Weaving Worlds

by Kate Stanworth

Mark Holthusen

July 01, 2011 — Fun, single-minded, resourceful, inventive and hands-on all describe California-based ad photographer Mark Holthusen’s attitude toward his work. “I just really like making stuff…” he says, with a sense of child-like excitement. “It can be just as fun trying to problem-solve on a shoe shot as some big ad campaign. I like the hard things, the ones that you start off not knowing how to do.”

The award-winning photographer’s work is often composited from “a million different pieces” to weave together colorful, impossible fantasy worlds. Cows dressed as sheriffs escape from exploding barns in his campaign for a fast food chain, sassy female pilots steer fighter planes controlled by water taps across white, painterly cities in a Kohler ad, while bright green hills in an Orchard Farms campaign are populated by banjo playing farmers, bees, bubbles, orange trees and giant marmalade jars. It is such vibrant, imaginative work that has netted him a Lucie Award and seen him become a Hasselblad Master in 2010.

The process of making his images often sounds just as crazy as the finished products he so skillfully puts together. For his cow campaign for fast food chain Chick-fil-A, the cows were made up of a combination of mannequins, cow-shaped objects with pants sewn onto them, a man in a fat suit and real cows in a studio. Similarly, the Archer Farms campaign, inspired by the child-like style of early American paintings was put together with many elements. “I shot those hills out in Northern California and every other piece of it we slowly built piece by piece in the studio,” he says.

Mark’s go-getter, hands-on attitude has been put to work on other similarly outlandish challenges. He was recently given a car and set with the task of creating an original, eye-catching campaign for Honda. He and a friend disassembled all the parts and spent three weeks building models and compositing images with the pieces. They conjured up veritable works of art, including a tree made of wheels and engine parts, and a sculpture of Rodin’s “Thinker” whose body is a car seat. “I would work on a head—he would do the arms,” Mark says. “They were all held together with tape. If you’d have breathed too hard they would have fallen over.”

Although he now attracts big advertising jobs like Honda, Kohler, Microsoft and HBO, Mark says his building and compositing approach comes from his experience starting out nine years ago when he couldn’t afford all the sets and objects he wanted to use in his work. “I would build things in miniature and composite them so I could make exactly what I wanted,” he recalls.

He shows me examples of his older work—an image of a woman in a ruffled dress riding a model deer, and a sad clown sitting on the porch of a topsy-turvy house against a melancholic prairie landscape: “I bought toys and made models and then printed the backgrounds—making miniature museum dioramas,” he remembers. Nowadays, Mark still loves to make things on set as much as he can: “I’ll do it if there’s time,” he says. “The hardest thing now is that I’ve got used to these big ad budgets and when I try to do the same sort of work for myself I can’t afford to do it.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Mark originally studied sculpture. “I went to San Francisco Art Institute in 1996,” he says. “But then I realized I was going to starve to death, so I took up photography,” he laughs. He moved on to study at Brooks Institute of Photography but never finished the program, despite learning a lot. “It was very commercially driven, which was really good in some ways, but I didn’t finish as I started to notice that every student’s work looked exactly the same.”

Instead, he insisted on carving his own path by moving to Prague to work for a couple of years as an art director, taking advantage of a rush to hire people there just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A couple of years later he returned to San Francisco to run the lab for a newspaper, then went on to form an Internet photography company around the time of the e-commerce boom. “We had an airplane hanger just full of stuff and we just churned it out like a factory,” he says. He took advantage of the many companies needing images for their Web sites, and paid off his student loan.

When the Internet bubble burst, Mark described it as “a sense of relief.” He had by now gathered the resources he needed to create a portfolio to launch his own career in advertising. “I built it up slowly  but surely,” he says. “First I did one project a year, then two, then three and so on. Slowly but surely people had a little more trust.” When asked about his style, he admits he never consciously built one, “It just kind of happened. I don’t think I figured out what that was going to be,” he says. “I do a lot of compositing though, which is a style in itself.”

Asked if there was a big break in his career, he tells me it was the groundbreaking project in which he made a storytelling narrative for Ça Ira, an opera by Roger Waters, a founding member of Pink Floyd. Waters and Sony BMG Music asked Mark to replace traditional stage design with his images for the opera’s debut in Rome in 2006. Over 250 photographs served as the show’s visual narration, telling the story of the French Revolution in a circus.

The job was perfect for Mark, since it called upon all of his inventive skills. “I got everything in miniature and I would build it in the hotel room at night,” Mark says. “Then we would go in during the day, shoot all the people and composite them into these sets. We just kept doing it—I’d build the sets at night and then we’d composite them together, then go shoot more people. I think we did the whole thing in 15 days,” he says.

The project won international acclaim and brought Mark a new level of recognition. “Once I did that project it put me in a whole different category—people looked at me differently,” he says. The project sparked off other currents in his work too. He has recently branched out into other boundary-crossing assignments involving time-based media, making a multi-screen abstract film for British band Tiger Lillies’ stage show, and a video for them using stop-frame animation which he put together using Photoshop and After Effects.

He believes that being able to tap into a range of media gives you an edge in the ad industry these days, since things have become more fragmented. “I’m learning quickly that there’s a convergence of everything,” he says. “Where all budgets used to be spent on magazines and TV, it’s now magazines, TV, Facebook, iPhone apps and Web banners. Everything’s got split up into all these different kinds 
of media.”

But Mark responds to this with the same inventive and entrepreneurial spirit that saw him kickoff his career. “I think being able to make stuff that works in any medium is where I’m trying to go,” he says. “I’m not necessarily attempting to go in and be a big TV commercial director—I still like doing print—but now I can do little animations which also work online. It’s finding that balance of being able to make stuff and having your style, and to have it work in any medium.”

In terms of his equipment, Mark uses digital Hasselblads and a Canon 5D Mark II. But he doesn’t consider this to be of prime importance. “Equipment is equipment,” he says. “I think of it like a hammer—it’s just a tool to get the job done.” Since he does a lot of studio work, however, he does admit to using a lot of lighting, but his approach differs every time so that he avoids getting bored. “I know some photographers have their standard lighting setup, which for the most part defines people’s style, but I don’t really have that.”

Mark often does his own post, and in the complex jobs, this is done as he goes along. “I also do many comps before the shoots and spend a lot of time beforehand,” he says. However, he is not set on doing all the post himself. “Sometimes it would just be really nice to hand over all the post and get someone else’s take on it.”

Making an effort to retain his uniqueness, Mark actively avoids looking at too many other photographers’ work. “I find it’s too influential,” he says. “Photography becomes very fashionable, especially advertising. They start having all the same look and it’s really easy just to copy that without realizing, so I for the most part, try not to know what that is.”
Instead, he draws inspiration from art and sculpture, with his new favorite being Jean-Leon Gerome, a French romanticist who painted scenes of the Orient and old Rome. “I’ve just started doing this series of cowboys and I looked at how he romanticized the Orient in the 1850s,” he says. “I’m looking at the American version of that—the U.S. in the 1950s.”

But beyond forging your own unique style, he believes you have to consistently promote yourself in order to get somewhere. “At the end of the day, no one knows you’re doing anything unless you sell it,” he says. Mark and his agents travel far and wide to show his portfolio to potential clients. “Whenever I’m not working, we are out selling,” he says.
While this would often be a struggle in the past, Mark has noticed things becoming easier in recent years. He thinks this is down to his work on the opera. “Roger Waters is so famous,” he remembers. “Before it was so hard to even get a meeting, but now that I have that under my belt, people let me in and spend more time with me. The door has opened.”

Mark’s quest to stand out from the crowd seems to have paid off. But while forging his own path may have been important to him, in the end he doesn’t see his experience as being very different to that of any other successful photographer. “There’s no one way of doing it,” he says. “I think every photographer I know that’s successful has done it a different way. You just have to keep working at it,” he continues. “…and you can’t stop.”
To see more of Mark’s work visit www.markholthusen.com.


Kate Stanworth is a British-born writer and photographer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She currently works as an editorial photo editor and writes on diverse aspects of art and culture in Argentina.

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