Written by Jess Tsai
Edited by Nisha Chittal
For Erik Almas it’s all about location, location, location. “I try to go somewhere that I haven’t been before. I try to do something new, something that’s better than what I’ve done in the past,” he says. So, it only makes sense that he loves working in the advertising industry – a career that lets him delve into his passion for photography and travel. His clients include top industry brands like Nike, Harley Davidson and Hilton and he was chosen as one of “PDN’s 30” in 2005. His background includes a degree from the Academy of Art University and an apprenticeship for over two years with renowned advertising photographer Jim Erickson. “[Assisting Erickson] was more important than anything in my career” Almas says, adding, “It opened a brand new world to me.” Now, years after leaving Erickson and only in his mid-30’s, Almas has made a name for himself through his “contemplative and thoughtful” style, which reflects his own preference for quiet moments captured in beautiful surroundings.
For a photographer who so carefully composes and plans each of his images it comes as no surprise that our featured image was inspired by paintings. The photograph, a piece from Almas’ personal work, emerged from paintings of Sirens – water deities born from Greek mythology. Almas originally intended to shoot a woman as the foreground subject to pay tribute to these mythological figures but soon became enchanted by the very people Sirens were famous for getting into trouble – fisherman.
Creating this masterful piece was an arduous process – it’s actually a compilation of about twenty different images. “I usually don’t go as crazy,” he says of his process. To get things started Almas took pictures of many different waves, rock formations, skylines, and other coastal imagery with a Contax 645 medium format camera attached to a Phase P25 digital back “you [envision] the picture in front of you, and then you just start gathering pieces to recreate that,” he says. The exposures ranged from a few seconds at f/22 to create depth of field to 1/125th of a second at f/4 to capture the moving water. Almas photographed the fisherman using a Canon 1DS – Mark II set to 1/60th of a second at f/5.6 and used ambient light supplemented by a reflector to open up the shadows. After he collected all the images he wanted, Almas spent one day roughly fitting all the pieces together in front of the computer. Then, for the next few days thereafter, he worked on making the image seamless. The final image was cropped into a panoramic format, appropriate for capturing the sweeping background.
The fast-paced demands of the advertising industry make it difficult for Almas to indulge in personal projects like the one featured here. So when it comes to his personal work, Almas sees it as an opportunity to explore the possibilities of photography and push his talent to the limits. Still, no matter what his photographs are for, Almas brings his unique style into each piece and thrives on the rewarding feeling of knowing that he’s created something beautiful.
Almas was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
TFS: How did you get your start as a photographer?
Almas: I used to be a DJ and one day I had this moment of realization that I couldn’t do it anymore! I can’t work nights forever, what else can I do? Photography sounded like fun. I moved to the U.S. and started studying photography. It’s a decision when I made when I was 21. I came here without really knowing very much, and after four years of school, I assisted Jim Erickson for two and a half years. I then decided to venture out on my own. Now as I have matured and sort of figured out what I like to do and what my vision is, I’d say, I think I have an eye and sense for design and composition.
TFS: Was assisting Jim Erickson really helpful for you?
Almas: Absolutely, it was more important than anything else in my career. To work for a guy like Jim, first of all, it sets the bar for everything you hear in school about photographers. Then you realize what kind of lifestyle you can have, and all the fun you can have and what you can create. Suddenly I saw that it opened up a brand new world to me. He was also really good at nurturing that – he let me borrow his equipment, gave feedback on images, and was a great mentor.
TFS: After that, did you immediately start doing advertising work?
Almas: Yeah, that was the only thing I knew from working with Jim we hadn’t really done any editorial work at all. So that’s what I wanted to do. It was a little on and off at first; I had one job, then it was half a year without any jobs, but during that time I did a little bit of retouching on the side mostly for Jim to help supplement my income. However the snowball started rolling and I got more and more work.
TFS: How do you like working in the advertising industry?
Almas: I love it. Absolutely, I’ve been at it for five, six years now, and I love it. I can see how people get tired of it sometimes, especially when you have to compromise yourself every day fulfilling all those criteria by marketing executives who have no art background. You feel that what they want to accomplish with the pictures is not always right for the images. But it’s so rewarding anyway, you get to travel and make a great living. I get to create great pictures a lot of the time. I think those compromises image-wise is fine, but then I get to do personal work on top of that. I love advertising.
TFS: Do you think that you do need to do personal work to offset that lack of control that you get in advertising?
Almas: I don’t think I’ve been good enough at doing my own personal work because I have been so crazy busy. It’s just myself and one other person. It’s not like a big operation. When I worked for Jim, he had seven employees. So he had a lot of time to always work on his pictures. It’s just my studio manager and me, and I do a lot of the other stuff as well, including retouching. But yes, I think it’s truly important.
TFS: So, tell me like what it’s like doing a typical ad shoot.
Almas: I’m pretty lucky in the sense that clients come to me for my unique style. When people come to me I usually get to do an approach with the pictures, like I’d do if I did it on my own. There are compromises, but it’s usually fine with me. So they come in with a layout, they talk about it, I try to understand what they’re trying to accomplish. Then I find the best places to make it happen.
TFS: Do you usually do one-day shoots? Or do you have to come back as lighting and weather changes?
Almas: I like to do one picture a day. It’s not like a catalog shoot where you just run around to create ten pictures a day. We get there early in the day, or the day before. I always do a tech scout and we lock down our picture and say, this is the best picture we can create in this place. Then we figure out where we would put the people, and how we are going to actually do it. Then we just use the afternoon almost exercising, just shooting the people over and over again. By the time it gets late, people know what they’re doing and I’ve established a rapport with them. Then it all comes together at sunset usually. That’s how I approach it.
TFS: A lot of your images have a panoramic format, what draws you to that look?
Almas: It’s just a great form of storytelling that evokes the imagination. Most of my pictures are a foreground element and a background element that helps support what the foreground element is doing. So often there is a person in the foreground. There’s a house, a lake or a landscape. There’s something that helps tell a story about the person in the foreground. All of that is better done in the foreground I think. I do have verticals for every one of the images or most of the images as well, and then sometimes stuff gets cropped out. You know other times we use the computers and they move all the stuff you need to fit into the frame. So they can still tell a story in that smaller format. I think it’s too bad. I shoot what suits the images. The fashion stuff I do, well that’s mainly done vertical, if I shoot a person, it’s in a vertical kind of format.
TFS: Are you always shooting 4 x 5?
Almas: Almost. I love to. I mean, that’s something I have to fight on almost every job now, my desire is to shoot 4 x 5 or 6 x 8. Most of the time they say, sure whatever you want, as long as you’re going to accommodate our timelines and blah blah blah. Everybody tends to think that digital is so much faster. It is, if you shoot a catalog and you can see it straight on the screen. But for me, shooting the frame is just half the job, because you use the computer afterwards to add clouds and color and all that. So you don’t really do things a lot faster if you’re shooting film or digital.
TFS: Did you always shoot with 4 x 5? Or did you start out with another format?
Almas: No, no. When I started in school, they always taught me to medium format. I think it just lends itself better to my style. Jim shot quite a bit of 4 x 5 then and I was using it. It seems that all the people who shoot images that are similar to mine, tend to with 4 x 5. When you see the picture upside down, it becomes more about the elements and how the shapes are, rather than looking at the picture and it being on a cumbersome tripod. It’s a slower, more deliberate process. When you shoot digital, it becomes so disposable you just get trigger-happy shooting, and you look at it later, and for me at least, it goes too fast. I don’t really look then, you know? I do jobs where they want me to shoot digital. I’ve shown them my 4 x 5, and I do that and I do Polaroid’s and work as if I’m shooting 4 x 5. Then when it comes actually time to shoot, I just move the 4 x 5 out of the way and start shooting digital. The whole process of finding the picture and all that, I do on 4 x 5; it really helps me find the image and work through it.
TFS: How much does a computer come into play in your work?
Almas: I don’t try to capture everything in camera. But it’s not always as extreme as the fisherman shot (featured image), though. I would say there are usually three elements to every thing I shoot. There’s the landscape, and then there’s the cloud if you’re not getting beautiful clouds there. Then there’s the foreground element. Often I like to shoot them separately so that I can focus on the landscape and then the lighting. I shoot the landscape 4 x 5, I shoot a little bit of the person 4 x 5, and then I supplement that with digital. I get a lot more versions and I can shoot a lot faster and capture more moments with digital. Then I stick the person into the landscape. Those three elements are usually what I work with. The fisherman image was an idea more than it was the picture taking.
TFS: Do you do a lot of your own retouching?
Almas: Yeah, I do pretty much all my own image making. So when I first get the contact sheet I talk to the art director about what we like better. Then I have it scanned and I put all the pieces together like adding the clouds and the color etc. If there are a lot of images in a campaign, I would do all that initial work and then I would hand it off to one of the retoucher’s I work with and they help me make it seamless and all that.
TFS: So when you’re doing your personal work, do you approach that differently?
Almas: I think the difference is that I come up with the idea. Then I try to go somewhere that I haven’t really been before. I try to do something new, and something that’s better than what I’ve done in the past versus the advertising people. In advertising, they usually have one or two pictures that I’ve done already in their mind and say, ‘we love these pictures, can you do this for us using this and this and that element.’ So in that sense I think advertising is looking backwards, redoing what you have already done. Personal work is something that pushes me forward – something that I could use for marketing, or I could try to experiment and create beautiful imagery. I think that’s the biggest difference, you know. When it comes to the tools and the techniques and stuff, it’s pretty similar.
TFS: Do you come up with the idea first? Or do you come up with a place you’d like to go first and then come up with the rest?
Almas: It varies a bit, but mostly for me it’s often location driven. I see an amazing place and wonder, what could go on there. The fisherman image was a little different. I really wanted to do a fisherman image. So that one was idea driven personally, but often it’s location-driven.
TFS: You used twenty different images to create the final image, is that the most you’ve ever used?
Almas: No, I did these pictures on golf courses. I did maybe twice that amount then. As I said, there’s usually three elements to my images. But with the fisherman image, I used so many more. It was three like little coves sitting next to each other and each one I wanted to shoot at. Then I thought, why don’t we put that arch into the other scene. So I decided I’d shoot in pieces. A wave like this would be perfect next to that, and this would be perfect next to that…you just see the picture in front of you, and you just start gathering pieces to recreate that. Then of course it didn’t look exactly like that because when you sit down with it on the computer, you have this framework and you start building the puzzle and putting all the pieces in. It was a fun exercise to do. That could never happen, though, if you start out shooting pieces and then try to create a picture. You really have to see the picture and photograph for that and then you put it together. I think I sat at my computer for a day, and I just put it together, and then I spent a few days making it seamless.
TFS: Your fashion images are interesting, because they are all focused on the person, whereas in almost all your other work, the person is part of a greater landscape. How do you approach fashion differently to your other more location, landscape-based work?
Almas: The attraction to the landscapes is the landscapes themselves, and the attraction to the fashion stuff is the women. Both are beautiful. I think if you break down the essence of it, I’m shooting two different beautiful things. The landscapes I shoot in one way, and the people I shoot in another. I think still my white qualities and color palette and all that stuff is applied to it. I think I like the outside type stuff more, like landscapes. But I mean how can you not like shooting beautiful women? It’s also very liberating because all the pictures are pretty much done for a magazine in San Francisco. They give me complete freedom. They just pay for the model to fly from L.A. or New York and the model shows up and it’s the stylist and I that work closely together. We figure out what kind of pictures we want to create. We try to do something that’s less constraining than the advertising work; it’s just art. Those pictures are just pure fun, and great exercise too! Usually we shoot for one day, so we have a ten-hour day and we create as many pictures as we can. Instead of contemplating things and really finding it out, it’s more like going into a great space and start taking pictures straightaway.
TFS: You’re imagery always exhibits a mastery of composition. How did this style evolve?
Almas: I don’t think I evolved the style. I think I am very conscientious about what I’m attracted to and that became the style. In school once, we did this great exercise where everyone ripped out ten pictures from a magazine that they likeed and wrote down why they likeed each one. At the end of the class we were told that all the keywords we wrote down was what our actual style was. So I think that exercise really helped to bring it into consciousness. You know what it is you’re drawn to, and then you just start acting on it. It’s not so much like, oh here’s something I like and now I want to create this style around it. It has to come from inside you.
TFS: So how would you describe yourself? What were those words that you wrote down?
Almas: I think I’m drawn to beautiful places. I’m drawn to more quiet moments, not a lot of high impact there. I think that everybody who sees my pictures sees them as contemplative and thoughtful. Even if the person is active, like running you know they’re a small piece of a bigger serenity.