Passionate and confident - these two words fit Grant Spanier perfectly as we get to know him a little better with this interview. He's just one of those people who knows what he's doing and he's just happy to share his views and talents with the world. A great visual storyteller, Grant goes beyond photography to sculpting different ideas with visions and intuition he's come to develop through the years. Read on and try to keep up. Grant's busy mind is a well of ideas that you surely wouldn't want to miss out on. He spares no details.
Hello, Grant and welcome back to the Magazine! It's been two years since we last featured your work here. What have you been up to lately?
Glad to be back. Though I’d be remiss to pretend I’m not answering this during a global pandemic… so as far as what I’ve been up to, I’ve been quarantined. Luckily it’s been a surprisingly productive experience that I’m grateful for in some ways (though I’m not saying anyone needs to be productive right now).
I’ve used it as an opportunity to shift my creative investment into projects I can do at home, alone. My main focus has been writing, and now editing my short film screenplay. It would have been incredibly hard to find the time for this project under normal circumstances.
Besides that and before the quarantine started, I’ve been doing a lot more commercial work. I’m primarily a filmmaker, though photography is a massive part of my life and craft (and it feeds my filmmaking work). I wrapped up a pair of commercials for Adidas (the first, the second) which was a big step and opportunity for me. I’ve continued shooting stills, of course. I have a couple of ongoing personal series (Drive-Thru Social Club being one of them).
More recently I’ve been experimenting with analogue processes - printing, modifying, re-scanning... which has been really exploratory and fulfilling in such a tactile way. I’m calling that “Chaos Therapy for now and I think it might become a bigger series or body of work.
I’ve also expanded my work with other artists. I recently creative directed the project and shot the cover for K CAMP “KISS 5” album. I’ve got a long-form album campaign/series with The Avalanches (who were a dream, like beyond, to work with) and I’ve got some EP creative rolling out with Reo Cragun (one of my favorite artists, he’s so so fire) and another with Kablito (super talented with dope style).
How do you think your style changed in the last couple of years?
I think as some of my technical proficiency has grown, it’s allowed me to work on a bigger scale with a bigger team. Which has allowed for more elaborate setups. I’m not sure how to describe my style evolution(s)...
I guess the biggest style change for me is images I’m making are much much closer to the ones I have in my head.
I think my color grading and overall consistency has gotten tighter. I’m really just chasing “iconic” images — a never-ending hunt, for sure, but I feel like I’ve gotten at least a little bit closer with each photo.
I swear it’s easier for other people to see style changes. As artists, sometimes we’re too close to the work to properly gauge it. The biggest thing I want to do is to impart feeling when people look at an image. Hopefully, at increasingly higher and more nuanced levels. I think my storytelling has gotten better/deeper.
We saw that you're still working with a lot of portraits. Which is your current favorite project/photoshoot?
It's tough to choose favorites. I love all my children, of course.
I’ll forever cherish my David Hasselhoff campaign for Happy Socks. Cuz, David Hasselhoff, and a red Ferrari. Lolo Zouaï is one of my closest collaborators and shooting her album cover last year (“High Highs to Low Lows”) was an honor. It’s just so great to get to be a part of the identity for projects/people you believe in.
Getting to be in the studio with Rosalía + James Blake and Rosalía + Billie Eilish last year was a bit surreal.
I recently revisited my YG shoot and re-scanned some contact sheets. that shoot was crazy and I can’t believe we got the images we did.
Recently I’m really proud of the cover/campaign for K CAMP’s KISS 5 — they really just let me run with it and make the work I wanted... which is massively exhilarating and gratifying.
And finally, Working with the Avalanches on a multi-day shoot this fall... a project that is attempting to tell a bigger story with the images and the cast (much of it is unreleased) was probably one of the most beautiful, challenging, and fulfilling photoshoot experiences of my life. The level of passion, attention-to-detail, and creative vision the Avalanches have through every piece of their project is just plain delightful.
We love how your portraits still have that punchy and interesting theme, with their vivid and sometimes playful colors. How did you develop this shooting style?
I really started shooting photos as basically an all-film/analogue photographer. So naturally, film has contributed somewhat fundamentally to my “style”.
But I think a lot of development comes down to the sort of things you gravitate toward. And as you consume those things (like images, artists, colors) and you create things... you really just end up moving in certain directions.
I’ve got a funny balance I’m striking because on one hand I desperately am interested in creating subtle, muted work, but on the other hand, I am in love with powerful, colorful images. There’s room for both and for nuance... ultimately by creating consistently, you’re giving yourself the best opportunity to grow/develop (and for you to let go of everything being too “precious”).
What inspires you in your work?
Stories. Light. Feelings. Process. Concepts. Styling. Other artists. My collaborators. Movies. Music.
For you, how important is gear when it comes to coming up with creative work?
Ahh. Gear. I mean. It’s necessary. By design, I’ve tried to not fall down the Gear Hole. I see it as a tool and an element. I think technical proficiency can make you a better artist and collaborator over the long term.
Early on, I approached things with creative/concept as my guiding light and relied on collaborators to fill in the gaps. A lot of filmmaking is still that — leaning on department heads and your crew to help you express the thing. They execute and are proficient in ways I will never be.
But as much as I ran from the technical elements early on (if only in part from insecurity/fear) I have embraced them the last few years especially. Knowing more helps me make better decisions and feel more confident in those decisions.
A lot of earlier stage creatives want to know exactly what gear was used to make what. I think that can be useful in understanding the hidden layers behind images... breaking them down and studying from them... but the truth is most people just want the cheat code to making their work look “good.” It’s the reason fake film borders are so popular.
I see [gear] as a tool and an element. Knowing gear and experimenting with it can feed your work. But it’s not the point of the work.
I don’t have any problem with people being curious about gear, or using “fake” film, filters, whatever. But the truth is that finding your style is really really going to be a result of experimenting and hands-on work. Copying someone’s voice or style will only get you so far. And at the end of the day, we don’t need more copycat artists — we need YOU and we want you to develop your own voice. It’s ultimately more fulfilling.
I learned to shoot film on an Olympus Stylus MJU II point-and-shoot, then a Contax T2. The constraints of one focal length and very little settings allowed me to focus on composition. It helped me get moving down the path. Find the tools that speak to you from a process and result standpoint. Stick with them and evolve within them before moving on.
Constraints breed creativity! It’s undeniable, y’all.
And don’t be afraid to read some goddamn articles or watch some YouTube videos, haha. There is so much amazing and easily accessible stuff out there (including generous folks sharing their knowledge and experiences... Willem Verbeeck’s YouTube channel or Linus or Wesley Verhoeve are great examples of really candid creators who could inspire with their work alone but tend to go deeper).
Do you have current projects you would like to promote?
I donated a pair of prints (Not From Here & Jesus Saves) to a really incredible project called KEEP GOING WORLD that’s raising money for out-of-work crew members by selling donated prints from directors and DPs.
I’ve been feeling a combination of intense gratitude and equally strong trepidation — feeling lucky I’m at a place in my career where I can weather the storm (and I’ve continued to work in other ways), but nervous as I think of younger creatives and the big crews of collaborators who are in particularly tough positions right now.
Community is more important than ever. It’s an especially insane time to be a freelancer.
Which do you think matters more in the long run -- talent or skill?
I’m not sure how you’d define them. Is the assumption “talent” is natural/something you’re born with? And “skill” is developed?
Both have limits. And perhaps a certain amount of both is required to get to the seriously upper echelon creative genius level... but the reality is we live in an era of unprecedented access to information. Which means there’s incredible opportunity to develop skills.
Obviously with something like photography or filmmaking (and shooting film in general) there are certain economic barriers that are real and unfortunate. But on that same token, great artists can come from anywhere and a lot of them are “made” through relentless curiosity, exploration, and development.
There’s so much disappointment in my work... constantly pitching music videos, losing out on jobs/projects, wasting massive amounts of time... but the thing people can’t take from you is your own artistic development.
When you really pour yourself into things, it can take a toll when you don’t get the result you want. But the very act and effort do give you something in return — like an athlete trains and gains muscle or endurance — so too can the artist train. By putting in the time and doing the work and treating each creative endeavor as an opportunity for growth the artist can do exactly that: grow.
Also, we can’t be reborn with more talent so, uh, might as well focus on skill.
What does a perfect day look like for Grant Spanier?
I’m going to interpret this as the perfect creative day vs. an ideal “vacation” type day.
Every day starts with a big green smoothie (spinach, cucumber, avocado, green apple, lemon, ginger) and cold brew. A perfect day is a sunny, hot Los Angeles one.
I really have an insatiable need to create so when there’s no client work/deadlines I can dig in on my passion projects. Ideally, I get to jam on any number of those while listening to music... perhaps an Essential Mix (the recent Jamie xx mix is nice) or one of my working playlists. I’d likely put in a couple of hours on writing or editing. Then hit yoga... I learned a few years ago that any day that includes yoga is automatically a “good” day. Ideally hot yoga at a studio, or outside in the sunshine. It might include reading a book or a screenplay in the sunshine (which boosts my mood like 3x).
A breakfast burrito, more cold brew, and I jam on into the afternoon/evening. Maybe that means my lab sent me some fresh film scans (which remains remarkably exciting every single time).
On a really great day that might mean I have dinner plans... and/or am seeing a movie in theaters or a live show (something I miss so desperately). I find those activities to recharge me and inspire me the most.
Any day I get to create, consume art, and spend time with friends is legitimately all I could really hope for. Wow, I’m cheesy. But it’s the truth.