Between Two Continents

by Linda L. May

Stan Musilek

March 01, 2011 — In 1983 Stan Musilek opened Stan Musilek Photography studio in San Francisco, CA, where he shot a variety of work, including fashion, still life, catalog, editorial, products and advertising. As his popularity spread, the business grew to be known on an international level. Ten years ago Stan opened an overseas studio in Paris. His continued growth, even during tough economic times, is attributable to many factors: He has his own way of doing things, is attuned to every detail and makes clients feel special and well served. And, of course, there are his decades of photographic experience.

Photography has been a part of Stan’s life since his early childhood in Prague. His grandfather, also named Stan Musilek, was an avid photographer. Stan was exposed, and eventually hooked on photography at a young age. At 10, he received a Rollei Camera Outfit for Christmas and was grounded because he set up a darkroom in his mother’s pantry. When he turned 14 his family escaped to West Germany, where Stan attended high school and graduated from the University of Heidelberg with a degree in Mathematics. During college he was active in sports—especially soccer and tennis—and his photography took a backseat. However, it took a sporting injury to turn his attention back to making pictures. After college, Stan moved to New York City for two years before relocating to San Francisco.

At Home In the Studios
Stan has the perfect setup for himself, and an efficient way of handling both studio locations: He owns both buildings and has an apartment above each. So when he’s shooting at either studio he’s at home within a few steps. The entire operation is managed and operated by five full-time, dedicated staff members, including Stan. He is a very hands-on guy and controls every phase of the shoots—from capture to final print.

Amber Dobson is his agent and producer. She handles all the marketing and promotion duties, and produces all of Stan’s shoots. Lupine Hammack is the first assistant, who is proficient at technical details and lighting. Sepehr is the second assistant/floater, who helps out wherever he is needed. R.C. Rivera is the official digital artist retoucher. 

“The equipment is duplicated in both studios so we avoid dragging it back and forth. The production facilities are considerably larger in San Francisco than in Paris. I use the same crew in both locations. Sometimes the digital artist stays here and we transfer images over a fiber optic line from Paris. Many times, Amber goes to Paris a week earlier than the scheduled job to get everything set up and arranged. When I arrive, we can begin work immediately. It’s an ever-evolving and floating sort of arrangement. There is no cut and dried plan or method. We just handle each job as it comes in,” Stan says.

Stan believes one reason he gets so many large assignments is because he does a variety of work and is just as comfortable shooting on location as he is in the studio. He can transfer his knowledge from one type of subject to another. His still life approach, for example, helps him light and photograph larger objects like cars. Stan admits that he gets bored shooting and producing the same way all the time, so he’s always practicing and experimenting to keep his work from getting stale.

When you first take a look at photography, it appears that it and math have nothing in common. But, as it turns out, Stan’s math background is quite useful in his style and approach to his craft.

“Math helps me in my everyday work, and influences how I shoot,” Stan says. “Lighting has a lot to do with math and geometry. My approach is very calculated. I don’t just snap away randomly. I have a very preconceived and well thought out plan beforehand. Each shoot is sort of like solving a mathematical equation. It’s all physics. I believe having a scientific background most definitely helps with lighting.”

Stan is also particular about the lights he uses in his studios. His two favorite brands are Broncolor and Briese for still life and set work,  with some strobe and HMI versions of both.

“Every shot has its own lighting pattern. I play and experiment with each subject until I find the best lighting setup. I avoid the expected. My approach is more theatrical, emphasizing shapes and textures, making my images rather mysterious and unique. Even if the subject is dull and mundane, I try to make it look like it’s worth a million dollars. When necessary, we build custom light sources, so we are quite technical when called to be. Our methods do take a bit longer to produce, but we give ourselves time to do it right. There are no cookie- cutter methods used here,” he explains.

Amber Dobson adds, “Watching Stan set up the lights reminds me of a mad scientist at work. He’s a skilled technician and a perfectionist. He experiments and is not afraid to go hours into it and then realize it’s not working and come up with something completely different. Stan is dedicated and sticks with a job until every aspect feels right to him. That’s why he’s 
so successful.”

Perfect Balance
Being located near Silicon Valley, CA, Stan embraced digital imaging in 1997, long before it became  mainstream. The numerous digital technology clients in the area pushed him into digital imaging services to meet their needs. Now he delivers images however his clients request, from DVD to prints made in-house on his Epson printers. Stan retains control over every phase of his work. He has a well trained, competent staff that knows exactly what results he requires, and they produce it, with Stan’s supervision. Each job is specifically tailored to fit the client’s needs and requests, and Stan provides whatever amount of time is needed to complete the project.

All his studio work is shot on Linhoff M679 view camera, equipped with a  Phase One P65 digital back. For fashion, people, architecture and other subjects, he prefers the Horseman View Camera—with the same back. Because he likes a larger file, he shoots only large format—no 35mm.
Amber says her job of marketing Stan’s work is easy because he’s well known and respected in both the United States and Europe. They run regular ads in the source books: including AtEdge, The Workbook and Le Book, both online and in the printed form. Email messages are also sent to regular clients when Stan wins an award or the studio offers a special promotion. In 2009 and 2010, Stan Musilek was named one of the Top 200 Best Advertising Photographers in the World by Luerzer’s Archive.

As for the future, Stan plans to continue operating both studios and flying between two continents. He feels blessed to have such a wide range of clients from various industries, as well as many repeat clients, so the economy has not gotten the best of him. He does have to negotiate budgets harder than in more prosperous times, but he says they always reach a 
good compromise.

Currently, Stan is also experimenting with making short movies and plans to expand that side of his business. Holding art exhibitions has also been mentioned, and he is still considering all his options and possibilities. Whatever Stan is involved with, he will surely be 
successful if the past is any indication of what the future holds.

“In my opinion, staying well rounded as a person is the way to succeed in this business. You can’t just be a photographer. You have to be aware of what’s going on around you. Study the latest trends in fashion, technology, movies, art and music. Going to movies and studying their lighting styles helps me to be more open in my still work. Sometimes just focusing on one thing is limiting. As a commercial photographer, I need to know the latest cars and even the newest fabrics used for fashion. We need to be connected to the outside world to be able to create images that are contemporary and meaningful,” Stan says.

Readers may contact Stan Musilek via email at: or view his Web site at:

Linda L. May is a freelance writer/photographer based in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

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