This week on the blog, we meet with Canadian photographer Ian Pettigrew, a committed and versatile artist with a clear vision for his pictures.
Ian has a personal connection with his subjects, they are suffering from Cystic Fibrosis just like he is. Let's discover both his commercial work and photos from his books with 16 photos in full resolution!
A few words about you, how did you start photography?
I'm a Graphic Designer who happens to take photos. Over 25 years as an Art Director makes the difference in my work. You can learn technical skills as a photographer, but having a great eye is what really matters. I was lucky to work with many great photographers, and was mentored by some great creative minds in the Canadian ad industry -it taught me how to work with people, how to connect with my subjects, and most importantly how to see things with a designer's eye. I started in advertising in the 90s, and we shot exclusively on medium format film. That was quite a process to be part of, even as an art director. I became fascinated with photography, especially working with people.
From there it was a matter of the journey of experimenting. Like The Helsinki Bus Station Theory, eventually you find your calling. Practice, practice and more practice and a dash of talent. By the time I was getting more into photography, in the sense that it could be a second career, digital was already the go-to over film now.
Can you briefly explain your creative process for a great portrait photograph?
Everything starts with a thought in my head. And usually at inopportune times. I try to carry around a notepad and pencil everywhere, to jot down anything and everything. Always a pencil, too. I like to write things down physically; I feel the thought is better retained. The thought leads to the creative idea, which leads to the actual execution, like the lighting, the model, the styling, etc. That's the technical part. The hard part is still the idea. Also, whether you like it or not, you have to try to be a people person. To be able to communicate with your subjects properly. I believe a bit in what Annie Leibovitz says about you don't necessarily have to put your subjects at ease. Every portrait is a unique situation, and depending on what I'm looking to accomplish every sitting is approached differently.
Are you inspired by the work of other photographers or artists?
Many things inspire me, just creatively. Sometimes that seeps into my portrait work, sometimes not. Actually most times not. Sometimes I just need to be inspired with a creative spark. I'm a font nerd, so maybe its a typeface I've just discovered. Maybe it's a Basquiat painting that moves me, whatever. When I was younger working in advertising, and just getting into photography, my two favs I was enamored with were Herb Ritts and Richard Avedon. I wanted nothing more than to emulate their photos, very inspiring. They still inspire me to this day. Current photographers, like Miller Mobley, I very much like their work. Marco Grob, Craig McDean.
Is there someone in the world you dream to photograph or a particular goal you wish to reach?
I used to think this, about WHO exactly I wanted to photograph. Many people always choose a celebrity, right. Always someone famous. the Dali Lama, Brad Pitt, some head of state. But a few years ago, I started work on a very personal project that ended up becoming two books. 12 years it was discovered that I had the genetic disease Cystic Fibrosis. Eventually, after a series of circumstances, I decided to make a portrait book about adults living with CF, and then made a second book about specifically women living with CF. That book, SaltyGirls, ended up going viral worldwide (some links below after this paragraph).
I found that it was more rewarding doing a project like this, than photographing some celebrity that probably doesn't give a shit anyway. The difference was making an impact on someone's life, taking a portrait that had real value and could produce real emotion, not just in the viewer but also the subject. Now I'm certainly not averse to some celebrities - there are some I would love to photograph, but most are personal heroes that I admire like the F1 great Jackie Stewart or hockey great Bobby Orr. But I'd much rather pour my time and energy into making a true change to someone's life.
About your photography gears, what are your favorite tools?
I'm not loyal to any one particular brand, especially when it comes to cameras. Over the last 10 years I think I've used almost all the big names - Canon, Leica, Nikon, Hasselblad. For the last couple of years, I've used Sony, and I'm quite happy. But if something else came along that piqued my interest I'd be tempted to try. What happens is I get the image in my head first (the idea) then its about the process (the gear) of translating that idea from my head to the page. HOW exactly that is done, and with what gear, is irrelevant to me.
Some gear I DO very much like are all Sigma lenses. I use them on all my systems in the past. For lights, I've used the PCB Einsteins or AlienBees for years now. You can't beat the price on those. For various situations I'll change up the lighting modifier, but for the most part I stick with a deep octabox of varying sizes. I like simple. I find a lot of portraits from others get way too complicated with lighting, like using 4-5 lights. I usually stick with one, sometimes two.
Do you have projects for the future like workshops, personal series or travels?
I finished my two books about Cystic Fibrosis a couple of years ago and I don't have any plans to do anything further with that.
Last year I had started another portrait series about aging war veterans, but I only got up to about 14 or 15 images until the project kind of stalled. I wouldn't mind picking that up again at some point. But I was hoping for some sponsorship to help out and that never materialized. Besides that I don't have any current ideas for a personal series. I usually get ideas for a one-off image, but I'm still waiting to be inspired for a great idea. Something that would be life changing like SaltyGirls.
To see more from Ian:
All photographs copyright Ian Pettigrew and used with his permission.
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