Ian Spanier

by P. Berberian June 1, 2018

Ian Spanier

Ian Spanier is an award-winning advertising and editorial photographer based in Los Angeles and New York City. He’s also a PhotoServe member and contributor, has published two books (you can see his first book, Playboy The Book of Cigars, here and his second book, Local Heroes: Portraits of American Volunteer Firefighters, here) and is a member of the Lowepro Team, among many other accolades and accomplishments. He is also a regular lecturer for SMUG, as well as for The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

The original masters of photography have always inspired Spanier as they shot what they saw. For him, there is no “one” subject that he photographs; he also chooses to shoot what he sees. Although he works anywhere and everywhere, Spanier recently left NY for the sunny coast and now lives with his wife and two sons in Los Angeles, Ca.

Spanier has a new title he can add to the ongoing list: PhotoServe Member of the Month. Here he chats with us about his beginnings in photography, favorite photographs, inspirations and more.

Peter Berberian: What made you first decide you were going to be a photographer?

Ian Spanier: To be honest, I tried most of my life to not be a photographer. It’s a bit of a story, but here it is: I got my first camera when I was six. By middle school, I had learned 35mm photography including printing in the darkroom. I then went to college and I was certain that I wanted to be a trainer for a professional sports team. I loved rehabbing injuries and went to school to study sports medicine. I struggled to keep my grades up though, so I started taking art classes. Once I started my photography course, something clicked. I was working in the darkroom more than the training room.

Even then, I still denied the direction. After an internship at GQ magazine, I fell in love with the role of photo editor. I decided I wanted to be a photo editor, and that photography would always be a great hobby on the side. Then, during my first couple of weeks working at GQ fulltime, our department ran into a last-minute change. The book review we were working on needed a photo, and we didn’t have time to assign a shoot, so I volunteered to make an image of the book.

I went home and put my camera on a tripod, set the book on a piece of white paper and hand-held my small flash. (I didn’t even own a light stand to put the strobe on, so hand-held was the only option.) This started a side gig of shooting still life for the magazine. I did this for a range of magazines over the next six years. During that time I taught myself medium- and large-format photography, lighting and Photoshop. I was making portraits, then shooting travel, celebrity, fitness, all on the side. It got to a point where I believed I could shoot the assignments myself, rather than assign.

My last full-time job was as chief photographer for a media company, and even then I was still playing it safe. When the recession hit, and the company declared bankruptcy, I was pushed out and decided to became a full-time photographer.

PB: Is there a photograph you loved as a kid?

IS: It’s very difficult to say just one, as the more I absorbed photography the more I was exposed to it. That said, it’s always been about the masters. Brassai, Bresson, Weston, Penn, Steichen, Stieglitz and Frank to name a few. My favorite though is Avedon. Perhaps one image I could call out always is Steichen’s The Flatiron. I love everything about this image.

That said, it’s both Avedon’s and Penn’s portraits that are forever in my mind.

PB: What do you primarily photograph?

IS: It has taken me a bit to figure that out. I used to follow the idea that photographers shoot what they see, and I have varied interests. But, at the end of the day, I am a portrait photographer. Whether it’s a celebrity, an athlete, a real person, a dancer, a mountain climber, a fashion model or a politician; whoever is in front of me is my subject. What I don’t shoot are weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and kids. (Nothing against those genres—I wish I could shoot weddings since there is always work—but it’s just not in my DNA. However, for clients, I have broken the “no kids” rule on occasion for commercial shoots.

PB: Do you do anything before a shoot to prepare yourself?

IS: I follow the mentality that you should always go in with a plan. I have kept notebooks of lighting ideas and results throughout my entire career. I find it extremely helpful and use it as a reference tool for myself as well as a learning tool for assistants working with me. My main argument is that worst-case scenario, the lighting doesn’t work for the client (or me). I’ve now eliminated just one option, but still have more to move forward with. I never want to seem like I am struggling. The other benefit of planning is that it becomes a talking tool. I have had an occasion where the client can’t articulate their vision, and in that instance, what better than to share a visual reference of what I can do to help?

PB: What is your favorite set up (camera/lens) to shoot with?

IS: I’m trained on film, and while I no longer use it regularly, I miss it greatly, particularly my Mamiya RZ 67 and my various 4×5 cameras.  Digitally I am primarily shooting with a Canon 5D Mark IV and their variety of lenses, my favorites being the 24-70mm II and the 85mm f/1.8 (which I’ve had for 20 years)!

PB: Who are your greatest influences in the art world?

IS: By FAR these days it’s always Avedon. And a close second is Penn. More contemporarily speaking I’d say Albert Watson—he’s so influential with his lighting and unique eye. Harry Benson, my mentor, has always been a major influence on how I approach shoots too, mostly from a psychological standpoint. I’m also a huge fan of Carlos Serrao and Anders Overgaard.

PB: What is your favorite photography quote?

IS: “There are two people in every photograph: the photographer and the viewer”―Ansel Adams

PB: Who are your three favorite photographers?

IS: See above

PB: If you were to do anything else for a living, what would it be?

IS: I have, in a way, already done that having spent thirteen years as a photo editor. Outside of that, I’d have to say I’d be a professional golfer, only because that is the other thing I could literally do every day.

PB: What is your favorite photo that you have taken?

IS: Perhaps my favorite image (commercially) is my black-and-white portrait of Steven Tyler, Aerosmith frontman (below.) For me, it’s what I like to call an evergreen in my portfolio. By that, I mean it’s an image that will likely always be a part of my presentation. It’s somewhat timeless, it epitomizes a portrait that I want to make and it’s definitely a portrait that I can make. I’d argue that my lighting skills today are leagues better, but this one portrait stands the test of time and represents what I love about photography.

PB: What is your favorite personal picture that you have taken?

IS: I have a lot of personal favorites but, generally, those don’t make the cut in the portfolio. There are exceptions, but all in all, it’s more about my experience at that moment in time versus a successful commercial image.

I always talk about the fact that the story behind the image doesn’t matter. I have hung backward off of a cliff, crouched down in a completely vulnerable position as two wolves circled around me and I have no doubt put myself in many dangerous situations all to get the angle I want. None of this means squat if I don’t take a deliver picture—even if I have to shove the memory card into my underwear (true story). Personal work, however, can be what you experienced at that moment. So for me, this fraction of a second has always been a great memory captured.

PB: What advice do you have for someone new to the business?

IS: First, I believe a photographer should learn their craft. They should know where photography comes from. Understanding all of the aspects of what interests you about photography can only make you a better photographer. Challenge yourself to learn what you don’t know, and make mistakes. I repeat that over and over and over: Make mistakes! It’s how we learn.

Second, and this primarily goes to those who are assisting, if you can be so disciplined as to do what you do every day, then you owe it to yourself to get that time back and shoot for yourself. That doesn’t mean you have to have a shoot for every day that you assist, but at least be working towards your goal of being a full-time photographer by working on yourself. When I meet a new assistant who is just getting into the business, that’s the first thing I say. Take the day you work for me and give it back to yourself. By the end of the year, you will be way ahead of those who don’t follow that discipline.

Ian Spanier is available for assignment. If you have questions or comments, e-mail him at ian@ianspanier.com.

To see more of Ian Spanier’s latest advertising and personal projects, visit his site at www.ianspanier.com and his PhotoServe portfolio.