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Glazer's Camera

Mark Holthusen: Breaking the Boundaries of Photography

In this advertising image for Toric, Holthusen hired a professional knife thrower. “When possible I try to use real talent,"he says. “After the shoot we were all given knife-throwing lessons." In this advertising image for Toric, Holthusen hired a professional knife thrower. “When possible I try to use real talent,"he says. “After the shoot we were all given knife-throwing lessons."
© Mark Holthusen

Mixing the disciplines of photography, painting and sculpture, this Bay Area commercial artist creates breathtaking composites that have made him the hit of the advertising world.

You’ve probably seen his work. Perhaps you’ve admired the undulating, morph-ing landscapes he’s created for Asian automobile ads: The writhing, shifting trees in the background at first look like the snakes of Medusa, but a closer examination reveals that they’re made of people. In another, a large white moon floats above a vehicle, but the orb is actually composed of globs of bodies. The ads are strange yet fascinating. 

Or maybe you’ve stumbled upon his images in Communication Arts, Graphis, American Photography or Photo District News. His work is everywhere, and no wonder: The studio photography of Mark Holthusen is an unusual combination of straight photography, miniature model making and Photoshop, a blend that gives his work an eerie, painterly quality. He’s hot, he’s in demand and he’s dominating a new niche of photography in an ever-more crowded digital world.

Holthusen’s imagination runs wild in every shot, defying the gravity of photography. But how does he execute his elaborate conceptions? Are his images set designs? Paintings? Photography? Sculpture? Well, they’re a bit of all these artistic elements, and that’s what makes his work unique. 

Sculpting a career

Like that of many photographers, Holt-husen’s journey into the art world began early. But his first artistic interest was not photography but sculpture. 

“In high school I had horrible grades, but I could excel in art and sculpture,” he says. “I knew I couldn’t really make money at that, yet I knew photography had some commercial elements that could work to help me make a living.”

The Reno, Nev., native attended the San Francisco Art Institute and later the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he began to fuse his dual interests. In 1993 he earned a BFA in photography and sculpture from Brooks, then secured employment as an art director at the D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles ad agency in the Czech Republic. Five years later, Holthusen returned to San Francisco to help found what would become a leading digital photography studio.

He started hitting his stride by using his sculpting skills to build sets, then using photography to complete the picture. In his elaborate creations, most of the scenery was built in miniature. Then he’d photograph people and incorporate their images into the sets.

Soon he was attracting corporate clients, partially because of his wife’s industry connections. “My wife used to be involved in the roller derby,” he quips. “No kidding. … She sent my pictures to a fellow roller-derby girl’s brother-in-law at Sony Music, and things developed from there.” 

Today his list of corporate clients is an impressive one, including kitchen and bath fixtures manufacturer Kohler, Target retail stores, and carmakers Honda and Toyota. In particular, some of his ads for Kohler garnered him quite a bit of notoriety. He was selected by Kohler and the GSD&M ad agency in 2007 to create the seventh annual “As I See It” campaign, a cutting-edge advertising project merging art and commerce through unusual visuals. Take a look at his image of a female pilot, sort of a stylized Amelia Earhart figure, and you’ll see the magnitude of this work.

Welcome to the machine

But it was his work on the “Ça Ira” musical project that really put him on the map. Working with Roger Waters from the band Pink Floyd, Holthusen was hired, only a month before the November 2006 debut of the project, to create a visual narration for Waters’ opera about the French Revolution. Waters and Sony BMG Music wanted a set design that was different from the standard fare.Rather than using traditional sets, Holthusen opted for something entirely unique: The audience would watch a chorus accompanied by projected photo illustrations. 

“The shoot began in my hotel room in New York,” he says. Using modeling clay, bamboo, found wood and other available materials, a skeleton set was built. He then used a muslin background for digital projection. “The people in the images were shot in the studio, where they’d act out each part,” he explains.

The entire project involved between 7,000 and 10,000 images that were edited down to 250 shots. During the final phase of the “Ça Ira” project, he moved into Sony’s Visualize studios, where everyone worked 18-hour days. From start to finish, Holthusen completed the massive undertaking in just 28 days. “I collapsed afterwards,” he adds, laughing. 

Big pictures

Despite all the work involved, it is these gargantuan projects that get Holthusen’s juices flowing. “All the pieces, putting it all together, the crunch, all the people, all the energy — it’s all very fun,” he says. 

Take a look at any of Holthusen’s images and you can see that they involve a huge cast of characters, both in front of and behind the lens. The “Snake Charmer” video on his Facebook fan page provides a glimpse of the tremendous amount of work that’s involved in each of his elaborate shoots. 

“There’s the lighting people, the set designers, the stylists, makeup, wardrobe. I’m surprised I get as much credit as I do, as they do quite a bit,” he says modestly.

Holthusen tries to stay loose on the set, “to let it flow, to roll with the punches,” he says. Being too rigid, he says, would box him in. The fluidity fosters creativity, which he enjoys. “I like it when clients give you latitude,” he adds.

Like most of today’s studio shooters, Holthusen is strictly a digital guy, using an arsenal of Hasselblad cameras and Wacom tablets and an elaborate postproduction process. Recently he was given a 50-megapixel Hasselblad, which has a file-size area of about 24 x 36 at 300 dpi. With file sizes this large, often the retouching is a sizable task. “Every little detail is exposed, so that more time is needed in postproduction,” he adds.

Holthusen’s postproduction is an art in itself, involving painstaking work in Photoshop. Thanks to Michael Horevaj, a collaborator and digital artist, the work is executed in a seamless fashion.

Influences, West and East

Some of Holthusen’s editorial work reflects his fondness for classic themes of the American West, no doubt inspired by his early days in Reno. Look at the pairing of surroundings and subjects in his “Farmers Market” shot, for example, a project executed for Target’s Archer Brands. It looks as if it could be a setting from Dorothy’s farm in “The Wizard of Oz,” only with objects that are slightly out of the ordinary. Yet, due to their placement, they seem appropriate to the picture. 

The unusual imagery evokes the work of Jerry Uelsmann, whose photos combine the real and surreal into a tapestry of wonder. “I shot the rolling hills, and then shot the miniatures one by one and incorporated them into the scene. It sort of reflects [painter] Grant Wood’s Americana,” Holthusen adds.

In some of Holthusen’s other work, including the robot runner for Honda and the Prius campaign for Toyota, the images are awe-inspiring. Photographs showing people clumped together in various shapes are one of the hallmarks of his automotive work, but the styling is a Japanese concept, Holthusen says. “With Toyota there was this Japanese director, Mr. Hide [Hideaki Hosono], who used this sort of styling from other commercials,” he adds. “I worked with him to help reproduce this video concept into stills.” He also engages in off-the-wall shoots from time to time, injecting his playful yet surreal sense of humor into many of the images. Nontraditional subjects are interspersed with eccentric characters, and a strange psychological twist is often present.

All of Holthusen’s images reflect his uncanny sense of design, yet he also flirts with the macabre side of life in his portrayal of the human condition. One shot, reminiscent of the bizarre realism of Diane Arbus, depicts a fellow surrounded by bovine hooves, a reflection of his relationship with a well-known chef.

Branching out

Not content to limit himself to photography, Holthusen has begun shooting music videos. On his Facebook page you can see examples, including the video for the song “Living Hell” by the Tiger Lillies (see vimeo.com). He has also provided album cover art for American Music Club’s “The Golden Age.”

Does Holthusen have time for play? “My wife wishes I would,” he laughs. “We’re buying property, and it will be a modern ranch,” somewhere along Highway 49 in California’s Gold Rush country, he says. “It will be nice to get involved with something else, since I’ve been doing so much photography over the past 10 years.” The couple will remain in the Bay Area, but if there’s some downtime, he says he will venture out to the ranch to do a bit of postproduction if necessary. 

Can this San Francisco sophisticate really enjoy the country? A look at some of the rustic imagery that he has manipulated in his groundbreaking commercial work offers a sense of what warms Holthusen’s heart. And where he’ll be relaxing when he’s not crunching out a shoot.

IN THE LOUPE: Mark Holthusen

Location: Holthusen lives in San Francisco but was born in Reno, Nev.

Website: markholthusen.com

Major clients: SanDisk, HBO, Kohler, Qwest Communications, Chick Fil-A, Cleveland Ballet, Roger Waters, Honda, Target, Microsoft, Sony Music, Pottery Barn, Starbucks, Banana Republic, Adobe, Marie Callender’s, Toyota and others.

Media attention: His work has been lauded by Communication Arts, Create, Graphis, Lürzer’s Archive, American Photography and Photo District News magazines. 

Recent accolades: 200 Best Ad Photographers (2009), International Photographer of the Year Award — Music and Product categories (2008), IPA/Lucie Awards International Advertising Photographer of the Year (2008), Hasted Hunt Gallery — Best in Show (2008). Holthusen also spoke on the intersection of art and technology at the prestigious TED conference in 2006.

Mary McGrath
Story Author: Mary McGrath

Mary McGrath is a freelance writer and photographer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, Professional Photographer and Rangefinder magazines as well as Copley Newspapers. To see more of her work, visit marymcgrathphotography.com

Website: www.marymcgrathphotography.com E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it