— Coast To Coast
On a chance invite to the Levi’s
workshop, photographer William
Ross packed his bags and moved
to New York City. Over the next
few months he found his way
though Fashion Week and the
commercial photo world. Headed
back to California with a new
found focus, he is ripe to explore
new adventures through his lens.
What brought you to New York City?
I was hired to the work at the Levi’s Photo Workshop in SoHo, which ran from October 8 to December 18, 2010. It was a public photo studio, free for anyone to use. We had top-of-the-line Profoto lighting, Leica cameras, eight retouching workstations, and specialty printers from Zazzle for a complete workflow.
What type of work were you shooting in San Francisco?
In the San Francisco Bay Area (where I’m from), the focus of my work was live music, portrait photography for rock musicians, and event photography. As I was essentially starting out, I took what I could get on the side, from headshots to food to real estate—but I kept my “side work” to just photography.
How were you able to pick up new work from the connections you made at the Levi’s Workshop?
Because a lot of photographers came into the Workshop and were able to see me working as an assistant/instructor, I got a good bit of assisting work afterward. In addition to assistning I did some lighting instruction for other photographers. It was a continuation of my workshop duties. Younger photographers hired me to work on the lighting for their shoots, which might have been overwhelming had I not been there as the “training wheels.”
If you had to describe your work before coming to New York versus afterwards, what would you say?
In the Bay Area I had quickly fallen into a niche. New York’s gave me a chance to rediscover my photography and my whole self. Photography is essentially a visual journal of my spiritual growth. Reflecting on the past, there is a definite change that was provoked by New York. Without a doubt, the culmination of experiences changed my character, hopefully for the better. That’s what I love about photography: it’s a way of living, a fresh way to gain perspective on the world in a very deliberate manner. There’s too much of the world to explore, and photography can never capture it all.
How do you feel the exposure has opened up new directions in your work?
There was a moment when I gave the fashion industry a shot, but I quickly realized that it wasn’t who I am or what I do. The majority of fashion photography is quickly forgettable; it’s the nature of an industry which pours out thousands of photos in magazines every month. Nothing I do is ever a waste of my time, because I see each experience as something from which I can draw when I create something different. It’s good to have the knowledge of a generalist, but the focus of a specialist. I like to keep the subjects flexible. This way I can maintain a passion for photography which is steeped in a sense of adventure. Recently I’ve been working on two fine art series, one on Americana portraiture and the other on long-exposure coastal landscapes. But there’s nothing to say I can’t stradle the commercial and fine art worlds.
Has there been anyone in New York that you have really enjoyed working with? What attracts you to
I haven’t worked with James Porto yet, but I deeply admire his work. There’s a sense of a “sophistication from simplicity” with which I identify. Also, I had the honor of meeting and chatting with William Coupon a couple times after he accepted my invite to come visit the Workshop. he’s got a simple lighting setup that would never require an assistant and is easy to duplicate, but what sets him apart from everyone else is his ability to draw out such a pure, genuine emotion from all of his subjects that is so real it’s indescribable and definitely memorable.
You mentioned that you have an interest in contemporary art photography. Have you seen anything in
the galleries or museums that caught your attention for good or bad reasons?
Being involved in the commercial world of photography, there’s a general level of technical quality I feel is a required baseline for images to be acceptable. When I go to galleries, there’s a good majority of work nowadays that attempts to embrace the digital medium by showing pixels, or are prints of screen captures. I’ve always felt photography is the pursuit of perfection, and it feels slightly disturbing looking at work that wants to give up that pursuit and go the other direction. It doesn’t make sense to me. Of course, there’s always the “snapshots” aspect to some fine art photography, which I’ve concluded boils down to a viewer’s response of “I understand this means something to the photographer, but it doesn’t mean anything to me.” I’ve taken an approach of cruising through galleries and stopping when something catches my eye, regardless of the medium. It’s an effective way of focusing on the end of the scale where I wish to be.
When you left San Francisco you were still in college, do you think you will go back to school or
submerge yourself in the photography world?
The verdict’s not fully out yet, as I’m still young. However, everything seems to be pointing in the direction of following my heart to continue shooting. It doesn’t really make sense to me to go backwards and sideways to go learn about something I’ve already been doing.
I imagine lots of people have offered their opinions on whether a university degree is useful to an
emerging photographer, have you been given any good advice yet?
I’ve heard both sides to the argument time and time again, although a majority of those who told me I should keep doing what I’m doing are photographers, so I’m going with that. Someone once told me, “Ten years from now, people aren’t going to care what classes you took. They’re going to care what pictures you took.” It’s probably the strongest advice on the subject I’ve gotten thus far.
How is working in New York different than working in San Francisco? Are there differences in the type,
quality, or range of photography?
San Francisco is a rather small pond where you know who’s around, and Marin County (across the Golden Gate Bridge) is even more so. Even starting out, I felt it was easy to get into a groove, but it was never at the level I wanted. New York is the photography capital of the world, so there’s something for everyone at every level. With a little experience, gusto, and determination and it’s possible to get hooked in to the top right away. It still takes time to develop a presence, and a reputation for a consistent, quality style, but there is a level of respect &ddash; and even a desire &ddash; for young talent in New York that San Francisco just doesn’t have. Anywhere I go, I can say I shot in New York and it’ll make me more desirable as a photographer. No other city in the world has the ability to open doors like New York does.
Recently you had a chance to assist Chiun-Kai Shih on a shoot he had at the Plaza Hotel. What were
you able to absorb from the experience?
Fashion is the most fast-paced, demanding style of photography. There’s a limited time in a day to get the five, eight, even twelve shots that you need for an editorial spread. There’s very little room for error. It’s normal to shoot an extra couple looks “just in case.” And anything that’s slightly off that isn’t caught by the four or six people working on set—becomes the responsibility of the photographer. So there is an extreme attention to detail throughout the shoot. It takes a team of stylists, hair, makeup, assistants, and a digitech working together for make magic to happen. And the model has to be right there on the same page as everyone else. The photographer takes care of everyone on set; the assistant takes care of the photographer.
You also had a chance to work on the lighting sets during fashion week. How does working behind the
scenes affect your own work?
The amount of time and physical labor required to put on extremely large fashion show, compared to the ten minute runway presentation, is staggering. I learned quickly about everything lik rigging, circuiting, programming advanced lighting boards and the lighting design. This was very different work than I had ever done before. But the offer to get involved intrigued me and seemed like an experience that might influence future work. There’s always something more enjoyable about creating behind the scenes, than just witnessing it as a passive observer. I gained a greater appreciation for the importance of light. The lighting can make or break a fashion designer during fashion week. If the clothes don’t look good, they won’t sell, and light is what makes them look good.
Have you had to learn anything “The hard way?”
Life. There’s no other way to learn than by living and relating new input to past experiences. We make mistakes, we learn, we grow. I’ve always felt that mistakes are simply the right answers for other situations. It’s one thing to avoid making mistakes, it’s another thing to master making mistakes so they happen in the right context—and look like it’s either luck or skill. I call it “learning the fun way.”
What are the areas of your work that you would like people to notice?
Huh, I’ve never been asked that before. I would say to keep an eye on my long exposure work; there will be a lot more when I get back to California. Over the course of this year, I’ll be working on a few fine art series to show in galleries. When those are done, I’ll begin to market myself as a fine art photographer.
People have been coming to New York to re-invent themselves for generations. Has anyone been
inspirational to your development?
A guy by the name of Dan Connortown, who was my boss at the Workshop and hired me in the first place. he’s got stories, and he’s got advice. Some words of advice are better than others, but I’ve always felt he’s had my best interests at heart, as he’s told me I’ll make it and given me hell when it looks like I’ve started straying from what I wanted to do. If I’ve got to make a big decision in the future, there’s a good chance I’ll run it by him.
Have you had any memorable meals in the City?
Dos Caminos makes an awesome roasted chicken with saffron, almonds, and golden raisins, and I had an oven-poached salmon on a date at Zampa one night, but I really love staying in and cooking. At the Union Square Farmers Market, I found the tastiest smoked duck breast. I poured a red wine, balsamic, rosemary, and garlic sauce I created over the breast, roasted it, and served it with steamed baby bok choy, gnocchi in a light marinara sauce, and a 2006 Beaulieau Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. It was simply delectable. I advise removing gnocchi from the water just before it has finished cooking, and lightly pan-frying it in extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, and mint—it’s amazing.
If you would like to see more of William Ross’ work have a look at his website and blog below: