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Glazer's Camera

Glen Wexler: No Impossible Image

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This image of seemingly conjoined twins, used on the cover of "Balance," a 1994 album by rock group Van Halen, was created in the studio by Wexler from several images of a 4-year-old boy photographed on a prop seesaw on a studio set. The post-apocalyptic landscape also was built in miniature. This image of seemingly conjoined twins, used on the cover of "Balance," a 1994 album by rock group Van Halen, was created in the studio by Wexler from several images of a 4-year-old boy photographed on a prop seesaw on a studio set. The post-apocalyptic landscape also was built in miniature.
© Glen Wexler

From commercial advertising images to fantastic album covers, photographer Glen Wexler has never met an idea he couldn't reproduce with his arsenal of high-tech digital tools.

His portfolio could be housed in a Mack truck, with elephants in tutus dancing on the top. Inside, tuxedoed cows would parachute away from erupting volcanoes while winged men would soar gracefully above.

Jet skis would race against wasps. Neckties would spontaneously catch on fire, and kissing couples would suddenly be frozen solid, with icicles hanging from their faces. Heavy metal bands would spout high-concept poetry to alien spacecraft while hurricanes roared through the truck's interior. The doors would bulge with music and noise so loud that bystanders would feel the sound waves. Brightly colored light would shoot out the windshield onto portentous skies as the truck careened past.

That's what Glen Wexler's portfolio might look like, if he could capture all his work in one image. Once he pictured it in his head, it would just be a matter of process to create it photographically. That is his specialty and his calling: creating the impossible image.

With a reputation for turning unreal concepts into images that blur the lines between commercial photography and fine art, Glen Wexler has never met an idea he couldn't reproduce on photographic paper. He has hundreds of album covers to his credit, large-scale commercial advertising accounts from Tokyo to Milan, prize-winning photo illustrations in Time magazine and impressive awards to prove that his work is highly respected.

"There's nobody else who can do what Glen does," says photography consultant Debra Weiss of Los Angeles, who partners with Wexler at least once a year to deliver seminars at PhotoExpo in New York and other venues. "He's a tremendous asset to his clients, a real problem solver. He figures out how to get it done." Describing Wexler as a perfectionist and an astute businessman, Weiss says that Glen takes a certain mentality into every job. "You never have to worry about him. He's like an insurance policy."

Linda Marso, executive producer and president of Pics, a New York-based production company, describes Wexler as a quiet genius. "He's a phenomenal person, one of the most talented and nicest I know," she says. "He always exceeds expectations. He makes a layout look a thousand times better than you imagined it." Wexler has long been ahead of his time, she adds, doing things 20 years ago that others are just figuring out now. "He's a great source because he has so much knowledge."

Wexler's driving ambition is producing illustrations that are true to concept. "I had a notion from early on that there was no such thing as an impossible image, and I wanted to find a way to create anything photographically, no matter how surrealistic or far-fetched."

He does this by deconstructing the intended image into individual components and then stitching them together into a seamless image.

"I always felt the boundaries or limitations on photography were artificially set," Wexler explains. "There's certainly nothing wrong with traditional photography; it's the building block that creates the essence that's reflected in all my images. To me, that's a starting point. I think traditional photography is most clearly defined by Henri Cartier-Bresson's work and the ‘decisive moment,' which traditionally is inseparable from the click of the shutter. In my work, the notion of the decisive moment is replaced by the previsualization of what the final image is going to be. That previsualization becomes the blueprint of how I break the final image into individual problems that are then solved and pieced back together."

Stretching the truth

Wexler's career began in 1978, when he was a 22-year-old college student. He started out as a photo illustrator doing album covers for rhythm and blues artists, including Chaka Khan, LTD and Rufus, then moved through the ranks of new wave, jazz and other genres.

"For me, it got the most interesting in the late '80s and early '90s with heavy metal and hard rock bands," Wexler says. He did photo illustrations for the bands Kiss, Yes, Rush, Black Sabbath and ZZ Top, among others. "They got into a lot of big-production-type album cover projects where everyone wanted to outdo each other, and it was more about the conceptual approach and creating these very fantastic images," Wexler remembers.

To illustrate how he works, Wexler walks through the process, using Van Halen's 1995 CD "Balance" as an example. He met with drummer Alex Van Halen and record company art department to discuss ideas, and was impressed with the band's extensive concepts. After they settled on a direction, Alex, whom Wexler describes as, "very intelligent and very much the art guy," said that he wanted to explore the duality of the human psyche.

The resulting cover illustration depicts conjoined twins on a teeter-totter, set in a bleak landscape. In the photo, one of the twins gazes peacefully into the camera while the other screams his head off, flailing his arm and leg. "If you look a little closer, you see the peaceful one is yanking on the hair of the aggressive one," Wexler notes.

The first step in the image was to make detailed sketches of what Wexler had in mind. He often has his production designer develop the sketches, which are essential in making sure that clients accept the concept before production begins. "All the stuff that I do, because we're manufacturing these alternate realities, it's all about the preconceived image and a plan for producing these realities," Wexler says. "It's important to keep our client in the loop every step of the way because it's really difficult to move backwards."

The next step was to build the set, including the seesaw and the foreground and a miniature landscape with craters, rocks and mountains in the mid-ground.

The 4-year-old model was chosen because of his androgynous look, "which we felt was instrumental to depicting the duality," Wexler says. Coaxing the boy into the poses and expressions Wexler needed was one of his biggest challenges.

For the confrontational half of the twin, Wexler asked the boy to roar like Simba in "The Lion King," and he enthusiastically complied. Wexler's then-5-year-old daughter, Jenna, also was on the set helping to calm the boy, and it is her hand pulling his hair in the finished image.

To complete the image, Wexler chose a sky scene from his personal library of around 6,000 sky photos, which he shoots whenever he travels to places that are free of buildings. He is fascinated by the subtleties of light and cloud movement, and uses them in fine-art pieces and as backgrounds when manufacturing alternate realities.

"The sky becomes so important in setting a mood or an attitude for the environment or for the shot," he says. "I want to have a vast number of images to choose from but, at the same time, I never want to be locked into a specific lighting that will dictate how the other elements will be lit to fit within that environment. This way I have the option to control the light effect however I want and find the sky that will have the right mood and the right attitude to correspond with it."

Finally, all the elements in the image were assembled in the studio. The intriguing, disturbing finished cover is one of Wexler's favorite works. "The piece we did for ‘Balance' is probably one of the strongest conceptual pieces I've ever put together," he says.

Art or advertising?

From his early days as a college student at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., Wexler was drawn to fine-art photography. Up to that point he hadn't been interested in gadgetry and wasn't the kind of kid who liked to tinker and build things. "I'm pretty much the antithesis of that. I was very much about the art," he remembers. In college, however, he discovered that he liked the process and the immediacy of using photography to express himself.

In his earliest work, influenced by Edward Weston, Wexler broke natural subjects into basic elements, looking for abstracts. Then he gravitated toward conceptual photography, inspired by Duane Michal's work. "It described to me that photography is about making an image, as opposed to taking a picture," he says. "That was the original epiphany for me. It opened the doors for me."

As a student, Wexler was frustrated that, in class critiques, what were essentially photographic accidents would be rationalized into concepts after the fact. To him, the challenge was to create what was already in your head. "I very much wanted to be able to succinctly say what I wanted to say through the medium of photography," he remembers.

To perfect his craft, Wexler decided that he needed a more solid technical background than Humboldt could give him. "To the horror of my fine-art teachers," he says, "I decided to enroll in the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, which was a very good advertising-commercial school."

He found what he was looking for, but also was exposed to European fashion photography and other commercial work that caught his interest. "The album covers of the English design firm Hipgnosis were very inspiring. These guys were really at the forefront of blurring the lines between photography, illustration and design."

He started dabbling with photo illustration and, in 1978, landed his first assignment: an album cover for The Brothers Johnson, an R&B band that had already had a multiplatinum hit. "I had met Quincy Jones' right-hand man, and he brought me in for a project Jones was producing," Wexler says. His photograph became the gatefold inside cover for the band's "Blam!" album.

Back at the Art Center, during a fifth-term portfolio review with his department head, Wexler explained that he wanted to do fine art and thought that his work was salable in the music industry, but the professor just shook his head. "He basically told me what I was doing was not photography, that I had no business doing it," Wexler says. The department head took him into the school's gallery and showed him what he should be doing: a cherry on the end of a fork, a watch on a background of pebbles with water droplets all over it, a wide-angle shot of a broken eggshell with a chick in the foreground. "It was all the clichés of that time," Wexler says, "which, to me, looked like very dated Madison Avenue, soulless photography. At that point, I felt that maybe I'd gotten as much as I could from the school."

With a solid technical background and a successful album cover under his belt, Wexler made a break for it and started working professionally. "That was in 1978. By the end of the '80s I had hundreds of album covers behind me."Wexler's penchant for imaginative images, coupled with his solid portraiture style, did prove to be a perfect fit for the music market but, in retrospect, he thinks that his youth also had something to do with his success. "I was too young and naïve to realize what was happening, but there seems to be a gravitation toward young artists as you're emerging," he says. "If you're showing something unique and fresh, there are people who want to discover you. I was doing work that was different than what the record companies were seeing come out of California."

By the mid-1990s, the music industry had changed. Rap, hip-hop, grunge, and country and western were in vogue. The record companies were not as profitable as they had been, and the budgets for big-production covers were much harder to come by. The onset of digital imaging meant that every band had a friend who could make them a cover in Photoshop.

Even the art style had changed; covers did not express ideas so much as depict intimate photos of the artists. Wexler says that he still does a handful of covers a year, but his interest in the music market has faded.

Shifting realities

At the same time that the music industry was transitioning, the commercial advertising market developed to the point that Wexler's work was more appropriate for it (an irony that one hopes is not lost on Wexler's former professor).

"I find, nowadays, I work with a lot of art directors who were influenced by the older album covers, so those types of images that found a breeding ground in the music industry, those sensibilities, eventually found their way into the mainstream," Wexler says. "So I just made a more rapid segué into the advertising market."

One of Wexler's first commercial assignments was an annual report cover for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It was 1983, just after the film "Tron" had come out, launching a new style of animated graphics that influenced print design. The Academy wanted Wexler to create an image of the Oscar on a blue glowing grid.

"I'd never seen a glowing grid used in print, and they wanted to be the first to do it. It was pre-high-tech," Wexler says. The cover won some awards, just as Wexler began to promote his work for the first time. That photo led to other high-tech assignments for stereo and computer components, medical equipment and the like. "The work was very stylistic. We used a lot of cel animation, backlit film negatives, to create these glows and high-tech effects. Those were very complex multi-camera setups," Wexler says. "It got to the point that I was getting some assignments that didn't include any photography whatsoever, which was crazy."

One of Wexler's first really big commercial assignments was shooting the Jacksons for Yamaha in 1984. It was just after Michael Jackson's album "Thriller," and he was a huge personality. "I'd never worked with someone at that level because there really wasn't anyone at that level," Wexler says. "Working with him was unusual in the aspect that most people around him were very cautious and guarded. But Michael was very warm, very easy to work with, very friendly, and I really enjoyed working with him."

The assignment was a complex photo illus-tration with surrealistic sets, "very indicative of the types of things I'm doing now," Wexler says. Jackson was so taken with Wexler that the King of Pop asked him to go on his Victory tour as his personal photographer. Wexler declined because he wasn't, and still isn't, interested in documentary photojournalism.

A few years later, working on a national ad campaign for Pioneer, Wexler did a series of photos morphing car stereos with the faces of women. The resulting cyborg-women were "pretty complex executions, but highly visible work," he says.

Another career highlight came in the early 1990s, shooting an assignment for Maxell. The company wanted to bring back the famous "Maxell guy," sitting in a chair while being windblown by the sound waves from his stereo. Wexler worked with the original creative team to shoot a series of images of the same character being affected by various kinds of recording tape. His face gets more and more distorted, depending on which tape he uses.

Mooo-ving artwork

The majority of Wexler's work still revolves around impossible images, mostly large-scale, national or worldwide ads.

Recently, he worked on a recurring assignment that is more ridiculous than impossible: cow calendars. Last year, it was the 2004 Bovine Superheroes. This year, the Holsteins are secret agents for a 2005 calendar. The calendar projects are massive in several ways.

"Last year, they sold 2.5 million of the Superheroes calendar," Wexler explains. "To put that into perspective, the second-biggest-selling calendar was Sports Illustrated's swimsuit calendar, which sold 700,000 copies."

Pause . . . "So America loves cows more than beautiful women."

Wexler describes the production schedule. It took several weeks of preproduction to design and build the sets. Principal photography took 26 days, then four days with the cattle. His set crew built miniature sets and sculpted one-third-size cows, which were then outfitted by the person who does wardrobe for the Muppets. It took three days to shoot smaller elements, such as sculpted piranha and electric eels. The special effects technician who did the exploding Death Star in Star Wars and blew up the White House in Independence Day created a volcanic explosion, "which was really fun to shoot," Wexler says. A total of 33 days of shooting and 300 hours of post-production went into combining 150 separate images for a total of 13 final compositions. Wexler and company worked on the project from February through May.

In this age of digital imagery, Wexler says he still prefers medium-format film for many of his projects. "Working as a photo illustrator, there have been very few occasions where shooting film created limitations," he says. "I also like the look and feel of film, and I prefer to edit and archive transparencies. I do high-resolution drum scans of the film I need for the image editing."

After each image is taken and scanned, however, Wexler is a complete digital convert, and has been for nearly two decades. "From my perspective, digital editing technology is the greatest step forward in the enhancement to a photographer's creative process," he says. "I am a huge fan of the Macintosh platform, and Photoshop is probably the single most important tool. I brought digital editing tools in house in 1992."

Wexler has only one full-time staff member, Carolyn Winslow, who does digital production and coordination and is a talented visual artist. He has a network of others he can call in when he needs them, including first and second assistants and a production designer with whom he has worked for 15 years, Anthony Tremblay. "We'll ramp up overnight to 20 people," he says. He likes to run a lean operation. "I'm a total control freak. I'm involved with every aspect of the business, and I like that involvement."

Noting that he hires top talent to help out on projects, Wexler says, "Advertising work is very much a collaborative effort. In a lot of regards, I work like a director in the film industry, where I find it important to surround myself with people who are passionate about what they do, and they're looking toward the same goal, to create the best work possible and exceed expectations."

For Wexler, the only impossible assignment might be not coming through for a client. Asked if there has ever been an image he could not achieve photographically, he says, "I don't feel I've ever been stumped by one. I've always been able to create what I wanted to create."

Load up the truck; there are alternate universes to deliver.




IN THE LOUPE: Glen Wexler

Home life: Lives in the Hollywood hills of California with his wife, Tammy, and his two children: Jenna, 15, and Ian, 13.

Studio space: 2,000 square feet in Hollywood, used primarily for project administration, digital post-production and large-scale printing of fine-art work. "I've outgrown the studio so, on production days, we shoot at rented production facilities, bringing in sets that were built at a set shop," Wexler says.

Camera equipment: "To me, equipment is just a necessity. I don't dwell on that stuff," he says. "I typically shoot sets with a Sinar P2 4x5, and people or animals with a Hasseblad or Mamiya RZ. I often shoot landscapes that I use for backgrounds or fine art prints with a Mamiya 7. I prefer to shoot film for most of my work, but I have started to shoot with a Canon 1DS for situations where I need more immediate feedback, or when the extended depth of field of a 35mm format is required."

Digital editing: An Apple G5 computer and Photoshop. "Image editing has changed everything — in my workflow and in my ability to efficiently produce images," he says. "Also, the Epson 9600 printer. What I love about that is that . . . we now have the ability to do state-of-the-art color printing in a studio."

Current projects: Several ad campaigns — including Jeep Cherokee, Toyota and 12 international ads for Pom Wonderful — and a self-published book project. Wexler also accepts commissions from interior designers.

Online sales: Wexler started a subsidiary business called Blue Chimp Editions about two years ago for selling prints online. Some of the best sellers include "The Flight of Icarus" (pages 22-23) and "New World Order," depicting an elephant in a tutu.

Lessons learned: "During negotiations with an art buyer, if the art buyer tells you that a major corporation or client doesn't have any money, it's probably not entirely accurate."

Best advice he ever received: A professor at the Art Center told Wexler: "Start as high up the ladder as you possibly can. Find out what the best people in your market are charging, and charge the same. Throughout your career you're always going to find people who want to pull you down the ladder, and it's a lot harder to climb back up than down." That teacher eventually became his business manager.

Beth Luce
Story Author: Beth Luce

Beth Luce is a Seattle-based freelance writer.

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