In an age of digital wizardry and pixel manipulation, studio photographer Mark Laita still makes precise commercial images with the “old school” methods of perfect lighting and an unerring eye.
Los Angeles-based still-life photographer Mark Laita is, oddly enough, significantly influenced by tennis champ John McEnroe. In addition to believing that McEnroe could have won any and every match he played with any kind of racket, or even a garden rake — “Art is not about the tools,” Laita says, “but about what you do with them” — he credits McEnroe with an idea that has guided Laita’s own personal and professional life.
“John McEnroe said he got so much more out of tennis when he realized that the more he puts into it, the more he gets out of it,” Laita says. “It applies to whatever you do; the more you put into something, the more you’ll get out of it.”
Laita is living proof that this philosophy works. He’s worked as a commercial photographer for nearly three decades, and to him the job just keeps getting better. His work fuels his life and his creativity, propelling him to ever greater heights. There’s a large amount of delight and contentment in his voice when he says, “I love what I’m doing.”
Rock ’n’ roll fantasy
Mark Laita, the child of Lithuanian immigrant parents, was always drawing and painting while he was growing up in Detroit and Chicago. Once he came across the photographic medium, however, Laita knew he had found his life’s purpose. “When I picked up my dad’s camera at 14 and saw how exacting and accurate the images were — compared to drawing — I was hooked. From then on, all I did was bury myself in the darkroom or shoot.”
Like a lot of people who discover photography, Laita saw a whole new world open up for him to explore. “When I first started photography, I was shooting more people,” he says. “Actually, I was shooting everything, but when I decided to pursue a career in photography, I wasn’t old enough and mature enough to deal with people and models. And I still don’t do that kind of work.”
During high school, Laita spent a lot of his free time shooting rock concerts in Chicago and Milwaukee, Wisc., and it certainly paid off. “I bought my tickets and got my front-row seats for whatever show that came through town,” he recalls. “I saw literally 300 shows. I shot every band that came through. That’s how I won my first [camera] system.” A Chicago radio station ran a concert-photo contest one year. Laita entered and won a Mamiya 645 medium-format system. A couple of years later, the same station ran another contest and he won that one, too. That time, he won a full Nikon system.
“This was the late ’70s, and it was a great time to be shooting concerts,” he says. “But by ’79, it was over. I saw that there was no career in it; there’s no money in it. I was getting to the age where you have to do something for a living, and shooting concerts was just not something I could see myself doing.”
After high school, where it seemed as if he spent most of his time in the darkroom, Laita went on to get a degree in photography from Columbia College in Chicago. After graduation, he tried his hand at different types of photography. Having already ruled out concert photography as a career, he thought he’d try sports, but found that he didn’t much like that either. After a while, he found a job as a photographer’s assistant. It proved to be a good fit.
Enjoying the stillness
Laita had landed a position with Curtis Kulp, a longtime Chicago still-life commercial photographer. It was while working for Kulp that Laita found his niche. “Curtis Kulp took me under his wing,” Laita says. “Curtis was just a great mentor in terms of learning how to deal with people and assistants and clients, and be a normal, pleasant, reasonable person.”
The assistant’s job turned out to be a bit of serendipity for Laita, pointing him in a new, unexpected direction. “The first few times I assisted [Kulp], I thought ‘This is the career for me,’” he says. “I credit him with so much of who I’ve turned into as a photographer now, especially in my commercial work.”
Laita was drawn to the simplicity and directness of Kulp’s tasks, starting at 8 or 9 in the morning with setting up the assignment for that day, be it a beverage or a food item or a piece of stereo equipment. “You light it and you shoot it. It’s just a lovely way to spend the day,” Laita says. “It’s creative and fun and clean, and you don’t have to deal with the elements and travel and all that stuff which complicates things and makes it difficult. There weren’t any models to deal with, and at that age — around 17, 18, 19 years old — I just wasn’t ready emotionally to shoot models anyway, so I just got into still lifes. It seemed like a natural for me. And I’ve been doing that ever since. I’m still doing that now.”Laita admits that it helps that he has the personality that fits still-life photography, because it does have its own requirements. “You have to be meticulous and you have to pay a lot of attention to detail,” he says. “With still life, you have to be pretty buttoned up. I’ve got that, which helps.”
One light fits all
Most of what Laita learned while working as an assistant to Kulp would stay with him for the rest of his career. In the case of his deceptively simple lighting technique, he has found a way of working that fits nearly everything he shoots. It’s now part of who Laita is, part of his visual style.
“I take a light, I point it, and that’s it,” he says. “I use one light for pretty much everything, unless there’s a white background, and then I’m using two. I’ve never used more than one light. It’s pretty basic.”
Even his choice of studio flashes is relatively antiquated by today’s standards. Laita still uses his set of Ascor Sunlight series 800 flashes. These studio strobes were introduced in 1946, back in the days of 8x10 cameras and single-digit film speeds, and feature a unique modular approach to their construction. By connecting different amounts of condensers — which weigh 50 pounds each — to the controlling supercharger unit, the strobes can fire with anywhere from 800 to 40,000 watts of power. Laita’s system puts out 4,000 watts and has a flash duration of around 1/5,000 of a second. This is perfect for freezing liquid pours and working with 8x10 cameras at stopped-down apertures and lengthy bellows extension factors.
The angles and the lighting and the backgrounds [in portraiture]— to me they’re very similar to my still-life work. ...Perhaps I do it in a similar way that I would a flower or some other still life I’ve done. To me, they’re identical.
Without a doubt, these strobes are exceptionally powerful and fast. Even Laita readily admits, “They’re dangerous.”
But it’s how he uses the Ascors that signifies his own personal style, and it works for everything he photographs, from his commercial still lifes to his personal portraits. “To me, they’re exactly the same. They’re lit the exact same way,” he says of all of his subjects. “The angles and the lighting and the backgrounds — to me they’re very similar to my still-life work. I’m taking something that exists, whether it’s a leaf or a fish or a flower or a shell or whatever, but basically they are things that are just sitting there. Or I find an auto mechanic somewhere and I think, ‘Wow, this is an interesting person.’ And I ask if I can take his picture, and perhaps do it in a similar way that I would do a flower or some other still life I’ve done. To me, they’re identical.”
To thine own self …
Laita can look back over his career of images and see just how consistent and true to himself he’s been as a photographer, even considering the paradigm shift of analog to digital imagery. “The images I shot when I was 23, I could still use in my portfolio today,” he says. “It’s the way I shoot. I’m not going to change my style or change what I do.”
Laita says the switch to digital has brought only minor changes to the way he works. But for photography as a whole, he’s not thrilled about the changes that digital has wrought.
“I’ve seen so much digital work that does not look real, especially in celebrity work,” he says. “They’re doing everything you can possibly do: whitening the eyes, whitening the teeth, straightening the teeth, smoothing the skin, fixing the hair and eyelashes, taking the waist in, making the shoulders wider, the legs thinner. What is that? I don’t know what that is, but it’s not what I want to do.”
Laita says he realizes that image compositing and retouching is a necessary part of commercial work today, and he has made an uneasy peace with it, but he has his limits. “Retouching is a lovely tool,” he admits. “It’s great for advertising and marketing, but I don’t know if it’s a good thing for photography. My advertising work requires a lot of composing and manipulation, but my personal work is simply cleanup and contrast and exposure adjustments.”
To Laita the real world, with all its imperfections and foibles, is more appealing than any fantasy. “That’s why I’m not really interested in shooting people commercially,” he says. “If I’m shooting somebody who’s got a pot belly, that’s part of who they are and I love that. I’m not looking to fix it. If you’ve got triple chins, you’ve got triple chins, and that’s what makes you interesting.”
The secret of his success
Mark Laita has an advantage over most people. Early on, he figured out what made him happy and fulfilled, and he has been able to continue and thrive in the commercial still-life field despite the turmoil in the photography industry.
If I’m shooting somebody who’s got a pot belly, that’s part of who they are, and I love that. I’m not looking to fix it.
“I used to be aware, early in my career, of how much work, how much dedication I was putting into my career, and making sure I still had a good quality of life,” he says. “And I realized at some point that I wasn’t getting to where I wanted to be, and I said, ‘What if I stop keeping track of how much I’m working, and just work until I get the result I want?’”
Ever since this revelation, Laita says he has “stopped worrying about working too hard, and I just started working. The end result is you enjoy the work more and enjoy the results more.”
Whether you are talking about tennis, photography or life, those are words to live by.
IN THE LOUPE: Mark Laita
Studio locations: “I have a studio in Los Angeles as well as New York,” Laita says. “I’m back and forth so often that sometimes I forget which city I’m in.”
Representation: Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles. Visit marklaita.com
Books: “Created Equal” (2010). Another is scheduled to be published by the end of 2011.
Inspirations and influences: “[Richard] Avedon and [Irving] Penn influenced generations of photographers in many ways. I was in the front of that line. I got a chance to get to know Dick [Avedon] when we shot a Carolina Herrera ad together. He helped me see that I could shoot portraits again.”
Preferred equipment: “For my own work I use large-format cameras, mostly 8x10, and Ascor 800 series strobes for speed and power. There’s nothing else like them. For advertising I use a Phase One P65 back and Apple computers. I’ve got a great retoucher, Tom Slatky, at my studio, who works on my advertising images.”
Hobbies: “I’m very into gardening. I have a studio at home, which I use for shooting flowers.”
Recent “accolades”: “My daughter put one of my images on her iPad’s home screen.”
Advice to aspiring photographers: “It’s a great career. It’s gotten very competitive now that digital technology has made photography so easy. The only advice I would give is to shoot things you love.”