Roger Snider is an accomplished advertising and commercial photographer whose compelling work combines controlled precision and a slice-of-life photojournalistic flair that captures the emotional essence of his subjects, both animate and inanimate. Here in his own inimitably direct style is the fascinating story of how he became a consummate professional whose work on the Dos Equis ad campaign and awesome images of custom big rigs have earned him a worldwide reputation for excellence, transcending the realm of advertising and attaining the level of fine art. First an amusing whirlwind bio in his own laconic words:
“My first pictures were taken from a plane flown by my father, an aerial photographer. Much later I earned a BFA in Creative Photography from the University of Florida. Afterwards I moved to San Francisco, moonlighted as a location scout and photo assistant while establishing my creative vision and connection to the industry. I then moved to New York City shooting editorials, advertising, and in 2003 had a single person gallery show at the McCaig-Welles gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Since then I’ve moved back to the West Coast, and I’m now based in Los Angeles. My photo assignments include advertising, film stills, celebrity portraiture, and worldwide coverage of custom big rigs.”
Q: Can you tell us how you came to shoot “The Most Interesting Man in the World” ad campaign for Dos Equis beer?
A. It was back in 2007, the second year they did TV for this campaign. Before that it was just radio commercials with the one-liners for a few years before they decided to create the TV campaign.
I was shooting stills on small art films and full-length documentaries at the time. The AB (ad buyer) knew I could work with a film crew so I got the job. The first year they had a separate print campaign so they never used any of my images for ads. The following years they scrapped the print shoot because they saw all the amazing assets I was providing them. In short, I was in the right place at the right time. I just finished my fifth year this January.
Q: What made the Leica S2 the ideal camera for the Dos Equis ad shoot? How did it perform?
A: I currently use a 35mm digital and have always wanted larger file sizes and greater sharpness. I also shot the Pentax 67 film bodies a while back, so this camera was ergonomically perfect for me. The design of a medium format camera in SLR form suits me perfectly. The S2 worked great on this shoot. I shot with it both handheld and locked down on the tripod. I downloaded the images onto my iPad after three days of shooting so I could show the client how sharp the images were. I had a hard time getting my iPad back, but that was fine at the time because I needed to concentrate on capturing great moments on the set.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: High production value realism with a touch of nostalgia. I focus on expressive moments that convey a sense of timelessness and humor.
Q: Were you a serious enthusiast before going pro? What made you decide to go pro?
A: I became serious about photography right after I developed and printed my first roll of Tri-X film 20 years ago at community college. My first teacher had a Leica M2 around his neck during every class and I kind of identified with that. When I found out how much a great camera like that cost, I knew I had to find a way to make this passion pay for itself. I transferred to the University of Florida where I got a BFA in creative photography and moved out to San Francisco right after graduation and got a job at a commercial studio. I decided to go pro shortly after leaving SF and moving to NYC. I always admired Helmut Newton’s work over the years and thought I could lead a similar respected life. It was never a question for me whether I was going pro.
Q: Was there a special moment when you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, or as a profession?
A: Yes. My mom bought me the book “Fashion Photography: Patrick Demarchelier” with Paulina Porizkova on the cover and I said to myself, “That’s the job for me!” I was 19. I had worked in restaurants my whole life up to that point and I knew that wasn’t a career path for me. While in community college I would assist some photographers at a little testing agency on South Beach. I thought it was the best job ever and knew I had to figure out a way to make this my life.
Q: What genre or genres, if any, comprise the types of photography you do?
A: It’s a combination of commercial and editorial work, photojournalism and fine art. Besides this Dos XX ad campaign, anyone who wants to understand what kind of a photographer I really am should also be aware of my abiding passion for custom big rigs — the ultimate semis or tractor-trailers. You can take a look at www.ultrarigsoftheworld.com.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: That teacher with the M2 around his neck was part of it. Then my wife bought me an M6 for my 30th birthday and I love it! I actually have a great shot that I love of a fashion model holding it next to a window. When you hold a Leica in your hands, you have an emotional response like no other brand of camera. It’s like when you get into a BMW and start to feel the power and let your body sink into the seats. When you hold a Leica you feel its weight and design and you know you have the best there is on the planet!
Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: I’m constantly looking for new ideas and asking myself why I shoot what I do. What do I want to say about the subject matter and why? It’s this critical thinking that was ingrained in me during college. Photography is wrapped up in my identity. When I am shooting, I get a sense of accomplishment like no other in life. The camera I work with is so important for that reason. It needs to feel like an extension of my arm.
Q: The Leica S2 has been described as “medium format performance in a 35mm SLR form factor.” Do you agree, and can you say something about how the S2’s handling and ergonomics work for you in creating “high production value realism with a touch of nostalgia” as you so aptly describe your work?
A: The design allows me to rotate the camera effortlessly just like a 35mm SLR. Sometimes you don’t know if an image is more powerful framed as a vertical of horizontal. To be able to frame it both ways in a matter of seconds is critical in my line of work. I never know how long I have with the talent on set, so being able to step on set and capture the action quickly and step back off in less than a minute is a must.
Q: Did you have any input in developing the concept of the “urbane, worldly, adventurous, and sophisticated” man that embodies the image of Dos Equis and how did you evolve and articulate this concept photographically and in terms of location, design, etc.?
A: Jonathan Goldsmith is a natural actor with a gift for improv, so the creative guys and the director are the ones who come up with the ideas. It’s my job to capture the sometimes unscripted moments within the well thought out and beautifully styled vignettes that make up each TV spot. Jonathan is a very funny and personable guy who strikes up conversation with his supporting actors. He knows I am always shooting in between playbacks so I am able to capture these moments where he and the other actors are joking around and extending the action that was just captured by the TV cameras. I never stop framing the shot and I’m able to direct him a little in the direction I want him to go and just let him take it from there.
Q: All of the Dos Equis images in your Leica blog portfolio have a photojournalistic or reportage feel that transcends typical advertising or commercial images, yet they are all meticulously composed and lit. Can you comment on this dichotomy?
A: It’s such a gift to have a top-notch lighting crew setting up each shot. I have a very good idea of the exact camera angle that works best for lighting because it is all set up for the TV cameras. Some of the images I shoot are taken during filming and I believe these images take on that reportage style because the actors are less aware of me because they are playing up to the TV cameras. This is when I slip into “photo ninja mode” as it is sometimes referred and get some great moments within the structure of the rehearsed TV spot. Being a photo ninja is a stealth skill that most good stills on set photographers have to achieve in order to get great images.
Q: Which lenses do you favor when shooting with the S2, and can you tell us something about your working methods? For example, are most of your commercial images shot handheld, when do you use as tripod, and do you typically supplement natural light with flash, reflectors, etc.?
A: The lens I used the most was the 70mm although the cover of Ad Age (Ski Jump) was shot with the 120mm. I prefer to shoot handheld and can be off a tripod with shutter speeds as slow as 1/15 sec.
The manor shot was done on a tripod at a 1/30 just to be extra safe and it paid off. Because I am on a TV shoot and have very little time to set up my own strobes and don’t have my own assistant, I usually just use the existing lights and occasionally have a crew member hold up a shiny board as a reflector. The exception was last year when we shot the Jewish Wedding spot, I brought my Profoto light with a beauty dish and shot while TV was filming because Steve, the director, loved the realism of the flashes going off during the celebration. If it’s my own shoot, then yes I use Profoto gear with 12×12 frames, etc.
Q: While your images of “the Dos Equis man” are obviously consistent with the brand image the client wishes to project, these images are also revealing portraits that convey some of the essential character of the subject. Is this guy just a good actor, is he really playing himself, and what is he like to work with?
A: Jonathan Goldsmith is one of the nicest guys I have ever met. Jonathan is a true professional who really appreciates the craft of acting and has lived a very interesting life. In a way I think there are elements of himself wrapped into the character. He has a nice balance of wisdom with a youthful adventurous spirit. He is the kind of person you like to see win in life.
Q: Do you also use the Leica S2, and/or your M6 for personal creative expression, and can you say something about how your personal shooting differs, if it does, from your commercial/professional work?
A: I no longer own a Leica M6 and I miss it dearly. I have so many great contact sheets of personal and professional work I shot with it about ten years ago. I would love to get either an M7 or better yet an MP. Just as with the S2, when you hold these cameras you feel a power that you just don’t get from other brands. The S2 would be great to shoot my big rigs work with. The format of the camera lends itself perfectly to the machine in landscape concept. I am in the process of bringing back this Peterbilt ad campaign from the ’70s and ’80s called “Class Pays” where they would have this tall international model pose with these beautiful trucks – very Mad Men.
Q: Judging from some of your “shoot documentation” pictures you go on location with a staff of colleagues and assistants. If this is correct, how do they help you articulate the brand image you are trying to create and project?
A: Those people you see are the A-Team camera unit that shoots the TV commercial. I work right next to them getting the stills.
Q: Certainly some of your images can be described as “the fine art of commercial advertising photography.” How do you feel about that, do you think that commercial photography can attain the level of art, and do you consider yourself an artist in any sense?
A: I am flattered by that idea. I do think great ideas, when not watered down through the approval process, can achieve a fine art status even though they are advertising.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next 3-5 years? Do you have any other long-term projects you can tell us about, and do you plan to explore any other photographic genres, such as landscape photography, portraiture, photojournalism, or fine art?
A: As I mentioned before, you should check out my Ultra Rigs work. In the end, I believe that’s what I will be best known for. This isn’t merely a project; it is my life’s work in that it is endless. I started back in 2006 after shooting the stills on Doug Pray’s documentary film “Big Rig” and I have never looked back. I have traveled the world shooting this idea and have been published in everything from National Geographic to FHM magazines around the world. I started in the US going to truck shows and then branched out to Japan, Australia and beyond. This new “Class Pays” series is a niche within a niche that I believe has a large audience who would like to see the idea come back. This blog did a nice write up on the history of truck adverting using my images.
I also plan to shoot more of my celeb portraiture and editorials with the S2 system because I am so used to using the 35mm SLR.
Q: How do you think the Leica S2 fits into your evolving career? Is this a long-term relationship, and how do you see it unfolding going forward?
A: It’s a long-term relationship for sure. The design and lens quality is exactly what my work demands. As the zoom lens comes to market, that will be a key addition to the system and fits perfectly into my workflow.
-Leica Internet Team
You can see more of Roger’s work at www.rogerksnider.com and www.ultrarigsoftheworld.com, read his blog at rogersnider.wordpress.com and connect with him on LinkedIn. Also, if you’d like to know more about The Most Interesting Man in the World, you can read AdvertisingAge’s recent feature about the Dos Equis campaign.