DPP Home Profiles Joel Grimes: True Grit

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Joel Grimes: True Grit

Joel Grimes redefines his edge with bold celebrity and commercial portraiture that has kept him in high demand

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A few years ago when he started doing composites, Grimes was on the receiving end of all sorts of criticism. He persevered, and his work has stayed in demand, not only with athletes and musicians, who fit his style greatly, but also in less expected places like health care companies. No longer bound by his or anyone else's preconceived ideas of what photography is or who he is as a photographer, Grimes says the freedom he has now just to create is what keeps him moving forward.
Until he started hauling battery packs and strobes out into the field, Grimes had been a natural-light shooter. A few years ago, when he was figuring out how to evolve his style, he began experimenting and pushing his lighting techniques into new territory. He did so with a three-light approach that consists of two edge lights and one overhead. He found that this gave him the edge and grittiness needed to execute his artistic vision while allowing him the control needed to duplicate the look on location. This was quite a departure for a photographer who had spent 20 years shooting most of his portraits with the famed cross-light Rembrandt method.

Having graduated with a fine arts degree from the University of Arizona, as a student, Grimes was fascinated by how the master painters of the 17th-century Baroque and Renaissance time periods used light. A few years ago, he was able to see one of Rembrandt's original paintings in person at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Grimes stood in front of it for at least 45 minutes, he recalls, studying every element. Having always paid close attention to detail, he says the way light strikes a subject is paramount to his work, although it took years for him to realize how much influence Rembrandt would have on his images.

In his very first portraits, Grimes set out to emulate the look, and to this day, he believes the cross-light Rembrandt effect is still one of the most appealing ways in which to shoot a portrait. While he gives plenty of workshops and tutorials every year demonstrating the many lighting techniques he has used over the years, Grimes stresses that it's all within the context of what he's trying to accomplish artistically.

"Those Renaissance painters who were able to model their subjects captivated me," he explains. "I remember taking a modifier and trying to figure out how to duplicate the Rembrandt look. I didn't learn the look through a textbook; I learned it by trying different things and experimenting. My approach is to build light using an intuitive process. When I teach, I try to get my students to realize it's a visual process. One of the things I say over and over is that a technical instrument can never make a creative decision. That's reserved for the human mind. In the end, lighting isn't a technical process; it's intuitive, emotional, about feeling."
If you create from your uniqueness, people will take notice. The greatest compliment anyone could ever give me is to see an image in a magazine and say, 'That's a Joel Grimes image,' because then I'm coming through the photograph, he says.
In adapting an edgier look to his portraiture, along with hearing that he was no longer a pure photographer, Grimes also was told that his new style would back him into a corner, limiting his demand commercially. While the approach works for athletes and musicians, other photographers told him it wouldn't translate in more conservative industries. Grimes didn't listen. He recently finished up a campaign for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, and he's finding that his gritty portraiture is striking a chord with clients based in more conventional markets like health care.


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