Kitschy thrift-store paintings of farm and mountain scenes hang on the walls of David Emmite’s Portland, Oregon, studio like serious works of art. On shelves, rainbowed strands of yarn stream from an old radio’s speaker, and a jetpack propeller prepares a taxidermic mallard for flight. And in the bathroom, the toilet paper rolls out from a silicone-cast Polaroid camera.
A vintage, nostalgic feel edged with humor and satire runs through much of Emmite’s work, whether product shots, studio and environmental portraits, still lifes, or motion props. Unlike many other still photographers, he also makes GIFs and cinemagraphs, stop-motion animation, and live-action video. “He’s a master of them all,” says Heather Smith Harvey, executive integrated producer at Wieden+Kennedy in Portland. It’s Emmite’s variety on top of quality that sets the award-winning photographer apart.
Wieden+Kennedy, Nike, Amazon, Brooks Sports and others look to Emmite’s approximately fifteen personal projects—the bulk of his portfolio—for his untethered imagination. “David is like a mad scientist who totally geeks out on whatever your concept might be,” says Harvey. “That’s a gift. I know when I call David, we’re going to be in the best of hands and he will create interesting and provocative work.”
There’s that propeller-powered mallard, one of the stuffed wild animals that engages with human-made objects in his Field Guide still life series. His American TV series of miniature dioramas extends iconic scenes literally outside the old television sets that “broadcast” them—Army soldiers, Apollo 11 astronauts and the Lone Ranger spill into our figurative living rooms. Then there are the Somebody’s Kid portraits Emmite took of his two young children and their neighborhood friends, dressed in the uniforms of yore and posed like they mean it.
“My personal projects help clients stay interested in what I’m doing and keep me fresh with ideas—and sane,” he says. “And they inform my commercial work, which funds them in return. One can’t exist without the other.”
He is also inspired by paintings and sculpture and by listening to music—the Black Angels, mr. Gnome, Billie Holiday, Sturgill Simpson, Stevie Wonder—and reading novels. “These art forms allow your imagination to fill in the visual blanks,” says Emmite.
His interest in photography and his talent for building things, whether props or furniture, go back to his childhood in the 1970s, growing up on a ranch in Paris, Texas. It was “a super big deal,” he says, when, as a fifth-grader, he was finally allowed to take pictures with his father’s Pentax K1000 camera. A small-town physician, his father also raised cattle, horses and turkeys, built DIY windmills, and drilled the family’s well. Emmite loved taking toys apart to see how they worked, and the two enjoyed fixing things together, like the 1948 Chevy Fleetmaster that Emmite drove in high school.
Urged to become a doctor, an engineer or a lawyer, Emmite started out majoring in political science. But by his junior year, he realized he didn’t want to argue for a living and picked up a sketchbook instead, switching his major to communications. One day, a friend told him, “You suck at drawing, but you’ve got good ideas and should try photography,” so he lent him his Canon AE-1 for a trip to hike the Grand Canyon. Emmite fell in love with the art form. He says he could hear his father’s words: “If you can figure out what you love to do, it won’t feel like work and you’ll be good at it. You just have to find that one thing.”
That “one thing” led Emmite to Atlanta to enroll in the Portfolio Center’s two-year, advertising-focused nondegree program, which is also where he met his future wife, Tia. With his sights on running his own commercial photography business, upon graduating in 1992, he moved with a school buddy to New York and stayed in a “crappy hotel with bulletproof glass, struggling at first,” he says. He “begged” his way into his first job, doing carpentry for photographer Bill White. Soon he was working as White’s full-time assistant, and he continued in that position for two years.
Growing tired of a long-distance relationship, Emmite joined Tia in Portland. After two more months of assisting photographers, on his 26th birthday he decided it was time to open his own studio, which turned out to be the first of four. Working initially for fellow Portfolio Center graduates, he shot ads for video game developer Bungie, Inc., Morrow Snowboards and Nike. Adidas, the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Yankees soon followed. In 1999, Photo District News named him one of “30 young photographers to watch,” which resulted in Outside magazine’s discovering him. The magazine recognized his nascent talent and sent him to Mexico for his first location shoot. The Bahamas, the Caribbean and Asia came next. His work would appear in Communication Arts’ Photography Annual, Graphis’s Photography Annual, Lürzer’s Archive 200 Best Ad Photographers worldwide and Photo District News multiple times. All along, he kept up his personal projects, mainly studio portraits and still lifes.
Emmite shoots both these and his commercial projects in the modern, two-story brick building he bought and remodeled five years ago. A film production company rents the upper floor. His wire fox terrier, Kirby, greets clients from all over the country, who sit around a large table that has a base made from old barnwood and a laminated-Plexiglas top resembling a basketball court. Emmite built the table for a Nike ad. Six steps up from the meeting area are the wardrobe and break rooms.
It’s in this 910-square-foot space that he also builds his props. Since 2002, he’s worked with Portland prop and apparel stylist Molly Anderson. He says, “I want to make things that evoke people’s curiosity about how they were made.”
Using his trusty Hasselblad camera with a Phase One back, Emmite’s props bounce and spin in repetitive loops in videos across websites and social media. His micromotion work is a natural extension of his still lifes. There are those long colorful strands of yarn again, this time in a GIF, spilling out the lens of yet another silicone-cast camera. A paper regatta glides on a glassy sea in a stop-motion animation for Ann Sacks Tile & Stone. And in one for Tillamook Cheese, a barrage of toothpicks shoots into a brick of cheddar before it collapses in rows of cubes that disappear in seconds.
Like his cinemagraphs that repeat, Emmite’s clients call on him again and again. Mark “Monkey” Watson, creative director at the Seattle- and Los Angeles–based ad agency Wongdoody, is one of them. “I love coming to David with a somewhat unformed idea and letting him plus it,” Watson says. “He wants to push the work even when the creatives think they’ve exhausted all possibilities.”
Michael Boychuk, executive creative director for global advertising at Amazon in Seattle, agrees: “I turn to David almost as a fellow art director who can bring a different point of view into what we’re shooting. And he’s an absolute perfectionist with lighting, always done with passion, care and craft.”
For any project, Emmite first considers the mood. Is it graphic or soft? Strobes for his studio portraits emphasize people’s shapes and freeze spontaneous moments. He uses continuous ARRI tungsten lighting for his still lifes, to highlight textures and create dramatic contrast with shadows that ground his subjects. Most of his photographs are done completely in-camera. “I’m putting analog props and real people out there. I don’t immediately go to digital solutions,” he says. “That comes from my background of shooting four-by-five sheet film.” If he does rely on Photoshop, “it’s for color treatment, to bring the image into a world that feels filmic and to clean things up. Of course, it all depends on the project. But in general, I want my work to feel simple and real. And there has to be a good idea or story there that communicates.”
The Old Spice Let Us Give Thanks print ad gets its holiday message across in Emmite’s photograph of a man carving into a turkey that looks like a basketball. “I’ve hired him for several Old Spice campaigns, which he has executed flawlessly,” says Harvey. “Old Spice is always looking for someone who can capture humor in a more tongue-in-cheek manner, which David can do in spades. We love to shoot things practically, too, which is also right up his alley.”
Emmite built the turkey prop by filling a basketball with expanding foam to make it rigid, then stretching real cooked turkey skin around it, searing it and painting the lines. “We wanted the feel of a cheesy 1970s romantic evening,” he explains. “So we gave it warm reds and browns and moodily lit it, doing filtration on the lens for a hazy look to the candles. It all came together in this intentionally analog way.”
How does Emmite keep his imagination fresh? “I force myself to sketch,” he answers. “As kids, we hung out in the woods a lot, following trails and finding places to build forts. Our imaginations could really run wild. I think as an adult, to get back to that place where your imagination is free, you have to go down the metaphoric path to it often enough or the path will grow over and you won’t be able to find it.”
Along the way, there have been more and more GIFs, like the one in which a book titled Photographic Amusements cuts a hole through itself for a hand to release a butterfly and the one where a bud of yellow yarn spins open to a daisy bloom. It’s a good thing for clients and viewers alike that Emmite is dedicated to keeping that path clear and well traveled. ca