Dennis Murphy speaks slowly and easily into the phone from his Dallas studio, a chuckle perpetually percolating at the back of his throat. He's relating a story about a campaign he shot four years ago for Marlboro's Adventure Team, a promotional program the company runs in Europe and Asia to bring athletes to the U.S. for rugged outdoor experiences like white-water rafting and motorcycling.
Over the Top
For this particular shoot, involving three rock climbers, Murphy and his producer had scouted a location in a box canyon in Utah's Canyonlands The plan was for Murphy to take pictures from a rock face opposite where the climbers would be positioned, using a 600mm lens on his Nikon F5. But from that distance, "It was hard to tell how big the climbers would look," says Murphy.For Southwest Airlines: Retoucher created various uniforms and airplane shadow from scratch.
Somehow, Murphy's producer, Colorado-based Don Swarts, had gotten hold of the Geena Davis mannequin from the movie Thelma and Louise that doubles for the actress when her car drives off a cliff. With Murphy looking on from the other side of the canyon, Swarts and an assistant buckled rubber Geena into a climbing harness and started throwing her over the climbing area. But "the really fun part," according to Murphy, "was that each time, they would wait till someone came close enough to see it." Concluding this tale, Murphy gives a hearty guffaw.For Southwest Airlines: player, background, and shadow shot separately. Player wore gray uniform and retoucher created uniforms to cover all teams SWA is associated with.
Laughter and the word "fun" come up often when Murphy talks about his work. And fun for Murphy, an advertising photographer who sometimes considers himself a production photographer with "action overtones," means everything from traveling to "beautiful locations" to "hashing out ideas with the art director."
A Team Sport
Fun also means planning and creating as a team, because the kind of images Murphy is known forsupremely well set up shots designed to look spontaneousdon't happen with a lone man and his camera on the spur of the moment. Even a one-day shoot can take Murphy and a slew of professionals up to a week to orchestrate. First consulting layoutswhich range from detailed storyboards to bits of textas a jumping off point, Murphy spends hours or days back-and-forthing with agency creatives.
He contributes his expertise to scouting, casting, wardrobe, every element of pre-production through wrap. He employs as many as four assistants, depending on the size of a job. And absolutely nothing happens without his producer who, he insists, "helps pull it all together.
You never want anything to fall through the cracks, and it never does."
It's important to Murphy that he work with athletes, rather than models, as frequently as possible. "They bring a lot to the tablepoetic movement and the cool stuff they can do with their bodies," he says. "You can't easily teach someone to run or hold a bat."For Southwest Airlines, as official airline of Super Bowl XXXV: Shot in December so grass was painted green for the shoot.
For a Gatorade job, he chose 11-year-old baseball players from the country's best "select" leagues (the boys weren't paid, thus ensuring that their future amateur careers would not be compromised). For Southwest Airlines, he conducted a video castingwhich allows him and the agency creative team to have a frame-by-frame understanding of the images they can expect to contend with when they transition to still photographywith three basketball players who had finished up college contracts. He's also shot world-class free divers, boulderers, and runners. Says Murphy, "I have a lot of respect for people who can do things that well."
Respect, and maybe a touch of wistfulness. "I was into sports as a kid, but I wasn't that good at it," he admits. As early as his years in grammar school, he began taking pictures of friends who played football and basketball, and was able to turn to his father, a chemical engineer and photo hobbyist, for technical help. He studied commercial photography at East Texas State University then, after a year of assisting in Dallas, struck out on his own, channeling, he says, everything toward advertising.
Action sports jobs just seemed to find him"You get one or two in your portfolio and it goes from there"and he's been ready for them. Murphy is a certified scuba diver (crucial for underwater jobs at depth, like a shot of a free diver, for Trane, he took in the Cayman Islands), and he owns his own safety harness and helmet for when jobs require himas they frequently doto sit out on a flying helicopter.
For Trane Air Conditioners: (top) Shot at "The Buttermilks," a world-class bouldering area in the Sierra Nevada. Climber had harness under his clothes with rope coming out of hole in the shirt, which was eliminated by retoucher. (above) Shot in Cayman Islands at depth of 75 feet; scuba diver had an air tank on surface he used between rolls.
One photographic adventure, though, has largely eluded Murphy, and that is the switch to digital. This hasn't been from lack of desire. According to Murphy, "The problem for me is large resolution and wide-angle lenses. I can't get the coverage I need." But for a campaign for Nikon that did not require a broad view, he was able to dip his toe in the water.
"At their request, I shot this double-page ad with a Coolpix 5700," says Murphy of the soft, sundown-red shot of what he calls the "emotional sprinter," a relay runner who has just run "either the best race of his life or the last race of his life." And the quality, marvels Murphy, "was incredible. I'm looking forward to the day when I can shoot with digital"a day, he predicts, that's about a year or two away.
In the meantime, he has baseball players, climbers, and divers to fully thrill him, because sports, in Murphy's estimable opinion, "is all about fun, and when you shoot sports, you have fun, too."