Ethan Pines: The Storyteller

Ethan Pines not only knows how to take a good picture, he knows how to tell a good story. The award-winning editorial and commercial work he produces has underlying backstories that give a depth to images, which often are worth far more than the requisite thousand words of the old adage.

DPP: Your career goals at both the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia were aimed in a very different direction than what you ended up doing, yet in a sense, it shows up in many of your photos. How did storytelling in a single image with a camera evolve?

Ethan Pines: I got my BA in English at Penn because I wanted to be a writer. I grew up in Los Angeles and came back here after school, and ended up writing for the accounting firm Arthur Andersen, doing proposals for the marketing department for them to get new clients. It was very much a burnout job and not where my heart was. So I went to Columbia for an intensive one-year Master’s degree program in journalism. Then I wrote for a newspaper in North Carolina for a bit, then went back to New York, where I did freelance writing. This was during the whole Internet boom, so there was a lot of copywriting work around. But I wasn’t really enjoying the process. I was on the computer all the time.

While I was doing the freelance work, I wrote some short stories and had a dramatic reading of a one-act play I wrote at the Westbeth Theatre in New York. To see actors doing it live was great. But did I want to be a novelist or a playwright? Not really. Two friends and I had a television show on the college station, so initially I thought I would get into TV, but I got into this copywriting world. I started feeling that this wasn’t how I wanted to spend my life—being in front of a computer all the time. It’s a purely cerebral job. There’s nothing tactile about it. I moved back to Los Angeles and promised myself that I would get a job that got me off the computer and out into the world.

DPP: How did you end up choosing photography for your next career challenge?

Pines: I took a photography class at Santa Monica College (SMC) out of just random interest. I knew nothing about photography. I didn’t even know what aperture meant. Until then, I had shot only point-and-shoots on automatic. Learning how to take a picture in the manual mode was so eye-opening. I fell in love with photography. I started taking more and more classes at SMC. I knew that I had found what I was looking for. Photography gets you out into the world and has a technical side and a creative side, both of which I had yearned for, but up until then hadn’t quite found in one medium. I did the certificate program in photography, which I completed in 2002.


Early in his career, Pines discovered that it’s less important for a portrait to fit a particular aesthetic than for it to tell a story. “When I was first shooting editorials for magazines such as L.A. City Beat, the money was so low, but I had artistic freedom. It was a great boot camp. It was a weekly magazine, and I was shooting for them all the time. I got access to people I would never have gotten access to otherwise, which helped me build a better portfolio. I knew I had to shoot something that worked for the article, but I would ask myself, ‘What do I want to do here?'” says Pines.

DPP: Did the school focus on film or digital?

Pines: They had Better Light scanning backs for the 4×5 for shooting still lifes, but that was about it at the time. Now they have medium-format tethered setups. But shooting and printing in film taught me what’s going to look good in a photograph and what’s going to look tacky or fake or contrived in a photograph. Even if all your retouching is going to be digital thereafter, having experience working in a darkroom helps you understand where you can take a photo in a classy, substantive way. I hardly shot any digital until about three years out of SMC. By that time, I had assisted a number of photographers.

DPP: How much of what you do these days is in postprocessing and how much is in-camera?

Pines: I try and do as much as I can in-camera for a few reasons. I think the results look better, I enjoy challenging myself, and I want to spend as little time in front of the computer as possible. I think compositing can be liberating, and there’s a time for that.

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