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.

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