Julian Wolkenstein


Final imageYou never know how many barrettes a horse can wear until you’re actually standing in his stable. Not only did Julian Wolkenstein have to find a horse comfortable with the storm and drama of a fashion shoot, he had to figure out just how many buckets of extensions one horse’s do demands. “One of the things we learned from the test shoot is that a horse’s head is incredibly big,” said Wolkenstein, who happily eschewed photography’s standard advice: “So yeah, never work with children or animals.”

To the chagrin of certain art directors, this gorgeous image will never wear type. And that’s just the way Wolkenstein likes it. “People wanted to put in a strip line on the bottom of a neutral work and say it was theirs. I wouldn’t have been comfortable with that,” says Wolkenstein. “It’s just nice to do something that has no reason.”

In addition to self promotion, the London-based photographer usually does have a reason behind his personal work: tickling his own fancy. The featured image, for example, had no larger meaning than he found it hilarious to think of horses with big hair. However, by contrasting the surreal, silly look with a dark, painterly atmosphere, Wolkenstein was able to lift the image from the realm of chuckles into a more gratifying art form.

The shoot required a lot of hard work, no horsing around on this set. Wolkenstein had never photographed a horse before and his first attempt was a disaster. The horse wasn’t in the mood to be dolled up and the flashes from the strobes didn’t add to the comfort level. A second attempt using a horse accustomed to the limelight and almost 5 hours of hair styling offered better results. The lighting on this shoot was fairly straightforward: two soft boxes on either side of the horse’s head and one beauty dish coming down from above with a ½ CTB (blue gel) did most of the illumination. The background was purposefully underexposed to match the blackness of the horse. The image was captured on a Hasselblad H1 with a Leaf Aptus 22 digital back and a 50mm lens. The exposure was f/8 at 1/125th of a second at 100 ISO.Overhead view of lighting

Originally from Sydney, Australia, Wolkenstein got his Associate’s degree in photography in1996. After putting in a few years as an assistant, Wolkenstein started shooting for himself. He’s been winning international awards and ad campaigns ever since.

Now splitting his time between London, Sydney and Melbourne, Wolkenstein keeps busy despite the slowing economy. His advice for photographers feeling the pinch of the dreaded R-word is both pragmatic and surprisingly optimistic: “Live cheaply and don’t splurge too much. Put it into a project or something tangible to show people.” Always one to find a silver lining, Wolkenstein also points out that “when a recession comes up it’s an opportunity for younger or less experienced photographers. There are good opportunities there, and I think that any advertising agency or magazines would be quick to realize that they can get things cheaper.”

It’s not the first time the economy has shifted or that the ad world has reinvented itself. Wolkenstein takes these transformations in stride, knowing that by pursuing his own look, his own vision of humor, he’ll create a position for himself in whatever form the commercial world eventually takes.

Wolkenstein is the first to admit the quirkiness of his personal subject matter. “A lot of the things that I think of aren’t particularly photographic,” he says, admitting that he uses photography to capture these ideas just because it happens to be his medium. “I’m working on photographing a sculpture in meat,” says Wolkenstein. “I’m struggling with how to make it look not too vile.”

Wolkenstein was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:Another image from Wokenstein’s horse hair project

F STOP: Let’s begin by talking about the featured image. Please tell us about your idea behind it, the execution, and the technical aspects.

Wolkenstein: It started from a conversation that I had with an art director in London. We were talking about horses and he said that it would be really funny to do horses with big hair. I loved the idea and wanted to develop it. I developed the idea and started looking at casting horses and thinking about how horses work, whether we could actually shoot horses with big hair and how we were going to go about it technically. Because it was a personal project there was no client driving behind it, which is great from a creative perspective, but slightly worse from a timing point of view because one tends to work longer without a proper deadline. The extra time and effort makes it fun though.

F STOP: Why did you want to attempt this project?

Wolkenstein: I like to be challenged with an idea, and I like to see where I can take it. I’ve been doing quite a few years of fairly serious advertising work, it’s just nice to do something that has no reason. There was never any intention to set the world aflame with the project. It was just purely because it made me smile, made me laugh. On the flip side of that, it also had a very, very conscious self-promotional theme behind it as well. What I wanted to do was create an image people would look at, would laugh at and would appeal to a wide range of people. I intended to print the image as a large poster. We only made about 400- 500 of the actual posters, and it was sent to a select group of creatives around the world.

F STOP: Did you receive a lot of feedback?

Wolkenstein: I often get calls saying, “I saw your series and loved it.” I’ve had a few advertising clients try to buy the rights, but I say no because the images were not intended for that purpose. The photos have been in exhibitions, so I want them to live in that genre rather than in the advertising world.

F STOP:: Do you think that putting it in the advertising world would have decreased its value?

Wolkenstein: Yeah. People wanted to put in a strip line on the bottom of a neutral work and say it was theirs. I wouldn’t have been comfortable with that.

F STOP: Right. That makes sense. Do people actually hang them up? A lot of art directors don’t have a lot of space to put posters.

Wolkenstein: They certainly don’t have a lot of room, so I’m pretty happy about the one that I have seen up.

F STOP: Tell me about the execution of the image.Another image from Wokenstein’s horse hair project
Wolkenstein: I walked into it completely blind. I had never worked with horses on this scale before. One particularly miserable, rainy Sunday I took a small crew out to test with a horse in a stable around London. It had never been in front of the camera before, or had had anyone groom it properly, and it was complete disaster. We had to rethink everything because it not only took a long time to work with the hair but the horse completely freaked out with the lights. The biggest problem we had was the particular day that we decided to do the test it rained the entire day. I took a couple days to think and then recast the horses. The black one happened to be one of the new horses that we chose and it had actually been in front of a TV crew before, but it hadn’t been in front of flashes. It was a little bit wary, but much calmer than the other horse. I worked with a great hair person who is based in Berlin and we talked about his hair and how it was going to work. One of the things we learned from the test shoot is that a horse’s head is incredibly big and you just need buckets and buckets of hair extensions, double or triple what you think. The stylist scoured London for all of these hair extensions. I braided the horse’s hair and used colored beads in it. Some of this was done before hand, but most was done on the actual day of the shoot.

F STOP: How long did it take to get all these hair extensions?

Wolkenstein: The hair work on each horse was about four to five hours.
The horse absolutely adored having been groomed and being played with.
While Casio, the hair and makeup artist, was freezing in a barn, the rest of the crew was setting up lights and trying to figure out how to shoot outside on the frozen ground. It was a fun day. What would normally happen with these horses is that they had all the grooming done and I’d go back and forth to the barn, where we’re dong the hair, and make comments and then come back later to change a few things. As soon as we were just about ready to shoot, we had all the lights and stuff ready to go, the horse shook its head and the hair flew everywhere. We lost another half hour putting it back together again. So yeah, never work with children or animals.

F STOP: Let’s talk about lighting and the technical components of the shoot. Did you always have the idea to have a very dark background?

Wolkenstein: I’d always thought of them as slightly painterly and certainly darker rather than too bright. I thought that a painterly, classical rendition of the horse was a little bit more serious and it was a better way to get the humor across, rather than going with a light, fluffy, oversaturated summer look.An image from Wolkenstein’s portfolio

F STOP: How many lights did you use?

Wolkenstein: Three lights, plus sunlight. We shot in early December when the light was very low in the sky. It was just enough daylight to keep it from going too black. We had a light on a boom because horses need a lot of space to move around and they key lights were on the side, away from the horse.

F STOP: Was everything shot in camera?

Wolkenstein: For all intents and purposes, yes. We did some gradation work and a few adjustments with the hair in post production.

F STOP: Did you do the postproduction?

Wolkenstein: I hired a postproduction company named Loop. I can do post production work, but these guys can do it much faster.

F STOP: What personal projects do you have in the works currently?

Wolkenstein: I’ve always got a few things that I am working on. I’m working on photographing a sculpture in meat. I’m struggling with how to make it look not too vile.

F STOP: How do you come up with your ideas?

Wolkenstein: I carry around a notebook and when I get time I just make notes about something that I’ve seen or an idea that pops into my head.

F STOP: How many times a year do you get to work on a personal project?

Wolkenstein: I’ve always got something on in the background. I’ve had a busy year because I have children. A lot of the things that I think of aren’t particularly photographic. They tend to be more sculptural in terms of existing in three dimensions. It could be a set or a model. The mere fact that I photograph it is because I am a photographer, more than these should exist as a photograph. I’m often thinking outside of two dimensions.An image from Wolkenstein’s portfolio

F STOP: Do you create these personal images with the intent of being hired or for your own self-fulfillment?

Wolkenstein: I think it’s a combination. Photographically it’s always promotional. I’ve realized that working with advertising agencies is interesting and one can do lots of great stuff, but that I am also a creative person. Stuff goes back in the world and the advertising people see it, and they start to wonder whether they should use it in advertising. I think everyone’s really aware that the industry as such is changing and has already changed a lot. I think the idea of doing visual gags in print ads is kind of over. A lot of stuff now is celebrity driven, all luxury-brand driven. It’s not quick kind of visual puns with copy at the bottom of it. That sort of day, or that style, is gone.

F STOP: Why do you think that is?

Wolkenstein: It’s just a creative style. The world moves on I guess. People aren’t really that interested. Advertising agencies are looking to be amazed; every art director wants to do something that doesn’t look like an ad, and that exists beyond ads.

F STOP: Some of your work falls under the funny category.

Wolkenstein: Oh, absolutely.

F STOP: Has that affected you in adverse ways? Are you concerned about that?

Wolkenstein: No. I’m moving as fast as them. If not maybe a quarter of a step faster. That’s why I’m developing my own stuff, because I think that the world of print will certainly change again in the next few years. I’m not quite sure where it’s going or in what guise, so I just keep doing my thing.

F STOP: Could you elaborate about where you think things are going stylistically?

Wolkenstein: I’m in London at the moment and I think that big print campaigns aren’t happening as much. You’ll see 2 or 3 major billboard campaigns as opposed to 6. Smaller stuff is happening, different and more diverse things. I don’t think print is the advertising agencies’ biggest agenda at the moment.

F STOP: So how are you positioning yourself to deal with that?

Wolkenstein: I’m trying to broaden what I do. I’m working, but I’m spending a lot of time doing my own things as well. Something will come out of those experiments that is potentially marketable or will keep me in the right spot.An image from Wolkenstein’s portfolio

F STOP: Do you think that humor in advertising is less desirable now?

Wolkenstein: Advertising is realizing that it has to entertain people. It can’t just tell people stuff, so I think that the humor will always be there. But I think the style and the way the humor works is probably a little bit different.

F STOP: And you think it’s going to continue on that path?

Wolkenstein: I think it’ll diverge. There’ll be little crops of this and little crops of that. I read something the other day that said advertising research groups have found that celebrity-driven ads are actually a little over exposed. I think that style will lag as well.

F STOP: That would certainly be nice.

Wolkenstein: Stick a celebrity in a photo is an aspirational thing. It’s a safe formula that works. However, it is getting over saturated. It’s like fashion, things come and go over the years. We’ve seen desaturated colors over the past 8-10 years and people in ad agencies are getting a bit sick of that and want some color. Color is hard to work with, unfortunately, but I definitely think it will make a comeback.

F STOP: How long have you been a photographer?

Wolkenstein: I studied photography until 1996, and then worked a few years as an assistant. I got an associates diploma. But I learned far more when I was assisting photographers. I started shooting in 1998 or 1999. Luckily I was exposed to the right people at the right time and one of the ads I did for an agency, actually my first year, won a finalist in Cannes that year.

F STOP: And you’ve been winning awards ever since. Overall you do have quite a long list, which is fantastic. Do you think that’s had a large impact on your career?

Wolkenstein: Oh, absolutely. I think it’s different than when art directors get awards but it’s definitely very important. Certainly when I was starting out, a little probably lesser now, although they’re always good.

F STOP: Tell me about that difference, of you getting an award versus an art director.An image from Wolkenstein’s portfolio

Wolkenstein: When an art director or copy writer wins an award their standing, within the agency is improved and it can directly impact their pay. When a photographer wins awards they obviously can make them much more marketable and far more appealing, but it doesn’t necessarily do anything for their fees.

F STOP: Do you ever think people are out there just to win awards. They only take on a project because they think it may be award winning?

Wolkenstein: I think everyone’s got a little bit more substance than purely just winning awards. There are certain agencies around the world who are certainly more award driven than other ones. And there’s a reason they’re award driven. They want to become creative and they want to push boundaries.

F STOP: Where are you from?

Wolkenstein: Originally from Sydney, Australia. I’ve been in London for about three years. I’m sort of splitting my time between London and Sydney, and Melbourne.

F STOP: I’m based in New York and the economy, as you may well know, isn’t fantastic at the moment.

Wolkenstein: Go on, you can say the R word. I know it’s unpatriotic, but you’re allowed to (laughs).

F STOP: How is the economy in London?

Wolkenstein: It’s a bit weird. Everyone here is very aware that there are problems, and there are problems here, big problems, the same as in America. But there’s also still work going. I was in an agency the other day talking to an art buyer and he said, “look I’ve seen two recessions in the last ten years, this is just another one. A couple of years there’ll be pain, and we’ll have to tighten the belts.” I think it’s definitely going to affect everything. It’s definitely affected workflow in New York. I was working in New York quite a bit last year. And now there’s quite a few briefs coming in but they tend to sort of dry up quite quickly. They can’t seem to get things approved.

F STOP: What advice do you have for photographers out there who haven’t been through a recession yet?An image from Wolkenstein’s portfolio

Wolkenstein: Live cheaply and don’t splurge too much. Put it back into your business or put it back into your photography, but don’t necessarily go out and buy a new camera. Put it into a project or something tangible to show people. I think when a recession comes up it’s an opportunity for younger or less experienced photographers that are prepared to do things that I might turn up my nose at because it’s too hard or I’m working on another project. There are good opportunities there, and I think that any advertising agency or magazines would be quick to realize that they can get things cheaper.

F STOP: So it’s a good time for younger, less experienced photographers.

Wolkenstein: There is also a lot of new technology. Now cameras do a lot of the hard work for you, especially digital. I don’t shoot on film very much at all, really. The last film shoot I did was about 2 ½ years ago. Having that safety net of shooting on digital onto a laptop, or even into a card, seeing what you’re doing as you’re going along, is much easier than when I was starting out. It would take me a lot longer to do a shoot, not just because I was waiting for Polaroid and learning how things worked. Now you can react to things very quickly and move things and change things as you’re shooting. I think that makes it a much easier entry point for people. Obviously you still need to understand lighting and how lighting works, but that’s something you can develop your own style with without having to spend a fortune on film and Polaroid.

F STOP: If you were starting out today, for example, as opposed to ten years ago, is there anything you’d be doing differently?

Wolkenstein: I’ve heard people say to not even contemplate being a photographer right now, or probably even in the future unless you really enjoy what you do. It’s really a lifestyle choice and it’s not as bountiful as it was ten or twenty years ago. Things are very corporate driven now and there’s no fat or excess. The days when art directors came to you with briefs where you fly out to some tiny island or massive city halfway across the world and go and shoot some stuff with a lot of creative freedom doesn’t really exist anymore.

F STOP: Would you go into it today, knowing what you know?

Wolkenstein: I enjoy it. I have a great time. I don’t think I’m capable of doing anything else anymore. But whether or not I would make that decision now, I’m not sure. If you speak to senior art directors now and ask them who the new cool kids in advertising are, many of them will tell you that there are not many. They’re all going into other industries because the lure of advertising isn’t there anymore.

F STOP: What are the things that people are going into?

Wolkenstein: Probably web or interactive stuff, design, fashion. I’m not sure. I don’t think they know either.

F STOP: So a potential art director is now doing something totally different?

Wolkenstein: I think it comes back to the change in the whole industry where people don’t want to make ads that look like ads, which I think is good. It’s not really an industry which can afford to or wants to just sit and put out the same stuff they did last year. It always wants to move and progress. That’s how it works.

Interview by Zack Seckler
Written by JoAnne Tobias
Edited by Jesi Khadivi
Diagram by Linda Arredondo

This piece was originally published 8/1/08 on Zack Seckler’s formally named publication The F STOP.

Zack Seckler