Blue Earth
Glazer's Camera

Louie Psihoyos: In Search of the Iconic

When Louie Psihoyos is asked to illustrate a big concept, such as the mega-channelled future of cable TV for a 1995 National Geographic shoot, he takes the assignment literally. This composite image, using multiple exposures of 100 TV monitors, was recently used in an AOL ad and sells a dozen or more times per month. When Louie Psihoyos is asked to illustrate a big concept, such as the mega-channelled future of cable TV for a 1995 National Geographic shoot, he takes the assignment literally. This composite image, using multiple exposures of 100 TV monitors, was recently used in an AOL ad and sells a dozen or more times per month.
© Louie Psihoyos/Science Faction Images

Made famous by his work in National Geographic, Psihoyos also is known for his elaborate photo shoots and for creating images that stand the test of time.

"Iconic" is one of Louie Psihoyos' favorite watchwords. Not to be confused with "ironic," even though he might find that slip of the tongue agreeably appropriate when it comes to some of his more memorable portraits or pictorial vignettes. Pretty much every Psihoyos image, however, is memorable in some way, and many of them have, indeed, become photographic icons since he began his career more than three decades ago.

Psihoyos (drop the "P" and think "sequoias") is among that lucky breed of professionals who have found truth in the maxim, "Do what you love and the money will follow." The 47-year-old photographer lives in Boulder, Colo., and enjoys a thriving income from stock images accumulated through a huge backlog of assignments and visual obsessions over the past three decades.

He has shot hundreds of covers for national magazines such as Fortune, but perhaps his best-known work has appeared in National Geographic, where he spent 17 years creating photo essays that accompanied some of the magazine's most celebrated features. Since then, he's built a reputation as an extremely successful portraitist and commercial lensman by bestowing singular dedication to his subject, be it an SUV, a CEO, a bunch of dinosaur bones or actor Paul Newman. He has conducted dozens of speaking engagements and lectures about his work, which hangs in museums around the world and has won him countless accolades.

As an interview subject, Psihoyos is chatty and personable, and who can blame him? Few people can say that they've hobnobbed with Hollywood celebrities, visited the world's most exotic locations for free, had fossilized dinosaur embryos named after them, lived on Caribbean islands or married former professional ballerinas.

Although he lives a seemingly charmed life, Psihoyos says that getting to this point had required loads of hard work. "To do what you have to do as a photographer is not a 9-to-5 job, it's more like 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week," he says.

He views each long workday as an adventure that he can't wait to get started on — a philosophy that drives his successful career. "Every cell of your body has to be aligned so that you're making the best possible image," he says.

All that he touches…

In true Psihoyos fashion, even his early experiences seemed gilded with a little magic. One of his favorite cocktail-party anecdotes is about how he got his photographic education paid for by "Goldfinger." The morning-after version is that his scholarship was actually provided by a wealthy businessman named Joseph Ehrenreich, who dabbled in shady gold investments and also was a major distributor for Nikon. (Ehrenreich reportedly was the real-life inspiration for the title character in Ian Fleming's James Bond classic.)

Growing up in his native Dubuque, Iowa, Psihoyos, the son of Greek immigrants, developed a childhood passion for art, which evolved into a love of photography in his teenage years. After winning some youth photo contests and the scholarship, he studied photojournalism at the prestigious University of Missouri.

During college, Psihoyos worked at the Los Angeles Times and several other newspapers, shooting various human-interest stories, such as the pet of the week. He also submitted his work to National Geographic, hoping for one of the two coveted internships that the magazine offered every year — one chosen on the basis of a portfolio, the other reserved for the winner of the annual College Photographer of the Year contest.

He first tried submitting a portfolio, but it was rejected. Returned with the rejection, however, was a rare handwritten note from the magazine's director of photography, Bob Gilka. "He told me that internships were for people who aren't good enough to work yet," Psihoyos says. "He said, ‘You're good enough to get a real job, so go into the marketplace and get started.'" Undeterred and a bit humbled, Psihoyos took the second option by entering the Photographer of the Year contest and won first place in all seven of the judged categories. Needless to say, he got the internship.Inside the yellow border
During his nearly 20-year tenure at National Geographic, Psihoyos developed his eye for iconography with a number of photo essays that were distinctive, artistic and even historic.

{jb_quote_left}When I take a picture, I'm not just thinking about making a day rate on it, I'm thinking about something that's...going to be valuable generations or eons from now.{/jb_quoteleft}"National Geographic was relentlessly positive about any subject in those days," he says. "They went to South Africa and made it look like a pleasant place to live. It was almost laughable, their optimistic view of the world. As a lark, my friend Bill Douthitt and I would come up with our own morbid fantasy stories, like, ‘Our Friend the Maggot: Life Goes On in a Corpse.' In that spirit, I proposed a story about garbage and trash."

The resulting story, penned by senior writer Peter White and published in the April 1983 issue, was, "The Fascinating World of Trash," which gave Psihoyos his first notable essay piece and ultimately helped the term "garbology" gain entry to the "Oxford English Dictionary" and "Encyclopedia Britannica."

"Now National Geographic didn't quite know what to do with me," he says. "My internship was over; they liked what I had done; I had a story published in a special issue of the magazine, so Gilka hired me — the first guy they had hired in about 11 years."

For several years he lived and worked in New York City, where he met his wife, Viki Bromberg-Psihoyos, a dancer with George Balanchine's New York City Ballet. The couple had two children, Nico and Sam, and then moved to the island of Antigua for several years.

In 1993, and again in a three-issue series in 1996, Psihoyos devoted himself and a huge National Geographic budget to researching and documenting the field of paleontology, a theme he returned to many times at the magazine. While living in the Caribbean, Psihoyos worked with writer John Knoebber to co-author his first book, "Hunting Dinosaurs" (Random House, 1994), about his travels with National Geographic.

His singular dedication to the subject not only resulted in some of the magazine's most popular issues, but also got him some unofficial recognition in the dinosaur-hunting community. His photograph of a model of a fully articulated dinosaur hatchling still in its shell inspired paleontologists Charlie and Florence McGovern to name the newfound specimen "Baby Louie" in his honor. The photograph was featured on the cover of the May 1996 issue.

Chasing the ethereal

Psihoyos has a reputation for setups that are expensive and take massive amounts of effort. The lengths to which he would go to physically construct complex or other-worldly scenes are astonishing, especially to today's photographers unfamiliar with the digital Dark Ages, before the advent of Photoshop.

"Some of the things you remember because they're just logistical nightmares," he says. "I have to treat these people and situations with some degree of proficiency, so sometimes I end up astounding myself that I was able to pull off something so stupid."

Psihoyos says that he consciously tries to make pictures that are iconic. "The pictures [of mine] that people tend to remember come from me seeing something really bizarre," he says.

Sometimes the complicated-looking shots are really quite simple. His famous "1,000 TVs" photograph, which still shows up in advertising spreads 10 years later, is one such simple yet insanely executed shot that comes to mind. "What I try to do is just not let go of the dream until it's done," he says.

Psihoyos did his own extensive investigation on sleep for a National Geographic feature, "What Is This Thing Called Sleep?" The subject always has obsessed him and has been a major factor in his creative process. "I'm very in tune with my dream state," he says. "One thing I learned about sleep when I went to the Stanford sleep clinic is that your brain is a lot more active when you're asleep than when you're awake."

As part of his working ritual, Psihoyos keeps a pad of paper next to his bed to write down his dreams. One of his most famous and enigmatic images, "Deja Blue," was inspired in this way. The eerie, blue-washed photo shows a man suspended above a bed, tied by his feet to a birdcage and by his wrists to a flock of seagulls winging toward an open window. The shot was done without digital manipulation and reflects the zeal that Psihoyos brings to the implementation of his studio setups, be they based in reality or, as in this case, dreams.

He is also drawn to the challenge of illustrating intangible subjects through photography. For an article called "The Intimate Sense of Smell," Psihoyos captured a row of female lab technicians with their noses poised expertly against the raised bare underarms of a corresponding rank of faceless male volunteers. Now the stuff of novelty greeting cards and unending stock image royalties, Psihoyos once remarked of the shot, "Although the armpit-testers themselves told me they loved their jobs, the picture has become an icon of sorts for miserable jobs."

According to his longtime friend and former National Geographic colleague Roger Ressmeyer, Psihoyos always clung to the sense that anything was possible in his work for the magazine. Psihoyos, he says, taught himself to think like a famous, seasoned pro with nearly unlimited budgets from the very beginning.

"All the National Geographic photographers (I've) ever talked to were jealous of Louie's humongous budgets," says Ressmeyer, himself a photographer and founder of Science Faction Images (www.sciencefaction.net), a stock agency that focuses mainly on scientific exploration and high technology. "The only other people who got those kinds of budgets were guys doing underwater shots with deep rover submarines. But it wasn't just expenses that made it happen; he was able to envision how to use money effectively to achieve remarkable ends."

Copyright woes

Not that Psihoyos would ever consider his time at National Geographic a miserable job, but as the technology of professional photojournalism has changed, his view of the company has dimmed. Psihoyos says he recently won a hard-fought nine-year-long battle over copyright infringements that illustrates the challenges facing newcomers and industry veterans, alike.

"At National Geographic, I owned my own material after it was published," he says. "The copyrights were assigned back to me. I had some pretty powerful contracts there, but it felt like, if I was working 16 to 18 hours a day on a job, seven days a week, that if I owned the work and the rights revert back to me, that was the payoff. It's not like I was just punching the clock and getting a paycheck."

Psihoyos' legal battle began with the release of "The Complete National Geographic" on CD-ROM in 1997. Like many contracts familiar to pros, Psihoyos' clearly stated: "One-time North American print on paper rights only, with no electronic rights granted." The CD set was a clear violation, and not just for Psihoyos.

"They released this CD anyway all over the world, and they also made it into clip art," he says. "I told them, ‘If you do that, I'm going to have to sue you because this is my life's work.' That was the hardest part of this whole thing — to work so hard for people that I adore and have this happen."

Psihoyos won a federal court ruling, saying that National Geographic had violated his copyrights, and he is now seeking damages. However, the overall issue of electronic copyright is "still muddled," he says, following the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to review an appeallate decision that upheld the magazine's position.

Watching your back is not something a photographer has to do with just one magazine. "Trying to defend this stuff in the Internet world is really difficult," Psihoyos says. "It happens quite a bit that people steal my work. I could spend my life in litigation if I want. As it is, I keep three teams of lawyers busy on it right now."

To younger professional photographers, Psihoyos warns that intellectual property theft is just one of a thousand aspects of the profession that are irritating and expensive. "You're generally getting paid for one-time use, and what I see is a lot of people working for nothing," he says. "They're taking day rates that won't sustain their rights right now, much less sustain them over a long period of time. It's a very, very, very expensive profession."

The price of digital

Psihoyos should know a thing or two about rising costs; having the latest photo equipment is another of his trademarks.
"I was always a big fan of shooting the biggest format and the best film I could, so I always traveled with an array of stuff," he says. "I had a Sinar 4x5, a Mamiya two-and-a-quarter if I wanted to shoot verticals for a cover — it gave you a little more space than Hasselblad's [square format]. I also traveled with a Hasselblad, and, for 35mm, I used a Nikon."
Today, he has "pretty much ditched everything" for the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II 16.7-megapixel camera. "It's a great overall generic camera that's not going to cost you an arm and a leg."

He's not exactly sad to see it go, but there is a wistfulness that comes over Psihoyos when he talks about film stock. "I think I was the last person in the world to be using Kodachrome," he says."I used it simply because it lasted longer. As a photographer I'm all about longevity. When I take a picture, I'm not just thinking about making a day rate on it, I'm thinking about something that's going into my library and going to be valuable generations or eons from now. It may sound egotistical, but I like to think that my stuff's going to survive the ages.

"With the digital cameras, I was not an early adopter, and I tend not to be because it's too expensive," he adds. "It used to be [that] my Nikons would last 15 years before they came out with a new generation. Now you have to do it every two years, and the cameras cost three to four times more."

It's a (good) living

It's certainly not all bad news, however. After all, enough photographers make very good livings, even with all the legal and monetary woes. "What I like to tell newcomers is that there're about 30,000 working photographers in Manhattan," Psihoyos says. "Those are people who, by their IRS statements, are making a living and are profitable, and a lot of them are pretty damn good."

Success in photography can be attributed mostly to planning and visualization rather than serendipity, he says. Even in his early days, he would take small commercial assignments as seriously as he would high-concept art.

A portrait of wackiness

In addition to his scientific and conceptual portfolios, Psihoyos enjoys the madcap character that can emerge in portrait photography. " Portrait photography is amazing if you can do that kind of work all the time. You only need to do 10 of those in a lifetime to make a living, because it's so incredibly lucrative," he says.

For the 1995 National Geographic feature, "Information Revolution," Psihoyos perched Microsoft chief Bill Gates in a sling 55 feet above a forest floor on a stack of paper to demonstrate the volume of information that could be stored at that time on one CD-ROM disc. "It was high enough off the ground to kill him if something went wrong," he says.

"I would go out and take a picture of a businessman, or a house, or some other throwaway thing," he says. "But I would wait until the light was right, I'd light the house, I'd do it professionally and use every opportunity as a way to get better at my profession, not as an excuse to say, ‘God, when National Geographic finally hires me then I'll become just the artist I want to become.' You have to give of yourself 200 percent in everything you do; then the right people find you like a beacon."

Whether Psihoyos is doing a photo essay or making portraits of industrial titans, as he did at Fortune magazine for five years, his first step is collecting as much information as he can. He's seen way too many photographers who rely on assistants, magazine staff or bad writers to do the research. "It's not very encouraging news for young photographers really, but we're seeing fewer and fewer magazines that are dedicated to photojournalism in the traditional sense," he says.

Psihoyos' advice is to use your brain, and if you have talent, all the better. "You have to pitch your own ideas that are visual, even if the assignment is, ‘Give me a good shot of this shoe.' That's sort of a crossover that a lot of people don't make. You have to think like a journalist or essayist, with a beginning, middle and end."

"I've had my advertising portfolios, but I've been relatively unsuccessful in terms of wanting to make money from it," he says. "But even now, my stock stuff is used in national and international ads every month. Dove just ran a huge international ad — these are pictures I did, one from 10 years ago, the other 20 years ago. I think it was always because I was trying to make stuff evergreen that they still have legs."

Observing the changing face of the stock photojournalism industry, Psihoyos says, "I was always of the school of being with the smaller, more creative boutique agencies, like Contact Press or Matrix and now Science Faction," he says. "But you can't deny the power and the reach of the big boys. I always did really well with the small agencies until they started going bankrupt."

"Nowadays you'd say, ‘Stick the richest guy in the world way up high on a thick stack of paper? Are you nuts?' Well, yeah, I am nuts," he admits. "But that stuff becomes iconic; it becomes something that people remember. That's the key for me. It's having a wacky sense of humor and realizing that that wacky sense of humor often comes through the back door."
Ressmeyer credits most of that back-door liveliness to Psihoyos' individuality. "Louie doesn't do it by being pushy," he says. "Louie does it by being extremely winsome. Louie has a gift for drawing people into his projects."

Being a celebrity photographer is another label that Psihoyos has earned, sort of by accident. When Sylvester Stallone was in his home town of Dubuque shooting the union-busting period drama "F.I.S.T." in 1978, the 17-year-old got himself a bit part — as a photographer — and struck up a friendship with the star. His quintessential Stallone portrait is one of the earliest in his professional portfolio.

From then on, he had an "in" shooting portraits of the Hollywood elite. Paul Newman remains a close friend, and Psihoyos' children are pals with Steven Spielberg's. "I don't really consider myself a celebrity photographer; it just sort of worked out that way," he says. "But most of my portraits from the last decade have been celebrities of the business world, like Jim Clarke, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Paul Allen, Larry Ellison and folks like that."

As Psihoyos' reputation in the entertainment industry grew, Paul Newman began specifically requesting him on several occasions. He shot several posters gratis for Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall foundation, which funds a free camp for seriously ill children.

An oceanic odyssey

The research to which Psihoyos is devoting himself now is nothing short of global philanthropy — with a shot at making a few bucks besides. "I'm doing what's probably going to be a 10-year project on the world's oceans," he says. "I'm shooting stills and video in an underwater documentary and applying the same principles of intense planning and study. I've been doing nothing but research to put together this nonprofit to launch an expedition. It's the same footwork that any journalist, any in-depth book researcher does."

Psihoyos' interest in the project began when he photographed Netscape and Silicon Graphics founder Jim Clark in the late 1990s. The two became close friends and embarked on diving and sailing expeditions.

"Over the years, we started discovering the huge loss of fish and sea critters all over the place," he says. "I said, ‘Gosh, somebody's got to do something about this.' He said, ‘You know, I'll set you up in business. We'll start a nonprofit. You can change careers a little bit, do underwater documentaries and books to help save the oceans.'"

The result is the Oceanic Preservation Society, an organization that Psihoyos created last year, to which he plans on devoting himself full time. "Right now, I'm essentially declining all other work," he says. "I want to focus on something that is bigger than myself, so that when I go to work, I'm trying to save the oceans, I'm not just trying to pay the rent. What I've found is that when I've been true to my visions, the money follows in ridiculous amounts. I cannot wait to wake up in the morning and start my life, and I've been doing this for 30-some-odd years."

It's a pretty safe bet that the permanence of Louie Psihoyos' place in the pantheon of American photography is assured. "My eye has always been toward making art or making statements," he says.

"It's not that big a jump between good and great if you keep your ideals really high," Psihoyos adds. "People who may be more astute and are following the market are probably making more money if that's their criteria for success, but I want stuff that's going to last 200 years, not 20 years."

When I take a picture, I'm not just thinking about making a day rate on it, I'm thinking about something that's...going to be valuable generations or eons from now.

IN THE LOUPE: Louie Psihoyos

International Stock Agents: Grazia Neri (Italy); AGE Fotostock (Spain); Cosmos (France); Focus (Germany); Katz Pictures (England); Pacific Press Service (Japan); INA Agency Press (Sweden); Hollandse Hoogte Photoagency (The Netherlands); and Foton Imagia Agencja Fotograficzna (Poland).

Equipment: Almost exclusively the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, what he calls "the Porsche of digital cameras." He sold all his film equipment on eBay in the summer of 2005. "I was actually surprised you could still get money for your film cameras," he says.

Upcoming trips: Japan, the Galápagos Islands, Australia, the Mediterranean and points everywhere — all to create still and video documentation for his nonprofit organization, the Oceanic Preservation Society.

Books and Exhibitions: "Hunting Dinosaurs," about his extensive work with paleontologists for frequent National Geographic essays, and "Hyperion," an oversized, limited-edition document on Netscape co-founder Jim Clark's 155-foot yacht, which has a 192-foot carbon fiber mast (the world's largest). Psihoyos also was one of seven contributors to Peter Menzel's "Material World" book and traveling show, featuring families around the world surrounded by their material possessions.

Major influence: The mid-20th century imagery of W. Eugene Smith. "He hits on a lot of cylinders for me," he says. "He's got a great sense of light, and he's passionate about his subjects." Psihoyos' favorite Smith pictures include "The Country Doctor" and "Spanish Village," but most meaningful to him are Smith's photographs showing the aftermath of a mercury-poisoning incident in Minamata, Japan.

Advice for up-and-comers: "If there's anything specific that's come out of the digital world, it is that it's become easier and easier to take bad pictures," he says. "In photojournalism school, they don't teach you how to take great pictures; they don't tell you how to light. Most of what I learned about lighting and taking pictures in general came from reading books and watching films shot by great cinematographers."

Website: psihoyos.com

Ted Fry
Story Author: Ted Fry

Ted Fry is a freelance writer living in Seattle.

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