It’s rare when the stars align precisely in one artist’s favor, but it happens. In 2001, Peter Wood, then a creative director at Ogilvy & Mather, was visiting headhunting firm Kendall Tarrant in London. A photographer’s promo card—tacked to a recruiter’s bulletin board—caught his attention. The images were unique, hard-lit, still-life photographs, with bleached-out highlights and strong shadows that grounded the objects. He asked the recruiter, Elizabeth Day, if he could take a look at his portfolio?
James Day, who happened to be married to Elizabeth, took his book to Wood’s “quite swish” hotel lobby that night. After reviewing the work, Wood wondered whether Day might like to shoot the global brand campaign for Motorola. “Inside, I was thinking, ‘oh-my-god-oh-my-god-oh-my-god.’”
Outside, he played it cool. “‘Interested’ would be an under-statement,” he told Wood.
To be fair, Day was hardly an unknown entity in London. For colleagues Justin Tindall and Adam Tucker, a creative team at London’s BMP DDB, he’d just shot the launch campaign for the Volkswagen Beetle, a series of graphic images centered on the tagline: “The New Beetle: Fun on the outside. Serious underneath.” It became one of the most awarded campaigns of 2000, earning a Grand Clio and other high-profile accolades. “Which did me no harm whatsoever,” says Day.
Then came Motorola. The campaign, which ran across the world, earned Day not just global recognition but a reprieve from the bank. “I finally paid off my overdraft,” he says.
Today, Day’s client list includes the New York Times, Audi, British Airways, Vanity Fair and Harvey Nichols. Over the years, he’s gathered Gold Lions, silver D&AD Pencils and a gold from Campaign Photo Awards.
The esteemed boy’s school, Dulwich College, couldn’t have anticipated all of this when administrators informed the Day family, by post, that their seventeen-year-old son’s presence was, euphemistically, “no longer required.” As Day describes it, he had good grades and bad luck. “I was just the bloke who always got caught,” he says. He liked photography club, but mainly because the darkroom was a good place to have a smoke. “And do a bit of photography at the same time.”
Out in the real world, Day spent three weeks as a trainee in corporate finance, which was three weeks too many. When a family friend told him of a photographer who needed an assistant, he got the gig and fell hard for photography, spending all his spare time on personal work. “I remember my parents saying that it was the first bloody thing that I had stuck at for more than ten minutes so it must have had something going for it.”
After a few years, he wrote letters to five well-known London photographers. Still-life photographer James Cotier, who was doing campaigns for the likes of Benson & Hedges, picked him up in 1994. Cotier, who expanded his assistant’s horizons when he introduced him to Irving Penn, remains one of the most important influences in Day’s career, having taught him not just craft but business.
Day says his focus on still-life photography is partly the product of having assisted other still-life photographers. But there’s something more. He likes the control and “consideredness” of it, he says, and the fact that he can walk away from and return to a still life at will. “And if you can light and arrange a pile of staples in a way that there’s symmetry and beauty to it, then it becomes something more than what it is.”
Day can find the soul in the world’s most banal objects. A stack of staples, a cassette tape. For most of us, a plastic cup is just a collection of atoms—a bunch of matter, taking up space—but Day can extract poetry from it. And when a photographer can do that, making a plastic cup “more than what it is,” he can pretty much do anything.
In reality, it’s never easy. By comparison, the prospect of photographing people—sentient beings who burst forth with readily available, cheap emotion and drama—suddenly seems like a breeze.
If his objects have soul, they have personalities, too. For the “Fetish” series in Wired magazine’s U.K. edition, Day’s high-end speaker, dropped against a solid, light-olive background, is as earnest and ready to serve as a new Boy Scout. Do clients with a product to shoot know how far a still life can go?
In a personal series of vintage cocktail dresses, the backlit objects become supernatural. Glowing with a milky aura, the images fuse a modern aesthetic with terrible, Gothic beauty. The women who danced in these dresses were clearly maneaters.
In a print promotion for a TV show, Day photographed a severed pig’s head (no, the ad didn’t run), lighting the animal to get the red veins zinging from within its pink skin. A smart-alecky glint in the pig’s eye tempers the macabre impression of blood, trickling from its neck. It’s gross and beautiful. And funny.
As a still-life photographer, Day also holds one of the most highly regarded distinctions in portraiture, having been the 2002 recipient of the John Kobal Photographic Portrait Award. Doug, an image from his personal series on redheads (“ginger-haired people”), was also exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery. “It worked out quite well,” says Day.
As portraits go, Day would rather capture the essence of “real people” than the extent to which celebrities are perfect. When Wired magazine had David Byrne interview Radiohead’s Thom Yorke after the release of In Rainbows, a game-changing pay-what-you-want download, Day met the pair at Radiohead’s Oxford offices.
“I'm putting a kettle on,” said Yorke, god of rock music. “Do you want a cup of tea?” Thrilled with the informality (gods of rock make tea?), Day took advantage of the mood to capture the human beings in the celebrities. Byrne’s skin, in fact, is what you might call hyper-human, with its craggy texture. And Yorke’s slouchy eye becomes the most expressive element of his portrait.
“He’s kind of doing that Thom Yorke thing,” says Day. “There’s a peacefulness about him. He looks contented, but you know there’s a complicated guy in there.”
The images of Byrne and Yorke—pushed in post to a painterly effect—have all the trappings of a Day portrait. Which is to say, they have the same trappings of a Day still life. “With a still life, when I position a light, I get very specific. The highlights and contrasts are exactly what and where I want them to be. It’s more about the lighting than about the emotion, and I tend to bring that to my portraits.”
“That's quite a dispassionate point of view,” says Tindall, now creative partner at The Red Brick Road, where he’s continued to work with Day on clients like Heineken, “but there’s nothing dispassionate about the portraits.” In fact, that approach probably explains why Day can shoot across genres with equal and airtight skill. Since he approaches these different categories, still life, portraits, cars, from a singular perspective, he doesn’t vacillate.
“That's why I’m never aware of the photographer in his work,” says Tindall. “He lets the object do the communicating.” In some cases, he explains, you can look at a picture and understand that the photographer, not the subject, is communicating with you. Or even screaming at you. Not so Day.
Often shot with a wide-angle lens, Day’s portraits tug at the corners slightly, exaggerating features and, without passing judgment, flaws. Skin is important. Pores become caverns. Wrinkles fold in on themselves as in an abyss-like in a campaign for Epson, featuring elderly women whose aged skin tells stories (literally, in the case of that campaign, with superimposed lines of text over the wrinkles).
“But there’s beauty in it,” says Jennifer Lamping of TBWA\Chiat\Day, Los Angeles, a senior art producer and long-time Day fan. “There’s nothing exploitive about it, and the flaws become the most beautiful part.”
Lately, Day’s been working with more emotion. The British edition of Wired recently hired him to shoot Chris Addison and Peter Capaldi, stars of the British comedy In the Loop. Day got the shots the magazine needed, then asked the actors if they’d sit for him as themselves.
The images are two-thirds dipped in hyperrealism, not dunked fully as usual, with more natural coloring and less post. Still, the drama doesn’t really come from the actors. It comes from their hands, foreshortened to the extreme. In one portrait, Capaldi’s hands are splayed and pressed flat: “We've nothing to hide,” they seem to say, clearly a lie. In another, Addison flips off the camera, British style. And in two separate portraits, each actor hides his hands under the table.
Are they handcuffed? Seems likely.
If these images were a piece of theater, the hands would be upstaging the actors. And that’s hardly a typical portrait. But it makes sense, coming from a photographer who can find the poetry in the most banal objects of daily life, and extract the soul from a mere collection of atoms. ca