Interview by Jain Lemos. Photos ©2020 Weston Fuller.
A diver with a spear gun holds a fish made of plastic, created by Ricardo Ramos from Portugal, to illustrate how plastics are endangering marine life and how traces of plastic are ending up in the ocean foods we eat. © Weston Fuller.
If you want to have your work stand out from the noise of everyone else, conceptual photographer Weston Fuller may be able to give you some pointers. Asking someone who has succeeded in the highly competitive world of photography how they did it is often a fool’s errand. And it’s not because they don’t want to tell you. It’s because they can’t always put their success into words. The sense I get when looking at Weston’s work is that he’s operating on a higher mental plane than most, one that seems to mysteriously blend precision and frivolity. I think he’s reached the place where his visuals are created purely by his imagination while his know-how to make them has become second nature.
After earning an MFA in photography from Academy of Art (AAU) in San Francisco to get the theoretical and technical details of basic creativity checked off his list, Weston’s career trajectory continues to reach high places. Decorating his file is a long list of top industry awards as a photographer and digital artist for personal projects and commissioned work. Delivering outstanding visuals for brands who have a message to share keep him in demand—like the National Audubon Society’s campaign to illustrate the decline in the bird population and his shots to bring awareness to our plastic pollution problem. Based in Southern California, he’s active in APA’s San Diego chapter and thankfully stays reachable for mentoring and giving back to the industry. My crystal ball says his ingenuity frequency is only starting to takeoff.
Your personality comes right through the screen no matter the subject. Where does this confidence come from?
When I was younger, I had a very vivid imagination—or at least I think I did; it’s not a topic I discussed with other kids at that age. I was always envisioning characters running or riding a bike alongside the family car while on road trips or I’d see small armies marching across the yard while cutting the grass or pulling weeds from the garden. There was always a scenario where my mind created stories that kept me entertained. I guess my imagination is linked to being a visual learner because everything makes more sense to me in pictures.
Growing up, I could see a picture and the shapes and lines made sense to how objects, people and landscapes were created. I loved to draw, doodle and sketch and although I always believed that I was better than average, most of my pictures were character drawings that looked more animated than real. I remember one year my parents gave me a “learn-to-draw” book that guided you step-by-step on how to draw an animal. I loved that book because it gave specific instructions on how to create something from nothing. I also loved cartoons and movies because being able to see something come to life in front of an audience was fascinating to me. I'm always watching a film or seeing a photo and thinking, how did they do that?
© Weston Fuller.
What were some of your early photographs like?
I remember the first picture I took that I was proud of. I fell in love with photography in a traditional darkroom when I was a junior in high school. I was amazed by the ability to produce an image and see it come to life in the developer tray. The red light of the darkroom and the seclusion that came from creating an image on your own felt comforting and rewarding. Growing up in Utah, I loved snowboarding and hoped to become a professional sponsored rider. When my friends and I would all go snowboarding, I was the friend trying to take pictures of everything and make us look as good as I could.
Back then, I was studying the professional images in snowboarding magazines and I wanted to mimic what I saw. The reality of me being a novice and my friends not being pro athletes didn’t seem to stop us from trying to create amazing pictures. The first photo I remember being proud of was of a friend jumping off a rock through some trees with his snowboard. It probably wasn’t a great picture but I remember the excitement I felt when I developed the film. I was able to relive the moment because of what was on the paper in front of me.
Yet you didn’t immediately pursue an art career, did you?
When I got out of college with a bachelor’s degree in business, I went into the real estate business with my family. I was having a lot of success there for about ten years and then I had a chance to work on the marketing aspect of the industry. At one point, I hired a photographer for some ads. When I watched how they lit and shot the interior and the scene outside the windows separately and then stitched them together in post, in my heart I knew I wanted to do that. My wife provided the greatest encouragement with my photography and gave me the nudge I needed to earn my MFA degree. That took three years and wasn’t easy while I was working and being a full-time father to two boys, one of whom was born while I was at school.
A small business owner is shown with multiple arms to illustrate multitasking in an ad campaign for Workers Compensation Fund. © Weston Fuller.
I imagine having some practical business and family obligations helped you gain confidence, too?
Well, problem solving has always been a part of any job I’ve had, so applying that to photography and my digital art seemed natural. Taking on a challenge to create lighting or layers that all blended together naturally sparked my interest when discovering a montage-style of photography with composite images. I was assisting a friend on a photo shoot and we were working through a setup. It was interesting because he had to see things all in one frame that could be captured at once while I saw the image in two or three frames that could be built. Together the image turned out amazing because of our collaboration in taking our two different styles and applying it to the single image.
I think confidence is something I’m still in pursuit of. I know what I’m capable of doing—which has come from previous failed attempts—but those failures helped me know what I’m confident of delivering. Because photography found me later in life, I feel I’m still trying to prove myself. Each year, I enter a handful of photo competitions, like the annual APA Awards competition and APA chapter competitions, because it helps me see what others are creating and what is getting recognized. Having the pleasure of receiving recognition for my work brings me a level of pride in myself and I carry that confidence into the next client or personal project I’m working on.
You certainly have a quirky side. Is that a prerequisite for the hyper-real imagery that is gaining popularity?
I find that you either need to get it right, or you exaggerate it by bringing the difference to the surface immediately instead of trying to hide it. If you try to hide it, that’s usually when the critics point out the obvious to make themselves feel better. I like to figure out the relationship between things. I try to immediately make sense of something to understand it. If I have to search too hard for it, I lose interest and if it’s too obvious it doesn’t hold my interest. There needs to be a balance between the message and the visual for it to make a lasting impression.
I can be very long winded in trying to verbally explain something so I feel the need to make up for it by creating images of interest that also depict the purpose of the image very quickly. Most people who see an image of mine don’t know the artist statement or campaign slogan that goes with it so the image needs to stand on its own.
Lost: a narrative on relationships between generations. © Weston Fuller.
You once described this as a “what if” process in terms of trying to put a feature-length film in one frame. How do you take a scene over the edge just enough while still making sure the message gets through?
Everyone understands “reality” differently. What might seem crazy for one person could seem normal to someone else. I like to create an image that could represent the climax of a story or a key moment, leaving the viewer to create the “before” story or the “after” story from their own experience and perspective. I’m only providing the message and the moment in the narrative.
Creating a moment that extends the boundaries of reality provides me with the latitude to exaggerate a scene and stamp the image with my own sense of artistic style to end up with something that I believe is more than just a moment caught on camera. But it’s still grounded in reality while it helps to enhance the story I’m trying to tell.
You have a big talent stack that includes photography, illustrations, cinamagraphs, retouching, motion work, real-time rendering, and creating hyper-real imagery. Do you intuitively know what technique is going to work for what concept?
Each project usually lends itself to a specific type of image that needs to be created. In many scenarios though, there is more than one type of image that I’ll be creating. With tighter budgets and larger asks, I think being able to provide a client with a range of skills is the new norm in the industry. I resisted taking on big motion projects because I wanted to be a good photographer first. But trying to make a living only as a photographer was hard. So being able to deliver motion and handle all the post and effects software and tools means clients won’t look past you because you can’t provide all the assets they need for their job.
Campaign to help bring awareness to new information pertaining to the decline in the bird population over the last 50 years. Agency: Beaconsfire RED; Client: National Audubon Society. © Weston Fuller.
I love the disappearing bird special effects you created. How did this project come about?
For the Audubon bird campaign, I had some help because the concept was already worked out with the ad agency. I had been in communication with their creative director but had never done any work for her. She had hired a graphic designer to try to create the images they wanted for this bird campaign but their results weren’t where the agency needed to be to present or publish the campaign. I was approached as a conceptual composite photographer specializing in retouching to try to bring a certain emotion to the campaign—something that was eerie or haunting—that could create a connection with the audience and tell a story within a single frame of a photograph.
Learning how to create the animation of the birds from the still images was something new to me but I was up for the challenge. (You can see the animated images here.) I think where I’ve been lucky is when I’m allowed to work on multiple projects that push me to be a better artist. When I first started taking pictures someone mentioned to me that if I ever wanted my pictures to be used for advertising, they had to be technically flawless. I wasn’t sure what that meant at the time but it’s what I’m trying to achieve.
© Weston Fuller.
It’s great to see your storyboards next to the final images on your website. That primer your parents gave you came in handy! That’s an advantage you have for sure.
I don’t have any claims of being good at drawing but I do like to sketch out a concept, even if it’s with stick figures. I’ve always used a sketchbook to jot down ideas and thoughts to see if there is something I can create later. It’s like having a blueprint to refer to and keep me on track with producing the image. When a composite image has multiple layers, breaking out the different layers is important because that lets me know what I need to build an image.
When clients have a strong idea of what they want they usually always send a mood board. I’ve seen this work for and against me because sometimes I take the mood board as a reference point of what needs to be created and sometimes that client is looking for me to just recreate what they have in mind.
Can you give us a hint as to what your next “what if” is going to be about?
There is a special work in progress. I’ve been collecting things for this idea for a couple of years now and I just purchased an item from eBay as a prop that took a long time to locate. I would like to say that it’s a self-portrait project but I’m not going to be in any of the pictures. So, we’ll have to see when this project gets created. If 2021 is anything like 2020, it might end up as only a sketch in my book, but let’s hope not.