“Simplicity is an elusive quality,” says renowned New York-based photographer Phil Marco. “It’s a complex process of editing the subject down to its essence. Simplicity, concept, and beauty of form are dominant elements in my work—as is an affinity for the whimsical and the surreal.”
Indeed, Marco spends a great deal more time thinking about an assignment than capturing it. “Usually, I’m able to visualize the images, designed and lit, well in advance of pressing the shutter,” he says. This approach has served him well in his business and professional life. Whether it’s putting together his staff or shooting million-dollar jewels, Marco breaks the job down to its core.
His approach to lighting is simple, as well. “Unless I’m lighting for a specific effect, it’s always a single source,” he says. “Even if I use 10 different units to light an object or a scene to outline edges or create highlights, the criterion is always to make the light appear to emanate from one source, one direction.”
Drive to Excel
Illustrating his focus on simple, single-source lighting, Marco harkens back to a photo shoot introducing the 1963 Rolls Royce.
“To this day, that shoot is indicative of my approach to everything I believe about lighting and design,” says Marco. “No matter how small, or large and complicated the assignment, I keep it simple in concept and execution.”
This assignment entailed flying to London to photograph the 1963 Rolls Royce. The visual wasn’t totally locked down yet, according to Marco, yet the headline read, “How to Outshine the 1962 Rolls Royce Owner,” referring to the fact that the 1963 Rolls had four headlights instead of two. “The design change was a very closely kept secret. It was a highly controversial and radical move at that time for such a historically conservative and classic company as Rolls Royce.”
Arriving at the company’s headquarters outside of London, Marco was led through a number of long corridors, at the end of which was a massive steel-gated door that opened on to a large, dimly lit room. “It was empty, but for a silhouetted profile of a car that was totally concealed under a shroud-like sheet of linen in the center of the room,” recalls Marco. “I gently removed the cover, and after carefully surveying and studying the situation, I made a small incision in the fabric as two night watchmen held the sheet in front of the car as a bounce surface. With the lens peering through the slit, I used the car’s headlights as the only light source, to capture the image.”
Orchestrating His Business
Marco takes the same streamlined approach to running his business. He believes a photographer without a professional, reliable staff is “like a conductor without musicians.” It took a career shift for him to realize the value of having a small, core group.
“My print career began in 1961,” says Marco. “When I left to direct film in 1981 (he has worked with Martin Scorsese on a number of his films, including The Color of Money, Casino, Gangs of New York, Aviator, and directed over 1,000 commercials), I had 12 people on staff.” He and his wife, Pat—his business partner—realized that all the company basically needed to function was a line producer, assistant director, receptionist, and a few personal assistants.
“Everyone else became freelance,” he adds. Shooting on location often required a crew of 50-plus people. Carrying a crew of that size was out of the question. Hiring a freelance crew offered several advantages.
“With a freelance crew, you have the option of choosing the most talented and capable people in the business for any given project,” he explains. “And, when you have a select freelance crew on almost a daily basis, they become as familiar with your needs and function of operation as they would if they were on staff—without the enormous payroll. It makes for a very efficient and flexible operation.”
This way of doing business has proven extremely successful for Marco through the years, and he continues to employ the strategy today. “Aside from a first assistant, an art/secretary, and a photo composer, everyone else on our print shoots is drawn from our personal freelance database.”
“Pat is the wind beneath my wings and the business. A world-class producer. She keeps me abreast of all the important issues. Although decisions are mutual, I totally trust her judgment and generally defer to her expertise.”
He also has high praise for his agency. “Bernstein & Andruilli is one of the most highly respected talent agencies in our business, with a very capable team that’s always on standby,” he says. “I have a high regard for Howard [Bernstein] and his associates. The quality of assignments he sends our way reflects his sensitivity to my work. He’s a person with a great deal of integrity and someone who really has his hand on the pulse of the industry.”