April 01, 2012 — Clients from Dell to Devo, New Balance and MasterCard call on Brooklyn-based photographer Joshua Dalsimer when they’ve got a tricky concept to execute. Here, he talks about some of his most challenging recent assignments and why solid planning and careful collaborations with post-production experts are key to delivering stellar images.
I tend to get advertising jobs that involve a fair amount of problem solving—not just selecting talent and wardrobe, but model making, postproduction and CGI. The client will send me a sketch or artist rendering, but just because it can easily be drawn doesn’t mean it’s easy to photograph. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of images that have type worked into them, and I’m starting to become known for them. These can be some of the most challenging assignments, though. For one client, I needed to create a photo where coffee had spilled out of a mug and the drops spelled out a message. Making it feel somewhat natural was the trick. To achieve the best effect, we dumped tons of coffee in all different ways to get the pieces we would need for later. Whether we actually used the photographic elements or just looked at them for reference, we were committed to documenting what would actually occur when you spilled a coffee.
As a rule, I start the conversation with my retoucher as soon as I get the assignment. Bringing them in after the image is taken can be a mistake. I always double-check what photographic elements they need, and they’ll often bring up ideas that I might not have thought of while I’m shooting. Budgets and time are often limited, so being really efficient is important. I used to do my own post and retouching, but I became too busy and realized there are a lot of people out there who can better handle that part of the shoot. I now have a group of people I work with regularly. I like to maintain the same crew—we know how we work together, and there’s not a lot of explaining. We can all focus on what we do best.
For an ad for MasterCard’s Priceless New York campaign, I actually brought the retoucher, Adam Moore of Sugar Digital, to the set. I don’t often do that, but we were just going so fast. I had only about a week to get the shot: a little boy at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx enthusiastically admiring a toy train (they have a train set there with replicas of famous New York City buildings) that was making its way toward him through a tunnel. When I got the drawing from the client, I knew right away we’d have to put the camera in the tunnel—and that there was no chance there’d be a tunnel there wide enough or that would give us the perspective we needed. I opted to have a tunnel made by a model maker. When we went to scout the location, we were holding up our hands in the shape of the tunnel to see how much tunnel we’d need. The area itself wasn’t that large, so we put the camera in a spot and then built the set around the camera.
We set everything up through the frame of the camera and then lit each piece separately. We got a good exposure on the tunnel, then on the train, then the buildings. We then moved the buildings around to get different positions, as well as pulled everything apart piece by piece so we could have options later. Part of the challenge was planning for different formats, from extremely wide to very tall and narrow. Certain things look better in certain compositions. The last thing we shot was the boy. We pulled everything away at that point and just shot him. He was a pretty young kid, and we spent so long shooting him. He would be making a funny face, or he wouldn’t be quite in the exact position we needed. I literally got two frames that were usable. Luckily, we only needed one, and the client was excited about one of the two that we got. Overall, it was really important to them that the image have a magical feel. I like to shoot things as straight as I can, but they wanted a lot of color and for the buildings to glow. So we re-created the warm light—the sun wasn’t really shining through the window. If you’re careful, you can blur that fine line between what would really happen and what looks fun.
Another recent project I worked on was for the band Devo, who hired Mother New York to do the artwork and promo materials for their album Something for Everybody. I used to be a musician—I was the drummer for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones—and the creative director on the job, Bill Moulton, is a musician too. So we had that in common. What we didn’t have was more than one baby to pull off a concept in which a bunch of babies are crawling around on a giant blue Devo hat made of blue Jell-O. Bill came to me with these drawings of the babies shot, and it was all there—I totally bought into his vision. Sometimes when I get a comp, it’s understood that it’s loose, that I can give my interpretation of it. But this was so clean and so good that I didn’t want to change anything. I just wanted to make sure I was translating exactly what was in the creative director’s head.
For retouching purposes, the tricky part of this shot was that we didn’t have a model of that blue hat that was true to size. I ended up making a Styrofoam one and painting it blue so that the reflections on the baby would be somewhat believable. (I also made sure the paint and structure were childproof and safe.) And then we had the baby climb all over it and took multiple exposures of the baby in different positions. We later got a blue plastic dome that was painted correctly but was smaller, and we put it in place of the bigger Styrofoam one. Then we had to move the camera angle down and in so I could grab that element. We then increased its size in post and placed the babies exactly where we wanted them. We also did some liquefying and transforming to make the substance look a bit more like Jell-O. Rondell Meeks and his partners at Tag Worldwide worked tirelessly on these images. This photo was one part of Devo’s album art, and album art—especially for a band like Devo—is forever, whereas ads are ephemeral. Being musicians, Bill and I both felt it was important that we go above and beyond with these images.
Recently, I’ve been busy with a logo campaign for Rue La La, an invitation-only online retailer. The concept is to create their logo out of sand on a beach, from the lines ice skates make on a rink, reflected in a puddle on the street and drawn onto a steamy car window, among other unexpected places. They had called me just to talk about what they could do with their login page, and after a few conversations we had an idea for a campaign. What interested me was coming up with all the various places we could do this and figuring out what would work and what wouldn’t. I spent a lot of time deconstructing their logo to apply it to the idea but still maintain its essential qualities.
For the shot with the steamy car window, we went to Brooklyn, got a Lincoln Towncar and set up a steamer inside the car to produce real steam. It sounds simple, but it took a long time to get just the right beads and droplets. The prop stylist was inside and attempted to write the logo on the window. All I needed was the shapes and pieces, and then we could bend those shapes into their logo. We were committed to using as many actually photographed elements as possible.
I had never envisioned seeing much of the car, but when we got back to the client, they liked the car and asked us to show more. They also wanted a classier car. So I went back to the retouchers—Saddington Baynes, a production studio based in London that has done a ton of car work—and we looked at all these Mercedes and luxury cars and we entirely reshaped the back of the car in the photo and redid some of the reflections. We kind of split the difference of what various cars look like. We did everything over the phone and just sent JPGS back and forth. I’ve learned with people who are really good and who know my work that I don’t have to say too much. When you hire people who are at that level, it’s for a reason.
Kristina Feliciano is a freelance writer and editor who has contributed to Entertainment Weekly, Revolver and PDN. She is also the editor of PDN and Sony’s Emerging Photographer magazine and writes a blog for the photo agency Stockland Martel (stocklandmartelblog.com). She lives in Manhattan.