Photographer Profile: An Interview with Aaron Muntz

Aaron Muntz discusses the start of his career, and how he continues to grow and create today:

“I became a photographer via the usual route I believe… I got a hold of my father’s camera and went to town, photographing everything. I was into skateboarding and music so I photographed those things a lot. But I was also drawn to photographing these mundane objects as I found them, out in the world, part landscape, part still life. I was encouraged by art teachers and other teachers to continue to explore the medium. At first, I thought I wanted to be a photo journalist. But once I went to University, I quickly realized I liked the control I found in the studio and the challenges of what I came to understand as commercial photography. I studied in the Visual Communications dept at Ohio University, one of the first programs of its kind. After school it was, internship, assisting, shooting, assisting some more, shooting some more. Now, after 15 years in the industry, I’ve translated the years of assisting and working as lighting consultant for still life, interior and beauty photographers into a career as a still life photographer. Now my clients are beginning to seek out motion and still photography projects shot in tandem, so I have found myself learning and mastering new skills as I bring my precision lighting techniques to motion.

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There are a couple stories I love to tell about becoming a photographer.

The first is likely part legend, but when I was a kid, my family went on vacation in the Smokey Mountains. We climbed Chimney Rock. It wasn’t easy, the weather was bad, but we were determined to get to the top. When we finally made it, my parents handed me the Polaroid camera and I took my first picture. Just the usual tourist photo of my parents proud to have made the trip, but for me, watching that Polaroid develop, sparked the beginning of a lifelong interest in image making. That’s how I like to remember it.

The second story is about the beginning of my career. I did an internship with photographer Jaime Biondo in San Francisco. It was an eye opening experience where I learned more about photography, on every level, lighting, composition, image making, retouching, business, etc. than I had in any class. At the end of the summer I was determined to transfer to a school in the bay area to finish my degree and continue working. When I told Jaime about the plan, he was adamant that I finish school at Ohio University and move to NYC for at least a few years. I’ve been here for fifteen years and never looked back.

In NYC I’ve had the pleasure of working as assistant to some of the most genuine and talented photographers as well as shooting for incredible art directors, photo editors and a host of other creative people. I assisted Craig Cutler full time for 5 years and his work ethic and talent has been a huge influence on my business practices and image making. I still look up to him, his lighting skills are second to none and what I learned from him I now refer to as precision lighting. I’ve not worked with another photographer that fit that description.

Still Life

I learned so much about technique from working with Craig. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. Of course I didn’t stop learning there, I learned a little something from each of the photographers I’ve assisted over the years and developed some of my own tricks along the way. So much of it is trial and error and trying to think outside of the box. As a photographer, or as a lighting tech, I am handed a problem and it is my job to figure out how to solve that problem. Sometimes I can reach into my existing bag of tricks, I know the exact right answer. Other times I’m finding inspiration from the world around me. Trying to recreate a type of light I find in the real world, or to create something completely surreal that could never happen outside of a controlled studio environment.

Still Life

I also get ideas when I see new fixtures or new lighting packages. Broncolor is great for this since they have such an extensive library of modifiers and fixtures. And they always seem to be coming up with something new. Sometimes I look at a new light and I know exactly how I want to use it, other times I find myself in a pre-pro meeting or on set discussing the lighting and I realize that a fixture I saw would solve a lighting problem that has come up. One of my favorite problem solving fixtures are the Broncolor Striplites and Lightbars. They can be used in so many creative ways. It’s a personal goal to use as many fixtures as I can in ways that were never intended.

Now that photography and motion are intersecting more and more I’m learning new techniques by working with gaffers. I’ve found that we have vastly different techniques for lighting still photography than most gaffers do on motion sets. So I think when I work with the right people, there is a real idea exchange. Most gaffers don’t really understand precision lighting, and as a still photographer, I never understood the demands of lighting for motion. Part of that is the difference between additive and subtractive lighting, but it also has to do with the type of fixtures and how modifiable they are. The new Kobold line offer’s us the ability to cross over some of that precision lighting into the motion world. Most gaffers I’ve worked with have never seen a beauty dish.

Craig Cutler and Sarah Silver are the two photographers that I have worked with who have had the most influence on my career. I guess I consider them to be heros. They are inspirations as image makers and business people.

As a young artist, I was heavily influenced by the pop artists. I was obsessed with Andy Warhol for a long time. Now I find myself less influenced by his work and more by the work ethic, his drive to create and create. Andreas Gursky, Edward Burtynsky and Vincent Laforet, are a few other photographers I’ve followed. But I’m always trying to look at new artists to keep my own work fresh. Not that I want to recreate their work but allow it to inspire. Lately I’ve been looking at Ryan McGinley and Guy Bourdin a lot.”

Still Life

When asked what his least favorite part of his career, Aaron states:

“That’s a loaded question, isn’t it. I guess the worst part about my job is the some times long hours. I love what I do, but I also love spending time with my lovely wife. Luckily she is an understanding woman who also works in this business as a producer. We often find ourselves sending frustrated text messages to each other at the end of the day, apologizing for having to work late. But that’s all part of the package.”

And the best…

“I love my job. I walk into an empty room and work as part of a team to create images from the ground up. That’s a pretty simplified way of putting it, but I love seeing projects through from the beginning to end. I get to work with my brain and my hands and collaborate with creative people from so many disciplines. And I’m doing something a little different each time I walk into the studio.”

Still Life

Finally, Aaron takes a moment to tell us more about the equipment he is currently working with:

“- Pulso G4 Lamp with frosted pyrex

-I’ve found that the frosted pyrex really fills the reflector and takes full advantage of the fixtures shape and focusing ability. For precision beauty photography the frosted pyrex takes a little of the edge off of the fixtures snappy nature. The diffusion options offer even more control over the light quality. I’ve found the combination of the frosted pyrex with the #3 diffuser, at just the right distance, offers a gorgeous glow on the skin, in very compact package.

– Kobold DW 400

-The Kobold 400 in combination with the Para 88 has really changed the way I deal with shooting motion in combination with still images on set. In the past it was a painstaking process to change out fixtures entirely, and to approximate the quality of light from one fixture to the other. Very few parabolic options for continuous light actually exist. For precision beauty especially, the quality of light is so key. The fact that I can pull the Pulso lamp out of the fixture, without changing the focus and replace the head with a Kobold DW 400, ensures that when I strike the light, we are already 99% there as far as light quality is concerned. From there its just a matter of firing up some DW 800s on the background to match the look of the still image.

The fact that the DW 400 can be adapted to so many of the Broncolor fixtures, means that we can easily swap to video no matter what which fixture, look we are trying to accomplish.

Now that the DW 400 is in our arsenal, we find ourselves reaching for it even when shooting stills. I’ve always loved the quality of continuous light for still photography. I’ve used it extensively for still life, and for fashion and beauty, I’ve used it for shutter drag effects as well as for the soft quality that comes from continuous light that you just can’t get with the snap of a strobe.”

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To see more of Aaron’s work, visit his site: aaroncameronmuntz.com