With a passion for travel, Erik Almas expands the boundaries of the typical studio photographer, often including sweeping landscape elements in his commercial images.
It's December, and Erik Almas is a long way from home. For most of his life, Almas called Norway home; now San Francisco claims that honor, but at this moment, Almas is learning to scuba dive in Hawai'i for an underwater shoot. His voice is giddy with excitement. "I'm living my dream," he says. "This is amazing."
When talking with Almas, the word "amazing" comes up a lot. His career is amazing, the people he meets and works with are amazing, the places he travels to are amazing, and it becomes clear that, to Almas, his life really is amazing. He enjoys and appreciates both his life and his work, and it's obvious that he takes nothing for granted.
Erik Almas' career in photography had more to do with serendipity than destiny. "Photography sounded like fun and then one thing led to another and here I am today, 15 years later," he says. "It became my dream."
Almas grew up in Trondheim, Norway, with a love for outdoor sports and the wide vistas of the Norwegian landscape. He started photographing his friends and the scenery on ski trips. Later he took a darkroom course while in the Army and his interest grew. Eventually, some of his ski photography was published and he thought of becoming a newspaper sports photographer. He considered a local community college in Norway, but some advice from a photographer, Geir Terje Nergaard, changed Almas' life.
Nergaard, who graduated from the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif., simply told him, "You can't study photography in Norway." If Almas was serious about it, he would have to go to the United States. So that's what he did. Three months later in 1995, with Nergaard's help, Almas was flying back to the United States and starting school at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, the largest private art school in the country.
Starting school in another country had its challenges and advantages for Almas. "I had less distractions than most people because I didn't have all that many friends," he says. "So I went to school full force."
During his time at school, Almas reconsidered being a small-town sports photographer. His teachers inspired him to think bigger and question his expectations of life. "Art school was an amazing experience," he recalls. "I came from this small town, 150,000 people, where you're not really exposed to any sort of philosophical questions about who you are and where you're going. I came to art school in San Francisco, and there were so many questions about philosophy and life and culture. I was soaking it all up."
Almas graduated from the program in 1999, winning the Best Portfolio award in the spring student exhibit, and then went to work as an assistant for Jim Erickson, a successful commercial photographer in San Francisco. His three years with Erickson gave him a crash course in how to succeed in the photography business.
"Jim Erickson was a great, great mentor for me," Almas says. Erickson frequently taught by example, and Almas learned from him that "marketing and how you conduct your business really counts. Never let yourself be taken advantage of. And as far as the images go, try your hardest to please the client and create pictures they are happy with and not just satisfy yourself." Of all the lessons he learned from Erickson, one stood out: "He never stops taking pictures." From his experience with Erickson, Almas realized that photography could be a way of life.
Despite having attended an art school, Almas feels no conflict about pursuing commercial photography. He puts it this way: "I almost find it easier to do commercial work. In some ways, I consider myself a better craftsman than an artist. It's easier to apply your craftsmanship and your preferences for how you see things within the clients' concepts and framework."
And in dealing with the current economic challenges, Almas has his own game plan for keeping his clients coming back for more. "I think it goes back to the service and the product I deliver, not just from me but from my agents, producers, and assistants," he says. "I like to surround myself with great people — they're a happy crew. I think that inspires great pictures and creates good experiences for my clients. And I listen to my clients and understand what they want."
Life on the road
Despite the fact that Almas is a commercial photographer shooting assignments for corporate clients, he's not the typical studio photographer. He spends most of the year traveling on photographic shoots around the world. In fact, that's the primary attraction for him. "I'm a true sucker for travel," he says with a laugh.
An average year will find Almas crisscrossing the United States several times and making frequent trips to Europe, Asia and Africa. As a point of pride, he notes that he's flown more than 100,000 miles a year for the last four years. He's rappelled down into a 100-foot cave in Alabama, scuba-dived in Hawai'i, hiked into a remote hot spring in Iceland, and been bitten by a poisonous spider while on safari in South Africa.
If you have the right mind-set, he says, travel can be a chance for personal growth. "It's exciting being in a new place, absorbing new cultures and meeting new people," Almas says. "I think travel opens your senses." He adds that being an outsider can be an advantage in travel. Local photographers tend to take their everyday surroundings for granted. "A foreign photographer sees it all with new eyes and is much more excited about it," he says. A lot can be said for seeing things with an open mind and a fresh perspective.
But there is one thing that photographers can never leave behind, and that is their own self — their own style of seeing. It affects the way they observe and photograph any place they visit. "I bring myself into it for sure," Almas says. "I'm not a documentary photographer. I'm really a romantic, and I think that shows in my work. I'm drawn to beautiful, quiet moments. That's how I photograph everything I encounter. It's my truth; it's honest to me and how I see and feel it."
Creating a personal style
Developing an individual point of view is the key to achieving a personal style, one of the biggest goals for any creative person. How do you communicate the essence of yourself in your work?
"People ask me all the time, ‘What do I do to become a photographer, or how do I find my style?'" Almas says. "It's not just finding your style; it's about figuring out who you are, what you're attracted to, and what makes you tick."
Once you figure out who you are and how that shapes your photography, your personal style can make the difference in separating yourself from other photographers. Your work becomes unique. This is good for both you and your clients. "I do have a specific style, so they're not going to come to me and have me shoot something different," Almas says. "They know what they're going to get, but I'm going to listen and apply my flavor to what they want to accomplish. I think that's part of it, too."
Almas' images are informed by his background and influences. Trondheim is about 200 miles from the Arctic Circle and is a land of extremes: long, dark winters of ice and snow, alternating with long, bright summers of a nearly perpetual golden hour. The landscape itself is filled with rugged mountains and glacially carved fjords.
"My aesthetic is Scandinavian, and I realize that more and more as I go along," Almas explains. "My aesthetic is based on the big, quiet landscape, and that comes from my upbringing for sure.
"I think there's a color palette to everything I do," he continues. "There's the icy blue one, and then there's the early morning/late afternoon warm color palette. It's not only those palettes, but my work is fairly monochromatic, and I look for locations that have that quality and pick models to fit that palette, either by contrast or by similarity. Everyone comments about the color in my pictures, and there is a lot of color, but it's usually one set of colors. It makes it more painterly for me."
Even the composition of his photographs is a reflection of Almas and his upbringing, capturing grace and serenity in every image. "I find it hard to accept disorder in my pictures," he says. "Everything is perfectly composed and crafted. I try to get away from that sometimes, but it's who I am. I'm attracted to quietness and peace. There's a longing for that in my pictures."
In both Almas' fashion photography and his advertising work — the two main types of his commercial photography — it's the painterly aspects of digital photography that appeal to him. "Instead of documenting what was there, you can create a new reality," he says. "I think it's an amazing thing to take a picture here and a picture there and assemble a new one. I shoot a lot of my pictures in pieces.
I add skies and move things around. I think digital allows you to create pictures more so than just taking [a photograph]." Even the long panorama compositions common in his images are the result of stitching together two or three separate frames.
His series of surreal train images for Amtrak illustrates his working methods perfectly, whether it's shooting on location or in the studio. Some of the finished images contain both studio and location elements.
"If you look at the Amtrak pictures, we go up in a helicopter and we shoot the background," he says. "Then we shoot still lifes to fit into the background, and then we shoot the trains to fit that. You can't really move the trains because they're on tracks, so you've got to move a cherry-picker for every angle of the train that you need. Every job has its own technical and mental challenges. The biggest challenge on the Amtrak assignment was making sure all the pieces fit together."
Almas enjoys the flexibility of the digital medium. "I definitely rely in my conceptual or advertising work on Photoshop and capturing different parts of the image at different times — sometimes not at different times, but at different exposures a few minutes apart," he says. "I can capture the background, super sharp, for four seconds at f/32 or something like that. Then I can put a person running through the landscape and I can do that with a smaller camera, like a 35mm digital, and shoot that at 1/500th of a second and freeze that person. I couldn't do that with the four-second exposure for the background. So everything is there at the same time and in the same light, but it's exposed differently so I can capture the best of both things. I don't have to sacrifice depth of field or motion for the person."
Fashion and portraits
When it comes to his fashion and portrait images, Almas works in a similar way. The images with the models in the museum dioramas are good examples. The models were photographed in his studio after he'd already captured the diorama images, which were from natural history museums in San Francisco and Philadelphia. Then the models were seamlessly composited into the scenes with the taxidermied animals. In these images, Almas is careful to maintain a visual balance between the model and her slightly surreal surroundings.
In Almas' portraits, he takes the idea of balancing the person and the background even further. Almas says of the subjects in his portraits, "I like them being part of the bigger thing, and not be[ing] the thing. I like to shoot people in a balanced way so that everything works together, rather than it being just a person. I like to think it's about both the person and the place."
He hesitates and adds, "I've got to show my landscape first, though. That's how I shoot a lot of my portraits."
The key to building an image from so many different parts is careful planning and having a clear plan of attack — being able to previsualize the final image. "When it comes down to it, it's all angles and light, you know," he adds. "The thing that I never really do is shoot random pictures and then sit down at the computer and try to stick them together. I always have a picture in my mind first and then shoot the pieces I need to make that happen. That's really important."
In Erik Almas' view, no matter how far from home he travels or where he sets up his camera, he always has the most important tool at hand, more essential than any hardware or software: himself.
In a time of mass-produced and cloned goods, he embraces and recognizes the worth of his own point of view. "Sometimes I look at other people's pictures and get inspired," he says. "But no matter what I do, it always ends up looking like me. I can't really fight it."
There's a short pause and Almas adds, "I'm just really happy to be working." And when he says it, you know he means it.
IN THE LOUPE: Erik Almas
Home and Studio: San Francisco, with a month and a half spent in Norway each year (erikalmas.com).
Awards: Photo District News, featured as one of "30 Emerging Artists to Watch" in 2004; Photo District News – Photo Annual 2003 through 2007; Photo District News – PDN Pix 2007 through 2009; Communication Arts Photo Annual 2004 through 2006; Luerzer's Archive – 200 Best Advertising Photographers Worldwide 2007 and 2010; American Photography 2010; Graphis Photo Annual 2010 – Cover Photo; more than 20 Addy Awards.
Selected Clients: Nike, Puma, Pfizer, Neutrogena, Hyatt, Waldorf, Citibank, Toyota, Lantus, Advair, U.S. Postal Service, Adobe, Amtrak, Brides magazine, Golf Pride, Kaiser Permanente, Microsoft, Bristol Myers, Sorel.
Preferred Cameras: Canon 1Ds Mark III, Contax 645 with a Phase One P25 Plus back, Linhof Technika with a mix of Schneider lenses. His favorites are the older and somewhat rare lenses, the Schneider Xenotar 150mm and the Xenotar 135mm lenses.
Personal Projects: A continuing series of nudes, a series of "Falling Women" images that came from a dream, and working with a series of storytelling images based on books such as Jack Kerouac's "On the Road."
Hobbies: Off-road biking ("totally intoxicating"), sailing and wine making.
Advice for aspiring photographers: "Always be taking pictures and then start marketing those right away. The intimidation of not being good enough should be ignored, and you should start putting your pictures out there for people to see. And that applies to fine arts or photojournalism."
When to shoot: "When you're going to shoot in the afternoon, then you have four hours to prepare. It's so much easier to shoot in the afternoon, because the sun gets lower and lower and the light gets better. In the morning, it starts off good and then it gets worse and worse. [In the morning] you can't position yourself in better light; you have to get it right away."