The French cinematic term mise en scène translates to putting in the scene" which in photography could be extrapolated to include the setting, lighting, costume and figure expression within a frame. It's a term that well suits photographer Mark Holthusen, who, combining his unique fusion of photography, post-production and inventive model making, has quickly forged a career based on tackling the seemingly impossible.
He has produced advertising for clients including Honda, Napster, Microsoft, Quest, Target and HBO, an impressive roster for having only been on his own around four years. In 2007, Holthusen was tapped by GSD&M/Idea City and Kohler to create the seventh annual “As I See It” campaign, known for its use of unconventional photography to represent everyday products.
Tucked behind a nondescript fence on a busy street at the edge of San Francisco's Potrero Hill neighborhood, a surprise awaits visitors. Holthusen’s live/work studio is nestled at the back of an isolated courtyard more New Orleans than City by the Bay. Set props and plants decorate the foyer and a fountain burbles amidst the traffic hum outside.
Inside the compound, Holthusen’s space is modern yet friendly. A wall of bookcases flanks his dining table. He points out that his fiancee, Andrea Bozeman, is a writer at Razorfish. The linear feet of bookcases just about equal a set of industrial metal storage units full of heavy-looking photography equipment that anchors an opposing wall. His space is calm and ordered, quite different from the oft-intentional chaos invoked in his work.
The 38-year-old photographer gravitated toward the field through a somewhat circuitous route, yet one that has uniquely equipped him for some of his more unusual assignments. As a teenager he studied sculpting; attending the San Francisco Art Institute before he had finished high school.
Born in Oregon, his family moved to Reno, Nevada, when he was four years old. Perhaps inspired by a youth spent in that uniquely western city, he has taken on theatrical—and hugely challenging—projects like creating images for Ça Ira, a classical opera by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters based on the history of the French revolution. (The title comes from a revolutionary song of the period.) In a story too long to be told here, he undertook creating the imagery that would be projected onto 100-foot screens in lieu of stage sets for a performance of the opera in Rome with a chorus. Countless eighteen-hour days culminated in a magical performance and documentation that became an art form in its own right; the initial 15-photo project had turned into over 200 meticulously crafted images that could fool the eye into believing they are paintings.
“I like to put as much in there as I can,” he says of his work, struggling to keep a straight face and failing. But he admits he tries not to look at photography because it's too easy to fall into using what is popular. He is inspired by fine art, citing the paintings of Vermeer. It’s easy to see the appeal as his work often incorporates chiaroscuro and detail in the shadows. He is drawn to the quirky and unusual often photographing people who do dangerous things for their living, celebrating their differences.
After deciding against a career in sculpture, he went to Brooks Institute of Photography for a while and then moved to Prague, ostensibly to be a photographer at an English language newspaper there. This was in the early 1990s when there was an explosion of expatriate-run newspapers, galleries and cafés, after the Velvet Revolution of Václav Havel. Instead he landed at an ad agency that had just bought a computer that no one knew how to use. After a year-and-a-half in Prague, he demurred when offered a three-year contract and, after traveling around Europe, North Africa, Tunisia and spending six idyllic months in Greece, eventually returned home.
Back in the states, he landed a job at the San Francisco Examiner, running its photo department. There, Holthusen had the use of a high-end Kodak digital camera (three megapixel!) that had been provided to the paper to use. The photographers weren’t keen on the camera, so he played with it. He worked on developing his advertising portfolio and later worked with San Francisco photographer Daniel Proctor doing his post-production work. He moved on to a freelance stint at Fat Cat Digital where he further honed his digital techniques. “That was key,” he explains. “Understanding that it was just technology and using it to tell the stories I want to tell, not the other way around.”
Right around the dot-com explosion, Holthusen started a company called Internet Photography with partner David Duprey. “We were putting everybody’s little one-inch picture or product online. We’d get Doorknobs.com and they’d drop off 15,000 doorknobs and say, ‘We need it in two weeks.’ We’d rent out an airplane hangar at the Santa Monica Airport just to store the product that was coming in. We were human scanners, we were working fourteen hours a day,” he relates with much laughter. He did that for two years. “We got ourselves out of debt and then every single client went out of business in a month!” The partnership dissolved and Holthusen hung out his photography shingle.
Matt Klug, senior art director at Charlotte, North Carolina’s BooneOakely says, “Just as you can't fit Mark’s style into a niche, describing it in words is equally impossible. But one word does come close: frightening. Frightening in the same electrifying way you feel when you experience something for the first time—something you never expected to achieve. His approach to every single job will take you on a ride that leads to somewhere truly inspiring.”
Will Chau, creative director at Austin, Texas-based agency GSD&M/Idea City, agrees, “I wanted the Kohler images to have a surreal quality to them and what instantly attracted me to Mark’s work is that there’s a very theatrical and dramatic quality to his images. His shots entrance and engage and you’ll see something new each time,” he says.
“The projects we’ve worked on together always seemed massive and hardly doable upon first glance at the proposed layouts,” adds his producer, Kara Snider. “There would be complicated sets and locations that exist, actually...nowhere. Mark would always have a creative solution about how to build the set, or make it in miniature or he knew in which three parts of the world he could shoot to create the location that didn't exist. Meanwhile, he’d be referencing an era in art history, or a painting, or a movie that served as inspiration. I often thought that if the project allowed for more time, or if Mark could duplicate himself, he could have been his own producer, set designer, prop stylist—his knowledge is vast and his vision is strong. Yet he encourages collaboration and he trusts his team.”
Despite living in the Bay Area, he rarely gets assignments on home turf, mostly shooting in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. He represents himself in the U.S., and enjoys meeting potential clients and showing his book, although he has just signed with a rep in Asia, and is looking to add one in Europe.
“I first met Mark early in 1997,” relates Kate Chase, whose company Kate Chase Presents represents top photo retouchers. “Mark reminds me that we had talked at that time about his being at a crossroad—whether he should separate his creative loves into two and take the path marked photographer or veer off as a retoucher. Thank goodness for the creative community that he didn’t listen to me regarding the pursuit and mastery of one or the other, because what I didn’t know then, and do now, is that Mark is one of those rare visionaries not meant to travel just one path.”
Before Photoshop, he claims, “I couldn’t photographically do what I wanted to do. I always liked constructing my pictures more than taking pictures. It’s like sculpture or anything else, I liked building the stuff. Am I more of an illustrator or a photographer? It’s hard to be certain at times.” His early adoption of technology has definitely paid off. David Crawford, senior vice president, group creative director at GSD&M/ Idea City offers, “Mark has a really interesting style that combines actual photography and computer graphics into incredibly beautiful images. He started out as a model-maker, which I thought was rather odd for a photographer. Then it all made sense after we worked together. He and his team get it on so many levels and I think that background is the perfect foundation for what ends up in his pictures.”
Holthusen defies easy categorization—he can shoot gritty, emotive portraits or produce an elaborate tableau. Instead of stone or metal, Holthusen now sculpts images from reality and an imagination that knows no bounds. ca