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.

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