This particular street in Pasadena, California, is wide, with beautifully preserved older houses, wide green lawns and tall stately camphor trees lining both sides, casting dappled shade. It’s a street so lovely that car commercials are frequently shot here. Behind one such gracious home is a studio where photographer Zachary Scott creates photographic magic.
The clean, modern space is lined with desks and computer stations, and the walls are hung with a collection of well-used colorful surfboards. This Zen-like space transforms into a busy command center during complex advertising and editorial shoots for clients such as the New York Times, GE, HP, Coca-Cola, Visa and Target, among others. His illustrative photographs appeared in the November 2002 issue of Communication Arts, as a Fresh profile subject. And while the 31-year-old is still relatively new to the field, Scott’s career has enjoyed a fast trajectory. “It took off right away,” he relates. “I was shooting advertising immediately.” And the fast track hasn’t stopped.
Scott has a calm and deliberate manner of speaking, and is thoughtful and forthcoming when discussing his style and approach to work. Interestingly enough, considering his medium, he cites Norman Rockwell as an influence; one that he employed in his first Got Milk? campaign for the California Milk Processor Board with agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.
“I'm annoyed by the fact that he’s the first guy I think of when addressing almost any given project,” explains Goodby, Silverstein & Partners associate creative director, Brian Gunderson. “He’s just so damned good. But, it’s a testament to his versatility. You can see it in just his back-to-back Got Milk? campaigns. The first was goofy Norman Rockwell illustrations, the next year were over-the-top self-aggrandizing butt-rock stars. There’s a through line though, and that’s his great sense of design and his ability to capture perfect expressions. You can see it across all of his work.”
“In a creative capacity, Zack brings many interesting ideas to the table and is the consummate collaborator. This artistic vision combined with his technical prowess makes his stylistic imagery stand out from other photographers,” adds Marni Beardsley, director of art buying at Wieden + Kennedy.
He runs a very open set. He brings his computer with a large monitor and allows the subject and agency to see where the shoot is going. “I don't hide anything on the set. My goal is to connect with the subject and build trust,” Scott says. “I find that sharing the work reduces anxieties all around. If a subject feels confident and comfortable, they will take greater risks. I’ll happily shoot them the way they want to be photographed, but it’s certainly not my end game.” You get the sense that a layer of determination lays beneath his accommodating personality. There is no doubt who is in charge, and whose vision drives the project.
Scott moved back to Pasadena four years ago from New York City. He thought that he’d be more bi-coastal, but even though he still has an apartment in Manhattan, he finds most clients willing to come to Los Angeles to shoot. He prefers to work close to his family, wife Lea, three-year-old daughter Ivy, and four-month old twins Willa and June. “I’m on serious dad duty these days,” he says.
Everything clicked in his career and life in his four years in New York. “It’s a challenging place to make it, but the building awareness of my work during that time propelled my career to the next level,” Scott says. “I was often overbooked and had to start choosing my assignments more carefully.”
Born in Ukiah, California, he grew up in Arcata, a small coastal town in Humboldt County (in 2008, the population was barely 17,000). “My backyard was a redwood forest,” he remembers. “That was my youth, charging through the forest, building forts and climbing huge rocks.” After experimenting with almost every sport from mountain bike racing to football, he fell in love with surfing and like all surfers it became a way of life for him, not merely a sport.
“No two waves are the same. Every single wave takes its own unique shape and provides its own surprises. Conditions vary from day to day. That’s what keeps people interested their entire life,” Scott says. “It’s a good metaphor for life.”
It was through surfing that Scott first noticed his interest in design and pattern. “The earliest point that I started to recognize my skill set was when I would actually rearrange the stickers on my surfboard, to look balanced. When I would buy the stickers I would get three or four of each one because I knew I would probably rip them off and reposition them. It was really about spatial relationships,” he asserts. “I also realized around the same time that I could look at something once and reproduce it. I remember seeing a skateboard ramp in a neighbor’s garage.
I studied the underside of it, and went home and built a half-pipe the next week. I think both examples show early signs of visual thinking and problem solving. My career has evolved as an extension of that natural foundation.”
His father was superintendent of schools in Eureka and his mother taught art at Humboldt State. She gave him a Nikon and he took a photo class in high school. Unlike the other students he never went out to take candid shots. “I found myself setting up photographs and creating my own realities,” Scott says. When he was fifteen he was a production assistant on a TV spot that was shot in Humboldt County. That was the first time he considered commercial photography as a career choice.
Scott attended the University of California at San Diego, where he met his future wife. Though he began with an environmental engineering major he gravitated immediately to art classes and film. His pre-med roommates would tease him about becoming a starving artist. And while they are all doctors and scientists now, he is far from starving. Scott left after two years when he had exhausted all of the applicable art courses UCSD offered, and moved on to Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena.
One of his teachers at ACCD, Kathleen Clark, was a photo editor at L.A. Weekly, and helped jumpstart his career. She hired him to do photo-illustrations. Scott managed to shoot them while he was in school and he even figured out a way to use them as class assignments. He did a few covers and inside illustrations and when Clark moved on to Los Angeles Magazine, she hired him to do four photo-illustrations for the first issue she worked on, and later gave him his first fashion assignment.
Upon graduation he printed out two promos on his Epson printer and sent one to Wired magazine, and one to artist rep agency Sharpe + Associates. He got two calls back for assignments, and Sharpe signed him while he was still in school.
“When I met Zack, he was in his final term at Art Center and already had a list of solid editorial clients with whom he had been working, so he hit the ground running,” John Sharpe remembers. “Advertising clients quickly took to his quirky sensibilities and it was only a matter of a week or so after he graduated that we landed our first ad assignment, a national effort for Toshiba that was a large production with custom sets, multiple talent and a crew of thirteen or so to manage, which he handled with great aplomb.”
One of his earlier ongoing projects was shooting image-library material over four years for Hal Riney for then client, Sprint. He had to shoot so many different people and went through so much film that it completely changed the way he looked at other assignments. “I felt like I could really walk into any situation and be comfortable, given that experience,” he claims. Scott became more outgoing and learned how to get reactions out of his subjects.
He doesn’t have assistants or staff, but his wife Lea does help with his billing, working one day a week and coordinating with producers. “I hire my crew as needed,” Scott says. He ran his own studio for a few years but it proved to be restricting.
For Scott, it’s all about comfort and balance. For many who run a studio the balance changes: At some point a photographer starts to manage more and shoot less. “Advertising projects are incredibly demanding. An effective producer can manage expectations, budget and time. I need help with all of those so I can focus on the creative aspects of the shoot,” says Scott. He touts the value of using freelance talent. “If you really want to pull the best possible crew together, you’re not going to have them all working for you full time. I truly believe I work with the most talented stylists, digital artists and producers in the field.”
Scott shared a studio with photographer Ann Cutting after school, but gravitated toward working on his own. He never worked as an assistant. “With every problem that emerged I had to solve it in a way that I thought was best given my limited professional experience and my base photographic education,” he explains. “I learned the hard way on many occasions, but I also recognized the value of working outside my comfort zone. Without a doubt, the best work was born from risk taking.”
He doesn’t do personal work. “I think of editorial as my personal work, and I try to bring as much of it into the ad assignments as possible.
“An editorial assignment has to be something I am interested in and can connect to. I aim to have the exact same production value in that work as I do in my advertising assignments. That’s what sets it apart from a lot of editorial you see published.”
His comfort level working with people has grown along with his career. In the beginning he would crop out faces, and convey the idea of humanity without an actual person in the frame. “Now, I want to tap the perfect person for the image and construct a thought-out narrative,” he says. “It’s more of a Rockwell way to tell a story. He’s definitely a big influence on my work. There’s just so much visual content in each of his illustrations. While I have appreciated and emulated his illustrative style in the past, I now think more about his minimalist storytelling ability.”
He claims to have never been bitten by the travel bug. He feels he should be able to find something equally interesting in his immediate surroundings, wherever that may be. “I can find more than enough inspiration within a few miles of my house. I see amazing locations, objects, color schemes and people everyday. Traveling is great for vacation, but I haven’t felt it necessary for work.
“In many ways my work is very artificial,” Scott claims. “I prefer to start from scratch with each picture. A sketch of an interior environment becomes reality on stage. We’ve built everything from used car lots to house façades in-studio, and while they are fabricated, we intentionally introduce organic elements and weathering to make them feel ‘real.’ Having the freedom to design a space with my set stylist that specifically addresses the concept we are working on almost always lends to a stronger image for the client that is unique to my vision.”
Freedom has been key to his success. “My parents gave me freedom to do things like surfing in an incredibly dangerous environment, encouraged me to pursue any avenue of education, to follow whatever life path I could dream up,” Scott relates. “I think when you do feel that freedom—like you could be anything or do anything—then you actually will follow a path that leads to something that is a true-to-your-heart decision.” Talking with Scott you get the feeling that his path will only grow and climb ever higher. ca