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The Art of the Shoot - creative portraits with Michael Grecco

Michael Greccos explains some ideas to help you think more creatively when shooting portaits.

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Words and Pictures Michael Grecco

Every portrait shoot is inherently some form of collaboration. There is the willingness and openness of the subject(s) you are shooting, and the needs and ideas of yourself, as the photographer, to satisfy. As a commercial photographer you add one more component to that mix - the needs of the client you are working for.

Those needs include both the concept of the shoot, and knowing the 'look and feel' of the magazine or ad campaign you are shooting for. The concept would best be described as the idea or story that needs to be told by the image. Is the concept a simple one of beauty? Is it a strong actor that needs a powerful shot? Are there props involved that are used to convey something more? These are the first questions I ask when having a creative discussion with an art director or director of photography. Sometimes sets are even built or locations are found to place the subject in this sort of appropriate concept or environment.

The next question I have is: 'What is the look and feel that you are going for with this project?' Is the look black & white, is it colour? Is it still or does it have movement? Is it soft or hard? Also, every magazine or ad campaign has it's own look and feel which has to be recognized. For me all this now has to be blended with my own style as an artist. I am very versatile, but there is always a thread that makes all my images my own. The challenge is to blend all of the client's needs and your own style to make a powerful and compelling image.

To add to this, the subjects often have their own needs that must be met. A few years ago I was asked to shoot a cover of Entertainment Weekly for the movie Twister. The picture editor, Michael Kochman, and I have worked and collaborated together for many years. We have become very good at listening to each other and coming up with some great ideas and images as a synergy. The look and feel was simple - it needed to be shot with simple clean colour, shot on a white background so that there was room for cover type. The concept we came up with was to fly the actors on wires and have a huge special effects fan blowing underneath them. The idea was to have them looking like they where blowing away. When the actress was presented with the idea before hand, she rejected it and did not want to fly. You can have the best ideas in the world, but if you can't shoot them they are useless. In this case we just used the special effects wind machines only, not flying the actors, and still made a fun and powerful cover for the magazine.

For Shaquille O'Neal, we built a small Basket Ball court set to make him look bigger than his already larger than life frame.

One of my favourite aspects of a shoot is being called by the creative entity hiring me and having to come up with ideas on the spot. It's the great free flow of ideas, of not holding back and letting all your ideas come forth that thrills me. I once had a call from a client wanting me to shoot Shaquille O'Neal and make him look as big as he is. The client s idea was to put him in or on something big to make him look larger. From experience I knew that that would only make him look smaller and that we had to put him in or on something small to make him look bigger. Since he dominated the basketball court I had the idea of making a miniature court. So that's what we did, we made an entire court of maple flooring, with all the lines four feet wide by eight feet long. It had six foot poles with half to quarter scale hoops, backboards and a small ball. To add a little surrealistic element to it (always my personal goal) we twisted the set and the poles in different directions and added a Rene Magritte-esque blue sky backdrop. He towered over the set, making the image work very successful.

Often the ideas are all my own and not the clients. My ideas usually flow out from some sort of semi-conscious or open place, often while I am on the phone with my clients. Knowing something about the subject and what would work well for the client also helps this flow of ideas. I do a lot of homework all the time by researching my clients and subjects extensively after an assignment has been given. I will not shoot for a magazine that I do not know without seeing previous issues of the magazine. I do the same for on going ad campaigns. I will look at what was done previously to meet my client's goals, while at the same time making sure I do a better job than the previous photographer(s).

Teri Hatcher did not want me to write 'Help Superman' on the wall in lipstick but would allow us to cover her in rope.

Sometimes however, extensive research is not necessary. When assigned to shoot Teri Hachter for the cover of Movieline Magazine, everyone at the time knew her as Lois Lane on the Superman TV series. Knowing that my client wanted a sexy, provocative cover and wanting to play off of her role on the TV series, I dreamed up my shot instantly. The concept was to tie her up in some industrial setting, leaving her helpless for superman to rescue. I would write 'Help Superman' with lipstick on the wall. Then to create a sexy image, the rope would be all that covered her. We found a studio that had an industrial air-conditioning unit on the roof that would work for as a location for this specific shot and give us a studio to do the rest of the cover package in.

When presented with the idea Teri did not like it as conceived. She was doing several movies at the time and the show was ending. She did not want to be that closely associated with a show that was going off the air. I thought I was sunk; a great idea that would go nowhere. We worked it out to where I would just not write 'Help Superman' on the wall and she said she was willing to be bare, solely covered in rope. How could I refuse? Sometimes going with the flow, after all the ideas have been made available makes the ultimate image.

Other examples of Michael's work

This was the advertising shoot for Stephen King's Firestarter 2 . The concept was obvious; I just needed to find an appropriate place, near where they were filming, to set a blaze.

Jay Colton, picture editor of Time Magazine, called with an idea and left the entire execution to me. We had great fun putting the CEO of icebox.com in sweats and a non-working refrigerator on a 90 day. This is all illusion.

Knowing Andy Dick was one to improvise and that the Time Magazine story was about his wild life, we had no set concept beforehand. When he arrived he grabbed some plums off my tree outside of the studio and just went for it.

For the co-directors the Farrelly brothers, the picture editor of Entertainment Weekly and I brain-stormed on the phone to come up with two or three concepts that could be built and setup on location.

About the author
Michael Grecco is known for pushing the limits of traditional portraiture with his edgy, off-beat style, making him one of the most sought after portrait photographers of today. His extensive background in editorial and advertising photography includes advertising work for clients such as ABC, IBM, Sprint, Walt Disney Co, and Yahoo!, as well as regular editorial work in Entertainment Weekly, Time, Esquire, Premier, and Maxim, to name a few.

His career reputation for creating visual statements loaded with mood and mystery has earned him continued international recognition. He is known for his contributions to the prestigious Santa Fe Photographic Workshops and for his critically acclaimed book, The Art of Portrait Photography, both further illustrating his trademark sculpting of light and shadow. Last year New York's renowned Saba Gallery hosted Michael's solo exhibit; his work was also featured in a 1998 exhibit by The Photographic Resource Center in Boston.
He has been featured three times in both Photo District News and American Photo, including a piece on his provocative Teri Hatcher cover for Movieline. Photo Insider has recently featured a story on Michael, showcasing the dynamic images that have brought him acclaim.

Michael Grecco's accomplished career in photography has earned him awards in Photo Design, Communication Arts, AR 100, New York and Los Angeles Art Director Clubs, The Maggie Awards, Creativity, and the American Photography Annual.
Visit Michael's web site at http://michaelgrecco.com/

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