DPP Home Profiles Stan Musilek - Mixing It Up

Friday, June 15, 2007

Stan Musilek - Mixing It Up

Taking advantage of the latest digital capture and postproduction tools keeps Stan Musilek's work fresh and evocative

There's A Perfect Tool For Every Job

Musilek's fondness for freshness also manifests itself in his love for the best tools. He has always preferred working with the newest high-tech equipment available. Since the early 1990s, he has had a digital department in his studio, and today he works with a custom-machined view camera that can incorporate each of his Leaf and Phase One digital backs. He believes the quality produced from his custom digital system is equal to large-format film, with one major difference: he no longer needs a tripod.

“The quality we can produce is the equivalent of a handheld 8x10,” Musilek says. “I used to shoot everything with a Linhof Technika, and I thought I needed something like that in digital. So I had it made by a machinist. It's basically as big as a Hasselblad, but it's a view camera. When you do it right, this stuff looks like 8x10 chromes, and you can handhold it. That's the beauty of the new thing.”

This new thing gives Musilek previously unheard-of control—the ability to handhold a camera and produce 8x10 film quality. That merger of image quality and portable freedom is partly why he's such a passionate digital advocate. From the beginning, he knew that digital capture would have a big impact on his work, so he became an early adopter of new technologies.

“I saw it coming,” he says. “I saw what was possible in Photoshop. I saw the lighting techniques and the things I would do as a still-lifer—basically, the tricks of the trade. Something that would take me six hours if I did it in the camera would take an hour in Photoshop. You kind of go, ‘Hmm. This isn't something that can be discarded.'

“I'd say that 95 percent of jobs in the last four years were shot digitally,” he continues. “All my stuff is large-format, so the complete transition to digital would have happened earlier if my previous work hadn't been all large-format. It needs to look the way it looks, always. We went through huge trials and tribulations with the beginning of the digital transition. I kind of embraced it, being so close to Silicon Valley, working on the Apple account. I jumped on it fairly early, and the early-adoption process meant we were getting huge resistance from the art directors or the clients, people feeling that digital wasn't ready and so on.”

Keeping Things Germ-Free

In recent years, the clients have started to fully embrace digital capture, too, so Musilek is all too happy to oblige. Though with increased client acceptance comes even greater demands for perfection, and so he again turns to technology. While the computer is a crucial part of his workflow—every image spends at least a day in his digital department—Musilek believes in a “transparent” Photoshop workflow that helps achieve visual perfection without detracting from his graphically simple and powerful visual style.

“We don't do a dog flying through the air,” he explains. “It's basically the super-souped-up darkroom work that you could never do in a darkroom. A lot of the shots look fairly simple, yet [for example] I shot the wall in Paris, the sky in L.A. and the girl here in the studio. Yes, it was possible before computers, but it's the ease with which you can do this now that makes the difference.”

Musilek relies on digital imaging to help him achieve clean photographs; as he puts it, they're “germ-free.” The models have perfect hair, perfect skin and “no ugliness at all.” The same goes for every highlight and shadow in his still-life works. It's this level of computer-aided perfection that sets his digital work apart from what he did in the days of film.

“I'm not saying that film is an inadequate medium,” he explains. “It's just not practical anymore for the way we work. Particularly when shooting people, and the skin, hair and wardrobe, the expectation for perfection has risen to another level. Our skills have improved—we know what we can do now—and suddenly stuff we did two years ago seems fairly lame. There's this element of playing and exploring beyond what used to be the traditional film choices or darkroom paper choices. I'll shoot the job maybe with two or three different looks, and then we'll decide which way to go. With film, it wouldn't even be an option because of budget and time.


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