James T. Murray: Inside & Out

"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."

Leave a Reply