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Ian Spanier on Going Back to Your Roots

May 24, 2017

By Ian Spanier

© Ian Spanier

First shot of the day, heading into the desert

© Ian Spanier

Even though we had a specific destination in mind, when I saw this scene, I knew we had to stop.

© Ian Spanier

Travis Howard plays his guitar in the desert. It felt as though everything just fell into place

© Ian Spanier

These portraits were taken near an abandoned shack. In my opinion, this easily could have been our one and only location for the shoot

© Ian Spanier

These portraits were taken near an abandoned shack. In my opinion, this easily could have been our one and only location for the shoot

© Ian Spanier

These portraits were taken near an abandoned shack. In my opinion, this easily could have been our one and only location for the shoot

© Ian Spanier

These portraits were taken near an abandoned shack. In my opinion, this easily could have been our one and only location for the shoot

© Ian Spanier

Portraits of Travis from the lakebed. This is where we initially planned to spend the day shooting

© Ian Spanier

Portraits of Travis from the lakebed. This is where we initially planned to spend the day shooting

© Ian Spanier

Last shot of Travis in the lakebed

© Ian Spanier

Even though we had a full set of shots, an impromptu set of abandoned homes became a perfect backdrop to end a truly great day

Like many of you, I began making pictures simply to make pictures. As time passed, I started to develop a style, and somewhere along the way I found a balance between what I like to shoot, and what I could make a living shooting. Those who have been in the business long enough often find themselves battling internally about what’s “just for the money” and what really speaks to us as photographers and artists.

I preach often about the importance of personal work, and I truly believe that we owe ourselves shoots that are about how we see things and not just about executing someone else’s vision. For example, I recently put together a shoot with Travis Howard (www.travishoward.com), a country-music songwriter known for his collaborations with country stars such as Miranda Lambert and Deirks Bently. Travis is married to a makeup artist that I work with named Brittany (@brittanyspyskma), and he was kind enough to sit for my personal project, “Right Next Door” (www.huffingtonpost.com/ian-spanier).

After that shoot, I asked if he and Brittany would be up for doing a different shoot—some sort of collaboration between the three of us.

They were up for it, but we couldn’t necessarily put into words what each of us wanted. We settled on the idea of creating an album package—or at least something like that—and everyone liked the idea of shooting at a dry lakebed I’d scouted outside of Los Angeles.

We set a date and met at the location. The rest was up the chance.

Had this been a commercial assignment, I’d likely have listened to the music and paid close attention to what the client wanted to do. In a sense, this was a case of the cart before the horse—I was familiar with Travis’s music, but not his latest album. That said, the shoot just flowed organically. There was nothing concrete in mind, so we all got in the car together and acted spontaneously. Should something on the route spark inspiration, we’d roll with it.

About 90 minutes outside of L.A., and still an hour from the planned destination, we pulled to the side of the road and found ourselves amongst beautiful surroundings. We decided to begin the photo shoot right then and there.

A little later on into the shoot, we found a burnt-out shack on the roadside. (Travis had heard stories of how, many years back, land was so cheap that, even if it wasn’t being utilized, the government required a small structure be present in order to justify a purchase. Many of these structures sit abandoned now and are mere reminders of the promise of prosperity.) It turns out that one man’s misfortune is another man’s fortune, and we had ourselves a kick-ass location!

Travis and Brittany had brought along a bunch of clothing options and they had a sense for marrying the location to his outfit. Whatever inspiration came about we played around with. For me, it was a walk down memory lane: it’s like I was back in high school or college just shooting. There was no shot list, no producer, no schedule or art director. We were just making pictures.

In under an hour we had five useable options. We hopped back in the car and the journey continued. We entered the lakebed were immediately smashed in the face by some heavy winds. Travis’s hat actually blew off his head, and Brittany and I nearly fell over laughing as he chased after it! Fortunately though, we managed to make it just in time to get some beautiful sunset shots using our arsenal of props.

Truth be told, I was thankful that we made the earlier stops and left everything up to chance. Had we rushed to shoot only in this one lakebed location, we may have had fewer shots to show for the day.

There was one more surprise in store for us that day. After leaving the location, we made it just a few miles from before we saw a series of abandoned houses.  Travis quickly grabbed his banjo as I grabbed a couple of lenses and we made our way through the tall grass as the sun set. We knocked off a few frames as Travis gently picked away at his banjo. Icing on the cake.

This was an important shoot for me. As my regular commercial assignments fill up my hard drives, this free-spirited shoot is a reminder of the personal work that all artists need to concentrate on from time to time to stay inspired.


Ian Spanier began taking photographs at six years old when his parents gave him his first point and shoot camera. After majoring in photography in college, Spanier worked in publishing as an editor, but making pictures never left him. Having only known 35mm, he taught himself medium and large format as well as lighting.

Clients include: MTV, Comedy Central, A&E, HBO, Runner’s World, Fast Company, Shape, UFC, Conde Nast Traveler, Danskin, Field & Stream, Muscle & Fitness, Men’s Fitness, Marie Claire, Time Out NY, Psychology Today, The New York Times, Los Angeles Magazine, AirTran’s Go Magazine, The New York City Economic Development Corporation, Bank of America, Gerber Knife Company, This Old House, WP Carey, Time Inc. and Simon and Schuster, FLEX Magazine, M&F HERS,  Price Waterhouse, LowePro, FujiFilm, and 2Xist.

Ian’s first full book of published work, “Playboy, a Guide to Cigars” arrived in cigar shops November 2009 and the public version hit retail stores Spring 2010. The book is a collection of his photographs made in six countries spanning two and a half years. His newest book project, “Local Heroes: America’s Volunteer Fire Fighters,” came out to critical acclaim in the Fall of 2012.

Ian is a member of the Lowepro, “Loweprofessionals” Team and The Photoflex “Light Leaders,” a brand ambassador for Hoodman USA and Imagenomic.

The original masters of photography have always inspired Spanier as they shot what they saw. For him, there is no “one” subject that he photographs; he also chooses to shoot what he sees.

Although he works anywhere and everywhere, Spanier recently left NY for the sunny coast, and now lives with his wife and two sons in Los Angeles, CA. Questions or comments, e-mail him at: ian@ianspanier.com. To see more of Ian Spanier’s latest advertising, editorial and personal projects, visit his site at www.ianspanier.com. He is represented by Big Leo.

 


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