The Model Mayhem interview: Steve Anderson
Steve Anderson is a commercial advertising photographer, with over 20 years experience shooting national campaigns for his clients. He studied photography at the Brooks Institute, before working as an assistant to world renowned Playboy and erotic photographer, Ken Marcus. Steve owns his own studio and is represented by Daniele Forsythe Photographers.
At the Art Institute of Orange County he teaches the Portfolio, Advertising and Art Direction, Advanced Lighting, Business of Photography, Large Format, Portrait and Food Photography classes.
As well as a successful career in commercial photography, Steve is well known for the talent and passion he puts into the area of fine art nudes, beautifully encapsulated in his recent series “Hotels and Motels”, featured in this interview and his Model Mayhem portfolio, Steve Anderson Studios.
In recognition of his work, Steve was invited to join AtEdge, an invitation-only organization that promotes only 150 photographers globally.
– Model Mayhem Edu
MM Edu: Tell us about your career as a photographer, from what inspired you, to how you got started to how you made it here.
Steve Anderson: The short story… Brooks grad with honors, Industrial dept… ophthalmic photographer… assistant to Ken Marcus… moved to Orange Country, assist with and then share a studio… open my own studio… hire photo consultant… move to LA… acquire rep.
But the long story is more fun…
I have always loved art and science. In the arts I was particularly drawn to sculpture by Bernini. How a chisel and hammer could be used to create such beautiful smooth stone into human form captivated me, as did the mysteries of biology—how trees and animals formed from tiny beginnings. I am, by nature, very curious.
My first camera was a Pentax K1000, still one of the best film cameras. I used it to merely satisfy these curiosities, but when a friend introduced me to the Brooks Institute the idea of being a professional rang true. Brooks, for me, was love at day one. My education focused on what they call the industrial program. It’s a great blend of art and science. Studying advanced techniques of UV photography, color and B&W Infra Red, Kirlian, Schlieren, high speed, Astro, photomicrography, film emulsion and processing at the chemical level. I loved every day.
Fast forward to Ken Marcus. After 6 months as an ophthalmic photographer in a large Texas hospital I called my grad friends still in Hollywood to hook me up as an assistant. Ken was looking for a fulltime assistant, and a good friend who didn’t want the job informed me. Ken is extremely technical and an uber-perfectionist (and so am I). My interview became a conversation, which became a job and then Ken became a mentor, and now he’s a great friend.
My years with Ken can be seen in ALL my work today. It would take a long time to explain but he is a great teacher to anyone who really wants to learn. I’ve spent a lot of hours on many sets with him. I shook hands with the Dali Lama, sat with the late great Eddie Adams, became acquainted with Don Carol, hugged hundreds of Playmates and spent months in the dark room printing because of my time with Ken Marcus. Ken has been a great influence and continues to be.
But it would be unfair to not mention Jeff Dunas. I worked with him for years, too. He was a good friend of Ken’s too, so it was natural. Dunas’ style was quite different. His casual comfort could easily be mistaken for lack of attention to detail. I.e. He would grab a bag of mixed emulsions from the fridge and we go shoot an assignment. Then push, pull and cross processing and anything else he could think of. The results were amazing. My “style” today is very similar of the two, very loose to work with, but completely in the know of what I want and how to get it.
MM Edu: How did you turn those skills into a 20+ year career?
Steve: This is the good stuff. I had camera and lighting skills, but really no business skills!
I grew up in Orange County CA. I was married and my wife wasn’t digging all the nudes at Ken’s Studio. Back to OC I go, and I assist a guy who—though a skilled photographer in general—truly excelled as a businessman. Here I learn how to run a business and how to operate a studio. I grew my own clients from jobs he passed to me that he didn’t want. Eventually I shared the studio with him, as Steve Anderson Photography.
I shot advertisements, catalogs, brochures, packaging, and a big variety. About 75% of my work was 8×10 transparency, 10% 4×5 and the rest 2 ¼—another key to my success. When you shoot a case of 8×10 film a month you really learn some camera skills. And estimating a job is critical when you line item 4 Polaroid per shot! If it takes more, it comes from your own pocket. These are critical assets that digital photographers don’t have today. The business trends change; I’m following the digital products and deciding the critical moment of buying one. My first back was made by Megavision. It was the best product at the time. At the end of the 5-year payment plan it cost $30,000. Technology advances fast. I sold it 6 months later for $1,000. Phase had come on the scene with good money behind them and you know the rest from there.
But as one of the first photographers using a digital back, so many new business issues came from that. I had to educate my clients on the digital product, how to enlarge it properly, assure them of color balance, and mostly explain why they had to pay a digital capture fee! Photographers, then, did the hard work for those today. As a commercial photographer I embraced the new technology, but many fought the film/digital battle. With digital images comes Photoshop, yes. I was a photographer before Photoshop, and all the other software. Any working photographer had to learn these applications on their own. Too little time to enroll in what schools there were. Learn by doing.
MM Edu: When did you know you were ready to open your own studio?
I opened my own studio in 2003. It was about 5500 sq’. Next learning phase. It’s quite different owning and operating your own studio; the lease contracts only have your name on them. It creates a drive inside to get and keep your clients. I had become a very successful photographer in OC. And bored out of my mind! I realized the best jobs were going to “specialists” in big markets. I wanted some of that! And the three colors of beige that reigned over Orange County were sucking the creativity out of me.
Seriously, when you own a studio, there is sense in you to use it for everything. Imagine going inside the same box everyday and trying to make something different every day. It is challenging. My lease was 5 years long. The last year I was planning the move to LA—planning for bigger clients, and getting representation. The LA move was better than expected; I was finally embedded in a culture surrounded by people of like mind and industry. This is huge! I’m not married any longer and Betsy is the love of my life, she is also “in the biz”, on the account side.
MM Edu: And that led to agency representation?
All were key factors. I hired Roni Epstein as a consultant and we planned a trip to NYC with my new book to get meetings with agencies, reps and magazines. In five days we had 15 meetings. Betsy did most of the work to secure them through LinkedIn, APA groups and some Facebook. Social media man, it works!
From those I secured representation with Daniele Forsythe, and many new clients, including McCann!
Model: Trisha Lurie
“Some personal challenges included the constant hiding of my nude work.
A big passion of mine, but the OC is not the place to flaunt it.
I lost Jenny Craig because of it.”
MM Edu: How hard was it for you to make it as a photographer? What challenges did you have to overcome?
Steve: Actually the progression seemed to happen naturally. This might seem like a gift but the drawback was that my career was leading me and not the other way around, as it should be. I had grown fat and happy with the OC client base and realized late in life that the big jobs go to specialists.
The challenges were timing decisions. When to buy a $30,000 camera back and when to stop using it. When to get my own studio, and when to leave it, and how to take 15 years of solid work and put it into a portfolio. Also in part re-inventing myself with the move to LA.
Some personal challenges included the constant hiding of my nude work. A big passion of mine, but the OC is not the place to flaunt it. I lost Jenny Craig because of it. At the time Valerie Bertinelli was the spokesperson and I had shot her about a dozen times. The “big reveal” shoot was coming up, the one that would be a marker to my career at the time. I remember the call still. It was a quick beheading.
MM Edu: You mentioned having to constantly hide nude work and that it cost you Jenny Craig. Having been through that experience, what advice do you have for other photographers that face that same problem?
Steve: Good question, difficult answer. Everyone will have a different spin on this, here is mine. The web site at the time was called FeedYourFetish.com and it had content more in line to the namesake. I did almost nothing to promote it or its SEO. They found it anyway and fired me. I thought that day about how to be true to myself and not lose good clients, I decided to exercise some taste. You see, I was shooting at that time and continue to shoot many of the top TV evangelist’s. Yes, you read that correct. Go figure. Anyway, the new site is MyFineArtNudes.com. Seems to be more acceptable, no backlash yet. Just know if it’s out there it’s not hard to find. Consider how it looks to others and potential clients, including blogs and Facebook! Keep it professional and lose all the boyfriend/girlfriend/model drama.
Models: Lexi & Sasha
“I am most proud of the move to LA, out of my comfort zone,
owning a really cool studio, shooting what I like, including nudes,
and ultimately being hired for my vision and input.”
MM Edu: You’ve shot for Playboy, and you were invited to AtEdge, but what do you consider the major achievements in your career to date?
Steve: Yes the invitation to AtEdge was really a nice moment, but today I am most proud of the move to LA, out of my comfort zone, owning a really cool studio, shooting what I like, including nudes, and ultimately being hired for my vision and input.
There was one defining moment for me. I had worked with a very talented designer from the beginning. In the beginning I shot simple headshots for his clients with him next to me, actually directing. Yes it was annoying, but the money was good. Of course, as things changed, so did the creativity of the assignments he gave me. But the moment came when he called for a week long shoot: lifestyle images of senior men and women at the home they lived in. He said he wanted me to shoot it anyway I’d like to. It was the ultimate compliment, he liked my vision and aesthetic and it’s what he wanted for his client.
MM Edu: What do you enjoy most about being a photographer? And, what aspects do you least enjoy?
Steve: I like most the freedom that I have with my own time. I like that there are no weekends in my world and that work happens at any hour. I like that “not possible” is never an answer. And my least favorite aspect is marketing, oddly as it is such a big component of business, which I love. But I love business at the conceptual level.
MM Edu: You teach the business of photography but it’s often the most challenging and least interesting aspect for many photographers. How do you overcome that?
Steve: That’s true. I tell them the first two weeks will be what they expect—the mechanics of BECOMING a business. Start up costs, accounting, renting, insurances, etc. The next nine weeks will be about the CONCEPT of doing business.
I talk about my history to stimulate conversation; we discuss and share individual thoughts, fears and concerns. Ideals like shooting nudes and commercial work. Mock conversations with potential clients, all mixed with good business practices. I think they appreciate that I am very transparent about my own experiences. I tell them the mistakes I have made so they hopefully won’t make the same.
For example, last month I bid on a big advertising job with an East Coast Agency at “usual” rates. I had also worked for the client, direct shooting some marketing material a year ago. The Agency approved the quote and green lighted the job. Next day pulled the job. The client had asked to see the photo quote and felt it was too high. Ten minutes later the client called me direct to quote the same job! It was a sticky mess. I brought the whole negotiation process into the class, they loved it!
Model: Charlie Kristine
“Photographers that only know the digital product really do
miss out on the EXPERIENCE of shooting film.”
MM Edu: There are many highly skilled and talented photographers, what do you feel it takes beyond technical expertise, talent, and hard work to be successful?
Steve: Well, you named the top requirements with hard work at the lead. But I would also add foresight—the idea of looking at past trends, thinking of future changes, and putting it into an evolving business plan. I was discussing Kirlian photography in class last month to 15 empty faces, and then read in PDN how a fashion photographer was using this cool rare kind of photography to wow his clients. It was Kirlian techniques!
But another simple example: the 5D2 has changed MY business. I am asked to shoot video about 25% of the time. I also think you really have to immerse yourself in new technologies. Embrace them. Things are changing so fast. Social media is huge, but one can get overwhelmed by it all. So it also requires balance. That is an individual place for us all.
MM Edu: Your career has bridged huge technological change in photography. It’s easy to be nostalgic but you seem to embrace change and new technologies. Can you teach that attitude to students who have only shot digital and always used Photoshop?
Steve: Photographers that only know the digital product really do miss out on the EXPERIENCE of shooting film. But sadly the many advantages of that process cannot be taught. It comes from doing it over a long period of time. As an educator I can explain the advantages, and do, but I have to know the realization that without the actual experience it’s like telling someone how to fly the plane. In a way I can’t be holding on to that past as part of a quality education for today’s student, that time is gone.
Model: Charlie Kristine
“I visualize every minute of the shoot.Greeting the clients, the set,
lighting options, then pick one and think about variations.
And ultimately the final work possibilities!”
MM Edu: How do you prepare for a shoot? Does your preparation change for commercial shoots?
Steve: It’s my belief going into a commercial shoot that, for everyone, the number one concern is risk management. It’s the clients’, the agency’s and mine. That means scouting locations, getting extra assistants, checking the equipment, renting extra and so on. Failure is not an option. But that is the mechanical prep that anyone can do with a checklist. My personal preparation is very mental. Almost a meditation of sorts.
I visualize every minute of the shoot. Greeting the clients, the set, lighting options, then pick one and think about variations. And ultimately the final work possibilities! This way when I show up to the set it feels like everything just flows. The goal is to create an environment that I control, and a component of that is to breed spontaneity—it’s the magic that is part of any great shoot. I like the phrase “ultimate mind fuck”. Another way of putting it, which I tell my students, is that, on my set, I am “the Great Manipulator”.
It’s a state of mind, a confidence in what you are expected to produce—getting it done efficiently and adapting as needed. And before EVERY job as I walk out my door I tell myself, “today I need to remember everything I have ever learned”. That is not photography specific, I mean everything. It’s a mixed environment on set, and life experiences play a part in the success I want.
I think it’s important for the photographer to really know what they are inspired by. It starts the process. My personal work, commercial portraits or food all starts with the environment. If you look at my work there is a story. People don’t live on white seamless. Their world is unique to them. When I show up I already know the “who” and the “why”, but what is going to generate the inspiration in the subject and me? The environment does. I look at everything, everywhere I go and put a 4×6 rectangle around it and say to myself “the nude figure goes right there!”—or, in a commercial setting, the executive. Ha!
MM Edu: It sounds like you’re able to find inspiration in almost any surrounding. What was the inspiration for your Hotels and Motels series featured on MM?
Steve: My Hotels and Motels series is inspired by sex! Personally the sex I’ve had in Hotels and Motels is always better. At least the possibilities always seem higher! I tap into that, rather than being explicitly sexual. It’s more curious, adventurous, less inhibited and wilder! It’s a universal experience—Secret lovers stealing a few hours of passion, the traveling executive off the grid, the married couple away from the kids. If you haven’t done it, you want to. Just walking down Hotel hallways late at night we all have our ears tuned to the muffled sounds of passion.
In my series I explore these emotions. I tell my models not to pose but to imagine. Imagine your lover is on the way and you are excited for his arrival. Imagine he has brought another stranger. See him in the room with you or imagine he just left you, going back to his wife! I often will have an empty chair or a door open this allows the viewer to take a seat and be IN the photo mentally. Each model makes it their own. The work is more inspired when they are invested emotionally, rather than me directing every thought or move.
MM Edu: If you could shoot anyone, who would you choose and why?
Steve: Great question, a big part of me wants to shoot the high profile celeb or political figure, but strictly for my personal gain. Always feeling like just one big name would make me a marquee photographer. I don’t believe that so much anymore, and celebrity portraits are far too common, and generally lacking in concept, compared to the days of Karsh. My assignments of photographing the elderly have been rewarding to me in a very personal way. So do I go heart or ego? I’m going ego: I’d love to photograph Barack Obama. His presidency made history and I respect the man greatly.
Model: Charlie Kristine
“The first thing I do after booking a job in another city or state
is to get on MM and find a MUA, an assistant and a model.
The creativity is off the charts!”
MM Edu: Finally, what does Model Mayhem mean to you?
Steve: MM is a great resource of various talents. I have found a great many models there—MUAs and assistants too. The first thing I do after booking a job in another city or state is to get on MM and find a MUA, an assistant and a model. The creativity is off the charts! When you have photographers and models getting together to make art—to make “personal work”, there is a freedom that results in amazing, awe inspiring things. When there is no risk, no creative director, no art director, no account executive and no client to please, you really explore and discover!
I read the forums too. Again, it’s a huge group of people with questions and sharing information. Of course you have to filter it, and sometimes, admittedly, I get a martini and read for the entertainment value.
I am a big supporter of MM, I suggest my students create a profile and jump in! Biggest surprise, my agent knew about MM when I was telling him of the great place I have found models.
One last thing… The people in my life have shaped my career path—a friend suggesting Brooks, another friend connecting me to Ken. Ken Marcus, Jeff Dunas, wife, OC photographer, Betsy, Rhoni, Jonathan my rep—they all played huge roles.
Some I put in place, others were just there. Imagine if I knew 25 years ago that my friends would not have been made by random choice!