I ’ve wanted to interview Andy Anderson since I launched POP. When he agreed to an interview (on one condition: that I not ask him about how good looking he is), I was excited and then a little intimidated with the task of doing justice to someone whose work is among the best of the commercial photographers working today. He said repeatedly that he felt advertising in its highest form is art. And by the end of our interview I was convinced.
With each body of his work, whether it’s wild animals in the Serengeti, mountainscapes of the Grand Tetons, a campaign for Ram Trucks, or resort images in Punta Brava, the images are beautiful, quiet, expansive. At once monumental and relatable. Conveying awe and presence. They carry the unmistakable stamp of someone who is deeply passionate about life and their work, who is a very talented artist and has mastered the art of infusing his images and subjects with this appreciation, respect and vision.
When I first saw his Ram Trucks campaign, I immediately loved the images for their exceptionally smart and beautifully executed concepts. Then I felt that familiar, deeper appreciation for what a Ram Truck is, this great powerful truck that can help us build, haul and tow things and keep the world going. I didn’t feel I was being sold some macho idea of a truck, but truck in the real sense.
And this is where it becomes art. Not by creating a need that isn’t there, but by recognizing what is and what is so great about it because life is already inherently amazing and doesn’t need to be sold to us. It just needs to be recognized. And this is what connects with people and ultimately helps sell people products that they actually need or will make their lives a little more fun. And a real artist is one who creates images from this place and allows the rest of us to glimpse it and inspire us with a moment of recognition. Authenticity at its deepest level. The world as we know it may be ending, but a truck in itself is a great thing and a pointer to something even greater. And capitalism as we know it is a bit broken, but do we really want to scrap the whole thing and start over?
A big thank you to Andy for his time and for such a fun and tremendously inspiring interview.
POP: You said in an interview that to be a photographer, you have to stay curious, not only visually but spiritually. Can you talk more about this?
You can’t buy into making photographs only for the money. I think you have to stay true to your art by doing personal work of your own. Stay a little soulful with the work. The guys that have been been in the business for a while—Sandro, Winters—they do this.
I’m really inspired by so much. I try to always stay in that space of being inspired. For example, I love watching documentaries. I just watched Lessons of Darkness about the Iraq war and its aftermath. I also love films of firefighters putting out fires. I was inspired by Patina and wrote to the producer about a project I wanted to do. I’m reading Travels in Siberia by Ian Frasier and want to go to Siberia some day. I’m also reading The Rising Tide about the Mississippi River. I get inspired to go shoot tugboat captains on the Mississippi river.
To read the full interview, please click here:
We’re so lucky to be doing what we love. I was a journalism major and didn’t have the patience to write because I was young. Long story short, I went into the air force. But I love people and knowing their stories.
To be able to carry this through into your work, if you find an agent, you should find someone who can carry your karma. Who carries your spirit, not theirs. I’ve been with Heather Elder for fifteen years. She has a great stable and we’re all friends.
POP: How do you bring this inspiration to your editorial and commercial work?
I think that for me I don’t go into a job with any preconceived notion or idea. I do some research before I shoot it and think about how do I make it my own and put my signature on it. But in the old days I used to get so wrapped up in controlling the situation that when it didn’t go the way I wanted it I was disappointed. And lately and I think that the more mature I’ve gotten, I realize you can only control so much and the beauty and special things that happen are the surprises that make the shot so great.
I love the challenge. A lot of projects I’ve been involved with over the years, art directors have believed in me because of this. I just shot a campaign for Ram trucks. I didn’t have one vehicle shot in my book. But I’d had a long relationship with the art director, Jimmy Bonner, and he believed in me enough and sold it to the client. That’s a pretty bold move by the client and the agency to hire a guy for a half-million dollar print project to go shoot trucks when I didn’t have one truck shot in my book.
I also think that the collaboration and creativity that comes out of working with people in this business is so great. I love it. Collaboration is the most important thing to me. It is what inspires me.
POP: I talk with so many photographers for whom having their own style and voice in their commercial work is important. At times it seems to be limiting in terms of developing an ability to truly collaborate and to find a deeper voice than a surface style. Can you talk about how you found your style and how you strike a balance between your voice and the needs of the project? How does keeping your work ‘honest’ translate when you shoot for ad clients?
Great question. So many photographers I know live in large metropolitan areas. I tell my son about this. You’re surrounded by so many things in a city. You’re looking at the same things as the photographer down the street. I live in a small town in Idaho. My everyday experiences are interactions with people. I was also always inspired by Herb Ritts, Dan Winters, and Avedon. But you sprinkle it in with yours and you come up with your own style.
A lot of times the clients and art directors who hire me now hire me for what I do. They don’t want me to do anything different. Edward Leida was the design director at W. He called me two months ago. They’re redesigning Town & Country. It’s the oldest magazine in America—it started in 1864. They want to make it fresh and new and hip. He wants me to shoot fashion and not like others do it but do fashion way I do it. Put my own thumbprint on it.
I got here by being true to myself. I tell my art directors I’m not an illustrator doing ads. I’m a photographer. There’s no creativity in that. You’re illustrating something. Anybody can do that. But at some point you’re getting paid to keep your mouth shut, so you can only belabor a point for so long. I talk with art directors and say “Let’s walk away from this and be really proud of it. Let’s take dance and listen to band and make something really great.”
Commercial photography when it’s done right is an art form. People don’t realize how much work has been involved when you have been awarded a project, all the work that has gone into it on the back end at the agency. And the end product is that you’ve been awarded a job. It’s a huge responsibility. You don’t always get the job, but it’s always great to be involved in the final bidding process. They get to know you and how you work. It’s all about relationships.
POP: Each of your projects is shot in a style that is true to the subject matter rather than by imposing any specific ‘style.’ How do you decide or let the subject matter guide you with regards to which direction to take with each project? e.g, Havana, 2002 Winter Olympics.
I was one of 13 photographers hired to do a photo book about the 2002 Winter Olympics. Among the photographers were Sheila Metzner, a fine art photographer; John Huet, a sports photographer; Ray Meeks, myself, and Steven Currie. We were asked to shoot a book like Leni Riefenstahl who shot the ‘38 Olympics.
I didn’t want to do it the way everyone else did, so I challenged myself. I have these old cameras I shoot with. I thought if Leni could do it during the ’38 Olympics, then I’m going to do it like she did. So I shot the whole thing on a handheld 4×5 camera, a 60-year-old Graphlex superD. I have a large collection of old cameras—a lot of the stuff in my book is shot with this camera. We didn’t get paid for this, but they paid all our expenses and we spent a month at the Olympics. Everyone else challenged themselves as well.
I’ve been to Cuba so many times. This time when I went back I wanted do something different. This was a personal project. I wanted to shoot the people and city I think like no one else had shot it before. I wanted to shoot it at nighttime. I shot a lot of the portraits with a red background to show the Communist influence on those people’s lives.
I shot transvestites, Cuban baseball players and athletes. They were all shot with available light. I didn’t use any strobes. All the mixed lighting was there. I didn’t do anything to these photos. They have Mercury and fluorescent lighting down there so it’s all mixed. For my commercial work, I do a lot of research ahead of time but without a preconceived notion. In Cuba, the transvestites were not even part of my plan. But I thought they were very interesting.
POP: Have any of your personal projects led directly to being hired for a commercial job?
It’s hard to gauge that. I’ve been very blessed—people really like my work and I don’t have any kind of barometer. I think the biggest thing is being consistent with your work and showing it all the time. All of it combined shows your passion and helps you get work. It shows your commitment and inspiration to your work.
That said, the Cuba stuff helped me get a lot of work. It helped me break through the car barrier and I landed some work for AARP as well. The Tanzania work resulted in a job for Traveler.
POP: Your portraits are classically beautiful, filled with life and warmth, and have a natural respect for the subject. Do you generally spend time getting to know your subjects?
Yes I do. Before I pull out a camera I spend time with and make friends with the people I photograph. I genuinely love people. It’s essentially a conversation with a camera from my perspective. You have to like people in order to shoot people. I worked in a firehouse for 25 years and you had to get along with and like people or you were kicked out of the firehouse. Plus I’m a big jokester.
POP: Your lifestyle/resort work has a very natural, relaxed and at times quiet, solitary feeling. What is behind this?
That’s a hard thing for me to answer. I kind of record what’s there. I don’t want happy faces and fakeness. I want something real. People tell me my work makes them want to be there.
POP: Your models very relaxed and natural as well. How do you make this happen? Does your background in portrait photography play a role?
It goes back to the other answer, that you talk with them and get to know then. I have a great crew and none of us have attitude and we are like a family. I spend a lot of time on the road and like to be around people I want to be with. So the crew is equally as important in that equation as I am. We just have a great crew.
Even when shooting fashion, I get to know them and you get the best work out of them. You have to make them feel comfortable and you do whatever it takes to do that.
POP: You’ve said you love collaborating, that this is one of your favorite parts of the job. Can you talk about a job that stands out as a particularly successful collaboration?
I shot a Diner’s Club campaign for Draftfcb. I did this project without an art director on location. Kurt Fries was the art director—he did the Human Element work for Dow. Don Klaxton was the writer. Kurt is a really great, talented art director. This is what I mean when I say that advertising in its truest, highest form is art.
He awarded me the job and couldn’t go on the shoot with me. We had to go to Singapore, Rio, and Prague. But he couldn’t go because he was shooting in Siberia for Diner’s Club with Ian KcKenzie. I met with the art director and creative director in Chicago beforehand. And he said “This is an experiment, so don’t fuck it up. I’m going to send you around the world for a month and I want you to get these pictures.” It was a fabulous job. He inspired me so much with the confidence he gave me and his availability and collaboration even though he wasn’t there (he was in Siberia when I was in Prague). We were in different time zones, but we did it all online and on the phone. What really helped was the sit down meeting before we took off so he could meet me and feel confident. It was an amazing project and we’ve been great friends since then. It was one that will go down in the book.
POP: Great story?
I got arrested in Cuba for shooting transvestites. It’s a long story but we were shooting under a security camera and didn’t know it. The police showed up and asked us what we were doing and we said we were just taking pictures. But again, here I am a 6’ 3” 230 lb. blonde Swede taking photos of two guys in dresses and taken to the police station. I’ve been married to my lovely wife for 33 years and I asked my son “How am I going to tell mom and explain myself out of this one?” They weren’t supposed to be in that part of town and the police checked their papers. They brought me and my producer to the police station and finally just let us go.
POP: Favorite personal projects you’ve done over the years?
When I shot the Sideshow stuff eight or nine years ago it was really fun. It was the longest-running sideshow in America and I got to shoot these guys just before they retired. I got some great stories getting to know those people. I was in a Mini-van in Florida with a midget, the 80-year-old Ward Hall and a 450 lb. fat man in back seat. We were going to get something to eat. I had to feed them. We went to a buffet.
I also got to shoot these superhero impersonators and that was fun too. I walk into Denny’s in LA with my assistant and stylist and we’re sitting down at Denny’s with Superman.
POP: Because you love to tell stories and have a background in journalism, do you ever incorporate writing and any plans to shoot video?
I’ve shot some video and I do plan on shooting more, but there are too many moving parts right now. A lot of young photographers are getting into video and I ask them why they’re getting into video when they haven’t figured out how to take a photo yet. This is my education to young photographers. I am going to get into video and I have shot a couple commercials.
My other love is my writing. If I can sit still long enough, I can write something that I’m happy with. I’m working on a coffee table which will incorporate writing.
POP: You fly fish. This seems similar to photography in a way. You location scout. Get up early and then pay very close attention and cast until you catch a fish.
Exactly. I have an airstream and a bird dog. That’s a passion of mine.
POP: How did your job as an air force pilot/fire fighter prepare you for a career in photography?
When I was a firefighter in the Air Force, I had a lot of extra time. I only worked 13 days a month. I was cultivating my photo career during this time and I was the first contract photographer to be hired by Men’s Journal. I shot about twenty covers for them and this is what launched my career.
I had all this money and everyone thought I was selling drugs. I was drug tested all the time.
I’m also still accused by people I work with of being anal retentive and I drive my assistants crazy. This comes from the military. We had to be ready at all times and our firefighting equipment had to be perfect. My cameras are my tools and my equipment is always ready and I take really good care of it. The discipline helped me as well. Plus I’m a swede…pretty anal. Or a Viking as my kids call me.