Written by T.K. Dalton
Edited by Jesi Khadivi
Diagrams by Gil Andrei Fontimayor
Compared to the monkey, everything else was a cinch, says Guy Neveling, when asked about the production of our featured image, an advertisement for Volkswagen. “The monkey was all over the studio.” That is, until the time came for something rarely heard of in stateside shoots—his afternoon nap.
A skilled photographer working in a small market like South Africa has to be versatile enough to let the monkey sleep, says Neveling. “They’ll give you an animal shot one week and then next week, I’ll be shooting a car,” he says. His range serves him well in a region where work is plentiful and photographers are in short supply. “It’s like the Wild West,” Neveling says. “There is violence [in Johannesburg] but people are open to new things and new people.”
Violence is not new to the man who began his career as a photojournalist covering the country’s frequent civil unrest during apartheid’s dismantling. Even then, though, Neveling kept a commercial set-up in his apartment, persistently seeking out freelance work while paying his bills with journalism. “I took my portfolio around and just made a nuisance of myself. Eventually I got my break,” he says, adding that he prefers shooting a new set of images than relying on old work. “I’ve seen people here with the same portfolio for four years. They hang out at restaurants or bars and they get work that way.” This is not Neveling’s style. Pounding the pavement has landed him accounts with heavyweights like Nike, Levis, John Deere, and Guinness. He’s won awards from Cannes and has been featured in the 200 Best Advertising Photographers Worldwide. Aside from persistence and pure skill, he also stands out as a 35 mm film holdout. “I’ve probably done about four digital shoots in my life,” he says. “People hire me because I’m one of the last guys who still shoot on film.”
In this shoot, Neveling used his Mamiya RZ camera with a 65mm lens and 160 NC film and shot crouched in a fabric-draped box beneath scaffolding that supported the glass pane on which his monkey posed (when not grabbing for the equipment itself). Neveling used Profoto lighting equipment and raised the shades, to calm the animals’ nerves and minimize their attention to the flash. After the shoot, he experimented with photo filters, color balances, and curve densities in Photoshop until the his composite clouds were seamless. The clouds were necessary to his vision for the shoot. The car advertised featured an entirely glass roof. Instead of the periscope effect of a sunroof, Neveling wanted to create something more panoramic, visually suggesting what was new about the car. One of the other three photographers bidding on this project had pitched doing the animal shoot on location with a 35mm camera—a page from Neveling’s book–and with animals actually running across the car’s path—something Neveling says he would have done earlier in his career. With experience and confidence guiding him, Nevling won the bid, perhaps, by turning his lens toward a sky of his own making.
Neveling was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
F STOP: How did you get your start as a photographer?
Neveling: In the 70s and 80s in South Africa everybody had to go to the army, navy or air force because the country was basically at war. I spent about two years at sea in submarines, then off to the photographic department. I learned everything in the navy darkrooms and began freelancing as a press photographer after I served my time. This was the 80s in South Africa, so I saw a lot of action. There was a lot of urban terrorism. After I tired of that I started my own studio. I’ve been doing advertising since.
F STOP: There’s quite a difference between newspapers and advertising. How did you make the transition from being a photojournalist to doing advertising work?
Neveling: When you ask anybody why they became a photographer they say, ‘National Geographic.’ I love traveling. I just like being out there shooting pictures.
Advertising came along because every day is different. Every assignment is a challenge and you make good money. I can’t handle the same job every day. That’s why I love advertising.
F STOP: Did you create a new book specifically for advertising? How did you get that first advertising job?
Neveling: Yes. In my free time I’d be make small setups in my lounge and bedroom. I shot what I thought the advertising industry would want to see. I did freelance journalism in the meantime just to pay the bills and shot my personal work constantly. I took my portfolio around and made a nuisance of myself. Eventually I got that break.
F STOP: Where are you based?
Neveling: I’ve been based in Cape Town for 14 years. We get a lot of European work in the summer season. Europeans come because the exchange rate is so good in favor of European ad budgets. Plus, we have great locations and weather. I’m trying to get into the American market. My portfolio isn’t specialized enough for the US. I think people get confused about what kind of work I do.
F STOP: It is a specialized market here. The European market seems more open to having a diverse range of styles. You work with local clients as well as big international brands. Are those specifically to run in South African publications? Or are they international campaigns?
Neveling: Most of the time they are specific to South Africa and Africa. The local stuff I do purely for the African market.
F STOP: What are the pros and cons of working in South Africa?
Neveling: South Africa is a great training ground for young photographers because you can pull out the portfolio and great clients see it quickly. There is so much work in Johannesburg and it’s quite easy to break in. A lot of people come through here and start working on big accounts after a year or two.
Neveling: Johannesburg has become quite a violent city. A lot of people are leaving, especially people my age. It’s like the Wild West up there in all senses of the word. There is violence, but people are open to new things and new people. It’s not clique-ish.
It’s not who you know. It’s what you can be up there. In Cape Town, it’s about who you know and what school you went to.
F STOP: Your personal work is obviously different from your advertising work. When you approach clients with your portfolios, for example the assignment that we are discussing in this article, are they really interested in seeing more of your personal work? Or in your advertising tear sheets?
Neveling: People are interested in seeing personal work. They get a kick out of looking at pictures of exotic places or pictures where there is some kind of story behind them. You can really entertain people with anecdotes about a trip. Africa is a small market and you need to do everything if you want to survive. They’ll give you an animal shot one week and then next week I’ll be shooting a car.
F STOP: You’ve won a lot of awards. How has that impacted your career?
Neveling: It opens up doors. You get a free ride on the award and the greatness of the ad. It’s nice winning awards but I don’t think it’s the be –all end-all of photography.
F STOP: Tell me about your personal work a little more. How do you like to shoot?
Neveling: If I’m on a shoot, I have truckloads of stuff. I load the lighting budget. It’s like a kid walking into a candy store; you get all the little toys, gizmos and gadgets delivered to your studio. I love it, but I also like to grab just one camera and a lens and take shots without all that stuff. That’s me relaxing. No Polaroids, no anything. You get the shot, and it’s purely for yourself. Self-indulgence. I am comfortable with both scenarios.
F STOP: Where do you come up with the ideas for these series and what are you trying to achieve with them?
Neveling: I’m just trying to do a great shot that makes me feel good. There’s no hidden meaning or anything. If I get a good feeling in my stomach about the shot then it has worked for me. I don’t care about naming pictures. As long as the picture hits you in the stomach, then I’ve done my job.
F STOP: Do you shoot with camera equipment when you’re doing personal work?
Neveling: I’m not big into equipment. I’ve been using an old RZ67 since 1988. Most of my stuff is done with the RZ67. I have two 4x5s which I pull out now and again.
F STOP: Do you still like to shoot in film a lot?
Neveling: I’ve probably done about four digital shoots in my life. With film you really make something work, but it’s just a personal preference.
Neveling: People hire me because I’m one of the last guys who still shoot on film.
F STOP: Do you feel like you have to do a lot of convincing to tell the client that you want to shoot film?
Neveling: No. If they want digital, I’ll give them digital. I don’t think digital is faster than film. You still need to go back and process all the images. It’s the same amount of time processing all the formats.
F STOP: Did you have any creative freedom with the featured images?
Neveling: I gave the client a treatment before the job and told them exactly what I think the look and feel should be. What you see is purely from my treatment.
F STOP: What was it like working with animals in the studio?
Neveling: I’ve done it before. You can control the situation to a certain degree, but with animals and children there’s always a surprise element. It can be nerve-wracking. God, the night before you go on a shoot like that you actually have a sleepless night because anything can go wrong. On the day of the shoot I get excited. We had two animal handlers on the shoot. They assured me that the monkeys would be fine. While we were shooting I looked up at one handler and he was actually sweating. At the end of the shoot I asked him if he was nervous. He admitted he couldn’t sleep the night before because he was nervous that the animals wouldn’t behave themselves.
F STOP: How long did it take to get the monkey to pose the way you wanted it to?
Neveling: The monkey got there at 10:00 am and had to be at the airport at 4:00 pm. We had a half-day to shoot him and he had to have a lunch break and a nap. You don’t want to overwork him for the monkey union.
F STOP: This was a triple bid situation. Why do you think they chose you over the other photographers?
Neveling: Purely because of the treatments. I understand a concept and take it further. This concept is grass roots, so it needed to be a simple, uncluttered shot. I treated it like a landscape with just this animal.
F STOP: How do you like working in the studio compared to being on location? It seems like most of your advertising work is in the studio using artificial lights, and your personal work is all on location.
Neveling: The first five years of my advertising career were spent in the studio. The studio is easy because it’s controllable and everything is there. So much can go wrong with the elements on location. On the actual shoot day in a studio you’re basically just putting the whole thing on film after doing your scouting and set ups. It’s a rush being on location. The studio is more relaxing, and location is more stressful. But for me it’s more exciting.
F STOP: The VW is a composite image. Do you find it as fulfilling to do a composite image as compared with when everything is done in one shot?
Neveling: A couple of years ago I’d brag that I could do everything in one shot. I’d say about ten years ago I did another campaign for VW. It was similar to the old Diesel campaign with a lot of people in the shot doing different things. We had about thirteen people in the shot in a backyard barbecue scene all doing different things. I practiced and got all the positions worked out the day before and got the whole thing in one shot. We shot about ten rolls of film. If I did the same shoot today, I’d shoot everything separately and drop it in. So I’ve kind of swung the other way. Different shots are quite different things. Another photographer proposed shooting the VW animal shoot on location with 35mm. He wanted to have animals actually running across the route in front of the car.
F STOP: Did you do the sky and cloud images in Photoshop?
Neveling: I made a few layers at different densities and photo filters. I duplicated the clouds and flipped them to emphasize the reflection of the car. I love playing with densities and color palette. It’s like painting.
F STOP: You just did that using color balancing?
Neveling: Color balances and photo filters in Photoshop CS2.
F STOP: Do you do a lot of retouching in your personal work as well?
Neveling: I would never composite in my personal stuff. I play a lot with colors. I like my personal work to be free – one lens, one camera.
F STOP: How does marketing work in South Africa? Do you send out mailers and email promos? Does the advertising work go out in books?
Neveling: It’s the same as the US, but on a smaller scale because our market is small and everybody knows each other. You need to pound the pavement with your portfolio in the beginning. When I first started out, I’d shoot a portfolio and do the rounds for a month. At the end of the month, I’d shoot a new portfolio and hit the streets again! I’m a bit shy and not into small talk. It’s easier for me to shoot a new portfolio and show some one new pictures than to call and talk about the weather. It’s different now. I get a new portfolio about once a year and send out emails every month or so.
F STOP: When you were doing portfolios every month as you say, was it just a series of images that you were shooting, like a different concept each time?
Neveling: I would add ten new shots. I love shooting, so I’d rather take pictures than work the phones. It shows people how busy you are. It’s easier for me to walk in with pictures than come in with nothing and ask for work. To this day I still can’t ask people for work.
F STOP: It’s probably not the best idea anyway. It’s better to show people new work than to beg them for work.
Neveling: I’ve seen people here with the same portfolio for four years. They hang out at restaurants or bars and they get work that way. Their portfolios, however, are really old.
F STOP: Is it difficult to get appointments with art directors and art buyers now?
Neveling: Now I can phone them with new work and we meet for a beer in a bar. I know in America it’s a lot different.
F STOP: That sounds like a dream to me.
Neveling: It’s relaxed down here. America is a different league; people are so serious over there.
F STOP: Are you thinking of moving here?
Neveling: Yes. I plan to spend a longer time in the US early next year.
F STOP: Are you going to modify your portfolio for the American market?
Neveling: I have a few portfolios there already and they’re doing well. I just need to go and show my face. People want to work with me, but they need to meet me and get to know me a bit first.