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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.

Commercial

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

An Interview with broncolor Featured Photographer Elias Wessel

We caught up with Elias Wessel on a shoot this week.  Here’s what he had to say:

CK: How did you become a photographer?  Describe your career development?

EW: I would have to say that graffiti was the catalyst for my love of art. At the age of 16 meeting Sigmar Polke at his huge retrospective in Bonn, Germany made me even more interested in fine arts. Following that, I started to draw and then  had paintings exhibited about 2 years later.   Also during that time, my best friend, who I had a crush on, moved to London.    Our only source of communication was through mail. I wanted my mails to look good and make her feel special on top of what I wrote to her.   I created my own envelopes by cutting out my favorite pictures out of hundreds of magazines.   I collected thousands of tearsheets and still remember vividly pictures by David La Chapelle,  Guy Bourdin,  Jeff Koons and others who caught my breath.   Since then I have always wanted to be able to re-create these wonderful feelings that those pictures gave me and started to draw pictures and take photographs of everything I loved.

CK:  More specifically, was there one or more life changing moments that helped you move to the next level and become the photographer that you are now?  Perhaps a big break, a perfect mentor, a movie, a mystical moment?

EW:  What incredibly changed me and my work was the break up after 8 years with my former personal and professional friend and partner in 2008.   I had to start all over and ask myself what makes me unique as a photographer.   I figured the only possible answer can be:  Myself!   Beginning with my “Falling Up” story my work tells so much about me and that what makes it special.   However I am very often asked how I consider myself as a photographer and my style. There’s no straight answer which feels totally adequate to me.   You can say it is the way I play with time and freeze a moment or a motion.   V magazine recently published a selection of my work and wrote “When time stops, your pose had better be fierce”.   You can mention the saturated colors or the sort of magical realism.   It can be cheeky happiness,  subliminal concepts,  beauty or sensitiveness.   It always depends on the content of the story I am working on.   Those who know me can say it may be my personal experiences which are always somehow reflected in my photographs. I would say as everything changes and develops in life all this can change and develop from picture to picture as well.   There are moments every day which make me and my work more and more sophisticated.   You just have to be aware of them.

CK: How do you learn your techniques?

EW: Working at advertising agencies, design bureaus as well as assistant, production and studio manager made me understand the different parties who are involved in the process of creating photographs.   I know about their expectations, their thinking, their needs, their fears and about the whole process from the point of view of all participating sides.   Studying with a huge focus on theory helped me to achieve a general idea about any field of the arts, a basic knowledge about anything which deals with art, visual communication and its reception.   It can be a deep source for new ideas. Schooling didn’t really teach me about the technical side of photography or lighting.   That is something I learned by assisting and working in the fields of photography but even more by realizing one personal project after another.   It taught me how to create, communicate and realize ideas. And it can give you the time to experiment and to develop.   A while ago I met David La Chapelle here in New York and I remember how he reminded me how fortunate I can be of being able to do my own thing.   Even if it is not without a struggle.   Studying also taught me to get up and motivate myself every single day to work on my ideas because nobody really cared about what I did.   It can be dangerous depending of what kind of character you are but it also can teach you confidence in what you do and that you are the only one who is responsible for anything you do.

CK:  Who are your photo heroes? Or who has inspired your career?

EW:  There are so many.   It wouldn’t make sense to drop names.   Most of all I´m inspired by the reason why I´m doing this. I want to experience a feeling, that goes into bowels.   But I also want to create a transcendency so that this feeling reaches the viewer.   I also find very interesting the intersection between fashion and fine art photography and how to merge those genres. Typical fashion images focus on beauty and clothing as their central elements.   To me it is not fashion itself but the image that suppose to fascinate the viewer.   I believe that this is what appeals to clients who really care about being exclusive. At the end it all comes to the feeling you get from the picture you are looking at, not just the picture of the product.

CK: What is the worst part about doing what you do?

EW: If I could I would be out there taking pictures everyday. A huge part of photography deals with everything else than creating and taking pictures.

CK: What is the best part?

EW: All my works you see in this story have given me the most satisfaction because there are a lot of photographs that don’t make it. Every picture I’ve taken is from the past but it is the ones in the future that I’m looking forward to taking most.

Learning from the Pro

EW:  What are we going to shoot today?

“Falling Up”. A personal project which will be exhibited in New York and also be published as editorial. Falling is something involuntarily. Something threatening you get forced to.   In contrast “Up” is a synonym for success.   This aporia results out of the two contrary moving directions: Down = falling and Up = Up.   A conflict which was indissoluble at that current period of my life.   “Falling” as well as “Up” relate to my very private and professional areas of life which were strongly linked over 9 years.   “Falling Up” is based on personal experiences, thoughts, symbols and metaphors. Analogies to “Mary Poppins”, “Rumpelstiltskin” and the “Shock Headed Peter” finally allow to express my emotions as well as making a statement about the current art and fashion industry.  “Falling Up” is a modern fairy tale out of my personal past, present and future.

CK: How did you learn how to do what you are about to show us?

EW: It’s probably the same answer I gave when asking me how I learned my techniques. To sum it up in one word I would have to say it’s experience.

CK: What tools are you using to make this image?

EW:  503 CW Hasselblad with a Leaf Aptus II – 7 with lenses from 25mm to 150mm. SBI ParaFb 170, Pulsoflex 80×80, Verso A4 and A2, beauty dish and P70 reflector, 2 Pulso heads, Ringflash P, the sun, clouds as well as my heart and my brain.

CK: Why did you choose these tools?

EW: “Falling Up” was shot on location in Long Island City, New York with a great mix out of different set ups including day and night shots. So being flexible without sacrificing quality and to be able to control every situation on set
was my first priority.   I took advantage of the para 170 using it as a soft filling light. With the heads and reflectors I was able to adapt to every single situation, setting highlights, focus on different parts of the scene. The Verso allowed me to add crunch and a little magic at the best possible speed.

CK: Did you use competing products in the past? What made you change?

EW: I worked with pretty much all available lighting and camera equipment and used everything from 35mm to large format cameras – film and digital.   I’m in the lucky position that I got into photography by using film and digital equipment at the same time. The experience of working in the dark room, processing my own films, making my own contact sheets and prints help me to understand what happens in digital photography and post production. Same with the lighting gear.   I always like to test all equipment which might be of any interest.   Currently I prefer working with the 503CW Hasselblad and the Leaf Aptus II always in combination with broncolor lights.   It just works for me and gives me the consistency and flexibility I need. The decision of the equipment I use as well as the decision of shooting in studio or on location depends on the pictures I have in mind. Not the other way around. The cooperation with Bron Imaging Group is based on how I use my lighting which plays a big role in my work and gives it it’s consistency.   No matter if I have a huge set up of lights or just a bare bulb in combination with available light. It always defines the look of my pictures and bron recognizes this.   But this cooperation is more than that.   The guys from bron are part of my team, part of my photo-family and they care about my work and about photography just as much as I do.   That is what really matters to me.

ELIAS WESSEL
VISUAL ARTIST / PHOTOGRAPHER
www.eliaswessel.com

An Interview with NYC broncolor Fashion Photographer Thorsten Roth

I started taking pictures early on, around the age of 12. For both, my father and grandfather photography was a hobby. My grandfather was actually a serious amateur-film-geek. So I grew up with Super 8 and started to film occasionally on trips and family vacations when I was eleven years old. I loved the medium but wanted more control and I found that photography was the field to be in. By the time I was thirteen I bought my first camera and grated up to a Nikon FE two years later due to a school workshop. I had my first exhibition of street-portraits when I turned sixteen. I think I fell in love with being in charge and overcoming certain personnel boundaries. It was exciting!

I remember very well one of the key-moments that I had at the age of fifteen – on T.V. I was watching a documentary about Oliviero Toscani shooting and creative directing for Benetton It just made click in my guts and I knew which direction I wanted to take. Ten years later (meanwhile I had graduated from one of the best Photo/Film/Design Schools in Germany, the FH Bielefeld and had moved to Paris right afterwards) I had the pleasure to assist Toscani on a two weeklong Benetton production in the renowned PIN UP Studios. For me it was a dream coming true, just like walking on clouds. And then again very funny coincidence, another 11 years later – I hadn’t seen Oliviero for a long time, just a week before my move from Paris to New York I ran into him in a lab, we had a good laugh. Photographically he didn’t really influence me that much but I admire his game in advertising – a real psychological master: A) he’s talking the gospel B) he always knows when and how to push the right buttons. I think Toscani is a genius in his own right; he has a great sense of humor, too. Ha-ha

Well, since my college-time I was shooting little ad-jobs and worked as a photojournalist for different papers. My technical foundation as a photographer I certainly acquired from my long time as an assistant – my first job in Paris was a freelance position at Condé Nast, working on VOGUE, VOGUE HOMME and GLAMOUR productions, I worked with many of the big boys. At the beginning here in New York I free-lanced around like crazy and assisted for example Patrick Demarchelier for a couple of years. Later on I got around as a hired gun particularly because of my good knowledge of light. So make a long story short, I guess I can say without pretension that I learnt from the best.

In these times of “sometime” over-post-production I remain a strong believer of doing as much as possible “on camera” – I think the right high-standard approach and mix between old-school shooting-style and cutting edge digital technologies will bring me the best results.

If you ask me for my photo heroes, there are so many but the most important ones are certainly the following: Guy Bourdin, Chris Von Wangenheim, Helmut Newton, WeeGee, August Sander and E.J. Bellocq.

I remember having a moment back in Paris at a point when my career looked liked anything that would ever happen. My apartment in the 18th Arrondissement faced a nice backyard, the night was just about to fall and a beautiful pink moon was lighting the scene. I had one more Polaroid in my old SX70 and said to myself: “What the heck, probably it won’t work, but just try it!” In the scene was a small, brightly shining window and the little, technical voice in the back of my head started to lament: “It’s going to burn out, it’s going to burn out!” It turned out that the exposure-time was proximately 3 seconds, handhold! – and I swear to God after one second of exposure the window-light went off and I had my perfect shot, in Polaroid, unique! That was such a magical moment, almost religious. The beautiful, framed photograph hangs on the wall in my apartment, it’s my personnel, little treasure and often before a shooting when I walk by, I feel gratitude and it reminds me of the fact that talent is just a borrowed gift that needs to be taken care of. When Lady Muse shows up around the corner and is ready for a date, never second-guess, just grab her by the hand and go for it. I also try to approach every shoot almost as if it could be my last, this way there is a good chance that I’ll be fine and do great work! For me being a photographer is one of the best jobs in this world, it’s living the dream!

In Paris I shot for many years famous and not so famous American Jazz Musicians. In 2002 the Smithsonian Institution in D.C accepted right after my arrival in New York my portfolio of these photographs. I learnt a lot from these guys but most importantly I developed one very important component of my style and that is the mix of inspired improvisation and well-prepared structure. As an artist you MUST know your technique inside out/second nature so you kind of be able to “forget” it and to get loose. Let inspiration and the moment take over!

The last five years I was a member of the famous Boxing Gym GLEASON’s in Brooklyn, at the very beginning just to shoot and then to become a boxer myself and to give my take from the inside. Boxing is a great meditation and a balance to the professional photo-world. I had an exhibition during the Dumbo Art Festival in 2006 and Everlast featured my work in their Magazine in 2007. But most importantly boxing strengthened my back-bone, my stamina and it emphasized a virtue that every photographer must have in order to make it, no matter on which level he/she is: Exercise, train and never give up!

The featured fashion-story “Luxe Generation” for MR Magazine just came out. I developed the autumn 2010 men’s story with my fashion-director John Jones. We shot in studio and I used the BRONCOLOR Ring flash C. I love that light because it perfectly fits in with my other lighting techniques and helps me to keep a consistent style in my photography, an edgy look that represents my vision and makes my work recognizable. I modified the Ring flash a little bit, put a grid up-front and intensified the fall-off with black-foil paper. This is where the instinctive feel for each shot kicks in. Shooting this story just felt like a dance.

Depending on distance, the featured fashion, my frame, the angle etc. I modified the fall-off also to get away from too much uniformity. There is one feature on the Ring flash C that I like; the ten 20-Watts Halogen model-lights help tremendously with the auto-focus of the camera. In my shoot the Ring flash was powered by the SCORO AS 4, a real Formula One racing-machine, perfect for fashion if you like to go fast! Ha-ha

Thanks again to Sean Moser from Scheimpflug for the great service!

Altogether I honestly have to say that broncolor-packs are my favorite strobe-packs and this is not just some PR talk. I grew up with them back in Germany during my college-time; it was the lighting equipment we were trained on. As an assistant I loved them, because they were very reliable and that took away a lot of heat from us especially when we were shooting chrome-film. Everybody knew that we absolutely needed to be on, if not no food for the assistants or when you were on production out of town you could spend the night somewhere in a yard in the doghouse. Ha-ha
Now I am using them for my own work and I adore the precision and features of the packs. As a photographer they give me a lot of technical freedom and various options particularly in more complex lighting situations.

Do I really need to mention that broncolor is a Suisse company; I think that we shouldn’t expect anything less than the best in lighting equipment from a region that builds the world’s best watches, should we?!

Thorsten Roth
www.thorstenroth.net