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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Louie Psihoyos: There Is No Box Pt.1

Master photographer Louie Psihoyos spent 17 years traveling the world shooting for National Geographic. He has won numerous photography awards, had a bit role in the Stallone movie, "F.I.S.T", and if all that wasn't cool enough, has a small, embryonic carnivorous dinosaur named after him.

Louie has written books, been the subject of books, and was a main contributor to the "Material World Project" a U.N. sponsored traveling show of family portraits depicting 40 families from different countries with their material possessions. He's also a great guy, and when I asked if I could interview him about his career and his new film, "The Cove," he readily agreed.

I've split the interview into two parts. In this, the first part, Louie talks about his photographic career. In Part 2, which will be posted on Thursday, he talks about "The Cove" and the guerilla filmmaking used to bring the story to light.

Tell me how you came to photography and your background
I wanted to work for National Geographic since I was about 6 years old when I first saw the magazine at my mother’s hairdresser’s shop. I remember seeing these photographs by Jim Blair of Easter Island and they blew my little mind away. The hairdresser let me take those issues home and I think I still have them. Everyone wants to work for National Geographic but they think it’s just a dream. I dream too but I guess I don’t know the difference between a dream and reality. I figure you can live any dream you dare to make real.

I applied to National Geographic for an internship in 1979 and the director of photography, Bob Gilka, wrote me nice hand written note saying that internships were for photographers not good enough to get a job and I was good enough to get a job--good luck kid. It was a bittersweet compliment that left me heartbroken. The magazine took three photography interns every year, two by portfolio, and the winner of the college photographer of the year. I realized I would have to win the contest in order to work there, so I applied myself and the next year I won first place in every category of the contest-- Gilka had to hire me.

I did a black and white story for them, “The New Energy Frontier” that they liked and Bill Douthitt, who at the time was a layout editor, told me that if I wanted to get a real job working for them the only way to do it was to propose a story.
Bill Douthitt has a wicked sense of humor, which I really appreciate, one of the cleverest human beings I know. National Geographic is renown for their relentless optimism. At the time they could make war-torn Rhodesia look like a place you would want to move to and raise your kids. They were doing stories like, “Walk Across America,” a search for the real America and Bill and I would think of these imaginary take-offs, like “Bulldozer across America” and then think of how you would really photograph them--like the bulldozer operator studying road map by lantern light at dusk with Arches National Park in the background. One of my favorites was “Our friend the Maggot – Life Goes On Inside a Corpse.” You get the idea of our sense of humor.

We were in the lunchroom at National Geographic which at the time had just opened up to women--I guess they thought that was pretty progressive. The magazine was doing stories on commodities like Gold, Platinum and Diamonds and Bill, watching a cleaning person said, “How about a story on trash?” And I said something like, “You could have scientists studying the garbage like it was some ancient civilization.” And Bill said that he just read about an archeologist on Mayan culture, Bill Rathje, who studies modern trash. He said you could photograph artists using trash for art, and I said I just read about a whole colony of trash artists in Northern California who use nothing but found objects for their materials. At some point after about the sixth stupid idea we stopped laughing and I wrote up a proposal and I became the first new photographer National Geographic hired in more than a decade.

Of course that meant I had to spend the next 9 months traveling around the world in the most disgusting environments in the world trying to make garbage look beautiful if not interesting. And then I developed a loathsome reputation for being known as the guy who could make any miserable story interesting. The trash artist made the cover. I actually own the work and the artist was my best man when I got married.

The Smell story was a story that nobody thought could be photographed. How can you shoot a smell? That fact that nobody knew how to photograph it was appealing to me. At that first story meeting Bill Garrett, the managing editor said to me, “Louie we like your work but it might be a bit too sophisticated for our readers. National Geographic has the highest demographic for any popular magazine but it is still only has a readership average of the 12th grade.” I said, “Then let’s take them to college.”

There are two schools of popular thought with the media, shovel readers what you think they want or raise the conversation to a higher level. After the story was published, by readership surveys, it became the most popular story in the magazine’s history ever shot by a single photographer.

What about your influences?

My influences for lighting came from the great cinematographers. They were the people I looked up to at first because they had very complex discussions about how they achieved mood with lighting design. I began traveling like a small movie company – one story I did on the Mesozoic – the mid-life of the planet for National Geographic, I had 44 cases and six carry-ons and just one assistant. We were going to places like Mongolia and Patagonia lugging all this gear around. The theory there was that I could never have an excuse for bad lighting because of available light. I subscribed to the adage that available light was all the light you could carry.

After National Geographic I went on to work for Fortune magazine where, about 12 years ago I met the serial entrepreneur Jim Clark. We became best friends after I photographed him standing at the top of the world’s tallest mast on the boat he was building, called Hyperion. He created three billion-dollar industries from scratch. The first was Silicon Graphics, while teaching at Stanford – he designed the first 3-D graphics engine, which made it possible to design objects in 3-D in real time, making movies like Jurassic Park possible. The day he quit that business he started Netscape, the first commercial Internet browser. The third billion-dollar company he created--WebMD--he joked was created to prove that the first two weren’t flukes. I actually used that valuable resource last year to save my mother’s life when I proved to her doctors that they were over medicating her with conflicting prescriptions.

Any advice for new photographers?
The only advice I would have for a young still photographer would be to forget all advice and follow your passion with a passion. The Universe has a strange way of supporting lunatics like us that refuse to live inside the box.

There is no box.

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