Hi Dave, first of all many thanks for being a juror on the work submitted for this volume. Let’s start with this question: What do you remember about your first collaboration as an art director with a photographer?
The first photograph I remember being involved in was with a photographer called Charles Settrington, who was actually a lord – Lord Settrington. He used to do what is called trompe l’œil where you paint things that are 2D but appear to be 3D and you put some objects on them. So I did some terrible ad for a cutlery company and the idea was that all the background and the plates and the napkin were all painted but the cutlery was real. And we did all that, and it looked great, and then an account man came into the room and said, “Oh you should keep the edges in, where he’s not painted it, because otherwise you won’t know that it’s a painting.” And I said, “No, no, they’re scruffy. We don’t want that, we want it all neat.” So I made it that there were no rough edges, I cropped it. So of course you couldn’t tell it was painted. It was a waste of time! The account man was right. We should have kept some of the edges, so you could see it was imperfect. But at the time I wasn’t confident enough to do something as scruffy as having the paint running out at the edges.
What other work with photographers do you remember from the early days?
Well, there is one that is interesting because it shows how much photography has changed over the years. Obviously, now you don’t need to capture the final image on film the way you used to. And some of that is good and some of it is bad. I remember when I was a very young art director I did an ad for lager that was very low alcohol and the idea was just to have a simple shot of the can on a white background, and the can was tilted so you could just read the “Best before,” so you have a date, and in this ad it then listed all the competitors. It was a simple ad, like a double-page spread. And we got Jerry Oke, a very good photographer. Bear in mind this is a picture of a can of lager on a white background and I kept him there until about 12 at night trying to get him to try this, and then try that, and move the lighting. Partly because you didn’t want to come back with images that needed lots of retouching because retouching used to show more in those days. So you did try to capture it on film. And so part of me thinks, it’s good to be that perfectionist, and part of me thinks, “What was I doing?” Surely Jerry Oke could have shot a can of beer on a white background without me. What on earth could I have been suggesting? I kept him there till midnight. So I’m bit torn on that. I do think sometimes now there is a lack of concentration. People do want to keep on the move all the time. They are like, “We’ve covered that option, what should we do next?” And in that there is sometimes a lack of focus and attention to detail that can ultimately result in a blander kind of work. There is not enough experimentation going on in that, the kind you resort to when there is a moment of desperation, not unlike that of a runner who comes up against this kind of wall, a moment of despair where you throw the whole thing around a little bit more. You need to question yourself more and not think, “It will be okay once we retouch it.” You’re never dealing with a finished thing. Most photographers nowadays will say, “No, this is only for this bit.” So you’re never looking at a complete image where you can judge it. They have all these little perfect bits, these perfect little still lifes that they’re shooting and then you put them all together, and often you think, well it’s not really perfect, is it? So the danger of putting together all these perfect shots – let’s say in car photography, shots of the wheels, of the roof, of the reflection coming off of the thing, all perfectly lit – is that you end up with an imperfect, slightly boring image.
So the whole becomes less than the sum of its parts …
Yes, while sometimes if you’re just working with one light, one thing, and we focus on how we make this live, the wheels may not be lit perfectly, but the overall image turns out to be stronger. People nowadays are not concentrating on the big frame, they’re concentrating on lots of little still lifes. Another thing I’ve noticed is that photographic shoots used to be a little bit tense. The vibe used to be kind of anxious because you’re pushing forward, you’re concentrating on something, you’re trying to make it better. There may be comments – from either the agency or the client – that someone disagrees with. And we had to resolve those issues. Should it be this way or that way? You couldn’t accommodate them all. Whereas now, with all the options open, it makes for a very convivial, friendly environment. Everyone’s eating sandwiches and chatting and laughing, and you’re knocking things off and trying different options. But I kind of miss the real absolute focus of just looking through the camera and saying: “Is that really as good as can be?”
Because it all can be fixed digitally later anyway?
Yeah, kind of. It results in not really focusing, it’s an attention deficit. It’s been interesting for me judging this book because at the same time I was asked to do a book on David Abbott, and we had had trouble finding some of the old work. So I bought a bundle of old magazines and I was just struck by the quality of the images in the editorial and the advertising in there. They were from the 70s and 80s, right through that period. It was so strong and it just seemed to me to be such a different level from what you see around now. Also, I think there is much more of a trend to conform now than there used to be. If you walk past lots of posters, let’s say at the airport, you’ll see lots of smiling people: they’ll be quite attractive people, though they won’t be models and they won’t be normal. They’ll be the kind of “best group of real people.” They’ll look sort of real-ish, but perfect real. Everybody shoots in that area. It’s all the same. So you’ll get no striking shots where someone is in half-light and you can perhaps just pick out one eye, for example, because that is, you know, possibly too gloomy. Or the other way is where it’s all blown out and it’s all white apart from a few things. It’s all set in a sort of superficial real world, perfect world, where everyone is happy. It’s all slightly bland and they have different logos attached to them. So you walk through an airport and at the other end you have seen lots of very smiley, bland people and you can’t remember who’s for who or what they were really smiling about. So – and this is the point I’m trying to make – it’s become more conformist. Certainly when I was getting into the business, the whole idea was not to conform, the whole idea was if everyone is doing that then do the opposite because only then do you stand out.
“Zig while others zag” … So you think the idea of standing out is not that important to clients anymore?
It’s become less important. It’s a crazy thing: I don’t think anyone would come out and say, “Yes, we’re less interested in it,” but in the process of making work where it should be number one, it’s somewhere lower down on the list, or everybody gets so close to the thing that they end up thinking about this one thing, rather than the context it will be appearing in, a magazine, a website, in an airport … And they forget that the whole point is to somehow stand out and arrest someone’s attention. If you do things the way everybody else does, you’re not going to stand out. And it used to be the number one priority – that’s why you employed an agency because everyone can put information down and take pictures. The skill is in making yours stand out and be more memorable than anyone else’s.
Another curse at the moment is that too many things are mocked up with found images. And what that does is it kills things at birth because you’re essentially copying. People get used to “We’ve found a picture of a boy on a swing.” And it’s shot front-on and he’s wearing a blue cardigan and there is sky behind him. And people get used to that, and if we shoot it in a different way, let’s say the boy against the contrast of a housing estate, you might want to shoot from underneath the swing. There is a whole bunch of possibilities if you can play with that idea that may be nothing like the Google image you found but may be a more powerfully resonating image. But the problem is, once you’ve cast it in stone, once this layout has been kicking around for a month or two, it’s very hard to say we’ve moved on. So it can stop anyone thinking beyond the layout. That’s why it’s sometimes better to do a drawing because then it’s all to be thought about rather than copied.
When I looked at the submissions to this book – there were more than 8,500 of them – it became quite clear that, nowadays, there are no images in advertising that have not been tinkered with digitally. How do you feel about that? And do you feel that the borders between photography and illustration have become blurred as a result of CGI?
When I talk to these older photographers, I’m always very interested to hear how they feel about it. Because, on the one hand, it’s amazing. I used to go to retouchers and you could see the retouching. It seems incredible now that people used to retouch onto the film – they would be using acids and things. It seems prehistoric now. And you could see if something was retouched. Now, it’s easy to hide. On the other hand, it all looks retouched in the sense that it doesn’t look real. Most photography nowadays doesn’t look natural. So although you can’t see the obvious areas of retouching, you feel that it doesn’t look like a real image either because they’ve taken out too many wrinkles or imperfections, or they’ve played around with the color by boosting or draining. So it has the overall feeling of fake. And, obviously, fake generally isn’t something you’d want any brand to be associated with really. But this has become an accepted thing. It comes from Photoshop and we’re fine with it. If you want to invisibly mend shots, you can – but you have to be careful. It’s like plastic surgery, you know. You can do it so that nobody notices it, or you can get to a point that, once you start, you get so obsessed with it that you look like a freak.
I think you’re right, things are a blur. But, on the one hand, it doesn’t matter really because we’re making images and it doesn’t matter if we call them photographs, whether they’re retouched, not retouched, drawn, CGI. I think the key thing is the result, the single image. But if it feels fake, or false, that is something I wouldn’t want for a brand. For me that would be a big issue. I would want people to think that, as a brand, we’re honest and decent. I mean no member of the public is going to say, “I feel this has too much retouching, so it makes me feel that they’re deceitful.” Nobody’s going to say that. But your perception is built on imagery and you may think: “I don’t know why but I don’t really like that company so much.” And, obviously, everyone is affected by imagery. That’s all we’ve got for most brands. It’s how they talk to you and what you see in there. All these things are very important. So it doesn’t matter if you create the whole thing in CGI. I’m pro everything, I’m not anti anything. So I’m pro CGI, retouching, digital. It’s just what the outcome is that matters.
Okay, so what about the outcome? What, to you, constitutes a great photograph?
It’s difficult to say what would be a great photograph now because such a lot of it isn’t. A great photograph used to be – used to capture, as Cartier-Bresson put it – “the decisive moment.” And it used to be “a moment.” So the whole point of photography over illustration was that it captured a moment in time, and it was real and it was recognizably something that would never happen again. And, obviously, that’s no longer the case. There is barely an image that hasn’t been manipulated, that doesn’t cheat. There is nothing wrong with cheating but it isn’t the same as that purest form. So I guess, to me, the label’s come off a bit as to whether it’s a photograph or an illustration, and all I’m left with is images. I still like things that are all they would have always been: striking, unusual, simple, stylish, evocative. All these criteria are the same as they were 20, 60, 90 years ago. It’s still tough to distill things down, to do things that haven’t been seen, or that are out of the norm. You know, cropping things unusually, casting unusually, all makes you stand out. But if you go against the norm, it’s difficult. If you crop through the middle of a face and you try to sell it to the client, that’s harder than if you show a full face. If you have someone crying, it’s harder to sell than someone laughing. Black and white is harder to sell than color. If you cast someone ugly, it’s harder than if you cast someone beautiful. There is a whole bunch of things that make images stand out and cut against the grain and be more memorable but, individually, all of those decisions are harder to get agreement on down the line. Because people feel uncomfortable breaking out from the gang, not doing what everyone else does. You have to be brave. Everyone you deal with is employed by someone or somewhere who will ultimately ask: “Why have we got a fat person crying in black and white and not a happy person in color laughing their head off?”
What qualities do you look for in a photographer?
A point of view of the world, or the ability to see things in a way other people don’t. And I think all the best photographers had a view of the world that wasn’t like everyone else’s. So if you look at someone like Guy Bourdin, Barney Edwards, their stuff isn’t like anyone else’s. So for me in advertising that’s what you want. You want to buy into people’s worlds when they’re appropriate for what you’re working on. You don’t want a photographer to be a guy with a camera and Photoshop. You want to buy into what they do and then be led by them.
So the role of the art director – once you’ve got that photographer whose world you want to buy into – is to stay pretty much out of their way?
Yeah, that’s what I would prefer. But it depends on the job. There are some jobs that may be about a particular moment, and you may need to be there to recognize that moment. But most jobs are a bit looser than that. And the things that I like in terms of working with a photographer would be, as Alfred Hitchcock once said, if he casts right, he doesn’t have to direct. So if he gets the right actor, he doesn’t have to direct him. He gets the wrong actor, he’s saying: “Do this, you said it wrong,” etc. all day. But if you get the right person, you don’t have to do anything.
Can you think of an example from your career?
Lots of them. Take my friend Malcolm Venville. One of his early good shots was for Mark Reddy. And it was a big deal, a big opportunity. We got a brief from Mark Reddy, and then Mark said, “Oh, by the way, I’m not going to come to the shoot. So make sure it’s good!” or something like that. And that really freaked Malcolm out a bit. He said, “Oh my God, he’s not going to be there?” So, essentially, what he thought was: “If it’s not any good, it’s going to be my fault.” So that put a lot of responsibility, positive pressure, on the shoot because he then really thought about it. The thing is if the art director is there and, at the end of the day, it’s not great, well, the art director is there, it’s his responsibility. If you brief a photographer very well, you need to give him parameters to move in but you need to give him a really clear idea of what’s expected. Then it’s up to them. The positive should be that they can make their own decisions, and the negative – although I don’t see it as a negative – is that the pressure is on them to actually deliver. And what that does when I, as an art director, am not in the studio, it forces me to really think about who I’m using and what do I want from them, and how much latitude can I give them in terms of where we could go. And you get better results that way. If you’re all over the studio … you know, looking through the camera, helping to pose models etc., you often end up with very wooden things. And nobody owns them. You wind up with an amalgam of something with people partly involved. I want to work with photographers who feel like they’re shooting stuff for themselves, that they own, and that they want to be great.
One of the things I’ve been trying to find out when talking to these older photographers is to pick their brains about what they think of photography now. Most photographers now specialize in an area, maybe still life, etc. I said to John Claridge: “You’ve shot portraits, cars, landscape, reportage, the whole repertoire” (he shot it all and he shot it all really well), and I asked him: “Why’s that?” And he said to me: “Because I’m a photographer. I’m interested in photography. Why limit yourself to one strand?” But the problem is, people want to commission a specialist, or someone they think is a specialist. You know, I’ve been on jobs where we wanted a picture of an egg, and one of the young art directors wanted a photographer who had shot eggs before. I mean, you can put different things in front of the camera. The photographer doesn’t need to have the experience of an egg shape, he probably can accommodate different-shaped things in front of the camera. And that is the risk: that you get locked into thinking, we need to find someone who’s shot virtually the same thing. What you need to do is find someone who’s going to bring something to the party. If you’re so fixed in your own mind, get a technician and shoot it yourself. So when I’ve done car shots over time, I tried to get photographers who had never done cars – Giles Revell, for example. They come in slightly differently. They don’t go on autopilot. You go to a car photographer and often what you get is a sort of off-the-production-line shot with a slightly different shaped car in it. Whereas what you want to find is a way of doing these things that is different and new and surprising. But, as I said, sometimes it’s hard to sell a photographer who’s not done cars because some people down the line – whether it’s internally or externally – get nervous about that. I have been fortunate in that respect, with Mercedes and other car clients. They put trust in me. A lot of this is trust-based.
Tell us about some of the highlights in your career in terms of working with a photographer.
The one that springs to mind – it’s funny because it was just a tiny little job – was with a photographer called Paul Zak with whom I did something freelance for an Italian water. Essentially, we had this idea that it was just a pack with a line pointing to one bit of the bottle. And I can’t remember the exact briefing that I gave Paul but it would have been something basic like: “Make it look nice.” In effect just a big bottle of water in a studio and I thought, we’ll light it nicely, and fine. And what came back was a shot that was virtually all black. Black background, the water was all black, there was a little white highlight, and some of the label was in color. It was like he had turned off the lights – and it was amazing. And we used it and I don’t know how we got there, because it was a very surprising choice. Another that springs to mind is Giles Revell. We did this campaign for Merrydown cider. It was all these illustrations and faces that worked both ways, up and down. And then we thought – for no reason at all – it would be great to do a photograph, obviously not thinking how we’d do it. But Giles Revell accepted the challenge despite the ridiculous brief and very small budget – and it turned out amazing. I also did some Adidas running ads. For one project, I had the shortlist down to Joel Meyerowitz, who’s an amazing photographer, and Sally Gall. And Sally Gall sent in 12 pages of dense text on how she was going to shoot it. And I thought, she seems so into it, so focused, so committed. So I gave it to her and she did a great job. I had a very good feel about the shots that she did, not really like ads.
And from more recent memory?
I enjoyed doing some PG stuff with Mark Denton. That was two or three months ago. I really liked that because it was a different challenge: We’ve got a little knitted monkey in some ads. So the question was, how do we make this monkey come alive? I looked at some of the previous work where it was featured and it looked dead. I mean, of course, that’s not a live character. How do we make this character feel alive in a still? Obviously, in the TV he was animated and moved around and he’s funny. But in the still he used to look dead, like a puppet propped up against something. So instead of going to a photographer, I went to my friend Mark Denton, who’s got lots of experience with puppets and advertising, running his own agency and being great with humor. And he came up with really good observations on how to do it, for example how to make him look small within the frame. So rather than focus in on the monkey, you pull back to get a sense that he is small. Which gives him charm. You put him on a seat, you see the whole seat and him being small on it, which makes him really charming. A really obvious thing in retrospect but not something that had been done before – because you tend to focus in on the thing at the center.
So what did you take away from the experience of judging some 1,200 submissions for this book?
I kind of went through them all in a night And my overall impression was: all very similar, all very retouched. I mean, there were exceptions of course. But in general it didn’t seem like loads of styles, or loads of personalities. It felt like all in the same ballpark. All heavily retouched, I mean obviously retouched. It wasn’t trying to hide anything. Everyone pushes the blacks and mutes the colors. There’s few things people do: you either seem to get a heavy black and white version and a color version and you marry them up, or you draw all the color out to give the image a skew one way or another, so you get them dreamy-looking, and then obviously there’s this heavy CGI thing. On the whole, there didn’t seem to be a lot of ambition in this image-making. It’s so easy now to crop things and tweak things, so you think it should be so much more experimental. On the whole, it looks less experimental.
Even though, these days, photographers have all the tools to experiment at their fingertips.
It’s never been as easy to experiment but in fact I see very little experimentation. When I was looking through the old magazines for the David Abbott project, I would see things that were a lot bolder. Brian Griffin would have an interview about a guy and you would just see a nose sticking out from behind a door. The rest of it would be all door. Or everything would be sort of out of focus and you could just pick something out in the background that would be in focus. While in a lot of work I saw while selecting for the book, the images were all pin-sharp. It was rare to see extreme cropping … there didn’t seem to be the desire to stamp your personality on your image. With some of the best photographers you can tell their pictures from a thousand yards away. Like Irving Penn’s. I don’t know how Irving Penn does it because sometime it’s in a white studio and it’s just a picture of a waffle against a white background but you know it’s his. And you think, how the hell can he do that? Because everyone’s got waffles. But you can tell. You can tell it’s clearly Irving Penn. So with regard to the work I was judging, it didn’t seem like a wide range of personalities. I mean, this is a huge generalization, and it is not to say there’s not some great stuff in there – there is, of course. But as a mass it felt like there was a way of doing things and the standard of doing that thing varied a bit. But it didn’t feel like there’s this guy who does this very weird colorful thing with animals, there’s this bloke that does things that are all out of focus except some detail. And I didn’t understand why that would be. Normally, the key thing in anything creative is trying to find your way of doing it that isn’t like anyone else’s, your own idiosyncratic way.