No matter the subject, studio shooter Stan Musilek creates his own "decisive moment" to achieve results that are larger than life, better than real.
A Stan Musilek image is composed of opposites: monumental and intimate, luscious and spare.
Even in such a mundane space as a kitchen, these forces play out. The imposing, panoramic expanse of red and gray, the brushed-steel appliances and fixtures standing out like islands in a sea of crimson.
Your eye is drawn to the elegant woman as she leans against the counter and then to the man who pauses in mid-step in the background.
The scene is both austere and inviting at the same time.
Or consider an elegant model presented in beautiful pearly grays unveiling a stainless steel range. She arcs a shimmering piece of fabric like a wing, which seems almost as if it were made of the same material as the appliance. This is a person as architecture, as sculpture.
It doesn't really matter what Musilek shoots — watches, cell phones, shoes, cars, fashion models — everything is presented as larger than life, better than real. This isn't just the recording of an object placed before the camera, this is Musilek's interpretation of an idea — the essence of the scene, the object, the person. His images are his view of the world, which he painstakingly constructs through his lens.
To Musilek, the "decisive moment" doesn't really exist anymore in studio and digital photography. "The level of visual expectations has risen so much that the idea of the perfect shot is an illusion," he says. "We make the perfect moment out of what we collect in materials, from several different shots."
Stan Musilek is now one of the top-ranked photographers in the world, with studios in the United States and Europe, but he nearly didn't become a photographer. He did, however, get an unusually early start.
His grandfather, a portrait photographer in Prague, gave him his first camera — a Rolleiflex TLR — and taught him darkroom techniques when Musilek was in the first grade. But as he grew up, he developed other interests such as soccer and math. Photography became just a sometime hobby.
Travel was also calling to Musilek. After he and his family moved to Germany and he earned a degree in mathematics, he decided to see the world. First he went to Paris and then New York City. Next, Musilek went on a 16-month motorcycle tour of North and South America. All the while, he was taking lots of photographs and rekindling his love for photography. He ended up in the Bay Area, enrolled in San Francisco's Academy of Art College on a soccer scholarship and received an MFA in photography.
After the Academy of Art, he decided to open his own studio in 1984.
He found a place in the industrial part of town by the shipyards, and his business took off like a shot. "I was shooting every day," Musilek says with a laugh.
Eight years later, he noticed an abandoned enamel paint factory in the Potrero Hill neighborhood. He negotiated a fair price with the owner, emptied his savings for the down payment and bought a new 10,000-square-foot studio. About $300,000 in renovations later, his business was up and running.
His studio is still there in what is now considered a trendy location.
"I thought for the first two years that it was the dumbest thing I've ever done," Musilek recalls, "and now it turns out that it was one of the luckiest things I could have done, considering what's happened in the neighborhood since then."
Adaptation and survival
Adapting to change has always been a part of Stan Musilek's life; this has translated into an evolutionary and reactive philosophy about business and photography. Given that change is inevitable, Musilek usually turns it into opportunities.
After establishing a San Francisco studio in the 1980s, Musilek was in close proximity to the digital revolution in Silicon Valley in the 1990s, when the photography industry changed. Even though he had been trained on large-format cameras and film, he could see the changes that were coming. "We embraced digital technology in the very early stages," Musilek says. "I did a lot of work for Apple early on, so I was already connected to the latest and greatest in digital technology."
Musilek was quick to see the advantages of digital. The new technology eliminated many of the physical limitations that had kept him from translating his weightless visual ideas into reality. Before digital, "it would take 10 hours to have something that weighs 12 tons suspended by fish line," he explains. "We can do that digitally very, very quickly. Being aware of what can be done and how it should be approached has helped us a lot."
Digital manipulation also gave Musilek a new tool to keep his work fresh. "I never became formulaic or stuck in one look," he says. "It's kind of an ever-evolving aesthetic. I make sure that everything stays contemporary, rather than playing my greatest hits over and over."
On a practical level, Musilek continually looks for inspiration for his photography, but he finds it elsewhere rather than in photography itself. "I am pretty knowledgeable about what is going on in industrial design, architecture or fashion, and getting a synopsis out of all that created a new look," he says. "That's what helped me get a different vision of things — my own visual style."
His age, experience and wide-ranging interests also play a big part in discovering new ideas. "I got serious about photography when I was a little bit older, so I knew what the score was," he adds.
Especially fond of architecture, Musilek always finds time during his travels to merge work and play. His senior studio manager, Amber Dobson, describes Musilek with a laugh. "Stan loves to travel, and every time he comes back from a trip he has loaded his camera up with shots of buildings," she says. "He just loves to shoot buildings. You know, for advertising photography or fashion photography, the building is not often the focus of the work, so this is like his playtime, his opportunity to do that. He comes back to the studio, and we sit down for an hour slideshow of architectural images from his trip. He loves to think about how he can work what he saw into what he is currently shooting. He does that all the time."
A Czech-American in Paris
Musilek's early move to digital had other consequences that he didn't anticipate. In the early '90s, companies all over the world started looking for ways to take advantage of the new marketing possibilities of the internet. They wanted to connect with photographers already familiar with this new environment. Because of his work with Apple and other high-technology clients, Musilek was approached by LVMH (Louis Vuitton) to photograph their products for the web.
LVMH was so pleased with his work that the company offered to set him up in a studio in downtown Paris. To paraphrase Marlon Brando, Musilek says, "They made me an offer I couldn't refuse."
Today, Musilek works in Paris about four months of the year. Although his studio in San Francisco is staffed year-round, his Paris studio is staffed only while he is there. His digital production staff stays in the United States, while his first assistant travels with him. As the photographs are shot, they are sent back to the studio in San Francisco, where they are prepped for clients.
According to Musilek, there are definite advantages to being in Paris, besides being able to find a good restaurant that's still open after midnight.
"It's a little bit more laid-back when I'm (in Europe)," he says. "But the images produced over there are more visually rewarding because people, even in big jobs with lots of money on the line, give me more freedom than here in the States. Here it goes through 15 approval processes, and the agencies are more afraid of the client, whereas in France there is a little bit more artistic freedom. They don't expect a guy to just execute concepts. They want him to contribute to the look of the shot — to make it look good. It's refreshing, but you have to deliver day after day."
There's also a more practical advantage to working in the European Union at this time: the weakness of the dollar and the strength of the euro. When Musilek first started working in Paris, he actually made less money than he did in the United States. All he used to get out of the arrangements in Europe were prestige clients, killer portfolio images and an exciting change of pace. But that has all changed for the better.
"Now with the euro being so much stronger, it's actually more rewarding to work over there for me," he says. "My rates have basically doubled because the exchange rate doubled. That's a nice benefit of working on two continents."
Getting it done, no matter what
A kitchen image that Musilek shot for Thermador is an example of his willingness to go to extremes to capture the exact image he wanted.
Working with an art director, Musilek and his crew spent a week preparing for this shoot. Musilek and his first assistant, Lupine Hammack, built a virtual 3-D mock-up of the kitchen to figure out the placement of walls, appliances and lights. It took four days to build the full-scale set and install the appliances. The model was flown in from New York, but was later sent back when they saw she had gained too much weight; another model was called in at the last minute.
The shoot lasted about 20 hours, with the camera locked into position.
Every appliance and both models were shot separately and individually lit for the best results. The finished image was composed of 35 different elements.
"It encompasses the higher end of still-life photography as well as the best of fashion photography," Hammack says. "That's why Stan is so extremely successful. He can do both."
On a smaller scale, an image Musilek created for Method All Surface Cleaner proved to be nearly as complicated as the Thermador appliances shot. Though simple in appearance — a plastic bottle with a gerbera daisy on a plain pink background — the finished composite is made up of 10 separate exposures. The flower was lit and shot by itself, as was the bottle, the background and even the flower's shadow.
In a Musilek image, nothing is ever as simple as it looks. "Taking a cheap plastic object and making it look like a gem — we strive to make these things look amazing," Hammack says.
A recent advertising campaign for Adidas Golf was another study in complexity. Musilek needed to photograph four golf pros, including Sergio Garcia and Paula Creamer, in four different setups in four different locations on a golf course. The problem? He had only one hour total to photograph them all, giving him a scant 15 minutes with each.
He ended up using $70,000 worth of lighting, laser-activated motion sensors and semi-pro stand-ins to figure out each shot, which concentrated on a particular aspect of the clothing and how it functioned on the athletes. They also had to cooperate with a film crew that was working with the same pro golfers. But the results were electrifying.
More for your money
These days, Musilek's role in his assignments has evolved and expanded. Although he keeps up roughly the same pace of more than 300 assignments a year, he is adding new responsibilities to most jobs, such as selection of models, wardrobe, hairstyles and location. It's both a way to add value to the clients' experience and a method to capitalize on Musilek's vast knowledge base.
"I'm moving more and more toward the role of the artistic director," says Musilek, clearly enjoying his increased responsibilities. "In a nutshell, of course you have to bring the technical skills to the shoot, but I'm mainly being hired because of my taste. The selection of the elements in an image comes from my experience and my visual sense. It's more and more that I drive the visuals."
Musilek's skills and accomplishments play a big part in marketing and attracting clients, but his winning personality keeps them coming back time after time.
"Stan is a riot," Dobson sums up. "He has a great sense of humor, and people just love hanging out with him. Every time we shoot with the client, the client stays after the shoot is over; they stay and stay. Stan is so entertaining, they just kind of fall in love with his personality. He can be very charming."
Musilek adds matter-of-factly, "We have an unbelievably high number of repeat clients. I can rarely remember someone who just worked with me once."
It's a good formula for anyone in business: the combination of technical and interpersonal skills, which means knowing not just what to do, but what to say and when to say it. For Stan Musilek, photography is an ever-changing business, and he is always looking forward to the next big challenge.
And no matter what the challenge is, Musilek has a standard response to every situation: "It'll be fine." More often than not, he's right.
IN THE LOUPE: Stan Musilek
Home and studio locations: San Francisco and Paris, France.
Recent awards: Lürzer's Archive list of "200 Best Advertising Photographers in the World"; Pix Digital Imaging 13 (recognizing photography and digital retouching); Px3 Prix de la Photographie Paris (Architecture and Fashion Photo Awards); Applied Arts 17th annual Photography and Illustration Awards.
Selected clients: Adobe, Apple, Bank of America, Christian Dior, Coca-Cola, Ferragamo, Geffen Records, Hitachi, Intel, Levi Strauss, Macy's, Microsoft, Motorola, Nike, Nokia, Saatchi & Saatchi, Samsung, Sprint, Tiffany & Co., Universal Studios, Young & Rubicam and many others.
Preferred equipment: Horseman SW and Silvestri Flexicam medium-format view cameras; Rodenstock and Schneider digital lenses; Phase One and Leaf digital backs; Broncolor lights for still-life and Briese lights for people.
Personal projects: Photographing the great, classic bars of the world. He hopes to publish the collection as a book one day.
Advice to aspiring studio photographers:"Eliminate things [from] the photo that don't need to be there," he says. "Figure out the minimum amount of elements to tell a story." He also recommends learning photography on a view camera.