Jerry Avenaim’s Evolution, Devolution, and Rebirth

Written by Ron Egatz on . Posted in Lighting Tips

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If you’ve looked at a few magazines in the last twenty-five years, odds are you know the photographic work of Jerry Avenaim. Born and raised in Chicago, his love affair with cameras began with an Exakta he was given when in high school. At nineteen he headed to New York City, where he assisted Patrick Demarchelier and learned the business, art, and psychology of professional fashion photo shoots.

Halle Berry   ©Jerry Aveniam

Read more about Jerry, including his latest shoots with Jeff Bridges and Topher Grace, plus many more examples of his talented work after the jump.

By 1985, Avenaim was done with his apprenticeship and ready to work under his own name. At twenty-five, he went to Milan and Paris, approaching the foreign editions of Vogue to shoot covers. Eventually, Vogue en Espanol tentatively agreed if he could procure Cindy Crawford. “What they didn’t know was Cindy and I were lifelong friends,” Avenaim explains. “We’re both from the Midwest, and she worked with Patrick a lot during my apprenticeship. We knew each other in Chicago. I just called her out of the blue and said, ‘Cindy, Vogue will give me a cover if you’ll shoot it with me.’ She said, ‘Well, not a problem, just let me work it into the schedule. I’m shooting with this, that, and the other photographer for this, that, and the other magazine.'” Crawford was good to her word, and helped out her fellow Illinoisan. They began hair and makeup nine o’clock at night, and didn’t get out of the studio until one o’clock in the morning, but the shoot produced the January 1986 cover.

Major magazine cover assignments came his way after that. Avenaim shot for Vogue, GQ, Glamour, Vanity Fair, TV Guide, People, Detour and Newsweek, among others. He picked up work from corporate clients, which added another dimension to his fashion photography. Shooting non-model subjects helped nurture an additional branching out from the world of fashion and models.

In 1993 Avenaim moved to Los Angeles, and began photographing celebrities. “It wasn’t a plan,” he recalls. “I just thought ‘I’m in L.A. This is not the fashion mecca.’ Models and fashion stylists came to L.A. to use it as a stepping stone into acting and film and television. Fashion became quite frustrating for me, living in Los Angeles, so I went to several of the magazines, and I got my first celebrity assignment with Detour.”

The subject and shoot is something Avenaim hasn’t forgotten. “It was Dennis Miller,” he says, laughing. “We photographed him on the roof of my apartment. I was really nervous. He was a celebrity, and my roommate was helping me out; I didn’t even have an assistant at the time. I just wanted to photograph him in open shade, have him make some interesting faces and connect with him on that level. Because I had a little flare coming into the camera, my assistant—my roommate, I should say—held up something, and Miller said, ‘This guy’s like a real professional. He’s flagging the camera with a Doritos bag.'”

As Avenaim became more comfortable photographing celebrities, an interesting changing of the media industry guards took place. Slowly, in the mid-nineties, the supermodels were disappearing from the covers of Vogue, GQ and other fashion magazines. “The celebrities became the supermodels,” Avenaim remembers. “So I had four to five years of building a celebrity portfolio just as the models started being replaced. It was a seamless integration for me. It was perfect timing. A lot of people will say, ‘Well, that was very lucky.’ I would agree. It was very lucky. I also believe luck is the residue of design and desire, and that’s something I’ve always believed. You get back what you put out, and that’s what I put out.”

After shooting a tremendous amount of covers and editorial work from 2001 to 2004—almost 20 years into his career—Jerry Avenaim found himself in an unfamiliar place. Still in love with photography, the business side of his practice had worn him down. 2004’s Fall Preview issue of TV Guide pushed him over some invisible line. Egos, politics, and other assorted baggage made something snap inside him, and he was tired. 2004 also was the beginning of his teaching and lecturing, which helped, and is something he continues to enjoy through the present. “In 2006 I wanted to shoot more again,” he recalls. “I couldn’t find the fire I had earlier.”

Jeffrey Dash, Avenaim’s manager, said to him, “You know what, Jerry? You just need to find out why you picked up the camera in the first place. You need to get back to your core of being.” This was the beginning of Avenaim’s artistic rebirth. Acknowledging he needed to shoot subjects for himself, he turned to landscapes and fine art nudes.

Avenaim found himself “in the middle of nowhere in the California desert” at 29 Palms. He was armed with just a Mamiya RZ, a 4 x 5 camera and a canvas he painted white so the winds wouldn’t tear it apart. “I just sat there all day and I observed people coming in and out of the Joshua Tree Saloon or the Sam’s Market or the Alamo Laundromat—wherever I was set up that day—and I was always set up in open shade,” he recalls. “If I found an interesting character, I would ask if I could do their portrait. I spent no more than five minutes with each person, and some days I didn’t photograph anyone. I sat there waiting all day, and some days I photographed five people in an hour.”

Avenaim credits this experiment with infusing joy back into his photography. “You’ve always got to have a personal project to keep you going,” he recommends, “because it’s going to be what’s going to feed your inspiration for your commercial work. If you don’t have that personal project, that passion, the raw desire is going to fade away, because then you’re just doing it for a paycheck. Go out and do personal work. It’s how you stay driven after 25 years or so of doing fashion and celebrity photography.”

His agent proclaimed the 29 Palms black and white portraits as the best in Avenaim’s portfolio. “It’s the best stuff in my book because it came from my heart,” he replied to his agent. “It came from my core, and you told me to go back and find my passion and that’s what I did.” The passion came through, and his agent sent the photos to the producers of the television show Lockup. Before long, Avenaim found himself at a prison in Maricopa County, Arizona. In ten days he shot human condition portaits of inmates, corrections officers, medics, nurses, the warden, and others. The results of this effort will be a book project and either a television special documentary or an independent documentary film entitled Doing Time in America. With Maricopa as a successful test, the crew is now shooting in other prisons across the United States.

Avenaim used a Mamiya RZ, and a 4 x 5. “I ended up shooting the large format and the digital back, because I wasn’t sure how it would translate into black and white,” he says. Each individual was photographed on a seamless white background in open shade. “I usually used two Profoto Acutes,” Avenaim says. “When we shot in the larger pod, I was able to shoot quicker. We put Pro-8’s in each corner, and we took the heads with the seven?inch reflectors and just bounced them into the wall and ceiling behind me making it look like natural light.”

Echoing Avedon’s In the American West, Avenaim’s prison portraits aim for a different mark. Critics and reporters writing for media from the BBC to People magazine to The New York Times have pointed out Avedon’s penchant for consciously portraying his subjects in unflattering light in an effort to strip through any public image or facade they may have established. In one famous story of his deliberate efforts to achieve this, Avedon lied to the Duchess and Duke of Windsor to get awkward expressions on their faces. Known for their deep love of pugs, the photographer told them a tale of how his taxi had just hit and killed a dog. He photographed their obviously-pained reaction.

Avenaim has deep respect for Avedon, but regarding subjects’ emotion, leans 180 degrees in the other direction. “Richard Avedon was always a mentor of mine, and he will always be in my heart, and in my thoughts, when I look for inspiration. But, in a way, in his portraiture of celebrities, of his dying father, he almost tried to strip people of their humanity or their dignity, quite often. I thought, well, the paradox to what I’m doing, with inmates, who have done horrible things, is show an element of dignity and humanity, that they still are human beings. And although the lighting is reminiscent, and the style is very reminiscent of Avedon’s In the American West, it’s the communication in what I’m capturing that is so very different. I’m not trying to strip away from the subject. I’m trying to pull something out that one would not see otherwise.”

When I mention to Avenaim this is the exact opposite of what has happened to these individuals in captivity, he’s quick to respond. “Exactly. It’s an interesting dynamic, and I want to see how it shows and how it holds, maybe against my own mentor’s work.”

Asked about his shooting of both film and digital formats, Avenaim has reasons for using both. “I come from a film background. I’m very much a purist, and whether I’m shooting film or digital, I believe what goes into the camera should also come out. So there isn’t a whole lot of post-production in my photography. Although, obviously in digital there is color correction and so on. I did a series of blog articles. One was entitled, “Photography and the Art of Discipline,” because I began my photography all in large format. So one thing I don’t believe in is with digital there’s no cost of the film. What I see a lot of is young photographers will just hold down the button. They call it the spray?and?pray method, and they’ll hold it down and just pray one comes out. I like to be a little bit more methodical about the images I create.”

One area Avenaim can’t afford to be methodical is when photographing celebrities. The clock is ticking fast during these sessions. He and his team do their homework before their subjects arrive. Avenaim begins to build his relationship with subjects while they’re in hair and makeup. Photographic needs are taken care of beforehand. “I’ll always do a pre?light either the night before or the morning of the shoot,” he explains. “I’ll make sure everything is absolutely dialed in, and know their height. The one thing I have to allow for is everybody’s eyes are set deeper, or not, than another. Depending if it’s an overhead light and they have deep?set eyes, I’ve got to make a very fast adjustment. So, I can pre?light as close as I can to that height and so on, but if I’m using an overhead light and they’ve got really deep set eyes, I better be prepared to kiss it with a ring flash or a grid, just so the eyes don’t get lost.”

Large format is still important to Avenaim. The 29 project and Doing Time in America utilized large format photography. “When I shoot 4 x 5 Toyos, I use a 210 Schneider lens,” he reports. “When I shoot 8 x 10, I use a 360 Fujinon lens or a Schneider. It depends on what’s available at the time. Unfortunately, a lot of the 8 x 10 gear I kind of let go of, and I’m sorry I did. I still have my 8 x 10 camera, but I quite often have to rent my lenses.”

Medium format remains favorite with Avenaim. “I’ll go between the large format and the Mamiya RZ. All the covers and all the celebrity portraits I shoot with one of my favorite lenses on the RZ, a 250mm with a number one extension. I do that for comfort and compression, giving distance between myself and the subject. Whether I was shooting an RZ or another medium format camera, I wouldn’t go past a 127 for the RZ or a 140 shooting medium format, because I wanted it to be a little bit more in your face. So there isn’t that compression. There’s a little bit more distortion when I’m close.”

Avenaim views his cameras as tools. “They’re the device between myself and the subject. I will go between a Mamiya 645 to an RZ,” he says. “The 645 obviously is a lot of quicker and easier to handle, because it’s an auto?focus camera. I will go to that when I want to shoot digital backs, but when I want to shoot film, and I want the manual focus, then I’ll go back to the RZ.”

Having started shooting large format film, Avenaim cannot be mistaken for a luddite. “We’re in a very exciting time and a very confusing time, as photography and video are being fused together, and video and photography are being fused together,” he says. “You have a handful of photographers trying to be directors, to make live motion editorials, and you have directors going into photography to do the same. There’s an interesting crossover we’re all kind of dancing around right now.” Avenaim cites Apple’s iPad as a game changer, allowing him to display for clients both still images and short motion pieces he’s recently been creating for magazine and advertising clients. “The industry is not experiencing a crossover,” he says. “It’s a collision.” His early career shooting only stills has well-prepared him for work he finds himself doing these days, including wearing the hats of D.P., cinematographer, and director for a variety of clients, including a current shoot for Calvin Klein.

When I asked Avenaim about his lighting, he turned the tables on me, grinning. “Let me ask you a question,” he said. “How many lighting manufacturers do you know that make so many different light modifiers and light?shaping tools? Myself, I don’t know of them. That’s why I’ve been such a longtime Profoto user. It’s because of all the different light modifiers at my disposal. It’s an arsenal. Whether they’re parabolic reflectors, narrow?beam reflectors, zoom spots, grid spots, pro?zoom spots, it doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, they make it.”

I asked him if there was a consistent thread across the product line he found himself reaching for over and over. “That’s an interesting question,” he said. “I’m going to answer it with a story. When I was doing my pre?light for Jeff Bridges, I told Ryan, my first assistant I wanted to change it up a little bit, and I used the softbox and the grid spot for a couple of the setups. I used the three?foot octa softbox on the shot where he’s laying on the day bed. It’s actually a three?light setup using the three?foot octa softbox, the silver beauty dish with a grid in it, and a diffusion just to kiss his jaw line and the guitar. There was just a seven?inch reflector with a grid spot in that, and it was shot through some diffusion.”

“For the third setup,” he continues, “I was getting frustrated. I couldn’t figure out what I was going to do, and I told my first, ‘Ryan, just set up the Magnum.’ He was pushing me to move forward. He said, ‘You know what, Jerry? You’ve done the Magnum reflector for a decade. It’s a great light?shaping tool, but this is Jeff Bridges. He’s about to win the Oscar this coming Sunday. Let’s just keep pushing, and keep playing, and try something different.’ I walked away for a little bit, sat at the digital work station, and just stared at the screen. He started setting up the five?foot umbrella. I said, ‘Okay, it’s nice. It wraps, but it’s not giving me what I’m looking for. I need something different.’ It was such a light?bulb moment. We set up the five?foot umbrella. I had him pull out a silver soft?light reflector, diffused it, and put a grid in it. Then I took that and put it in front of the five?foot umbrella and created a light within a light. This ended up being the cover, mind you.”

“If you look at the catch lights, you will see the light within the light. But you will see the soft?light reflector giving you the specular highlight—that’s why I chose silver, otherwise it would have been too soft with the white. It’s just a half?stop stronger than the five?foot umbrella, so I’m getting the clean, crisp specular highlight with the silver soft?light reflector, and the five?foot giant umbrella is giving me just the fill I need for his suede brown jacket and the rest of the photograph, because not only did I have to create a cover—a tight portrait out of that shot—but I had to go three?quarters as well. Strictly using a Rembrandt light, being a silver soft?light reflector, the light would have hit his face, and I would have lost the jacket, the pants. I would have lost everything. By creating this light within a light, the face snapped. It popped right off the page, and then the pull?back, you were still able to visibly see, although softer, you were still able to see the color, texture of the rest of the clothes.”

Intrigued by the way Bridges’ suede jacket fades off into nothing, and the specular?type look where it falls off at mid?chest, Avenaim’s quick to explain. “That’s the three?foot by four?foot Profoto softbox. The reason also the fall?off is so rapid is because, unlike a lot of other manufacturers, the inside of that softbox is silver as opposed to white. So again, you’re getting more specular because of the silver, and the fall?off is more rapid because of the silver. I did kiss his face just a little bit with a seven?inch grid reflector, but it’s hitting his face two stops under that overhead light. You didn’t want him to have hollow eyes. I know it’s a profile shot, but we did some straight on as well that the magazine loved because we opened his eyes up with that seven?inch reflector with a grid, and the grid allowing the light to just be harnessed on the face and not spilling over, losing the effect of, as you said, that dramatic fall?off.

I also asked Avenaim about the fourth Bridges shot, which he called “a gift,” and what he did to make the actor laugh. “That’s the kindness and generosity of Jeff Bridges,” he says. “I am a huge fan of Jeff Bridges. I believe what’s going to be his legacy is The Big Lebowski. I didn’t bring anything. I’m not one of those guys who always say, ‘Hey, can you sign this? Can you do this or that?’ I just thought, ‘Whoa, what an opportunity to take a snapshot with him or have him sign something.’ I had my intern run next door and get the largest bottle of Kahlua he could. At the end of the shoot, they were wiring him for a Good Morning America interview and as they were doing that, I said, ‘Jeff, thank you so much for your kindness, and your generosity, and your time. It’s really greatly appreciated. I know you must get asked this a million times, but would you mind signing this bottle of Kahlua?’ which was his drink of choice, the white Russian, in the movie. He said, “Well, yeah, man,” and took the bottle from my hand and started doodling. When he handed it back to me, he drew a self-portrait of that character. He signed the top and on the bottom he wrote, “Jerry abides.” The last line in The Big Lebowski was ‘The Dude abides.’ So that’s kind of the catch phrase of the film. He got his Oscar. For me, that was mine, at the end of the shoot.”

Avenaim was happy to recount one more moment spent with one of his favorite actors. “I had pulled as a prop a $20,000 Gibson guitar for one of the portraits. When he came in and saw it he said, reflecting on his role from Crazy Heart, he said ‘Oh man, that’s so nice of you to get me this. But man, I didn’t get you anything.’ He does kind of have that tone in his voice. I’m sure everybody’s heard his speeches at the Golden Globe Awards and the Oscars and the SAG Awards. That ‘Hey, man.’ You know, he’s just that kind of guy. He is The Dude.”

The Fade In magazine Bridges shoot ranks as one of the photographer’s favorites. “One of the reasons why I connected with him so well is he’s such a renaissance man and such a kind man,” Avenaim says. “He’s an actor, a photographer, a musician, a painter. I don’t know what he doesn’t do. He’s just one of the most talented people in the industry I’ve met to date. He was very interested about all the equipment I was using on our cover shoot.”

All that Profoto equipment is triggered by PocketWizard technology. Avenaim is a fan of the TT1 in no small part because of its size. “The new profile of the TT1’s are great,” he says. “I like to shoot with two. People are right eye dominant or left eye dominant. I’m right eye dominant, but I like to shoot with both eyes open because I’m able to see everything that’s going on with my left eye open as I’m shooting through my right eye. The PocketWizards allow me to do that because of their low profile as well. What I also love about it is when I am shooting a DSLR, instead of having to use a lot of power, it’s got a great feature that I can use to increase the flash shutter sync speed. So I can make that sky go dark blue without as much power as I would normally need to have. That saves on your packs. Where I’d need a lot of power before, the PocketWizard allows me to do the same effect with little power because you can override the curtain sync on the camera.”

Creating light with Profoto, and firing it with PocketWizard, Avenaim uses Sekonic to measure it. “I used Sekonic light meters back in the day, and I do now,” he says. “Again, the beauty of the Sekonics to me is not only the accuracy, but the built-in PocketWizard technology. Whether you use an L?358 or 500 series, you have a transmitter built into that PocketWizard. I mean, early on, the assistant would stand there holding and another assistant would have to pop the pack and that’s how we’d get our reading. But now it’s just press the button and fire the strobes. It just makes our life easier. Digital and technology is both a blessing and a curse. These are all the blessings.”

Avenaim has always integrated color managment into his workflow. “I wouldn’t be able to live without the ColorChecker Passport,” he says. “Just like I would go through different emulsions in film stock, this is what creates consistency in my digital workflow. It’s a tool that I can bring into Adobe Lightroom. It’s a tool I can bring into Bridge and, with a color picker, neutralize my image or shift it, then manually tweak it a little bit, either to a cool or warm direction. One of the things I like about the Passport is it’s not huge. It’s weather-resistant. You can put it in your pocket if I’m on location. Instead of my assistant holding it, I’ll just say, “Would you hand this to Mr. Bridges?” So Jeff Bridges held the Passport in every, single set?up of the Fade In magazine shoot.”

“The MAC Group arsenal—from lighting to cameras to color management and the way it’s integrated into Adobe Lightroom—is what I use. Light shaping tools and digital backs and lenses and PocketWizard. You know what? To me it’s a one-stop shop. I don’t need to go anywhere else. I know that may sound like a cliche sales pitch to some, but it’s the truth. At the end of the day, that’s it. That’s what I use.”

Avenaim had some final thoughts on celebrity portraiture. “Something I said in one of the earlier Profoto podcasts is that because, as a culture, we see celebrities as larger than life, one of my techniques for that, by using the 250 lens on the RZ with a number one extension to this, all things being relative, the camera—at that distance—is at the celebrities’ chests. Because we see them as larger than life, I want to give the perception or fulfill the viewer’s perception of putting them up on a pedestal. So I’ll often shoot up. Now, one thing I did differently with Jeff Bridges and all the covers I have been shooting lately is I’ve been shooting a little bit down on them. They’re already larger than life, I don’t need to make them larger. I had to do some playing around with that on my own and, like I said, just moving not out of, but in addition to the magnum reflector, is using all these other beautiful light modifiers from a five foot giant umbrella to the beauty dishes or, as Profoto calls them, ‘soft light reflectors.’ A beauty dish is more of a general term. I’m able to take all these different tools and, again, now I’m able to play and now I’m kind of on my voyage of self-rediscovery.”

Fascinated by the continuing journey Avenaim’s art has taken him, I asked him if his photography will be changing in the future to a greater degree than it has already. “Yeah, absolutely,” he said, without hesitation. “I think that it’s just part of an evolution. Technology is an evolution and as artists we need to evolve as well. Just as painters, Picasso had this period or that period. Avedon had periods, too. I don’t think people really recognized, but he had very still periods, and he had very explosive periods, with movement and jumping. Then he went to In The American West, and everything was just very still. He used to do multiple exposures, and the faces would move into different positions. The photographs were very explosive. So, he went through his periods as an artist as well.”

Avenaim offered some closing thoughts on his artistic evolution. “When things start to get stale for you, as an artist, you need to reinvent yourself and rediscover yourself. When I lecture, I talk about my voyage of self?discovery and finding my style. Once I thought I found my style, I thought that would be it. Later on in life as an artist, I again went through my voyage of self?rediscovery and now I’m going through it again.”

Although the technical execution of Avenaim’s images are well-planned, his art strives for something beyond the final four-sided, two-dimensional photograph. “What I captured in the camera is what came out of the camera. That’s it, whether it was in color or in black and white. It was a device between myself and the subject. So really what you’re seeing are two personalities engaged between one another, whether it’s a celebrity, a supermodel, or a prison inmate. What’s in between is a device capturing that moment and that communication. If you look at the great photographers—and I’m not putting myself in that place, but if you look at Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts, Patrick Demarchelier, and Peter Lindbergh—the real icons of past and present generations—it came down to what they did and the communication with their subject—the passion they had for the other person. What was between them was simply the device capturing, simply, the exchange.”

Jerry Avenaim Photography
Jerry Avenaim Blog
Jerry Avenaim on Twitter
Jerry Avenaim on Facebook
Jerry Avenaim on Vimeo

Jerry Avenaim on Lighting and the Profoto Magnum Reflector (Podcast)

Written by Ron Egatz


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Comments (6)

  • Alex


    Something about cold winters in Chicago that brings out that creative Midwestern view of life…..Such is your work amazing as always sir


  • Gerry Hanan


    Love it – brilliant article about a wonderfully talented individual who has not only been creating amazing images for many years, but also gives back to the community by teaching through workshops, and sharing his learnings in posts to his blog.


  • Tony Armstrong


    WOW!! What a phenomenal interview! Very revealing about how Mr. Avenaim works; a testament to his creativity and the versatility of the Profoto products…


  • Kip Soda


    Worth it to read write-up. Lots of info to get a really newbi just like me. justbeenpaid


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