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David Emmite: Mirth in Motion

Mon 18th Sep, 2017

By APA Admin in San Francisco
 © David Emmite


By Claire Sykes

Bicyclists flash by in the reflection of the large picture window of this two-story modern brick building. I open the door and a wirehair terrier comes trotting out to greet me. David Emmite is just as warm as his dog, Kirby, and I immediately feel at home, though my walls will never know the cheap thrift-store paintings hanging here. 

I see I’m in for some humor and nostalgia mixed with a little satire at David Emmite Photography in Portland, Oregon, where I live. It’s just down the street from my favorite coffee place in a trendy yet down-home neighborhood with some of the city’s best restaurants. The cameras here in his 2,500-square-foot studio have focused their lenses onto running shoes and cheddar cheese, beer and people posing with their pets. Along with still life product and lifestyle shots, and portraits and imagery for print ads, he does something that’s uncommon for still photographers to also do—GIFs, cinemagraphs, stop-motion animation and live-action video. For images in motion or not, Nike, Wieden+Kennedy, Amazon, Brooks Running, PetSmart and other notable names know just where to turn.

Clients like these look to Emmite’s freewheeling personal projects for inspiration and ideas. They make up most of his portfolio. And I hear the same laugh track in them as I do those kitschy paintings. Much of his still and motion photography, both commercial and personal, features the props and sculptures he’s built that I see scattered around his studio. On a table with an old barn-wood base and a laminated-Plexiglas top made to look like a basketball court, that he built for a Nike ad, sits a white, plastic-cast radio, from his “White Plastic” series. His taxidermied mallard sporting a jetpack propeller joins other stuffed wild animals crossing paths with the human-made, in his “Field Guide” still life series. Then there’s his “Battle in a Bottle” work, of jugs and other corked bottles turned on their sides; instead of sailing ships in there, it’s war planes and tanks. 

Such variety from Emmite’s frisky imagination! This and his stellar craftsmanship no doubt set him apart from the rest. By 1999, three years after he started his own business with just a few years into his career, he was already racking up the accolades: Photo District News’s “30 New and Emerging Photographers to Watch,” Communication Arts’ Photography Annual, Graphis’s Photography Annual and Lürzer’s Archive 200 Best Ad Photographers.

So how does a boy who grew up in the 1970s on a ranch in Paris, Texas, with a physician father who raised cattle, horses and turkeys and a housewife mother who was into terrariums, become a nationally known, award-winning photographer? And what is he doing about it? Emmite has the whole afternoon to tell me. In an easy chair in his office and Kirby dozing at my feet, I type as he talks about his journey as a photographer—and the 29 words from his father that he’ll never forget. 

Why are you so drawn to the vintage and the nostalgic? 

That is where I tend to go, style-wise, my personal work, for sure. But I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s nostalgia for my own life. I grew up watching 1970s TV, playing video games, listening to Bon Jovi and other 1980s-hair bands, watching “Star Wars” and “Battlestar Gallactica,” and being exposed to early computer technology. That look and feel is what’s evident in my work. I like that it feels like it’s in this distinctive bubble of time, instead of some ambiguous time or being timeless. Having it feel nostalgic, people can relate to it on many different levels. And it’s kind of funny to look back and say, “Here’s what we used to do.” 

How else does a sense of nostalgia show up in your work?

My work is intentionally analog. I build the props and use real people. I get in front of the camera. Most of my photographs are done completely in-camera. I don’t immediately go to digital solutions. I used to shoot film and deliver either transparencies or mostly color prints, and clients would scan them to use them. Since I switched to digital, in 2007, I’ve done compositing, retouching and manipulation, everything, but my work doesn’t rely heavily on those. Mostly, I do only color treatment, digitally, to make the image look like it was shot with film. That look is at the core of my work. 

I think there’s a lot of work out there that feels overdone, over-the-top, and tries to be different for the sake of being different. I’ve always thought that when you strip everything away from a photograph, all the technical and color treatment and whatever else you’ve done to it, all this finish work, there has to be a good idea or story there, something that’s real and that communicates. That’s the test. If the photo doesn’t have that, it doesn’t have anything. I just want my work to feel simple and analog, crafted and real. 

How does your personal work inform and influence your commercial work? 

My personal work helps people stay interested in what I’m doing, and they often hire me based on it. They want that point of view. Then the commercial work funds the personal. In my mind, one can’t exist without the other. Doing personal work also keeps me sane. I have to do commercial work to make a living; and it’s fun working with art directors and other creatives, and execute ideas and figure out how to solve problems. But also, it’s just nice to steer your own boat. That keeps me fresh with ideas. 

What else helps you stay fresh?

I listen to a lot of music—Nina Simone, Billie Holliday, Sturgill Simpson, The Black Angels, Stevie Wonder, mr. Gnome. And I like to read, as well. Reading and listening to music allow your imagination to pull from your own memories and life experiences and fill in the visual blanks, versus watching a movie or looking at photographs. I also enjoy going to museums and looking at sculptures and paintings. And I force myself to sketch. I think it’s important. I get all these ideas. Like what would music from an old radio look like? 

 © David Emmite

For you, it looks like rainbowed strands of yarn streaming from the speaker of a silicone-cast radio, one of my favorites of your still lifes. 

That’s the oozy sound of analog. Pictures are made of pixels and I was thinking about how in photography now, you’re constantly breaking down images to millions and millions of pixels. That was the inspiration for that, thinking about sound and digital sound, and what streaming would look like if it were a practical prop.

More yarn in wide, rainbow-colored stripes fills the screen of an old television set, like static, your nod to the first color TVs in the 1960s, and maybe the NBC peacock, too? I love the other ones from this series you call “American TV,” with their dioramic scenes of that decade’s news and shows inside old TVs. The Apollo 11 astronauts and the Lone Ranger extend out from the TVs into our “living rooms.” What connections do you see between still lifes like these and your other work, aside from the humor and satire? 

I see my motion photography as an extension of my still lifes. And when I do portraits, it’s like setting up a still life shot. Let’s take motion, first. If you’re shooting a still life (and for that I use a Hasselblad with a Phase One Back), there’s always an opportunity to animate it. With an animation (I use a Canon EOS 5D Mark II), you’ve got all this time in between frames, so it feels like a moving still, and it’s basically handcrafted. Animation is similar to still life also in that both require patience, because they’re methodically crafted. You have to choreograph it and think the whole thing through to the end. I like doing controlled set-ups. When the Canon EOS 5D Mark II came out in 2008, everyone started doing videos and I wanted to get into motion, but wanted it to feel like it was coming from the same place as my still lifes. Shooting stop-motion was my way of getting in. Now I do animated and live-action TV commercials (the latter using an ARRI Alexa and Sony FS7); and what I call micro-motion—GIFs and short, looping animations for social media and the web. 

Your stop-motion bumpers for Tillamook Cheese really showcase your technique. A brick of cheddar sheds its packaging and collapses into cubes or slices, or it melts in a fondue pot. Then it quickly disappears as if devoured—the slices by a stampede of hamburgers—except for the very last bite, snapped up by someone’s fingers. 

For those, I animated someone else’s ideas, styling and developing the choreography. On my website, you can also see the live-action puppet film I did of drawn, paper characters and scenes for “Melvin the Birder,” which was funded by executive producer, Heather Henson, Jim Henson’s daughter. And the ones I did for Nike, and a current project for Breakside Brewery.

There’s the Nike stop-motion you did where a golf ball rolling in grass knocks the Swoosh, which breaks the ground open to a patch of pink and purple flowers. Then it’s punched through from underneath by a Nike shoe’s sole, now “stained” in those colors. 

The concept was “strength in bloom.” The shoe was Rory McIlroy’s training shoe. Since he’s a golfer, there was a tie-in to the blooming azaleas at the Augusta National Golf Club’s Masters Golf Tournament. We used real grass and real flowers. The flowers were slightly out of season and hard to get. We did 90 percent of this in one shot, all in-camera. This meant it had to be choreographed really well and the action carefully considered, before we started shooting. 

Just as motion shares common ground with still lifes for you, how do still lifes do that with portraits, as you were saying earlier? 

Like still lifes, a lot of my portraits are shot in the studio. But also, like motion, I want to create a narrative in the portrait. I want viewers to wonder about the person. I’ve always thought of portraiture as a reflection of humanity. Maybe you see something in the person that tells you about yourself, or makes you remember or think about something, when you see the emotion there. And with still lifes, the same thing, when you take an object and make it special or tell a story around it, or when you humanize an animal. These are all examples of a certain reality to photography, making it more relatable, not abstracted like a painting or illustration.

What are a couple of your favorite portrait projects?

The one for PetSmart stands out for me. It was for a campaign we did with GSD&M, an advertising agency in Austin, Texas, called “Partners in Pethood.” Screenwriter Christopher Guest was filming the television ad and they asked me to shoot stills. They wanted real people posing with their pets, and the final print ad would show them as many small images set up as a grid. We wanted it all to feel crisp and clean, and real and snappy. The colors of the animals had to work with the people and what they were wearing; and the images had to read clearly when they were smaller. We executed it like a casting, shooting 30 people and their pets per day, for one prelight and one shoot day in each of three cities, Phoenix, Portland and Austin. They’d come in and spend just 15 minutes in front of the camera. We motored through them. I met so many interesting people, and their pets—bearded dragons, hamsters, rabbits, dogs and cats. 

 © David Emmite

Another project was a personal one, portraits of my two kids and their friends. One summer day, my son and daughter were super bored and just watching TV. So we went out and I rented costumes and started making pictures—13 of them over a couple of months—of them and their friends wearing vintage and historical uniforms. I told them, “Look like you know something more than I do.” And the looks back are pretty fun. I called the series, “Somebody’s Kid,” because no matter what you become in life, you’re somebody’s kid.

For any project that you do, motion or still, what kinds of things do you consider?

The biggest thing I consider is, What do I want it to feel like? Graphic? Soft? What’s the mood of it? For lighting, I shoot strobes on people, to emphasize the shapes and freeze spontaneous moments. And for still lifes, I use continuous ARRI Tungsten, to dramatize texture and create contrast with shadows, which ground my subjects.

What’s important to you in working with clients? 

The ideal client is collaborative, trusting and realistic. It’s fun to be part of a team and help people solve problems. People are hiring me for my ideas, so I want to know that they’re hearing me and getting their money’s worth. Also, there’s a lot of trust involved with commercial photography. It’s important that my clients trust me to do the work. The best ones aren’t super heavy-handed, and they don’t change things just to change them. They’re also realistic, meaning they know what’s possible to accomplish on a shoot. And they also appreciate that I push them to go further with an idea or approach. I do that all the time. I usually end up having to shoot it my client’s way to cover what their client is expecting; they need to come away from a shoot having what they need. And then we’ll have a discussion. And if I believe that I have a better way to shoot it, I’ll also do it my way, trying a bunch of different approaches, so my client can decide which one they want. 

When you look back to your childhood, what do you see that led you to become the successful photographer you are today?

My father was the biggest influence for me. And films. We’d go to movies together—“Star Wars,” “The Black Hole”—and those fed into my head. I’d ask myself, How’d they do that? How’d they make that as a practical prop? I had this curiosity. I used to take toys apart to see how they worked. And my dad and I fixed up this 1948 Chevy Fleetmaster and then three years later I got to drive it in high school. We were always fixing things up. He was all do-it-yourself; he built a windmill, drilled for water. He was the guy who ordered the weird kits out of Popular Mechanics. 

He was also an amateur photographer, and when I was in the fifth grade, he finally let me take pictures with his camera, a Pentax K1000. That was a super big deal for me. The first photos I remember taking were nature shots. Then I got a point-and-shoot and would dress up our dog and take pictures, and have people posing beside a mannequin, mimicking it. From the time I first picked up a camera, I knew it was for me, but it would be a while before I seriously got into photography.

What happened along the way? 

When I went to college, my father told me, “Son, you can be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer.” I thought, I’m not good at math and don’t like the sight of blood, so I guess I’ll be a lawyer, and I majored in political science. One night in my junior year I was up late watching TV with all these accident-attorney commercials. What am I doing? I don’t like to argue with people, or do research. So I started drawing a lot, and switched to a communications major. But a friend said, “You suck at drawing, but you’ve got good ideas and should try photography.” I’d never thought of it; I only had a point-and-shoot. So he loaned me his Canon AE1 and I took it with me hiking in the Grand Canyon and fell in love with photography. Photography was a big leap from law, but I’ve always remembered what my dad told me when I was young: “If you can figure out what you love to do, it won’t feel like work and you’ll be good at it. You just have to find that one thing.”

I took more and more pictures, all self-taught, and put a portfolio together, and got into the Portfolio Center, in Atlanta, a two-year nondegree program, mostly advertising, very commercially focused. I’d already gone to college and majored in Communications/Advertising. Now I just wanted to learn how to get into commercial photography and dig into my career. I had to be able to make a living at this, and not worry about making money; my goal was always to do photography on my own, as just David Emmite. And the Portfolio Center was where I met my wife, Tia, who was studying to be an art director. When we both finished, she moved to Portland and a buddy from school and I went to New York. 

What did you do in New York? 

I stayed in a crappy hotel with bulletproof glass, in Chelsea. After a month, in 1992, I basically begged my way into my first job, doing carpentry, helping finish the renovation in Bill White’s studio. I was like a full-time third assistant. I did that for two years, while living in DUMBO, in Brooklyn. Meanwhile, Tia and I dated long-distance, and once when she was visiting, we were on the subway and I saw her framed by all these armpits and I thought, I’m moving to Portland! 

How did you establish yourself here?

It was 1996, and a town of only a handful of photographers and not many stylists, and I was one of five assistants. I did that for three months. And then on my 26th birthday that year, I took the day off and decided to open my own studio. No more assisting, only shooting. I rented 800 square feet in the old North Seed Building Studios, full of artists, for a year. Over the next 15 years, I rented two more spaces, and then in October 2012 I bought this building. I rent the upper floor to a film-production company.

What were your first photography jobs in Portland, and how did your business grow?

They were with people I knew from school, art directors and writers who had ideas but no money and “Can you help us out?” They were fun projects—ads for Bungie, Inc., the video-game developer, and Morrow Snowboards. Then I started shooting shoes for Nike, and another one of my first biggest clients was Lexus. My career just kind of took off. But I’ve always had a philosophy of “Good work makes work.” If you do good work, then people will hire you. So I’d create personal work that was good, and cool, and I’d promote myself by entering it into award shows. I’d do direct mail, and meet with people face to face, showing my portfolio. 

When I started out, I thought I’d do still lifes, product shots. Then Adidas took a chance on me and hired me to shoot a professional baseball player, and a still life of his bat and shoes. I shot the New York Yankees and the Cincinnati Reds for them, and all these categories of sports. Then Outside magazine found me from Photo District News’s “30.” They sent me to Mexico for my first location shoot, an editorial assignment on ecotourism businesses, boats and gray whales. A fishing-rod company saw my Adidas work and sent me to the Bahamas. And it snowballed. I photographed for Royal Caribbean for a few years all over the Caribbean, and went to Asia for Nike, shooting in factories there. And for Pacifico Beer, I shot gringos surfing in Mexico for 21 days. The whole time all this was going on, I was doing personal work, still lifes and studio portraits. 

What’s it like now doing business in Portland?

The cool thing is, people like to come here. It’s a fun town, with good art and food scenes, and cheap by comparison. I have clients from New York and all over that work with me in my studio. And I like the connections I’ve made in Portland, and the people I’ve worked with. My prop and apparel stylist, Molly Anderson, and I have been working together since 2002. And people help each other in ways here that they don’t in other markets. You can always call on someone if a piece of equipment isn’t readily available for rental and you’re in a bind. 

Where do you see yourself headed?

More micro-motion. It’s kind of an itch I’m scratching. I enjoy putting motion to still life. It helps tell the story. And I think there’s a need for it. As the industry moves away from print, advertising is trying to define what it is and how to reach people. It’s harder to break through to people. We’re inundated by images now more than ever. That’s why it’s important to try to create and craft content that is different and stands out, and gets people’s attention. 

What’s most important to you as a still and motion photographer?

Photography can be a really fickle business. Things are popular and then they’re not, and work ebbs and flows. It’s important for me to stay true to my point of view. Obviously, I have to keep working and evolving, but it’s about me believing in my work. If I don’t believe in my work, how can I expect anyone else to? I have always thought you have to be aware of the market, but not fixated on it. It’s like a horse with blinders on. Just keep focused on your own vision.

© David Emmite

View the motion work here:


© 2017 by Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.

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