An interview with Art Streiber about “the little things that make the difference between good and great, about staying humble, being grateful and… keeping butterflies in your stomach”

Many thanks to UP magazine for their terrific cover story on Art Streiber, which spans 24 pages of the new issue. Editor Diana-Florina Cosmin interviewed the prolific photographer—one of the entertainment industry’s go-to photographers for classic celebrity portraiture—about “the little things that make the difference between good and great, about staying humble, being grateful and… keeping butterflies in your stomach.” And art director Andrei Michailov designed a beautiful layout filled with Art’s photos.

UP is published by the Romanian edition of Forbes magazine. Below is a translation of the article…

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The opening spread of “The Art of Art,” UP magazine’s cover story on Art Streiber.

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THE ART OF ART

He shoots cover photos for the most important magazines in the world, was elected among the most important 100 photographers of our times and the backstage of the American Academy Awards has been his playground for over a decade. We talked with Art Streiber about the little things that make the difference between good and great, about staying humble, being grateful and… keeping butterflies in your stomach.

by Diana-Florina Cosmin

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Typing the name “Art Streiber” in any online search box will automatically yield an array of superlatives, all centered on photographic artistry: creative, brilliant, exceptional, pioneering. Which, upon meeting Art himself, turn out to be nothing more than the unadulterated truth.

Since 1994, Art has been shooting covers for the world’s most prestigious publications, from Vanity Fair to Fortune, he’s a longtime contributor to the film studios, doing both portraits of all major stars and iconic movie posters, he lectures and teaches and has already been awarded most of the photographic distinctions that matter. Since 2000, he’s also been the official photographer for the American Academy Awards and was elected in 2005 among the “100 Most Important People in Photography” by American Photo magazine.

In his almost 20 years in the field, Art has also branded himself as “the innovative type of photographer,” admitting that the first sign of a successful photo shoot is the urge to say, “Well, we’ve never done that before” in the aftermath. One of his most recent “first times” gave birth to the spectacular “Paramount 100” picture, published in Vanity Fair last year: 116 actors, actresses and directors on Paramount’s largest sound stage. “It took three weeks to build the set, two and a half days to light it with 76 strobe heads and we only shot 64 frames in 5 minutes and 12 seconds,” says Art. “And no one was added in post. They were all there.”

Getting to know the real Art, the one behind the art itself, you experience a similar feeling to the one awakened by a breathtaking picture: you come to realize that the lens has superbly captured some details from the background that make the subject in the very center pop out more. Details that add to the beauty and vividness of the picture and make it come alive in front of your eyes.

In the history of our magazine and in my personal journalistic record, this is the absolute first interview that goes to print in a question-answer mode and not as a feature article. I simply couldn’t bring myself to cut anything out of Art’s story, so beautifully and honestly framed and lit up in his own words. And, drawing inspiration from his stories, I tried to plan everything as if I were a photographer myself, handling a new and exciting assignment: I arranged the set, put the lights in the right places,  placed the character in the center and then slowly and discreetly withdrew behind my camera lens. Ladies and gentleman, this is Art Streiber.

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UP: Photography was part of your life ever since childhood and you pursued it in a time when emerging talents in the field didn’t have the internet as a way of publicly sporting their skills and getting their art across to people. What are the most important lessons that you learned in those times that a kid with a passion and an eye for photography wouldn’t have the chance to learn so easily in today’s world?

Art Streiber: The accessibility and speed that digital communication allows is definitely a double-edged sword. On the one hand, a personal website and email give you 24/7 access to clients and potential clients. On the other hand 24/7 access means that your website needs to be constantly updated and that you have to be very judicious about sending out email promos.

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UP: With self promotion there is a very delicate balance between being persistent and being annoying.  Before the web, sending out a monthly or a semi-monthly email promo was the most effective way to get your work in front of potential clients, and that rhythm bred patience.  It forced you to carefully edit your work and it compelled you to consider how your promo piece was being designed and presented.

AS: Snail mail meant that you needed to create a brand identity that lived on every piece you put in the post…envelopes, letter heads, labels and invoices, not to mention the transparency and proof pages that you sent to your clients…and…your promos and portfolio. And all of that branding gave you the sense of being a professional entity, at least it did for me.

Before the Web, putting a portfolio together and going to New York to meet photo editors was paramount, and now electronic communication gives the impression that it’s less necessary…which makes the loss of interpersonal skills between emerging photographers and editors / clients a very real possibility.

I feel strongly that young photographers still need to make the pilgrimage to New York (or London or Paris) at least once a year and make the effort to get in front of potential clients, develop personal relationships and gain an understanding of what it’s like to be on the hiring side of the equation.

Before the digital revolutions and Photoshop, the majority of us were dependent upon photo labs (often two or three) to process and print our K14, E6, C41 and B/W film.

That meant a certain amount of patience with the process and it created another opportunity to cultivate relationships with vendors.  We had to plead, push, cajole and negotiate, which still happens today in other areas, but there’s no question that fewer vendors means fewer opportunities to hone your interpersonal skills and develop as a “professional.”

And there was a certain physicality to the work that doesn’t exist today…loading film backs, louping your film on a light table, stopping down the lenses and really seeing and understanding the difference between F4 and F16.  All gone by the wayside in the digital era.

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UP: Apart from the technical skills and the talent for beautifully framing a story through the camera lens, what would be, in your view, the three main characteristics that make a difference between a brilliant photographer and an average/”correct” one?

AS: First of all, professionalism. I think it’s incredibly important to take photography seriously and present myself and my work as professionally as possible.  I want every personal encounter that I have or that my studio has to be polite, efficient, informative and helpful. I want my clients to come away from every encounter with a member of my crew thinking that they’d like to work with me and my crew again. I want to be responsive to client requests, interview requests and my interns’ and assistants’ requests for advice.

My studio manager, first assistant and business manager and I have created all kinds of systems and workflows that make it easy and efficient for us to find any piece of information about a previous shoot in at least two places.  We have a Filemaker database system that allows us to create a budget for a new job in minutes.  I use an online editing software suite (DFStudio) that allows me to edit my files from anywhere on the planet that I can get on line.

In fact, I’m answering this email on a flight from Dallas to Los Angeles, and minutes ago I was able to log into my DFStudio Account, create a new edit of a job I did seven months ago and send the edited files to my client. I believe it’s called “professional” photography for a reason.

Then, persistence & patience. There is a yin and yang to the conflicting practices of persistence and patience and finding that balance is also incredibly important.  You have to keep your eye on the prize and keep your dreams alive all while biding your time, waiting for those dreams to become a reality.

You have to figure out how often to be in touch with your clients, find the right tone for your emails and exhale when you go to the newsstand and look at all of the assignments you didn’t get to shoot.  And then you have to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to make that next assignment yours.

Thirdly, pushing to improve and innovate. I can’t rest on my laurels.  That is, I can’t relax after a successful shoot and think, “well, I’ve got nothing left to accomplish.”  There is always another shoot and another challenge.  I have made a career of saying “yes” to the photographic problem assignments that were presented to me even though I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to solve the problem and make it happen. “The answer is ‘Yes’.  Now what’s the question.”

This has forced me to improve and innovate, to try things my crew and I have never tried before.  I love coming away from a shoot and saying to my first assistant or producer or set designer, “Well, we’ve never done that before.”

It’s about staying relevant and allowing your photography to evolve.  I’m not taking the same kinds of photographs that I was taking five years ago or ten years ago.  I’m constantly learning and looking at other photography to be inspired to improve my own work.

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UP: You did some of the most amazing photo-shoots of the past decades, the most recent one that comes to mind being the spectacular Paramount 100 years picture for Vanity Fair. Apart from that one, do you still hold any favorites, photo-shoots that stayed dear to your heart,  that represented a breakthrough or a watershed moment? If so, what would be the first ones to come to your mind?

AS: One would be CBS Mondo. A decade ago I was asked to work on the Mondo shoot for the CBS Television Network which CBS used to do annually.  These shoots created all of the still and on-air promos for each of the network’s prime time shows. My set designer built and my crew lit two different sets for each of 14 different television shows.  The sets ranged from a diner interior to a roller rink.  We recreated the ocean and a snow-covered frozen lake.  We built and lit a tunnel of Love and a convenience store checkout aisle.  The days were very, very long but we had all kinds of fun…I was able to hire 16 photo assistants!  And it was on one of the those Mondo shoots that we first shot medium format digital.

Then, Vanity Fair cover with Justin Bieber. The reining pop idol and 17 screaming fans. And on every set up, we shot stills and video. And…we only had Justin for 3 1/2 hours. And… we shot the cover in the garage of the location house.

Time cover, with Steve Jobs. Fifteen minutes with the modern-day Thomas Edison for the magazine whose cover I’d wanted to be on since I first started in photography.

W cover with Christy Turlington. The first cover of W magazine after its redesign as the magazine we know today. I photographed Christy Turlington minutes before a Gianni Versace fashion show on a rooftop in Milan.

40-Year-Old Virgin poster. Nobody had heard of Steve Carell.  Nobody had heard of Judd Apatow. And nobody had heard of me either.  The iconic simplicity of that poster has made it a classic.

United/Chase Visa Campaign. My first full-blown national ad campaign…and it just happened last year.

New York Times Magazine cover/Dr. Kari Nadeau. In March of this year, I was fortunate to have two New York Times Magazine covers of two very different subjects: an allergist at Stanford and the comic duo Key & Peele.

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UP: As a freelance photographer, you deal with a total lack of repeatability: every task is different and it may require using old skills in a totally new way, thinking on the spot and acting really quick. Do you still have the photographic equivalent of “stage-fright” when shooting an important piece or does experience eventually make the “butterflies” and the artistic flush of emotion fade away?

AS: Great question.  Yes, the butterflies still exist, especially with a situation with which my crew and I are unfamiliar. In order to reduce my anxiety I do a LOT of homework on each subject and location and do a lot of creative research before each shoot. Usually, once I’m on set or at the location and see how the shoot is coming together and what the light looks like, any concerns I have begin to subside.

But my crew and I are in a constant state of problem solving…from the minute I get an assignment and up until the final file is delivered. Every shoot breaks down into three pieces…preproduction, the shoot itself and post production, and any or all of those three pieces can and will have problems to solve.

What I’ve come to understand is that I need to be optimally prepared, not over-prepared or under-prepared, and optimally flexible, not inflexible and not indecisive.  Being able to trouble shoot on the fly and knowing all of your options makes problem solving all that much easier.

There is no question that experience is the back bone of problem solving and experience comes from every shoot that you do…which is why I encourage my assistants and young photographers to shoot anything and everything that comes along.  A wedding?  A lot of young photographers balk at shooting weddings, but weddings give you so many opportunities to hone your skills; there are group shots and portraits to shoot, reportage opportunities, needy (and potentially crazy) clients and you, the photographer, have to think fast, react quickly and be incredibly gracious under extreme pressure.

Over the years, I’ve shot travel, reportage, children, weddings, events, interiors, fashion, food, sports and still lifes and every shoot has informed every other shoot I’ve done.  What I’ve learned in one genre, I’ve carried over into other genres.

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UP: To any young kid passionate about photography, you seem to be living the “American dream,” befriending famous people and shooting glamorous pictures. Are you a sociable and party-going person or rather a reclusive one outside your work with the stars? What does a normal weekend of Art Streiber & family look like?

While I have met more than my share of famous people I have befriended very few.  My wife, Glynis Costin (the West Coast bureau chief of InStyle magazine), and I are very fortunate to attend a number of events over the course of the year at which we run into celebrities who I have photographed or who she has met through her work. The truth is, that she is a lot more memorable than I am and most people enjoy hanging out with her and only tolerate me.  And while the celebrities might remember or recognize me there are no celebrity phone numbers in my database.

Most weekends are family oriented. We have two daughters, one of whom always seems to have a soccer game on Saturday and other who always seems to be in a performance of some kind. And someone has to feed and walk the dog, and that is usually me.

Another important truth about the kind of work that I do is that we rarely spend prolonged periods of time with our subjects.  Most of our shoots happen in under an hour…some in as little as five minutes.  It’s extremely rare that we get to spend the day with a celebrity or any of our other famous subjects and our ability to create a memorable image in fifteen minutes is greatly appreciated by our subjects, who are always over scheduled.

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UP: If you were to recap the most important encounters that you’ve had throughout your career, what would those be? Not necessarily famous people, but people who changed you in a way and put a dent in your professional life.

AS: When I was starting out, I had three very important people advise or suggest that I not pursue a career in photography:

The first was my grandfather, an avid amateur with his own darkroom who told me as I left for college that photography was an avocation, not a vocation…a hobby not a job.

The second was the director of photography at LIFE magazine who, at the end of my internship at LIFE in the summer of 1983, explained that a career in photography was extremely difficult and that I should strongly consider doing something else.

The third was the owner of a repping and syndication agency who suggested that I should consider a career as a cruise ship photographer.

All three of these people were basing their suggestions on their own experience (and in the last case, an evaluation of my work at the time) and each was serious.  But I pressed on anyway (harboring no resentment), believing in myself and always attempting to improve my work. It’s not that their advice fell on deaf ears. But I chose to keep at it and see for myself whether or not I could make it.

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UP: Throughout your work with movie studios, famous magazines and Hollywood stars, was there any specific moment, in your early years, when you absolutely knew, in your heart, that ,,you had made it”: a certain proposal, a certain job that ,,sealed the deal” and made you realize that you were entering the big league that you had always dreamed of? And do you think it’s important holding account of such milestones, even when you go high up the success ladder?

AS: In my early years…?  No.  That specific “you’ve made it” moment is elusive and can be detrimental.  I firmly believe that we are all only as good as our last shoot…that at anytime, the phone can stop ringing.

There have been many milestone shoots, like the ones I listed above, that have made me feel that I was playing in the same league as a number of contemporary photographers whose work I admire, but the feeling of “belonging” to that group is a relatively new feeling for me.

But I will say that being entrusted to shoot the group shot for Paramount Studios’ 100th anniversary made me feel incredibly proud and gave me the sense that I had “made it”…at least, this far.

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UP: Is there any public figure that you admire profoundly and didn’t have the chance to do a photo-shoot of so far?

Absolutely!  I am a huge fan of “game changers” and persons of note who have altered the social, economic or political landscape, almost all of whom have had a defining portrait made by other very talented photographers. I would love to photograph Pope Francis, Hillary Clinton and Larry Ellison.

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UP: You shot quite a few famous movie posters throughout time. How would the making of such a movie poster go from A to Z and what is the one that you remember most fondly?

Shooting a movie poster or working on any commercial shoot is a very different experience from shooting for magazines.

With a movie poster (or a commercial shoot) the concepts are presented to me and have already been approved by all kinds of people; the producers, the director, the actors, the studio head, etc.  And there are always multiple concepts (and variations of each concept) to shoot.

The studio or television network might ask for my input, but for the most part the concepts are “locked in” and it’s my job to figure out the best way to execute the concept…the kind of light to use, which lens to use, etc.  And it’s also my job to work with the studio or network and my producer to figure out how best to photograph everything that needs to be photographed.  There is always multiple talent on multiple sets under multiple lighting conditions and all of that has to be scheduled down to the minute.

On the new Star Trek movie poster for example, we spent an entire day shooting 11,336 frames of all 11 cast members in 48 setups so that the studio and its design agency had every conceivable option available to them when it came time to design the one sheet.

The Star Trek poster is one of my favorites because it’s a breakthrough poster for me.  I don’t usually get asked to do dramas or action / adventure movie poster work, but JJ Abrams and Paramount gave me the opportunity and I will be forever grateful.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted 07/02/2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Kristina, for your kind words! Thank you for everything and we hope that everyone here, on your blog, will enjoy our cover story on Art Streiber! It is a privilege for us to meet professionals like Art, his studio and everyone here at Stockland Martel!

  2. Posted 07/25/2013 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    Great story about a GREAT photographer and GREAT human being. Lovely to see it!


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