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Best of 2011: Elliott Kaufman


A roundabout, word-of-mouth referral was central to Elliott Kaufman being tapped for this annual report assignment. Seeking a New York-based photographer for the job, the communications director at Hertz asked the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based architect for recommendations. A staff member for the architect recalled an assignment they had worked on together nearly 15 years earlier in New York City and offered up Kaufman’s name. He produced many views of the new, stand-alone Hertz Limited Editions office, one of which ended up as a double page in the annual. With a second job for Hertz already lined up, Kaufman is a firm believer in the lasting value of a good impression.

Elliott Kaufman, New York, NY

Web site: www.ekaufman.com

Project: Annual Report assignment for Hertz that was generated by a word of mouth recommendation.

© Elliott Kaufman
© Elliott Kaufman

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

EK: 30-plus years. I started in Philadelphia and moved to New York in 1983.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

EK: Off and on since 1984; more regularly of late.

© Elliott Kaufman
© Elliott Kaufman

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

EK: Mostly architectural subject matter. Although for the last few years I have been also concentrating on my fine art work. In summer 2011 I had a show at the Carrie Haddad Photographs Gallery in Hudson, NY. I also teach at the International Center of Photography, Queens College and Long Island University.

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

EK: My 24mm TS Lens for my Canon EOS 1ds Mark II, tethered to my 15-inch MacBook Pro.

© Elliott Kaufman
© Elliott Kaufman

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

EK: I attempt to break through the formalism of general issue architectural photography and move more into the interpretive message within the story process.

© Elliott Kaufman
© Elliott Kaufman

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

EK: When I approach an interior or a building, I walk around the space to discern the messages that are held within. How well the design has been executed and what the architect was attempting to accomplish is my starting point. Good design is the ideal. I then come up with an approach that considers both how the space is used and the story that needs to be told and the progression of the light. I “program” the shoot from there with an estimated start and end point.

© Elliott Kaufman
© Elliott Kaufman

ASMP: You were referred for this assignment through an indirect recommendation from a contact you worked with on a job nearly 20 years ago. Did you remember this person when you first heard about them? Please tell us more about that project and how it was received by your client at that time?

EK: I worked with this woman nearly 15 years ago who has since moved to Michigan. The firm she now works for in Michigan was commissioned to do a series of newly branded Hertz locations. She worked with, among others, the communications director. When the annual report needed shots of the new stand-alone location she called the principal of the firm, who asked the one employee who he knew worked in New York for a recommendation and voila! I am working on another job for Hertz in two weeks.

© Elliott Kaufman
© Elliott Kaufman

ASMP: Did you do anything to thank this contact for recommending you? If so, please tell us what it was and your timeframe in following up.

EK: I called her and thanked her right away, or as soon as my Hertz client could locate her number. We talked for a while about her life and why she moved to Michigan etc. But for the life of me I could not remember who she was. I follow up right away with any recommendations and people are really appreciative of receiving the phone call.

© Elliott Kaufman
© Elliott Kaufman

ASMP: Do you have any usual procedure for acknowledging or thanking clients or other contacts that are vital to your work? If so, please describe this outreach and tell us about the response you get.

EK: I had a silk scarf made from a photograph some years ago, which has my name on the label. I got it printed in India. I planned this for a promotion but decided that it made a better gift-type offering. Female clients are really happy to receive this. For guys I make a set of gift cards from the images done for the job.

© Elliott Kaufman
© Elliott Kaufman

ASMP: Do you regularly market your services (or your recent accomplishments) to clients and business contacts, or keep in touch via social media? If so, does your contact method or message details differ based on the type of relationship, industry demographics or other factors?

EK: Not regularly, but when I do, I design a unique looking e-mail that does not have any other constant comment or Facebook messaging attached. It seems more personal this way.

© Elliott Kaufman
© Elliott Kaufman

ASMP: Was the Hertz job a stand-alone architecture assignment done in a single shot, or did you shoot other components of the annual report as well? Did you have any additional crew or support staff (either your own or supplied by the client) to assist?

EK: It was a one-day, single shot. I produced many shots during the day, but the goal was either a page or double page for the Annual Report. I got a double-page spread. Crew was just my one assistant, Kara Hayden, who also works in-house for me doing the post production and retouching. Just my client was there, and she did not bring anyone.

© Elliott Kaufman
© Elliott Kaufman

ASMP: Was the shoot location or angle of view mandated by the client, or was this something you scouted? Did you have any contact with the architect (aside from the circumstances of your initial referral) to discuss how the photography would be handled?

EK: The client made just a few (good) suggestions during the day, but in general the shoot was driven by my own reactions to the place, the light and its details.

© Elliott Kaufman
© Elliott Kaufman

ASMP: You mention that, after waiting patiently for the right light, your computer battery went dead just as you started the shot. Were any client representatives in attendance when this occurred and, if so, how did you react? How long did it take you to come up with the thought of plugging your computer into your car’s cigarette lighter? Was it by any chance a rental from Hertz?

EK: I saw that the battery was going as we were in the process of shooting all the late afternoon and night shots. My assistant and I reacted right away and backed up my car where I have an AC adapter. The client saw what a good solution this was, and how prepared I was, so it did not come off as a mistake, it came off as clever.

© Elliott Kaufman
© Elliott Kaufman

ASMP: Based on your experience with this assignment (or other recent commercial assignments) what is your sense about the potential for future communications of this type to be produced for digital platforms, as well as in print?

EK: The photography would not change, just the distribution. I am sure that Hertz has this online.

© Elliott Kaufman
© Elliott Kaufman

ASMP: Considering the question above, please talk about the terms and fees you negotiate for assignments of this type. What kind of additional negotiations, if any, have you discussed (or would you envision discussing) with a client for assignments that include substantial digital rights?

EK: I talked with them about the annual report and the online Web version.

© Elliott Kaufman
© Elliott Kaufman

ASMP: Your commercial Web site features your architectural work in a number of different categories, including corporate, education, engineering, healthcare, hospitality, residential, restoration, theaters and transportation. Do you have a favorite type or style of architecture to photograph? If so, why?

EK: Residential has the most amount of design put into it, so I can extract the most amount of good photography from it. It is also more personal, in that the client is discerning the needs of his/her own client, creating what becomes a three-dimensional portrait.

© Elliott Kaufman
© Elliott Kaufman

ASMP: A 2008 New York Times article archived on your Web site mentions that you started a company called Legacy Editions to photograph homes for publication in a hand-bound coffee table book, along with interviews about how the owners live, including their favorite time of day in the house and what space they particularly like. Please talk about this business and its status today.

EK: I did a few of the Legacy Editions and had articles in the NY Times, The Robb Report, San Francisco Chronicle and did a segment on a cable show called High Net Worth. All looked great, but soon the online books came out and people thought that that was good enough. The books were beautifully detailed, hand-printed and luxurious.

© Elliott Kaufman
© Elliott Kaufman

ASMP: You shot an extensive series on the Panama Canal at the point in time when it was changing hands, making four separate trips for photography. Did this begin as a self directed project or an assignment? Please tell us about any issues of access you needed to address in this project and how this was handled.

EK: This was entirely self-directed. It was one of the most interesting projects I have worked on. It was during the last year that the Americans were going to own and run the canal. The public relations departments in Panama were very open to photography, so I contacted them and they opened doors that were unbelievable. I had a guide for the whole time who took me into places that were 18 feet below ground and to capture first-light helicopter shoots.

© Elliott Kaufman
© Elliott Kaufman

ASMP: Another one of your past projects resulted in a book called American Diner. Over what period of time did you shoot for this book and how long did it take to get this published?

EK: I spent about two years shooting this off and on. Once I had a mock up of the idea with my co-author, a fellow photographer, Leif Skoogfors, recommend us to Harper + Row, who gave it one look and took it! It then took another four years to complete it.

© Elliott Kaufman
© Elliott Kaufman

ASMP: The book credit lists Richard J.S Gutman and David Slovic as your collaborators in this project. Please tell us about the terms of this collaboration and describe your relationships with both parties. What was your relationship like with the book publisher?

EK: I started the book with David and ended it with Richard. David just had too many other things on his mind and could not get to the writing. Richard is an architectural historian who did one half of the book as an annotated history of the Diner and I did the other, which is an 85-page photo essay with no words or captions.

© Elliott Kaufman
© Elliott Kaufman

ASMP: In addition to commercial work you also have an active career as a fine art photographer and teacher. Generally speaking, what percentage of time do you spend on each of these activities? How much time do you spend working on editorial shoots or book projects?

EK: I spend a day and a half teaching. I do my commercial work when I am busy and, when I am not, I immediately go to my fine art work, which is where my head is more focused on now.

© Elliott Kaufman
© Elliott Kaufman

ASMP: As a New York photographer with one foot in the art world and another in that of commercial architectural photography, how important to your business is seeing and being seen? Do you regularly attend gallery openings and shows and, if so, is this something you really enjoy, or are you more content when you’re working?

EK: Seeing and being seen is very important, although I am way more content when working. That is what I am.

© Elliott Kaufman
© Elliott Kaufman

ASMP: One of your fine art series is called Time Transformations, where you use a static camera to photograph scenes over different periods of time lapse. To date you’ve presented this work as collaged ensemble framed pieces. Given the increasing availability of still cameras that shoot HD video, do you have interest or plans to take this body of work into the multimedia/video realm?

EK: Still photography is what I do. Although the skies were obsessively sequential, I am now working in the urban environment (Street Dance Series), which has a more random reaction to street events. Video is another medium altogether, which does interest me somewhat and I have done a few with my G10. They can be cool as fine art, but photo galleries don’t know quite what to do with them.

© Elliott Kaufman
© Elliott Kaufman