Stay away from Scott Council's web site photo gallery unless you've got some time to spend. You're liable to lose your way--the same way you might lose it in front of an Edward Hopper oil painting or a photograph by world-famous cameraman Cartier-Bresson.
Council, a highly successful commercial photographer who shoots for clients like Campbell's Soup, the US Olympic Team, Gillette, XXL Magazine, and the NFL is a lot more than just a hot industry lenser. He's an artist. Visiting his web site is like strolling through a photo gallery at New York City's MOMA: more of an art experience than a tour of celebrity imaging. Though the celebrities are certainly there.
"I do portraits of famous people," he explains. "Well, it's not always famous people, but it's mostly people who are well known. My portraits are a little moody, and maybe a bit heroic. That's my niche. The hero portrait."
And yes, Council is a serious photographer, arguably as important as artists like Richard Avedon and Annie Liebovitz. (Time will have the last word on that, but to my eye Council shows many of the signs.) Consider his splendid portraits of Elizabeth Moss, one of the stars of Mad Men; or take a few minutes to look at every face in his stunning study of young Cuban boxers. These photographs are powerful visual experiences with a lot going on just beneath the surface.
Council is clear that his web site is his virtual storefront. "Everything I do revolves around my web site," he says. "It's the most important tool I have. It represents what I want to do, and what I'll get hired to do. In today's business, anyone who doesn't have a web presence is not in touch with the way the modern world does business."
It all happened for Scott Council in the last seven years.
Initially he wanted to be a photojournalist, and his first professional experience was stringing photos to AP during the war in Yugoslavia. Back in the States he went to business school, and got a scholarship to the Arts Center and College of Design in Pasadena.
Council was 31 when he graduated. "To be starting something with no money and no idea how you're going to get work, at that age, it makes you feel really old," he remembers. "My plan had been to move to New York City and be a photographer—but first the dot-coms started falling apart and then 9-11 happened. All my New York friends said, "Don't move here!" So I got a job in L.A. working as a photographer at a motion picture entertainment agency. I went freelance in 2005."
In order to survive as a freelancer you have to find clients. Council was broke, but he knew he needed a web presence to establish himself—so he got a small business loan and used that money to build his first web site. "I got on a template site called LiveBooks and I had that site for a few years," he explains. But he sensed that while the web site was critical, he needed something more. The personal touch.
Scott found his first all-important clients the same way he finds them today. He researched who he wanted to work for, sent them links to his web site, and tried to get in to see them so he could show them his book of prints.
"I sent out email campaigns that got my name in front of people, and I did some print mailers. But the most effective thing I did was to fly to New York and Chicago and meet people. I made a printed portfolio, a book with prints of my photographs. I figured people had already seen the digital images on my site, and if I showed up with an iPad it would be basically the same thing. So I showed prospective clients a beautifully printed book, and it blew 'em away. When people see you're a person, there's this personal touch--they know who they're gonna be working with. And since these jobs are really big jobs the client has to trust you. You can't fake that. The personal contact is really important."
He's still improving his web site. "About six months ago I paid about $10,000 for a custom site," he says. "It was beautiful, but it used Flash and it had all kinds of problems. It was just too difficult for people to use. My current template site is on A Photo Folio. It's all HTML, and everyone can read it. And it costs a fraction of what the Flash site cost. I pretty much designed it myself."
You Get It Or You Don't
At first, only one out of 10 people would give Council a try, but that was enough…and he worked really cheap in the beginning. These days Council is pulling down larger fees, but of course when they pay you the big bucks they expect you to work under tougher conditions.
His most challenging shoot?
"Well they're all kinda challenging," he laughs. "Maybe it was the time I was supposed to shoot a portrait of Tiger Woods and all I could get him for was five minutes! He was getting dressed the whole time, and then he left. You literally have five minutes, and you have to pre-light and set up… I guess that's the nature of the job: Either you get it or you don't. My goal was to make Tiger look heroic but instead he just looks pissed off."
It's enough to make even a great photographer think about PhotoShop. But not Council.
"I'm proficient in PhotoShop," he says. "But I create most of my photography with lighting and a camera. Every time a professional photographer does a job you're gonna have some sort of involvement with PhotoShop. Especially with the kind of photography I do, where you have famous people for just a few minutes. A lot of the photography you see in magazines, you don't even know if those are the person's real arms, or real head! It's kinda sad. You have to look at your kids and go, 'The world is fake, kids.' I think photography should have some sense of authenticity. But the way we're presenting photography today just makes it look more fake."
Make Sure My Wife Doesn't Hate Me
Still, for Council life is good. At 43 he's almost as serious about surfing as photography, and he just moved to San Clemente, a prime surfing spot in Southern California, to follow the break. "I'm doing big jobs, and working with big stuff," he says, "but I'm not Annie Leibovitz. Maybe when I'm 65 I'll be that prominent. But that's never been my goal. My goal is to have a business, go surfing, and make sure my wife doesn't hate me for deciding to be a photographer…"