Aaron Kotowski is an award-winning photographer and a graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology, with a BFA in Professional Photographic Illustration. From his studio in New Haven, Aaron utilizes media from large format photography to the most cutting edge digital technology to render the most dynamic and creative images possible.
Specializing in fine art portraiture, documentary photography and editorial photography, Aaron’s impressive client list includes BrandLogic, Bristol-Myers Squib, Land Rover, Mascola Advertising, Caserta Design, The Hartford, Union Savings Bank, Oleon Meda, Avity, The Big E, CT Food Bank, National Real Estate Investor, First Night Hartford and New England Fine Woodworking.
We sat down with Aaron to talk about his work, photography as a professional, and the role of photography within the communication industry and the design community.
Tell us about the Professional Photographic Illustration major at RIT and why you chose it.
RIT had a very, very intense trimester system where they cover the same amount of material as a traditional semester, in a shorter amount of time. It’s a rigorous program that delves deeply into art history and addresses the technical aspects of lighting, cameras, film and photographic technologies and aesthetics. The last 2 years are devoted to aesthetics and the refinement of technical development within the advertising industry.
The advertising program that I did gives a very broad slice of the photographic world and really focuses on the ability to create and manipulate lighting and refine both studio and on-location photography techniques. There are classes that cover broad range of topics, and there are classes that are very specific; for example, food photography. I chose the advertising program because I felt it would give me the best ability to visually articulate what’s in my mind and in my soul.
Design education struggles with teaching history, theory and conceptual thinking versus just teaching software. Do you feel photography is even more about mastering your equipment?
Teaching of history, theory and conceptual thinking are exponentially more important than teaching software. But what kind of education would you be receiving if you were not taught to use the tools that you need to do the job?
I think technical mastery is intrinsic to being a good photographer. There was this novelty of having happy accidents when I was a freshman in college. But the professional photographer has to be able to use his artistry in combination with craftsmanship. You should be able to articulate the vision within your head to perfection — and the client’s vision as well.
When I was at RIT, the first two years were focused on mastering lighting and camera systems. The classic line holds true: “Know the rules so you can break them.” I think the balance is really up to the student — the course structure at RIT encouraged and facilitated discussion and critique. Students were open to pick whatever classes in the program would benefit their vision and development of artistic style.
Designers are often jealous of photographers and illustrators, as they are geerally hired for their personal style or technique, while designers are more often “information architects” hired to solve problems or follow pre-existing branding. Would you agree?
I think I am definitely hired for my style and technique. However, there are still times when I am just shooting silos or following a style sheet.
How did you develop your style?
I think that my style evolved from being honest with myself — plus cultural influences, pop culture, literature, and classical painting, almost exclusively baroque.
Is the bulk of your work editorial, advertising or corporate?
The bulk of my work is probably editorial and corporate, equally. I’d like to do more advertising because I’d like to work on jobs that have more production involved. On the other hand, editorial jobs allow for a little more creative freedom.
Do you find it challenging to market yourself?
Yes, it is challenging — marketing is always a tough one. When you own your own business, you don’t punch out at five o’clock — or even at 9 or 10 for that matter — since you are wearing at least a few hats. Even if I have a whole month booked, I am concerned that I need to plan ahead for the next.
After I deliver a job, I turn my attention to marketing my work. There are so many considerations with that: you have to decide when and where to do your campaigns; what day of the week would be best for people to receive your mailer, which envelopes look good, will an email campaign be as effective, how will I follow up.
Aside from marketing, personal connections are very important to me. I like to take the time to meet clients and go to their trade events — it helps me get an understanding of their needs and the problems they face so that I can be in tune with their perspective.
In addition, I do feel it’s important to keep your work fresh, get your work out there and keep shooting — whether it’s for a job or personal project. I always make sure that I give myself a project to shoot.
I do think that I should make my website a little more corporate friendly; especially as a fair amount of my work is corporate work, which I enjoy. My website now leans more toward the editorial and advertising side.
Is your self-promotional strategy to just show your best work, or do you find creative directors need to see very specific samples related to the job they are looking to hire you for?
I think clients can identify my style and strengths through the work on my website. However, showcasing multiple photographic genres is often looked down upon as of being a “jack of all trades, master of none.” Although I do feel that all my work has integrity, it is this reason that prevents me from putting other genres on my website.
So, I do find it necessary to show a client my still life work, for example, when I am bidding on a still life job. I recently photographed a project where the art director was very complimentary of my work and was excited to work on a project with me. However, he was a little concerned as to whether or not I could shoot “happy” pictures. I sent him some appropriate examples of work relative to the job, which solidified his confidence in me. I was allowed a good amount of creative freedom on the job and the results were fantastic; he was very pleased and used me again for another project for the same magazine.
What have been some favorite projects you’ve done, commercial and non-commercial?
That’s a hard one… photographing Ross Campbell for his book Wet Moonwas a really fun, great time. Ross and I have known each other for years but had never collaborated before on a project together. One of the images from the project was featured in the advertising section of the 2007 Communication Arts Photo Annual.
Shooting the Big E for the Mascola Group is also a personal favorite, as it allows me to be an unapologetic voyeur and eat as much deep-fried cheese curd as my arteries will allow. This year I am taking a portable defibrillator.
My favorite non-commercial endeavor is my Cuba project. Visiting family on the island for the first time was an emotional experience for me. My grandfather is a staunch supporter of a Revolution which has never made good on its promise and he is part of a generation that is slowly dying out. These people have a voice, which is never heard because it is drowned by the self-righteousness of the Cuban government and silenced by imperialism of the U.S. government. My goal when I return to Cuba is to expand my photo essay to give voice to these people, which have been ignored and forgotten. The project is called “Left Behind.” I plan on returning at the end of 2008 / early 2009.
What should an art director know about working with a photographer?
Good communication is everything. I think an art director needs to trust their photographer and the photographer’s abilities to bring that vision to fruition. I find the best way to prepare is to share layouts, discuss variations of the shoot — especially on the bidding of a project — and to not let the client also hijack a photo shoot. That’s the worst. I think a good art director needs to mediate their vision between the photographer, agency and the client.
I also like to read the copy, if available. It not only provides me with a bit of background on the subject but also helps me to understand what the shoot should look like.
How do you feel about providing an art director with “the one perfect shot” versus handing over a whole shoot to an art director to choose from? Do you think the selection should be strictly in your hands?
No, I don’t think the selection should be strictly in my hands, though I sometimes wish it was. Whenever I do a shoot, I send the art director a website arranged from my most preferred to least preferred images. This usually helps decide selects. There’s usually collaboration between the art director and myself.
What is your favorite aspect of photography?
Creation is the best part of photography. My strength is portrait photography — and that would also be my favorite. I like engaging people, I like being in control, and I like being a voyeur.
Do you feel photography should be strictly documentarian, or should it exaggerate reality to tell a story or invoke an emotion?
It all depends. If you are recording news as a journalist, then it should be strict reality. If it’s an advertising or editorial job, I think it’s definitely up to the photographer’s vision. I personally love to exaggerate reality. There are a lot of storytellers in my family, and a lot of my influences have always had colorful speech and were able to tell a story with robust passion and vibrancy.
How do you balance mastering the technical aspect of photography and still infusing art and soul into a shot?
It’s easy… I’m not intimidated by technology, I utilize old and new technology, I know how to manipulate light and push pixels around.
What is your take on stock photography?
Stock photography is a part of the industry that assignment photographers wish didn’t exist. But stock is such a powerhouse in the industry, and it’s never going to go away.
I think that stock has really eroded away at assignment work and that, in combination with the digital age, has cast a lot of unrealistic expectations on photographers, such as same-day turnaround on a photo shoot. Photographers are often bidding not against other photographers, but against Getty or Corbis.
I don’t know how many times I’ve looked through brochures and seen competitors have the same imagery to sell a similar product.
What are some misconceptions or issues with licensing photography that you wish you could clear up with art directors and buyers?
Licensing an image is a great way to get the best value for a custom photo shoot and protects the client as much as is does the photographer. The value of a photographer’s image extends beyond the photo shoot that the photographer is contracted for. By licensing an image you pay for what you use.
I am aware that a common concern with art directors and art buyers is the notion that they don’t want to bother with relicensing an image every year or risk copyright infringement two years after the shoot is done. I completely understand this concern, and if the client feels that future relicensing would be an issue, then we can work that out in negotiations right off the bat.
Some photographers know that their work has no value past a given assignment; therefore they give away their licensing for free. I don’t do that. My fee is tailored to the complexity of the project, expenses involved in the project, and the usage.
Say, for example, conncreatives.com wants to hire a freelance photographer to shoot a portrait for a print brochure with a small press run, and wants to maintain exclusivity so that no other creative organization in Connecticut would be able to reuse that image. In this case, a common misconception is that the client, conncreatives.com, would feel that they would want to own all usage rights to the image and thusly want to “buy out” all usage rights so that the image would not unknowingly fall into a competitor’s hands. The best thing for conncreatives.com to do would be to license the image for exclusive unlimited usage for North America.
There is no need for conncreatives.com to purchase a larger licensing package, as it is unlikely that another creative online media group in Uzbekistan will pose any threat to conncreatives.com. This way the image is still able to be generate income for the photographer in other non-compete venues, such as Europe, South America, China, etc.
If conncreatives.com wanted to save even more money, they could license an image for an extended duration of time rather than buying all usage to the image. This is a great way to save money on licensing because hair and clothing styles change all the time. So the need for exclusive usage for eternity is not always necessary. Chances are that we will age a bit in ten years time — and we will make good on that promise to start going to the gym — and we will be ready for new picture.
As you can see, total exclusivity is not always necessary. I generally licenses images for exclusive use over a limited amount of time. Aside from that, I have no preference for a specific type of licensing — i.e., buyout, non-exclusive use, etc. — and try to meet the needs of my clients and work to come up with a licensing option that makes sense for the project. It’s not as expensive as they might think.
What is your take on Photoshop?
I love Photoshop. Of course, there are a lot of photographers who rely on it to make up for sloppy lighting and poor pre-production — but that really doesn’t save time in the end. Re-adjusting or adding another light on set can save you an hour of post-production expenses, which can range from $100-200 per hour.
Photoshop allows a degree of control that was not available to photographers 20 years ago. Post-production work has always been done, just using different methods, but Photoshop allows a degree of control that, in the right hands, is a wonderful tool. If a photographer relies on pouring art sauce on image….that doesn’t make it great. The integrity of the image needs to be there.
What is your take on film versus digital?
My take is that digital has surpassed film. I’ve noticed that people often want to consider themselves traditionalists when they shoot film, but they are merely conventionalists. True, film photography has been the convention since the late nineteenth century — but before that, it was daguerreotypes, tin types, wet plate (glass negatives), etc.
There was a very large resistance against shooting on plastic (film as we know it). But the photography industry evolved because plastic film was a lot less expensive, and more efficient.
It’s the same with digital. Technology changes, and whether you are shooting on glass plates, emulsified metal, film or a digital chip, the camera is nothing more than a tool. Anybody who is in an industry that mixes art and commerce needs to be able to evolve and take advantage of technologies that make you more productive and give you more control.
I think the purpose of art is to communicate, regardless of the tools you use.
Digital provides a level of security that doesn’t exist with film. There is no way to back up film. But when I am shooting digital, I can back up files on my laptop, tower, server, and external drives. With digital, you won’t have to make one of those dreaded calls to a client to tell them FedEx lost the film, the lab destroyed the negatives, the shutter broke, etc. Anytime someone shoots film now, it gets scanned anyway — so photographic media will be digitized one way or another.
Also, the quality of digital files now is amazing. The quality of digital files — if properly processed and retouched — will exceed the ability to output them.
Digital photography excels in the ability to achieve high dynamic range — which you can also get in film, but it takes more time. I just had some of my work shown at Yale; the images were 2 feet by 3 feet, and the quality exceeded that of my medium format camera.
Digital cameras used to do a horrible job at capturing tight patterns, such as pin stripes, argyles, things like that. I think that in the past few years a lot of those issues have been remedied and I haven’t had a problem.
This is not to say that all digital cameras are better than a film camera; you can make an argument that one film camera is better than another digital camera. But with digital it really comes down to: is a photographer shooting raw files, is he or she using high quality lenses, are the files being properly processed? Some film cameras are better than some digital, and vice versa, and you also need to know how to properly use/operate in digital.
It’s unlikely that I will shoot a roll of film again.
And finally, what are some of your favorite photographers and influences?
I am influenced by Caravaggio, Odd Nerdrum, Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Tom Waits, Robert Parke-Harrison, Cai Guo-Qiang Eugene Smith, Joel Peter Witkin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jose Saramago, Jorge Louise Borges.
And not to be cliché, but life, friends, family, and my partner Anna.