Can a photographer grow their business while staying true to their passion? Photographer Chris Crisman explains how he balances commercial and personal photography.
(outdoor sounds) - Nice. Chin up just a tiny bit. And then just eyes to camera. Good. When you're photographing someone in their space, you've got this beautiful play between their real environment and how they behave therein. And beyond that, there's a little bit of magic that happens because they're just comfortable. They're behaving as themselves.
My job is quite the opposite, so I'm always on the road and always moving and going somewhere I've never been, to make the most important portrait that's ever been created of that person. Helping them establish their story. (crickets) I haven't always been a photographer.
I attended school, University of Pennsylvania, and thought I was possibly going to be a doctor. As soon as I took my first photography class, I fell in love with it. And, I've been making images, with a camera, for about 16 years now. The first four years of photography at any level, I just shot environments and landscapes and spaces and places. Working in the woods really created this understanding and kind of balance to my work.
One thing I think I realized pretty early, was that it was pretty rare that someone just photographing places, was going to actually make a career out of it or make a business out of it. And, I loved photography so much that it's what I wanted to spend all my time doing. So, I really focused in on photographing people.
Now I do a variety of types of work, and they all kind of play nice with each other. I find ways to get the most life, the most human connection out of the person and then also get the most power out of the space and then balance that through the pictures. My career has really been fueled by making work that I haven't been commissioned to create. A lot of it is telling a story in one single image.
Creating a super hero out of a real person and making that power of that person, connect to the viewer. Right now, I'm working on a project called Women's Work. Focusing on women working in spaces that are dominated by men. This whole project started over a meeting in New York, at an ad agency, and someone being a friend of a female butcher in Philadelphia and that was the first shoot we did for this, and it was phenomenal, I love that picture so much.
We just shot Nancy. She's our pig farmer from Stryker Farms. I think it's gonna be a pretty inspiring project for a lot of people. (somber music) When I'm creating work for myself, I get to be the creative director, I get to be the art director, and I get to be the post-production director.
So, I really have control of the project from start to end. I wanna be open, I wanna be transparent and I wanna listen. I think great things are made with teams. It's still my vision at the core, but to be great, it's gotta take more than one person. This project we're gonna work on today, I've visualized exactly how this picture's gonna look like, but we're still waiting on some surprises. It really starts with this concept and then growth of the concept and working with my team and a lot of meeting and a lot of pre-production and then it's all leading up to this one moment.
So there is a bit of a response-based nature to work like this. I know it's going to be great, I know the framing, I know the moment I'm looking for, but you still want a little bit of surprise, so I'm anxious to see what that might be. (happy music) We could photograph you.
Put the camera in a particular spot and run a bar across to attach to the camera there and then we could shoot everything with you, leave that there, and I can fire remotely while the pigs are coming up the way. - [Farmer Nancy] Cool. Do whatever you think you have to, that'll work. - [Chris] It's still trying to make the coolest picture we possibly can and sometimes the reality of it is, you have to bend the rules a little bit, so, alright. - [Male] We'll get started on that. - [Chris] Yeah, let's build it.
Yeah, good. When I graduated from school, I was very much at a place where it was sink or swim, so I had to make it work or I was going to end up moving home and probably the photography career would've died at that point. One of my first college photography professors felt that I should really be assisting and it's like, I have no idea how to be an assistant, so okay, but I'm sure everyone's gonna wanna hire me as an assistant.
But, at the time, I was still training as an athlete, a javelin thrower on the track team at Penn. So, if nothing else, I was probably one of the stronger assistants available in Philadelphia, and that was honestly a valuable skill to a photographer. So, I started actually assisting for another commercial photographer in Philadelphia and I was able to jump in to the business and see how money moved. And then from there, really able to catapult myself.
At this phase, in my business, it's a pretty complex system, I have one full time producer, and that's Robert Luessen, who's been working with me six years now. When Robert started, he was fresh out of college and I saw a lot of similarities with how I was when I graduated, to Robert. So, I had a lot of confidence that, over time, he'd grow into someone really special and valuable to the business and valuable for my career and he has, I mean, he's went from studio assistant to studio manager to almost full time producer.
We've transitioned from being kind of a more editorial response-based, on location photographer to shooting a lot more advertising and then creating pictures that are concept driven, from start to finish. I've been very fortunate to always have business and always have volume and it puts us on the road. And I think being on the road constantly is just, kind of, part of the story for me.
A lot of times, I think of myself as a nomadic photographer. On average we're gone 100 to 120 days a year. It really has so much to do with the relationship that I have with whoever I'm working with and whatever we're trying to collaborate to create. I remember in college, one day in the mail, I got this Rolling Stone with Brittany Spears on the cover.
This amazing, powerful, captivating, complex, colorful, like in your face picture and it was from David LaChapelle. I remember getting that issue, thinking, oh my God, this job must be amazing. By creating a brand-defying image of someone who's going to, just about to, probably be one of the biggest stars in the world. For me, that was one of the biggest influences in my career.
For someone starting out, I think the most important piece of advise that I would give, would be really focusing in on one type of work, and developing a style and a vision. Create a really succinct body of work, that is clear and represents you well, and that you love and are so proud of. I was really interested in pictures that created an emotional response.
That feel like the experience and aren't held to this singular piece of time, 1/25th of a second or 1/60th of a second. It's kind of beyond reality and a bit surreal. If you're working as a commercial photographer, the client loves your style and loves this body of work, but they're gonna have a lot of things that they need and a lot of things they don't need and you have to be flexible. Some of the particular pillars of that body of work, that you create, when you're branching out and doing something new, you're not going to be worried about solving those problems that you had when you were mastering body of work A.
You can kind of free yourself up to really focus on the connection, focus on the moment and focus on that little piece of magic on a shoot, that's going to finish the picture. That's good right there, perfect. And now looking passed me, right here. Good. How about that wind, what's happening right now? (mumbling) Yeah, it's great. (laughing) Alright, we're good. Thank you. (somber music) So, we're heading back from the shoot now.
Everything was a success. We had a blast working with Nancy and Nolan and everybody at the Stryker Farm. You know today, I had a real clear idea of what that picture was gonna look like and the secondary picture as well and then, by being there and in the moment, we were able to have the option with Nancy holding the pig and really be in the space. And Nancy really was fantastic in front of the camera too, and really striking and had a very charming, captivating look so, I am excited to get back.
Get to the studio and get everything downloaded and see it a little bigger on the screen and get working towards a final image. A lot of my work is most everything in focus from close to hero to background and far background, like everything matters. And then lighting to pop face and seeing light's on dark's and light's on dark's. It really creates a natural target.
Establishing that connection that I want the viewer to have with my pictures. I was my own retoucher for the first three, four, five years. And then that gave me that basis to work on developing my own style. And then we hit a point with business that, it just didn't make sense that I was handling all the post. Any job that I would love to do, I really try and make it happen somehow, and doing that, I can't wear every hat.
I've been fortunate to work with some really talented people to kind of help refine and then redefine that work in itself. Most of that's handled with one specific individual, and that's George McCardle. And we've been working together for, I wanna say about nine months now. I think the first three months, it's really feeling out how I like the pictures to look. A heavy hand versus a soft hand. More of it is the soft hand in most cases. But now, it's at a point where, I'm on the road, we have back to back to back projects, I feel confident that George's hand is really spelling my vision.
We have these amazing tools and it's funny when people are worried about overusing them. I wanna capture as much as I possibly can, but if what I want to convey with a picture, takes multiple frames, I don't have a problem with it. I'll use whatever tool, whatever technology that that takes. I'm trying to do things that are pushing the boundaries of what I'm accustomed to and that's paying off in a really fantastic way.
Recently, we've been doing a lot of moving stills. Everything moving in one world. I think my brain never really shuts off, I'm always in-taking everything that's around me. Right now, we're in this point of, when I'm not on the road, really giving as much attention to my children as possible. And being really engaged with them and I've had a lot of nice inspiration just watching and experiencing with them.
The idea of the first time you see a giraffe, what a crazy, alien creature that might be. The boundaries for children are kind of unlimited, and it's nice to tap into that perspective. I'm looking back 10 years ago and feeling like, wow, I've come a really long way, but there's still pictures that helped launch my career that I hold very near and dear.
I'm just a lot more fluent with using those skills and using those tools. Above it all, I just feel really grateful to have had this career and have these opportunities to explorer and get to see our nation. I've actually shot in every state in America. If you've got enough of a feel and a love for shooting, like I do, you can really make a special picture anywhere.
- Chris Crisman is an internationally recognized commercial photographer. He was born and raised in Titusville, Pennsylvania, the town that gave birth to the American oil industry. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
- Chris's work has been recognized by prestigious trade organizations and publications such as Lürzer's Archive, Communication Arts, American Photography, Photo District News, Graphis, and the International Photography Awards. His clients include Energizer, Intuit, Mary Kay, Pearle Vision, American Standard, Shell Oil, Virgin Galactic, AOL, Wells Fargo, Schwab, Pfizer, Merck, Novartis, Novo Nordisk, GSK, Belkin, Yamaha, Salesforce, Infiniti, Red Bull, Coca-Cola, Cirque du Soleil, Costco, and Allstate.