April, 2012

waitress: a series by jim salzano

Jim Salzano has built his career photographing corporate campaigns for Fortune 500 companies and personalities including Donald Trump, David Bowie, Richard Branson, James Earl Jones and the Dalai Lama. Inspired by a waitress he met in a Cincinnati coffee shop 21 years ago, he started what was to become a career-long personal series of portraits titled Waitress.

With a forthcoming book, I wanted to ask Jim a few questions about the series. We talked about his original inspiration and how having complete creative freedom has changed his approach to his commercial work. And of course about June, the waitress who challenged James to see waitresses as important as the celebrities he photographs for his commercial work.

What was the original inspiration for the Waitress series and when did you start? Who was the first waitress you photographed?

In 1991 I traveled to Cincinnati for a talk at the Art Directors Club. I went for breakfast at a local cafe recommended by the hotel at which I was staying and as promised, it was filled with interesting people. My waitress, June, saw my camera bag and asked what was in it. When I explained it was a camera and that I photographed people and personalities, she said “Oh, you photograph important people. I bet you’ve never photographed a waitress. Waitresses are important, you know.”  She then went on to detail the ways in which waitresses helped their customers beyond serving food.

June and two other waitresses were the first I photographed for what was to become this series. I have now shot waitresses while on assignment and traveled specifically for this project to Australia, China and Italy. The portfolio now includes more than 70 portraits from 23 countries, most recently Mexico.

Who was the most memorable?

That’s a tough one. I think the Irish waitress is one of the most memorable because of that experience. It was really like going back in time. I love old traditions like that where people wear what looks like a costume but it’s so genuine. That’s the quality the Irish waitress had.

What criteria or parameters do you have for deciding whom to photograph?

Before I go to a particular city for a job I usually ask someone in that town to tell me what the most popular and most original restaurant or diner is. I gather a small list and go to each one to see what is the most interesting.

Then I go in and have a coffee and look at the menu and decide if it’s worth it. That’s when it gets fun. I’ll start to chat with the waitresses and show them a small sample book I have that shows a number of the images. I ask if the owner is there and if I could show the work and maybe shoot a portrait. What decides who I shoot sometimes depends on the owner’s preference and sometimes I shoot multiple waitresses and choose my favorite after I see the images. 99% of the time it’s a hit and everyone gets excited, they sign a release and it’s done.

Do you approach these portraits differently than you do your editorial and advertising portraits? Has this project changed the way you shoot portraits?

One of the reasons I love this project and I’ve been shooting it for so long is that it feels like a real exercise in creating a real portrait. There is very little pre production or casting or location scouting. Just what I’ve explained is how I go about it. When I go into a restaurant I have to come out with an image I like. You might think that would be stressful, but instead of pressure I feel really excited that I can come away with an image I’m happy with. I think it’s because I have to please myself that it feels right. And with that in mind it’s really helped me to realize that’s the most successful way to approach a client’s project. If I can feel like I’m delivering a good image within the parameters a client gives me but I’m also pleasing my own standards, it’s a winning combination—because everyone comes away from the shoot happy with the results.

palm springs photo festival

I was honored to be asked to be on the faculty of this year’s Palm Springs Photo Festival. The Festival is an amazing confluence of many facets of the photography world, and the panelists and reviewers included industry leaders in commercial, editorial, and fine art photography. The myriad of Festival programs; workshops, seminars, master classes, symposiums, portfolio reviews and lots of peer networking flowed between the Korakia Pensione, the Hyatt Regency and the Palm Springs Art Museum. Many thanks to Jeff Dunas for including me in the event, and to Norman Maslov, Frank Meo, Alex Tasch, Sandy Boss Febbo, Shannon McMillan, Howard Bernstein, Leah Levine, Randy Harris and Chris Pichler for showing me such a great time.

jamie kripke rides on washington for bikes belong

Jamie Kripke is just back from riding alongside twenty-five pro and advocate cyclists on the five-day, 500-mile Ride on Washington, all while simultaneously shooting stills and video. Founded by Cyclocross superstar Tim Johnson, Ride on Washington raises funds for Bikes Belong, a national bicycling advocacy and lobby group based in Boulder, Colorado.

Jamie is one of a few photographers who could shoot stills and video while doing the actual ride. The decision was made that he would immerse himself in the experience in order to gain the necessary perspective and because riding in a car going 20 mph  for eight hours a would have been a little “boring” compared to riding in a peloton with pro cyclists. “I got to see and experience the ride and it helped me to shoot it better. Being immersed in it was so much more useful for me in terms of knowing what was important to shoot,” said Jamie. “The third day was Hartford to NYC and we rode into Times Square at 6pm on St. Patrick’s Day. Being able to capture that from my bike seemed like the only way to do it.”

Rather than a camera rigged to his bike, Jamie used a Canon handheld while riding that shot both raw and video. “Riding with professional riders was not the time to shoot with a cumbersome setup. You’re going so fast and riding in a tight group (side by side and drafting within inches between you and other cyclists). Once you are so close to everyone else, you can’t see sticks and potholes in the road. An elaborate system of hand signals has been developed to communicate with the other cyclists and the person who is in front has to be responsible. At 25 – 30 (sometimes 40) miles an hour, if you hit a pothole or get a flat tire and fall, everyone behind you falls.”

“They were on a tight schedule, breaks were short and the pace was high. So I had to shoot what I could and try not to get killed and not kill anyone else.”

It was an ambitious project and many decisions were made on the fly. “My initial idea was to make this about how bikes and cars could co-exist. I found out very quickly that I didn’t have time to build and maintain this particular narrative over five days and still keep up. I had to rearrange my shot list on the fly which was a luxury of doing this pro bono because they were ok with me doing that. They just wanted me to shoot it how I saw it.”

“I was a one-man show—riding and shooting all day.  Unpacking, prepping, clearing cards, transcoding + reviewing footage, then recharging and repacking gear at night. I went to bed at midnight/2am and was up at 6am for breakfast.

“It was extremely challenging but an amazing opportunity. I am grateful that my commercial career affords me the opportunity to contribute to projects I’m passionate about,” added Jamie. “Anytime you get to use photography as a tool for change is incredible. And to combine it with riding my bike was infinitely more awesome.”