Scott Frances dropped by Apartment Therapy to talk to contributor Patrick J. Hamilton about his book, MonoVisioN, and the companion exhibit at New York’s Decoration & Design Building. Listen to the full interview here:
Scott reveals how photographing buildings is no fashion or beauty shoot, what three things almost every one of his images includes, why sometimes fog gives you the clearest image, and why his secret weapon can be found in the gardening section of your neighborhood home improvement store. He also graciously shares six tips to give your own photography the Scott Frances treatment. Talk about master class.
While Scott’s images have filled the pages of luxurious coffee table books for the likes of Mariette Himes Gomez, Alexa Hampton and Million Dollar Decorator Martyn Lawrence-Bullard, in a career spanning 25 years and including 18 years with Architectural Digest (which took him, among other places, into the homes of Jennifer Aniston and Steve Jobs), MonoVisioN is Scott’s very first volume documenting his own journey behind the lens.
And boy, this is one book that really can’t be judged by its cover. Inside the understated gray linen lies a rich array of images that reward, teach, and tantalize. It’s also a who’s who of architects, designers, iconic buildings, exotic locales and fleeting moments. If you believe Scott’s life-changing mantra “You are what you shoot,” he’s made quite a definition for, and of, himself.
Scott has been photographer of choice to minimalists like Steven Harris and maximalists like Mario Buatta. “At first glance, it seems a disparate group, but they’ve been very successful marriages,” Scott notes. What makes these marriages work? Scott finds the decorative in the architectural, and the structured amid the decorative. Stark architecture is softened with light and people, color play and natural pattern, while ornate interiors are shot with order (often head-on symmetry) and precise geometry. “My eye errs towards organizing and simplifying and making an easy journey for the viewer. And I think that really helps, in a room like Mario’s,” says Scott. “Conversely, with the work of Richard Meier, it can look very antiseptic if it’s photographed in a cooler more detached way.”
Scott’s ability to warm up modernism has made a convert even of hard-edged Meier (an account he inherited from legendary mentor Ezra Stoller) through a fog that settled in on a shoot day. Instead of postponing until Meier’s signature bright blues, blinding whites and grass greens could be coaxed from sunnier skies, Scott saw the fog as a way of humanizing and romanticizing the residence. The image has proven to be a favorite of Meier’s. “It’s changed the way he sees his own work, and the way he wants his work to be seen. I think he’s come to realize that it should be warm and accessible...” He adds, emphatically, “Modernism can be romantic,” and that fog-cloaked building provides a compelling illustration.
In addition to bridging Meier’s shift in thinking, Scott’s career has spanned the industry’s shift from film rolls to pixels. He speaks fondly of the migration, not with a geek’s fascination, but a painter’s reverence. “Digital is, counter-intuitively, a way for photography to merge back into the old arts, the drawing and the painting.”
It’s also, according to Scott, a more accurate way to capture in an image what the eye naturally sees. “When we walk into a room, we can see that the room is lit, even a large room, by one candle. It may be very dim, but our eyes can adjust and see it. A film camera could never do that.”
“With digital, I can expose for the candle, I can expose for the table near that candle, I can expose even more, on another exposure, for the far corners of the room, and then I combine these three or four files together into one great file. I’m actually able to capture the real essence and spirit and atmosphere of a room now.”
Working digitally has also created shoots that are more about subtraction than addition to Scott. “I no longer ‘light,’ but I do eliminate light in photos. I travel with large sheets of black plastic, (the) ground cover to keep weeds down in the garden. It comes on 10 x 25 foot rolls, very inexpensive, extremely low tech,” he chuckles.
Technology (pixels or plastic) not only lets Scott paint with light, but lets him do what he half-jokingly calls his “time space continuum,” a process that allows him to overlap the fleeting moments that make a space, whether the Metropolitan Museum or Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza, come alive with people who share it, although not simultaneously. With multiple exposures and an artist’s appreciation for the palettes and layers of Photoshop, Scott handpicks the players in much the same way Old Masters chose studies from sketchbooks before committing an image to canvas.
In doing so, Scott has come to fully appreciate what people add to his shots, and the architecture he seeks to help explain. “We all know how big a chair is or how big a bed is or how big a coffee cup is, so those are little clues that can give scale. But with a monumental building, whether it’s on the interior or not, without a person in it, it can be very difficult.”
Scott deftly uses the words and wisdom of architects and painters, but his personal and educational background created the heart of a storyteller. This son of journalists, and journalism graduate from Midwestern University, appreciates photography’s ability to tell a tale. His work for magazines like House & Garden taught him the need for speed. “I learned very quickly that a photo needs to tell one story really well, very quickly, or else someone will just turn the page. And if you succeed in telling that story quickly, and you grab their attention, then an even better photo goes on to tell maybe a couple more stories, and a viewer can start looking around, and choose to see other things.”
For Scott, doing so stems from a basic understanding of what makes an architectural shot work: “You need to force the viewer’s eye to travel through a photograph.” To make that happen, virtually every image of Scott’s is built on a structure of foreground, middle ground and background. “It may sound obvious, but that’s just a very simple technique for creating depth.” While that provides the structure, it’s light and focus that help you achieve it. “Your eye will always go to the brightest and sharpest thing in the photograph. So you want your foregrounds to be darker and softer, and then a little brighter in the middle ground, and then brightest and sharpest in the background…. obviously the windows should be brighter than the room. That’s a terrible look, when the room is brighter than the windows!”
Knowing where to focus was also an issue when Scott assembled the images for MonoVisioN, to best represent his dual success as interior and exterior photographer. You’d think the hardest part of culling an entire career down to 112 pages would be picking the images, but it wasn’t. “It was the Thank You’s on the last page! I always feel overwhelmed with gratitude for all the people that have helped me in my career, taught me about architecture and interiors and about color and composition and how to see, and I really struggled with trying to remember them all. It’s been a long journey, and a lot of people have been very kind.” It’s a debt Scott seems more than happy to pay forward, sharing six tips on how to improve your own interior photography:
1) Shoot with natural, or naturally occurring, light.
2) Get a tripod.
3) Shoot wider than you think. You can always crop in later.
4) Don’t ever have light coming from behind the camera.
5) Make sure each photo has a foreground, middle ground, and background.
6) Use light and focus to make your eye travel through the photo.
Storyteller? Artist? Journalist? Romantic? Teacher? Yes, yes, yes, yes and you betcha. And all with a singular vision.
MonoVision by Scott Frances is available from Pond Press, and the exhibit at New York’s D&D Building is on view through August 19th.
Images: Scott Frances