Clients ranging from McDonalds to Rolling Stone seek out Chicago based photographer Saverio Truglia for his distinctive brand of ironic and often dark sense of humour. His signature images include a cow standing in a grocery store aisle stocked with ground beef and an open casket funeral displaying only the fashionable shoes of the deceased. Truglia’s imaginative humour along with a penchant for creative problem solving have been fruitful, winning him many awards and a long list of repeat clients.
His problem solving skills are particularly apparent in our featured image of an innocent young girl lying in her bedroom next to an ominous looking snake. The image, a self-promotional work created for marketing purposes, is deceiving. It appears to be a well-executed location shoot but was actually shot in Truglia’s studio following a week of production. One could imagine doing this for a deep-pocketed commercial client but Truglia pulled it off on a shoestring budget of only $1500.
In our interview Truglia starts out by revealing all the details of creating the featured image; covering everything from production to lighting. We then learn all about his marketing strategies, his creative process and his advice for young photographers.
Truglia: I had been working on a series of pictures about kids. I wanted to make a picture about a young girl on the verge of adolescence and toying with something dangerous. I had an idea of a girl on the floor of a bedroom with a snake. The inspiration for the details came from different places. I was inspired by the idea of recreating a tiny room in an attic with slanted walls. The photo was taken on a set that I designed and built.
Seckler: This image involves many expensive elements: custom-built set, set design, exotic wildlife, talent, etc. and you were paying for it all out-of-pocket. How did you bring this together on a limited budget?
Truglia: I started by painting with a really big brush, trying to put the bigger pieces together, like the set and talent. I’ll often look for ideas on Flickr by searching with keywords. I found a series of self-portraits of a young girl who photographed herself in abandoned spaces like old warehouses and broken down apartments. I sent the images to Angela Finney, my prop and wardrobe stylist I work with in Chicago. I explained that they represented the kind of spaces I wanted to recreate, especially the lighting, and we discussed it. Meanwhile, I kept going back to the girl’s Flickr page, thinking, ‘Wow, photographing this girl would be great. She’s probably in her early twenties, but she looks like she’s twelve, and I can direct her into something that’s a little sexual without it being totally inappropriate.’ I learned that she lived in Chicago and wrote to ask if she would consider being in my photo. She said she’d do it.
The set was built in my own studio. I made some drawings for my set builder. We combined wall pieces that I owned with ones he fabricated. It was assembled in one day. Angela, my stylist, brought a window that she had owned and we added it into the wall. Styling the set took three days. We then considered the girl, who she was and what her hobbies were. How old was she, what time of day it was, and the overall color pallet.
[Next] I needed a snake, so I contacted the Chicago Herpatological Society which is a group that handles reptiles. The next day I got an email that included seven or eight photos of snakes. I requested several, a yellow albino Python and two different green and brown ones. Although I told her what the shot was, I didn’t know how the girl was going to feel about being so close to the snakes. Fortunately, she was comfortable.
Seckler: Tell me about the lighting…
Truglia: My plan was to make a warm sunlit room, so I chose to use as few lights as possible. When you’re shooting in the sun there’s only one sun. You often don’t need more than one light. I used a pair of Speedotron 2400 Ws packs powering a quad tube head with an 11” reflector and a layer of ½ Atlantic frost, set 11’ feet from the subject and 11’ high. This served as my sun. I pointed it through the window to cast a patch of light on the floor and project natural shadows around the room. We used several 4’ x 8’ white bounce cards off set to reflect this light back onto set and open the shadows as a small room would. The only other lights were one coming from camera right bouncing into a white v-flat. This light was another Speedotron 2400 Ws pack and a single 202 VF head and standard 7” reflector. A Speedotron 1200 pack with a 20” x 24” Photoflex soft box was outside the window illuminating the fake tree and a small white flat. There was a tiny Morris slave light gelled pink in the clip lamp above the aquarium illuminating the alligator. This was the little guy’s “heat lamp”.
The exposures were 1/125 @ f8 on a Canon 1Ds Mark III using a Canon EF35mm f 1.4L USM lens. The only significant retouching plate I used was a nice bright patch of sunlight from an overexposed plate. Retouching was relatively simple and consisted of manipulating color. I did it myself. Since we built the set so specifically there was nothing I wanted to dramatically alter in post.
I shot 300 or 400 frames [during the shoot]. The snake kept changing positions. Eventually it stayed still and I could reposition it safely. Snakes that big are like lumps of meat—you can pose them however you want.
Truglia: [The budget for this shoot] was about $1,500, which included building the set, paying a donation to the Chicago Herpetological Society, buying lunch, plus a little honorarium I gave to the talent. It takes a lot of begging, borrowing and stealing to bring everything together on my personal pictures.
Seckler: Was the photo meant to be self-promotional or something that you wanted to do creatively?
Truglia: It was self-promotional. Usually, even if I do something great for a client, there is always a lot of lag time before I can use it so it's important to do things on my own schedle. When I plan my photographs, I like to think that I'm making pictures that I haven’t made before, which is the ongoing exercise. I wanted to create, in a technical sense, a simple lighting situation that wasn’t going to hem me in creatively.
I also think about what I’m telling the market with my personal work. What do my images reveal about me as a photographer? In this case, I wanted to make a picture that looked effortless; I didn’t want it to look artificial. I guess it’s a response to a lot of the work I see in the world—I unconsciously made a decision to go against that.
Seckler: You created this self-promotional image been successful for you?
Truglia: I shot it in the spring of 2009 and used it in a promotional poster. It has become one of the images to which people, even non-professionals, most refer. I think something about animals and children resonates with people.
Seckler: Where do you market your work?
Truglia: Even when I’m not shooting there’s always some promotional effort going on in the background. It could in the places where I pay to advertise, such as At-Edge.com, workbook.com, and wonderfulmachine.com.
Seckler: How valuable is that paid advertising for you?
Truglia: That’s the million-dollar question that I cannot answer. Art directors who want to work with you can’t tell you how they found you. If you’re chosen to work with somebody it’s probably because they saw your images or heard or read your name repeatedly—multiple references to you or your work that happened in unison. Maybe they’ve read your name in a blog or maybe they saw your image in Archive. Eventually those media references reach a critical mass. Getting hired is never from one reference. No one has ever told me they hired me because they saw my image in At-Edge. If a photographer is considered because his or her work appeared in one place, art directors will likely not be entirely comfortable with you. They need to know your work from lots of resources.
Seckler: Why do you think that is?
Truglia: The market is saturated with talented photographers. Art directors want to work with people who are most committed to their craft. I don’t think that photographs occur to art directors any differently than Pepsi occurs to a consumer. Or why do you think MacDonald’s needs to continue to advertise? They need to keep at top-of-mind for consumers or sales would drop off. As a photographer, you have to be everywhere. Whenever possible, you have to be on art directors’ minds, which is probably the greatest challenge. There are just so many good photographers.
Truglia: There’s my website, which changes every couple of years. The website I’m currently using is two-years-old. It will be replaced by May 2010; I’m already working on a new one with a different design, look and feel from the current site.
I meet a lot of young photographers who are active in Chicago, including in the art and trade schools and the trade groups, like the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) and the Advertising Photographers of America (APA). I always tell them this business is about photography. It’s about being an artist, but it’s also a battle of perception—You try to win the battle of perception. There are a lot of talented photographers who go unnoticed because they didn’t craft their message, which has everything to do with marketing—how your work shows up or how often it is seen. It even has to do with your Facebook postings. You have to build your profile conciously. in this business, we all have a public face that must be maintained honestly and well.
Seckler: How do you use Facebook to market your work?
Truglia: Facebook is just a supplementary place for marketing. I use Facebook as a business tool. I communicate with friends, but I keep those conversations offline. If you read my wall posts, they all have something to do with my business. Sometimes I use Facebook more than I use my actual blog, which is yet another outlet for marketing, such as posting videos or behind-the-scenes photos.
Truglia: Books are still important, though I think they are less relevant today. I made five copies of my last book. For a short while there they were all circulating, but nowadays it's not often that my book is called in pre-bid. Repeat clients don’t seem need it. Book requests often come from new clients who want to feel you out and see your quality.
Seckler: When did you notice that people stopped calling in your books?
Truglia: About two years ago, shortly after I made some newly bound books at great expense. Now I don’t invest as much money into revamping bound books. I keep three books up to date; if I make a new picture I will print it and put it in there. Bound books are useful only but your website is primary.
Seckler: What I love most about your photography are your clever, unique ideas. Can you describe your creative process?
Truglia: Usually, when I get the inclination to make an image for a personal project or a get a layout or concept from a creative, I try and disconnect my brain and my heart from what's reasonable, so for some time, I am free to explore the idea. I also sketch to help feel out the composition. I push the concept as far as I can go with it— into the realm of the absurd. I learned how valuable it is to push your ideas beyond practical reality so that when you come back and settle on something it’s already out of your safety zone. Some artist might not don’t pitch risky ideas because someone important might not follow you there. I push myself to the point where I am uncomfortable with the whole undertaking.
Seckler: A situation where you know you’re challenging yourself…
Truglia: Yes. I like to challenge myself. For example, I shot this cover of a magazine last week and I had to make a vintage Playboy inspired cover for a story a story about a librarian who collects Playboys. I wanted to create a picture of a pin-up girl holding a phallic stack of books. The art director liked it but the editors were not crazy about it. So I shot my idea and a safety. Eventually the headline changed and suddenly the picture was irrelevant to the story. The safety was used. But the situation of pitching my idea to my client put me in a place of discomfort—like the Snake picture was a little uncomfortable—because I didn’t know what the snake was going to do or how the talent would deal with it. The shoot could have been much different. I know I must often give up some control to let good stuff happen.
Seckler: How did you get started as a photographer? How did you break in?
Truglia: I went to college at Mass Art in Boston from 1990 to 1994 where I studied photography. I originally became interested in photography by an exhibit, Polaroid 20 x 24 Portraits. Up until that point I was a graphic design major. I immediately changed my major to photography. In 1995, I moved to Chicago because I had friends living here. I was 23, and I started working at an art gallery photographing art. It was a very blue chip gallery, where I photographed Picasso’s and such. That exposure launched my first business—photographing artists’ sculpture and paintings. Although I was earning good money, the work was tedious.
I almost gave up commercial photography completely until I reinvestigated what I was photographing in college. I had always made portraits, so I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I had been shooting all along with Polaroid. I always had a camera with me, but I never took it seriously after art school. Until I threw together some portfolios, made postcards and sent them to agencies. Quickly a couple of them resonated with the right people. My career started in 1999 when I began shooting editorial work. By 2004, I landed my first advertising job.
Seckler: What were those first four years like? I think people always wonder about those “in-between” years…
Truglia: Fortunately I didn’t assist anybody, because had I, I’d have have realized how hard the job was to make it worthwhile. I did it slowly and very blindly. I had to learn everything from first-hand experience and from some very important mentors. I spent a lot of time with Vanity Fair looking through the eyes of Annie Leibovitz, trying to figure out how she might have lit something.
Truglia: I bought a digital camera early on and started using it exclusively. You can teach yourself much faster with a digital camera because you have an immediate response to your technique. Digital photography has made me a better photographer because what used to be a risk—like quickly moving a light somewhere or bouncing it off something weird—was no longer risky.
Seckler: You started out in fine arts and ended up doing largely commercial work. Are you still interested in fine art photography?
Truglia: I so enjoy being a spectator to wonderful fine art photography, though I don’t actively participate in commercial fine art world. If I make a picture for myself it’s always one I think could both hang in a gallery or in my book, like the picture of the snake. That’s the sort of image enjoy making whether I'm getting paid or not. That image interested me as an artist. My personal work is not a radical departure from my commercial portfolio. I try and have my photography be all one thing, a reflection of who I am.