CD: Lets start with an early personal project and go from there. “The Amazing Faith of Texas” took you all across the state. How did this project come together, what was your planning and collaboration process and most importantly, how did this project change you?
Randal Ford: Interestingly enough this was not a personal project. GSD&M & Roy Spence (founder of GSD&M Ad Agency in Austin) commissioned me to create 50+ photos for a book that showcased places of worship and people of faith all over Texas. I’m 32 now and this happened when I was 26, so it was a huge break for a young photographer like myself. A truly amazing opportunity that I’ll forever be grateful for. I think I shot over 40 people for the book, all environmental portraits. So being young, the experience of shooting so many environmental portraits alone was incredible. Aside from the photographic perspective, meeting these people who all had different faiths and different walks of life was not only interesting but also inspiring. I’m still inspired when reading stories of the people I shot for the Amazing Faith of Texas.
CD: Collaboration is important to many of your images. Not to go too far back in your photographic history but I am interested in how you conceptualized the rattle snake shot, what drew you do it and how your brought all the elements together?
Randal Ford: I’ve tried to look for inspiration in different places, whether thats other artists, books, or stories. As a kid I’d always been fascinated by Guinness World Records so I did some research on interesting ones that might make for cool visuals. And this rattlesnake one came up. Basically it’s the world record for the person who sat in a bathtub with the most rattlesnakes. This guy sat in a tub with 87 snakes for 45 minutes. (His handlers have to duck-tape his legs down so he doesn’t move. Any movement will irritate the snakes) So I wanted to visually recreate this for my portfolio. I sketched out some overhead storyboards and collaborated with an awesome set builder. We built a set in a studio and brought the snakes in. We had over 100 snakes in studio and the sound alone of the rattles was the most alarming. Since it was for my book, I shot the walls as a miniature set because it was too expensive to build full scale.
Another reason for doing this was to challenge myself and create a piece of work that involved problem solving and compositing. It was one of the first big ones for me. I’m happy with how it turned out but looking at it a few years later I could definitely do a better job. Experience is important and hind sight’s always 20/20
CD: You’ve tackled some fairly large ad campaigns in addition to directing video. Did you start working with producers from the onset of your career? What would you suggest to photographers who have worked solo and are switching into larger production work?
Randal Ford: As I landed a couple advertising jobs, I quickly realized I couldn’t handle the production and coordination myself so really I’ve been collaborating with great producers since shooting advertising work. I’m a big proponent of spending time doing what I do best and letting the stuff I don’t do as well (like production) be handled by someone else. By brining multiple talents onto an assignment (producers, stylists, assistants), it allows the photographer to focus on the photography & direction and not get caught up in the production or coordination. This is even more so when directing commercials. For the most part I stay away from the technical aspects, for example, handling the motion camera myself or getting into great specifics on which continuous lighting sources to use. My job as a director is to focus on the overall picture and story being told (and of course interface with the clients). If I’m spending time fiddling with a camera or hot light, that takes me away from my true job as a director.
CD: I’ve been lucky enough to see some of the behind the scenes images created for your animal portraits. What is about cows and monkeys and dogs and pelicans that you love?
Randal Ford: I love photographing animals. And oddly enough, my first foray into animal photography was cows. Not cats or dogs, but cows! It was a project for Pentagram Design and the idea was to shoot cow portraits similar to my people portraiture. If there is a style to my animal work, other than lighting or post, it’s that I really try to humanize the animals. When I look into animals eyes, in life or a portrait, I can’t help buy anthropomorphize or see the human side of the creatures. And I think that relation to humanity, that soul we see in their eyes is one of the many things that draws us as humans into the animal kingdom.
CD: A good deal of your work involves a fair amount of retouching. Your photogshop skills are exceptional. How do you collaborate with retouchers and creatives to insure the client message comes across but also that the piece is still yours – that it looks like a Randal Ford image?
Randal Ford: When I started photography I did all the post production (retouching) myself. As I got busier I felt it was wise to work with talented retouchers. However, the road to collaboration with retouchers has been a challenging one. I initially was disillusioned thinking that I could pass off the hard drive and be done with the job. That is not the case. Interfacing with the client during post production requires attention to detail and time even if I’m having another retoucher do all the work.
As far as how I work with retouchers, I am extremely communicative in what I expect, technically and aesthetically. And there is always a break-in period with a new retoucher. They can’t just get to your style overnight. It takes time. But I do go to great lengths to ensure that my style comes across. I’m very picky, technically and aesthetically. And will sometimes make a couple moves on an image if I feel like the color isn’t dialed in yet.
Post production is a very challenging part of the business, even when I’m collaborating with great retouchers. And making clients happy during that process is also extremely important. I go to great lengths and watch all the details to make sure that happens. It’s exhausting sometimes.
CD: What advice would you give a young photographer about to embark on a career in commercial photography?
Randal Ford: My advice to young photographers is simple but few actually have the discipline and determination to do it.
1. Shoot a ton (personal or commissioned work). There is no shortcut to experience. It’s inline to the 10,000 hour rule in Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers. 2. Create relationships (yea, schmooze a bit, get over it) and leverage those relationships for criticism, growth, and new work. 3. Maintain a consistent aesthetic style throughout your work. 4. Market consistently with direct mail and social media. 5. And lastly, be a nice guy who’s accommodating and easy to work with.
Putting all these pieces together sounds easy but the assistants or young photographers I’ve known who can apply them all together are few and far between. There is no substitute for hard work, determination, and focus.