Garry Simpson has earned a reputation in United Kingdom photography as a diplomatic problem solver who manages complicated logistics. “I kind of like the battle of the big production,” he says.“There is something quite satisfying about it when it all works, even with all of the stress.”
Simpson assisted for five years before leading a VW shoot at age 30. His book, initially all landscapes, landed him that crucial first job, and ever since, he has remained tranquil amidst the brouhaha of commercial shoots.“It’s important to make the people feel that they have some ownership, rather than being barked at by some egomaniac photographer,” he says.
But restrictions abounded in the Nike shoot starring England striker Wayne Rooney. Simpson and his crew shot from a nearby railyard and lit the shoot with the assistance of a production company, who helped set up a 40′ x 30′ lighting rig suspended to a crane and weighed down with four heavy sandbags. The rig held 16 Profoto 7a packs and heads, one pack per head, each with wide angle reflectors and a translucent glass cover over the flash tube. The lighting alternated between two power settings. The first used a minimum power setting to achieve the fastest flash duration while capturing action poses of Rooney. He shot these images at F/4 and 1/250th second on a Canon EOS 1V using Fuji Provia 400 RHP111 film and a 120mm image stabilized lens. The second power setting used the rig’s maximum power to photograph ambient exposures for the background image that didn’t contain Rooney. These were shot at F/16 for 30 seconds on a 8×10 camera using Fuji Provia RDP111 with a 120mm lens and an 80B filter. Simpson popped all of the flash packs three times at full power during the 30 second exposure. Simpson was juggling many concerns in his lighting design.“It was a compromise of long exposure for the blank landscape, then high-speed flash and 35 mm for the action, then stripped together,” he says of the 1800 exposures he made that day. “Perspective-wise, it worked.”
Throw in concerns about waterproofing equipment and synchronizing cameras and it’s a headache few can handle. Simpson, though, is not only calm but modest. He gave credit for the shoot’s success to his whole team, and to the art director at the agency that conceived the ad. Even after the shoot, Rooney’s athleticism impressed Simpson: “It was like watching lightning go off.”
Simpson’s strengths in the commercial setting carry over into his personal work. Off the clock, his technique differs—always using film, rarely using Photoshop. (“I like photography to look like photography.”) With his new work, he says, “what I’m trying to get across is people’s vulnerability. There is a slight loneliness to it. I want people to engage in the picture through the story. The aim is to take pictures that have layers of stories and more depth than what is immediately apparent.” Compared to his whimsical commercial work, Simpson reflects, “my personal work with people is a little bit more melancholy. I’m more interested in pictures where you have to find the clues. Hopefully the viewer’s interest will hold onto the page a little longer. “
Simpson was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
F STOP: Tell me about the production of the featured image. What was the basic idea and how did it progress?
Simpson: The idea came from the ad agency. The ad is to promote a new five-a-side soccer strip for Nike. Five-a-side has five players on each side. It’s just like soccer, but it’s faster, slightly more aggressive game. Wayne Rooney, England’s striker, was used in the shot. He’s probably one of the most famous strikers at the moment in British football. Wayne is represented throughout the game. He’s playing an imaginary team on the side. The agency wanted cutouts of Wayne playing the game around the pitch. This would fill the pitch and there would be the odd little cameos of the referee, or spectators, or the players that are defending against him. You only see a little bit of them. It’s really homage to Wayne Rooney’s football ability. One of the agencies specifications was that it be shot at night. They used the picture I had taken of a tennis coach at night as a reference, which is partly why they chose me.
F STOP: Tell me about the production behind this image. How did light everything? How long did you have Wayne Rooney?
Simpson: One of my first questions was, “how long am I going to get Wayne Rooney?” I was initially told two hours. This was reduced to 45 minutes. Obviously, what I needed to do was high-speed motion. He was playing with four or five other players during the shoot, so we got this natural interaction of him dribbling, weaving past them and striking. I instantly knew I had to use some sort of high-speed flash. We lit the whole pitch in one go because we only had an hour with him. We had a huge gantry above the pitch that was about 10 x 15 meters. The whole gantry was lifted by a crane above the pitch that is just out shot. We several Profoto packs, all set at the absolute minimum power. You get the fastest flash speed at minimum power. It cracks and freezes movement much quicker. The problem with this is you don’t get a great aperture. So every place of Wayne playing is all shot on a 35 mm. We were shooting about four frames per second. It was really fast. It was like watching lightening go off.
F STOP: How did you setup the lighting?
Simpson: A company called Direct Lighting custom built this rig. They normally do lighting for big events. The generators and the heads were all mounted on the gantry. There were three sparks and one main gaffer. We also had another three guys from the rigging company, a crane operator, a producer, and another producer above that. A lot of people were involved. Wayne was doing other things that day. He was shooting TV, then he went to some other studios and shot some point of sale stuff. Then he came back to me at the end of the day.
F STOP: Are the two lights in the frame also Profotos?
Simpson: The actual pitch is lit by the flood lighting that it normally had. It was a compromise of long exposure for the blank landscape, then high-speed flash and 35 mm for the action. Then stripped together. The focal length for the 35 mil was the equivalent that we were using on ten-eight. Perspective wise, it worked. When Wayne was close to me his scale was right in relation to when he was far away on the other side of the pitch. We were obviously on a scaffold tower, probably about 20 feet up, looking down.
F STOP: Did you do the retouching yourself or did you outsource it?
Simpson: It was outsourced to a company called Core. They actually do quite a bit of retouching for the ad agency. I think the art director had the hardest job because we did not have two days of editing and putting it all together in our budget. I had Wayne various positions around the pitch and all these little stories; like him chatting with the ref, attacking here and there or running to the camera and celebrating, it was the art director’s job to put that together into a low-res kind composition. We had a conversation about how we felt it went and made some changes to have it flow a little better and make it feel like there was actually linear movement running across. Afterwards, it was handed to the retouching company who put it all together. They did a good job. Although it is cut and paste, there’s still a balance to it, which they brought to it brilliantly.
F STOP: Did the agency approach you specifically because it was a big production image?
Simpson: In the U.K. I have built up a bit of a reputation as a problem solver who can deal with large productions. I was fortunate enough in my early days to shoot with British Airways. That was like a worldwide production where we went to a number of different countries. We did a shot where we had beds all going up an avenue in New York. I have a history of being able to manage large-scale productions.
F STOP: Are you a fan of big production shoots?
Simpson: Sometimes it can be a hindrance. The scale can dictate its direction too much. Although there were a lot of restrictions on this shoot, especially with the time we had with Wayne, I’m pleased with the way it has come out. I kind of like the battle of the big production. There is something quite satisfying about it when it all works, even with all of the stress. I always spend weeks of time and effort planning things, checking and double-checking things; so that I know that it will all go smoothly on the day of the shoot. I had a military background before being a photographer, which I think I use for planning and logistics on these larger shoots. When I left school I joined the marines here in England. I served for about eight years.
F STOP: I would assume that working with the marines prepares you for the teamwork necessary for a big production photo shoot.
Simpson: There is a teamwork element to it. There is structure; there is a way of getting the most out of people. These shoots can be stressful, so it’s important to make the people feel that they have some ownership, rather than being barked at by some egomaniac photographer.
F STOP: Your personal work is certainly not highly produced. Tell me about the difference there. What inspires you in your personal work?
Simpson: There’s very little production in my landscape and cityscapes. They are motivated by a purist love of photography. I don’t do any post-production work on my personal work. I’m not a huge fan of post-production treatments with color and contrast and that Photoshop look. I’m more of a purist. I like photography to look like photography.
F STOP: Some of the work you do in advertising has big production component and some of it is obviously retouched. How do you feel about that considering you’re a purist in your personal work?
SIMPSON: I do enjoy both. My personal photography is about enjoying what I’m doing with my camera and advertising is about communicating the idea. Although a lot of my commissioned work is composited, I try to achieve as much as I can in camera. After that I try to make sure the retouching is seamless. Being shot well makes it fit together beautifully. It’s becoming more and more difficult to control retouching. I used to always outsource to one company that I was familiar with. There was a dialog between us. They knew what I wanted and I knew their limitations. Nowadays ad agencies in the UK have retouching done in-house. That becomes more and more difficult. You need to get yourself back into the ad agency in the post-production process to direct your work.
F STOP: How do you deal with that?
Simpson: Diplomatically. It’s the only way you can do it. At the end of the day, the ad agency is trying to make a better profit margin. I’ve had projects go so horribly wrong that I’ve pulled the job out of the agency and had it retouched at my own expense. It is getting better. Retouching in agencies has certainly improved, as long as you have a good operator. You tend to learn who the operators are. I’m more and more comfortable about internal retouching.
F STOP: When did you start off doing commissioned work?
Simpson: About six years ago. Before that I assisted. I left the marines and traveled and did the low paying jobs for a while. Eventually, I realized that I wanted to retrain as something. I was looking through a night school brochure and thought photography could be interesting. I did a year at night school, two years full time at college and then came to London and assisted for about five years before going out on my own. I didn’t start assisting until I was thirty. So I came to it quite late.
F STOP: When you started out on your own, did you approach ad agencies with the kind of personal work that you have now?
Simpson: My initial portfolio was personal work. It’s difficult. The advice I give to assistants that I work with is that you’re going to struggle when you have a book with no ads. Your portfolio should be a surgical tool. It does one thing and it does it very well. A lot of people starting out try to cover too many bases. My first book was all landscapes and it all had a certain style. By the end of the book people knew what they were getting. I had a book with a singular voice, which made people more confident. It worked. I got a VW job from it, which was instrumental in my start.
F STOP: It’s a nice way to start, for sure. Your first book was all landscape. You direct a lot of talent in your advertising work. Was it an issue transitioning from pure landscape to dealing with talent?
Simpson: Not really. There aren’t many campaigns in the UK that are just landscape. The landscape photography got me car work as well. I was shooting a lot of car work. I could see the car work was moving in a slightly different direction. Some of the early stuff I did was idea based and the car wasn’t too big in the frame. We were telling stories. Now the car is larger; it’s all becoming quite formulaic in the car world. Plus, CGI is cutting into the market, so I wanted to move into other areas. Taking pictures is like telling little stories. You can tell bigger stories with people, so I was keen to move into shooting people. The Nike shoot was people based and some of the other commissioned work I do is as well.
F STOP: Tell me about humor in your work. A lot of your commissioned work, specifically advertised on your site, has a subtle, but funny sense of humor behind it.
Simpson: I think from France. The French use humor in their advertising and I shot something on a very low budget for a French agency that I did a lot of car work for. The image did well at Cannes and many other shows.
F STOP: Does humor resonate within your personal work at all?
Simpson: No, not really. Perhaps I should develop it in my personal work. It’s something that I’ve fallen into rather than looked for. I think my personal work with people is a little bit more melancholy. I’m more interested in pictures where you have to find the clues. Hopefully the viewer’s interest will hold onto the page a little longer.
F STOP: A lot of your personal work is done abroad. That seems to be a strong theme. Do you decide to go out and shoot some personal work after the assignment? Or do you go specifically to a place with the mindset of taking pictures for your personal wok?
Simpson: There’s a bit of the former. Yes, I’m fortunate enough in my job to go to lots of different places. If I have some down time I’ll take some pictures. I also try to take a trip someplace new once a year to take pictures. New, unfamiliar countries inspire everyone. That’s probably the reason behind it. I’ve never really tackled London. It’s quite a complicated city to photograph. America always works. I think a lot of photographers go to America to photograph. There is order to urbanscapes that is very beautiful and photographic.
F STOP: Do you shoot in medium format when you’re out and about doing personal work in a foreign country?
Simpson: No, mostly large format. A lot of the time it’s 4 x 5.
F STOP: I’m curious about your process. Do you have someone drive around for you and scout?
Simpson: I’m on my own.
F STOP: What’s your process like when you’re trying to make an image? Do you happen on a location you like? Or do you go out the day before with a little point and shoot and location scout?
Simpson: It’s the complete opposite of how I work commercially. Commercially, everything is tied down and locked up. My personal work is much more fluid. Sometimes I’ll just get into the car and drive and if I see something that I like, I’ll take the picture. If I like it there and then, great. If I don’t, then I’ll find somewhere to stay that night and re-do in the morning. If it doesn’t work again, I’ll stay on it and shoot it in the evening. It’s kind of fluid. I don’t want it to be ordered.
F STOP: Do you have a certain message or feeling that you want viewers to take away from your personal work?
Simpson: It’s a little too early for me to articulate for the new narrative work. I think what I’m trying to get across is people’s vulnerability. There is a slight loneliness to it. I want people to engage in the picture through the story. The aim is to take pictures that have layers of stories and more depth than what is immediately apparent.
F STOP: Any projects you’re working on now that you care to talk about?
Simpson: I have a research book, which has loads of different ideas in it, but it takes a while for one to bubble to the surface that actually has the strength. A lot of times I get an inkling of an idea and I’ll cross-pollinate it with something else.
F STOP: Did creatives have any issues with the fact that you hadn’t produced images in your book at that point?
Simpson: I’d imagine there is a little fear using a new person. I think it’s easier here in the UK to get a foot on the advertising ladder than in the US. Having a respected agent behind gives the art buyer within the advertising agency more confidence. It also helps to have worked or assisted with good people. They always ask you in your first years who you assisted. It gives you a pedigree. If you’ve got that and a strong book that’s the first step on the ladderin the UK. Unfortunately, in the States it’s a lot harder.
F STOP: Why do you think that is?
Simpson: Shoots are larger and I think people are fearful of giving large-scale shoots to somebody starting out. Whereas here, you can have a great, small-scale idea with that can be done with a little. They can give it to someone starting out and it can be the foundations of somebody’s career.