Whether you're perusing the 53 dreamlike models and dancers in his latest photo book, The Apparitions, or marveling at the blur of a snarling attack dog in a recent ad he shot for Sony Playstation, there's no denying that R. J. Muna's photos make the pulse quicken. Less clear is how his wispy images gather so much force from such ethereal foundations.
In Muna's latest book, says photographer Owen Edwards, "What Muna wanted to track down wasn't just the spirits that flit through our dreams, both waking and sleeping, but whatever it was that brought them up from the depths."
Throughout his career, says Edwards, "Muna has created photographic versions of these invented glimpses, pictures that offer unrelated elements with an implausible balance, shifting back and forth between reality and surreality. These pictures of 'indecisive moments' led him to go further to consider the kind of glimpses that are entirely within the mind, seen only (and only occasionally) by the mind's eye."
By always balancing his fine-art training with a quest to capture a fleeting glimpse of a subject's inner self, Muna has long made a specialty of creating artistic images that serve the commercial client while deeply stirring the soul.
It may appear at first glance that Muna has traveled far in his creative journey, especially when one considers that on one of his first jobs out of college he shot product photos of computers for IBM. But such a conclusion misses the essence of his work.
Muna's Big Blue period
Muna began his professional career shooting street demonstrations in Berkeley at age 16, in the waning years of the Vietnam era. The protests were just a few miles from his current studio. The images he captured were not so far from the style he practices today. From the time he first picked up his father's 35mm camera when he was 13, he has strived to capture images of ideas rather than instances in time.
It was 1976 before Muna began paying the bills as a lensman, following his graduation from San Jose State University with a fine arts degree. Among his first clients was IBM.
"Back then the thinking was that computers were sort of cold and inhuman," says Muna. IBM wanted to use his gritty street photo style to help humanize a new device called the personal computer. Rather than shooting stills of the computers, he went down to IBM's offices and photographed people actually using them and talking about them. It was a perfect early assignment for an artist more intent on exploring the interplay of themes than on recording the soul of a machine.
A year later, Muna opened his own studio to service the growing high-tech industry around San Jose, an area that soon became known as Silicon Valley. He adapted his style to a variety of catalog and corporate clients through the remainder of the decade. As he struggled to build his clientele, he realized another thing he would have to adapt: his first name.
Born Raja John Muna, he found that clients unfamiliar with his Arabic first name regularly called him "Roger." He took on the moniker R. J. for his professional work, creating a nickname that has stuck to this day.
Muna spent the 1980s doing commercial work, moving up to a 12,000-square-foot studio in San Francisco from Palo Alto in 1989. He says he spent the first few years in San Francisco learning how to use his larger studio as a powerful new tool in his work. In 1992, a turning point came when a Los Angeles art director sought him out to develop a new image for Lexus.
"I really didn't shoot cars previous to that," says Muna. "I had a client come to me and say, 'I don't want a car photographer, I want somebody to look at these cars in a different way.'
"At that time, car photography had become a fairly stagnant thing. They would take a giant soft box and throw it over a car, and that was it.
"We brought the cars into the studio and began to light them and play with them. I suppose that's what they were looking for. Since then I have been doing a couple of car shots a year. That's a major evolution from the old studio, where I could not have done this kind of work."
The second big step came in the mid-1990s, when Muna joined the digital revolution. It was just as Apple's Power Mac hit the market, he says.
"I stood on the sidelines until that computer came out. It allowed me to make digital images at the resolution I needed. Slowly that has taken over the industry. Just as designers have had to become typesetters, photographers have had to become retouchers."
For his part, Muna has welcomed the transformation of his business.
"It makes a lot of sense to be able to retouch your own work. You know how shadows are supposed to fall. But the biggest change is the ability to conceive pictures that you couldn't just take in one shot. Before the computer, the limitations of darkroom processes defined how creative you could be. If all I had was a 35 mm Leica with Tri-X, I would think of pictures in that context.
"Now," Muna says, "the boundaries have moved much further out. Images have become so much more conceptual in nature. This new tool allows you to create in different ways, and sometimes think in different ways."
A case in point is his composite photo of the General Motors electric car. "With that EV-1 shot, we could decide to do the floor separately. It turned out easier to do it that way than construct a big floor. Ten or 12 years ago it would have been easier to just build the floor.
"In the beginning when other people were executing the digital work, it looked clumsy, it didn't look right because they weren't seeing it with a trained eye.
"That's what the photographers doing their own digital work bring. When conceiving and assembling these images, you need the eye of the photographer and not the eye of the computer specialist, who tends to be very technically oriented.
"The transitional issue is that photographers may be more adept at lighting. They may not yet be technically adept, but that will change."
Though many high-end studio photographers are still outsourcing their digital scanning and retouching, Muna sees that as a mistake.
"There are a couple of things which tend to make me buck that trend. I have always had a black-and-white darkroom. Black-and-white is so subjective, it's a mistake to outsource it. I also have a full-time black-and-white printer on staff, for the same reason. He shows me a wet print, and we talk about it.
"I feel like that with digital as well." A lot of the digital work we do is extraordinarily subjective.
"I have two people here that are full-time digital people. They do all of the scanning, cleanup and retouching, and some of the composite work. We couldn't get all this work done if it was outsourced. I have to be here looking over their shoulders, talking to them. And I sit down at the computer regularly and do a lot of the work myself."
If there has been a major change in his business over the last few years, says Muna, it is the turnaround time demanded by his clients.
"It used to be we could send out for a transparency from a digital file. That took 48 hours, but that just got to be too much time on a lot of jobs. So we had to bring a film recorder in-house. Now we can do it in a couple of hours.
"We do lay out a lot of cash to bring it in-house. There are areas that are profit centers. When you lay out a huge amount for a scanner, you do charge for scanning. But that is just a matter of the scanner paying for itself.
"Most of the decisions about gearing up in any area of the business are about saving time. The gear allows us to not panic, and go home at a decent hour, and have a good life."
During the last decade, Muna's client base has grown from regional to national and international in scope. Logging images for a wider variety of high-tech, auto and electronics firms, he now counts Levi Strauss, Infinity, Sony, Intel, AT&T, Lexus and Panasonic among his many clients.
"I've always felt that my skills were developed in commercial work," says Muna. "You shoot a few years of commercial photography and you can light anything. It frees you up to think about the message of the image, and not about the technical aspect of the work."
As he expanded the types of clients he serviced, Muna found it necessary to focus on a few distinctive styles.
"In the commercial field, you are almost forced to do one thing," says Muna. "When you become a food photographer, the market will not let you shoot anything else. It's been a huge struggle in my career to not get known for one thing—as the car guy, or the food guy. When you think of musicians, you think of rock, or country. And if the person wants to do both, your brain just won't take it."
To combat this, Muna says he will turn away new clients that want him to produce work in a style he has already explored. "Some car projects I've turned down, where there was nothing new to be said. You may give up a lot of money to do that. If you get into this business, and you feel it is all about the money, I think you have got the wrong perspective. Then you are market driven, not concept driven."
With a portfolio as diverse in subject and devoid of branding as Muna's, the line between fine-art and commercial work can be a subtle one. Muna sees the purpose of the photo, not its creative elements, as the deciding factor.
"You are always trying to make the commercial work be creative as possible," he says. "The only difference between fine-art work and commercial work is with commercial work, you have to do it right the first time.
"It's like, Tuesday at 2 o'clock and you have to make a great picture. With commercial work, they have to see it the next morning. It's the pressure of performing on command. The message is from outside: 'They say we need to say this.' The fine-art work is generally from within."
Studio and staff
Within the walls of his 12,000-square-foot studio, Muna and nine staffers have ample room to explore fine-art and commercial concepts. With its 7,500-square-foot shooting space, the remodeled lumber mill can hold several productions at one time. Roll-up doors even allow cars to be driven into the airy space.
To keep projects flowing in front of his cameras and out to his clients, Muna employs an in-house producer, a darkroom technician, two digital artists, two office administrators and three production assistants. The size of the staff makes it most convenient to work in the San Francisco area, but recently he's drawn a few assignments to go down to L.A., out to Aspen and back east to North Carolina. "It goes in waves," Muna says. "There can be months when we don't leave the studio, or we don't leave the area."
The shooting space itself is on one level, about 90 feet deep, with a coved wall about 60 feet wide. About 30 feet of the space, Muna concedes, "is full of junk." The entire area is lit with the help of overhead rails and a suspended 30-by-40-foot flat reflector that can be tipped at numerous angles for bounce and fill flash.
"When you shoot cars, you don't light the car, you light the reflection of the car. We use it when we want to do soft fill," he says.
One corner of the studio holds props and a workshop where he fashions implements for set design and construction. It's there also that he stores portable stages made of wood. He rolls those out to the main area when photographing dancers, whom he's learned won't dance on concrete. "It's not good for them," he says, adding with a wry note, "It also keeps them contained."
Heather Tietsort, whose company Silent Pictures Press is publishing The Apparitions, began her involvement with Muna as a dancer and one of his models. She says she introduced him to the world of dance and to numerous dancers in the Bay Area. Marveling at the grace and power demonstrated in a private ballet performance he attended, Muna has since created promotional photos for the ballet company on a pro bono basis. His passion for the dance world led first to an exhibit of fine-art photos of dancers, and later to the book The Apparitions.
"I do a lot of pro bono work," says Muna. "If you are lucky in a situation like that, they will pay expenses. You do it for the experience. It's just amazing to be there. To have a private performance is wonderful."
Another benefit of pro bono work is the creative license he is granted. To promote a show on the body's inner workings at the Exploratorium, a San Francisco science museum, he says, "we put a zipper on a guy's head. Those are the projects you can do, where they are looking for you to help them. But with a car company, they need to see their car. They need to see their product."
Whether for pro bono work or paying clients, Muna strives to understand the idea of an assignment before he accepts it.
"To me, the rougher the idea the better. The problem with a lot of agencies that I run into is they will go and produce these huge comps, even laying type over them. Of course, they can't use the image, because it is copyrighted. Then I'll get these comps and I can't use them—not because I don't like the idea, but because I don't want to copy somebody else's work."
Muna says he constantly walks the fine line between being the extremely creative artist clients seek, and the more practical studio manager who can minimize risk when national ad campaigns are on the line. He says that creative tension is captured best in conversations he has had with several different clients.
"Sometimes I'll say, 'What I would really like to try is something that hasn't been done before,' and the client will say, 'Can you show me an example of that?' It's kind of an oxymoron.
"Or they will say, 'Go ahead and shoot like that, but shoot it in a more conventional way, too. Then we will have a backup if it doesn't work.'
"With the level of work we do, we don't get a second chance," says Muna. "There is a lot of talking about the work ahead of time: how it is going to happen, what pieces are going to be brought together. The client needs to be very comfortable with it because there is just no second chance.
"With fine art or personal work, if it doesn't come out just the way you want it, you go back and try it again. You can hone the work through experimentation. You can't bring the EV-1 into your studio a second time. You aren't allowed that in the commercial world."
IN THE LOUPE: R. J. Muna:
Studio: An expansive 12,000-square-foot remodeled lumber mill in an industrial area of San Francisco
Gear: "About the only thing I am not shooting with is digital," says Muna. "I use everything from 35 mm to 8x10. I use Canon for 35mm, Hasselblad for 2-1/4" square. Toyo for 8x10. I don't know the model of the Toyo, but at the time I bought it, it was the top of the line.
Recent subjects: Lexus, Infiity, BMW. "In the technology world, we've done everything from Sony Playstation to Apple to Microsoft."
Best advice to aspiring photographers: "The most difficult thing for a new photographer to do is to find his or her own voice. Imitating other photographers necessarily puts them behind the curve. You need to think and create your own great ideas, and have the technique be the second thing."When all is said and done and the year's work, or decade's work, is looked back on, the things that rise to the top are the great ideas you had, not the great techniques. That's a very difficult thing for a young photographer to grasp. Most of the time that comes not from a lack of talent, but a fear that their own voice will not be accepted. That's something you have to get over."