James T. Murray: Inside & Out

Why, after a long day of working for commercial clients, would a successful photographer want to keep shooting once he steps out the studio door? In the case of James T. Murray, the answer is plain to see in the pictures he makes when a day’s gainful employment is done.

Murray is a tabletop virtuoso who creates visually stunning still lifes for the ad campaigns of top clothiers, cosmetics makers and the department stores that sell their wares. The mainstream to high-end range of his clients within those categories—Avon to Estée Lauder, Kohl’s to Saks Fifth Avenue, Victoria’s Secret to Brooks Brothers—is testimony to his skill at transforming both plain and pricey objects into objets d’art. Also shot on assignment for luxury magazines such as Departures and Tango, and appearing ever more frequently online, his images are brilliantly lighted and styled with an artist’s imagination and a craftsman’s precision.

Shaped from makeup powder, a crescent moon rises above an Art Deco edifice built from the same product’s lavender boxes, with white boxes for windows and a decorative row of upright eye-shadow brushes, ferrules gleaming. Impasto strokes of rouge paint the Chinese character for that ancient cheek-flushing cosmetic. Perfect curves of false eyelashes float in what seems to be a petri dish, like fantastic microbes. A pure-white bulldog pup wears an extravagant jade necklace with bulldog nonchalance. Shiny, multicolored wallets form a multistoried house of cards. The latest fashions, though no model inhabits them, have a gesture, if not an attitude.

Outside that invented world, though, Murray is an altogether different photographer. As if to say that the larger world can’t be controlled by the way things are in the studio, Murray "finds" his subjects rather than building them and willingly relinquishes much of the technical control that contributes to his commercial success.

"I think of my commercial work as ‘making’ photos and my outside-the-studio work as ‘taking’ photos," he explains.

Shot mostly with a Leica Digilux 2, a compact camera with a fast 28-90mm (equivalent) zoom and a mere 5 megapixels of resolution, these striking images fall somewhere between impressionism and expressionism.

The content of the photographs is mainly the New York City environment in which Murray works, plays and lives—and which, of course, is "built" by others, not Murray. He also shoots in other cities on visits for both business and pleasure. The images are full of blurry shapes, streaky lights, off-kilter colors, dazzling reflections, weatherworn surfaces, and the scratches, gouges and utilitarian strokes of paint that seem to form an untranslatable urban alphabet.

"I find that shooting outside the studio exercises other parts of my brain," says Murray. "I challenge myself to find something interesting in the most mundane moments—riding in an elevator or waiting in line at a deli."

Recently published in a lavish, large-format monograph titled Elucidate, Murray’s personal photography has had a dramatic influence on his commercial work, both in the ways he shoots and in the kinds of projects that clients who see it now bring to him. It’s a two-way creative dynamic, far removed from Murray’s early, yeoman years, in which he plied his trade in places that might have crushed the passion of a less committed photographer.

Starting in his senior year in high school, he worked as an in-house assistant at publisher McGraw-Hill, shooting everything from book covers to executive portraits, but learning valuable lessons about everything, from view-camera operation to studio lighting. Murray then put in nearly eight years assisting a couple of New York City photographers. When he finally went solo, a "very, very slow" start forced him to take a job at what he describes as "a very low-end catalog house." There he shot still lifes while harboring the hope of becoming a fashion photographer.

"I got the job through the ‘help wanted’ ads," he recalls. "The guys at the studio worked directly with clients and acted as stylist, art director and photographer. We were given two hours to complete a shot, along with four sheets of 4×5 Polaroid and three sheets of 4×5 Ektachrome. A typical setup would include anywhere from 10 to 100 items—everything from watches to bicycles, and sometimes both. We shot jewelry, clothing, glassware, electronics, toys and silverware. I had long days, low pay and not much free time, but now I realize what a blessing in disguise it was." The jack-of-all-photo-trades job taught Murray styling and art-directing skills that many photographers never have a chance to learn.

Murray’s assisting gigs, one with Bob Kiss and the other with David Price, provided other important lessons. The first one, with Kiss, began with a cold call. "Soon after I knocked on his door, I was working 12-hour days in the studio and the darkroom," Murray recalls. "I thought I knew how to make a good black-and-white print, but Bob’s skills surpassed anything I’d been exposed to."

Even the 12-hour days were teachable. "Bob’s work ethic and his unwillingness to settle for ‘good enough’ had a huge impression on me," says Murray. "Those traits are deeply ingrained in my day-to-day work."

Getting work through "help wanted" ads after he decided to go solo, Murray took a catalog job that required him to play the roles of photographer, art director and stylist. The experience would prove invaluable to his career as he developed skills that many photographers never get to. That he’s able to make a leather jacket look as though it should be hanging in a gallery is a testament to how adept he is at turning an object to be worn into one that’s admired. Murray’s personal photographs have profoundly influenced his commercial work. His recently published, large-format monograph, Elucidate, which shows what he spends his time on shooting away from the studio, has only strengthened that effect. Since its release, the book has shaped what kind of projects his clients bring, along with giving them other ideas about the images that Murray can create with their products.

And while the photographer’s intended career as a fashion specialist never materialized, he still applies lessons learned from David Price. "He exposed me to a fashion aesthetic and taught me how clothes should fall," says Murray. "More important, he made me realize that you have to study what’s in front of the lens before committing it to film."

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 Mu
rray 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

You can see more of James T. Murray’s photography at www.jamestmurray.com.

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