On the Cover: Michael Grecco
by Martha Blanchfield
April 01, 2010 — On the Cover: Michael Grecco
The boy who most liked “conceptual art and experiential art photography” in high school is now the man who’s conceptualizing a wave of influential digital photo art in Los Angeles. “After watching Starsky and Hutch on TV I knew I needed to be in that Southern California environment,” laughs Michael Grecco, top photographer of celebrity, editorial and commercial assignments. In 1987 he departed New England, and a budding career as a news photographer, to head for the thrills of Hollywood. The migration offered twists and turns—taking him to the boardrooms of major corporations, inside private mansions and even onto the sets of the U.S. porn industry.
Grecco is stylish, polished and precise, much like the cover imagery and inside photos he creates for a wide range of magazines, including everything from Life, BusinessWeek, Forbes and Time, to Sports Illustrated, Men’s Health and even Playboy. Major corporations like GE, Walt Disney Company, Crown Publishers and Apple all have tapped his magic. Top advertising and marketing agencies such as BBDO, TBWA/Chiat Day, Saatchi & Saatchi and Grey Advertising keep him close at hand.
Grecco is a pro when it comes to creating cover looks, having landed his first publication front with New York Magazine in 1982 while working as a freelancer for the Providence, RI photo agency Picture Group. That first image, produced as a news assignment, was of the enigmatic Claus von Bülow during the infamous trial wherein Claus was accused of attempted murder of his wife.
Calling up more of a formal cover assignment, he references an image done in the early 90s: a photo of Janet Jackson for Entertainment Weekly. A second favorite of that era done for the same publication was of Chris Farley (see left). “This image was produced originally while working on a Bikini Magazine cover package. One of the unpublished images was then picked up and ran on the cover of a memorial issue that Entertainment Weekly produced,” states Grecco. “After Chris passed away, the editors produced a tribute issue profiling him. They selected my photograph. It was an honor to know Chris; he truly was a delight to work with.”
In celebrity photography circles, Grecco’s acclaim rapidly rose. By 1987 he was a regular contributor to People, covering A-list celeb parties and major awards such as the Golden Globes, the Emmys and the Oscars. His images were landing on more and more covers. On a quieter path, Grecco was scooping up freelance assignments doing movie set photography for film and TV. The time spent on and near the sets turned out to be a powerful influence, greatly tempering how he would reshape his own photography. This time exposed him to new techniques and styles of illumination, ultimately helping him perfect that sharp signature look.
Grecco began applying personalized techniques while working on smaller assignments and projects, mostly when photographing executives assigned as cover and editorial for business publications. The editors deemed his new look to be very powerful—just the vision needed to play up corporate leadership. He shares, “One of the biggest style shifts for me was the addition of very strong directional strobe lighting with much of my location work. Strobe lighting offered a feel markedly different from what was currently favored by the publications. My images were contrasty and vivid, the darker backgrounds looked epic.” The overall approach for each assignment was altered too. “My sessions now had a set, theme and conceptual message. I wanted the subject to appear as more than just a person in a photo—I built a set around him or her to play up persona. Every detail was considered.” This new way of seeing and working was eventually something Grecco coined, “conceptual photography.”
Aside from signature lighting and staging most suited for a cover, Grecco knows how to optimally frame to allow for drop-in overlays. “I need to be artful, yet remain mindful of where logo, title and type may fall. Color and background need to complement; this also applies to wardrobe and prop tones.” For his Forbes cover look with Cisco chief executive John Chambers (see below), Grecco included essential hardware and cable trunk props, plus a gilded frame. He positioned Chambers in a contemplative pose but heightened the effect by casting light onto his face and shoulders. He then placed his camera below and slightly to the side of the executive’s direct line of sight—yielding an image that displays executive power, but with a hint of slyness; the bold phrase, “Power Hungry,” adjacent.
Grecco produces cover images like this using a Hasselblad H3DII-50 (he also has a Canon EOS 5D Mark II), Dynalite, Broncolor HMIs lights, Apple computers and Adobe Photoshop are mainstays, and he often uses Chimera softboxes and soft fabrics plus grids to create little pools of light, interest and detail in his looks.
Statistics show that featuring a person in a photo, whether advertisement, book or magazine cover, can build a connection with the viewer. Magazines know that an engaging cover, especially one where the model captures a viewer’s glance, can be a tipping point to cause a consumer to reach and purchase. After all, it’s the meaningful gaze given the photographer that is the same given the viewer.
Having produced hundreds of covers in his 25-year career, Grecco certainly can capture that gaze. “Covering red carpet and celebrity events was a great starting point for picking up more work overall. The event photography led to more commercial assignments, which afforded more one-on-one time with models and subjects. Both assignment types eventually helped pave the way toward what I most love: portrait work.”
But he shares it was still somewhat of a leap to go from impersonal red carpet work, to successful commercial looks, to landing the prized portrait session. “A challenge at the start was that event work really offered little intimacy, and intimacy is what’s most needed to build connections with subjects.” As the number of his commercial assignments rose, the importance of being able to relate to and draw out his subjects became even more marked. “I found myself at a point where I knew I needed opportunities for more one-on-one sessions in order to really produce a solid image, whether for commercial assignment or
The Cover That Was
An example of that winning glance can be seen in a 2005 cover assignment with Steven Spielberg (see above). Production of Spielberg’s movie Munich was veiled under immense secrecy, with only one advance interview and print exclusive allowed to the media. The film, a historical portrayal of the Israeli government’s secret retaliation attacks following the Munich massacre of Israeli athletes by the Black September militant group during the 1972 Summer Olympics, was ultimately profiled by Time, and Grecco was solely selected to photograph the master. He recounts, “The photo session itself was a grand production with many people involved, last minute detail changes, much discussion over controversial elements for the final background, props to create, and an incredibly tight turnaround time.”
The portrait sitting was scheduled for Tuesday after Thanksgiving. The creative director, photo director and Grecco volleyed back and forth over background choices for the cover. Four choices were on the table: a distressed concrete wall, a wall peppered with bullet holes, an image with the five Olympics rings visible and Grecco’s choice: the Associated Press (AP) news image “Black September Terrorist.” On the Friday prior to the session, a decision was finally reached regarding background image. Grecco’s choice won, but not after heated debate to also rule out a filmstrip view of all four images.
Immediately, permission had to be obtained to print, frame and use the photo. An FTP of the file was ordered and sent to a production team, which output a 4 x 8-foot transparency onto clear film mounted onto Plexiglas, then framed. “All this had to be coordinated, produced and to the Universal Studios in record time. And in the midst of this flurry, Spielberg had to be contacted and give permission for the look.”
The session happened as planned with an expectation that Spielberg would be on hand for two hours. “At an hour and three quarters into the shoot he had to break for pressing matters, but did return to give us a remaining 20 minutes.” Grecco fashioned a powerful set of high contrast looks using gray, red and black dominating. In advance, he anticipated and dealt with the potential for reflection showing up due to the Plexiglas; grids and spots were positioned accordingly. He slanted light onto Spielberg to vividly, yet softly frame his face.
The Cover That Wasn’t
“Here’s a story about a cover that did not make it,” laughs Grecco. He and the talent thoroughly staged the image (see above) with the intent to make it the book’s jacket. He says it happens to be one of the funniest sessions and output series he’s created in a long while. Why didn’t it make the cover? “Chelsea was having a bad hair day!” he shares. “My images were in the final round of submissions, but unfortunately were not chosen. I hear Chelsea had the editors deliberating over options right up to the last minute.”
Chelsea Handler is a stand-up comedian, television host and actress with her own late night talk show, Chelsea Lately. For her newest book, Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang, Grecco wished to spoof the title (her father was a junk car fanatic, hence the alliteration). Taking personality to heart, Grecco built a nutty set for a one-day shoot. The production featured an uncomplicated cloud-dotted sky as backdrop. A junk car was brought in. Grecco had a hole punched through the vinyl rooftop to allow Chelsea, in a glam green gown destined for her impending round of Hollywood awards shows, to fit through. Once wiggled into place, he handed her a Big Gulp cup. “I like pulling in that twist, that dichotomy—in this instance a contrast of good versus poor taste.
“In my portrait work, whether with celebrity or CEO or hired model, it’s a push and pull getting what I need for that assignment,” he explains. “I love portrait work and know the best results come when photographer and subject are working in harmony. But it’s a fine balance—get too close to a personality and you may become too risk averse because you are too close, and that can dull down a photo.”
Of all the projects and challenges he takes on, Grecco most loves building portrait visions. The definition of portrait means far more than a framed rendition of a person’s physical features: it’s elevating that persona within an art form capable of revealing, or concealing. “I wish to create an image, not capture an image. I don’t want to be tied down when building a look.” Standing in good company, Grecco has collaborated with a long list of celebrities, including: Martin Scorsese, Hugh Hefner, Robert Duvall, Lucy Liu, Will Ferrell, Mel Brooks, Christina Applegate, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penelope Cruz and Bill Murray, to name a few.
Whether working from his studio or on the road (he logs about 100,000 miles a year), Grecco pushes the shutter for fashion, celebrity and editorial/commercial accounts. Drama, intention, color pop and often a dash of humor are embedded within his art. He consistently brings a combination of intimate rapport, creative flair and technical acumen to every photograph he creates.
View Grecco’s Web site at www.michael
Martha Blanchfield is creator of the Renegade Photo Shoots (www.renegade-pr.com) and a freelance marketing and public relations consultant.
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