Stewart Cohen eats, breathes and lives photography, with ample desire and a determination to succeed. After 30 years of shooting and directing both motion and stills, he is more excited than ever to wake up every morning and get to work.
Cohen cites his love of working with people and his ability to connect with subjects as his most valuable professional tools. “The performance is the thing that makes the image work,” he says. “If the performance isn’t there, it doesn’t matter how cool it is — there’s no soul.”
The recipient of countless top industry awards, Cohen recently received a Golden Egg from the Dallas Society of Visual Communications for his instrumental role in helping the Dallas creative community to flourish.
In addition to his commercial success, Cohen has always pursued personal projects. In mid-November, he unveiled his latest body of work, “Innocent Bystanders,” at the Carrousel du Louvre in Paris, in conjunction with Fotofever.
Stewart Cohen: I assisted after getting a bachelor of art degree at the University of Texas, Austin. I worked with my mentors Joe Baraban in Houston and Helmut Newton from Monte Carlo, who helped me define myself in different ways, for which I am eternally grateful. I shot my own work any free second I had. I ate, breathed and lived photography. I’m a case of some formal education and a lot of desire and determination to succeed.
ASMP: What and where did you study after high school?
SC: My degree from the University of Texas is in Psychology. I arrived at this after abandoning the pre-med route. You were allowed to take a lot of electives in liberal arts, so I actually took more hours of photography than psychology. I realized I needed to assist to get to the next level so I finished my degree in three years. I was told that assisting would be my graduate school and it was.
ASMP: How long have you been in business as a photographer?
SC: I started on my own in January 1985. That seems like forever when looking at the calendar, but it feels like 20 minutes. I’m still really excited about waking up and getting to it every morning.
ASMP: What’s your most valuable professional tool?
SC: I’d say that my love of working with people is most important. The exploration, the adventure, the mystery of not knowing exactly what’s going to happen next really drives me, because every chapter has been more exciting than the last.
ASMP: In your opinion, what’s most unique about your style/approach or sets you and your work apart from other photographers and their work?
SC: The thing that comes to mind is my ability to connect with subjects. Performance is the thing that makes an image work. If the performance isn’t there, it doesn’t matter how cool the photograph is, there’s no soul. I don’t compare myself to other photographers. There are a lot of great imagemakers out there and a lot of them I thankfully call my friends. As I speak with them I realize that everyone does it a little differently but, in the end, great pre-production is great pre-production.
ASMP: Your photography output covers a very wide range of markets and media, from assignments for top commercial brands and editorial magazines to documentary and fine art projects. All told, do you have a favorite subject to work with, or is this totally project dependent?
SC: I’m a commercial guy. I love the industry and the variety of projects that walk through our door. Having said that, I realize that I’ve always had a few of my own projects going at all times. I’m always working on a few, with a few waiting to start. Each year, I start more projects than I finish, but I guess that’s what artists do.
ASMP: Please talk about your general approach to conceptualizing and executing your images for commercial assignment.
SC: I don’t have a tried and true approach, except I think about these things all the time. I write treatments, I pull scrap, I look at a lot of other people’s pictures, I watch movies, and I try to read as much as possible. I strive to shoot imagery that’s culturally relevant and timelessly contemporary.
ASMP: Has this approach changed or evolved over time (or based on the type of client you’re working with) or has it stayed consistent over time and/or from project to project?
SC: Just like we evolve as we continue to grow and experience life, my approach evolves year after year to stay in tune with what’s going on in the world.
ASMP: What piece (or pieces) of gear could you not do without on every shoot?
SC: My visual curiosity and a camera — any camera. Although I say that, more and more, I always want a bigger camera with me.
ASMP: Do you have any favorite or go-to tips for lighting a shot in a challenging setting?
SC: Look at what the natural light is doing and try to get inspired by it.
ASMP: How much background research and/or preproduction work do you do before a shoot and what methods do you use for this?
SC: Pre-production is key. The more one does, the better prepared you’ll be. I do as much as I can on every project, even if it means getting up at 4 am to have some quiet time to think clearly about a project.
ASMP: Please briefly describe your workflow. Generally speaking, how much time is spent on post-production? Do you outsource any (or all) of this process to others?
SC: Editing is the bane of my existence. Although I love looking at pictures, I’m always behind on my editing and I do it all myself. I do get help from my people in organizing, archiving and everything else in life, but I edit. As for retouching, we do some in-house but we also work with an outside stable of great retouchers. I’ve always kept a staff because I feel like I can personally achieve more in life if I have help in all aspects of it, so why not enjoy the ride with a tight crew. To this day, most of the people that have worked at the studio remain good friends. I really like that.
ASMP: Do you register the copyright to your images on a regular basis? If so, has this benefitted you in a real life scenario?
SC: This hasn’t benefited me as yet, but yes, we do register the copyrights to my work. I wish the process would get easier.
ASMP: Of all the commercial campaigns you’ve shot over the years, which one has been your favorite and why?
SC: I’ve had a long and fruitful relationship with a variety of clients. I like the long-term clients because there’s a trust factor and more of a willingness to risk ideas and money. A random client won’t call you up in mid-November to say they have a couple of hundred thousand dollars that they need to spend before the end of the year, then ask “where should we go shoot X?” Also, a random client will most likely not allow you to explore subjects outside the shot list. With trust and history, comes a willingness to try different options, to explore and sometimes come up with superior solutions. It’s a process.
ASMP: What’s been your most challenging shoot? What made it difficult and how did you overcome this?
SC: I truly have no recollection. We’ve battled the elements, challenging personalities, random illnesses, bad travel situations and more. We seem to overcome them all.
ASMP: How do you balance self-assigned projects and personal image making with your assignment work? Has this stayed consistent over the years, gotten easier or harder to achieve?
SC: It’s all part of me — I don’t think of balance, it’s just part of the fun. Sometimes things get pushed due to timing but we always pick up where we left off.
ASMP: When did you start shooting video/film/motion and what were your motivations for this?
SC: In 1991, I went to a film program at the University of Southern California because I liked motion and it seemed like a logical direction to take moving forward. It helped direct my life and work into a new direction.
ASMP: How has shooting film affected your business? Benefits? Drawbacks?
SC: Early drawbacks were clients being confused as to what box to put me in — commercials or stills — but I just kept doing both and this suits me well.
ASMP: What percentage of your current business is film vs. stills?
SC: It’s a solid 50-50, but each month is different. Last month we didn’t shoot any print, it was back-to-back live action.
ASMP: What role or roles do you play in shooting film? Do you physically shoot your own film, direct a cinematographer or do both?
SC: I do both but with heavy dialogue I try to get out from behind the camera.
ASMP: In your opinion, what are the most essential differences in planning and preproduction for motion shoots instead of when just shooting stills?
SC: Preproduction — really thinking it out. You can’t wing it like you can in stills.
ASMP: Please talk about the logistics when shooting both stills and motion on a project and whether/how this has evolved over time. For example, in your Best of ASMP 2007 interview you said that for your Mexican Luchadores project, you “brought down a small lightweight film camera and just went back and forth between stills and film, which kept everyone off balance.” What are the challenges with this kind of shooting strategy? How does the end result differ?
SC: It’s interesting that I mentioned that years ago. I still feel the same way. Granted, we’ve evolved but we still go back and forth easily. It’s how one perceives things. Personally, I’m comfortable doing this, it throws some people off, but I like it.
ASMP: What role — if any — does/will technology have on your involvement with shooting motion?
SC: I love it — it’s continually changed and it’s gotten easier to shoot stills and live action.
ASMP: What are the next steps for you in terms of motion? Do you plan to grow the motion part of your business? Why/why not?
SC: It is growing. We now do a wider variety of work beyond 30-second spots. The market for 90- to 120-second human-interest pieces is growing and I find that really cool. They are challenging but this allows you to tell a larger story. Knowing how to tell a story in 30 or 60 seconds is still a huge asset though. Just because we might have longer doesn’t mean that peoples’ attention spans are longer so if you can’t keep someone’s interest in 30 seconds, you won’t be able to keep it in 90 seconds. Web films are unforgiving in an A.D.D society. I like the challenge of developing my skills further to engage more and more people at different levels.
ASMP: In your opinion, what is the key to maintaining inspiration? How do you keep your eye fresh?
SC: The key to maintaining inspiration is to be interesting and interested. I am curious and I love the visual world, so I’ve never had trouble staying inspired.
ASMP: Are there specific technical or conceptual resources (rather than purely aesthetic ones) that you consult on a regular basis for reference, inspiration and/or as a teaching tool in furthering your work?
SC: Not really, I read blogs and look at random stuff but, for the most part, I’m not really technical. If I have a crazy idea, it’s just that and I’ll ask for help in how to execute it.
ASMP: What has been the proudest moment in your professional career to date and what made that particular moment so special?
SC: Winning the 2014 Golden Egg Award from the Dallas Society of Visual Communicators was one of them. Understanding that I’ve been instrumental in helping the Dallas creative community to flourish really felt good. When I was featured in Communication Artsback in the day, I felt I had arrived.
ASMP: What is the biggest career challenge you’ve faced to date? How did you resolve it and what did you learn as a result?
SC: The environment in 2009 — It was the first time that I had no control of my work destiny. This caught me off guard as I had done well in all sorts of markets previously. It was a giant wake up call. Looking back, I’m happy it happened. It kept me honest with myself and set me on an amazing track for the next chapter.
ASMP: Do you have any tips about keeping a photography business solvent in today’s economy and finding ways to successfully differentiate yourself and your services in such a competitive marketplace?
SC: This sounds crazy, but I’ve always felt that my financial house had to be in order before I could create. I’ve saved a lot over the years and it’s given me a certain piece of mind. I’m a believer in creating assets outside the photo world that throw off dividends to help smooth out cash flow.
ASMP: You’ve advertised on the back cover ofCommunications Arts magazine for [how many years?]. What kind of opportunities has that ad placement generated? Do you have a strategy for measuring the results of this?
SC: Looking back, it was great — everybody saw this ad because everybody looked at publications back then. I don’t think it would be as effective today, but we can call Jim Erickson and ask, he’s had the back cover since I left it. Yet, it was only years later that I realized how successful it was, so it goes back to the fact that it’s a long road and we have to work every step of the way. What we do today will define us tomorrow.
ASMP: What initially prompted you to join ASMP in 1982?
SC: I believed that the only reason we owned our pictures was because of ASMP and I knew I had to support it. Plus, back then, everyone was a member and the chapters were more active with the people who were really driving the community.
ASMP: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of your ASMP membership?
SC: The good feeling I get that I am supporting an organization that’s watching out for us.
ASMP: What’s the most important relationship you’ve formed through your ASMP membership?
SC: Ian Summers came to speak for ASMP Dallas early on and we’ve been close since then.
ASMP: Which ASMP education/advocacy tools do you find most helpful to your day-to-day business?
SC: I try to listen to ASMP’s online Webinars and events.
ASMP: What is the most important business advice you’ve ever received and where did it come from?
SC: Dick Weisgrau and his early seminars were awesome back in the day. I forget what he said but I remember starting to understand that this is a business and it should be treated as such.
ASMP: What’s been your most valuable business decision to date?
SC: Do a lot of national advertising and have a staff, even if it means sacrificing my pay to help me achieve my dream.
ASMP: What is the most important advice that you’d give a young photographer starting out now?
SC: Find out what it is that you love to do and where you want to live, then just dig in and eat, breath and drink it 24/7.
ASMP: What projects, personal or professional, are you currently planning? Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
SC: I’m working on two books and am flying back from Paris Photo and my first foray of exhibiting in Paris as I write this, which was great!
I want to collaborate with more talented people and work with the top people in the field. I want my work to evolve and I want to grow. I want to experience different things, new technologies and new approaches. My youngest will be off to college in five years, so I assume our lives will change again — back to a lifestyle that’s not defined by school holidays. That will be interesting. Watch out.