His career is one of utilizing the latest tools while staying true to classic visual traditions. During and soon after his studies at Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design, Wexler’s first major successes were in the music world creating album art. He collaborated with legendary bands including Van Halen, Yes, Black Sabbath and ZZ Top, a daunting task for a seasoned photographer, but one all the more impressive for a shooter still in his 20s. He found that the recording industry provided a “visual playground” for him to develop his signature style.
Wexler soon expanded beyond the music world, creating photo illustrations for major film studios as well as for editorial and advertising clients. He was an early advocate of digital technology, seeing how its photographic potential could further enlarge his already-expanding universe of techniques and clients.
DigitalPhoto Pro: How did your interest in photo illustration evolve?
Glen Wexler: As an art student, I started using photography to create improbable situations that looked real. I’ve referred to the process as working from the inside out versus the outside in. Traditionally, photography is used as a medium to document, in which the photographer seeks or sets up images. The photographer’s vision is represented by a series of subjective decisions while recording the subject. In terms of illustrating an idea, I found that I could reverse engineer an image into manageable elements, which I would shoot specifically for a pre-visualized outcome.
DPP: How often are they your ideas versus coming from a client?
GW: Advertising projects are usually based on a concept that’s been preapproved by the client. About 25 percent of the time, I’m engaged at the conceptual stage, but more often it’s a matter of interpretation of the agency’s layouts. On the other hand, the music industry has provided tremendous freedom to develop images from the ground up. Of course, I create personal images as well but also endeavor to make commissioned work personal.
DPP: What’s the evolution of an image from inception to execution?
GW: For me, a strong idea or narrative is the foundation of the image. Then it’s a matter of how to communicate the concept in a unique, engaging and memorable way. When pre-visualizing the execution, if the image in my head feels familiar, it probably is, and I move on to work toward an execution that feels fresh. Once I’m comfortable with my pre-visualization, I’m ready to start the reverse engineering.
Prior to digital tools, I would use traditional methods such as multiple exposures in camera or in the darkroom. We would often retouch on a print or an 8×10 transparency. When digital editing tools became available in the late 1980s, originally on a Quantel Paintbox, this provided a far more efficient way to combine photographic elements. In 1992, I set up digital editing in-house using an Apple Quadra 950. Until the early 2000s, I would output the final image to an 8×10 transparency to address color-matching issues during reproduction. By 2005 I felt the benefits of digital capture outweighed film and converted to an all-digital workflow. Everything is delivered digitally, but we’ll often supply a reference print as a tangible color guide.
DPP: What equipment are you working with these days?
GW: Recent advertising work has been shot on a Hasselblad with an 80-megapixel Phase One back. I’m also shooting with a Canon 5DS R. All editing is in Photoshop. I work with a MacPro tower with 48GB of RAM, SD drives for the boot and scratch disks, and countless TBs of storage. My primary monitor is a 32-inch NEC, and I use a Wacom tablet.
DPP: You’ve created a number of “photographic logos,” including those for the 20th anniversary of the “Star Wars” trilogy and “Batman Forever.” What exactly are they and how do you create them?
GW: I began creating type and logo treatments for album covers, which eventually attracted commissions for film and advertising projects. Originally, I would design and create physical props to shoot. I still love the organic nuances of lighting tangible objects, but recent logo projects have incorporated CGI models. CGI allows more flexibility for the client to make revisions, as well as being less expensive overall. That said, with all digital post and CGI, I use my experience from the analog world in making subjective manipulations to my images.
DPP: What are your pre-production and post-production processes?
GW: Most of my work is in the pre-production with the goal of creating the essence of the final image in camera. Typically, I’ll produce a very accurate sketch of the final shot for composition and perspective. The next steps may include selecting background plates from my archives, model or set building, procuring props and wardrobe, and casting talent. The shoots are almost like a day off since all of the problem solving is done in advance, and I generally have a crew of assistants and stylists. If I’m incorporating CGI models, they are rendered to match the perspective and lighting of the photography. Most of the CGI is produced in Maya or 3DS Max. Finally, all of the individual elements are seamed together in Photoshop.
DPP: Let’s talk about the creation of some images that illustrate your ability to evolve with the technology?
GW: In 1990, “Stick It to Ya” for the band Slaughter was the last album cover I created using traditional compositing. The technical approach is typical of many projects, which were composited prior to digital post. The model was shot on the prop wheel in the studio against a painted cloud backdrop on 4×5 film. The carnival is part of the main shot as well. It is a miniature set piece that was positioned in perspective. The foreground surface was also a miniature but shot separately. The two 4×5 transparencies were then double exposed in the darkroom onto a single sheet of 8×10 duplication film.
DPP: You created the “Balance” album cover few years after that for Van Halen. Take us from concept to completion.
GW: When developing the concept, I asked what the title “Balance” meant to the band. Alex Van Halen discussed the current turmoil and changes that were happening, including coming to terms with the recent death of their long-time manager. Alex had this notion of exploring the duality of the human psyche, which was very unexpected. Van Halen was perceived as being a fun-loving party band, and here was a very smart, introspective and challenging concept to visualize. I produced several rough sketches to illustrate the idea, including the conjoined twins on the seesaw, which would be created by combining photographs of the androgynous child and a studio set. Other than the obvious expression of inseparable male and female characteristics, the realization of the image began to focus on a number of ironies: the impossibility of the conjoined twins actually playing on the seesaw; the calm twin actually being the aggressive one, pulling the hair of his sibling to create the appearance of an aggressive child and having no one else to play with in a desolate post-apocalyptic setting, in which unusable playground equipment is the only object in sight. I designed the twins to mimic the shape of the “VH” logo.
DPP: In addition to musical legends, you’ve teamed up or been inspired by a number of celebrities. Your 2006 “On Location in Greenland” is a good example of the free flow of creativity that you’re able to translate into dramatic images.
GW: Eric Idle from Monty Python penned the foreword to my book, “The Secret Life of Cows.” He wrote, “Glen is a seven-foot Scotsman with a wooden leg whom I met Frog Rolling on an Eskimo trip in Northern Greenland. We were sheltering in a sauna at a local bordello with an Icelandic babe called Splut…” There was no way I could not illustrate this narrative and include it in the book.
DPP: How did you create “Towards Oblivion?”
GW: I was shooting backgrounds for an editorial assignment in Death Valley in 2008 in an area call Badwater, which is the lowest point in North America. After shooting salt flats for about an hour, I was walking back to the main road when a bus of Japanese tourists pulled up. A group of about 30 people passed me. As I turned around, I saw a surreal scene of this group dispersing—they appeared to be walking into nothingness, including a nun who had stopped to study a hole in the ground. Typically, my images are completely pre-visualized, deconstructed and assembled, but this one was there for the taking. I shoot on location often for backgrounds. This was the first and only time that a “completed” improbable reality didn’t need to be set-up or constructed.
DPP: For a recent advertising campaign “Where There’s Business, There’s Epson” you became the tourist in Japan as well as doing work in New York.
GW: It was a global branding campaign integrating a wide range of Epson products into futuristic visions of international cities. I created versions of Tokyo and New York. The night scenes of the cities are stitched panoramas of 12 to 18 80Mpx Phase One captures. The un-cropped cityscapes are 32,000 pixels wide. My team designed and created the new CGI elements, which were all combined using Photoshop. To take advantage of the multimedia world we live in, we made a behind-the-scenes video of how we created this futuristic world (vimeo.com/145582533).