Success came early for Chad Ress. He moved to New York in his twenties, with the intention of applying his photojournalism background. Editorial success led to advertising assignments, quickly leading to more work than he anticipated. “I ultimately burned myself out a little bit,” he says. “At the end of about 2 or 3 years in New York I looked at the work that I had accumulated and I realized that I wasn’t controlling my work anymore, so I took a break.” Ress turned away from advertising commissions to reconnect with his artistic side. After two years, Ress returned to photography intent on creating fresh imagery, and determined to maintain control of his own work.
He has no regrets. “I managed to survive in New York but looking back half of the work doesn’t mean anything to me anymore,” he says. Now, he’s focused on creating personal and commissioned work that’s truly fulfilling. In some cases, however, the cost of being creative can be “a bit torturous.” “my commission work is almost easy compared to the personal work a lot of the time,” he says. “Everything is put into a nice little box for you when you go into a commission job. I have to create my own parameters with personal work. I have to try and predefine what that box is.”
When shooting on location for Purina, the dogfood company asked him to create images of “Best of Breed” dogs perfectly posed in a variety of stunning landscapes. The photographer, known for “heroic” landscapes, wanted to retain maximum verisimilitude, albeit with canine stand-ins. Our featured image is a composite of two images: the Dalmation shot in the studio and the landscape shot in California. “One of the most crucial things was realistically seeing how that dog might cast a shadow on the environment,” he says. “My goal was to be realistic. If I over lit the set on location I would need to over light the dogs in the studio.” Both images were shot on a Hasselblad 500 with a Phase One P45 back and a 80mm lens. The landscape image was fairly straightforward, the exposure was f/16 at 1/30th of a second at 50 ISO and reflectors were used in the foreground to open up the shadows. The shot of the Dalmation in the studio was much more complicated. A combination of twelve lights by three different manufacturers, Broncolor, Dyna-lite and Speedotron, were used along with a kid-in-a-candy-store selection of lighting modifiers: two umbrellas, a Broncolor Satellite, V-flats, a grid and a 20’ x 40’ flat typically used for car shoots. The exposure was f/16 at 1/125th of a second at 50 ISO. All of this lighting equipment went to very good use, the end product is a seamless composite image that looks incredibly natural. Though Ress recognizes the importance of recent advances in digital postproduction, “my approach is that the end results need to feel like the dog was really there.”
Though he works frequently in his studio, Ress thrives working on location. “By nature working in the studio forces you to start with that kind of predetermined idea. A lot of times shooting in the studio means you start with nothing, and that’s not always the way I work best. I like to respond to things that are in front of me.”
Ress was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
F STOP: Let’s start by talking about our featured image of the Dalmatian, one image from a series you did for a Purina ad campaign.
Ress: Purina came to me about a year and a half ago with an idea to portray their best of breed dog in a heroic situation, grand landscapes. It basically reflected the nature of the dog. They need to not only use dogs they sponsored, but also award winning show dogs. And you know these things are bred to be not much more than show dogs. Even though they look, run, dribble, bark, and wag their tails like any other Golden Retriever or Dalmatian, they don’t really lead the active outdoor lifestyle like normal, everyday dogs of their breed. They weren’t available to go on location, so we designed a production strategy that had the dogs all photographed in the studio in a more controlled environment. We got the positioning and the sensibility of what Purina wanted to show (in the studio) and blended that in with what we shot on location. We got to the location with roughly sized stunt dogs and used them to frame up the scene and give us an object in that position with similar features and textures that would capture the real light we created on location, you know, as far as highlights and shadows. One of the most crucial things was realistically seeing how that dog might cast a shadow on the environment.
F STOP: Did you bring any lighting equipment for the location shoot in California?
Ress: The only things we brought were basically general reflectors and fill. My goal was to be realistic. If I over-lit the set on location I would need to over-light the dogs in the studio.
F STOP: Were the dogs shot on a white seamless or on top of the rocky looking mound that you see in the image?
Ress: One thing we had to contend with was the weight distribution of the dogs’ legs in relation to the landscape that we were placing them in. I shot them all against a light gray seamless in the studio. It gave me the opportunity to control the tonality of the area around the dog’s outline. I should preface this by saying that all the dogs had to be shown in what they call the “stacked position.” Stacking means a dog’s default pose when it’s being shown. They’re very particular about the positioning and posing. We did very low landscapes to fit the dog’s pose.
F STOP: Did you shoot the dogs or the locations first?
Ress: We shot the locations first because you can’t control the weather. We shot those first to see what kind of light we were getting and then the studio lighting was set up to accommodate that kind of lighting. We also had to come up with some scenarios where we didn’t have sun at all. It had to be a very versatile lighting scenario in the studio.
Ress: At the time a lot of my landscape and people work tended to have a heroic quality to it. The landscapes were beautiful and on a large scale. A lot of times with my landscape work I don’t just photograph a landscape, per say. It’s the color palette, the printing technique, and the overall sensibility that I try to get in my image which I’m trying to show in that landscape. When I achieve it properly, it has an ephemeral, even an inspirational quality. They probably also looked at me because I do have a history of doing digital, but in such a way that I’m not really highlighting that digital work. Photoshop and digital postproduction has become one of the most powerful tools that photographers have ever had to add to their creative abilities. It’s changed photography dramatically in many ways and it continues to do so. But my approach is that the end results need to feel like the dog was really there.
F STOP: How did you get started with photography?
Ress: It was always around me. My grandfather was a photographer. There were a lot of creative things floating around in my family. I don’t think I made the decision consciously to pursue it until college. I spent the school year going through this rigorous photojournalism program and then I would spend my summers and breaks assisting commercial photographers. I think the reason I chose the photojournalism program over a more technical or fine arts focus, was that I felt that telling a story is really important in photography. Photojournalism school taught me how to tell a story.
Ress: I’m not the type of person to sit down and storyboard something. I’ve tried that before and it doesn’t work for me. The work ends up becoming cold and sterile when I stick to those pre-focused ideas. So I might write down some visual descriptors of things or objects or maybe even location or scenarios that support or contribute to an idea. It’s almost like a stream of consciousness. I’ll mull that over, shoot a little bit and I’ll see what works and what doesn’t.
F STOP: Do you pick out a location before or after you come up with those scenarios?
Ress: When I’m doing commissioned work, I usually take time either before or after a shoot. Usually before, because agency requirements are usually very tight. The extra time allows me to acclimate a little bit, not only to the time difference but a lot of times even to the weather. It also gives me opportunity to go out and potentially shoot some stuff on my own not only as kind of a warm up, but just to get like the sensibility for a place that I’m in. For example, the light. Light is totally different everywhere you go.
F STOP: A lot of your personal work is outdoors on location based but I do see that you’ve done a lot of studio work as well. Do you prefer the locations to studio work?
Ress: I do, only because of what we just talked about previously. By nature working in the studio forces you to start with that kind of predetermined idea. A lot of times shooting in the studio means you start with nothing, and that’s not always the way I work best. I like to respond to things that are in front of me. Basically once I’ve got those things in front of me, I’ll play with them like a stage or, you know, a set and see what I can create out of it.
Ress: No, I try for it not to be. I have to tell you the truth. The big difference for me between my commercial work and my personal is usually the budget.
F STOP: How long have you been shooting for?
Ress: I’ve been shooting for over 10 years, but I had a slow start to my professional career. I did a lot of traveling after college. I went to a lot of different places and shot some things, and actually experimented with shooting. When I first started off I was predominantly shooting people. I was in New York for a while and I had quite a bit of success. I went there I guess when I was 24 or 25 with a make or break attitude. I was a little bit more successful than I was prepared to be. Within 6 months I was starting to get my own shooting work. The funny thing was I went up there just to potentially get editorial work. I got a little bit of that, but I also started getting a lot of advertising work. I shot a Visa campaign when I was 24 and things for some other big clients. For a photographer coming out of college, those first few times that you start to realize the value of what you do is an interesting transition period for a young photographer. I ultimately burned myself out a little bit. At the end of about 2 or 3 years in New York I looked at the work that I had accumulated and I realized that I wasn’t controlling my work anymore, so I took a break and studied graphic design. Two years after that I decided to launch back into photography with the intent to keep control of my career this time.
Ress: At the time it wasn’t that hard. I was young and single. I hadn’t built up a lifestyle that revolved around this cash flow. The idea of getting married and starting a family wasn’t on the list of things to do yet, so I traveled, for about 8 or 9 months non-stop and then I went back to school for a while.
F STOP: Did anyone say, “Chad, what are you doing? You’re crazy to stop doing this?”
Ress: Some of the photo editors that I worked with. I managed to survive in New York, but looking back half of the work doesn’t mean anything to me anymore.
F STOP: And now you’re doing work that does mean something to you.
Ress: Yes. For me it’s been the biggest change mentally in my career and I can honestly say that it was absolutely the right thing to do. I won’t say it’s any easier now. In many ways maybe it’s even harder, but it’s always a goal to not only maintain the personal work, but also to try and take commissions that are in line with what I might be thinking or doing at any moment. It’s not always easy to sustain
F STOP: We have a lot of emerging photographers in our audience. Do you have any advice for people just getting out of school or into the industry?
Ress: I think photography is at a transitional point right now. With the transition to digital and online the amounts of money that get put into photography for different uses is going to change. It’s already changing.
Ress: Money that is traditionally spent on broadcast or print media is migrating to the web and online. That can offer some really interesting opportunities for still photographers. Still images, interactive images, and video is going to combine in some way. I think we’re all going to have to realize this and find creative ways to stay a part of it. I also see a huge growth in kind of the fine arts world. Also, younger publications such as yours are able to come together and create a voice and a place for the distribution of good photography online versus a traditional print media format.
F STOP: How would you suggest that the emerging photographer take advantage of the situation you were describing with advertising going online and new media. How would you suggest photographers survive and thrive in that environment?
Ress: I don’t know much about new media. It’s something that I think about personally, but I don’t have all the answers. From what I’m seeing so far, the Internet isn’t demanding the caliber of creative that traditional media kind of requires. In other words I feel like people aren’t putting a great deal of kind of their creative efforts into online marketing right now. But I think that’s going to change. I’m interested in seeing how that changes.
F STOP: Are there any projects that you’re working on now that you care to discuss?
Ress: I’d be happy to tell you what’s torturing me right now. If I can be clear about that, then doing personal work for me is always a bit torturous. I used to tell an art director friend of mine that my commission work is almost easy compared to the personal work a lot of the time. Everything is put into a nice little box for you when you go into a commission job. Sometimes the box is bigger and allows for more creative input, and sometimes the box is smaller and might not have any wiggle room. I have to create my own parameters with personal work. I have to try and predefine what that box is. At the moment, I’m going back to people a little bit more. I think landscape tells a big story, but I think that you know to tell the whole story you have to include people. So I’m looking for ways to incorporate the human element back into the story that I maybe started with landscape.
F STOP: Your work has continued to change over the past few years do you have any idea where it’s going to go in the next few years?
Ress: I would be lying if I said that sometimes I don’t look at my personal work and put it to the commercial test. It was always my goal to blend the two. Recently I’ve noticed that a lot of the personal work that I have been doing is difficult to find a commercial application for. That has me a little intrigued. One of the things could be that I don’t see a ton of interesting creative work coming out of the advertising industry these days. Another thing could be that perhaps I’m just stepping outside that box a little bit to see what I can do without a commercial application. If I keep going in that direction, I would imagine that fine art might start to become more a part of my future.