Written by JoAnne Tobias
Edited by Jesi Khadivi
Diagrams by Gil Andrei Fontimayor
Don’t call Sacha Waldman a traditionalist. This South African photographer never took a photography class. He never shot film. Jumping straight into digital, Waldman just tinkered with his images until he found inspiration. “Experimentation is the main thing,” said Waldman. “You create a look that turns you on….and you move from there.”
Still, no amount of post-production can replace solid ideas. For example, this set for the Kohler ad took a week to construct – from weathering the wood to hand crafting the cabinets. The final image was composed from four separate shots, honed during a couple days of post. Now the look is iconic, but at the time Waldman was one of only a few photographers creating digital art. “It had a huge impact on the industry,” said Waldman. “It sparked a lot of interest in that particular look.”
Initially the Kohler ad was meant to only have a sole beautiful woman shucking oysters. Waldman looked through the camera and realized something was missing. Looking around the studio set, the photographer saw one of the workmen Kohler had sent to install the faucets. Suddenly Waldman realized he’d found his own pearl- the missing narrative. “I looked at him and said hell, let’s use him,” said Waldman. “So we dressed him up and threw him in there and it worked brilliantly.”
The execution of this image is nothing short of brilliant either. The set was lit with a total of six lights. Two Profoto heads bounced into umbrellas lit the background, two Profoto heads with 10° grids added side light, one Profoto head with a 5° grid brought out detail in the oysters, and one Profoto bi-tube head placed inside a 7’ Octabank lit the whole set. A Mamiya 645 with a Leaf Aptus 22 digital back teathered to a G5 Mac was used for image capture. The exposure was f/16 at 125th of a second at 100 ISO. The seascape background was shot separately and added in post.
This campaign proved to be lucrative for Waldman, not only in securing a second Kohler contract, but in ramping his career up to the next level. The elaborate post-production combined with the detailed sets caught the attention of art directors and other photographers. Suddenly the creative field was dissecting his work, trying to recreate his look.
Though Waldman compares himself to a painter who brushes his raw files with strokes from PhotoShop, he actually seems more like a celebrated chef who won’t share his recipes. He holds back not out of avarice, but because he cannot- instinct guides his technique. “I’ve had so many people ask me what tends to be the magical ingredient in the old soup….it’s a lot of lightening and darkening and bringing out textures in what you have in front of you. It’s a lot of enhancing what’s there.”
Now that Waldman’s look has climbed up the advertising billboards and become mainstream, he’s about to discard it. To that end, the innovative photographer has been busy reinventing himself, developing a look that ventures even deeper into fantasy and highly detailed composites.
“It’s time for me to challenge myself again. I’m not the type of personal photographer who’s just going to bang out the same look for 25 years and hope that my career can be kept alive,” said Waldman. “I will always change.”
Waldman was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
F STOP: How did you produce and shoot the featured image for Kohler?
Waldman: Once I saw what the product was I worked with them to develop the idea. We decided on a man at an oyster stand with a woman sitting there and shucking oysters. It was a really big production. I worked with a great set designer named Jared who made all of the structural stuff, the sinks and the faucets in the actual wooden stand and the floor and the closet above it. That was all built as a set. The image was quite iconic at the time. It had a huge impact on the industry. It sparked a lot of interest because there wasn’t much of that kind of work at that time.
Waldman: About a week. Jared put a lot of work into it.
F STOP: You mentioned that you worked with the client on the concept. How much freedom did you have in creating this image?
Waldman: I had freedom to a degree. You don’t have complete freedom. If I would have said “listen, I’d like to put this sink and this faucet on Mars” we couldn’t do it. We had to work within a certain genre, but we definitely had way more freedom than you usually have in commercial photography.
F STOP: Do you often experience that?
Waldman: People that I work with now realize that I like to be involved early to be creative and help conceptualize. Sometimes you get the ability to do it and sometimes you don’t. It totally varies on the client. People are pretty strict with what they want nowadays, so I think we were definitely fortunate to have a hell of a lot more freedom with Kohler (than we would otherwise).
F STOP: Was it a one day shoot?
Waldman: It was one day of building and one day of actual shooting.
F STOP: Tell me about the post-production in this image.
Waldman: I do all the post-production work myself. After so many years of doing it I shoot around what I’m going to be doing in post-production. With this particular image there was about two days of post-work afterwards. We obviously put the background in which I think I shot in Florida a couple of months earlier. I shot the seagull as well and put that in there. We put more oysters in front of her so you know there is always some very finicky stuff that needs to happen. Obviously you need to spend a lot of time with the product because the client always wants the product to look perfect.
F STOP: This image has a very specific look and some of your other images have a similar look. Can you give me an idea of what you do to achieve this?
Waldman: I’ve had so many people ask me what tends to be the magical ingredient in the old soup. It’s a lot of lightening and darkening and bringing out textures in what you have in front of you. It’s a lot of enhancing what’s there, it’s not one particular look or feel. For example in post-production you have filters that do certain things. It’s nothing like that. There’s no pre-described technique that I have where I can just hit a button and any image will look exactly like that. No one image ever really looks the same because it depends on my mood or perspective at the time. So it’s just a matter of playing with color and tone and texture and just creating a look that I am drawn to.
F STOP: When did you start doing this?
Waldman: About seven years ago, when I was really starting the Hip Hop stuff. I never shot on film and did things traditionally. I was digital right from the beginning. I remember seeing a photographer who was working on this huge machine and moving things around in an image. I was living in London 12 years ago and I don’t even think Macs and Photoshop were even around then. That was my moment of inspiration. When I saw that I thought : that’s what I want to do.
F STOP: Do you think you were one of the pioneers in that kind of style?
Waldman: Yeah, but without sounding pretentious or blowing smoke up my ass because that’s not my character. I’m not saying I was the sole person. There were a couple of us that were generating this look that was definitely unique. It was a look that wasn’t out there and I started getting it out there and then it kind of obviously started influencing people.
F STOP: How did you start doing this look? I know that you’re saying there’s no specific button you’re hitting, that it’s a mixture of stuff. But how did you arrive at that look to begin with?
Waldman: I was working in the Hip-Hop industry a lot. I wasn’t inspired by the raw image once I got it into Photoshop, so I just started to experiment a lot. Once you experiment and you create a look that just turns you on, you move from there.
F STOP: Do you get more satisfaction out of actually photographing or out of the post-production?
Waldman: It varies from project to project. The Kohler image was exciting because I was working with people and we were building sets and creating the actual main bones of the image. The post-production wasn’t that intense in the sense of putting all these elements in. However, the post-production is always fun for me because I work alone and I do my thing. I never work with people around me. A lot of my new work is far more heavily post-production orientated. It’s really, really exciting stuff. I’m coming up with a whole new wave of work that I’m really excited about because I think it’s got a very unique look and feel.
F STOP: How do you maintain creativity in your work?
Waldman: I would describe a creative person as somebody who creates images, looks and feels primarily for themselves. I think with this particular (digital) look and feel being so mainstream, it’s time for me to challenge myself again. I’m not the type of personal photographer who’s just going to bang out the same look for 25 years and hope that my career can be kept alive. For me, it becomes very dull and boring, and obnoxious. You’ve got to grow and change and that’s why I’ve stepped into a whole new genre now. You’ve got to keep yourself fresh and inspired.
F STOP: Can you talk about the new look that you’re working on right now?
Waldman: It’s really, really highly detailed involved fantasy based work that deals with illustration and compositing. I’m using all the technology and computers and three-dimensional work and putting it all together. I think in the next 4 or 5 months I should have a lot of it done.
F STOP: You were talking about how you recreate yourself periodically. How important do you thing that is for commercial photographers to do?
Waldman: I think it’s as important as a person wants to make it for themselves. It’s tough working commercially as a creative person when you want to be inspired and push boundaries. Often you don’t get that opportunity commercially. So if you just stick to doing that type of work you can get frustrated on a spiritual and creative level.
F STOP: Tell me a little bit about doing personal work. There’s not a lot up on your website.
Waldman: The personal side of my work has recently reared it’s head again. When you work commercially as a creative person and you develop a style that becomes popular you start to work a lot. You end up getting so busy and you get caught up in this machine where you honestly don’t really have a lot of time and energy to do your own personal work. About two years ago I was photographing 90 year old people naked in New York. I didn’t put a lot of that work in the commercial portfolio because sometimes agents and clients get scared by it. It’s such a difficult balance because you do get pigeonholed or steered into trading a look that’s not necessarily you at all. A client could be loving my portfolio then they would turn to an image of 95-year-old woman naked. For me it is a beautiful thing, hey we all get old. But sometimes it would scare people and they would then think that my work in general would be too dark.
F STOP: Did you actually experience that from clients?
Waldman: Oh yeah. Many times. A few years ago my work was a lot edgier. Initially there was a lot more of my personal work in my portfolio. Over the years I whittled it out because as you become successful as a working photographer people want to see a certain look. I did actually lose quite a few jobs in the past where people looked at certain images and got scared by them, and said that might be a little bit too out there, or a little bit too dark. Especially celebrity based work. The work eventually just came out of the portfolio because it just wasn’t worth it.
Waldman: What sets one photographer apart from another one is people skills. When I interact with people I try to make them feel comfortable. I tend to work really quickly, which is a huge advantage over most photographers. That works well with celebrities. They come in and out. It’s a fun environment, it’s not too uptight, and you just try make them feel good. And you try to get on with them as a person. I think to be calm and relaxed is the most important thing. I mean I had a recent situation about 4 months ago in Amsterdam and Prague, shooting a huge campaign for FIFA. We were bringing out this computer game and working with 4 or 5 of the biggest football stars in Europe. These guys are like demigods. There were like 30 or 40 people and TV crews and they were shooting commercials at the same time. As Wayne Rooney arrived the computer just crashed on us. Those are the times where you just keep your cool and find a solution. I think that’s what defines being able to be a successful commercial guy. Just get it done and not be too hysterical and allow people to enjoy being around you
F STOP: Do you have a favorite celebrity that you’ve worked with?
Waldman: I really, really enjoyed working with David Bowie. I thought he was an incredible person, really open. Ben Kingsley came into the studio and was completely and utterly creatively open and introduced himself to everybody and said listen I’m here to do whatever you need to do. He really got into the role of wanting to do some fun work. I think what can make the celebrity thing really difficult are the people around the celebrity. The PR and marketing people tend to generate the hysteria around getting it done. In the Hip-Hop world we would wait for 4 or 5 hours while somebody was in the dressing room and eventually they would come out. You got to just do what you need to do, but it’s difficult sometimes.
F STOP: Ali G has a huge following. Was he in character when you met him?
Waldman: Not initially. He was a great guy. I actually formed a friendship with him. We really got along. When he was working on his film Borat, his manager called me and wanted me to be involved with the stills. I was in South Africa at the time and I’d just had my little boy, so I literally couldn’t do it. But he’s an incredibly smart human being. Initially when you meet him he’s not in character, but he gets into the character so quickly.
F STOP: Do you have a preference between working in the studio and on location?
Waldman: Not really. It’s pretty much the same. Sometimes it’s fun to do one or the other. I worked on a job for RCA Television a year or two ago with a great creative team. It was a fun shoot because we were on a cliff edge and there was a crane and a car and flames and a stunt man. That location was really fun because there was a lot going on.
Waldman: You know, not really. If I can do a lot of stuff in camera, I generally try to. It tends to make life a little bit simpler and people can see what they’re dealing with. Sometimes post-production can create huge nightmares in the sense that you have a lot of people trying to make decisions and they don’t really necessarily understand the process. So if you can shoot in camera it just makes it easier. Post-production is a bit of a myth because sometimes when you do a lot of heavily post-produced work, it’s difficult. Then you have a lot of people putting in their two cents and then you end up dragging out an image a lot longer than you need to.
F STOP: Let’s talk a little bit about how you actually became a photographer.
Waldman: I come from a very creative background. My father was a film director, my mother is an art director and my sister is in the performing arts. I had to go into the Marines for two years in South Africa. It was obligatory then, like in Israel. In my second year we were sent out to guard all these different places and I started messing around with a little camera and started enjoying it. About 8 or 9 years ago I started using the camera to express myself.
F STOP: How old were you when you started?
Waldman: I was in my early 20s when I first started experimenting with photography. I traveled a lot to London and was doing a lot of different things. I came to the states about eight years ago and started really focusing on photography.
F STOP: And how did you start off exactly? Nobody starts off doing advertising right off the bat, unless they are extremely lucky.
Waldman: Very few people do. I first started off in editorial working with Vibe Magazine. I started by shooting Hip-Hop photographs for magazines and then eventually got an album cover, and it was kind of history from there. I took off pretty quickly. I was fortunate to have some opportunities and to seize the moment and take it.
F STOP: What made you decide to get into advertising and editorial?
Waldman: I think I will start getting back into editorial periodically. I used to do a lot of editorial work, but I ended up getting a little frustrated with it because I found that one didn’t have enough freedom to really push the work that you want to do. There are some photographers that are very successful who use the editorial world to create a good living, but then that’s real volume. I mean, most photographers want to wok in advertising because ultimately that’s what pays the bills.
Waldman: Not only for the money. There is also the ability to have bigger budgets and the opportunity to play with a certain look. If you want to make a living as a freelance photographer, it’s really difficult to do that without advertising unless you’re going to be a stock photographer or editorial photographer.
F STOP: I want to jump back to retouching. You mentioned that you do almost everything yourself. How did you learn those skills?
Waldman: I was always into the digital genre. I had a computer with Photoshop and image manipulation stuff and I just kind of started playing around. I was completely self-taught. I didn’t go to a college or take any courses.
F STOP: Do you have a kind of overarching message or vision that you want the viewer to take away from your images?
Waldman: Definitely. I think it depends on the aesthetic of the work and where the work is coming from. Obviously within the advertising industry you want people to look at your execution and think that it has good production value and that it has a good interesting kind of high quality look to it. On a personal level, it’s about getting an idea and a vision about the world through to people. Commercially, I want people in the business to look at my work and think it is a high quality act. I have great relationships with the team of people that I work with, so it needs to be a smooth and professional experience. When people work with you they want to know that the job will be delivered on deadline and they don’t have to stress about it.