Blue Earth
Glazer's Camera

Karen Moskowitz: Surreal Thing

Actress Nancy Ferguson Actress Nancy Ferguson
© Karen Moskowitz

Karen Moskowitz uses intense colors to light the inner moods of her subjects

Proofs of models, rock stars, dot.com CEOs, and a Denver-to-L.A. airplane ticket stub clutter the light table of Karen Moskowitz this Saturday morning as she sips black coffee in her downtown Seattle loft studio.

In the 5,000-square-foot space she’s both lived and worked in since 1990, she’s using a rare quiet moment in mid-December to take stock of one of the busiest years of her life.

The moody color portraiture she’s been evolving since art school got its first viewing in the pre-grunge era, broadened its appeal in Hollywood and Silicon Valley in the mid-1990s, and has exploded in the last three years as magazines and ad agencies seek out celebrity photographers who can make geek millionaires look cool.

But there’s more than lighting magic at work in the photos that cover the studio’s 19-foot-high brick walls. Moskowitz finds in each of her subjects a new energy as she seeks colors that light their lives from within. Out of her darkroom comes not just a special take on color, but a different light in the dancing eyes of her subjects.

Born in 1958, Moskowitz raced through high school by age 16, then studied fine-art photography at Indiana University, where she focused on black-and-white work and printmaking.

"I did a lot of photo silk-screening, using broad areas and bright color with real graphic elements," she says. "When I started doing color, I was never really happy with just doing straight transparency color. I wanted to bring something more to it. I started out doing hand coloring of black-and-white photos as well as regular transparencies. I found that with hand coloring I could get that kind of graphic-color, surreal effect I wanted."

Moskowitz left Indiana at 19, kicked around a few months in Mexico and Guatemala, and ended up in Seattle in 1979, "20 years old and completely sort of clueless," she says.

"I actually stopped doing photography altogether for about a year or two. Call it post-art-school confusion. I was just waiting tables and hanging out, and I had a lot of musician friends who needed pictures of themselves." A few of those casual shots caught the attention of Seattle’s music-scene weekly, The Rocket.

"I started shooting a lot of their covers," Moskowitz says. "I was also assisting for a few photographers, but never really full-time. I had this little drive-in garage studio/darkroom. And I was paying, like, $300 rent. I was shooting stuff for The Rocket for no money. I didn’t really need that much money at the time."

With a growing rock portfolio, Moskowitz tried to break into commercial work, but found her lush colors and wry humor weren’t in demand at the ad agencies for local shoe stores.

In late 1990, just prior to the Gulf War, Moskowitz and her boyfriend at the time leased her current studio. A sculptor had the place previously, leaving a muddy mess behind. It was a disastrous move but also a blind leap of faith that proved visionary. She had to borrow money just to make the place habitable, and the remodeling job turned her boyfriend into her ex. Alone in the cavernous studio, she says, she "kind of had a crisis.

"I was really frustrated with my work. I had a huge inferiority complex too. I was feeling like either my work wasn’t good enough or something was wrong. I wasn’t getting enough work to survive except by cranking out these publicity shots. And try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to shoot a bunch of really commercial stuff for my book. It just really wasn’t me."

If she could make it there…

Out of desperation, Moskowitz bummed some frequent-flyer miles from her dad and hopped a plane to New York.

"I showed my book to a bunch of editors of magazines," she says. "A friend of mine had an apartment in L.A. that was empty for a couple of months, so I went down there next and started trying to do record-label stuff." Before long, she snagged a minor shoot for TV Guide in L.A. and, finally, an assignment from Vanity Fair in New York.

"It was all ’cause I did this go-for-broke desperation move," she says. "I left town. It was a real revelation to me that I could actually shoot the way I wanted to shoot and there was somebody out there who would hire me. Not only somebody but, like, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, these magazines I’d always aspired to shoot for. But I never thought in my wildest dreams they would hire me."

Shortly after the Vanity Fair shoot, "the snowball started rolling." Grunge hit it big, and her portfolio’s hometown thrashers from The Rocket were transformed into international celebrities overnight.

Suddenly, she says, "I could pick the magazines and labels I wanted to work with. I started sending them samples and going to see them. I found that more and more of my assignments were coming from out of town, often to be performed either here or in L.A. or San Francisco."

In 1992, she got a cold call from a startup San Francisco magazine seeking "a rock-and-roll photographer who could make geeks look cool." Wired put her photo of Neuromancer author and geek icon William Gibson on the cover of its second issue. Over the next five years, her fame rose with that of the magazine. It’s a relationship that has since ended, but at the time, she says, "they were totally cool, and they ended up flying me around a lot. That launched a whole new era for me."

In November of that year, she dropped in backstage at Seattle’s Moore Theatre to see friends in the band Sky Cries Mary, who were opening for Shriekback. Michael Cozzi, guitarist for Shriekback, made a lasting impression. Though he left that night on tour, Cozzi crossed paths with Moskowitz six months later in Los Angeles, and the two have been inseparable since. Cozzi moved from London, joined Sky Cries Mary in 1993, and started calling Seattle home the next year. The two were married in July 1994. Cozzi now composes music for commercials and film in the creative space they share.

Going commercial

Moskowitz says her website helps potential clients access more than a third of her ever growing portfolio. The website, moskowitz.com, is especially helpful when she’s on away from the studio and on location, whether on the West Coast or off to Aspen or New York on the trail of Internet millionaires. An Absolut Vodka ad she did for Wired in 1997 draws a surprising number of Web searchers.

"Believe it or not," she says, "a lot of the hits come from other Moskowitzes. They write me e-mails asking, ‘Where can I get Absolut Moskowitz?’ That really cracks me up."

More and more of her assignments are coming from young art directors at big ad agencies. Weaned on Wired, they want the look of her previous editorial work. "The Internet stuff has really opened that up. I’ve done billboards for Pepsi, a campaign for Washington Mutual, and MCI Worldcom. Before I left Seattle, people were coming to me with catalog layouts and saying, ‘Do what we want.’ Now people are coming to me and saying, ‘Do what you do. That’s what we want.’"

To meet those demands, Moskowitz often stages and screen tests shots with stand-in models in advance. She’s learned that with their hectic schedules, celebrities rarely have time for a first take, let alone a second. "I literally have done the cover and the inside of a TV Guide shoot in 20 minutes for the whole thing," Moskowitz says. "I shot George W. Bush recently, and I had exactly five minutes.

"I am a fanatic tester," Moskowitz says. "I’m always trying new things, and that’s why I test constantly. One could put it down to paranoia, too." That mind-set came in handy for an eerie blue X-Files cover she shot for TV Guide.

"I don’t expect people to understand technique, particularly when you are doing alternate processes, where color doesn’t look like it does on the Polaroid. In order for people to make that leap of imagination, it really helps to have examples."

Rights from the start

Also driving Moskowitz toward commercial work is a trend in recent years toward stiffer contract terms in the editorial world. With nearly 30 percent of her income now coming from the resell market through her editorial agency, Corbis Outline (formerly Outline Press), and ad agency Tony Stone Images, Moskowitz is particularly attentive to the photo rights she wants to retain.

In the commercial world, she says, you have leverage, because "every negotiation is individual. It’s depending on the ad agency, the account, the budget. Even with record-label work, there are A-level acts, like Puff Daddy, that are multinational. And then there are bands starting out. They’ve got a major deal from a label, but they still have got a smaller budget they’ve been given.

"With magazine work, they have a standard day-rate which they’ve been using for years, and which they are not raising significantly, and they are wanting more and more rights. They tend to standardize things.

"I have seen language that says they can do whatever they want now and forever throughout the universe. I’ve joked with them and said, ‘Tell you what, you take Mercury and Mars and I’ll get Jupiter. And the sun is a little too hot for me. You can have the sun.’"

She’s turned down at least four shoots that demanded rights too extensive, including one she really wanted from USA Weekend. "They were doing the U.S. Olympic rowing team. It would have been a great shoot. Normally, the editors know the contracts are crap, and they will let you cross stuff out and work around it. But this was one of the first where they said, ‘You can’t touch the contract.’ I said, ‘Well, if I can’t touch the contract, I can’t do the job.’"

Even the once "totally cool" Wired has turned sour for her since the magazine’s sell-out to Condé Nast.

"I went through the battle of all battles with the Condé Nast contract," she says. "When I shot for Vanity Fair, they’d send me a contract and say, wink, wink, you don’t really have to sign this. And I never did. And it was fine. But suddenly, when Wired was bought by Condé Nast, they became one of the magaazines that in order to work for them, you had to sign."

"All of this has come about because of the Internet. There is this rights grab going on. Everyone has this same whine: ‘Oh, we’re not really making any money on the Internet.’ You know it’s baloney.

"I’m not much of a joiner," she says, "but I have recently joined the site editorialphoto.org, a group of online editorial photographers, to battle this.

"This merger mania is more and more of a threat as we get this convergence between TV and the Internet. I shoot for USA Network and the Fox Networks sometimes, and with these entertainment companies, buyouts are the rule, not the exception. As entertainment companies merge with publishing companies, it’s going to continue to be an issue."

Constantly in motion

Back on earth, Moskowitz uses labs to process her transparencies and negatives. She does all the printing in her own color darkroom. "When it comes to alternate process color, first off there’s no time to have a lab do it with their long turnaround times," she says.

"Second, very much like black-and-white printing, it’s very idiosyncratic. One day I’ll go in there and dial in a lot of blue, and then the next day I’ll decide for that shot I really want a bunch of red. A lot of shots I do are different back-and-forth transparency cross-processes. Some start out as a negative. Like E6 film processed in C41. I’m starting to shoot more natural color again, and using lighting and camera techniques to get the look I want."

Though she’s had one full-time assistant and numerous interns in the past, she currently has none. Instead, she taps the local freelance assistant market wherever she is on assignment.

"I’m really kind of disorganized and flaky in the way I have my stuff. So I do have interns who come in and work with me on a regular basis, to help keep the studio organized and keep things going. But I like to keep it on a three-day-a-week basis.

"In a weird way," she says, "it kind of stunts my creativity to be too much of a boss. When I’m developing ideas, I really like to just do things on my own, and not have people around or have any noise. That really needs to change. I probably would be a bit more effective if I had somebody full-time, but I am just not sure what I am going to do about that right now.

"I think I am really lucky. A certain amount of it was timing. A certain amount of it was blind faith in me going for broke and being crazy and going and doing things. Up through even the early ’90s, I never really thought I was going to be successful at what I did. To stay alive doing what I was doing was really my only goal. If I could make enough money to survive and keep doing photography, I was happy.

"Now I’m continually wanting to move forward. For me, it’s all about the ideas and what’s going to best represent that idea. I tend to think my work isn’t all about technique. It’s all about a mood, a feel. If you look through my portfolio, there’s a theme that has something to do with technique, but has a lot to do with bringing out the feel of the subject. A certain mood. An intensity."

IN THE LOUPE: Karen Moskowitz

Home: Seattle

Favorite Gear: "I use Dyna-Lites, because I can travel with them," Karen Moskowitz says. "I use a Mamiya RZ. I don’t have a 35mm camera right now. It got stolen a couple of years ago, so now I just rent. I’m a big renter. I keep the minimum amount of gear, and rent stuff locally if I need extra firepower. I don’t use digital cameras. When speed is of the essence, I’ll scan my proof sheets and e-mail them to editors in New York. I’ve e-mailed high-res images to Germany for publication. I’ve got a DSL line here at the studio."

Recent Assignments: Ben Harper for Request magazine; ads for Kellogg’s, through J. Walter Thompson New York; ads and images for rapper Puff Daddy’s CD.

Best Advice for Aspiring Photographers: "When you start out you tend to do everything yourself. As you get the bigger jobs, you don’t realize the size of the production team you need to pull something off. You may need a producer, set stylists, location scouts, hair and make-up people. For example, the Puff Daddy shoot. I had to have a producer in New York and a producer in L.A. I had to have really experienced people. I know for a fact that his organization has chewed up photographers and spit ’em out. Not because they weren’t great photographers, but because they couldn’t handle the production."

John Callan
Story Author: John Callan

John Callan, a former editor of PhotoMedia, is a freelance writer based in Woodinville, Wash.

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