“Wow, cool collection of old tin toys!
Do you think I could photograph them ?”
I had only been in San Francisco for a couple of months, having trucked out here just after the 4th of July, but I was already seeing my commercial photography strategy paying off. I had my photography studio setup in the financial district on Battery & Jackson, after partnering with a printing company that was intent on beating the others to transitioning completely to digital, as film scanning was hitting its peak. My photo studio was a small backroom 15′ x 30′ with red brick walls and hardwood flooring, that barely had ceiling clearance at 9 feet. But hey, I had a San Francisco professional photography studio! I was an official San Francisco commercial photographer. At 25 years old, with no education. Just two months into town.
Now I just had to figure out how to generate business.On the other side of the building (as was common back in those days), the printing company employed a team of graphic designers that created packaging design and small marketing campaigns for clients of the printer. I was doing my best to get to know the designers so we could work on some ideas together, when I noticed the collection of tin toys on one cubicle perimeter.
I was immediately flooded with photo ideas. The Rocket Racer was so iconic and retro-future that it jumped out and reeled me in. The classic robot was both familiar and charming, almost as if smiling (while its gun pops out of its chest and throw sparks). The motorcycle, too, was bulbous with fat pipes rad graphics. The others had their own cuteness and fun colors, with awesome mid century designs. Sweet.The next Monday, I had all six toys in studio (seven, if you count the UFO behind the robot). I started with the Rocket Racer. I knew if I could define the right style with it – lighting, colors, angle, focal length – it would set the precedent for the other five. At that time, in the late 90’s, oversaturated colors using well-positioned gels, was becoming a popular style, and I had been wanting to experiment with it myself. Since I had only really been shooting professionally at that time for two years, and having never attended school for photography, I was very eager to push my limits and teach myself complex lighting schemes through exploration. I decided I would figure out the gel technique on these, and started setting up.The lighting technique relies on “canceling out” competing hard lights, some with gels, so that where a colored gel would create a wash of color over most of the set, I could flag off certain areas to be lit with either a competing gel, or just standard tungsten lighting of 3200k. It took a lot of playing around with the placement and spread of the lights to find the right combination that would flatter and compliment the tin toys, their shape, colors and function. Sounds complicated, but it was a blast. This is the kind of hyperfocus my mind is tuned for. The five hours it took me to shoot the Rocket Racer was invigorating like a drug.
I loved what I saw.Over the next couple of weeks, in between a couple small client shoots and other projects, I was able to photograph the next five shots in the same style. When I stepped back and observed the collection, I was proud. I knew I had something pretty cool on my hands, something I could use as the first series to promote the studio. Something to show that despite not having credentials or a diploma, or even a very extensive portfolio, I was a real photographer, someone clients could get excited about.The six images were made into print ads to run in local trade magazines, as well as mailers that went out to a list of “who’s who” in the advertising and design community. They made a big impact, bringing in a lot of inquiries and setting the studio in motion. A few of the images were later sold as stock photos, too, including the Rocket Racer image I loved so much.
In the end, not a bad way to start my photo career in San Francisco. I was building something from nothing, making things up as I went, but working a well thought out strategy. And I owe a lot of it to the inspiration and drive these tin toys helped create.