Written by T.K. Dalton
Edited by Nisha Chittal
Diagrams by Gil Andrei Fontimayor
Pier Nicola D’Amico has spent years working ahead of artistic trends and techniques, using digital before it was mainstream and combining aspects of painting and photography to create edgy, compelling hybrid effects. “Art should push the limits and try different and unorthodox things,” he says. His ethereal and sometimes experimental work has attracted long client list including big name brands like Bud Light, Nike, and Pepsi. As our featured image demonstrates, the unorthodox is central to his continued success.
Living the life as a big time celebrity means always being in demand and never having much time to spread around. D’Amico realizes this and aims to be “as buttoned up as possible” to keep his celebs happy and ready to move on to the next appointment. During the Modest Mouse shoot he stuck to a tight schedule while never compromising his artistic vision, a vision that just happened to include a trampoline. Actually using it meant negotiating a thorny logistical situation with the band. “They had a big show that night. The concept wasn’t totally cleared with the label, so when they showed up and saw the trampoline they freaked. There were like, ‘if anybody breaks their arm on the trampoline and can’t play, we’re going to bill you for the loss of the show,” D’Amico recalls. “I said, let’s go, I don’t care.” The shoot was on.
Using a Hasselbad H2 with an 80mm lens set to f/11 attached to a Phase One 45+ digital back and a shutter speed of 1/800th second, he captured the band suspended between trampoline and crash pad, creating a weightless effect. D’Amico lit the shot with Pro Photo 7A Power Packs, used a beauty dish as the key light, an umbrella for fill, and a head equipped with a standard reflector for rim light. After their initial reticence, the band relaxed quickly. “We basically did the trampoline stuff in a half an hour,” he says. “They probably jumped five or six times.”
Despite the time constraints and safety concerns, D’Amico wielded considerable creative control over the final Modest Mouse composite. The band only asked that everyone have equal placement, which allowed him the freedom to superimpose their floating bodies on an his earliest days as an artist. D’Amico constantly balances professional demands with artistic vision, and to reach equilibrium for the Modest Mouse shoot required a dose of measured recklessness. “In the back of my head, as bravado as I sounded,” D’Amico says, “I was scared to death someone was going to get hurt.”
D’Amico was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
F STOP: Tell me how you got your start as a photographer?
D’Amico: Well, I went to art school for painting and got turned on to photojournalism there, and I started doing photography. I was trying to mosh up photography and painting at the time. I was painting on photographs and adding photographs to my paintings, pissing off both my teachers. That’s always what my interest has been– the intersection between painting and photography. After leaving school I did a number of exhibitions of toxic waste sites with paint on them, resin on resin. I did that for a little while and went to racing motorcycles for five years and then came back to photography around 1990. I started doing editorial and corporate and head shots and really worked my way up the food chain of photography over a good number of years. It was very simple jobs that friends of mine who were graphic designers and creative directors of design firms needed. Brochures and collateral, technology companies, pharmaceutical companies. Mostly all low-lying fruit. But I didn’t really have a portfolio or even have an idea of what a portfolio should look like.
F STOP: How would you describe your style?
D’Amico: Mannerist. That was coined by my wife who is an art historian and is an expert in Renaissance painting. She tells me my stuff is Mannerist. I believe it’s just really short of a highbred of photography and illustration and actually photo illustration based in computer graphics and computer imaging. I have always been a great experimenter and a person that’s always believed, because of being an action painter and being an abstract Impressionist in terms of my painting style, art should push the limits and try different things and try unconventional things and unorthodox things.
F STOP: Please describe your post-production process.
D’Amico: It depends on the size of the file, but it’s an abusive, unsharp mask. It involves a number of other filters sets to go along with it. It’s always different, it depends on the kind of file that you’re working on whether it’s film based, digital, the size of the file, the resolution of the file, the noise structure of the file, etc. etc. That’s basically it, just heavy, heavy sharpening. Then of course Adobe came out and added new filters and new tools to make it easier to accomplish. You know, smart sharpen, and those tools. Still, to go that far you really have to be able to massage the file a lot after you are done just pushing the filter button. I see people using it incorrectly all over the place. Magazines use it incorrectly; they think they can just apply it to a magazine and think that it’s going to look alright, but it doesn’t. Also sometimes it’s inappropriately used. I mean you’re not going to use a sepia filter on everything just because it looks cool. You have to sort of have a sensitivity to what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate. Later on, I combined that with a lot of compositing and sort of instant focus things. When you are compositing, everything is in focus, no lens could ever accomplish that kind of depth of field. It adds to the hyperrealism of it and the hypersharpness of it. It’s actually becoming an entire cannon in the photographic world. We will see what happens as it continues going forward. I think it’s going to be like any other style. It’s going to be cyclical. We are already seeing people peel away from it and starting to go back to fuzzy and soft and long exposures, and stuff like that. I think that’s healthy, that’s right.
F STOP: You have been doing this for 20 years and you were just talking about how this has become a big trend. Tell me like how you survived trends throughout the years.
D’Amico: Yeah the style is always something that’s a big part of any artist’s repertoire. But ultimately you get repeat business through ideas that you come up with, and the problem-solving. Especially in commercial photography, it’s about problem-solving. I think what you are going to see in the future is basically it’s going to become like directing film, it’s a rich man’s game. You can only enter it if you have family with money or something like that because it’s like how else can you enter the game? How can you come up with fifty grand for some computers and the camera out of school after you just spent a hundred grand for an education? It’s disconcerting to me. I teach at Drexel University and I don’t know what to tell the students. I mean it used to be when I left art school you could go and work editorial and you could make a living. There were guys that would do like three editorials a week that I knew in New York. They could make a decent living because editorial paid decently. I mean it was through a publishing mafia or cartel that controlled all the billing. It was only like $2500 for a cover of a big magazine, and that was the best money you could get in editorial, $800 for a full-page, $450 for half a page. I mean they had their own structure and the entire industry followed it, and they suppressed rates. But you could do that and they would pay all your expenses and you could make a living. Now you go to a magazine and they’ve got $100 for a picture – that’s the whole budget. They are basically asking you to do it for free and people will agree, because they want exposure because they want their pictures out there.
F STOP: So where do you see the industry going for newcomers – people who are just entering the biz?
D’Amico: It’s really hard to say. Parallel with the problem with editorial is the problem with the music industry. It’s the same problem. You used to be able to get $12,000 for a CD cover for someone, one of their B artists or something. You’d spend three quarters of that on production, studio, assistance, film processing, and you could pull down $3000 in a day. That was decent. Those budgets are thirty percent of that now. Other than big name artists, those budgets are really small. People are willing to do it because they believe they will get money on residuals in the back end when they release it for stock. You’re also seeing the trend where clients want to buy out on entire library and demand it. I tell my students to diversify their bonds, because you have to be able to do other things. You have to be a videographer. You have to be able to do stuff for the web. You have to take your skill set as a photographer and say, I can also enter these industries. If I didn’t have cinematography and directing television commercials over the past seven or eight years, I don’t know what I would have done.
F STOP: Where do you see the industry going?
D’Amico: You’re going to see a lot more illustration and a lot more computer-based graphical treatment. I think photography will still be sort of a gateway industry where people who come into photography will leave it to get into gaming, game design, CGI for films. There will always be a need for photographers, but the amount of photographers out there with skills are decreasing – the mysteries of photography with digital are vanishing. It used to be an apprentice relationship where you worked with an older photographer, and you came up, you learned from that. You learned the nuances of processing film, lighting and exposing things – now that’s a lot easier to deal with. Any mistakes you make when you capture can be fixed later.
F STOP: Do you have any thoughts on new trends that you briefly just touched on earlier?
D’Amico: You see more mosh-up. There’s always interesting parallels between disciplines like writing, music. Our cameras are capturing more information than film captures. Compare a 39 megapixel medium format camera with a 4 x 5 piece of scanned film, at 500 megbytes on a drum scan. It’s the same amount of information. If you look at the 16.7 megapixel Cannon and compare that to a 100 ASA 35 millimeter slide, scanned at whatever resolution, the film is not giving you more information. The digital cameras are. We’ve crested that. I think you will see more of this mosh-up thing, more illustration. I just did a cover for a magazine. It was totally layered photography. It was totally not what my stuff looks like that you see on my web site. It’s all new, softer, more ethereal. I think you’re going to see more fantasy, more whimsy coming into photography. I think you’re going to see people using other mediums, using video.
F STOP: A lot of your work has a similar look, lighting-wise. Do you have a certain way you always approach lighting a subject?
D’Amico: I try to keep it simple. I know a lot of people tend feel like they are charging a lot of money for a photo shoot, load up the set to make them look rich. I shoot with three lights pretty much all the time. That’s it. It’s pretty much Hollywood lighting.
F STOP: How did you get involved in working with celebrities?
D’Amico: That started with shooting top athletes for Nike. It branched out into more from there. They approached me straight up for my style, saw a portrait I did in Communication Arts around 1999. I went on a little tour with them for a couple of years, shot a bunch of sports athletes, and that led into doing hip hop, which led to doing more music. The simple answer to that is, through sports and music. And editorial, that’s the only place to do it. Try to get into an editorial assignment.
F STOP: Is the photographic process different working with a celebrity?
D’Amico: It affects the production because basically you’re usually under an insane time constraint. That’s the biggest problem. Like the Nike shoots you’re going to get Kobe for like two hours, but “here’s the 35 shots we need.” So you’re like trying to scratch your head, how the fuck are you going to do that without losing your mind or killing somebody? It involved a production philosophy that involved an insane amount of preparation, a lot of equipment, multiple sets ready to go, producers. You just have to throw money at it. The other thing is also, and this is interesting, is that digital has changed how we shot sports. When I started doing it, it was all film. You’re going to get a little Polaroid and you show the athlete the Polaroid and it’s kind of hard to get excited about that. But when you have digital, when you’re seeing each captured image come up, that changes things dramatically. Like if you’re trying to get a top professional athlete to slam dunk in, say, basketball, first of all, they are not going to do it a lot of times.
F STOP: Tell me what it was like working with Modest Mouse.
D’Amico: They were cool. They had a big show that night. The concept wasn’t totally cleared with the label, so when they showed up and saw the trampoline they freaked! There were like, “if anybody breaks their arm on the trampoline and can’t play, we’re going to bill you for the loss of the show.” I said, “let’s go, I don’t care.” They wanted to do it. It was a fun photo shoot for them. It was such an exception. You got to keep it fun and interesting for them. They got to feel like they are a part of it. We didn’t know we would end up with this celestial, aquatic scene. I just knew I wanted to do some anti-gravity stuff with them along with the traditional portraiture. They were very cool. They had just basically brought in Johnny Mar to be with their band. They didn’t want to feature anybody they wanted everybody to have equal weight. At the same time, in the back of my head, as bravado as I sounded just now, I was scared to death someone was going to get hurt. So we made sure that we had spotters all the way around the trampoline. We had a huge crash pad, a really good one that was five feet thick. When they came off the trampoline they were so stiff I was like, “oh my god, they’re going to get hurt.” Isaac was totally doing these really stiff kinds of flying poses. I was like, “man, you got to hit that pad. You’re going to hurt yourself.” Then he comes “out, oh my back!” Then he was like, “just kidding.” Coming in though, the concept wasn’t even totally formulated because I just can’t spend a lot of time under toil. Even though it’s probably the most important source of creativity, working in the studio feeds a lot of the portfolio work. You have jobs that are paying a lot of money that need a serious amount of attention. Editorials, if I get to think about it for a day before, and get to call the creative director and have a conversation with them, that’s about as much as I can come up with. If there are any special needs, there’s no money. You’ve spent the entire budget on shooting it. So it’s not like you can bring in crazy props or wardrobe. Musicians don’t even want wardrobe anymore. It used to be you’d have racks of clothes and those guys would shop and put clothes on that felt right. But they want to wear their own clothes now. We basically did the trampoline stuff in a half an hour. They probably jumped five or six times.
F STOP: Have there ever been times where you’ve had a real issue on the set with the personality?
D’Amico: Half of doing personalities is sort of having it be as buttoned up as possible. I think a lot of celebrities come to the shoot and the photographer himself has got a lot of ego going. It becomes an immediate problem, because the photographer is struggling with the idea of “it’s about me. And I’m shooting you. So you have to do it at the pace I want to do it.” I think that if photographers have the approach that, hey man, they’re willing to sit for you, have your shit ready and ready to go. If you’re buttoned up and you’re working hard and you care about the way the person is depicted, the celebrity will give you more time. If there is stuff that they are seeing coming up on screen that looks good, and they look good, they’re more willing to give you more time. If you’re a dick, and the vibe is skunked and the music you’re playing is not cool they’re not going to hang out. They’re going to stand for ten minutes and walk off the set. I’ve never had that problem. I make it a point that the shoot be buttoned up, that sort of came out of the Nike experience because you had to be so ready when those guys hit the set. No camera could jam, you can have no problem with digital, no problem with the workstation. Your hard drives have to be flying, all that stuff had to be working. Those are the guys running from place to place, and everything is moving very fast. Because when you respect the celebrity’s time, then they will respect yours.