Ian Spanier began taking photographs at age six when his parents gave him his first point-and-shoot camera. After majoring in photography in college, he spent more than 20 years as a freelance photographer and over a decade as a photo editor at magazines such as GQ, ESPN, Esquire, Marie Claire, Us Weekly, and Men’s Journal. Ian is a member of the Lowepro Loweprofessionals team and a brand ambassador for Westcott, Platypod, Imagenomic, and Hoodman USA. There is no one subject or location that exclusively draws his lens; Ian works anywhere and everywhere, photographing what he sees.
We chatted with Ian to discuss some of his ideas and approaches to photography. Ian will be teaching his class Environmental Portraits: Lighting on Location March 24 - 29, 2019.
SFPW: What is your general approach to lighting on location? Do you bring a lot of gear or do you try to keep your shoot simple?
Ian Spanier: I’ve always been a pretty technical guy when it comes to lighting- yes I do believe in using a light meter, but with the technical feel is very important. I don’t care what the numbers are- sometimes the feeling of a light needs to be an adjustment made despite proper settings- or what some may think is, “right.” This likely is a by-product of being very much so self-taught. As I was making my mistakes, then evolving, (something I believe we should all do, FAIL to LEARN), I discovered the feel of light for my style. This is something I never stop developing. I feel it is so important to never stop learning.
When it comes to gear, I like to work with less. I often look at these elaborate sets photographers create to get their shot- and I think I could do that with half the lights. Everyone has their own style, nothing wrong with that, and there are times when lots of lights are there to impress the client- but I’m more impressed when the final image from a set with one or two lights looks like a big budget shoot.
SFPW How did you break into the world of environmental and editorial portraiture?
Ian Spanier: My career is not a typical one, although I have had a camera since I was six years old, I tried like heck NOT to be a photographer. I studied it in High School and went to college intending to enter into a career in Sports Medicine. After an awful first Trimester, I started taking art classes to keep my grades up. In the Spring, photography came up and I figured I would do well since I already had darkroom skills and a camera. Before I knew it I was in the darkroom more than the training room and I ultimately switched my focus (forgive the pun). My advisor encouraged me to do the Great Lakes New York Arts Program and I worked for two photographers in NY. After ten weeks in NY, I was certain college was a joke and the real world was where it’s at! Despite, I believe in finishing what you start, so I was determined to finish college. The following summer I had an internship at GQ Magazine and found that being a Photo Editor would allow me to be around photography- but not shoot. I loved looking at a photographer’s work- so it seemed like a no-brainer, and I could always keep shooting on my own for fun. I finished school and ended up back at GQ that next summer. Fate stepped in, and not two weeks into the job something needed to be photographed- and there was no time to hire someone. I volunteered and that started my career in magazine photography. I evolved from still life to travel, then portraits and even fashion (although it’s not my bag). Although I worked in studio a lot- it was always working on location that really inspired me. Editors responded to my work, and I was fortunate to shoot while I was photo editing. Ultimately I let my path unfold and I left editing behind and concentrated on just being a photographer full time.
SFPW: What kind of subject and imagery are you drawn to personally? Is that similar to the work you tend to be hired for or is your personal work different?
Ian Spanier: I love shooting portraits. Conveying someone’s story in an image is challenging, rewarding, and the psychology behind it fulfills so much for me. One of the aspects that deterred me from wanting a career in photography at the start was the idea I would be sacrificing “my way” of seeing the world to satisfy a commercial world. Many years I floated unsure of what “my thing” was. Eventually, I figured out that I was being hired to shoot what I do, and to have confidence in “my view” for those that hire me. It wasn’t until I discovered that about myself that I realized I’ve always been drawn to a style of commercial work not unlike what I shoot. Partly as that became my training, and looking back- it was most often the photography I responded to back in college. Namely, portraits that told a story, beyond words, or when in conjunction with words became that much more powerful. My big influences being Avedon, Irving Penn, Brassai, Weegee, Dorthea Lange, Harry Benson, Edward Steichen, Albert Watson.
My personal work has always been connected to my commercial work as Unchained, I can do what I want creatively…as I learned, creatives who hire me have often asked me to mimic that style for them. This was an important lesson on the power and necessity for photographers to exercise their creative process and have personal projects. This has been a big part of my philosophy about photography as a career. It’s ever-evolving- if you allow it to be. I am never satisfied doing the same thing over and over and expecting things to change- that’s the definition of insanity. I prefer Darwin, evolution.