Joel Grimes: True Grit

A few years ago, Joel Grimes hit the reset button. He had come to a crossroads of sorts in his career. For several years, his bread and butter had been shooting portraits with a 4×5 view camera using Polaroid Type 55 film. His assignments took him all over the world as he was working for big-time advertising agencies on behalf of big-time companies with big-time budgets. Grimes loved his approach, and so did the clients. And then, "like a light switch," Grimes recalls, it came to an end. The look had run its course, leaving Grimes to figure out what to do next.

Coming to a crossroads in any profession can be difficult to navigate, but perhaps even more so when you work in an industry that doesn’t at all resemble the one you started out in 30 years ago. Shooting those large-format portraits had come to define who Grimes was as a photographer. Figuring out what to do next, particularly after finding success, was a challenge, to say the least. But Grimes, who has always kept a healthy appetite for experimentation in his work, looked at it as simply a way to up his game.

Composing A Reinvention

"Gritty," "emotional," "in your face," "larger than life" are some of the words and phrases used to convey the look the photographer is going for now. It’s a style that really lends itself to the sports world, says Grimes, who had just finished a shoot with NBA star Blake Griffin when DPP caught up with him. His subjects already look larger than life, yet Grimes makes them look stronger and tougher. He’s quick to point out that he’s not into chasing reality; rather, his interest lies in creating a place that straddles an imaginary line between two worlds, one that could be real and the other with a touch of fantasy.

To do this, not only has Grimes fully embraced high dynamic range, but he calls it one of the greatest tools in photography right now because he’s able to create an image that he simply could not in one capture. His portraits are all composites, a "natural transition" that he says has allowed him to stay in demand as a commercial photographer, but certainly caused some uproar initially among his peers.

"I remember sharing some of my early composites with colleagues and friends, and they went crazy, saying it wasn’t true photography," he recalls. "They would say, ‘You’re no longer a photographer; you’re now an illustrator.’ People told me that I had jumped ship and was no longer a purist. A purist would say I’m a large-format photographer and I contact-print. I had to ask myself, What’s the most important thing that I do? I’m an artist, and I have all these tools. I have a camera. I’m an artist that uses photography as my tool to create. And I’m still doing that. The goal is to make an impact with an image and tell a story in this fast-paced trendy environment."

When he was developing his new approach, Grimes noticed another trend that ultimately would work to his benefit later: shrinking advertising budgets. Gone were the days when a photographer had a trailer, a gaggle of assistants and time. These days, Grimes may have an hour to shoot an athlete in a hotel lobby. The look is similar to what he had been doing previously, but with the intensified drama and mood that HDR can deliver. No matter how tight the window is for getting a job done, whether 30 minutes or five hours, the final result gives no hint at how much time he had to shoot. Grimes found that this new method seemed to satisfy the creative needs, time constraints and budget limitations under which his commercial advertising clients now operate.

While his style has changed dramatically since his days as an art-school student, Grimes’ view of who he is and what he does has not. He’s an artist, a point he often returns to in workshops, lectures, interviews or casual chats about how he makes his living. By not allowing the tools he uses to define the kind of imagery he creates, his willingness to experiment has never left him.

"And that," he says, "is how you stay relevant in a business where one of the few constants is change."

Grimes likens his early embracing of composites to when he began shooting portraits in the field using portable strobes with a softbox bank in the mid-’80s. "When I first started working with strobes, it was outdoors," he says. "Back then, you would rarely find portraits taken with strobes outdoors, and people would sort of call me out. But I was never trying to hide it in the first place. And then slowly, more and more photographers started using strobes outdoors. The same goes for composites. There was some resistance at first, and now they’re everywhere. I just dove in earlier than most other photographers, and my clients have really responded. If you say, I’m going to dig my heels in and not change my approach, you’ll be left behind."

He’s quick to point out that he’s not into chasing reality; rather, his interest lies in creating a place that straddles an imaginary line between two worlds, one that could be real and the other with a touch of fantasy.

Coloring With Light

Grimes doesn’t see color. For years, his specialty was black-and-white, but that all changed upon converting to digital. His signature look now is a blend of black-and-white and color, a style that was born out of his color-blindness, which is something that he once perceived as a weakness. There are some colors, like green, that he doesn’t see at all. Once he was driving down a road with a friend who pulled over to admire a field full of purple flowers. They "screamed" at him, Grimes recalls, but for the photographer, nothing. As a result, work that involved a lot of subtle color balancing wasn’t his specialty. So out of that came the idea to take color and black-and-white images and blend the two together.

When he’s shooting, Grimes isn’t swayed by color at all. That his style reflects a quality unique to how he captures images is a lesson he tries to impart on young photographers who are just figuring out how to make their mark.

"If you create from your uniqueness, people will take notice. The greatest compliment anyone could ever give me is to see an image in a magazine and say, ‘That’s a Joel Grimes image,’ because then I’m coming through the photograph," he says. "Uniqueness is your greatest single asset because it drives you down a path that no one else has gone down. Color-blindness has driven my uniqueness as an artist."

A few years ago when he started doing composites, Grimes was on the receiving end of all sorts of criticism. He persevered, and his work has stayed in demand, not only with athletes and musicians, who fit his style greatly, but also in less expected places like health care companies. No longer bound by his or anyone else’s preconceived ideas of what photography is or who he is as a photographer, Grimes says the freedom he has now just to create is what keeps him moving forward.

Until he started hauling battery packs and strobes out into the field, Grimes had been a natural-light shooter. A few years ago, when he was figuring out how to evolve his style, he began experimenting and pushing his lighting techniques into new territory. He did so with a three-light approach that consists of two
edge lights and one overhead. He found that this gave him the edge and grittiness needed to execute his artistic vision while allowing him the control needed to duplicate the look on location. This was quite a departure for a photographer who had spent 20 years shooting most of his portraits with the famed cross-light Rembrandt method.

Having graduated with a fine arts degree from the University of Arizona, as a student, Grimes was fascinated by how the master painters of the 17th-century Baroque and Renaissance time periods used light. A few years ago, he was able to see one of Rembrandt’s original paintings in person at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Grimes stood in front of it for at least 45 minutes, he recalls, studying every element. Having always paid close attention to detail, he says the way light strikes a subject is paramount to his work, although it took years for him to realize how much influence Rembrandt would have on his images.

In his very first portraits, Grimes set out to emulate the look, and to this day, he believes the cross-light Rembrandt effect is still one of the most appealing ways in which to shoot a portrait. While he gives plenty of workshops and tutorials every year demonstrating the many lighting techniques he has used over the years, Grimes stresses that it’s all within the context of what he’s trying to accomplish artistically.

"Those Renaissance painters who were able to model their subjects captivated me," he explains. "I remember taking a modifier and trying to figure out how to duplicate the Rembrandt look. I didn’t learn the look through a textbook; I learned it by trying different things and experimenting. My approach is to build light using an intuitive process. When I teach, I try to get my students to realize it’s a visual process. One of the things I say over and over is that a technical instrument can never make a creative decision. That’s reserved for the human mind. In the end, lighting isn’t a technical process; it’s intuitive, emotional, about feeling."

If you create from your uniqueness, people will take notice. The greatest compliment anyone could ever give me is to see an image in a magazine and say, ‘That’s a Joel Grimes image,’ because then I’m coming through the photograph, he says.


In adapting an edgier look to his portraiture, along with hearing that he was no longer a pure photographer, Grimes also was told that his new style would back him into a corner, limiting his demand commercially. While the approach works for athletes and musicians, other photographers told him it wouldn’t translate in more conservative industries. Grimes didn’t listen. He recently finished up a campaign for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, and he’s finding that his gritty portraiture is striking a chord with clients based in more conventional markets like health care.

While his name in the world of celebrity and commercial portrait photography continues to grow, Grimes remains ever committed to the creative process and to pushing himself forward into new territory. He’s starting to do more fashion and beauty work, and because it’s an area to which he hasn’t devoted much energy, he sets aside time to do unpaid fashion shoots that he conceives because it helps him keep a fresh approach. He does 50 or 60 of these "self-assignments" a year.

"You have to be willing to constantly reinvent yourself," he says. "There’s such a fast turnover of ideas now. If you can’t say, I had a good run with that, but now it’s time to move on, you’re in trouble. The number of hours and the energy I’ve put into the last four years have far exceeded anything previously in my career. I knew I had to get onboard and make it happen or I was going to be selling life insurance."

Grimes calls this the greatest era of photography because of all the tools, techniques and accessibility that the digital age has made possible. But to him, many of the challenges are the same as when he started. In those days, he was making 40 cold calls a day, hoping that someone would want to look at his book. Today, he notices that there’s a whole new crop of young photographers who may not have the same breadth of technical acumen that Grimes and his peers had when they were getting started, but creatively, they’re way ahead because so much more is possible now as techniques are constantly evolving.

Grimes is one of 17 artists whose work is on display as part of the "Digital Darkroom" exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles through May. It’s a whimsical and surreal collection of images that explores the place where art and technology meet. One of the artists Grimes was particularly impressed by is 24-year-old Brooke Shaden, who uses inventive techniques like shooting photos of herself with an aquarium duct-taped to her head to create dreamlike self-portraits shot in remote-looking landscapes. One of her images became the inspiration behind a Ron Howard short film.

"An expensive camera and a master’s degree aren’t required to become a rock star in this field," Grimes says. "You just have to be willing to push those creative boundaries. The difference always comes down to one thing: If you’re an artist with a camera, you’ll get noticed; if you’re a technician with a camera, you’ll blend with the masses. In the end, it really doesn’t matter what new technical advancement is on the horizon."

Joel Grimes has spent three decades working for many of the top advertising agencies in the world. His clients include AT&T, Goldman Sachs, Hewlett-Packard, Hyatt, Qwest, Red Bull, Sony, Visa, Volvo and more. See more of his work at

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