CD: Your early history includes shooting album covers for hair metal bands in the eighties and becoming friends with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Let's start with lighting heavy metal bands and how your style grew and changed from there.
Nels Israelson: Well, we'll have to start with hairlight. When there's lots of carefully done-up hair, it is our job to carefully place highlights in it.
One of my very first (low-) paid gigs was a 1983 studio session of a band called RATT. It was supposed to be only B&W, for publicity (that's how the budget setup worked), but when those dudes came out of the dressing room with matching red belts, boot-scarves and headband accents, I loaded a roll of Ektachrome into the Hasselblad and shot a bunch of square crops. The guys really liked the way the Polaroids looked and their intensity ratcheted up.
Months later one of the shots winds up on the back of their next LP, "Out of the Cellar", which got me a $500 bonus and a huge grin. But the real bonus came a year later, when the band gave me a chance to discuss shooting the whole album package for their next release. When I went to the meeting I figured I didn't have the job yet-- I hedged my bets by not only bringing in ideas, but I also brought along images I'd shot of an amazing model I'd worked with who would really heat up the cover. This might have been almost cheating, but the result of the collaboration was the cover of "Invasion of your Privacy" which went platinum, and the wide exposure got my phone ringing with lots more metal hair-bands to shoot.
Funny thing was, although I really liked shooting metal groups (they had tons of visual panache; I got to use smoke machines) I wasn't really into that type of music. But RATT was on Atlantic Records, and this was my first package for them. Right away Atlantic gave me another job shooting a jazz package, for Manhattan Transfer's "Vocalese."
With the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I'd known those guys for a while before they formed that band, and I shot miscellaneous stuff of them as I was building my portfolio and they were starting to play around LA. I shot live shows, studio sessions, street stuff, generally for almost zero money but always having fun & bringing as much as I could to spice up each shoot: day-glo body paint, trampoline, a wacky backdrop or location. So it wasn't just because I was "friends with the band" that I got the opportunity to shoot their early album packages-- it was also because I'd become an active participant in their visual vocabulary. My favorite album cover ever has to be what we did for Freaky Styley-- those guys flying around in front of Michelangelo's Last Judgement is such a perfect explosion of Chili Pepperiness.
Of course there were lots of musicians & groups that I shot in that period that didn't become huge, and you never know who is going to make it. So I always approached every shoot as an opportunity to make an awesome image, worthy of a major album package. Ultimately, every band was a unique adventure, and along the way my skills had an opportunity to grow. I learned to adapt to each band's visual style, to hear their stories, to find essential metaphors & cues in their lyrics. And, I found it useful to adapt lighting techniques from my Hollywood portraiture-heroes (Hurrell, Sinclair-Bull, Horst) to what I was shooting. Those guys were all about rim-light, which is the same as hairlight.
CD: Tell me a bit about how you approach your complex lighting scenarios and some of the more unusual techniques you have used the last couple of years.
Nels Israelson: I am always amazed at how complicated it can be to create light in the studio that, in the finished shot, feels quite simple and natural. Early in my career I was transfixed by those old Hollywood portrait photographers and tried to copy their lighting with modern strobes. I've also taken a lot of inspiration from some of the great cinematographers-- Gordon Willis, I never get tired of re-watching The Godfather, just to study the shadowy quality. As I began to work around film sets, I encountered the extraordinary lengths a well equipped crew is willing to go to fine-tune lighting.
Now that a lot can be achieved in post, I'm in danger of being perceived as an anachronism when I require a prelight day and get into tuning my set for hours, but I'm all about trying to nail an appropriate mood & feel in-camera. It's like that polaroid that upped the game with my first RATT shoot: something magical and unexpected can happen when your subject-- or your client-- sees what you're up to and feels it's visually delicious.
Additionally, as the medium of photography is evolving, we have to step up and evolve with it. For half a century most commercial photography was reproduced as tiny dots of ink on paper, but now we're primarily viewing images as dots of light on screens. This means we're seeing a fundamental shift in the very nature of how we see the still image, which affects everything from its scale to whether it even needs to remain "still". Considering that smartphones, tablet computers, and social media did not exist eight years ago, yet they are image-centric technologies, these are very interesting times to be creating imagery.
CD: Photographing celebrities for movie posters is a niche within a niche. How do you interact with them, plus deal with short time frames on sets?
Nels Israelson: I actually really like the intensity of working with the short timeframes, and thankfully movie actors are, by nature, super adept in front of the camera-- once you provide appropriate context for the work. A major part of this results from taking the time to come in well prepared, able to address the brief concisely and make extremely efficient use of the talent's time. I feel we get stronger work done when the talent is confident that we're tightly focused, rather than just there to stack up a pile of coverage. I've come to realize that I can get more useful material produced in 20 minutes of focused, deliberate work with an actor than I can in 2 hours of generalized "coverage."
CD: What are your thoughts on shooting personal projects and trying to stretch your expertise?
Nels Israelson: I think it's vital to constantly try new things, and you don't often get to do that on a job where too much is at stake for experimentation. So I'll either stretch things by doing personal projects or by embarking on geeky technical R&D, which I can then bring to my clients to pitch. With so much rapid change occurring in the way photographs are viewed, we need to proactively challenge our clients to expand into new realms by bring fresh examples and reference to the table, rather than waiting for a brief to challenge us to try something new.
CD: What advice would you give to a young professional about to embark on this career?
Nels Israelson: It is a very difficult career to launch and extraordinary patience is required-- don't expect overnight rewards. After almost a decade of doing music packages, I shot cheesy B-movie video packaging for years before I was considered for any big movie projects.
But the main thing I'd say is that if you work hard, do exactly what your best clients want, and deliver work that precisely meets their expectations-- you'll probably have a very short career. It's essential to constantly go one better and push things, sometimes by stealth, to exceed your clients' expectations. Otherwise there are dozens of other eager photographers out there, some with more experience than you, who can also fulfill that brief, and all that's left is to beat each other down on price. This sucks for everyone. The real challenge is to consistently produce a result that somehow fulfills the brief while also bringing out something fresh. And nobody can tell you exactly what that could be: it is something that you'll have to drill into yourself as you build your imaginative muscles. It's a contribution that is perfectly appropriate yet uniquely yours, that you bring to the table, like the way a touch of the right spice can transform a perfectly good meal into a great and memorable one.