Having produced internationally award-winning commercial work for clients such as Adidas, Neutrogena, Apple and Mercedes-Benz, among many others over the past three decades, Mark Laita has seen many trends come and go. “They all bite the dust in time,” the Los Angeles and New York-based photographer says. But Laita’s signature look—still lifes that are, as he describes them, “very minimal and Scandinavian,” but with bright colors and fun content—has stood the test of time. Some clients, like Apple, for example, have continued to seek him out for his iconic work year after year.
“To me, this look or style doesn’t require much adjusting to stay current,” he says.
Throughout his career, Laita has also maintained a strong commitment to his marketing and self-promotion. When he first moved to Los Angeles to establish himself, “I put 100 percent of my energy into trying to meet with creatives and art buyers,” he says. “I basically became my own rep.” It was time consuming, he recalls, but eventually clients responded.
That commitment to “be out there and show people your work” has stayed with him, according to Heather Elder, who now reps Laita. She says she continues to work with Laita to send clients books, calendars, mailers and blog posts, and to build social media campaigns and attend various industry events to “get the message of who he is as a photographer out there.”
Laita’s well-defined brand and tireless marketing have secured his career enough to give him leeway to take some off-brand creative risks. And they have paid off. Around the time he shot the Andy Award-winning 2002 “Let’s Motor” campaign for the launch of BMW’s Mini Cooper, Laita began an eight-year personal portrait project. The project pairs photographs of Americans of different backgrounds, occupations and appearances. In 2010, Steidl published the work in a book titled Created Equal.
“I just wanted to do something honest and real and that’s what this project is about for me,” Laita said in a talk he gave in 2011 at the Annenberg Space for Photography.
He tells PDN, “My people work has evolved a lot, and still is [evolving].” Portraiture is playing a greater role in his commercial work, too. According Elder, Laita is able to incorporate the human element into his assignment work. A recent campaign he shot for DeLeón tequila, for example, features a woman walking on a dock, holding a bottle of the alcohol while her dress blows in the wind.
Laita has since completed other personal projects, including Sea, a series of photographs of marine animals published in 2011 by Abrams; and Serpentine, a collection of images depicting the bright colors, patterns and coiled shapes of snakes, was released in 2013. Both projects reflect the distinctive minimalist (and colorful) style of his still-life work. He worked on those projects between 2009 and 2011, when the recession slowed his assignment work. Laita says he also spent a lot of the down time doing still-life test shoots and promoting “everywhere I could. The more I promoted, the more I worked and the more I worked, the more I promoted,” he recalls.
But test shooting, like self-promotion, has been part of Laita’s routine throughout his career. It is his way of maintaining his creative edge. A particular challenge for still-life photographers, no matter how distinctive their style, is coming up with new concepts and ideas that surprise clients and keep them coming back. “Testing gets creatives to think of you,” he says. “If I tried to shoot a cellphone on a blue background (which I’ve been paid to do countless times), I doubt any agency creative is going to pin that promo on their wall. But if I mail out an image of a horse wearing a ballerina’s tutu, that will get people to stop and smile and call me for a job down the road (often shooting a cellphone).”
Laita has also adapted his visual style to video in the last three years, in order to meet clients’ expectations for motion. His work ethic and client service have also helped to keep him in demand, Elder notes. During a recent shoot with a client in Chicago, for example, “Mark said he could shoot the job very quickly, but the client wanted more time and we ended up scheduling the session a little longer,” she recalls. When Laita got on set, “he did what he said he could and finished the job early,” and the client was able to use the extra time to “play with new imagery and more product. They got so much more than expected, and that’s been my experience with Mark. He overdelivers in every situation whenever possible.”
Elder observes that Laita has developed enough experience in his career to a point where “he’s able to shoot whatever is most interesting or exciting to him,” such as taking on projects that allow him to showcase more of the human element. But, she recognizes this is a luxury that comes from long experience and respect from clients. To stay relevant, Laita says, “Photographers have to love what you’re doing and try to do great work. Period. If you’re doing it for the money, you’ll just end up frustrated.”