It’s the vogue in photography at the moment, images that feel almost user-generated; clashing colours, lens flare, areas out of focus, etc, etc.
It’s a kind of anti-style.
I think there are two reasons for its current popularity;
In a world full of the kooky, unprofessional, fresh imagery you find on your various Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds, something very polished can feel like marketing.
And marketing, as most of us know, is trying to sell you something.
So ‘unprofessional’ can feel more honest.
It’s not so much the lack of it, it’s more the reluctance to pay ‘too much’.
Most clients can now take a pretty good picture for free, so why pay an expert a thousand times more? The picture won’t be a thousand times better.
So the gap between home-made and professional gets smaller.
People think ‘I’ll pay a hundred times more, but not a thousand’.
(NOTE FROM EDITOR: 1000 x ‘free’ is still ‘free’, as is 100 x ‘free’.)
The downside with this ‘naturalistic’ style is that often the images are very samey, cheap looking and unmemorable.
That’s a problem when you are trying to get a product noticed.
and make it more desirable than the competition.
It’s even more of a problem with products that aren’t rational purchases, like alcohol, fragrance and jewelry.
They’re bought as much on the ‘vibe’ of the brand as they are on the product themselves.
Seduction is more important than naturalism.
There are many words you could use to describe Phil Marco’s images,
‘naturalistic’ isn’t one of them.
Where were you born?
Chicago, raised in Brooklyn.
As a child I was always drawing and began to paint at a very early age.
Later I studied fine art at Pratt and The Art Students’ League.
But I have to back up a bit because it really all began with music.
My father was an opera singer, so almost from day one the air around me was filled with the sounds of my father vocalizing, playing Caruso records and practicing arias, accompanied by my Mother at the piano.
Dad was also a musician who taught me the rudiments of music and the piano, by age four I was playing Bach and Beethoven.
Music and sounds were to have a very dominant influence in my life.
The reason we left Chicago was in response to a phone call that Dad received from Herbert Witherspoon in New York.
He said ‘Roberto; I’m going to have a place for you here at the Met’.
It was exciting news, an amazing opportunity for Dad, so we immediately began to plan and pack for a permanent move to New York.
En route to New York however Herbert Witherspoon passed away, it was an overwhelming tragic and unfortunate turn of events.
What is your first memory of being visually aware?
I was about five years old when we moved to Brooklyn.
We finally settled into an apartment in the west end of Bensonhurst, which was, to say the least, very unique.
The floor was level with an elevated subway line whose tracks were just about eight feet away from our third floor windows facing the street.
So whenever a train passed, the entire apartment and the furniture in it would shimmy and shake. At night I’d love to put out the room lights and listen intently to the syncopated sound of the approaching trains anxiously waiting for them to pass by the windows.
The light emanating from inside the cars was dream-like and surreal.
The cars were so close that you could very clearly see the expressions on the faces of the strap hangers saturated in this glow of warm yellow-green light.
It was like viewing the animation of a George Tooker painting.
How did you get into the photography business?
I came across an ad for a photo assistant.
Now, I had a very light knowledge of photography, having used a camera only as a sketching pad to record ideas for future paintings.
I really didn’t have too much to offer in the way of experience but I had a lot of nerve, and confidence that I could to do anything that I needed to do, if I put my mind to it, so with that motivation I answered the ad.
I walked up the steps, which were dripping with water, and I came to a door gushing water from beneath, flooding the hall.
The photographer answered the door; he had been photographing people showering for a series of ads for Dial soap.
I told him that I knew very little about photography but I was willing to learn and do what ever was necessary.
I guess it was my directness and the fact that he was flooded and he needed somebody to help him at the time: He handed me a mop and said, ‘The job’s yours kid.’
So I started there part-time because the whole objective was to secure more time and funds to pursue painting.
The job paid $37.00 a week to start.
My job was to get there in the morning, wake up the photographer, walk the dog, and take care of some very basic studio needs.
In time I picked up on loading cameras, mixing chemicals, printing and what ever else he needed as we went along.
The photographer’s name was Lew Long, we still keep in touch and he’s as excited about photography today at 91 as he was then.
Who else did you assist?
The first and only photographer I ever assisted of consequence was Lew.
He was a brilliant illustrator, with a wonderful attitude towards work and life.
He introduced me to the operation and loading of 35 and 2 1/4 cameras, the basics of printing, and darkroom 101.
Lew’s most salient gift to me however, was his adroit ability for dealing with people, clients, and talent.
Other than that, I really didn’t have a formal education in photography per se, to a great extent I learned through books, experimentation, and practice, which may account for why some of my approaches to the medium were fresh and unique.
What was your first paid photograph?
A B&W of a men’s wallet.
It was for Miller Advertising.
As I became more involved in photography and was compelled to use it more on the job I realized that I was in awe of its ability to capture and convey ideas so rapidly and direct.
The skinny is that the excitement I began to feel about photography as a medium totally sublimated my need to paint and what initially had just been a means to an end, became an end unto itself, film became my canvas.
How did you start on your own?
A little studio on the outskirts of the Village became available, I made my move.
It was on Eleventh Street off University Place, just around the corner from the Cedar St. Bar where Jackson Pollack, Franz Kline and a number of other abstract expressionists would gather.
I later learned another of the former occupants of the studio was Robert Frank.
Things were looking up.
I still painted occasionally, but it was becoming obvious that my interest in photography was taking over and growing stronger.
My first professional camera was an old 1000 F Hasselblad that I picked up in a pawn shop.
I began experimenting with color by flooding a small restaurant sink with temped water and immersed some stainless steel canisters I picked up down the Bowery, filled with various solutions of color chemistry.
The process was crude, but the results were very exciting, and genuinely inspired me to move on.
With no clients or layouts to follow, I just began to photograph simple images that inspired me. Similar to the way I approached painting.
My vision and concepts were strong, but my photographic technique left a lot to be desired.
So I continued to reference and apply the lighting and compositional skills I used in painting to photography.
I would take a simple circular form like an orange and photograph it in every conceivable light and point of view for days.
Most of my first subjects were from the grocery store, and friends, primarily because they were readily available, inexpensive, and without an hourly rate.
Concentrating on still lives however gave me the opportunity to learn how to apply light to a wide range of textures and shapes.
It also satiated my interests in science and mechanical problem solving.
As I became more proficient with my technique and began to learn how to create dramatic lighting for my concepts, the excitement I felt about photography as a medium of expression began to grow exponentially.
When I was in my early twenties I created a few dozen images that I was pleased with, and thought that it was time to go out and get clients.
I read that when you used to tout your portfolio around agencies you would sometimes show art directors the transparencies in the loo, as they were so dark?
I came across a Milanese projector called a Farrania, which was totally self-contained in a thin black matte case.
It had a pull up arm with a lens that projected an image onto the inside cover of the case which served as a screen.
The 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 slides were then slid one at a time by hand into the gate. It also had a built-in
storage space for thirty slides. I opted to use this method of showing my work, because I couldn’t afford quality color prints, and I didn’t have any of the lush 8 x 10 transparencies that would eventually become my format of choice.
However the 2 1/4 format at the time served beautifully.
It offered quality reproduction, and a fast and economical way to capture and present visual ideas.
I read all the trade magazines and award books I could get my hands on, looking for Designers, Art Directors, and Ad Agencies whose work caught my eye, and could relate to.
So I compiled a short list, and began making phone calls. After numerous hang-ups and rejections, I finally began to get through.
Armed with twenty slides and the confidence I gained from the positive feedback I was receiving, I would do what ever was necessary to provide the best lighting conditions for the slide show,
Because if they weren’t shown in a fairly darkened room, it would be a total wash out, and any semblance of quality and color saturation would be lost.
At times I’m sure that it strained the patience of my curious, but confused audience.
I would think nothing of walking into a room, and after a brief and polite introduction quickly start running around the room closing doors and drawing blinds or drapes over windows to achieve the right light level for the show.
So if the conditions weren’t right, I just wouldn’t show them. However that was rarely the case, as I was always determined, (‘possessed’ is probably a better word), to find or create the right light level no matter what convolutions it would take.
After a number of successful showings, rumors began to abound about this young Italian kid who was going around the ad agencies with a little black box, and a bit of an attitude about not showing his work if the light in the room wasn’t just right.
The general consensus, however, was that the images were so fresh and exciting that it was well worth the initial minor annoyance.
Which agencies gave you a break?
I remember going to Doyle Dane Bernbach for the first time in the mid sixties having made an appointment with a young art director named Len Sirowitz.
The light in his room was terrible, and I was just about to pack it in, when I spotted a janitor’s closet across the hall that he reluctant climbed into with me.
After a few uneasy moments in the dark, when I began to show my slides, he was so excited about the work that he called in Bill Bernbach, who in turn called out the entire floor to line up outside the janitor’s closet.
As a result all of DDB opened up for me, Len and I also worked together on the award-winning campaign for the Better Vision Institute that became part of advertising history.
Who were the photographers you admired most?
Well, Irving Penn, probably because of our shared sensibilities and passion for design and simplicity.
Also impressive is the fact that he continued to evolve and produce his wonderful signature graphic images well into his 80s.
I regret that i never had the pleasure of meeting him.
Other influences were;
Jan Saudek.Robert Frank.
What about artists, your lighting is very painterly?
My first and foremost influential heroes were the painters.
For lighting it would be Caravaggio.
Joseph Wright of Derby.
For concept, it would be the Surrealists;
In particular his Crucifixions.Also the abstracts;
Franz Kline. Robert Motherwell.
James Turrell.Who’s the best art director you ever worked with?
Again, as a Certified Anal Retentive I’m really at a loss to select the best.
There were just so many: Ralph Ammirati, Steve Frankfurt, Herb Lubalin, Lou Dorfsmen
Gene Federico, Bill Bernbach, Len Sirowitz, Herm Davis, Charlie Piccirillo, Ivan Chermayeff.Which English photographers do you like?
One of the English photographers I admired most was actually born in NYC, Lester Bookbinder, he moved to London in 1959.
Loved his work!
An amazing talent.How do you brand these everyday objects with your stamp?
My approach to Lighting; Design; Print and Film.
My overriding goal, is to illuminate an object in such a way that it is rendered in its most beautiful and memorable form without calling attention to the lighting, composition, or props, so that nothing gets in the way of what it is you want to communicate.
From the very beginning, my work has always been about the idea, the concept as the narrative. The function of lighting and technique are in a sense the subtext.
The type of light, the number of lights, and the quality of light that I use varies from project to project, depending on what aspect of the subject I want to emphasize or what emotion I’d like to evoke, but the key factor remains the same: Simplicity, the illusion of one light, one direction.
When the brain selects a subject and positions it on the retina, its recognition is more immediate and impressive when the light that falls on that subject or scene is of a single source.
We feel most comfortable with this type of light simply because for millions of years, most of mans waking hours are lit by a single source of light, the Sun.
Simplicity is an elusive quality and definitions don’t come easily.
The word itself is a misnomer.
In fact it’s a very complex process of editing the subject down to it’s essence, judiciously exercising restraints as to what to subtract and what to keep.
With the omission of all non-essentials, what we’re left with is a graphic statement that allows nothing to get in the way of the idea we wish to impart.Why move into film?
It was gradual.
One day I thought of a great visual, and I said to myself, wow that’s a great idea!
But how do I get it to move?
I knew then that the transition was complete, and that my creative vision was now designing images in movement for maximum excitement and impact as opposed to stills.
It was also clear to me that if I wanted to achieve the expertise that I had attained in print, I had to temporarily set print aside and make a total commitment to film.
Then I made the second best move I ever made in my life, (the first being to marry her) Pat and I formed a film production company.
She’s truly an amazing person, bright, intuitive, a world-class producer, and my muse who keeps me grounded.
From the early eighties to the late nineties I was totally committed to film.
I directed hundreds of commercials, worked on features, won numerous awards, Clios & Cannes Lions.
“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Phil on a number of my films.
He’s a man of extraordinary talents. It seems his passion is to take an everyday object or event and show it in an entirely new and exciting way.” – Martin Scorsese.
Yeah, I formed a close working relationship with Marty, creating graphic visuals and special effects for his films including ‘The Color of Money’, ‘Casino’, ‘Kundun’, ‘Gangs of New York’, ‘Aviator’ and some of the early title work of ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’.
You got back into to stills?
Yeah, mid 90’s.
A number of agencies encouraged me to shoot the print as well as direct the television commercials for their clients, to give them a campaign signature, total visual continuity.
This eventually led to the rekindling of my love affair with print.
The Van Cleef & Arpels work I did with my old friend Gennaro Andreozzi, was a lovely body of work.
Digital: has it been good or a bad thing for photography?
Sometimes I wonder if today’s young graphic warriors realize, or can fully appreciate, how fortunate they are to have at their fingertips – literally and figuratively, all the options and wonders of today’s computer and digital technology.
I remember having to wait hours, even days for type to be released from the typesetter, in order to layout a single line of copy.
Every time I hit the dissolve key on the Avid and the dissolve morphs into place before my eyes it blows me away, because it brings to mind a time when we had to wait a day or more for the simplest dissolve to return from the labs, and if you got it back right the first time, it was a gift.
Digital’s ability to allow us to instantly review and alter or recreate a new image is one of its greatest attributes.
It’s put the creative control of the image back into the hands of the Artist.
With technological changes taking place exponentially, one can only speculate on what lies ahead.
Maybe digital will interface with lasers, allowing holograms to develop into a more controllable
medium, or harnessing brain waves so that ideas can be imprinted directly onto hard copies of any material.
It’s also plausible that many of today’s mediums will dovetail into interactive virtual environments, or merge into totally new venues.
If you had to save one sheet of film from a house fire, what would it be?
Truth be told; if I had to save one sheet of film from a house fire trying to make a selection as a certified, anal retentive dyslexic, my ass would probably go down in flames.
What are you doing today?
My primary focus has been on my personal work, and enjoying total creative freedom to experiment and develop visual ideas.
I’m also enjoying the pleasure of watching our gifted son Peter’s rise as an extremely talented pop artist.
Currently, I’m very involved in shopping for “the” gallery to represent my fine art print work and installations; Publishing a few books; and completing a Doc. about the children of the Sioux Nation in South Dakota and their tragic struggle with despair, drugs and suicide.
Photography wise my primary focus has been on my personal work, and enjoying total creative freedom to experiment and develop visual ideas.
Finally, are you’re still shooting?
Sure, although my visuals have bridged five decades, I’m still a work in progress, continually searching and evolving.
Who knows what venues lie ahead for film and and visual media?
But for me, one thing will always remain constant: A great Idea, and the pursuit of a strong beautiful graphic, simply stated.