‘You need more than talent to be good at what you do.’

Before digital cameras, before Photoshop and before stock photo sites, there were creatives who specialized in the art of advertising at its very core. They took photos on actual film that actually had to be developed. They had to capture effects when they took the photo, not in post-production. They were talented, they were creative and they still are — and a few of the very best happened to be related to me. My Uncle Jim Carlson and Aunt Ame Albright are one dynamic duo in the world of advertising. My Aunt’s the writer, my uncle’s the art director and together they are a great example of what can happen when talent and ambition merge. While Jim and Ame were made in the era before advertising went digital, the change didn’t stop them. They worked through the transition and embraced the changes while keeping some of the old fires alive. They are incredibly talented and just plain incredible people. They took some time to chat about their craft with me so that I could share it with you!

* * *

Emjoyable: Can you tell me about your career time line and the places you’ve worked at and how you progressed to each one?

Jim: I studied painting at the School of the Art Institute. I was drafted, so I was gone in the Army for a few years. Before the Army though, I had a job at an industrial ad agency, which was really quite boring. When I came back from the Army, I met a guy at the train station. He was a graphics guy, and he said he knew someone looking for an art director. So I went in and got a job. I was there for 4 -5 years when I started to get restless. Leo Burnett tried to get me, and I had declined a few times, but I was eventually offered a good job as Art Director on Virginia Slims cigarettes. It was fun! It was the “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby” campaign, and I shot old time photographs of women in modern fashion stuff. I was in New York with a lot of high-fashion people, and it was just an exciting thing!

After that, at Leo Burnett, more of my accounts were food related. I was the art director for KFC, Nestea, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and cereals and Pillsbury Dough Boy ads. Most my stuff at Leo Burnett was TV ads, but those still had still shoots and photography to go with the TV campaign. After 11 years at Leo Burnett, I decided I wanted to work for myself. I got a lot of different clients (you want anything you can get), but I was still doing a lot of food things, a lot of storyboards and concepts for companies like Coors, Coca-Cola, Squirt and Salerno butter cookies on our own. I did a lot of new products for Kraft cheeses, a lot of labels and photography of the cheese.

Emjoyable: At Leo Burnett, did you choose to focus on food or did they choose for you?

Jim: We were kind of able to choose somewhat. At the time, the agency creative department was divided into groups. Each group was evenly divided between writers and art directors. When we would get an assignment, the writer would write and the art director would work on the art. We all had a shot at working on stuff, and then the team that ended up getting it more exclusively was the team that had the idea that was sold to the client. If we had a client we didn’t care to work on, we could go to the creative director and could usually get moved around. So we had some ability to pick and choose, but the sky wasn’t the limit. If one group had United Airlines, unless we changed groups, you couldn’t just work on anything you wanted. I was happy with what my group had. We had 7-Up, SC Johnson and RCA to name a few.

Emjoyable: Can you elaborate more on the food photography you worked on?

Jim: Most of the food photography I worked on at an agency level was done with some of the heavy-hitter food photographers in the country. Leo Burnett didn’t care where you went or how much it cost as long as you got the best quality photo you could. One ad had a recipe for a pizza, so we had a custom oven built that opened in the back so you could take pictures as the pizza cooked. Companies would always send a food stylist and then there was the photographer and the art director. I would basically light it and make it look appetizing. If I had an idea, I could guide the food stylist. For example, for the pizza, the stylist wanted to chop up all the toppings, and I suggested that we use bigger chunks to make it look more appetizing. I Learned a lot working with professional food stylists about how to make something look really good.

Emjoyable: What’s an example of something that you made look really good?

Jim: One client I had was a hot dog company called Big City Reds. They’re not available in the grocery store, they’re a commercial hot dog, but they still need advertising and that was a client we had gotten on our own. They sent us a bunch of these hot dogs to photograph. I tried to cook it, and it’s edible then, but it doesn’t look good. I tried using Kitchen Bouquet, and I wiped down the hot dog and then it looked cooked. Then I used a bent coat hanger and a torch and got it nice and hot, and I burned lines for grill marks. Natural casing on a hot dog makes it curve when it’s cooked, so I bent a wire and stuck it through the hot dog until it curved. I wanted it to be a Chicago style hot dog, but in Galena, I couldn’t find a lot of the ingredients, like a poppy seed bun. So I sprayed a plain bun with glue and glued on poppy seeds exactly how I wanted them. Then I went through several jars of relish with tweezers and picked out the perfectly cubed chunks of relish. I set up a sweep — a paper background — that was a medium-light grey and curved. Then I designed a jig, stuck it into the back of the paper and into the hot dog. And now this fancy hot dog looked like it was floating. I didn’t have Photoshop then, and it took 4 – 5 hours to get ready. It’s all the prep that takes all the time, and that’s what I learned from the food stylist. You have to be creative and find ways to make stuff look really good. That’s what I think is fun. It’s a challenge, and I think it’s fun making food look really, really good.

Emjoyable: What are the standards for good food photography? What makes a “good” photo?

Jim: First is the lighting. I don’t like lighting that looks flat, and by flat I mean that the food item doesn’t have shape, dimension, shadow, light and dark. When things are hot, I like to see steam and really look hot. It’s hard to make things look hot. I shot some steaks for a restaurant client, and we waited until dark and fired up the Weber Kettle. We had these gorgeous bone-in ribeye steaks. We set up a camera on a tripod and Ame had a spritzer bottle full of olive oil. She’d spritz down into the fire and the fire would blast the steak and I’d snap the picture. If not for the flame and the moisture on the meat, it doesn’t look hot. And when it doesn’t look hot, it really just lays there and is a huge negative. In a lot of food magazines now, the current trend is to stand over a plate of food and just take a picture of it. To me, it looks very unappetizing, clinical and even messy. It just looks sloppy to me. That is not appetizing food photography in my opinion. The things that sell are the things that make you say, “Wow! That looks really good!” You want people to say, “Wow! I want that!”

Emjoyable: What obligation do you have to truth when it comes to making food look really good?

Jim & Ame: You have to be careful about how you do some of that. You can represent it to look its very best, but you can’t enhance it to things that aren’t really there. Campbell’s soup was sued and lost over something like that. They had a bowl of vegetable soup, and they filled the bowl with marbles first so the vegetables all came to the top. It looked like there were more vegetables than there really were, and if the potatoes were soggy, they would put in fresh potatoes instead of the ones in the can. They created a law saying you can’t do that. For example, one of the tricks is to use cold mashed potatoes and scoop them into a cone and it looks like vanilla ice cream. That way, you can use a toothpick to make the potatoes look exactly how you want them too. If you put real ice cream under the light, it will just melt. You literally have seconds to shoot ice cream. We wanted to shoot an ice cream bar with a bite taken out of it, and before your very eyes it would start to melt. It’s really very difficult to shoot ice cream. But in the case of the mashed potatoes, if you want a photo to illustrate a story, you could use it, but if you were shooting for Haagen Dazs or the ice cream people and just doctored up the mashed potatoes, that’s totally illegal and you can face serious fines.

Emjoyable: How has technology changed photography and advertising over the years?

Jim & Ame: The biggest thing that digital photography did to the business was that it made everything happen immediately. We had a client that was a flavor house. In their display at a trade show, they had huge graphics of food shots. So when I shot them, I would set up my camera, I’d load up all my film and I’d get my shots done. Then I would load the film into the boxes in a dark room, tape them up and Fed Ex them to a lab in Chicago. I’d pay for rush processing, Fed Ex them back and get high-resolution scans made on a disk. I would then work with the scans and put them in to our graphic designers. All those stages are gone now. It’s good that you can get it faster but bad that clients want to see everything right now. You don’t have the time you used to have to finish things and get them the same way we want them. That’s a pretty big change. The speed is remarkable. Digital photography has come a long way. We avoided it at first because the quality wasn’t there, but really quickly it turned around.

One of the other major differences that the digital industry has influenced is the growth of stock photography houses. It used to be all the ad people would look for individual photographers to do their food photography, but now with dozens of stock photos, why pay a big-name photographer thousands of dollars when you can go on iStock and buy a photo starting at $50 (and ranging through $1,500 or more, but still much cheaper than a photographer with a day rate of $10,000). When a client knows they can pay 5% of what a professional would cost, it really hurt professional photographers. It has changed the industry and not necessarily for the better. If you want a closeup of grass, you can go to a stock house, have several to choose from immediately. That hit the photography industry hard. One advantage, though, is that you can see the photo before you spend the money. Once you shoot and spend that much money, you have to work with what you did. You have more freedom w/ stock photography. For the speed and the cost, more people are going that direction.

Emjoyable: When it comes to being successful in advertising and photography, how much of that can be taught and how much do you have to be born with?

Jim: From an art standpoint, I think that talent is something that helps you an awful lot, but it’s more on-the-job training that hones your skills, rather than your talent. For example, Ame’s a fantastic writer, and she was a fantastic writer since she was in 5th grade. Being in the business and having the pressure of meeting deadlines and juggling projects, talent doesn’t have anything to do with it. You need to have more than talent to be good at what you do. You need to have a tough skin, so that when someone says ‘That sucks,’ you can say, ‘What can we do to fix this?’ That’s not talent; that’s experience. They’re different.

It’s hard because most people start off in advertising because they have a talent in something. They start off their careers because they have a talent in an area and it guides them. I think it starts with talent and passion and quickly changes and you quickly learn that you have to be creative now; it’s creativity on demand.  

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