interview Jan Oswald
How long have you been a professional photographer?
Since I graduated from school in 1973, it’s the only profession I’ve had.
How did you get started, and why photography?
My uncle took family photos, and as a child I loved watching him take the portraits and then develop them in his darkroom at my grandmother’s house.
I got my first camera at age ten. I loved being able to stand back and observe and then record my observations on film.
Do you have formal training or education?
Brooks Institute, where I had an exceptional teacher and mentor, Phil Cohen.
Your images seem to bridge a gap between fine art and commercial advertising. Many photographers talk about doing that; however, most are unable to do so. How were you able to achieve this?
I had a very strong background in art history—my mother took us to museums from a young age. And I wanted to be an artist and even had a museum show while still in school. So it has always been fine art that inspired me. I do a lot of experimental work when not doing commercial work, and that has always guided my approach to commercial jobs.
How would you describe your lighting style?
Based on an understanding of natural light as point (the sun) and broad (the shade) sourced. It has to be natural to gain the viewers’ acceptance so they accept the image as a real possibility. Then I like to add luminous aspects for interest.
At what stage of your creative process do you consider lighting?
From the initial stage. I previsualize my final image and work backward to achieve the desired lighting effect I’ve conceived.
Let’s look at your image titled Melon on Blue Plate—describe how your lighting acts as part of the image composition.
Highlight and shadow are always part of any composition in photography, as they become part of the abstract tonal range of the image as much as any other element or object in the design. In this image I had become interested in very low early-morning light situations where the sun streaks across objects and creates a lot of contrast. And in this case it holds the image elements together.
What is the first element you wish the viewer to see?
The highlight on the melon slice.
Zen Tulips and Melon on Blue Plate use two very different lighting styles. How did you determine the best style for each image?
When I did Zen Tulips, I was inspired by flowers in a vase on my dining room table. They had bent and turned in an evocative manner toward the large glass expanse in the back of my house. I gathered them up and took them to the studio, where I had painted a blue background, and lit them with my broad 6-foot bank light. I aimed them to flow from left to right to enhance that “yearning” effect. I wanted a broad window lighting effect, as that’s what I had observed in my house.
In the Melon image I had been observing the light from the sun as it just crept in that same glass expanse and skimmed across the floor. And I was doing a series of simple food items on plates on backgrounds I had painted. Plums on Copper Plate is also in that series. In this case it was a monochromatic palette, and the strong light was needed to give it some contrast and visual interest.
Over the decades my style has evolved. I began experimenting by imitating the style of others. First it was the Dutch still life compositions. The Dutch masters used window light for their paintings, and I wanted to explore that style. It is exemplified in my image Still Life with Broken Glass.
I admired the purity of the lighting style of Irving Penn, and his work had a strong influence, as seen in Single Calla and Zen Tulips.
Later I started using the early-morning strong cross-lighting I had observed on my dining room floor. This is seen in Melon on Blue Plate and Plums on Copper Plate.
Next I combined those elements with luminous lighting elements, as seen in Watching.
How do you determine what lights and modifiers you’ll use? Do you have any favorites? If so, what are they and why?
I’ve always used a limited number of lights. The large bank light duplicates the clear sky or foggy day that is so desirable for outdoor photography. When it’s placed very close to an object, the light actually wraps around the object.
I use a couple of spotlights, one larger and one with a more focused spot. And I use a light painting tool with a very intense beam in some cases.
Most of the time I have a fill card or mirror or even a small light box of some sort to slightly fill the shadows.
Do you have a favorite of the images selected for this book?
My favorite of these images is Watching. Conceptually, to me, it embodies my approach to lighting and composition. I observe, take it all in, then apply it outward to create the final image.