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Cover Artist Steve Grubman
Chicago, IL

© Steve Grubman

© Steve Grubman

Steve Grubman’s uncanny connection with animals shaped an amazing body of work that combined his two biggest passions.

While Grubman began his career specializing in table-top advertising work for large-scale corporate clients, his award-winning 1995 campaign for Chick-fil-A, depicting three cows with sandwich boards urging customers to “Eat Mor Chikin,” put him firmly on the map as an animal specialist. Grubman’s devotion to animals is highlighted in a lighthearted behind-the-scenes video on his Web site, as well as in his humorous Ten Tenets marketing promo,, with sage advice such as #8, paired with the image above.

“Identify the Alpha in the group. And begin negotiations immediately. The others will usually follow along.”

After more than 30 years at the top of his game, Grubman lost a battle with cancer in July 2013. To compliment a portfolio of Grubman’s work in the ASMP Bulletin’s fall, we offer this behind-the-scenes look at his work in this Q&A with his long time digital manager David Kreutz.

“With a background in biology, music and photography, Dave is truly a renaissance man who is involved in all aspects of the studio,” explained Grubman in a 2012 blog post titled The Man Behind the Scenes. “During concepting, executing and through post production, Dave’s influences are instrumental in making my photos shine. From subtle cleanups and stylizing to multi-shot compositions, Dave’s skill and artistry help me deliver exactly what my clients demand — beautiful images.”

ASMP: When and under what conditions did Steve begin making pictures? Please briefly describe what you know about his early years.

Dave Kreutz for Steve Grubman: Steve had always enjoyed tinkering with cameras in grade school and high school, but it was while driving a taxi that he met Ralph Cowan, a prominent Chicago photographer. They struck up a friendship, and Steve started an apprenticeship, working in the darkroom, developing film and making prints. It was during this time that Steve recognized his love for the craft and set out to make it a career.

ASMP: Did Steve study photography in school or have significant photographic mentors early in his career?

DK/SG: Steve was very much a self-taught photographer. Watching Ralph and other photographers taught him needed artistic techniques and watching their professionalism taught him the importance of being a solid, responsible businessman.

ASMP: How long was Steve an ASMP member and what was the extent of his involvement?

DK/SG: He joined ASMP in the summer of 2002.

ASMP: Steve’s photographic specialties included animals and still life, which seems like a very curious mix. What was it about these two subjects that appealed to him so much? What commonalities did you find in Steve’s approach to these two, very different subject areas.

DK/SG: Steve’s driving passion was photography, and although the subject matter varied considerably over the years, it was the play of light and composition that he enjoyed. It wasn’t just a turkey or a teapot, but the beautifully crafted image that drove him creatively. To him, every subject deserved to be captured and displayed like a fine work of art.

ASMP: What would you say was Steve’s most valuable professional tool?

DK/SG: Steve’s business sense was one of those unsung skills that really allowed his career to flourish. From his father, Steve learned a sense of self-worth, as well as that there are no rewards without risks. This allowed him to weather the hard times, invest in his future, and not undersell the market for a quick gain. Clients and colleagues respected that, and knew that the professionalism and quality at a Grubman photo shoot was worth the investment.

ASMP: What piece (or pieces) of gear would you say Steve couldn’t do without?

DK/SG: Steve was not much of an equipment hound. He loved his manual Nikon, and the craftsmanship of the Hasseblad system always felt right in his hands, but his iconic portfolio pieces were captured on 8x10 Deardorffs, Hasseblad 503s, Canon G-series, Nikon F and D-800s, and anything he could hook up to a PhaseOne back. Everything was just a tool to him — a way to get to the final vision.

ASMP: How did you first meet Steve and when did you begin working for him?

DK/SG: In 1988, I was a photographer at a large Chicago catalog house, shooting room scenes for Sears and Penney’s, when Steve's wife, Andrea Mandel, introduced me to her husband, who was looking for an extra shooter for a large project. After meeting Steve and working together for a few weekends, Steve asked me to join him full time and help manage the catalog side of his business. We worked together, transitioning from large format tabletop work to automotive and animal photography with a large digital component. We weren’t content with the offerings of outside retouching sources, so we made the investment in ourselves, and kept the work in-house, where we had the final control. That collaboration, both on set and in post-production, allowed us to make the strongest image possible.

ASMP: Were there other team members or dedicated collaborators of particular importance to Steve’s work?

DK/SG: Chicago designer Steve Liska was an invaluable resource, both as a client and a collaborator on many promotional pieces. Also, Steve’s rep, Carolyn Somlo, was key in making “Grubman” the go-to name when looking for animal photography.

ASMP: Please talk about your approach in working with Steve to concept, execute and deliver images.

DK/SG: Steve was always willing to look at a project as a collaboration. An art director, stylist, retoucher and assistant were all part of the team to get the perfect image. Having worked together as photographers for so long, we would plan lighting and lenses from the very beginning of a shoot to optimize the potential throughout the retouching process. Visualizing together how light would play off a cow suspended by a bungie cord from a bridge would allow us to create the rig needed to capture the perfect shots for the final composite. Unless you have the retoucher right there with you, you’ll always miss the details that are needed to make the shot believable.

ASMP: What was your favorite part of your job in working with Steve?

DK/SG: The variety. In an age where many photographers have become extremely specialized, we have been able to keep a diverse client base with a wide range of projects. Over the years we’ve shot fashion, automotive, food, still life, editorial, large manufacturing and, of course, animals galore. In just this past year I’ve been fortunate enough to shoot dogs and cats, race cars, red-stag deer, designer furniture and cheetahs running at 70 mph. If that doesn’t keep your days interesting, I don’t know what will.

ASMP: Steve called out your skill in multi-shot compositions as instrumental in making his images shine. Please give us some examples of this type of project.

DK/SG: I think my background as a photographer, and Steve’s willingness to work together toward the final images has helped so much over the years. For a shot of a cow in a field with 200 pails of milk, the original thought was to shoot one pail and clone away, but after prodding, Steve agreed to use 10 pails, shot five times, in five places. That library of 50 images, with the variations in lighting, placement, and perspective, changed the final image from a gimmick shot to a “how the hell did they do that?” advertisement.

Truly knowing how the camera captures perspective and lighting and how the computer can manipulate the image really affects the final product. We’ll always have clients who want a lounge chair in the middle of Wrigley Fields bleachers, a forklift on a golf green or 15 puppies sleeping in a dishwasher…. It happens!

ASMP: Steve was very active in supporting animal rescue causes. Are there any success stories that came out of his work for these causes?

DK/SG: Steve was very involved in many animal causes in Chicago. He gave countless hours photographing animals for rescues, donating portrait sessions for charity galas, contributing images for advertising campaigns, and later in his life, training his Labrador, Polly, to become a therapy dog and volunteering at local hospitals and treatment centers as a part of the Chicago Canine Therapy Corps.

ASMP: Steve licensed his animal images through his own stock photography Web site When was this initially established, and how important was image licensing to his overall business?

DK/SG: Grubman Studio sells stock through both Getty and was created in 2006, as the animal library became a significant size and the digital storage capabilities made managing it feasible. I don’t think stock sales have ever been a major source of studio income, mostly because Steve would always prefer to steer a client towards an image an art director created, not one he found.

ASMP: What was Steve’s favorite kind of animal to photograph and why?

DK/SG: Although he was partial to almost any living creature, most dogs had a special place in Steve’s heart. The chance to shoot lions and bears and elephants was always a thrill, but seeing Steve laying on the floor, quietly waiting for a setter to calm down, settle in and — click — make the connection, you always knew he felt a true bond at that moment.

ASMP: What was the oddest situation Steve encountered during an animal shoot?

DK/SG: One of our favorite stories! An animal handler contacted us about a bear she had just acquired from a children’s petting zoo, which she wanted us to photograph. The bear arrived on a day we were shooting an Accura NSX and hosting a half dozen sales reps from Kodak North America. Four minutes into the photo shoot, the bear got loose from the handlers, wandered the studio curiously looking into all the rooms and pushing photo gear to and fro. After 45 minutes of salespeople huddled in an office, and the rest of us standing on counters and desks to keep out of the way, we finally contacted the bear’s previous owner, who gave us the incredible solution to our predicament — we turned off the lights, applauded like the end of a performance, and all sang the “Barney” theme song. The bear, sensing the end of the children’s show, calmly dropped to all fours, walked into his cage and lay down. True story!

ASMP: What are the most common resources Steve used for sourcing animal talent for commercial shoots?

DK/SG: Nothing beats an experienced animal handler. Chicago, New York, Los Angeles all have reputable handlers who can source almost any specimen you need for a shoot. Some will be trained for photography, others will be trained for dog shows and some from farms or zoos or shelters. The important thing is having a trainer who is knowledgeable in both animal behavior and commercial photography.

ASMP: Please talk about the differences between working with trained versus untrained animals? Do you have any tips for minimizing problems in preparing for a shoot with an untrained animal?

DK/SG: A controlled environment with minimal distractions is always important. Trained animals are used to the hectic world of a photo set, but a wild animal or domestic pet can get unnerved quickly, and coming back from that is a major challenge.

ASMP: Do you have any other ‘dog whisperer’ tricks that you’ve learned from your work over the years with Steve during animal shoots?

DK/SG: Simply — patience. Taking the time to allow the animal to settle in and start acting like an animal. This is so hard with deadlines and impatient art directors, but Steve had the knack to be able to wait out the subject, put them at ease, and take the shot when the time was right. That level of comfort and naturalism shows through in all his work.

ASMP: What was the proudest moment in Steve’s professional career? What made that particular moment so special?

DK/SG: The day Steve was asked to fly to Melbourne, Australia for a week to capture the still imagery to be used on the poster for “Charlotte’s Web” was a great moment for him. It was an amazing week of photography, using some of the best animal talent in a beautiful location for a project that would be used worldwide to promote a major Hollywood film. He was on top of the world that day.

ASMP: Are there any plans in place (or in the making) for the legacy of Steve’s work?

DK/SG: Grubman Studio continues on, with Andrea and myself producing the work we have for the past 25 years. Clients are responding and jobs are being awarded and we are continuing a living legacy through new work and stock sales. There have also been many wonderful profiles in publications such as this one and the Anti-Cruelty Society’s magazine, along with a number of shows and tributes planned at advertising agencies with which Steve had close working relationships. Andrea and I are taking time to work on the most appropriate way to preserve and promote Steve’s life and work.