Canadian photographer Chris Gordaneer is well-known for bringing a soft color palate and a painterly touch to his advertising imagery. Regardless of the subject matter — a herd of horses galloping straight towards his camera or a woman calmly sitting beneath a tree — there’s always a sense of quiet drama in his photographs. This signature look has been very fruitful; he’s won over 100 awards in the past twelve years.
It’s more than just his mantelpiece that’s impressive though, Gordaneer tackles a seemingly endless variety of subject matter and consistently comes away with beautiful images. From automotive, to sports, to lifestyle, portraiture, landscape, sports…you name it and he’s probably shot it. There’s certainly a lot to learn from Chris Gordaneer’s photographic journey.
We begin our interview discussing a deceiving image of what appears to simply be a polluted city. The reality, and how the image was created, turns out to be far from simple. We then talk about the evolution of his look and how he achieves it in Photoshop. Our discussion finishes on the topic of motion. Gordaneer has much to say about where he and the photographers of Westside Studio are taking the new medium and about how it compares psychologically to shooting still images.
Seckler: Let’s discuss our featured image, the cityscape image.
Gordaneer: The client was Bosch Appliances. The idea was floating around for six, seven months before I got the job, but when I went to a couple of art directors in Toronto, they didn’t think that it could be achieved photographically. They were considering 3-D renderings and illustrations. I convinced them to shoot it using scale models of refrigerators, stoves and dishwashers.
Gordaneer: It was more of a paper drawing. I had references of how they wanted the image to feel like it was a polluted city. The idea of the ad is that Bosch has green appliances that use less energy than older appliances and I wanted to make the photograph look like a dense, overpopulated cityscape with lots of pollution.
Seckler: How did you execute it?
Gordaneer: We had 150 appliances made to 1/10-scale that were then arranged by myself, my producer Tom, and a prop person. We had them made in roughly two weeks for about $12,000 dollars. They were largely plastic with wooden parts for handles and they looked very authentic. They were all distressed and made to look old.
We had tubes going around the background attached to smoke machines that gave that effect of smoke rising from some of the “buildings.” We ended up shooting from two distinct angles. We shot 150 mini appliances on one side and then moved them around to the other side because we didn’t have enough models to totally fill the space. So we moved them back and then digitally it made it feel like they went on and on forever.
I lit this using four Profoto heads each with zoom reflectors attached to two Acute 2400 WS power packs. These were mounted about three feet above a large full stop silk that was stretched out over the props. We put 4’ x 8’ sheets of white foamcore along the sides of the set to reflect light back in. We also painted the back wall grey so there would be less fill from what would have otherwise been a very light reflective white background. I shot using a Phase One P45 Plus back attached to a Mamiya 645AFD III with a 35mm lens. The exposure was 1/125th of a second at f/11 and100 ISO. We combined six separate shots in post to create the final image. The shoot took about three days total to complete.
Seckler: What about the sky?
Gordaneer: The sky was actually a sky I shot separately. This particular sky was shot in Switzerland, I think. I toned it differently and then saturated it to give it a kind of smoky tobacco feel.
Seckler: Tell me about the retouching process for this image.
Gordaneer: The retouching was difficult. Because I didn’t have enough space in the studio to give the image the feeling of depth I desired—where the buildings in the background appear to go back until they are out of focus—so I had those drawn in. I also added more smoke in the background so it feels like they fall into nothing – an endless city of appliances.
Seckler: It’s a fantastic image. How did the client respond?
Gordaneer: They were quite impressed by it. The art director, Paul Wallace, was impressed with it because he couldn’t see it happening in a photograph [without CGI]. They trusted me when I was telling them about it, but Wallace didn’t think it was going to work.
Seckler: So why do you think they ended up listening to you and doing all of this in camera as opposed to CGI?
Gordaneer: They wanted it to feel real. The image could have looked so different. It could have looked hokey. When people see this image, they give it a second look. First, they look at the polluted city, and then they think, ‘What the hell? It’s refrigerators and stoves!’
Gordaneer: No. I am not crazy about working in a studio. You’re definitely trapped inside for days. That particular shoot was a lot of fun. It was like building a big puzzle, and you know, it was quite challenging. I liked that aspect of it.
Seckler: How did you first get interested in photography?
Gordaneer: I was 18 and working at a lumberyard outside of Toronto and didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I took off to Europe. I had always been into music and painting, but I couldn’t do either, so I thought I should try photography. I went to school for photography when I returned, but I quit during my second year to work as an intern at Westside, the largest studio in Canada. In the beginning I assisted, and then I became an associate, and now I’m a partner.
Seckler: You have a very distinct style. Tell me how that evolved…
Gordaneer: In the beginning, photographers generally emulate the photographers with whom they work. You work with them so much that your own style tends to go in the same direction. But that’s a big mistake. Photographers should work on their own books. I’ve always loved softer color palettes. I don’t like hard, contrasting colors. I like color that’s a little saturated, like crunchy blacks. My style has a very surreal feeling. I also think that it’s softer. People tend to gravitate toward softer color palettes.
Seckler: When did you discover that you liked softer colors?
Gordaneer: I’ve liked them all my life. In paintings, I gravitated toward Goya for his darker, moody stuff, and Monet, for his soft colors. Even in photography, I have always been a fan of black and white images. My favorite photographers are war journalists.
Seckler: How did you get your first jobs?
Gordaneer: I was 24 when I started shooting in 1992. At that time, clients were looking for a fresh look. In the beginning my images were high contrast—very bright, very bold—and edgy. One of the first ads I did was for a company called Manager Jeans; it was my big break. I became very busy. I knew a lot of art directors, which was key. If you know people, and they know you’re confident and willing to take a risk, they’ll hire you.
Seckler: How did you come to know those art directors?
Gordaneer: I met many art directors by assisting photographers. When I first started I pounded the pavement and called art directors and asked to come by and show them my book. I also did mailers and entered contests. Direct mail is massive. Advertise. Advertise. Advertise.
Back then, in the 1990s, I dealt directly with art directors. Now there are more art buyers in Canada, but in the United States, too, Westside has worked mainly with art directors. Either way it’s strange, because the buyers usually have a lot of say and they are the ones you speak with first even before talking with the art directors.
Seckler: Tell me about your post-production process. You mentioned that you shoot skies and then composite them into other photos. How did you arrive at such a specific vision?
Gordaneer: Each shot is different. With location work, you never know what the weather is going to do, or how the light is going to hit your subject at a certain time of day. You can prep for it, but it’s constantly changing.
I always have a game plan. I go out and scout locations myself. I’ll choose them, but the client has the final say. And then I wait for the perfect light and sky. I am still a true photographer in that way. I wait for things to happen, but I always have the images of the skies in my back pocket. I have them on set with me and I just rough them in as I’m shooting. That way I can see exactly what I’m going to get because I haven’t done major retouching on the color. Much of the work is done in camera, maybe dropping in the sky, or exposing differently for the sky than the foreground. It’s the same sky; it’s just that I’m exposing it differently.
Seckler: How do you enhance colors in post-production? Do you use a lot of selective color?
Gordaneer: Yes. I use plug-ins as well. I have plug-ins like Pixel Genius and Photo Kit. They are quick steps, but I use them slightly, not very much. I also use selective color and saturation, just playing with minor adjustments, though not much because the images get too digitized.
Seckler: Tell me about your portraiture work.
Gordaneer: I do a lot of portraits on location, but in the studio, it’s a whole different game. You have to communicate and make people feel relaxed, which is difficult with celebrities. They don’t want to be there; they sit for photographers constantly.
Seckler: Do you have any tricks for getting people to relax?
Gordaneer: I try to make them laugh and goof-off a bit. Everybody is the same on my sets; there’s no hierarchy. When it comes to shooting, I’m the boss, but everybody is encouraged to relax. The atmosphere is very welcoming. The light’s a little low, so it seems warm and inviting as opposed to bright white light.
Seckler: Are the Tanzania images on your website a part of your personal work?
Gordaneer: Yes. Those images are close to my heart. I do a lot of charity work. I went to Tanzania for a three-week safari and shot those. I had a show when I came back and I donated all the proceeds to World Wildlife Fund (WWF). I raised money for them that helped build water purification plants in the Congo.
Seckler: Did you book everything on your own?
Gordaneer: We did research. My producer Tom did most of that work. We actually started off at a fair-trade coffee plantation. The majority of the money that we spent there will stay in the country. It was quite expensive, but we spent three days on the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, basically living on a coffee plantation.
Gordaneer: Yes. At the end it was about $40,000 dollars with the show, the prints, the framing, and everything that we auctioned off, but I raised about $20,000 dollars from the sales of the prints, so it was worth it.
Seckler: Tell me about your motion work. When did you start shooting?
Gordaneer: Many production companies approach me to direct. I just think that you have to do either still photography or motion work. I am not finished shooting; my love is still photography. The [still photography] jobs are quicker, you can do more, and you can move a lot easier than with motion. But I do see our worlds colliding. As far as still cameras go, and how digital high-def cameras are going to go, I think one day soon they are going to be shooting stills as well. So I am definitely trying to learn more.
Seckler: Do clients come to you for motion work—even though you’re primarily a still photographer—and say, ‘We love Chris’s vision and we want to see him bring that to motion, so we’re going to take a risk.’
Gordaneer: There’s not much difference between motion and stills; it’s just a moving picture. A lot of photographers see that way when they shoot. I definitely do; I see in motion. The main thing is to tell a story in images. With moving pictures, it’s just a longer, more complicated process. I think, especially in motion, more people are involved. You’re not the only creator.
Seckler: Does it seem strange to be a [motion picture] director—to step out of the role of still photographer—and adopt a new role?
Gordaneer: In still photography, you’re a director. You’re directing and basically being a vice president. The [motion] world is not that different. It’s harder to let go of taking the actual picture, but I look at the vice presidents and I’m jealous of them—that’s what I want to do at some point.
Seckler: You mentioned that you see the worlds of still and motion photography colliding. Tell me more about what you expect from that convergence.
Gordaneer: Most clients would love to have a print campaign that is exactly the same as their commercials. I think that the photography world is going to shrink. Most clients will be combining campaigns.
Seckler: Does Westside Studio have a vision to turn their still photographers into motion picture directors?
Gordaneer: We are definitely moving in that direction. We are all playing with the Canon 5D Mark II. Photographers are doing major features on it. There are a lot of still photographers who are very excited about the technology.
Seckler: Is everybody building a reel?
Gordaneer: Everybody is trying to build a reel. We are forming alliances with transfer houses, editing houses. We are meeting with them and they are learning our needs as well. I shot a couple small-budget spots recently and the clients loved them and came back for more.
Seckler: How do you suggest that still photographers build a reel since it is such a different thing then building a typical portfolio?
Gordaneer: Experiment. Go out, and if you’re shooting a job, shoot some video, too. It’s just as if you were building a book for the first time—you have to shoot and shoot. It’s good practice. It doesn’t always have to be your best work. Just make the mistakes. You never know what’s going to happen. I am a firm believer in happy accidents.
Seckler: Is the style of your still photography revealing itself in your motion work?
Gordaneer: Sure. Sometimes I’ll shoot stills and have a camera guy beside me shooting video, shooting exactly what I’m seeing. There is one photograph of a horse bucking—the production team had a separate camera guy with me who just followed me around and shot all my ideas. I think people get nervous when they hear motion, but it’s not much different then shooting stills. In my world I am used to dealing with big productions, so I am not nervous when it comes to making that jump.
Seckler: So even though you want to mostly remain a still photographer, you’re experimenting with motion because you think that’s where things are going…
Gordaneer: Yes. The two worlds are definitely going to merge. I am still young, still shooting, and I don’t want to be left behind. Plus, it’s exciting. When I say I don’t want to be involved in motion as much, I mean that I don’t want to be involved with big production companies. I don’t want to give up photography and concentrate solely on directing. I don’t want to spend a month on a project, I really don’t. You write treatments. You have pre-production, and you’re casting actors and scouting locations and you’re not getting paid for that time. You only get paid for the days that you’re on set. And afterward you are usually involved in the transfer and the edit, or you walk away from it and it’s out of your hands, and then you see it on TV and you hate it.
Seckler: Do you see motion as a negative development?
Gordaneer: No, I don’t, but I don’t like having all those people around me. I like having total control. I don’t care for shoots when there are too many hands in the pie. At the end of the day when I hand over an image, I like knowing exactly what it looks like—that it’s my image, my art.
Seckler: Do you think photographers should be concerned if they only want to shoot stills?
Gordaneer: I think the transition will be quick. I think there is always going to be room for print advertising. Art directors love that they can go out and concentrate on one image. I don’t think they are going to be pushing only for duel scenarios.
Seckler: What are you working on now?
Gordaneer: I am very excited about my upcoming charity project that I am working on for the people of Uganda. We are shooting a documentary and I am going to teach photography to underprivileged kids for a week. Afterward, we are going to have a show and hopefully auction off the images. All the kids are going to take shots and we are going to do a combined show with them and then bring it back to Toronto. Hopefully we will do it in New York and London as well. I’m hopeful that it will get some people to give to Ugandan charities. After the wars there, millions of people were displaced. People lost their homes and were living in internment camps. Now they have to rebuild everything.
Written by Zack Seckler
Edited by Joann Jovinelly
This piece was originally published 5/1/10 on Zack Seckler’s formally named publication The F STOP.