CD: Jeffery, many thanks for participating in the Fuse Visual project. Tell me a bit about your journey; how you came from a small town in Texas to Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and now Miami?
Jeffery Salter: Thanks for inviting me, Cameron. Well, I always liked to draw and was drawn to art as a kid, but I discovered photography by accident when I was 15—I enrolled in a graphic design course that turned out to be a photography class. Then my high school photography instructor handed me a Graflex Speed Graphic 4X5, some old copies of Popular Photography, and series of books called The Masters of Contemporary Photography. The books featured photographers Eugene Smith, Duane Michals, Art Kane, Elliott Erwitt, and Mary Ellen Mark and I was hooked. The creativity and originality of the photographers in those books has stayed with me until this day.
I bought my first camera, at age 15, and my father almost had a heart attack when I told him how much I paid for it—$500, which I earned by mowing lawns and delivering newspapers. My father was in the Army so I grew up as an Army brat, traveling every three years to military bases around the world and finally ending up in Killeen, Texas. One of the benefits of that move was free access to the photography darkrooms soldiers used on their days off.
After high school, I enrolled in the Navy to attend the U.S. Navy School of Photography in Pensacola, Florida. My first job was working in a darkroom at the Fleet Intelligence Center in Hawaii. I must have printed over 1,000 pictures of Chinese fishing ships before I caught a lucky break when two war-torn sailors walked by the lab—they happened to be Harry Gerwien and Jim Bryant, two of the best Navy photojournalists of their day. They encouraged me to apply to a special program for military photographers at Syracuse University, which I did.
After graduation my new job was traveling the world and shooting stories about military life for Navy magazines and newspapers such as Stars and Stripes. When my tour of duty ended I wrote to Anthony Barboza, a fine art and fashion photographer in New York City, to apply for an internship. A former Navy photographer himself, Barboza hired me and I moved to New York. I went to work for him setting up lights, making prints and running errands—Chinese food, I picked up a lot of Chinese take-out for him.
Then I got a staff photographer job at the Bergen Record in New Jersey where I won several awards and got noticed by editors at Newsday who then hired me and I got a chance to cover fast breaking news in New York City for the daily and a bit of fashion in Paris, London and Milan for the Sunday magazine. Staffers would rotate to the different sections of the paper and during my stints on the magazine is when I began to think more like a magazine portrait and feature photographer. After that I moved to Miami and went to work as a staff photographer for the Miami Herald.
While at the Herald I prepared myself to become a freelance magazine photographer—it was a conscious act, a road that I intentionally placed myself on. I purchased Profoto 7B power packs, octabanks, beauty dishes and a Mamiya RZ kit to use on every portrait assignment for the paper’s Sunday magazine and I thoughtfully built my portfolio. Then I managed to get agent Marcel Saba in New York to represent me, he pitched my work to national magazines and when I started to get enough gigs, I said farewell to the Herald and made the move to a full-time freelance career.
Freelance was a new life—having to pay for all my expenses, buy my own equipment, figuring out a retirement plan on my own, but the gigs were great. I did travel stories in the Caribbean, yachting pictorials and CEO portraits. Then the New York Times offered me a staff job doing portraits for their arts section and I moved back to New York. It was a great job and the Times is a great paper, however after a year I missed my freelance life and moved back to Miami to resume freelance magazine work. Sports Illustrated began asking me to shoot portraits of high profile athletes and then hired me as a staff shooter. They were also amenable to me continuing to pursue other freelance magazines assignments.
CD: For a good part of your career you shot sports and photojournalism. What brought about the change to shooting environmental portraits?
Jeffery Salter: My previous photojournalism work informed my magazine portraiture because it taught me how to tell a story with images. It taught me to keep my eyes open and always be ready for unique moments and possibilities that aren’t cliché. I enjoyed doing staff journalism work, but at the same time, I wanted to focus on portraiture so I knew that I had to let go of the old in order to make room for the new. While parachuting into a disaster zone has its own rewards, for me, doing environmental portraiture is a much deeper, rich, and rewarding experience.
The type of Sports photography I am hired to do rarely involves peak action, long lenses or staking out a position on the sidelines. Rather more often than not its off the field character studies, ranging from coverage of athletes with their families to a night out at a club. These are behind the scenes images that rarely involved a ball being tossed around a stadium.
Ultimately I enjoy the intimate nature of portrait shoots. Even if only briefly you get to ask some very interesting people about there lives, go into their homes, see their families and pull back the curtain to peek in on a world you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. I love getting to know my subjects and perhaps figuring out what makes them tick in their own environment. It’s much more revealing when you get to do that with a subject, and it makes for a much more interesting and hopefully revealing portrait. You also have to foster a certain amount of trust between yourself and your subject and in their homes, on their own turf, and around their families, they’re less likely to be guarded while I’m interacting with them. You have to be personable not just a man with a camera in his hand. Often the first words I hear from a subject upon arrival are, “What do you want me to do?” This could be from the mouth of a Fortune 500 CEO or a high-strung politician. For the most part I have found they all expect the photographer to guide them through the shoot, so that’s what I do. Another reason I like portraiture is because I like lighting. No, I LOVE lighting, everything about it is creative for me, and with portraits I can put my passion for crafting beautiful light to good use.
I’ve always enjoyed lighting to create atmosphere in my photos but it’s when I started to freelance that I fully embraced lighting in my work. This worked well for me because that was the look editors wanted, therefore, I got the gigs! Many of my colleagues who were freelancing strictly as photojournalists were struggling. Because of my PJ background and the fact that I’d honed my lighting skills I was able to not only document stories as a photojournalist, but also create the professionally lit and polished cover images magazine editors were looking for.
Even though I have long since sold my M6 and now use a Phase One, I still draw upon the skills I learned. Skills such as being able to quickly size up a scene, finding the perfect place to shoot and coming up with a solid lighting plan. Once those elements are in place I can relax and get into my creative zone. On a set or at a location, it’s easy to feel pulled in so many different directions, it’s like having a thousand ants crawling through your mind, but at the end of the day we need clarity. This way when it’s just you and your subject and the magic happens. you’re “present” to see and capture the fleeting moments that make truly special images.
CD: How do you prepare for big-ego celebrity or athlete shoots?
Jeffery Salter: First of all I talk to the editor to understand what the story is about. It’s good to know what should the mood be and what the image should reflect about the subject. How much time do we have with the subject? What’s the location like? Editorial assignments may not have the time or budget for a scout day, but commercial and advertising ones usually have a location walk and a pre-light or walk through day, and those are helpful. The editor will give me an idea of what they want and then it’s up to me to deliver an image that conveys the idea or succeeds in going beyond the initial concept.
If I don’t know much biographical information about the subject, I research them to find out what motivates them or what interesting quirks they might have. I Google images of them to get an idea what they look like so I can prepare for the best lighting that suits them. It’s good to understand the subject’s face. I look to see if they have protruding eyebrows and other facial details to see how I would like to light them.
When I have a clear understanding of the project. Is it one location or several, is it for one day or a week, I put together a team. A large production such as an advertisement assignment maybe involves a very large crew, such as a producer, a digital tech, several photography assistants, a fashion stylist, a groomer or a hair and make-up artist. A typical editorial assignment is usually just myself, a photo assistant and a groomer or Make-up artist. It all depends on the project, the complexity of the photography, and budget.
Whether a shoot lasts an entire day or just a few minutes, my goal is to put my subjects at ease, make them comfortable and establish trust. Once they know I’m in their corner and know what I’m doing, they’re able to relax and give me that telling expression or gesture unique to them.
Murphy’s Law rules the day on photo shoots, what can go wrong will go wrong. Whether it’s issues with lighting gear, uncooperative weather or a subject’s mood, I have to think fast, improvise, and make things work. Times likes these are when it pays to stay calm and collected, and avoid getting caught up in negativity that can undermine the shoot.
CD: The Mario Balotelli shoot for Sports Illustrated with Brad Smith is pretty incredible, considering the cover is one-half of the frame. Please tell us about how you and Brad planned and produced the image?
Jeffery Salter: Thank you Cameron. It all happened so fast, it was a blur of action. Brad called me and said, “I want you to shoot a portrait of international soccer star Mario Balotelli, wearing his A/C Milan jersey for the cover and for the inside opening photo we want him on water—walking on water. And you’ve got him for 45 minutes….be ready to shoot in 48 hours.” When an assignment like that comes along, your adrenaline starts pumping, really pumping! There’s nothing like a deadline to focus your attention. Sports Illustrated is a weekly magazine with extremely tight deadlines. The image had to be created entirely in-camera with very little time for post processing. And for extra added pressure, this was going to be only the third soccer player ever featured on the cover of SI.
I immediately called the St. Regis Hotel in Miami Beach to ask how deep the pool was because having Mario walking on the water of a kiddie pool just wouldn’t do. It needed to have a depth of at least four feet so the surface would line up with the top of a Plexiglas table that my prop stylist was trying to locate. Afterwards I drove over to the location to scout pools. The hotel had several to choose from, however the one I needed had to be at the perfect spot for a shoot in morning light, with a gentle slope and the right depth for the table. I used some of my favorite tools, the Sun Seeker and LightTrac apps, which are great for figuring out where the light will be coming from and where the sun will be at shoot time. Meanwhile, my prop stylist Kristina Kitchen was able to secure a 4-ft. tall table and arrange for 7 a.m. delivery the next morning.
I hired four photo assistants. The plan was to have two sets built, the pool shot with the table and a seamless set up for the simple yet “heroic” look for the cover shot. We would only have 45 minutes to work with Mario and based on our 9 a.m. starting time I knew the light would be soft and a bit diffused from the morning clouds.
The next morning my team and I arrived at the hotel at 6 a.m., the table arrived shortly thereafter. At first we were told it would be possible to carry the table through the lobby, however it didn’t quite work out that way. In fact in order to get the table to the pool we ended up having to go underground through a convoluted maze that felt like Pan’s Labyrinth! Keep in mind the table was so heavy it took five men and one women, the prop stylist, to move it to the pool. At that point three of my assistants got to go swimming in order to position the table and anchor it down with sandbags.
The lighting set-up for the pool portrait was relatively simple. A forty-five degree key light and two edge lights on each side of the pool slightly behind where Mario would be standing. I didn’t want the lighting to be the focal point of the photograph and scream at the viewer—dramatic light! Sports Illustrated likes their photos to focus on the person rather than scream at the reader—“alert, alert: here comes dazzling lighting effects!”. Subdued and realistic is what they want. The 2nd set-up was going to be for the cover image. A straight forward shot of Mario wearing his jersey and looking great. I used a simple Rembrandt light set-up with a bit of edge lighting.
When the 9:00 am shoot time came around, Mario wasn’t there yet. He had flown in the night before and had a bit of jet lag. Naturally the light was beautiful at that moment, but still no Mario. He showed up on the set closer to noon. At that time, the sun was arched high in the sky and blanketed everything with a dreadful mash-up of harsh rays—the natural light was the kiss of death, especially since the subject had dark skin. I jumped in and powered up the packs , four Profoto B2s. Then I introduced myself to Mario and made some small talk about which stores had the best Nike sneakers and that after the shoot he should go check them out. He laughed. Mario was only 23, and that’s what a young athlete thinks about. Brad explained to Mario what the idea was for the shoot and right before he stepped on the plexiglass table in the pool Mario said, “If I fall, I’m going to be mad.” Oh boy, you don’t want to get a superstar athlete mad, I thought. I had two assistants in the pool to keep an eye on the table and make sure that didn’t happen. The pose needed to be expansive and he instantly understood what we wanted. I composed the shot to run in a horizontal or landscape format, and snap, it worked.
Once we finished shooting at the pool we walked a short distance back to the hotel for our second set up, the vertical cover portrait. When Brad got back to New York he presented both images during the SI editorial art meeting—the horizontal pool shot and the vertical image of Mario in his jersey. They decided to simply crop the pool shot into a vertical and use it on the cover. I had shot with the latest IQ260 Phase digital back so the file size was huge and the image quality was high enough even cropped in half. It was a nice surprise to see that image used on the cover.
CD: How has your photography changed by shooting with medium format? Is it slower, more precise, more refined, etc.?
Jeffery Salter: I have never been afraid of shooting slowly. My camera’s shutter release is set for single frame exposure. Amassing a ton of images has never been my goal. Medium format film backs would only allow you to shoot 12 or 24 frames before reloading the back or switching backs, even now for me with digital it’s not about holding the shutter down and motor driving my way through a shoot. I just want my finger to be ready when my mind’s eye tells me that it’s time to shoot. The slightly slower pace from using a medium format digital camera suits my style of photography well.
For me, shooting has always been about beginning with the end in mind. The images I seek to create are iconic ones which have a life long life after they first appear in a magazine. I once saw a photograph of Avedon, he was standing, holding his glasses and gazing down at the floor at a huge print, a work print of a photograph he had taken for Vogue, marked up with a grease pencil. He was preparing his work for an exhibition at a gallery. I’m not comparing myself to Avedon, but his large format work serves as a reminder that great images are great no matter when they were created. They stand the test of time because they are strong images to begin with. Of course many iconic images have been shot on smaller formats, however I prefer to capture at the highest resolution possible. You can always downsize the file.
The medium format digital back I use, an IQ260 Phase One, is detachable. It can be mounted on a view camera or technical camera which uses some of the sharpest lenses ever designed. For me this is an added advantage because I have an interest in landscape and architectural photography as well.
CD: What is your advice for a young or aspiring photographer starting out in the business?
Jeffery Salter: Everyone’s path to becoming a working photographer is different. With the rapid advances in digital photography and electronic media there are many different ways to get your work seen. The challenge is figuring out how to monetize the work you create or how to get assignments. To put it bluntly, the challenge is getting paid for your work so you can have a life, buy a house, travel the world, or just buy another shiny camera. Converting those Facebook “likes” into income is the dilemma that many shooters face today. Some photographers have accomplished this by becoming influencers in the social media world, where the value lies in how many people “follow” them and they become brands themselves. Advertising agencies, marketing and media companies are attaching themselves to social influencers to increase their own “brand exposure.” These days, whether we like it or not, it’s important for photographers to utilize social media to the fullest.
But I also say, don’t stray too far from your roots. Don’t try to be someone you are not. You picked up a camera because you had something to say or a moment that you wanted to share. That being said, I suggest photographers buy themselves the largest printer they can afford and print their own images. This helps bring them to life, not just banishing them to live in a cellphone or in pixel purgatory of the digital cosmos. Tape your images on the walls of your home. Live with them in 3D. Sometimes a photograph will knock you out at first glance—it’s amazing, awesome, creative, etc. Walk by your pictures, live with the images and then see if they still resonate with you. You may later find that the quieter image will be the most evocative and the one that stands the test of time. And always, always be careful with that delete button.