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Best of ASMP 2008

Tulsa-based photographer Scott Raffe crisscrossed Oklahoma for 18 months, to capture the spirit of this little-known state for a self-published book. His collaboration with partners writer Libby Bender and designer Carl Brune ranged from self-funded road trips to group photo edits to 68 straight hours on the press check. The end result, Oklahoma — A Portrait of America, is a 351-page tour de force of the people and places that make up the Sooner state.

Scott Raffe — Tulsa, OK

Web site:
Project: Oklahoma — A Portrait of America book.

© Scott Raffe
All images in this article © Scott Raffe.

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

SR: I have worked this business for 22 years. I started assisting photographers in Chicago in May, 1986. I mainly assisted Jean Moss, Joann Carney and Joe Rowley and started shooting jobs on my own in January, 1988. This year marks 20 years that I have been working on assignments. I am currently based in Tulsa, Oklahoma after having studios in Chicago, St. Louis and Denver.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

SR: Since 2001.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

SR: People and animals.

© Scott Raffe

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.

SR: Most of the images in the book were shot digitally. I went digital 4 years ago. Never thought I would, but it has been great and has helped push my photography. The B&W images in the book, Oklahoma — A Portrait of America, of Cain’s Ballroom and the Civil War reenactment were photographed with my Diana and Holga cameras. The Cain’s photographs were used in posters that won National Gold ADDYs.

The Diana and Holga images were photographed about four years ago while the rest of the images were shot with my Canon specifically for the book.

© Scott Raffe

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?

SR: My Diana cameras. I have been using them since 1987. The Diana is a toy plastic camera with a plastic lens. It was originally used as a carnival prize in the ‘60’s.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

SR: Libby Bender, Creative Director at Littlefield and my Billy Books partner, says it is the way I bring out the humanity and nobility in all my portraits. I shoot people, places, objects and architecture all as portraits.

© Scott Raffe

ASMP: Your 351-page book documents the people and places of Oklahoma. Tell us about your business and personal relationship with the state.

SR: My business relationship covers the state working with ad agencies, design firms, businesses and magazines. Oklahoma Today is one of the best magazines that I have worked with and uses great design, photography and illustration. I relocated to Tulsa 6 years ago and have made some really great friendships with the people that I have worked with.

© Scott Raffe

ASMP: How did this project originate? Please talk about the initial vision and goals you had. Did these change or evolve over the course of your documentation?

SR: The project started almost three years ago when Libby Bender, Creative Director and writer at the ad agency Littlefield, asked me to lunch. She wanted to know if I would be interested in doing a personal project with her. She had been thinking about Oklahoma for a while and wanted me to do some photos and she could do some writing. It never was intended to be a book, just a creative outlet for personal work.

We started out documenting the ‘89er Land Run Celebration in Guthrie, OK. There I got photographs of parades, carnivals, people, cemeteries and a recreation of an 1889 baseball game. After that, I documented Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show in Pawnee, OK. It was after those two shoots that Libby saw the potential of a book. Libby then brought on Carl Brune, a book designer and native Oklahoman. We now had a team of a writer, a designer and a photographer, all passionate about Oklahoma and sharing the same vision. We all believe that Oklahoma is still a new and forming place where really anything is possible. That is the spirit we wanted to capture in the book.

© Scott Raffe

ASMP: What was the general scope of this work, in terms of time on the road, miles traveled, images made, etc.

SR: After that initial lunch meeting, we started that first shoot in Guthrie about 6 months later. The book was photographed quickly over the next 1½ years. I spent almost every weekend last year shooting for the book. In between jobs, I got some days of shooting done. For almost a week, I traveled the panhandle with Carl and shot from morning to night. A rough guess of miles would be about 2,500 and 60GB worth of images. The final book has about 350 photographs.

ASMP: Please talk about how you financed this project? Did you receive any funding or grants? If so, please elaborate.

SR: We all spent quite a bit of money traveling the state, spending money on gas, hotels, meals, etc, plus a lot of personal time. After we were nearly completed with the book, we tried late to get grants and funding for what we did and for the printing of the book. We were not able to get any funds or grants, so we all coughed up another $70,000 between the three of us for the printing of the book. We had the book printed at Die Keure, located in Brugge, Belgium.

© Scott Raffe

ASMP: The other team members for your project were a designer and a writer. Describe your collaboration as the project developed. Did you draw up a collaboration agreement or contract with them at the outset? If so, where did the agreement come from?

SR: Libby Bender had the original concept for the book and did the writing. Carl Brune has designed several award-winning books. Once the three of us became a team, it was true collaboration all the way on every aspect of the book. Without any one of the three of us, there would be no book. We did the entire project without an agreement, all based on true trust and friendship. At the end, we officially formed Billy Books LLC and self published the book. We had a lawyer draw up the agreement and handle getting the LLC registered.

And last but not least, our friend Bryan Cooper designed the logo for our LLC, named for my Boston Terrier and best friend, Billy.

ASMP: What sources, including media, friends, local residents, did you use to produce a list of people and places you wanted to photograph?

SR: The list of people, places and architecture that we wanted to photograph came divided between Libby, Carl and myself. It was always fun to search for something specific and then find other unexpected people, places or architecture to photograph in that area. There were a few suggestions from friends, but for the most part we all knew of places to go to photograph.

© Scott Raffe

ASMP: Describe your working method. How much shooting time each week did you devote to research, travel, scouting, and shooting? What work did your partners undertake as you were shooting?

SR: I spent almost every weekend shooting. There was no scouting done. We would travel to the locations and what I saw is what I got, lighting and weather wise. Even on days where the light seemed flat or it was sunny at high noon, I found a way to shoot at certain spots and angles and make the light look nice. The only luxury I really had to wait for the right conditions was shooting the Boston Avenue Methodist Church and the Admiral Twin drive-in theater in Tulsa. I really wanted dramatic clouds and skies for those two locations and waited for it to happen. For most of the shoots, Carl and Libby would both accompany me. They took notes for future writing and were also a huge help in getting model releases signed. Carl would talk to people at locations and get us into places that I never would have been able to get into on my own. We were all searching and looking and having fun.

© Scott Raffe

ASMP: What technologies, such as wireless internet access or GPS mapping, did you find useful during the course of the project? Was there anything you did not have that you would consider a must for future projects of this type?

SR: The best technology I had was the Apple iPhone. That phone was awesome in terms of getting my email anywhere we were and keeping my calendar and contacts organized. With the iPhone, I was able to get back to clients right away and arrange new photo shoots via email. I was able to conduct my business as I traveled and worked on the book. There really was not anything else I needed, even though I now have a GPS that is awesome and would be great to have on a project like this.

ASMP: Describe the techniques you used to engage your subjects and have them agree to be photographed.

SR: It was really very simple. I would ask them if I could photograph them and tell them about the book I was doing. Everyone said yes and was very cooperative.

© Scott Raffe

ASMP: Did you make use of model and property releases, and you compensate subjects in any way for their participation?

SR: We had releases signed and I gave everyone free prints. The toughest part was tracking down people from those early shoots at Guthrie and Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show. I photographed these people before I knew we were doing the book. I went back a year later when they did the shows again, with prints and model releases. I gave everyone a print, told them about the book and they were excited about being part of it.

ASMP: While the majority of the images in the book are in color, you do have a significant number in black and white. Did you shoot everything in color, and then digitally convert some to black and white? And, how did you make your decision on which images would display well in black and white?

SR: Everything, with the exception of the Diana and Holga camera images, was shot in color digitally. The B&W photos were converted from color. We chose certain images to be in B&W depending on the feeling and emotion we wanted in that particular image.

© Scott Raffe

ASMP: Describe the image selection process for the book. Were you attempting to represent all areas and activities in Oklahoma, or were you more flexible in what images were selected?

SR: We were not trying to represent all areas and activities in Oklahoma. We shot subjects that interested us. We were very flexible in what images were selected and paired together. We included the ones that moved us.

Last summer, as we were shooting new images, we were editing the book. Carl has a huge white wall in his office. We would put up B&W laser prints of the photographs and edit and pair photos together. The pairings of the photos took on new life and meaning. We then placed each pair into one of four sections: People, Place, Connecting and Letting Go.

© Scott Raffe

ASMP: How did this project impact on the vision and quality of your other professional work?

SR: It has impacted my professional work in the way I have been shooting. I recently photographed a couple of architectural and people jobs in the style that I did for the book.

© Scott Raffe

ASMP: Assuming this book is self-published, please talk about that part of the process. What was the criteria for selecting the printer? Did you go on press?

SR: Yes, we self-published the book. The big advantage of that was that we made our own rules on every aspect of the book and did it exactly the way we wanted to do. The criteria for selecting the printer was cost and quality, but quality was extremely important to us. Carl got samples and bids in from Belgium, China, Canada and the U.S. Belgium was by far the best quality, so we were prepared to go with them even if they were the highest cost. Lucky for us, they were the cheapest so we got the best quality at the lowest cost. The printer, Die Keure, was extremely professional and easy to work with. Carl and I both went for the press check in Brugge, Belgium. The press check was 68 straight hours. I made it for 65 of those hours!

ASMP: Did you make use of new digital publishing technologies to produce your book, and what advantages or disadvantages did you encounter?

SR: We used a variety of digital technologies to produce the book. I shot with a digital camera, and even the Diana and Holga images were scanned to digital from negative. Digital prepress and proofing gave us not only a lower cost but also more control in the RGB to CMYK conversion process. It helped that Carl had experience with reviewing digital proofs and being able to anticipate the final shifts in color, contrast and saturation as ink is applied to paper on press.

© Scott Raffe

ASMP: What are the distribution channels for the book?

SR: The University of Oklahoma Press is our distributor. You can order the book from their site at You can also order the book from In Oklahoma, you can find the book at Borders, Barnes & Noble, Full Circle Bookstore, Steve’s Sundries, plus select boutiques.

ASMP: What reaction to the publication of the book have you received from your clients? Have you developed new business as a direct result of the publication of the book?

SR: In addition to receiving critical acclaim statewide and winning ADDYs and Oklahoma Book Awards, the reaction from clients has been awesome. The book now doubles as my new portfolio. I have taken it to several cities to meet new art directors and designers and have already received estimates and jobs from these meetings.

© Scott Raffe

ASMP: In addition to the book, what other uses are you making of the Oklahoma images, including exhibitions, stock sales, promotion, or portfolio use?

SR: We are exhibiting the photos in galleries and currently have a gallery show at the Leslie Powell Gallery in Lawton, OK. We would like to contact more galleries throughout Oklahoma and other cities around the country. The photos are not available for stock. We are keeping these photos for art use only. I am promoting my photography with these new images.