Blue Earth
Glazer's Camera

Gerald Bybee: Digital Shape-Shifter

Bybee captured this composite image of comic actor Robin Williams performing an improvisation during a photo session for L.A. Times magazine. The background and checker effects were added later using LivePicture 2.6 and Texture World software. Bybee captured this composite image of comic actor Robin Williams performing an improvisation during a photo session for L.A. Times magazine. The background and checker effects were added later using LivePicture 2.6 and Texture World software.
© Gerald Bybee

Gerald Bybee continues to shake up the studio world with his beautiful and eerie images.

Like photo-cubism, the genre he invented, Gerald Bybee has many facets. He's not totally visible from any one side. A glimpse of his self-portrait below reveals one aspect, but then the image shifts. He seems not totally in one space, not completely in another.Or maybe he is, and it's your own perspective that's skewed.

Consider some facts about Bybee: He has a client list to die for. Ad agencies and magazines count on him for images that are odd, yet realistic, and sometimes shocking. He's a burgeoning artist. He's the kind of guy who works all night to meet a deadline, meticulously piecing together images. He's a family man who appreciates a quiet moment in nature with his young daughter. He's a businessman who loves his work. He's a farmer planting grapevines. He stores hordes of images on film, which he manipulates in a high-tech digital environment. He speaks Italian. He's a fine craftsman who tweaks reality's nose.

Gerald Bybee is part inventor, part engineer, part visionary — in short, a modern studio photographer for the digital age.

In Bybee's world, people actually are two-faced, body parts appear in strange proportion, and shoes come with toes already in them. Even in an age when people question almost everything they see, these images cause viewers to exclaim, "How'd he do that?"

Bybee stumbled into what he calls photo-cubism — portraits reminiscent of Picasso — while fooling around with images for his own entertainment. The double-take responses to images such as "Cosima Blue" (on cover), "Wacom" and "Redheaded Picasso" (used on Adobe software packaging) have been interesting, Bybee says, even educational.

"This particular style of art that I do, there's usually a beauty or a sensual aspect to it, and at the same time there's a distortion or manipulation," Bybee explains. "And because it's done photographically, some people can't separate the reality of photography from the fact that it's really just a fictional, two-dimensional representation. Some people are repulsed by it. Some are fascinated by it. Some people have a hard time dealing with the fact that there's an attraction and sensuality to the imagery, as well as a repulsion."

The computer allows Bybee to let his imagination run free. "Digital capture is especially conducive to experimentation," he says. "It allows me to immediately see and evaluate the image and also to manipulate the essential information after capture. I like the challenge of mastering and exploiting new technology."

Many of his most noteworthy images were originally self-promotion portfolio pieces that prompted clients to ask for more of the same. Now those same promotional pieces sell as fine art. "The computer really freed me up for that. I think it was the first time in all of my work that I really let myself go as more of an artist," Bybee says.

When creating his memorable portraits, Bybee says he prefers to talk with his subjects, either in person or by phone, before setting up the shoot. "I try to get a sense of their willingness and comfort level in being photographed. Also what wardrobe, props, backgrounds and environment will make them most comfortable, or add detail and texture to the story and image." he says. "I like to see any photographs that have been made of them so I can see strengths and weaknesses, as well as gauge their experience level."

Sometimes Bybee allows chance to determine the fate of a shoot. "If I've not had the time or opportunity to meet them prior to the session or plan at least one shot in advance, then the session becomes like an actor's improvisation exercise," he says. "The spontaneity can result in magic. Conversely, it can be disappointing if there are missed opportunities or miscommunications that could have been avoided with more preparation."

Earning his spots

To understand how remarkable his work is, you have to go back two decades, before digital, before Photoshop, before Macintosh. In those days, special effects were done in-camera or in the darkroom, and Bybee was a master.

His first dalliance in digital imaging came in the mid-1980s as a photographer directing Scitex operators who worked with his images. In those days, merging images together seamlessly required expensive computer systems that would fill an entire room, he says.

One of the first to experiment with photography and computers, Bybee itched to get more involved in the process. By the late 1980s, as the technology improved to the point that he could manipulate images on a single desktop machine, Bybee began experimenting.

About that time, a tricky assignment that stumped everyone else served as a turning point in his career as well as an eye-opener to the industry. An ad agency wanted an image of a Dalmatian dog sitting in the middle of a herd of black-and-white spotted cats. The tagline would read, "It's easy to spot the original among the copycats."

"This job came up and they didn't know how to do it," Bybee recalls. "They had several different photographers give them ideas. One photographer suggested painting spots on the cats. I said the fur isn't going to look right, plus all you're going to get is a lot of cats trying to lick the spots off. I proposed we shoot it in pieces."

The plan was to shoot photos of the dog and cats separately, with lots of different poses and attitudes for the cats. (A resident white cat at the studio became a star model for the project.) Then a "really wonderful traditional retoucher named Rafael," using a proprietary system she owned, added spots, copied from the dogs, to the cats. Rafael then stitched the images together according to Bybee's layout and output them to a single 11x14 digital transparency.

The results of the 1990 Dalmation project inspired Bybee to pursue digital imaging and compositing on his own. Color Studio and Photoshop software had just been introduced and Bybee, with the help of local service bureau technicians, began teaching himself the art of retouching and compositing.

In the midst of a large campaign for Intel, the service bureau retoucher couldn't meet a deadline. Bybee took all the parts home to his Mac FX and worked around the clock over a weekend to complete the image. When the LVT digital transparency was printed the next day, it looked as good as, or better than, what the service bureaus would have produced, he says.

Digital do-it-yourselfer

The experience with the Intel job convinced Bybee that doing his own post-production work, while very demanding of his time, meant that he could control both the end product and the costs. "I like to do it all myself," he says. "That's why people come to us. It's a one-stop shop. There are only a few of us that shoot and do our own compositing, retouching and output, all the way through. I have assistants who help me do certain parts of it, but I still handle it from beginning to end."

With today's affordable, powerful imaging technology, Bybee says he no longer has to rely on labs or service bureaus.

"The machines are just so amazing," he says. "It's pretty easy to be a self-contained unit. For $4,000 or $5,000 you've got a machine that used to cost half a million. You have the equivalent processing power of these big, dedicated machines that I was working on in the late '80s/early '90s that were big million-dollar behemoths that only big companies could afford. And now you can take a weekend seminar and come away with the same knowledge it took me five years of experience to acquire."

Though digital technology makes post-production work much easier, Bybee adds that it should not be regarded as just a perk for clients.

"I think it is important that photo studios charge for their digital work, if they are indeed skilled and geared up to provide it," he says. "We charge for use of digital capture equipment on a per-shot or per-day basis, the way we charged for film on a per-roll basis. If it is purely mechanical digital work, lower rates are applied, particularly if the technical assistants handle it. We are careful to estimate how much creative work and how many files will be produced, as well as what additional technical work and variations will cost, so everyone knows what to expect before we enter the deadline battlefield."

The downside of holding all the marbles is that you have to hold all the marbles, Bybee acknowledges. "It used to be you'd shoot a project, hand over the film and be done with it," he says. "Now, projects tend to drag on for a longer period of time. There are parts I really enjoy, but sometimes it's a little frustrating on the last parts of it."

Digital imaging also comes with a built-in trap, Bybee says. "You can always go back and tweak it, so an image is never done. Before I re-license an image I'll look at it and think, ‘Oh! I can do this better now.'"

Web pioneer

Bybee was one of the first people to post a photographic website (bybee.com). Some friends designed it in November 1996 as a sample site, and it's still much the same: simple, focused on the images, with no fancy animation, games or gimmicks. "It worked really well and won some awards and has been a great tool for us," he says.

"I remember sitting in seminars where people were discussing photographic web sites and people were saying, ‘No, I don't think that will ever work,'" Bybee recalls. "And I just bit my tongue because I was already getting work from Australia and other places around the world. I sold a photograph of a woman's torso for a postage stamp in Australia off the Internet."

The site was reviewed in the "Web Design WOW! Book" when it was launched, but is probably due for a design update, he notes.

Using the web as part of a marketing strategy is a no-brainer. "I think it levels the playing field because any individual photographer can have a web site, and it can be just as easy to get to as Corbis and these other huge companies and can be easier to use than the big ones."

Asked what will be the next big thing to make web portals even more effective for photographers, Bybee predicts, "I'm certain it'll be full motion, and better-quality, high-res photography going across broadband. As soon as broadband gets worked out, there will be even more high-resolution digital delivery. It's already happening. Wireless from camera to client will be next. Witness the new PDA and cell phones with digital cameras built in."

Lights, camera, tripod

Bybee has always been fascinated by artists, their work and the way they live. "One of the reasons I became a photographer is that when I was young, in elementary school, I used to paint and do all those things. But at some point, I decided I didn't have enough natural talent or eye-hand coordination or whatever," remembers Bybee. "But with a camera in hand, I was able to translate what I saw to paper."

Raised in a Mormon family in Oakland, Calif., Bybee grew up under the influence of a creative mother, who did crafts with him during his childhood. Though he didn't know him well, Bybee's maternal grandfather painted and acted to satisfy his creative side. In high school he hung out in the darkroom with a friend interested in photography, but wasn't bitten by the photo bug until college.

He enrolled in Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, as an electrical engineering student. After paying his tuition with money he had earned working as an auto mechanic over the summer, Bybee bought his first camera. "When I arrived at school they needed someone to take pictures, and I said, ‘Hey, I'm a photographer. I can do that,'" Bybee recalls. "I figured that since I had a camera, I was a photographer."

To fulfill the physics requirement for his engineering degree, Bybee took a course called Physics of Light and Photography, which included a darkroom lab. He won second place in a class photo contest and was presented with his first tripod. "I thought, ‘This is cool. You can make money and do things that are fun.'"

From then on, Bybee was a photographer. He changed his major and augmented his school funds with odd photography jobs, including weddings and portraits, a dorm directory, editorial and advertising shots for the school paper, and a job shooting for the dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication. He and another student, George Brown, photographed faculty and student artists and performers, as well as finished artwork.

Photography provided both an outlet for his creativity and a respectable way to bring home the bacon. "I was raised a very strict Mormon," Bybee says.

"Photography was perfect because it was a legitimate business. You could make money at it and it was credible. It wasn't just a frivolous fine-art existence. I could make a living at it and support my family."

After graduation, Bybee helped establish a commercial portrait studio in Las Vegas, then moved to San Francisco. He contacted a young photographer, Charlie Kemper, a BYU alum, whose work he'd seen at the school.

"I just called him up and asked if he needed an assistant, and he said he didn't know, but he had a project he was working on, so come by about 10 on Monday and we'll see how it works out," Bybee recalls. "I got there at 10 a.m. and wound up staying until 4 the next morning. We worked all night, photographing cans of Del Monte beans on 8x10 transparencies. I'd never used an 8x10 camera before. I was in heaven."

Bybee got the full-time assistant's job and through Kemper met other photographers, picking up freelance work as an assistant. After a few years of freelancing and shooting everything he could, Bybee was thinking of starting his own studio when his old friend George Brown asked him to move to Salt Lake City and take over his studio. He did, it was a smashing success, and Bybee soon found himself working at breakneck speed with seven employees. "It got crazy," he says. He shot everything from industrial and real estate development aerials to retail fashion catalogs to advertising for a big department store. A divorce soon followed.

Not long after, he met his current wife, Shaun, a model. The first photos he did of her for the local retail store ironically depicted Shaun in a wedding gown.

The couple married, spent about a year living in Italy off and on, then sold the Salt Lake studio and moved to San Francisco. They built a studio there, with Shaun, whose background also includes styling and production, as CFO. "We worked together for over 10 years," Bybee says.

The Bybees lived in their studio for seven years before building their dream penthouse loft in what later became known as "Multimedia Gulch," just blocks from the new location of the Giants' PacBell Park.

The San Francisco studio is big, with 3,750 square feet of ground floor production space, 20-foot-high ceilings, drive-in access, makeup and hair stations, a kitchen, a shower and an entertainment island. When he's not using it, Bybee rents it out for $250 to $1,000 a day; photo production assistants and digital consultants optional.

Moving to the country

Life changed again for the couple after their daughter, Sera, was born. "We decided it was a unique period in our life together and structured our work so that Shaun could spend nearly full time as a mother and I could spend as much time as possible with the family," Bybee says. "Our lifestyle incorporates my work. We travel on assignments as a family when possible." Bybee, who just turned 50, also has two adult children from a previous marriage.

Describing how his choices in lifestyle have affected his work, Bybee says, "There was a period when it seemed like I was working 26 hours a day. Deliberately, over the last 10 years, we've changed our focus to do more specialized work and more large, high-end assignments, as opposed to strictly volume work."

In 1996, Bybee and family bought a former dairy farm in Sebastopol, in California's wine country. With some partners, they built a private lake and vineyard called Seraphim Lake Vineyard and Farm and are currently planting 20 acres of grapes.

During a telephone interview from home, Bybee stops to call 8-year-old Sera's attention to a flock of pelicans gliding onto the lake outside his window. "Look at those," he muses. "Aren't they beautiful, flying in formation. I haven't seen them on the property before. They're lovely."

The farm boasts a fully equipped 1,200-square-foot studio as well as a natural-light, 1,500-square-foot barn/shooting area and a photo view port in the swimming pool. From that view port, he shot a cover photo for Outside magazine of a kayaker rolling over in the water.Bybee prefers to shoot his subjects himself rather than use stock, and he does the post-production work mostly at the digital studio on the ranch. "For a long time, I felt that I was tied to major metropolitan cities. But now I don't think that's necessarily the case. You can work from almost anywhere," he notes.

The only drawback of working in this idyllic setting is that, because he's out in the country, he's just out of range for a DSL broadband connection with good upload speed. "When I want to deliver a real high-resolution file, I have to drive a couple of miles to a place that has a T1 connection," he says, adding that the neighboring communities have DSL, and he expects it will be available eventually.

New directions

Like nearly everyone in the industry, Bybee has felt a sting from the flagging economy. Though his stock sales remain strong and large assignments have been able to carry him through the tough times, "things are slower than they used to be," he says of the post-Sept. 11 economy. "I think every studio photographer in the last couple of years has had a difficult time. I'd hate to be starting a brand-new business right now — but then, I've heard that my whole career."

Some difficulties can be blamed on bad timing. "We delivered a large, rather frivolous and humorous [advertising] campaign to American Airlines on the morning of Sept. 11," Bybee recalls. "To my knowledge, it will never see the light of day. We were relieved when Congress bailed out the airline industry. It meant we got paid for our work, at least. Still, it was a big disappointment, and American had to change their advertising to reflect the mood of the nation and the industry."

Today's sour economic mood has come at a time when Bybee is in the midst of deciding whether to focus more on fine-art rather than commercial photography. "I'm kind of in that transitional mode where I'm accepting myself as an artist — the lifestyle and stuff," he says. "I'm still dealing with issues of how much fine-art work I'll do and how motivated I am to do it on my own. The one thing that is nice about assignments is there are deadlines and your clients' expectations that you will produce in a given amount of time. When you're doing your own work, it's pretty easy to put it off.

"More and more, I am trying to exploit existing light and be open to less than perfect circumstances," he adds. "I suppose I am becoming more spontaneous after many years of trying to control all aspects of a commercial production."

To follow this path toward high art, one must learn to deal with rejection, he says. "At first I had to come to terms with the idea that people didn't like some aspects of the work," he says. "But then I realized that that was just as valid a response as someone liking it. That's what art is. If you're provoking some thought or reaction to your point of view, that's what art is all about. In fact, perhaps a negative reaction is more important because the viewer has to think, arrive at some level of understanding, and come to terms with their own reaction to it."

Bybee laments that this point is lost on some image buyers. "One of my gripes about commercial clients is they want to test everything and have a consensus and make sure everyone likes or responds to what's out there," Bybee says, "when the real factor is that [viewers] just need to remember it. You're not always going to please everyone who looks at something, but the idea for an image is to make people think and effect some sort of response or thought or change in the person viewing it."

If that is the measure of success in this digital age, Bybee has achieved it.

IN THE LOUPE: Gerald Bybee

Home: Sebastopol, Calif.

Office: San Francisco.

Staff: One full-time technical assistant and a production/studio coordinator. Bybee hires out production and freelance assistance, while he spends more time handling the client contacts. His wife, Shaun, handles the accounting.

Major clients: 3Com, Adobe, AT&T, AutoDesk, Fuji, Gallo, Global Village, HP, IBM, Intel, Jergens, Levi's, Neutrogena, Nickelodeon, Novell, Oracle, PacBell, Pentax, Polaroid, Rizzoli, Saab, SGI, Sutter Home, Visa and Wells Fargo. Appeared in CA, Graphis, Photo, Psychology Today, Outside and Time magazines.

Photographic equipment: A 6-megapixel Kodak 760 — based on a 35mm Nikon body — that replaced his Kodak 560. "I just purchased a Kodak 645 Pro Back and Mamiya 645 system that is taking the place of my medium format film cameras," Bybee says. "I have a drum scanner — and have had for a long time — for film. Most of my files are on film, but in the last couple of years I've switched over to do as much as I can digitally. I'm trying to go 100 percent digital capture now."

Computer equipment: Software: Photoshop, Live Picture, Corel Knockout and Color Quartet. Hardware: "Top-of-the-line Macintosh imaging machines," he says. "I've got G4s, a Cinema monitor, a Titanium laptop — as much new [equipment] as my CFO wife approves." For output, Bybee is an ardent fan of the Fuji Pictrography system.

Working with digital clients: "Ad agencies and ADs do rough Photoshop low-resolution comps, etc., but rarely have the ability to do reproduction-quality imaging," Bybee says. "We try to interface with the production house when possible and provide finished RGB files that they can separate and work with at the highest resolution needed for the media specified."

Advice for aspiring studio shooters: "Follow your passion and instincts," he says. "Work harder than your competition if you have to. Be a constant observer of light. Your ability to see and record light will ultimately set you apart and define your style."

Website: bybee.com

Beth Luce
Story Author: Beth Luce

Beth Luce is a Seattle-based freelance writer.

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