Known mostly for his polished corporate studio work, this Seattle pro is finding wealth and happiness by focusing on the small, rough-edged details.
Doug Landreth has been a studio pro for 25 years, often specializing in large production projects in his big, flashy Seattle studio. Recently, however, he's gone small scale, photographing bugs and flowers and turning them into highly textured fine-art prints. Better still, he's making some money with this new work while striving to please only one person: himself.
If that sideline sounds like a prescription for happiness and satisfaction for a harried photo pro with high overhead, well, Landreth couldn't agree more.
Inspired by the textures he had seen and photographed during a trip to Mexico four years ago, he began compositing images in his free time. "It's usually me in my easy chair with a glass of wine, a Sonics game on TV and my laptop and Wacom tablet," he explains. The results, Landreth says, are a "very satisfying counterpoint to the 'studio perfection' work I've been doing for 25 years."
A fine art
This new direction that Landreth has chosen is about creating images that look like anything but pure photography. "People mistake the physical prints for paintings because of the depth and texture," he says.
Experimenting with surfaces is nothing new for this Seattle-area innovator. Landreth has been combining images, with a focus on textures, for a long time, painstakingly placing masks made from Polaroid transfers and other elements in front of his 4×5 view-camera film holders to create unusual, pre-digital images.
It was a lot of work. "My life got a lot easier with Photoshop," he quips.
It got faster, too. Suddenly, the images and, importantly, the lovingly made prints began to stack up. Landreth realized that he'd have to market the work or find a new warehouse to hold it.
Fortunately, his niece, Molly Landreth, had recently graduated from New York's School of Visual Arts with a master's degree in fine-art photography, and he put her to work as head of his fine-art and stock division.
Within the last 18 months, Landreth has signed on with the Seattle-based fine-art publisher Grand Image (which focuses on the interior design, hospitality and poster markets), with the Wall Space gallery in Seattle and with Corbis for stock. Molly Landreth also is busy placing his work in juried exhibitions and selling images. (For more information, see douglandreth.com.)
So far, the fine-art work — a minor but steadily growing portion of Landreth's income — is balancing out the scales of his professional life.
"The fine-art work keeps me sane," he says. "I have no one to please but myself. In the ad world, the final say often inches up the chain of command until it reaches the least-qualified person. I'll have a great rapport with the AD during the sessions, only to find out later there's a problem because the CEO's wife hates green!"
While the fine-art work hasn't had any noticeable impact on his approach to his bread-and-butter studio work, Landreth now includes samples of his more textured images in everything he sends to prospective clients. "It shows another dimension of what I do," he explains.
It also doesn't hurt to have another income stream, especially these days. Landreth is well established and so hasn't been hurt by the recent industry trends he's observed. "Studio and ad work is losing ground to the trend of agencies hiring digital artists to create ads using cheap stock images," Landreth notes. "And, of course, assignment work continues to lose ground to stock in general."
Landreth has nurtured his love of textural images for decades. "I'm fascinated by the patina of aging," he says. "Abraded paint, old metal, faded paper — I shoot it all." The work is fun and "very fulfilling. I like creating it, and people are enjoying it. All the feedback has been positive."
In fact, two of his flower shots, "Gerbera Daisy" and "Protea," were key images on display at last year's PhotoPlus Expo at New York's Javits Center. At the show, "Protea" was displayed in mural form, measuring roughly 20 by 30 feet, at center stage in the hall, while "Gerbera Daisy" hung as a 6-by-10-foot banner outside.
Landreth's fine-art work started to take off after he attended a four-day portfolio review at Photolucida in Portland, Ore. During the event, participants can show work to dozens of museum curators, gallery owners and fine-art publishers in five-minute sessions. "I came back from Photolucida with encouragement," he says.
The layered look
Landreth's fine-art work typically consists of a half-dozen or more images that are overlaid using various masks in Photoshop. "Gerbera Daisy," for example, has six layers that he can easily identify. The yellow background immediately surrounding the daisy image is a blank Polaroid transfer, with the chemical pods clearly visible at the top. The green in the background behind the Polaroid transfer is from the surface of an old Chinese trunk. Other elements include an old book cover, translucent paper and scratched acetate.
Recent work from a trip to China highlights the painterly nature of the work. "Bamboo Raft" achieves a masterly and haunting effect via a Chinese scroll in the background, which adds texture above the dramatic mountain peaks along the Li River. Other textural elements in the image include the corner of an old book cover.
Landreth's iconic image of a lakeside house actually features the rental property in which he and his wife stayed while he attended a digital imaging seminar given by John Paul Caponigro in Maine. The image combines two shots of the house taken at sunrise, with one exposed for the front of the house and the other for the brighter sky and water detail. The main textural element is an old scratched blackboard.
I'm fascinated by the patina of aging. Abraded paint, old metal, faded paper — I shoot it all.
- Doug Landreth
In fact, a print of "33," depicting a thorny stick bug, was bought by a man for his wife as an anniversary present. That image takes on a complex beauty that pulls in the viewer, thanks to Landreth's smart, intriguing use of "strange draw- ings" that he'd photographed at the University of Washington's old book room. (The tiny insects typically have to be photographed three times — top, middle and bottom — and then combined, so that depth of focus is maintained.
Landreth, a longtime view-camera worker, now makes his images with costly high-resolution digital gear: Canon 1Ds Mark II 16.7-megapixel, full-frame SLRs, along with Fuji 680 and Hasselblad medium-format cameras that are fitted with a Phase One H25 25-megapixel back.
He's fussy with his printing, too. The prints, he says, have to be seen in person to truly appreciate the layered nature of the work. He uses Arches Infinity textured watercolor paper on an Epson 9800 inkjet printer. Prints receive an archival protective coating and an archival lacquer treatment.
Landreth admits that he's a dinosaur, one of the few people left with his own big studio and a full-time staff. His studio encompasses 5,000 square feet with two stages, one with a 30-by-30-foot cyclorama. His staff of five includes two photographers who shoot corporate and catalog work. His clients include Adobe, Amazon, Eddie Bauer, Getty Industries, Hewlett-Packard, Kenworth Trucks, the Port of Seattle, Starbucks and Sun Microsystems, among others.
With the big studio and the even bigger corporate clients, it's understandable that smaller, fine-art work is a welcome relief for this leading pro. His love of shooting textural images has prompted some strange reactions, however.
Landreth recently was in a world-class Chinese garden in Beijing when the cracked white paint on the side wall of the restroom shack caught his attention.
"We'd just arrived and made a pit stop, and I saw the lovely cracks in the paint and I started shooting it," he recalls. "The group knew I was a pro from my camera gear, and a woman said to me, 'I know you're a professional photographer, so you might want to turn your camera around. All the pretty stuff is over here.'"
Eric Rudolph is a New York City-based photography writer who has written for leading photographic publications since 1994. A lifelong photographer (whose first camera was a half-frame Olympus Pen scale focuser), Rudolph works in his traditional black-and-white darkroom as often as possible.