Chris Crisman is a Philadelphia-based portrait and lifestyle advertising photographer. His client list includes Infiniti, Red Bull, Minute Maid, Cirque du Soleil, Pfizer, Merck, Novartis, Novo Nordisk, Genetech, Heidelberg, Costco, and Allstate among others.
There are many reasons I love writing this blog, but at the heart of it I most enjoy getting to know the people I interview, particularly discovering the source of their inspirations, motivations and what has made them who they are as photographers. I solve this puzzle while getting to look at and ask as many questions as I want about their work and their background until I get to the point where I think I’ve uncovered enough to tell their story.
I wanted to talk with Chris about his portraits, his talent across several bodies of work and building a successful career in Philadelphia. When we first spoke, I was immediately struck by his presence, professionalism, and complete devotion to his craft. And then by his love for the town of Titusville and the people he grew up with there and the sensibilities this gave him, of space and connection. As we continued the interview we talked about how his background in competitive sports translates into the focused drive and commitment to his career that results in a successfully diverse portfolio of work, continued innovation and the highest standards and production values.
But beyond this, if I had to sum him up in one word it would be ‘generous.’ He refers to his business/studio as ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ and on his popular blog and on Twitter, he openly shares his process and always something about the subjects he photographs. And his studio responds daily to reader comments and questions.
This generosity and style of working extends to his portrayals of his subjects whom he captures with sincere appreciation and inspiration—in his iconic portrait of Michael Vick he had three minutes with him and created a complex image that portrayed him as ‘guilty,’ yet dignified and repentant—the repentance between man and “God.” (There are two posts about this shoot on his blog I would encourage you to read. One from Chris’ perspective here and one from the ADs here). And beyond this foundation of general goodwill, qualities from growing up in Titusville are expressed in his style which has the rare balance of intimacy and expansivenes, the warmth and optimism finding its way into his lifestyle and conceptual work.
A big thank you to Chris for his time and patience as we went through revisions late at night and after long travel and shooting days.
POP: How did you get your start in photography?
I went to school at The University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and was studying pre-med. I took a few courses in photography and dropped pre-med and switched my focus to photography. I enjoyed the idea of studying to being a doctor, but that’s about it. Everything I was learning about photography (and myself through photography) was more gratifying than Pre-med.
Through college I made many of trips home to make my work. I shot so many landscapes there over a period of three years. Towards the end of college I began shooting portraiture. My first body of portraiture was also created around Titusville. It includes some of my family, and a great many photos of former steelworkers. Titusville was a steel town while I was there and my father worked at the mill. He was a major part of the steelworkers union and that’s a large part of the connection.
Growing up near Titusville was certainly a country experience. I had no young neighbors, no siblings, and only 3 TV channels. I spent a lot of time outside adventuring with our dogs. This solitude forced me to be creative and use my imagination. I remember always using broken tree branches to make pretend guns to help carry out make-believe missions with my dogs.
The Titusville portraits are all vignettes of a bigger romantic tale I’m weaving about the place and my upbringing. Reality is what you perceive it to be and I think most people want to paint a pretty picture of their childhood. I am so fond of Titusville and think that everyone there just has so much life to them.
Upon graduation I worked for a little over a year as studio manager for David Moser. I also assisted Bill Cramer here and there in college and I began my shooting career in 2005 through his business. I was part of his business while he was building Wonderful Machine and then I went independent in ’07.
In New York, I believe you can find consistent assisting work, but I wanted to stay in Philadelphia, so had to make it work. I had a small client base from working with Bill and I had to make it happen. I was forced into the marketing and into walking out onto a plank.
POP: It takes real focus and drive to build a business in a challenging situation. I see that in your marketing as well.
I was an athlete in college and when I left college I thought I would shoot sports portraiture and some of that has happened. It was my life throughout college and I really love sports. I had a lot of injuries and four surgeries and when I couldn’t do it anymore I put that into my work.
I grew up on 120 acres and we oversaw around 400 acres of woodland. When I was about 14 years old, I started competing as javelin thrower. My father taught me and was my coach through high school. I didn’t see him much in my early years as he worked the 3-11 shift at the steel mill and I was in school from 7AM-4PM. The javelin was actually how we developed our relationship. I practiced at home because we had all that space and I could literally throw in my yard. Because the javelin is a fairly isolated and unpopular sport, it’s a little easier to get recruited for it than the major sports like baseball, football, and basketball. This is how I ended up at Penn, recruited as a javelin thrower.
The javelin and photography are similar in many ways. To be great, you’ve got to spend countless hours practicing. It is an individual sport, so you spend a great deal of that training time by yourself or with maybe 3 or 4 others. Like anything worth doing, it takes a sizeable commitment to be successful at it. Oh, and it really is monotonous. Can you imagine me throwing one javelin in my yard, walking 30 yards to pick it up, turn around and repeat 100 times. I’m sure you can draw the parallels with photography.
POP: You launched a successful commercial photo career from Philadelphia. Why didn’t you move to New York?
I didn’t feel it was necessary at the time. The way life unfolded for me, there wasn’t a right time and I didn’t feel I was missing out on something. Maybe I was wrong and maybe I’ll move to New York someday. Most of my clients are in NY and don’t have a problem with me not living there. It’s a two-hour drive and a lot of people I work with have a 45 minute commute to work anyway. In Philadelphia I have a big beautiful rowhome and inspiring studio to create in. It’s just the way it needs to be right now. And there is a lot to be said for space. I don’t want the limitations of moving back to a small town, so Philadelphia is a perfect compromise. I can’t imagine the space constraints I’d have in NY.
POP: What was your process been for building your business?
My studio has a 40 ft. long wall of 14 ft. tall windows facing the sunset and the city skyline. We’re making great progress on a printed timeline of my work that fills the entirety of the rest of the space. It’s important for me and the rest of my team to look at the evolution of my work. It helps to remind all of us where we’ve been and guide us to where we’re going next.
As mentioned before, I shot landscape work while learning photography and then started shooting portraiture. I then noticed that the portraiture was becoming landscape portraiture. As I developed it further it became more narrative. Environmental portraiture then moved to lifestyle work. Now I’m trying to tie all these pieces into single frames. I want to make images that are vast, engaging, dynamic, and narrative.
The motivations in my portraiture and lifestyle are often very different. I believe that portraiture should connect the viewer with the subject at a deeper emotional level than lifestyle. The emotion in those photos has changed. I’m more engaged in the moment they are captured in. I realized I was going towards this very pensive moment with the portrait work and the motivation of the subject. Before lifestyle, the motivation changed for whom I was directing.
When shooting a portrait, you are building towards a series of connected moments with your subject. What final image works best for each subject is often found along the way to that connected moment.
The lifestyle work is often energetic, happy, spirited, amplified, but more importantly the lifestyle work is defined by the subject(s) being connected to someone or something else. Maybe the portraiture is introspective and the lifestyle is extraspective? Maybe it is simply a slight adjustment to shift the portraits to narrative. The landscape portraits shift to lifestyle when necessary.
In photography everyone has a varying amount of two major resources – time and money. As we all remember, the economy crashed at the end of 2008. Because of this I had some extra time on my hands. I took this time to make some changes in my life to redirect and improve my business.
1. First off I stopped retouching my own images. I was good at it, but not passionate about being great at it. I think you should avoid doing too many things your not passionate about. This helped me create a more refined finish to my images and also gave them consistency.
2. Second I decided to renovate a floor of my house with the help of my wife and some great friends. This did save me some money, but it also forced me to make design decisions for my space. I am a fan of many forms of art, but had not spent much time with architecture or interior design. By developing my taste in this realm, I believe I positively impacted my tastes for graphic design, web design, and portfolio design – all significant parts of my visual identity.
3. I decided to make a body of work that I would concept and art direct from the ground up. The majority of my previous work was response based (show up, scout a location, and make the best pictures I could) and I knew that if I wanted to work in advertising, I would have to start working and thinking like an advertising creative.
In late 2009 I also started to experiment with the image dimensions for my finished photographs. I wanted to not worry about staying within the constraints of 2 x 3 or 3 x 4 as I continued my personal work to shoot what I wanted to shoot at the time – landscape portraits. These images are more panoramic and I enjoy blending the stories being told in both the landscape and the portrait. I view the world horizontally and not vertically. That horizontal space isn’t 2×3, right? Wouldn’t you agree?
POP: Did the jobs you were hired for along the way change as your work evolved?
Sure. Whoever is hiring you needs to be able to sell you to their boss or their client or their readers. By you I mean your work. These days I feel that you often need literal proof that you can execute a specific assignment. As your work evolves, the jobs you are up for may evolve with them.
What helped me understand this was being up for jobs that needed slightly different motivation. For example, I was up for a lot of jobs that were lifestyle driven, but I did not have a lot of lifestyle work and hence lost many bids. My client loved the mood, the sweeping feel, the styling, the lighting, and the final treatment of the images, but the motivations of my subjects just didn’t read “lifestyle.” This made me a tough sell for my clients on a number of jobs.
I didn’t understand this salability idea when I started making major changes to my work in late 2008. However, I did realize that I needed to add some production value to my work, not just show up and make the best picture I could. I also want to add that some amount of unbridled creativity is crucial here. If I really started worrying about salability, I think that would be the worst thing I could do for myself.
POP: Your first portraits were of people you knew in your hometown, Titusville. What do you bring from this to your shoots with models and well-known personalities?
Working with the steelworkers in Titusville taught me a few things. These subjects had never taken part in a photo shoot, so there was a bit of hand-holding. They often had reservations about my intentions, so I had to learn connect with them quickly. They did not know what to do in front of the camera, so I needed to become a better director. They also did not understand how the photographic process takes some time and a little patience. This helped me be more respectful of their time and simply work quickly. Finally, these shoots taught me to think comprehensively about any concerns my subjects might have about our shoot.
POP: What happens when you work in Titusville?
Something magical. You could say that Titusville is my muse. I am immediately comfortable with my subjects and can develop a clear connection and understanding with everyone and everything I photograph. Even though I now call Philadelphia home, I’m not sure the personal connection will ever be as strong (as it is with Titusville).
POP: There is something natural and warm about the Titusville portraits. How do you bring this same intimacy, simplicity and narrative to your lifestyle work?
I really enjoy shooting a variety of pharmaceutical ad campaigns. I’m often brought on for projects where the emotion isn’t easy to conjure and capture. If you’re not familiar with this type of work, I think the emotion is a lot more complicated than the assumed shiny happy people. I enjoy making images that convey aspiration, inspiration, and hope amongst adversity. This is a core trait to a lot of the pharma work that I do.
POP: There’s a straightforward, pared down quality to your portraits that allows the subject’s personality and humanity to really come forward. Was this honed in your Titusville portraits?
The job and responsibility of a portrait photographer is no minor task. You travel to meet your subject who is someone you’ve probably never met. You then need to connect with them at their core and translate their spirit through your visual language. After that, you have to live with the weight of what you’ve just done, for better or worse. With the Titusville project the stakes are even higher. This is most likely the one and only time they are going to be photographed with a purpose beyond a family portrait. I’m making a very big statement about someone I just met and I can’t take for granted. For this very reason I go in to every shoot with the intention of making the best pictures I’ve ever made.
POP: The conceptual portraits have a very different motivation. What are you looking for in these?
The big idea with some of the conceptual images is that they float between some of the different projects and groupings and work. I want to go back to different types of my work and grow in these areas. This year, I want to improve the 3D depth in the work. You see this in the image of the young girl with the paper airplanes, the swimmer above and the boy on the building (at the end of the post).
POP: Has the level of post-production you do changed over time?
Certainly, but I think it’s client driven. These days I believe you need to be incredibly flexible with your clients in regards to process, production, execution, and delivery of assets. Advertising campaigns now have so many outlets for distribution that you need to be able to create an image with impact in a variety of different dimensions and spaces. The same image might need to work as a long horizontal, a long vertical, a parallax shifting image, and a time-lapse video. It’s a challenge, but I really enjoy creating the solution. To bring it back to post processing, every piece of an image might have to be it’s own independent element.
Another item to mention about the post production. I think it always has to evolve. What I’m doing right now is a little different than the year before, and I’m sure this pattern will continue into the future. To remain cohesive, you obviously have to keep your newest work in line with your older work, but at some point the oldest work just has to go away. If you all the sudden make a massive change to post processing, you’re setting yourself up for a major collapse if that specific look becomes unpopular.
POP: You are very engaged with the readers of your blog and regularly answer questions and respond to comments. Was the intention when you launched your blog? You are very busy. Why is it important enough that you make time to do this?
This one has to be a We answer, not an I answer. My studio manager, Robert Luessen, is the driving force on the blog. If it weren’t for him, it just wouldn’t be what it is now. There are only so many hours in a day and he helps me extend myself a bit. We discuss and plan almost everything that goes up, but he is the motor there. I want to be as accessible and available to people as possible. I have fans on 6 continents and I can actually interact with them. Isn’t that that beauty of social media?
POP: Your capture a real spontaneity in your group shots. How do you approach them and maintain this when working with larger groups?
The group portraits are challenging. I try to bring the same philosophy to them as I do with individual portraits. I have to connect with each person in the photo if I expect to get something special out of them. Pre-production is important here because I need to know and remember everyone’s name in order to hold that connection. Directing is also key because you have to give each subject a specific role to play, mood to hold, and emotion to convey. Needless to say, a tripod is necessary here. There’s too much going on to have to worry about composition.
POP: Are you shooting motion?
I do have a sincere interest in shooting video, and I do shoot some for clients, but I have thus far had a tough time making room for it as part of my personal work. I have so many still image ideas that I haven’t had time to execute and soon enough it will come together.
POP: What do you shoot when you are not shooting for work?
Most recently, I’m traveling a lot for commissions and we’re getting to see some pretty amazing places. That said, I try to work an extra day in to the schedule for personal work whenever we’re some place special. If I know I’m going to be somewhere in the world, I try to find something or some place unrelated to our job that could be special. Once I find a place, I try to work that place in to one of my concepts from my “Black Book of Ideas”. For example, right now I’m on a plane flying to Phoenix for a magazine shoot. I’ve scheduled an extra day in to travel through the Tonto Forest on the way to the Petrified Forest National Park. I have a hunch we’re going to find something special out there.
POP: Last image of yours that you fell in love with?
The very most recent is this image of Hunter Pence. He’s a throwback. That is at the core of how people see him. This picture is simple, but absolutely everything that I wanted it to be.
POP: Inspiration? Favorite photographers and artists?
I love painters. Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, Francis Bacon, and Rene Magritte to name a few. As for photographers – there are just so many people I love. Irving Penn, Annie Leibovitz, and David LaChappelle have all influenced my work, but I can’t think of too many portrait photographers that they didn’t influence, right?
POP: Next steps? What are you testing now?
I have regimented goals for what we are doing. I’m trying to shoot a minimum of one complex test a month. As I mentioned earlier, I want to make images that are vast, engaging, dynamic, and tell a beautiful story. I’m trying to create complex images that extend the limits of what I’ve already done.
I have a back book of concepts and constantly add to this when I’m on the road traveling. If we’re going to some place special, like our upcoming LA trip, we try to schedule time to find a place that inspires us to match to one of the concepts.
The shot of a girl on the beach was on a trip to meet with Heather [Elder]. We drove up to Inverness—I’d been there before. We found the beach and shot background plates for this concept.
I look for sweeping spaces that have an inspiring air about them. We’ll then have to separate layers: background, subject and concept. And you have landscape, portrait and action.