Whether he’s creating compelling editorial or advertising images for prestigious clients, lecturing on the power of lighting techniques, or penning a 47,000-word best seller, Michael Grecco is the consummate communicator, an intuitive artist open to new ideas, a passionate professional whose years of yoga and meditation have graced him with calm under pressure.
When recently contacted for this interview, Grecco was in the midst of a plum assignment: photographing the People of the Year cover story for the year-end issue of Time magazine. “First time I’ve worked on this specific issue. I’ve had a long working relationshp with Time magazine. I regularly do covers and projects for them. But in this case, the photo editor just asked me to work on this project.” He was also asked to build content for the weekly’s website.
Because his new book, Lighting and the Dramatic Portrait: the Art of Celebrity and Editorial Photography (Watson-Guptill Publications,www.wgpub.com) covers virtually all aspects of being a successful portrait photographer, it served as the primary springboard for our discussion. Incidentally, at press time, Grecco’s book was 161 out of 2 million books on amazon.com. Enough said.
On Being Creative
Michael Grecco is quite the open book. While big on sharing what he’s learned with whoever wants to know, he’s the eternal student, continually exploring new ideas and alternative ways to handle creative challenges. “If I had relied on a set of fixed rules throughout my career, my work would not have evolved and improved and I would have become bored and stale.”
Whether he’s creating ads or editorial concepts, Grecco’s images are based in reality, not concocted in Photoshop. “I don’t want my images to have a fantasy look,” he says. “We’re not afraid to retouch, but I try to get the action to happen in front of the camera. If I’m propping or lighting or doing anything unusual, that part has to be done prior to the shoot. Once I’m there and figure out what the feeling needs to be, I light it accordingly. Everyone is looking for the magic pill, the definitive way to light. There is none. It’s about seeing.”
Since the late ‘80s, Grecco’s dramatic portraiture has earned him steady work from a platinum clientele—Time, GQ, People, ABC, HBO, IBM, GE, ESPN, plus dozens of entertainment, business, advertising, and show biz notables.
A film shooter for many years, he’s primarily digital today, using either his Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II or the 22-megapixel Leaf Aptus. “I changed my studio from an analog-based business to a digital-capture business when digital finally had the ability to render skin tones well. As a portrait shooter, it’s all about the skin tones for me. Ultimately, the object is to give clients what they want and to capture the image you want, the way you want it.” Grecco Gallery
Let’s pull the curtain back on a few of the imaginative, visually powerful, and essentially realistic images in his book. . .
For the movie poster of Rushmore, with Jason Schwartzman, Grecco chose a Profoto optical spotlight because of its connection to the theatre. “Sometimes when I rent an optical spot, I choose based on the pattern I want to put into it. But this time it was all about getting a nice clean circle. Because I didn’t want other shadows interfering with the spotlight, I used a large Chimera softbox to fill the shot.”
A veteran of environmental portraits, Grecco has found ways to add visual interest when capturing his subjects in their environments. His image of Salma Hayek (p. 9), shot for the cover of Movieline magazine, was taken on the balcony at the Argyle Hotel in L.A. “The obvious thing with this portrait is the city behind her, the landscape, the placement of where she is.” Rather than having her just point to the city behind her, he made her part of the scene.
While researching actor Laurence Fishburne , for an interview in Playboy, Grecco learned that the actor has never stopped honing his craft. “My image had to illustrate that constant evolution,” says Grecco. “I arrived at the idea of using a Japanese Kabuki mask to express it. I lit him with my Fresnel and just let him do his thing.”
The image of Andie MacDowel was shot for Movieline magazine. Wanting to do something more in a fairly simple shot, he looked for an unusual angle to challenge the viewer’s perspective. “I shot her from the side, as a horizontal, then turned the image 90 degrees and fanned her hair, leaving the viewer wondering if she’s up, down, or sideways,” recalls Grecco.
One of his most riveting images is the December 12, 2005, Time cover shot of Steven Spielberg (right), taken to promote Munich, his movie about the terrorist massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics.
“We shot Steven against a Duratrans—a transparent image mounted on Plexiglas—of the AP photo because I felt it would look more realistic that way. The image was lit from high above with an extra-small Chimera softbox covered with a 20-degree Lighttools fabric grid, a small strip bank as a fill to one side, and a small metal grid spot from behind. The Duratrans was lit with one head in a beauty dish and a 3-degree spot behind the terrorist to make that part stand out.”