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Joel Grimes: Making Subjects Look Larger Than Life

by Topher Kelly
featured, photo & video

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Joel Grimes has built a successful business by doing what he loves – creating beautiful, powerful images. From personal projects to intricate shoots for big brand clients such as HP, Procter & Gamble, Volvo and Red Bull, Joel has developed a knowledge of the industry rivaled by few. So what are his views on the “business of photography? The art of the portrait? Essential gear? Find out the answers and more in our exclusive interview with the industry veteran.

creativeLIVE:  During your 27+ years in photography, you’ve worked with several ad agencies and big brands. How have those experiences changed the way you look at photography as an art vs a business?

Joel: If a potential client has the choice between a photographer who is a master technician or an Artist who is a creative force, they will generally lean towards the latter. From day one, I have always tried to bill myself out as an artist who has a vested interest in the final product more than the final paycheck.

We talk a lot about the art of photography and the business of photography on creativeLIVE – sometimes as if they were 2 separate entities – but every successful photographer has to master both. Briefly, what are your keys for finding the right balance when you can shoot what you love and still prosper financially?

The best you will ever get paid as a technician, is a technician’s wage, but for an artist there is no ceiling on what you can get paid. Ultimately, it is better business to think like an artist. The problem is, it takes a greater risk to be an artist. But the payoff is so much greater when you plant a stake in the ground and say. “This is who I am at all cost”.

Along the same lines as the last question, how and why should you invest in the artistry of your photography?

To be an artist, you have to brand yourself with a specific look. Without branding yourself, you get lost in the masses. This take a few years of really hard work and most photographers are not willing to put in the time and commitment to see it though. My strength is I am willing to work hard and beat a look into the ground long enough to build a brand. It has nothing to do with being brilliant. To be successful in todays marketplace you need to reinvent yourself every seven to ten years. Over a career, that is a lot of work.

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You own and operate a studio where you do a lot of portrait work. What interests you and inspires you to shoot portraits? Is there something about portraits that brings out your inner artist vs other kinds of photography?

Well, I love people and the uniqueness they bring to the world. I see it as a challenge to bring that uniqueness out in a photograph. For me, pulling off a great portrait is like conquering an uncharted mountain. I relish in the challenge of doing something that, either hasn’t been done before, or reveals my vision as an artist.

You do an amazing job of telling a story and bringing out the unique character of your subjects. What are the most important things to do when working with a subject? What if you find yourself with a subject who’s incredibly shy or just isn’t very interesting?

I want my subjects to look larger than life. I’m not afraid of embellishing a bit to sell that to my viewers. For the most part, my subjects walk in knowing that. I want them to believe that something special is about to take place. This helps take the edge off. I also what them to feel like they are apart of the creative process.

What about bringing out their character while staying true to your style and shooting the way you like to shoot?

Jessica_6171 Black ClothA photograph is not reality, it never has been. It is at best a representation or I go as far as saying, an illusion of reality. My style straddles the line between this illusion of reality, with a dose of fantasy. Again, this is the realm I am comfortable with and most of the time it works for my subjects as well.

 If you could pick 1 camera body, 2 lenses and 1 prop for a portrait studio, which would you pick?

Well, I currently shoot with a Canon 5D mark III, and for 95% of my studio work I use the Canon 24-70mm 2.8 II. For most of my HDR backgrounds I use the Canon 17mm TS lens. I can’t live without a white background.

What experience, moment, process, or project has taught you the most about photography as an art form?

99% of all my work, including my commercial client work, I do the retouching and post work. I am fully aware that this is not the most cost efficient business model. I can bill ten times the amount per hour as a shooter versus a retoucher. On a number of recent ad campaigns the ad agencies have tried to have me do the shooting and then send out the post work. But I have held my ground at seeing the process all the way through. Why? Because I am an artist with a specific look and the best way I can deliver that is keeping under my control. It has nothing to do with stroking my ego, but everything to do with keeping the end result consistent. And the interesting thing is, when you fight to preserve your artistic integrity, people respect that.

To hear more from Joel, check out his his upcoming courses on creativeLIVE.

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Topher Kelly

Topher Kelly is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and editor at CreativeLive. Follow Topher on Twitter@Topher_LIVE.