Interview by Jain Lemos. Photos ©2020 Scott Van Osdol.
© Scott Van Osdol. Ride Director Prentiss Douthit directs Leah Graham, AIDS Services of Austin, to the Help Desk.
I can tell that the spirit of giving really counts for something in Scott Van Osdol’s life. And it’s not only about “shining a light” on popular global injustices, it’s about spending months helping neighbors who weren’t asking for anything in the first place. As an example of this, Scott produced “EveryOther Day,” a pro-bono film and social fundraiser that raised $80,000 for cowboy Rode Lewis who had been driving 180 miles for kidney dialysis, every other day. To top off the achievement, the project won Silver and Gold Austin ADDY Awards.
Pros know it’s not easy to balance personal projects and commercial work, but Scott understands the formula for success is to say yes first and to figure out a way to swing it all later. Based in Austin, he has ridden and shot pro-bono for the Hill Country Ride for AIDS since 2004—helping to raise more than $10 million—while working with Austin creatives to produce campaigns that have appeared in CommArts, PRINT, and the HOW International Design Annual.
On the commercial side of his scale, he counts YETI, Wells Fargo, Justin Boots, and Dell among his long list of clients, who return for Scott’s slice-of-life portraiture and his endurance in our exacting industry. In 2015, ImageBrief added him to their list of ten lifestyle photographers to watch. Five years later, we’re still keeping our eyes on Scott because he takes us to worlds we would have otherwise completely missed.
When the Houston flood hit in 2017, the entire state of Texas immediately went into all-hands-on-deck mode. Tell us how you happened to join forces with Splashway Waterpark to raise money for victims.
© Scott Van Osdol. Splashway Waterpark for Swagger Media, Houston.
I had recently shot a project for Splashway before the disaster hit. We’d finished the shot list for that day, and I told the art director I thought there was a great photo hiding in the wave pool. I went back and shot for an hour from this vantage, getting hundreds of images. I knew the moment I got this frame I was done, and told my assistant to get a signed release from the boy’s parents.
The pro-bono component came a month later when I learned Splashway opened its campgrounds and cabins—for free—to people fleeing Hurricane Harvey. I used the image to produce a small pro-bono campaign with postcards, email blasts, and a social push with stories in Wonderful Machine and Workbook. I got to work with Photo Rep Heather Elder in her #GivingPhotography campaign, every photographer’s dream date.
Do you spend a lot of time on prep and scouting for your pro-bono projects or are you the type who shows up and works with whatever is on hand?
On pro-bono shoots, I usually know the subject beforehand and have an idea of what will work. So, I begin shooting documentary style with what’s on the ground. I’ll direct as needed. The trick is to stay open to possibilities. All Hail Serendipity.
For commercial shoots, planning, scouting, and prep is absolutely necessary. The best images usually come towards the end, as we refine our vision during the shooting process. The talent gets looser as anxiety wears off and they settle into their roles and become playful. The best shots often come after I call a fake “wrap” and everyone gets real, real fast.
You must have been delighted seeing the frame with this darling girl in the moving box. Once the light and compositions are where you want them to be, what do you pay attention to next?
© Scott Van Osdol. Wells Fargo campaign, "The Real Economy,” for BBDO San Francisco.
The subjects. It’s all about capturing peak moments of real human interaction. I work with them, egg them on, and build towards peak emotion. This was shot alongside a film crew—that’s their gorgeous 10K hot light outside the window. The talent was an actual family, not professional models. In many ways, real folks are easier to work with. They’re not always “on” like professionals, so it’s easy for me to ask Dad to put his daughter in the box, move other boxes into the background, and then throw her teddy bear into the best position.
Speaking of arranging shots, I don’t think many realize how difficult it is to stage these beautiful creatures. How long did it take to get this snap, and how close were you, really?
© Scott Van Osdol. Elvis and the Feedlot Kings, for Bader Rutter, Milwaukee, and Zoetis Pharma.
Cows are curious by nature, and they know who feeds them. This is a herd protection stance, and they’re always hungry. It was taken for a pharma campaign where we shot cows for two days, then pulled the best shots into an elaborate composite for a precise layout. This is my favorite single shot, un-retouched (love that Profoto fill light), taken with a 50mm prime lens from about six feet away. Here’s the secret: bring cow candy, little cubes of alfalfa and molasses. And a handkerchief to wipe the drool off your hands.
Ranch life is slowly disappearing in Texas and perhaps because the environmental impact is just too severe. Do you think about how your photography might bring awareness to the land stewardship and habitat restoration work that many ranchers are involved with?
Family farmers and ranchers are some of the best environmentalists I know. They take stewardship of the land seriously. It’s how they feed their families. Some good friends own a 35,000-acre ranch high in the Davis Mountains of West Texas. They’re Bedrock Republicans and I’m a Yellow Dog Democrat, but we see eye-to-eye on the environment. They’re letting the land recover by limiting herd size, and working with The Nature Conservancy and Sul Ross University in releasing tagged mountains lions back into the wild. The ranchers I’ve shot in West Texas work cattle on horseback. It’s less stressful for the cattle, and cultivates traditional skills used by the cowboys. There’s a lot of pride there, in both the land and their lives.
© Scott Van Osdol. Spring Works, Kokernot 06 Ranch, Davis Mountains, Texas.
How did you meet Rode Lewis for the “Every Other Day” project?
I met Rode while shooting pro-bono for the Big Bend Ranch Rodeo, which raises funds for ranching scholarships. I needed a model release so I could use the photo for my first spread in Workbook (a marketing strategy that worked well—I shot a campaign for Justin Boots three months later as a result). Rode’s wife told me about his End Stage Renal Disease. I said, “Let’s raise some money so he can begin home dialysis.” It took a year of writing, shooting, and filming by the brilliant team at The Noble Lab, all pro-bono, but we raised more than $80,000 to help build the family a new house. The good people of Texas responded in the best barn-raising tradition.
Your project “Last of Our Lads” is fascinating. It focused on WWII commando, Micky Burn, who was the last person living to have met Roosevelt, Churchill, and Hitler. The frame of Micky waving goodbye is so dreamy, with the soft background and next-world vibe.
© Scott Van Osdol. Micky Burn in Wales waves goodbye. From the documentary project and film, Turned Towards the Sun directed by Greg Olliver, based on Micky Burn, one of the WWII British Commandos’ most colorful characters.
This photo was prophetic. It was shot outside Micky’s old field-stone house in rural North Wales. Shortly after we drove away, he had a stroke. We returned to pick him up for dinner, and found him on his bedroom floor. We rushed him to the hospital, and stayed with him several days before returning to the States. He died a month later after another stroke. Before he died, Micky saw most of the photos and rough cuts of the film we shot over two years. He loved it. It was an honor getting to know such a remarkable man.
You mentioned you are drawn to Depression-era documentary photography, such as the Farm Security Administration’s pictorial record of American life between 1935 and 1944. Why is that?
© Scott Van Osdol. Cumplianos Noventa (90th birthday party).
I love classic documentary photography for the aesthetic and for its historical impact. It spoke truth about poverty in the Great Depression, and helped build political support for FDR’s New Deal which in turn created things like rural electrification. I just started shooting for the National Rural Electric Co-op Association. I’m proud to contribute to that long tradition, even if most of the images will be used in social media, the bane of our times. (I think he’s serious; his Twitter handle is @ScottDontTweet.)
These photos were shot in the late 1970s and 80s on B&W film. That affects the aesthetic, with rich, deep blacks and subtle highlight gradients. Digital has its own imperatives which drive the aesthetic—color has gotten pretty spectacular compared to film, and you can shoot in low available light. I love that capability.
What do you think has changed today in terms of documenting our surroundings and what remains the same?
In today’s advertising industry, authenticity is seen as an antidote to the flood of sales pitches in which we all swim. Agencies hire me to shoot commercially for clients who want to tell real stories. Some of those are fairly traditional lifestyle or B2B campaigns, some are cause marketing. Either way, they want that “lived in” look. Shooting pro-bono is as real as it gets. It’s a good way to build the portfolio with images that testify to that “vision thing.”
© Scott Van Osdol. Mr. White, BBQ Chef, Palestine TX 1981.
How would you approach a one-year documentary project across America? Any themes come to mind?
I’ve been shooting rodeo and ranch life in Texas since 2009. I’d like to expand that, shooting ranch and farm life in the northern plain states. The light is completely different and they’ve got real mountains there. Like where I grew up, outside Seattle. Dang, now I’m homesick. You’ve given me travel fever.
Well, let’s get back to business then! What are you doing in the new century to build your business?
It pays to advertise, to coin a phrase. Self-promotion isn’t an expense, it’s an investment that pays big dividends. After five years of Workbook paying off with good jobs, I decided to buy two spreads for their upcoming Spring edition. That purchase elevated my position to the top 30 photographers on their website, which resulted in three times the traffic to my galleries. I began running display ads in Luerzer’s Archive after their 200 Best Ad Photographers Worldwide accepted a photo for the 2020 edition. I upgraded my APA membership to professional, which comes with a page in their sourcebook. Wonderful Machine sent me several small jobs for national brands over the years, and supplies a steady stream of visitors to my website.
I’ve worked with Yodelist to build carefully curated mailing lists of agencies I’d like to work with, and send out 2-4 postcard and email blasts a year. Last year I was in AtEdge. Even though their web traffic is a small fraction of Workbook’s, they drove a disproportionate amount of traffic to my website. That resulted in my largest job to date.
I agree, advertising does work and almost always leads to better jobs. Do you also feel business in general has been picking up in the last year or two?
I’ve been busy. Last year I was hired by five agencies out of Chicago, New York, and Toronto on good projects with nice budgets. This week, a San Francisco agency asked me to bid a two-day shoot. There’s an old saying, “You never know where your next job is coming from.” It makes sense to diversify your promotions, to test, and keep a close tab on the metrics.
I’ll keep shooting pro-bono. It gives the portfolio the right balance between commercial shooting-to-specification and my personal vision. An art buyer from GSD&M once gave me priceless advice. She said, “Don’t show this commercial work, Scott. All our art directors have seen this stuff. Show your personal work, like ‘Last of the Lads.’ They’ve never seen it, and it’s beautiful.”
Shooting pro-bono works for me. Give it away, it comes back.