Jim Krantz—just out of Denver University with a design degree and an acute case of photography fever—was born to do almost anything other than make stats in the small copy room of Omaha ad agency Dudycha & Associates.
"It was very dark," says Krantz, who carries an aura of goodwill with him everywhere, probably even into that copy room. "I was like a mole."
But one morning in 1979, Krantz walked into the office to see that his colleagues had wallpapered his cubicle, floor to ceiling, with the 300 stats he had made the previous night. It was done partly in fun. But "partly" is the operative word: The stats were unusable-off by about two percent each and the error cost the firm a small fortune. Agency founder Tom Dudycha, who knew of Krantz's photography, thought it was time to suggest a change. If Krantz could establish himself in a studio somewhere, he'd promise to throw him some work.
Krantz didn't need time to think it over. Renting a window-less space next to an aromatic greasy spoon, he got to work. Dudycha needed photographs for a bank that rewarded customers with gifts like electric blankets and toasters. Says Krantz, who had pursued design because he never really believed he could earn a living as a photographer, "All I knew was this, I was taking pictures, and I thought it was the greatest thing in the world."
Krantz could have churned out basic snaps. Instead, he worked to give these mundane objects the same magnificence that photographer Edward Weston gave his studies of peppers and seashells. "I got through it without going crazy because, as I was working, I thought about Weston and those shells," says Krantz. "Of course, nobody appreciated it at the time, but these were some great toaster shots."
He attracted other clients quickly, and in 1982, moved into a large, South Omaha studio that he remembers fondly. The city's small scale meant he'd be called upon to do medical photography one day, livestock another-or everything from surgery to steak, Krantz says. He remembers the day a client delivered several crates of chickens ("live, not frozen," he says) on his doorstep for a shoot. By 1999, when he and his family moved to Chicago, he'd already begun working with Tom Fath, then a creative director at Leo Burnett, Chicago, for clients like Samsonite.
Today, his international client roster includes Philip Morris, Nokia, The U.S. Army, Wells Fargo, the U.S. Marines, Boeing and McDonald's, among many others, while honors have come from the likes of the American Photography Awards, The Art Director's Club, Communication Arts, Graphis and The Lucie Awards.
Leo Burnett's Marlboro campaign for Philip Morris has included Krantz's photography since 1995. Although cigarette billboards no longer flank the streets of U.S. cities, the campaign, which now runs in international markets, continues to shape perceptions of American individualism and masculinity. The category itself is controversial, and appropriation artist Richard Prince's "rephotographs" of Marlboro images—including a rephotograph of Krantz's Calf Rescue, which Prince sold, notoriously, for $1.2 million—makes it no less so. Krantz's work makes it possible to divorce all that ideology and controversy from the art, whose beauty is said to make people gasp, audibly.
He's perhaps best known for the Marlboro work, but Krantz's range-landscape, people, tabletop, lifestyle, fine art-is gargantuan. In his Chicago studio, he stands over sixteen large sheets of Japanese gampi paper. When arranged in a grid on the floor, they reveal his 2007 photo of a Puerto Vallarta bullfight, a matador standing over the bull he has injured. The paper, treated with encaustic wax, looks and feels skin-like, leathery—the themes of the scene literally materialize in the world.
Looking down at the image, Krantz leans back on his heels to discuss the two things that matter in photography: "Where you stand and when you shoot," he says. True to a man who'd sooner make stats in a copy room than put on airs, he likens the latter part to fishing—in particular, the point at which you feel the faintest nibble on your hook.
"That's when you want to shoot," he says. Not at the bite, in other words, when the fates of all involved have been sealed-but just before, when more is certain to happen. In this bullfight, the matador hadn't yet, but will an instant later slaughter the fallen animal. "I just think things are more interesting right before the climax," he says, "rather than at its height."
Krantz was born into art. From around age nine, he spent every Saturday in a studio with his grandfather David Bialac, a Pole who found himself making his abstract expressionist paintings and sculptures in small-town Nebraska. "Let's go bake some cookies," Bialac would propose, an inside joke. And the boy understood that his "poppy" was referring to the powered-glass and metal sculptures he fired in his studio's kiln.
When Bialac fell ill and could no longer work, Krantz, a teenager by then, was devastated. But his grandfather called him aside to tell him about a camera in the studio. "No one's using it," Bialac said. "Why don't you take it out? Shoot what you like, but remember the kinds of things we did in the studio."
Krantz, whose grandfather died soon after, hasn't gone far without a camera since. "It's as though I had trained for years in that studio," says Krantz, "so the only hurdle I had was to learn photography. " Which he set forth to do. Without so much as a whisper of outside input, Krantz one day got in his Renault and headed west. From his readings, he had learned that Ansel Adams, not yet the legend he would become, held workshops in California. Krantz was twenty-one.
Today, he wishes he could ask his grandfather what compelled a Polish immigrant of modest means to devote his life to the singular pursuit of abstract expressionism in the middle of Omaha. It's just a hunch, but, given how far apples fall from the tree, Bialac's response might not have differed so much from Krantz's own explanation of his call to California. "I just had the sense that this was something I had to do," says Krantz, who would later attend the Maine Photographic Workshop. "I didn't overthink it. I just did it-because I had to."
He's come a long way from toasters, but the same instinct that had him turning prosaic household appliances into artful explorations of line and light persists today. Krantz doesn't work within categories so much as he operates around their edges. For the global Nokia campaign from G2, Krantz captured lifestyle images with his signature, light-footed speed. Shot from the floor, atop a ladder, between arms and over shoulders, the unexpected angles jar viewers out of whatever notions they might have about the lifestyle genre.These are moments between still-unfolding moments. Motion spills off the frames,as if the two available dimensions aren't big enough to contain it all.
In his work with Leo Burnett for The U.S. Army—which has had Krantz shooting everywhere from down in the trenches to airplanes at 18,000 feet—he doesn't submit to the easy visual clichés attached to ideals like glory and honor. Clearly, his images convey patriotism, but Krantz doesn't manufacture it, instead drawing the real thing from his subjects. Algis Jaras, creative director, Leo Burnett, Chicago, describes Krantz as an arrivalist.
Think of a chef, he says, who works not from a cookbook but rather with the freshest ingredients available at the market that day. The latter approach requires expertise. "And it appeals to a more sophisticated palette," says Jaras. "You could try to get at some sense of 'armyness' by following regimented storyboards everyone's agreed to in advance, but it wouldn't come across as genuine."
Krantz's preproduction is exhaustive precisely so that he can be the arrivalist of Jaras's perception-adjusting to countless, ever-changing variables on location. Because he tends to shoot from within the action, people sometimes say his photographs make them feel like voyeurs. Actually, voyeurs observe from afar; Krantz's photos thrust you in the thick of things. So no one could blame you, really, if you ever found yourself standing taller—at attention—when looking at his U.S. Army imagery, like one photograph of a hard-boiled general briefing his soldiers, intensely. "It's as if he lets people's expressions and gestures come to his lens," says Jaras. "And that's going to feel real."
In his studio, Krantz examines a snapshot of gray-bearded Adams, shown critiquing one of Krantz's photos. His memories of the workshop aren't overfull with details. He understands that now, when he drove across the U.S. to learn a craft he had only recently discovered, he was looking for more than technique. And he found it. "Here was Ansel Adams," says Krantz, "this older artist who towered over me. Now I realize what was happening. I was with my grandfather again. It's as if these role models can transfer from one person to another."
Krantz often thinks about these teachers from life:Adams, Weston, Albert Watson, photographers from his Maine studies and, especially, his grandfather. "When I'm shooting," says Krantz, "I really do feel all of these people standing there with me, so I'm never really alone."
And to think, he adds: "It all started with baking cookies." ca