qualities similar to the classic Diana], doing more personal black-and-white work. Business Week had been a regular client that had used me for very straight work. However, after seeing my new experimental pictures, they gave me a ten-page, three- or four-week assignment to do in the new style.

PI: You seem to do everything on location. Do you have a studio?

MG: I have a small studio, about 500 square feet. The majority of the time, we rent a location or a studio. Shooting a lot of high-end celebrities requires a plush, high-end space.

PI: Although you shoot only people, your markets are very diversified.
MG: About half of my time is spent doing editorial. We also work on annual reports, television advertising, movie ads, including film posters, consumer advertising, and some record covers.
PI: What traditional equipment do you use?
MG: I have the Canon 35mm system, a set of Holgas, a Hasselblad system, a Fuji 680 system, a couple of 4 x 5 Graflexes, and a Sinar. Most of my work, though, is done in medium format.
PI: What films do you like?

MG: I love Tri-X. In chrome, I shoot E100S [Ektachrome] and 160VC color negative. I’ve always used Kodak films; their skin tones are right on the mark for me.

PI: Are you using digital at all?

MG: I’m a sponsor of the new Kodak DCS Pro Back for medium-format Hasselblad and Mamiya cameras. The back captures an 18 MB compressed file that can expand to 48 or 96 MB. It’s better than film.

PI: In what ways?

MG: The resolution is higher. Some earlier chips could not hold detail in the highlights, but this back has a 12 f-stop range. It’s so versatile. The beauty of it is that I don’t have to decide what’s going to be black and white, what’s going to be color, what’s going to be contrasty, and so on. I can profile it all afterward.

We’ve been doing our postproduction and printing digitally for several years now, so we’re digitally pretty savvy. We have quite a few Macs and Epson 1270 and 1280 printers. What we’re going to do is develop profiles for our favorite films, so that I can make any shot look like it was done on a particular film type, even pushed or pulled.

PI: What sort of postproduction are you doing?MG: After sending out for scans, we do retouching, and, on some jobs, compositing.

PI: What staff do you have?

MG: A full-time studio manager, another person who we call the vice president of visual affairs, myself, and usually an intern. On a location job, usually one or two of them come to assist me.

PI: What lighting equipment do you work with?

MG: I use Dyna-Lite 1000 w/s [watt-second], compact, AC-powered strobe packs and heads; and the battery-powered Comet PMT, which takes the Dyna-Lite heads.

PI: I get the impression from your book that you use a lot of grids and gobos to control the light.

MG: The book represents an eight-year period of my life where I developed that style. Now, I’m pursuing other things. A lot of my new work is natural light, shot with the 4 x 5. It’s more about the connection between the subject and me, more about the people themselves than the technique.

PI: What advice would you give to someone who wants to do portrait work?

MG: The market is so bad right now. Publishers and large agencies like Corbis and corporations like AOL Time Warner are using their power and size to take advantage of photographers and artists around the world.

My advice: Work hard and be creative. In business and in life, you’re always in perpetual motion, and you’re always trying to change and grow. I’m all about growth. If you don’t choose the right path, you change what you’re doing and try something else.

For more of Michael Grecco’s work, check out his Web site, http://www.greccophoto.com. n

Howard Millard is an internationally published photographer and writer. His special interests include digital imaging, travel, and alternative processes.
Howard Millard is an internationally published photographer and writer. His special interests include digital imaging, travel, and alternative processes.