Mythology versus the Real World. A Painted Background.

The mythology of our business is so darling. Reams of pie-in-the-sky magazine articles from decades past would have every one believe that photographers can quickly get anything they want from a bevy of ready and waiting suppliers and that clients are standing by with their checkbooks open, just ready to satisfy our aesthetic procurement wishes. I wish that it was so. And I'm sure the stories evolved from some diamond studded studio in Manhattan where a kingly photographer was surrounded by anxious-to-please staff just waiting on the kingly photographer's barest utterance before they flung themselves into action and created props, backgrounds, sets and even models to his exacting parameters. I'm equally sure that, in this far off world, jovial (pre-bubble, pre-recession) clients stood ready to toss gold talents into whatever embellishments to the enterprise the kingly photographer might suggest. Happens in someone's world just not mine or any of the worlds of the scores of professional photographers I know.

Let me walk you through my latest project. We haven't done the photography yet but I've already gotten a lot done.

Since I live in the middle of Texas it was inevitable that I'd eventually be asked to shoot a bunch of cowboy boots for a cowboy boot maker's website and catalog. These aren't nasty, cheap boots that are glued together in a factory in some third world country. No sir. These are hand made custom boots done in an august Texas tradition. Fifteen hundred dollars a pair and up. Booked up for the next year already.  I bid the job based on the parameters given and my bid was accepted. That's when the "extra credit" work generally comes to the fore.

The comps for the campaign have a nice, non-descript, warm background and I was pretty sure we could find that in our own selection of backgrounds or from a rental house. But nothing I could find was exactly what we (the art director) wanted. I looked and looked but the fates refused to comply. As the shoot date drew nearer my art director understandably started to grow nervous. He'd no doubt sold the client on the look and feel of a computer created background and now it was kind of imperative that we deliver. No....the budget and delivery deadline didn't include clipping paths and dropping backgrounds into 80+ images of boots...

What does a commercial photographer do? We get ourselves over to the art supply house and get the stuff we need to make our own custom backgrounds. Like a nine foot long piece of beautiful oatmeal raw canvas that's 54 inches wide, along with some tubes of acrylic paint and a handful of wide brushes. I soaked the canvas so it would accept the very dilute paint into the fabric and then I laid it out on the floor of my studio, soaking wet. And then I started painting. And painting and painting. 

I used a high dilution of water to acrylic paint and the background, which appeared very saturated at first, is now drying to a much more subtle color palette. But that's just the first step. Once the acrylic wash is dried in I'll go back and hit the whole thing again with a spritzer filled with strong tea. I am hopeful that the tea will shift the overall color into a more sepia range and give me a look of something like a weathered parchment. Once the entire piece is exactly the color and pattern I want I'll go back and iron the fabric flat and then roll it around a core to transport it to San Antonio. 

Why go to the extra effort? Well, mostly because I am sure that the AD and I are on the same page and this is what we both wanted to see when we started looking at the comps and talking about the overall feel of the shoot. Would I have loved to pick up the phone and called a set maker in LA, spent some time giving him my vision, having him do some comps and send them back to me before meticulously hand painting a final background? Well, I guess so but I would worry that the background may not work and that by the time we receive his work it might be too late to punt.

As I'm writing this I'm watching the first application of paint dry and I'm loving what I'm seeing. Of course I don't have a studio entourage here to "ooh" and "ahhh" with me. No one to get me a plate of fancy Twinkies and an espresso... No one to fire up the hot tube. And clearly, no one to do the "behind the scenes" video.

I guess I really do suffer for my art... :-)  at least by the standards of the media/internet/photographer's mythology....

A few more hours of dry time and then we'll be ready for the tea....