Murray's film experience also instilled the habit of getting what he wants in a single shot. That keeps postproduction to a minimum, of course. But the needed previsualization also makes photographs stronger because it infuses them with the real experience of being in a place or confronting a particular subject. Ansel Adams would have commended that approach, though Murray doesn't count him among his most admired photographers, who include still-life genius Irving Penn, transcendental stylist Richard Avedon and, less likely but most important of all, beauty and celebrity guru Victor Skrebneski. "It wasn't until I saw Skrebneski's Life magazine portfolio of rock musicians that the idea of making a living taking pictures ever entered my mind," says Murray.
Film lessons learned, Murray switched to digital early on. "I bought some of the first Phase One digital backs available in the U.S., and have been using them ever since," he says. "I haven't shot on film since 1998." Murray's favored models include the 16-megapixel Phase One H20 and 39-megapixel Phase One P 45+, which he mounts on 6x6cm Hasselblad 555 and 6x8cm Fujifilm GX680 bodies.
The photographer's strobe of choice is also a workhorse, the Speedotron, though he isn't locked into any particular style of lighting. "It depends on the project at hand," he says. "My main philosophy is that the impression of a single, elegantly placed light source is best." And for Murray, lighting can't be conceived separately from styling. "I think they really need to complement each other for an image to be successful," he adds.
In this endeavor, Murray depends heavily on studio manager Yuco Lacovara. "She's my second set of eyes," he explains. "We've been working together for over 10 years. We're so much in tune aesthetically that there are long periods when we don't even talk—we just know what needs to be done."
I challenge myself to find something interesting in the most mundane moments riding in an elevator or waiting in line at a deli.Which is not to say that Murray doesn't heed his art directors. "When we have an AD on set, I make a concerted effort to understand what it is they need to show and say with the photographs," he says. "Only then can we discuss ways in which to accomplish that, possible problems that might arise, and what the solutions to those problems might be. The key word is 'listen.' On the other hand, an art director needs to trust his or her photographer."
Murray's art directors also appear to trust his ability to move beyond exquisite set pieces. He has shared Elucidate with many of them, and the book has netted him an international ad campaign for InterContinental Hotels, as well as a book for boutique publisher Assouline, Manolo Valdés: Broadway, on a massive, miles-long New York City installation by that Spanish sculptor. "The book has also given clients other ideas about what we can do with their products," he says. "I've even had them ask me to re-create the feeling of a specific image from the book.
"The light in midtown Manhattan continues to fascinate me. With all of the recent glass skyscrapers that have gone up, sunlight bounces and is refracted and reflected in so many beautiful ways. I can get lost at times, just following this light."
I decided that I wanted to become a commercial photographer after seeing a portfolio of black-and-white pictures by Victor Skrebneski in Life magazine, around 1978. They were of music icons of that time. There was a picture of David Bowie crossing diagonally through the frame that just stopped me on the page. I wanted to take pictures like that.
Fast-forward 30 years. I'm shooting for Saks Fifth Avenue and sitting across the table from the creative director. He tells me that he'd like me to do the stills for a book on evening wear for which Skrebneski would be shooting the fashion. He sees the look on my face and asks if I know Victor's work. I tell him yes, that Skrebneski's work is the reason I decided to become a photographer. And the creative director asks me to tell that story to Victor.
Two weeks later, I get a call to come and meet Victor. Needless to say, I was very nervous to meet an idol of mine. We met, and I told him the story. A couple of weeks later, I received a package from Skrebneski's studio. Inside was a signed print of the Bowie photo that influenced me so very much. To this day, it's one of my most prized possessions.
—James T. Murray
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