Michael Grecco on Lighting Dramatic Portraits and Developing a Signature Style
How It All Started
For a lot of people, photography is a life-long journey that starts at a young age. For Michael Grecco, it was a dreamy affair with the darkroom that started way back in summer camp. Fast-forward to the formidable years and he knew what he wanted to do when he went onto college: photojournalism.
Like many other high-functioning, determined other creatives he hit the ground running while in school doing freelancing for the Associated Press (AP) and eventually landing a staff position at the Boston Herald. During that period, he won several Boston Press Photographers awards. It was also around that time, Grecco started experimenting more with his lighting style making him a prime shooter for when color started becoming more popular with the major magazines. This landed him more editorial work with Time, Esquire, Vanity Fair, and Forbes and a regular contributor to People.
Shifting his focus to editorial work, allowed him to land covers for Time, Wired, Entertainment Weekly, ESPN & People magazine. Celebrity portrait subjects have included Martin Scorsese, Hugh Hefner, Robert Duvall, Lucy Liu, Will Ferrell, Mel Brooks, Christina Applegate, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penélope Cruz, Bill Murray, and Joaquin Phoenix. Yet perhaps more fulfilling than the growing list of celebrity shots, was being selected as one of the eight recipients of the Professional Photographer Leadership Award from the United Nations International Photographic Council. Shooting all this work helped him further hone his style as an artist.
Finding His Signature Style
The idea of a signature style for artists can sometimes take years and even decades to realize and craft. For Michael, it was the transition to more magazine editorial portrait work that helped him realize the creative liberties he could take with lighting and styling. Grecco immediately took that creativity to the next level with regards to how he started working with light.
It’s honestly a rare thing to see a photographer nowadays develop a signature style and stick to it. One that enables the viewer to immediately know who shot a portrait within seconds of seeing it.
Finding Chimera around this time was no coincidence. Michael knew that he wanted to layer light in a very deliberate way. This reasoning is what drew him to Chimeras range of smaller products, namely the small & extra-small (S + XS respectively) lightbanks. This straightforward way to formatting their products enabled Michael and his team to quickly know what tools they needed for the job. Using the S and XS lightbanks, he first starts with the 7ft OctaPlus 57 lightbank to act as the fill for most shots – then, one by one, Grecco adds the smaller lightbanks to help add shape and dimension to the portrait. It’s these smaller lightbanks that really do add a whole new element to the shots he takes. It’s honestly a rare thing to see a photographer nowadays develop a signature style and stick to it. One that enables the viewer to immediately know who shot a portrait within seconds of seeing it. It’s the constant bombardment from critics who cry out that a photographer’s work looks all the same in an attempt to state they’re stagnant, not fresh with new changes every week. Yet, the working pros realize that achieving a style takes years and is not something to be taken for granted. Instead, the creativity and freshness comes from the personal work they take on to keep their skills sharp.
In a day where everyone love’s to keep it simple and rock a huge Octa lightbank right on their subjects giving off that great, simple soft light we all love, it really does stand out to see Grecco still honing this incredible style and way of shooting with multiple lights and various different modifiers. Photographers who build lights one on top of the other like that, truly do emulate the painter greats of the past — the true original capturers of light, understanding how light lit a subject and was an integral part of emotion & drama in a portrait.
Inspirations & Collaborations
When asked about his inspirations, all the usual suspects come up but even a young standout whom Grecco respected a ton. Names like Avedon, Newton, and Leibovitz rang down the list with Pari Dukovic rounding out the end as someone who has the potential to be one of the greats with his gift for lighting dramatic portraits.
As a lot of photographers do, they wonder how people get on big manufacturer’s radar which has not magic formula. Like a lot things in life, it simply boils down to persistence, determination, and being willing to go further than the next person. Simply developing over time, Michael’s book The Art of Portrait Photography: Creative Lighting Techniques & Strategies, featured notes of Chimera’s products and how they’ve been a steady constant in his storied, stellar career. As with most people who have a large following, Michael has been approached by tons of companies offering free gear to sponsor, yet he never accepted many of them because he simply couldn’t support the product confidently.
Something like that seems obvious to some but it’s an important point to make anyway. In an age where we’re inundated with tons of ‘marketing gurus’, self-help millionaires, and the such it’s commonplace to see people attaching themselves to things that don’t seem genuine and come off as insincere. So to see someone who’s repeatedly turned down offers only to align himself with the true products he swears by for decades in his career, is a rather refreshing take on the photography industry.
With regards to what Michael’s been up to lately, it’s been exciting with reuniting with past client, Oscar nominated actor, Will Smith, for the recent cover of Sports Illustrated, highlighting the NFL’s CTE scandal with his newest film, Concussion.
Grecco is also working on a feature length documentary about his music work from the 1980’s in Boston. Few people know but, while Michael sported the official photojournalist attire of khakis & button down during the day for the AP, at night he swapped them out for a punk attire complete with large boots and skinny jeans to delve into the punk rock scene that was booming in the 80’s in the US, especially in regards to the Boston area.
Some other notable past projects of Michael’s are his other book, Lighting and the Dramatic Portrait: The Art of Celebrity and Editorial Photography and his personal project that eventually become a documentary itself, Naked Ambition: An R Rated Look at an X Rated Industry available on Hulu and other online streaming sites.