Art direction is about vision. You have to have a vision to art direct anything. I don’t know if they teach this in school or not but coming from a design background I never came across a Basics of Art Direction 101 class. Most of what I have learned beyond the core design curriculum I learned on the job, in the field, and under the gun.
This is the way I learned ot directing television commercials, design sets and art direct. Art directing — photography — is a completely different thing altogether than video. The product is a still image (a still) and you can inspect the living heck out of it, blow it up, scrutinize it, immerse yourself in it. Video is a series of images. They flow together to create a collective understanding. With a still, it’s what you see is what you get.
Thankfully, I got to work alongside the late Lyle Cavanagh at Philips who showed me the ropes. Lyle had vision. At Philips we shot black boxes: TVs, stereos, blue LEDs, black plastic. So it became a real challenge to find new ways to create black-box-sexy. So here’s what I know: There are four things that make photo art direction work or not work.
I already mentioned this. Vision is what you see in your mind’s eye then, perhaps you sketch it on paper, or render it up or composite it. Whatever method you use, you have to know what you want if you expect to get what you want. That might seem obvious but I’ve seen a lot of “art directors” return from a photo shoot wondering how things could have gone so wrong. The tighter your vision the closer you are to getting an end product that is free of surprises.
2. A collaborative photographer.
If you know exactly what you want you don’t want a photographer that has his or her own vision. Two visions are not better than one. “Famous” photographers probably got to be famous because of their vision, and if their vision is what you want, hire one. But if your vision is what you want, then hire a photographer that wants to use his expertise to bring your vision to reality. (This pretty much goes for directors — the video kind— as well.) A collaborator’s know-how, together with your vision is always a good match.
This is the magic element that Lyle brought to bear. He was trained in visual display. In his day, they were called window dressers. He was an artist of composition. Composition is, for lack of a better definition: where everything goes, what gets cropped, what’s in focus and out of focus, how everything relates to everything else and the essence of detail. There is probably a book on composition but you are better off experimenting with it. If you don’t think you have a good sense of composition, then you probably don’t, but you can get better at it. Before I met Lyle, I didn’t have a clue. He let me practice a lot and my photographer shot a lot of film until we got it right.
4. Story detail.
If you can get both story and detail, great. If you are shooting catalog shots on white backgrounds then detail is everything; crisp, perfect detail. People want to inspect that stuff so the sharper it is the better. For about 20 years the ubiquitous drop-shadow became the obligatory addition to stuff on white backgrounds. It helped. And while a drop-shadow is better than floating, it got really old. Leave it to Apple to break the rules. Look back at their product photography in the 90s: keyboards leaning up against towers and dramatic angles became elegant details to what would otherwise be tired silver boxes. Now they’ve popularized the “reflection” on white. Great “detailing”. If you are shooting Tommy Lee Jones you have a treasure trove of detail to work with. And sometimes that becomes part of the story. Story comes in when you surround your subject with meaning. Sometimes, as with Jones, the detail is the meaning. Sometimes the meaning is something you have to add.
Which brings us back to vision.
That’s what I know about it.