While I would most often be highlighting a photographer who resides more formally in the fine art arena, it would be remiss of me to exclude those in the editorial and advertising realm that do more to put the art into the more exceptional images we see so often between the pages of our favorite magazine, or high up on a billboard. I’ve had my hands involved with both ends of this photographic spectrum, so it only makes sense that I would feel the need and pull to include those who make incredible work and actually make a fair living doing it at the same time. Being able to achieve a position where you get to have a lot of creative control in your assignment work is a dream place to be. There’s a lot to learn from these photographers, and the first one that fits this bill is Hugh Kretschmer.
My shot at describing Hugh’s work would be conceptual photo-illustration. Sure, the kind that often uses computers and software to composite many images into one - but so much more than that. If fact, that’s a bit of an oversimplification, as the skills required to create images like that are varied and specialized. Hugh’s work is simply unique in its approach, as there is always an air of reality blended in that takes you away from those typical CGI looking photographs. We see composited images every day - more often than we realize, actually. The difference is that Hugh has been doing work like this before the word Photoshop became a verb. His trademark whimsical and humorous nature has been a central part of his photography from the start - one that included skills in set building and prop making that inspire professionals in those fields as well. Yea, he’s the guy that’s been making you wonder, “how’d they do that?” He’s the guy that has made you crack up at a deodorant ad. And he’s the guy that has brought beauty and elegance to bottled water. In fact, it would be my guess that you’ve been seeing his work for a very long time and not yet realized it.
Hugh has been able to accomplish so much during the course of his career that it would be a mistake to attempt tell you all about it here. Rather, I’ll let his own words and images tell that story. What I can say is that he’s a photographer that isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, and has quite definitely put the work in. He’s created a look and a brand like no other, and it is him that I wanted to get to know more about. He is a gifted story teller after all. I’ve got questions, and Hugh’s got answers….
Hugh Kretschmer grew up in Los Angeles, and one of seven kids in a family of artists. At the age of 13, he was introduced to photography by his father who was a photoinstrumentation engineer for MacDonnell Douglas from the Mercury through Apollo missions. Ten years later, Hugh received a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from Art Center College of Design, graduating with honors. He then moved to New York City to start his career, collaborating with editorial, design, and advertising clients such as Vanity Fair, New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, GQ, Penn & Teller, Old Spice, Huggies, Toyota, and Sony. His images have been recognized by The International Photography Awards, American Photography, Communication Arts, PDN Photo Annual, Graphis Publications, and the Society of Publication Designers. His work has been profiled in many industry publications, books, podcasts and blogs, including Graphis, Communication Arts, Juxtapoz, Plastik, Vison Magazine, Beijing. His work has been selected for auction through Sotheby’s, Vienna and exhibited in galleries in Los Angeles, New York and Paris, and is on permanent exhibit at the 911 Memorial, New York City.
Hugh has lectured and lead workshops at Eddie Adams Workshops in Jeffersonville, NY, Gulf Photo Plus, Dubai and Fotorama, Serbia. He teaches photography part-time at Art Center College of Design, UCLA Extension, and the Los Angeles Center of Photography.
Michael Kirchoff: How is it that you became interested in doing this type of photography? How exactly do you refer to your specialty when approaching clients or speaking about your work?
Hugh Kretschmer: The type of work I do, I think, goes back to a book my father gave me when I was 13 years old; a time when I first showed interest in photography. The book was a monograph of Jerry N. Uelsmann’s and was published by Aperture. He is a “surrealist” photographer whose wild imagination is translated to the photographic print by use of photomontage techniques. As soon as I opened it, I knew at that very moment anything was possible in my photography.
I refer to my genre of work as “photo-illustration” and the short definition to that title is, I am simply an illustrator who uses a camera. Since most of my commissions have come from editorial sources, it makes perfect sense. I like to say my clients come to me to help solve their visual problems. I love that challenge! It’s because I am the one who is coming up with a solution that needs to be succinct, simple, appropriate and effective enough to cause our audience to stop flipping pages and read the article.
MK: Do you study what others are doing, and do you find their influence in your own image making? Any specific influences?
HK: I love photography but am influenced less by other photographers and more by illustrators, painters and designers. I share openly that my early work has been influenced by 20th Century art movements since the beginning and I think there is still a connecting thread to my images that exists to this day. The illustrator, AM Cassandra, is a hero and there is no mistaking that Rene Magritte’s influence plays a part in some of my chosen content. They are amongst the most obvious, but there are also indirect influences that I can’t explain who and where they are from. People ask me where my ideas come from and most of the time, I don’t know myself. I can only explain it comes from a lifetime of observing.
MK: Photography at a professional level is an exercise in extreme problem solving. Doing so at your level, and your area of expertise, even more so. Perhaps some words about your father and the impact he had on your trajectory as a master problem solver?
HK: My father was an amazing problem solver. He designed and built his first camera at age 10 using his mother’s jewelry box, for which he got a good licking for by his father. Although he was a journalism major at Laurence University, he found his calling designing lenses for Bausch and Lomb. (I have one of his very popular-at-the-time compact telescopes.) From there, he followed the calling to put a man on the moon and moved his family to California. Hearing his tales of how things went sounded very chaotic. I mean, to have 400,000 people collectively trying to figure it out AS they are executing the next steps sounds crazy, but that’s how it was. He actually INVENTED his department at MacDonnell Douglas, Photo-Instrumentation. So, if he was inventing his job, he was surely inventing solutions to unimaginable problems.
He had many great achievements, but his most notable was footage he captured of the stages from the Saturn Five rocket separating. I’ve seen it hundreds of times in documentaries and movies, and you can find it on You Tube, also. For that mission the problem was to insulate the camera from the immense heat generated by the rocket engines, while still maintaining the wide-angle view and image sharpness. The solution was a specially shaped piece of optically clear quartz glass that was eight inches thick. Not only that, but the high-speed film camera needed to be water proofed and returned to earth unscathed. Mind you, it was a camera that could take up to 44,000 frames/sec. I don’t think they used that high of a speed for that shot, but it tells you the sophisticated technology they used.
So, you can see why I was enamored by him and why I do the work I do.
MK: When you started shooting photo-illustration, with a lean towards special and optical effects, there was no Photoshop available. What you did have at your disposal was talented people to collaborate with, and those that shared your common vision and goals. Can you tell us a little of how to build and nurture those types of enduring collaborations?
HK: Yes, I had a lot of help from a variety of different assistants throughout the years, but they were mostly there to help with some of the rudimentary tasks. Because my projects were planned for my skillset, most of that work is done by me, which is fine.
Outside my skillset is another experience completely. I feel lucky to know and work with some amazing talent and living in Los Angeles gives me a particular advantage because we are piggybacking on the film industry. So, I have my pick of special effects prop makers, wardrobe stylists and make-up artists. Then there are the specialty prop and wardrobe houses that are everywhere. It is truly AMAZING!
Over the years I have developed a pretty small list of specific talent I work with and each of them excel in helping define certain areas of my vision. For example, I have one prop fabricator I use for special effects and another prop fabricator I use for miniatures. That sort of thing! Or, I have a costume stylist, and then I have a fashion stylist. They may crossover a bit, but I know specifically who I will need to fill the role as soon as I read the brief or magazine article. Regardless, on all my productions I hire an expert to do an expert’s job and that means leaving them alone for the most part. I want them to feel like they are contributing rather than feeling like they are being controlled. It is something I appreciate in my own work and want to extend that philosophy to my talent.
MK: What are the steps taken to complete a complex photo shoot? Are your clients adding input every step of the way, or do they often let you take the work to a more refined level before making suggestions or asking about changes? Because of your level of expertise, do you feel as though you are given more freedom in the final execution of the image?
HK: Well, that depends. If it is an ad shoot, the layout has already been approved, but the creative director is usually dependent on me to add nuances and details to the visual. I love that part because, for me, it is all about the details. Yet, even though the layout is approved weeks or even months before the job is awarded, I work a lot more closely with the creatives in ad jobs than I do with editorial gigs. We collaborate in a much more focused way and I like that. There is SO much at stake, it is a relief to have someone next to me who is as responsible as I am, working together towards a singular vision. I love it!
And, I love directing, too. I had my first real taste of directing videos last summer for Canon Printers and could not get enough of it. I love the role of director and leader, but I make it very clear to the people who are supporting me it’s a collaboration everyone is a part of, even my assistants. Everyone gets the opportunity to chime in and brings an energy to the shoot that is very positive.
On the other hand, there’s editorial, which is where my work truly lives. It is a different experience entirely, but where I am most challenged because of my client’s reliance on me to come up with a visual. It is also a space I thrive in, to be quite honest. I really like that dynamic and when a photo-editor or art director gives me more creative freedom, the better. It makes for the best outcome, from my experience, and my most iconic work was created.
MK: Set building and prop making are still key components to achieving the look and feel of your photographs. How much involvement do you retain after the initial conception of a photograph? How much is still kept in this area of production, before any digital manipulations are started?
HK: To answer your first question, I am involved with every step of the production, from start to finish. Since more times than not I am the author of the concept, I make it my duty to see it through to the end. I’m also a control freak.
On the second question, the most valuable use of my time is in pre-production. I try to do as much in-camera as possible before going into post-production. There are a few reasons why, mostly because there is a tactile quality to my work that digital means just can’t duplicate. I’ve had students of mine challenge me on that point, but I remain firm. It’s just not the same! The other reason is I don’t like spending my time behind a computer. I really don’t belong there! My skills are limited and not as polished as someone who does it 24/7. But the real reason is, I like the challenge of figuring it out in front of the lens and getting my hands in there. It’s very satisfying to me.
MK: How much is serendipity involved with a shoot that requires an immense amount of planning, choreography, and detail?
HK: Now that’s a great question! I have sometimes experienced what I call, “magic” productions, where everything falls into place effortlessly and perfectly. There are many examples I can think of, but the most memorable was the series, Botox Party. EVERYTHING on that shoot came together seamlessly, as if by magic. We found all the early ‘60’s furnishing and set décor in one prop house that just happened to be across the street from my studio in NYC. It was all coordinated in wonderful shades of greens and teals that were popular at the time. Then we found all five dresses from the same era in the same color scheme as the furnishings at a vintage dress shop that was three blocks away from my studio. And, they all fit the models perfectly. The best part was finding the ONLY immaculately preserved vintage mannequin in the entire city, in the same prop house, that uncannily looked exactly like the featured character in the series. We simply connected the model and the mannequin together visually using a vintage wig between the two. It was amazing!
But there are cases where ideas are seemingly too difficult to pull together. In those cases, I experience one roadblock after another, and I have learned through trial and error that might be a message I need to take note of. I know now that if trying to pull together a shoot is just too difficult it might be best to abandon it.
MK: Progress is inevitable, and you must either keep up or get out of the way in order to thrive. Are technology and innovation a chance to evolve your practice in new ways that you hadn’t yet thought of before?
HK: Yes, innovation has enhanced my approach and every photograph goes through some sort of post-production process. It’s been that way for a long time. However, I still seem to have been able to keep my singular style despite the advancements in recent decades. I approach every project from the objective of creating as much as I can in front of the camera, maintaining a handcrafted sensibility. My aesthetic is a priority to me and whether I use practical or digital means to create with that objective, it doesn’t matter. As long as I honor that prerogative, I will embrace whatever means necessary to get there. So far, so good!
MK: Digital manipulation and Photoshop are always big, multi-layered questions. What are your thoughts on the digital revolution and transition from film to digital? Was getting your clients on board with it in the early days an easy conversation, and what was their reaction to what could be accomplished versus traditional means? Is simply just faster and easier to composite some images together and leave the hands-on approach behind?
HK: It wasn’t about getting my clients on board with digital, it was the other way around. I didn’t go kicking and screaming into the digital age, but I was late to the party, so to speak. And, it had little to do with change as much as making sure I could keep my visual voice. I saw a lot of what was going on, early on, and was a little squeamish about what I was seeing. If you notice, my images still have a fairly pure, photographic appearance to them. That’s intentional! Although I might use digital compositing regularly, I make it a point of not adjusting the image’s appearance through enhancements and filtration. It’s always been that way, even back in the day of film. When I was working with film, I used transparency film rather than color negative. The reverse process renders the image more realistically and felt it worked well with my subjects. I feel my content is usually unrealistic itself and never needed enhancement beyond my own techniques.
I realized that not long ago when a student of mine made a comment when I showed my work to her for the first time. She said, “They look so…photographic!”
MK: Humor has long been a part of your process in so many images. I think that we don’t see this often enough in our creative process and professional life. Was this always the case, and have you found it to be something that has aided you in your overall success as a photographer?
HK: I am not sure if humor has aided in my success, it’s just the way I think. I admire dry, subtle humor. There is a cleverness to the message, a wink to our/my very human thinking and behavior. It’s disarming to me and I think it pulls my audience in a bit more because they can identify with the image’s narrative.
I have had my share of gallery exhibitions and it’s really interesting to watch how people interact with the work. Everyone has a favorite image and for their own reasons.
MK: You’ve been doing this successfully for so long…is there anything left outside of your comfort zone that you’d like to challenge yourself with?
HK: Yes, I would like to direct stop-motion animations. Painstaking as they are to make, it is a form of expression I think syncs well with my aesthetic. I have created a few small ones and I really like the collaborative process. Because I am so “green” when it comes to filmmaking, I am dependent on those more skilled than I in the process. That is freeing for me, because I am able to let go and let those experts do their job. On the other hand, when it comes to my still photography, it is a little more challenging to relinquish the reins. Motion is much more dynamic and complex. It’s what I like about it. Not only is the process making them involved and multilayered, but so is the result. When I finally get to view my work for the first time, it is an emotional experience for me, no matter the content. It’s a little addictive!
MK: Anyone working in an artistic field has matured and grown over time. Is there anything you’ve discovered lately that you’d like people to know about you or your creative process?
HK: Yes, I now want to turn my work towards purpose. There is something inside me that is driving the need to give back and benefit a cause. I’ve started a project that will be detailed in another question you pose, but it seems creating work with a commercial objective is losing its luster for me and I want to help deliver a message that causes people to think about what is happening to our world. My project, Mirage, is just the beginning of, what I hope to be, my next evolution.
MK: Was there a particular shoot or project that made you feel like you attained the process you needed to carry on with a clear picture of where you wanted to go with your work?
HK: Not really, because I think one phase or approach leads to the next one. I keep trying different things. As my skillset expands so does the application of those techniques. In some of my work I use multiple techniques like collage, handcraft and digital compositing in combination and makes the work a sort of multimedia hybrid. The bottom line is using whatever appropriate means necessary to deliver the message with my aesthetic.
MK: Do you see a difference between how you approach your personal work versus the images you create for others, or do you feel they inform and inspire one another?
HK: I think the latter. If you go through my portfolio it may be difficult to tell which images were commissioned or made for a personal project; there is a healthy mix throughout. One commission might inspire one I make for myself, and vise versa. More times than not, however, I have won a commission based on a personal project. I’m an advocate for personal projects, but for selfish reasons. When I have an idea I really like, I’ll just do it for myself. My advocacy for personal projects came about only after winning a few high-end advertising jobs because of them.
MK: Speaking of personal work, you have a new project that takes this idea to a new level. Tell us about Mirage and how the idea developed from initial concept to reality.
HK: Yes, it is a project I started last Fall and will be an ongoing affair. It is my response to what I am seeing happen to our natural water systems due to human activity. Here in California, the effects of global warming and pollution has interrupted the weather system and caused a sickening of our waterways.
Mirage is about water, but there is no water in the photographs. I create the effect of water and bring it back to where it once flowed or was in its purest form. I use repurposed plastic in different forms to create the water effects and with an intended irony. As we all know, our addiction to plastic is a major problem when it comes to water pollution.
MK: Another aspect of your work is that as an instructor at Art Center College of Design, UCLA, and the Los Angeles Center of Photography. In addition, you’ve had an extensive relationship with the professional photo organization ASMP as well. How does this avenue of your professional practice influence your own photography and how you work with others?
HK: I love to teach photography and sharing my processes with a hungry student. It is very satisfying to me both creatively and satisfies my desire to give back. However, I learn as much from my students as they do from me. I get to see fresh thinking at play in every class or workshop I teach. And, since they are on the cutting edge of what’s “new”, I get a lesson on such things as Instagram, or they introduce me to other young photographers I would otherwise be unaware of. So yeah, there are selfish reasons for me to be an educator.
MK: What do you feel are key components to making a successful life in photography, whether it be commercial work or fine art?
HK: I like this question because you used the word “life” instead of “living”. I live an artist’s life and it’s exactly what I’ve been told it would be. There are abundant times, and lean times. It’s just the way it is. You have to be passionate enough to be able to embrace both extremes. Personally, I just can’t think of anything else I would rather do. I’ll always be a photographer.
MK: As if all of this weren’t enough, I’m still going to ask what’s next for your photography. Any other new projects you have in the works, or is the plate full?
HK: Right now, I am going to continue on this trajectory and see it through until the next idea, project or evolution comes along, as it always does. Stay tuned!
You can find more of Hugh's work at his website here.