From sleek car photography to conceptual still life and witty portraits Photographer Ian Butterworth wears many hats working as an ad photographer in the diverse Australian market. On the international stage he’s become well known as someone who can bring a humorous concept to life; walking the fine line between refined humor and silliness. He excels in the technical accomplishments of image making but often shows that complicated lighting and Photoshop work aren’t required to create memorable advertising imagery. Our featured image proves this perfectly.
In our interview Butterworth begins discussing how he created a wonderfully humorous image of a man with a multi-functional mustache. He later discusses why he turns down many ad jobs, how he’s achieved international recognition and advises budding photographers about building their portfolios.
Seckler: Let’s start by talking about the image we’re featuring of this man with the ‘distinct’ mustache. What was the ad for and how did you get the job?
Butterworth: [The job was for] a brand of cereal called Sultana Bran by Kellogg’s. Sultana Bran is very tasty, [and the idea was] to come up with images that were tasteless. The client was going out on a limb a little bit on this one because they’re a pretty staid, conservative, mainstream client. It required quite a bit of work with the art director and myself to make something that they wouldn’t reject.
The job came from JWT Sydney Australia, an agency I have worked with quite regularly. As soon as I saw it I was pretty sure this was going to be a great campaign to work on. Even in its simple line drawing way, the art director had captured the essence of the campaign. So for me it was just to do it in the best possible way to make it funny.
Seckler: The image is hilarious; tell me how you made it happen.
Butterworth: Casting was paramount in that, before you look at any other technique or where you’re going to do it, you’ve got to have the right guy. I wanted ‘comb over man’ to look like an awkward employee of the month shot with a background that sat well with the ‘Tasteless’ theme. After a bit of a hunt we found our guy through an acting agency but needed to add to his hair loss so we shaved him for the gag to work. The hair and makeup artist had pre-made the hairpiece so all that was required was to style on set. The indifferent expression was a perfect counterbalance to the absurdity of the hair and what ultimately makes this picture funny.
Seckler: What about the lighting?
Butterworth: I wanted to try to make it almost like an employee of the month type of shot, but a bit more refined than that. I didn’t want it to be too much of a snapshot, but I also didn’t want to take it too far and too studied. It really is a textbook type of copy lighting, really. If anything, I didn’t want it to be too flat. So I used fairly hard heads on my lights, and I got a bit of punch out of it. I used two Broncolor heads with beauty dishes plus diffusion at 45 degrees to the subject. [I then put] a large scrim above camera that I put a Broncolor head directly through. The scrim picks up the highlight on the face and the cross lighting adds to the modeling and puts catch lights in the eyes. Three Grafit A4’s gave me plenty of depth, f/22, as I wanted the background sharp. It was taken with a Phase One P45+ back on a Hasselblad H1 with a 80mm.
Seckler: How was the image received?
Butterworth: They loved it. Which is good, because we didn’t have much time at all once makeup was done. Maybe an hour. And I think I probably nailed that job within ten minutes. There was some debate on how to go. We could have hammed it up more, but I think this passive approach allows it to be funnier. And that’s probably the case with a lot of comedy in photography. If you go too far with expression, it loses its integrity.
Seckler: Yes, I feel like a lot of the work you is understated to a degree.
Butterworth: I think that’s the type of humor I respond to. I’m English. I think it’s an English given that we like a bit of understated humor.
Seckler: This was for an Australian Kellogg’s brand; do you think Australian companies are a little more open to understated humor than others?
Butterworth: On the whole I would say no. I think this campaign was quite rare. There are certain clients where they can appreciate it, but I think on the whole we’re quite conservative here. Whereas perhaps in a small market like New Zealand, they might go further. And in a large market like the States, they tend to go straighter. But that’s a generalization, of course. There’s always the odd one that slips through.
Seckler: It’s interesting you mentioned New Zealand because I’ve seen a lot of really creative advertising come out of there.
Butterworth: Yes. Whether it’s just that there’s more freedom – I can’t say. But they seem to be willing to take risks.
Seckler: Speaking of specific markets, how do you find working in Australia?
Butterworth: Australia is a bit of a slow market, which has been good for me because I haven’t really specialized in any one particular area. As a photographer in Australia you have to be quite resourceful. We don’t have the resources, equipment or talent, or budgets of the US or Europe. If you’re putting up lights up with string, you work in Australia.
Seckler: Distance-wise, Australia is far away from everything, but you’ve managed to really penetrate the international client list. Tell me how you’ve been able to do this.
Butterworth: Having worked in London, I’m much more aware of the bigger picture of photography, the global standing of photography. And I was dead set on making sure that I worked in different markets, from the onset.
Seckler: Can you give some examples of how it’s different then working in Europe?
Butterworth: Australian’s are by nature migratory. They love to do their stint overseas. And that’s whether traveling for school or for college or for work. I think if you’re in this industry especially, you love to experience what it’s like to be working in New York, London, or Europe. And so these art directors who I know from [Australia], they end up in New York. We keep in touch. I’m passing through and I go and see them. Easy to make an appointment. Walk straight in, the book gets in front of the art buyer, and we start a relationship.
Seckler: Tell me a little bit about how you got started in the business.
Butterworth: I started photography at fourteen in school. I was lucky enough to have a course at school that – I probably only took it because I didn’t want to do chemistry or physics. But I loved it from the onset. I knew right from fifteen that I wanted to be a photographer. Then I went to art college, because I thought it would be better to get a little wider perspective. Which was the best thing I probably ever did, because I think even today I still very much draw on what I learned through college, and that kept my interest up in art. Then I traveled. I went ’round the world. At seventeen to eighteen, I traveled the world for eighteen months with a camera, cause I thought, ‘how am I going to get a job?’ Well, the only way I’m going to get a job is show good pictures. And since I didn’t have access to studio or anything like that, I figured I’d just take pictures as I traveled. With that portfolio, I got my first job in a London studio. And I was lucky that in the ’80s the industry was really growing. We were on planes nearly every two to three weeks, jumping around countries, huge jobs, big budgets, and really experiencing some of the best of what it was le to be a photographer. Then I got married and moved to Australia in ’93 and set up my own business.
Seckler: The industry has changed a lot over the years. Have you ever had differences of opinion regarding production, or artistic direction, or budgets?
Butterworth: Oh yeah. I lose jobs quite regularly for wanting to do it one way, and the client, the agency, will choose a cheaper option, the less exciting option. It happens. It happens all the time.
Seckler: Do you think that that puts you in a higher category because people respect your vision, or do you think people say, ‘Ian’s going to want to do it this way, and that could be a problem?’
Butterworth: To be honest I think it puts you in a place of quality. I think you can’t swing around too much. You got to stand by some principles along the way, stand by the quality of your work, which is why they want to use you over someone else in the first place.
Seckler: Do you have any advice for those new photographers who are just starting to get their first couple jobs?
Butterworth: Shoot like crazy because you’re always going to learn from your mistakes. That’s the way you learn. And what better media than digital to make mistakes. So keep shooting. But I also think it’s really important to not to [put your book out] too early. If you can, just work on your book and release your book at a better point. If you go out too early, you’re going to get caught in some low-end rung work that you won’t enjoy doing.
Seckler: Let’s change gears a little bit. Tell me about your series La Costa Life.
Butterworth: It’s got a special place in my world, La Costa Life. It all stemmed back from my childhood, going on holiday in the south of Spain. A lot of that imagery is borne out of nostalgia. I love street photography, and that’s the real core of me as a photographer. But I’ve also worked in advertising, where I’ve manipulated images. And La Costa Life is a blend of that, the raw instinct of photography with a more creative finish.
Seckler: And so these were, I assume, all shot where you used to vacation.
Seckler: What was the point of it? What did you desire to achieve?
Butterworth: In my personal work I’ve always gone from project to project and this is one that started six years ago. Before that I was traveling the States in a kind of a black-and-white cinematic way. So I think the projects, they just bubble away and they need to come out.
Seckler: Is the work just for fun, or for a more professional purpose?
Butterworth: Well, there’s a book that I would like to happen. It’s not sealed but it’s on the cards. But there’s also the whole experience, which is enjoyable in itself.
Seckler: We touched on this earlier, but I’d like to go back to it. How did you get into doing humor as one of your areas of expertise?
Butterworth: I think it started early with tests that I did and put a few in my book. You get your first funny ad and if it’s done well, it starts a little bit of a roller coaster. You get a few more. I love the work of someone like Martin Parr. A great photographer, and that whole tradition of that English humor is wonderful. So it’s only natural for me, and the more you show the more you tend to get of that type of brief.
Seckler: Cars are also a favorite subject of yours.
Butterworth: Yeah, absolutely. I do cars because I can do cars. I never see myself as a car photographer. I don’t have perhaps the latest tricks up my sleeve, how to go about it. But it’s something I had experience with when I was first starting out, and I guess I’ve stayed good at it…pleased the art directors enough that they keep coming back to me.
Seckler: Have you done any video work?
Butterworth: Yes, a bit. I directed about six TV spots several years ago. To be honest I didn’t enjoy the process so much at that time. A lot more people are involved. Suddenly you’ve got a crew of 30 and you’re trying to get your voice across. You’ve got this steamroller that’s going ahead, whether you show up or not. It was a good experience, but looking back on it I wasn’t with the right people. The funny thing is, I’m about to do a little thing in a couple weeks, a little motion thing.
Seckler: So you’re thinking of getting into it again?
Butterworth: Definitely. I can see that it’s going to creep in more and more into mainstream photography, and I’m certainly going to embrace it. And hopefully it enhances what I can give as a package.
Seckler: Do you think that the still-only jobs are going to decrease?
Butterworth: Eventually. I think here [in Australia] it will take a long time, but if I look long-term I would say yes. I think if you talk to most advertisers, the consensus is most of them are going to involve movement [not just stills] in the future – we don’t even know exactly what format. The moving image, whether it’s a simple movement across a poster or a very quick little put-together little online moving image that is a precursor to the print ad, is something that people and advertisers really want. It’s all grabbing that share of the market, wanting to make a splash and just be noticed.
Written by Zack Seckler
Edited by Greg Faherty
This piece was originally published 12/1/10 on Zack Seckler’s formally named publication The F STOP.