Steve-O animated book cover

Hyperion books recently commissioned me to photograph Stephen Glover (AKA Steve-O of “Jackass” fame) for the cover portrait of his new memoir. Conscientious photographer that I am, I decided to do my homework by buying two tickets to see Jackass 3D. That weekend I was visiting my 86 year old father, who, sadly, is suffering from early stages of Alzheimer’s. I wanted to get him out of the house for a memorable experience and decided that Jackass  3D might do the trick. In his earlier years, this is not the kind of movie to which I would have considered taking him. Now he seemed to find the antics of Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O and friends to be interesting enough, viewed through the first 3D glasses he’d ever worn. Fortunately, I think he’s forgotten the experience and inadvertently forgiven me.

I photographed Steve-O on a studio cyclorama with nothing more than a loaded staple gun and a piece of paper for props. The graphics on the paper were added later in post to give us some flexibility.  A dedicated performer, Steve-O actually shot about a dozen large staples into his chest for our shoot.  Over the course of our two hour shoot we tried a lot of pretty crazy poses. He’s fit, extremely flexible and a great physical comedian. As a result we got far more hilarious photos than we could possibly use and editing it down to one cover image was not easy.

Fortunately, we found a way to use a few more of those photos in the animated version of Steve-O’s book cover intended for use on the iPad. . My very talented video editor, Aaron Wolfe, created some unique action combined with music to bring my still photos to life.

Click here to see and hear a 13 second version of a groundbreaking experiment in electronic publishing. You’ll can also see a very short clip of Steve-O talking about this shoot while he removes those staples.

Here are the images used for our animation:


A Holiday to Remember

When you think about Christmas in New York City a lot of beautiful holiday imagery comes to mind - the giant dead tree at Rockefeller Center, ice skating on the Don's Trump Rink in Central Park, tourists choking the sidewalks in huge lines outside of Juicy Couture on Fifth Avenue. This year, I wanted to share with you a very special sort of New York way to celebrate the holidays.  The guys who park my car throughout 2011 are perfectly nice and they are that much nicer each day closer to Christmas. As a photographer I really appreciate this sentimental card that was left on the passenger seat of my car last week. These portraits of my friends, Diego, Luis, and Omar really capture their dedication and personalities. The Disney Corporation's contribution to this charming exercise in institutionalized gift giving makes it that much more special. Its as if my garage attendants were just three more lovable animated Disney characters holding out their white gloved hands.

In the spirit of Christmas, I can't really blame these guys for wanting a good New York Christmas sized tip. Even though my monthly garage fee is higher than rent for a studio apartment in Austin, the attendants are probably underpaid. Never mind that they occasionally leave white paint marks from the garage's support columns on my car. During the holidays I can usually get them to clean that off for me - all with a smile and that special gleam in their eyes.

Happy Holidays!

Massimo Vignelli - A Short Documentary

For the past several years, I've been aware of the growing importance of moving images on the web as opposed to the traditional use of still photographs in print. That trend, along with a natural desire to broaden my creative abilities has led me to shoot some short films. Technological advances now allow a few still cameras to take extremely high quality HD videos without the complexities of motion picture film cameras. At the same time, portable devices like the iPad are greatly increasing the importance of moving images.

Shortly after the publication of my Portraits of Design piece, I decided to explore the lives of some of the same noted designers by creating a few short documentaries.

My first effort at this is a seven minute documentary about Massimo Vignelli. It was filmed at Massimo and Lella Vignelli's Manhattan design studio over the course of two days this summer.

With the help of a talented editor Aaron Wolfe, the film has turned into something of which I’m very proud. Massimo has told me that it is the best film that he has ever had done on him. The timing is also fortuitous as the opening of The Vignelli Center for Design Studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology opens today, September 16th.

Stephen Doyle

Stephen recently received the 2010 National Design Award for Communication Design.   He and I have worked on a number of projects together in the U.S. and overseas.

I chose the firm’s entrance lobby, lined with acid etched metal, and arranged a few enormous wooden letters from a previous project. He’s holding one of his paper sculptures meticulously cut from the pages of the book Poetry as a Means of Grace.

Stephen rides his bike to work almost every day. For this portrait, he put his Manhattan traffic dodging skills to work and volunteered to teeter, relaxed and unfazed, on top of this old wooden chair.

Tony Brook of the design studio, Spin, and Adrian Shaughnessy were producing a book called Studio Culture They needed photographs of Stephen at Doyle Partners’ design studio and I was able to shoot that the same day that I photographed him for my designer series.

Here are a few of the other scenes I photographed that day.

Detail from the west end of Stephen’s desk.

A corner of the studio: David Byrne poster, packaging for Martha Stewart at Macy’s, Angela.

Typographic treatments.

Entrance to the studio.

Twig type, tower of matches, pixel collage, color chips, plaster teeth.

Paper stairs, cast glass numeral, digital dollar, plaster book.

Stephen at his desk with a few of his favorite things.

Milton Glaser

Milton Glaser’s famous posters personify his long and successful career to me.  Milton liked my idea of using them as a backdrop and allowed me to select a dozen of my favorite online at  Milton Glaser Works.

On the shoot day my two assistants and I assembled the posters on two foamcore flats then joined them to form a V shaped background.  We set that up along with some fairly complex lighting in the lobby of his east 32nd street studio in Manhattan with employees, clients, and messengers stepping over and around our mini-production.

With everything ready, I asked Milton to come down and we started our 45 minute long session where I discovered that he was not afraid to try some inventive and dramatic poses.

Next Post: Stephen Doyle on Monday, August 2

Massimo and Lella Vignelli

Someone with this much talent and recognition might be expected to be difficult and even egotistical subjects. Instead, I found Massimo and Lella Vignelli to be some of the wisest, warmest and most charming creative people that I’ve ever photographed.

Their upper east side design studio was beautifully and minimally designed, softly lit by a fifteen foot high wall of windows. I also photographed them together and separately in front of an enormous tapestry by Roy Lichenstein and a bust of Massimo’s favorite literary figure, Goethe.

During our session, Massimo was fascinated by the design of my camera. In a matter of minutes, he effortlessly sketched the evolution of modern cameras.

A few months after our still shoot Massimo consented to my request to do a short film documentary on him.  That footage turned out very well. Massimo's perspective on the world of graphic design is fascinating. You'll also see a beta version of his upcoming iPad and iPhone app with an new, updated version of Massimo's 1972 NYC Subway map. The film highlights the opening, in September, of The Vignelli Center for Design Studies. I recently did a little more filming with Massimo, Lella, and Beatriz Cifuentes, a talented designer who works with the Vignellis, to complete the documentary. This seven minute film — which I plan to have online by late August — will be my first serious, albeit brief, effort at filmmaking.

photo: Kyle Dorosz

Behind the scenes on my mini – documentary shoot from last Thursday.

photo: Beatriz Cifuentes

Seymour Chwast

Seymour Chwast in his studio in Greenwich Village. The ground-floor apartment is full of intriguing little objets and many, many books. As it happened, our session coincided with the publication of his book Seymour. I wanted to photograph him with his iconic pipe, but Seymour, having quit smoking some years ago, was reluctant to light up again for the sake of my art.

Paula Scher

Paula’s map paintings show at Maya Stendhal Gallery left a lasting impression on me during one of my regular gallery tours in Chelsea. Months later, after starting this portrait series, her fine art work came to mind as the personification of her wide ranging talents. I photographed her with the only available prop, a simple bench, to work on less conventional poses. For the background, I chose my personal favorite piece, “Tsunami,” depicting the devastation caused by the 2004 earthquake in Indonesia.

I remember thinking that, if she liked her portrait, I might be able to photograph her husband, Seymour Chwast, next...

John's Blog

Why, as a photographer, would I want to spend my time blogging?  The short answer is, I have some thoughts, beyond keywords and metadata, that I’d like to share with other creative people.  Also, a few of my photographer friends love to express themselves as musicians and, so far, no one I know wants to hear me play that didgeridoo that I bought last month.  And, finally, I didn’t want to be the last person on earth to have a blog.

I’ll begin with some insights into my most recent project - portraits of eleven of the most respected designers in the U.S. This blog will have stories and background photos about the portrait sessions.  I’ll be posting more about them over the next few days.  Later, you’ll find other topics that should be of interest to anyone in the visual arts.

If you're still with me after all that clicking I can just tell you, right on this post, that the designers in my series are: Stefan Sagmeister, Ellen Lupton, Paula Scher, Massimo and Lella Vignelli, Seymour Chwast, Stephen Doyle, April Greiman, Michael Bierut, Chip Kidd, and Milton Glaser.

April Greiman

After spending almost a year trying to coordinate April’s busy schedule with my shoots in LA, I decided  that I’d have to fly out West specifically to photograph her for the series.Because her design work is often associated with extremely imaginative and complex digital imagery I was leaning toward some sort of surrealistic background treatment for her portrait. In the end, I decided to photograph her at her design consultancy, Made in Space.

A couple hundred frames into our shoot, April's enthusiasm wanes and she begins to fantasize about Miracle Manor.

April and architect Michael Rotondi own a beautiful, quirky spa called Miracle Manor Retreat located just outside Joshua Tree National Park, a couple of hours east of LA. The spa, of course, had to be thoroughly scouted as a possible location and I spent a very enjoyable day there and at Joshua Tree.

Above are Miracle Manor’s two thermal pools, one at body temperature, the other, enclosed, hot mineral water at 105 degrees F.

Typical retreat room at the Manor w/custom designed furniture, Indian and organic cotton textiles, Latvian stool and some other kinky chatchkis. April’s aesthetic and obsessive attention to detail permeates every inch of the manor.

The Buddha fountain out by the mineral water swimming pool

Scouting Photos at Made in Space

Greiman’s collection of masks, children’s chairs, virgin statuettes, and memorabilia and then some.

Above, the Virgins referred to earlier

A selection of the masks collection

Dayglo surfboard table designed by April, which, btw, is for sale.

April generously captioned this: THE FOTOGRAPHER BEING VAIN AT MADE IN SPACE STUDIO. I just wanted her to tell me what she was going to do with that fun-house mirror. She still has time for a proper reply.

April’s own vanity, creatively (and shockingly) exploited.  Her revolutionary nude, digitized self-portrait, first seen in Design Quarterly 133.

Scouting shots from Joshua Tree and the LA skyline from the Griffith Observatory - all of which  I initially considered for April’s portrait background.

Stefan Sagmeister

Stefan was the first subject for my designer series.  Deitch Projects, a prominent SOHO art gallery, was featuring an exhibition of his work that was concurrently being published in his book, "Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far".  The work was fascinating and often very funny with a unique perspective that is indicative of Stefan’s endless curiosity.  I knew that he’d be an excellent portrait subject from seeing him give his engaging TED Talks.

Here are a few of the other situations that I photographed that afternoon:

"Everybody Always Thinks They Are Right".  Stefan with his thirty-three foot tall angry monkey.  Previously, six of these monkeys were exhibited outdoors in cities in Scotland.  They were illustrated by Monika Aichele in Germany, built by Sportogo in California.  Another huge monkey, perched on Dietch Project’s rooftop would have made an even more interesting backdrop but the the ten below zero wind chill factor that January day made this setting an easy choice.  The wall on the left had 7200 very ripe and pungent bananas glued to it.   Days before this photo was taken, his arrangement of both ripe and green bananas spelled out the message:  Self Confidence Produces Fine Results.

Unlike his monkeys, anger doesn’t appear to be part of Stefan’s personality.

The gloves are inscribed with the phrase "Always comes back to me" for Stefan's piece "Everything I Do Always Comes Back To Me".  A limited edition of 40 pairs of these gloves were available for sale at $700/pair.