The Pro Interview : Charlie Surbey

Each month will conduct an interview with a commercial photographer. Why is this happening? Because in "commercial" there is the word commerce. To survive in photography, you have to eat every day!

Charlie Surbey is a British photographer, specialising in portraits and still life. This talented quadra created a spectacular photography. His mastery of light has enabled him to develop an immediately recognisable style. Surbey plunges his models into a world of evanescent pastels.

For twenty years, prestigious clients (Paul Smith, BMW, Microsoft, Esquire) have entrusted him with their advertising campaigns. While England remained in brutal confinement, Charlie Surbey answered the questions of

Tell us about your beginnings in photography?

I was a student at Salisbury University (a pretty town in South West London) where I discovered photography with passion. I graduated in 1998 and won a national award. This award enabled me to apply to work as an assistant to great photographers.
My professors wanted me to do a master's degree and they promised me a prestigious career in the world of contemporary art. I didn't want to take this route, from that time on I wanted to do commercial photography.

What were the first areas you worked in?

Essentially two: products and beverages. Two fields that are easy to produce when you are a student. All you have to do is go to the local supermarket and buy a bottle of beer. Doing fashion or car photography is much more expensive.

What were your artistic influences?

As soon as I started at university, I was influenced by advertising photographers: Nadav Kander, Frank Herholdt, Peter Dazeley for whom I was assistant. Working for them in London as a freelance I took the best of each of them (light, composition).

Twenty years ago, a shooting session with a great photographer was a real spectacle! The client and the artistic director would come to the studio. Everyone had to be entertained. Once the shooting was done, the films were sent to the laboratory. While waiting for the result, we drank shots together.
In the digital age, this type of day is almost non-existent. There is no more dead time. The photographer does his or her own retouching and controls the entire creative process.

What have these great photographers taught you in terms of promotion and marketing?

The basic idea is to make sure that the client always thinks of you. Peter Dazeley used to produce paper cubes in his name. The type of cube you write on and find on desks. He also sent personalised postcards every month to the art directors of the agencies.

Today, it is much easier to promote his work through social networks. But how easy it is for everyone to do it, hence the avalanche of images.
To fight against this, you have to develop human relations. Don't hesitate to check up on your clients (send flowers, go for a drink). The personal aspect has perhaps become even more important because of social networks.

There is a spectacular aspect in your photography in the mix of cold and colourful tones. How do you manage to create these incredible pastels?

These cold colours define my style. I illuminate objects or people with coloured gelatin. To light a model, I use 5 to 6 different flashes. My general light is 4 or 5 metres behind me, equipped with blue gelatine. I then illuminate the subject with a "beauty dish" (without gelatine). Behind the subject, I place lights equipped with orange gelatins.

For still-life, I do not work with a plethora of mirrors or reflectors. I illuminate the objects from different angles.  At the post-production stage, I gather all these lights together.

Most of my light comes from behind. It allows me to underline the line of a shoulder or part of the face. When I photograph outside, I always place the sun behind my subject. With a reflector you can bring light back to the face of the model.
This is the advice I will give to a photographer: Never lit from the front. The light crushes everything and the depth disappears.
By lighting from behind you create a sort of evanescent circle behind the model. In post-production, I accentuate by adding "flare".

In the last few years you have diversified your portfolio, for what reasons?

I first started doing portraits because I found my portfolio of products sometimes monotonous. The diversity helps to maintain the attention. I also wanted to find a link with people.
My series on nurses gave me a better understanding of their lives. Today I do as many portraits as products. I have started a series on animals that I am passionate about.

The irony of my career path lies in my current situation: 23 years after starting my career in commercial photography I am gradually turning towards more artistic photography. Today, I try to find a balance between the two.
My agent sometimes complains about the diversity of my portfolio, saying that it creates confusion.

What advice would you give to a young photographer starting out in the business?

A good initial training is fundamental, in school or university. You have to take advantage of these years to develop your own style.
In recent years, some brands have been entrusting their advertising campaigns to influencers. They have no technical knowledge and arrive at the studio with their iPhones. However, making an image with a medium format is much more difficult. It is not a question of pasting a library of filters on a visual. To make the difference with the influencers, you have to know the technique and develop your own style.