Sunday, April 11, 2010

Grabbed by Grob - Great photographers think strategically

Yesterday I heard Marco Grob talk about photography at a photography trade show. Marco is a great photographer. He works for fashion magazines and photographs film stars and other celebrities. Some of his photographs were exhibited at the show. Among them were photos of Barack Obama, Sarah Palin and Jeff Bridges.

I saw the photos he exhibited before I heard his talk. The photographic style reminded me of Garr Reynold's (the Presentation Zen author) presentation style.

Marco's talk reinforced the impression: He goes for simplicity. In his photography he uses few light sources, often a single reflector. Marco's preference is for silver reflectors over white. His presentation style was similar: Simple, clean, focus on what is important.

I found it very interesting that he goes for simple tools where he can, and holds nothing back where a tool can make a real difference. For example, lights and reflectors are usually hand held by assistants, because fancy equipment gets in the way and would slow his work down. On the other hand, he talked about his Hasselblad camera the way I talk about my MacBook and OmniGraffle.

I like that he uses his hands a lot when he talks. Makes him easy to photograph. Even a clod like me can take a passably interesting photograph of him.

His attention to detail stands out. It is more than paying attention to what is in the camera viewfinder. For example, photography at this level is a team effort. Marco has assistants. The color of an assistant's clothes affects the pictures. Marco mentioned white T-shirts being a bother, because they show up as reflections in the eyes of the person being photographed.

I'd wager that Marco's own preference for snappy, black clothes isn't just because he moves in high society, it is a way of reducing his own impact on the photographs he takes.

Some people equate attention to detail with micro-management. Marco does not! He and his assistants do not talk much while they work. Instead, the assistants take queues from Marco's actions. When Marco moves in closer, the assistants know what to do with lights and reflectors. They know exactly when he will take the picture from reading his body language. This does require training, and not just knowledge, but understanding. Impressive. It reminds me of the best managers and the best agile software development teams I have worked with.

Thinking photo shoots through, careful preparation, and attention to detail are what you would expect from any good photographer. (And from anyone who is good at anything.) Great photographers go further: They think strategically.

Marco talked about how he thinks through where he wants to be a couple of years into the future, and consistently works to get there.

One of his strategic goals was to break into Hollywood movie making, so he began looking for ways to do that. The opportunity came when he did a shoot for GQ Magazine. He did a photo series called Rain Over Naked City that told a very dramatic, action oriented story. The style was film noir inspired: urban setting, darkness, few lights, rain, black and white photographs. And yes, the rain was real water, not added during post production.

The pictures didn't just make GQ Magazine happy, they were also, by deliberate design, irresistible to Hollywood movie makers.

The pictures became a Noble Vision that attracted allies and customers. When Marco went to Hollywood, he got his first job on his first day there. (I am sure he did a few preparations he didn't mention in his talk.)

Of course, his strategy had to be matched by brilliant tactical execution, and it was. He showed several pictures from Hollywood during his talk. All great, but the one that impressed me most was a portrait of Jeff Bridges. It showed those all important twin traits very clearly: simplicity and attention to detail.

Marco did a lot of automotive and still life photography in his early career. Now he mostly does very high end portrait photography. No matter how good you are, deliberately shifting to a different field like this is an impressive feat: It requires changing other people's perception of one's talent.

Great inspiration for me. I am translating Tempo! my business strategy book to English right now. After seeing Marco's pictures I will pay extra attention to keeping it simple and be very, very, careful with the details. Next week, if all goes according to plan, I will make a new videocast. It has been a long while, but I know I am going to be extra careful with details there too. (Alas, I have no talent for photography and movie making, so I will have to substitute for talent with interesting content. I am seriously envious of people who can bring both to bear.)

For that little extra bit of inspiration, I owe both Marco Grob and Anna-Carin Mårtensson, whom I wrote about recently. Thanks!

No matter what you do, studying high quality work is a great way of finding the right mindset for achieving excellence. It does not have to be high quality work in your area of expertise, it just has to be recognizable as high quality work by you.

If you check out the photographs on Marco's web site, be sure to look closely at the least fashion magazine oriented stuff. I compared pictures from the exhibition and talk with pictures from his own and Hasselblad's web sites. I got the feeling that he showed and talked about the pictures he really likes, while the stuff on the web sites is more oriented to what sells in particular markets.

Next time I will write about stone fish. Be seeing you!

1 comment:

David said...

I'm a real fan of MG and enjoyed reading this post. Hhis pictures may well be simple in design and conception but are very difficult to work out technically that is. Would love to be a fly on a wall during one of his shoots.