Vincent Laforet is ranked as one of the best photographers working today and was named one of the top 100 most influential photographers of 2005 by American Photo magazine. His photographs can drop a jaw, make the photo enthusiast squeal, and spawn conversation between strangers viewing in galleries. From National Geographic to Sports Illustrated and many between, his visions have been reproduced on a variety of substrates for our viewing pleasure. Along with four other photographers, Vincent was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Feature Photography for his post-9/11 coverage overseas in 2002. He's been one of a handful of people to work with the RED High Definition video cameras and has been testing out this new camera equipment with Jamie O'Brien at Pipeline in Hawaii. Red cameras provide some of the most advanced high definition video available to the market including 100fps for slow motion footage. They are expected by some to quickly replace a majority of cinematic films the way digital photography cameras replaced 35mm photo cameras.
As a photographer myself who understands how "at the top" Vincent really is, I didn't expect a response to my email requesting a quick interview for the blog. When I received a response from Vincent himself to do an interview over the phone I was floored. I am very thankful for Vincent to have given us a small portion of his time to give us some insight on not only his photography but his feelings on surfing and art in general. Below you will see a first look video at the Jamie O'Brien Project and then the interview with Vincent.
Interview by Matthew Clark:
Aside from the fundamentals of photography, what goal's do you have when you make an image or when you are on assignment?
My goal is to try to find something that's visually striking, that grabs someones attention, that's never been done before. There's so much out there these days that I think we're all struggling to get "eyeballs", if you will. There are many different ways of getting someones attention and trying to find what those different ways are, in the end, is my goal.
Being from New York, did you know there is a whole surf community thriving within the cities limits and out on Long Island?
Absolutely, you know one of my first assignments was for the Times and I had to go out on an October day, out towards Coney Island on the subway, with the surfers, I'll never forget that. One of them was living in a very small apartment in midtown and going out at 5 or 6 am out towards Coney Island and it ended up being a pretty memorable assignment. Definitely not something you see everyday. I'm, you know...a sucker for blue water, so I had never seen the draw of going out in the frigid Atlantic Ocean off of Coney Island, yet somehow, in a weird way, understand it completely. If people do it off of Milwaukee on Lake Michigan than why not off Coney Island in New York?
Your recent work with Jamie O'Brien and the Red video cameras has really sparked a flame of interest in the surf world. Are these cameras all that they've been hyped up to be? The technology is there but are they realistic for people who aren't backed by multi-million dollar a year companies and work alone?
It's a complex answer in that the Red camera itself is not all that expensive in relation to what cameras were just a few years ago. It's the accessories that might get you and how far you're looking to take things. So, if you're looking to do handheld camera with a wide angle lens then the Red is very affordable. It gets expensive when you start looking to do underwater housings. Do you buy one that's already made up for it or do you buy the hardware to make one? Then it comes to the long lenses and it gets very expensive. To be able to match the quality of motion picture film with the Red is fantastic, however it's very hard to man a Red by yourself, and it's no where near what it's like to use a handheld video camera.
On your blog (blog.vincentlaforet.com) you say "The best thing about watching, let alone filming, Jamie(O'Brien) - is the privilege of seeing someone do something so beautiful, so difficult, so effortlessly. The last time I saw something like this on such a regular basis was when I photographed Michael Jordan at the United Center in Chicago for his last 3 years on the court." You go on to say that you were able to spend time with Jamie for a couple of weeks, yet with Michael Jordan the social time "was nothing but a distant dream." Is that something you found special about surfing, the opportunity for a novice surfer to sit next to their greatest idol and share the same waves?
Yea, well, in surfing you have your little hierarchy, especially up on the North Shore of Hawaii. I wouldn't want to cut off the wrong guy. That being said, as a photographer, the chance to hang out with a major league baseball player or any professional athlete is very small. Being able to hang out with Jamie, to basically wake him up every morning, to open his door and say "Hey get up" and him ask, you know, "what's it look like?" That would never happen with other athletes. That was very refreshing and how welcoming and open he was. More than that, I've seen a lot of talented athletes and there's a big difference between someone who is talented and someone who's so talented you call them a "natural". They make it look absolutely effortless. Jamie, who has called himself a freak, has really long arms, he kinda reminds me of Gumbi sometimes. He can bend his whole body backwards more than most people can bend it forwards and maintain his balance, not falling off his board, it's as if he's glued to the board somehow. When you start to think about what he's doing, other than friction and gravity, there's really not much that's holding him down to that board. He's so damn talented, and as I said I photographed him and I don't do that many sports anymore. For the first ten years of my career I photographed all types of athletes of pro sports, you name it, World Cup, Superbowl, Tiger Woods, etc. etc. and only a few times in my life, in my career, have I looked at someone and said that's not just talent, that's just surreal. Jamie happens to be one of them.
Some of your surfing photographs are the most surreal and beautiful I've ever seen. We know from looking at your portfolios you enjoy shooting from above with lenses that tilt, shift, and rotate . These tilt-shift lenses change the optical axis of the lens to the sensor plane. Surfing is a high speed action sport where the moment is here and gone in less than 1/60th of a second and playing with focus on these tilt-shift lenses can be relatively time consuming. While shooting the action photograph of the surfer at backdoor pipeline for Play magazine, were you able to capture that moment on the first try or are there multiple photographs we'll never see, and how much time did you spend working on that assignment?
There are usually many other photographs and you usually have more than one chance at taking some photographs, but none are THAT ONE photograph, the photograph that captures something special. That one moment, you only have one chance to ever get that. I've found a lot of similarities between shooting a photograph and what a surfer does in their approach to riding a wave. In many ways you have to let a lot of the mediocre or OK photographs or waves go by and wait for the big one. If you go too early, and the incredible one is right behind it, then there's nothing you can do about it, and if you wait too long the same thing could happen. My secret in photography is that it's often about letting go of the mediocre photographs and holding out for the big one. The thing with shooting with tilt shift lenses is that you're moving and the helicopter is moving, so it's hard enough to manually focus on a moving subject. Now when you're shooting wide open it's hard, but when you add the helicopter to it you have no real control and it gets really interesting. When I shot some tilt-shift stuff from the helicopter on the Red, that was really hard. Anyone can go up there and shoot with a regular lens at f/8 or f/11 and get everything in focus, then it's really about framing, but as soon as you throw that tilt-shift element on it, that's a way to step away from the competition.
In your opinion when does a photograph become fine art? Is it dictated by the photographer or by the audience?
I think as a photographer I always try to make a photograph that not only has aesthetic qualities, but also captures a great moment. I try to combine the two of them into one and I've always tried to imagine photographs I'm trying to make hanging up on a wall somewhere. So I'm always trying to make art. Now I don't know about fine art as that is usually up to the tastes of the curator rather than the audience or photographer.
Would you be willing to let us in on how you became a photographer and at what point was it that you knew it you'd fallen in love with still photography?
My father is a photographer and I picked up his camera when I was 16 and within a few weeks I knew it was something I wanted to do. My father tried to focus me on other things but it didn't work. I had done a lot of other types of Art before that, architecture, drawing, etc. but photography fit the bill.
Is there any advice you'd give to the up and coming surf photographers that can be found at any beach during every swell?
Understand, first of all, while it is a passion and an art, it's also a job, so make sure you can make a living at it in the long term, because it's getting increasingly more difficult. Second, while it's really good to see what everyone else is doing and try to emulate them, the only way of getting anywhere is by doing something completely different. If you see ten photographers on the beach somewhere, go as far away from them as possible.