Shooting Under Construction

June 9, 2011

By Jacqui Palumbo

© Joe Schmelzer

Newly renovated spa suite at the Hotel Bel-Air<br />

Los Angeles based photographer Joe Schmelzer shoots many different subjects and styles, but he always aims to incorporate new innovations while maintaining the characteristics of traditional photography. He is sought after for his natural-looking spaces, establishing him as an influential travel and interior photographer. He works closely with his team, Treasurbite Studio, to bring the best quality possible to his clients, and he has been featured in top publications such as Architectural Digest, Elle Décor and Vogue UK.


Schmelzer’s visual rhetoric focuses on environments that truly appear unstaged, which can require a lot of staging. He was approached by The Dorchester Collection of Properties to shoot their newest endeavor, the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, California. The hotel had closed down for two years to renovate, and is set to re-open in October 2011. Schmelzer was asked to shoot the newly added spa and spa suites for marketing and web site content in order to generate pre-bookings before its reopening in the fall. The challenge? Many of the interiors were unfinished, but needed to look complete. Enlisting the help of prop stylist Kyle Schuneman and digital retoucher David Vincent Wolf, Schmelzer created images that feign a finished look while keeping true to the existing bright and airy interiors.


Schmelzer presented his concept to the Hotel Bel-Air marketing manager Jonathan Mattis – an editorial look as opposed to the typical light-blasted, highly focused “brochure look.” Schmelzer comments, “I think it is important to show a space as the architect intended – using the light that is existent to reflect the feeling of the actual space.” To achieve this, he generally avoids using strobes when possible. Schmelzer knows it is not always possible to shoot a scene without any artificial light, and will first use bounce cards, flex-fills, foam core and/or silks to redistribute the natural light. As a last resort, he will use a strobe, but closely nuances the direction and intensity of the light being cast, in order to mimic the existing light.


Before each shoot, Schmelzer generally prefers to scout the location. Since the Hotel Bel-Air was unfinished, he was unable to access the building beforehand. His collaboration with Schuneman became invaluable to the execution; they improvised the finishing touches together. Schmelzer thinks highly of Schuneman’s talent, and has worked with him for over two years. When shooting interiors, the setting often needs tweaking to translate better in an image. Schuneman not only uses the available objects, but brings his own to maximize the atmosphere and project a mood. The duo not only click in terms of personality and style, but most importantly, in work ethic.


The final touches on the project were completed by David Vincent Wolf, head digital technician and retoucher at Treasurbite Studio. Schmelzer admits he struggled with the idea of transitioning to digital. “I felt it lacked the depth of film at describing the feel of a space,” he explains. He still likes to shoot assignments with film, ranging from 35mm to 4 x 5, depending on the client’s needs and budget. However, after working with Wolf, he has come to a compromise with digital. Together they have created treatments that they apply to the images that mimic the look and feel of traditional photography, adding back texture and depth.


The marketing team of the Hotel Bel-Air was thrilled with the resulting images. Jonathan Mattis says, “I hired Joe to shoot the first architectural photographs of the newly refurbished Hotel Bel-Air Spa and three new Loft guest rooms. There were a lot of challenges because the rest of the hotel is still under construction, but the pictures don’t reflect that…they are amazing. The team is quirky, cool, creative and they know what they are doing. They flow through each shot like true professionals. I’ve worked with a ton of photographers in my career both in NYC and LA and Joe is one of the best. He’s humbled, not arrogant and he takes beautiful photos.” The Dorchester group was so impressed they commissioned Schmelzer to shoot the brand new presidential bungalows at the Beverly Hills Hotel as well. The shoot will take place over a period of four days in June before the bungalows become available.


Schmelzer and Schuneman are currently working on a design book that will launch next fall from Clarkson Potter/Random House. The book is aimed towards first-time apartment renters who want to design smartly on a tight budget. They transform ten spaces in different cities across the United States, and with the help of writer Heather Summerville, provide tips and a resource guide for readers. Schuneman describes it as “a quirky look at decorating your first place in the city.”


To see more of Joe Schmelzer’s work, visit his Web site.