It's A Living: Deja Viewfinder, Mark Humphrey Comes Full Circle

[By Hal Stucker]

GUESS GIRL: (At left) An unknown Charlize Theron cozies up to the camera during an early Humphrey film test for Guess Jeans.

Although a U.K. lad by birth—hailing from the southern port of Brighton—photographer Mark Humphrey has always been fascinated by the United States, in particular American music. When Humphrey was ten, his father, a career military man, packed up the family for an American post at San Diego’s Miramar Naval Air Station. While their stay lasted only two years, it left a major impression on young Mark.

Humphrey attended his first rock concert, Freddie Mercury and Queen, at 12, while living in the States. “I forced my Dad to take me,” he laughs. “It was Southern California in the 1970s—Cheech and Chong land—and the whole venue reeked of pot. And there was Mercury up onstage in a skin-tight spandex outfit. But it was a tremendous show, and my dad actually ended up liking it.”


Music has always been an important feature of Humphrey’s life, although he’ll confess he hasn’t got a musical bone© Mark Humphrey in his body. While he’s photographed a broad range of musical subjects—first doing editorial features and album covers, and later directing music videos and commercials—much of Humphrey’s work has concentrated on hip-hop and jazz musicians, from jazzman Donald Byrd to rapper Tupak Shakur to influential ‘90s rap groups such as Pharcyde and Wu-Tang Clan.
His family returned to the U.K. shortly after the Queen concert, but Humphrey promised himself that “no matter what, I was going back to California, where the living is easy.” He made good on his promise when he turned 18, but without a clear idea of what he would do upon arrival. “All I knew was that Margaret Thatcher was in power in England, and it was time to get out,” he says. Humphrey first moved to San Francisco, then down to Los Angeles. While strolling along the beach there one afternoon, he stumbled blindly into his life’s calling.

“A photographer was doing some headshots and asked me to hold a reflector,” Humphrey explains. “I spent the afternoon working with him, and he paid me $75 for the day and told me to come back tomorrow if I wanted. I thought, ‘This is fantastic! I’m in L.A., on the beach with a photographer and a beautiful girl, and I just made 75 bucks!’” The photographer turned out to be up-and-coming Los Angeles fashion shooter Roland Kuster, who quickly took Humphrey under his wing as his main assistant.

Kuster, a Swiss native, was “a very knowledgeable, very technical photographer,” Humphrey explains, noting, “Several years later, Roland told me I was probably the worst assistant he’d ever had.” He suspects that he was valued on set as much for his skill in setting a mood to help put the models at ease and making a good mix tape as for his abilities in handling cameras and lights. “I’ve always seen myself as a bit of a vibe master,” he admits, “and those skills have been extremely important all through my career.”

Tragically, in 1997, Kuster was murdered during a burglary at his Hollywood studio. Humphrey is quick to acknowledge the extent of his former boss’s influence. “Roland was a brilliant photographer,”he says, “and he’s the man who put a camera in my hands. He completely changed my life, and once I discovered you could make a living at this business, there was no turning back.”


While assisting Kuster, Humphrey began photographing in and around the L.A. music and fashion scene. When finally going out on his own in the early 1990s, he initially returned to Europe, where he was adopted as an ad-hoc, in-house photographer for an Italian modeling agency in Milan. “It was during fashion show season, so the city was besiegedby American models. The agency put us all up in a pensione, and I did a lot of testing, which helped me build a solidfashion portfolio,” he says.

Before returning to Los Angeles, Humphrey stopped in the U.K., to show his portfolio around to then-current British magazines. In addition to fashion, his book included shots of his American artist and musician friends, and these caught the interest of visionary art director at The Face, Lee Swillingham.

Humphrey’s timing in meeting Swillingham—brought in to turn the then faltering magazine around with a daring and unique new look—was perfect. He was hiring up-and-coming shooters such as Steven Klein and David LaChappelle, and finding a talented photographer based on the West Coast solved a lot of problems. It was also an excellent means for Humphrey to build a top-notch portfolio, with indelible portrait subjects such as a young Leonardo DiCaprio and comedian David Chappelle, both at the beginning of their careers.      


In the early 1990s, Humphrey also began experimenting with motion footage. He moved to New York City, where he met Neale Easterby, a fellow Brit whose Empire Management company represented hip-hop acts. One of these artists—Guru, from the group Gang Starr—was putting together an album combining jazz and rap, to be called Jazzmatazz. The project matched jazz luminaries such as Donald Byrd, Lonnie Liston Smith, Branford Marsalis and Roy Ayers with other talents such as N’Dea Davenport (of the Brand New Heavies), MC Solaar and DJ Jazzy Nice. Easterby asked Humphrey to shoot the album cover, which was his next “life-changing” event.
He was allowed access to the recording sessions, “with these amazing musicians creating sounds that no one had ever heard before. Donald Byrd walked up and told me, ‘Back in my day, it was bebop, and now it’s hip-hop, and what we’re doing here is something really special,’” Humphrey explains. Feeling that he was in the middle of something musically momentous, he picked up a Super-8 film camera and some Tri-X film on Manhattan’s Canal Street and began documenting the making of the album, resulting in the short self promotional film Tribute.

He’d had some previous experience shooting motion, doing a short test for Guess jeans—with the then unknown Charlize Theron—using a Bolex camera borrowed from a friend. After finishing Tribute, Humphrey generated ten VHS copies for promotion, one of which ended up in the hands of Roberto Cecchini, the president of the A&R Group production house, who promptly signed him on as a music video director.


At this point, Humphrey parted ways with the still camera for a while and set his sights on film and video direction.In addition to music videos, he shot television commercials, including four memorable spots for Budweiser.     The beer company had been concerned about losing the inner-city market and wanted a campaign with a grittier, more urban look. “I put together a pitch with the tag line ‘Budweiser, made from hip hops,’ then matched it up with film footage I’d shot with Donald Byrd and clips from urban clubs in L.A. and New York,” Humphrey explains. “Budweiser loved it but said they’d need to see my office and production facilities, since they’d never worked with me before.”

Back in Los Angeles by this time, Humphrey didn’t have a proper studio, so he quickly found and rented an empty, second-floor office space for a week. “I had it outfitted to look like an advertising agency, hooked up some phones, and then had some friends at Elite models send over a bunch of their girls. All these gorgeous women were running around, and friends were calling from pay phones downstairs, so the phones were ringing off the hook,” he laughs. Humphrey dubbed the business The Front in homage to the movie The Sting. “The Budweiser people walked in and immediately fell in love with it all.”

He was awarded a contract to shoot four spots for the beer maker and, because of the exposure, was eventually signed to Quentin Tarantino’s music video production company, Band Apart. But as a co-executive producer and not a director, he spent practically no time behind the camera. “I was producing videos, putting them together, assigning a director and bringing them to the market,” he says. After holding similar positions in several film production ventures, Humphrey ultimately realized that even though he was making “tons of money,” he wasn’t particularly happy. “I started to realize just how much of my day was spent schmoozing and leveraging my client-relation skills. I didn’t get behind the camera for maybe a good three- or four-year stretch.”

So around 2005, Humphrey made the decision to pick up a camera once again. “I wanted to go back to the way I’d been shooting when I first started, back in the days of The Face. Just me and a camera and whomever I was photographing, but now armed with over a decade’s worth of production experience and know-how.”

© Mark Humphrey


 The result of this creative epiphany is Humphrey’s latest business endeavor, the Xperience Factory. “The idea is to focus on real experiences," he says, "to portray the essence of a person, a place or a situation in a way that resonates with the viewer. I started off with models and musicians, trying to give a fuller portrayal of what they do, and that’s since grown to doing experiences for products and brands.”

The experiences are digital videos primarily geared to social media marketing platforms and Web display, which Humphrey shoots himself, mainly with an HDSLR. The original idea was to capture what he terms “motion portraiture,” with the overall goal of “bringing an artist to life while maintaining the intimacy of still portraits.”     

Humphrey has the same mission with products and brands, trying to keep the shooting spontaneous and working more from a concept than a set script. “I write a conceptual treatment that creates an ideal backdrop for the natural experience to take place,” he explains. “The actual shooting unfolds in a very organic, unrehearsed manner, even though the scene has been set with a precrafted concept. I try to get to know and understand the brand’s DNA, to really understand what they’re offering and what makes them unique.”


Lately, this work has found particular favor with the hotel and hospitality industry. For example, in early 2011, Humphrey created a video for a high-end Viceroy Hotels and Resorts property on the Caribbean island of Anguilla. Says Azadeh Hawkins, Viceroy’s assistant vice president of marketing communications, “From a marketing perspective, the Xperience Factory’s concept was very innovative and different from anything I’d seen before. Mark was able to grasp the brand immediately and create a very clear vision for the video.”

Humphrey says the goal for the film “was to create a piece that was all about how it actually feels to experience the property on an emotional level. “It isn’t meant to replace the standard lobby and room shots from the Web site,” he says, “but rather to complement those with a clickable experience that gives the viewer the feeling of what it’s like to wake up in one of their rooms, go down to the beach, to show the full experience of staying at the hotel.”

Humphrey does not keep a studio and usually works without an assistant. “I like being super, super simple,” he says. “Everything I’m trying to do is about the human experience, and it’s quite intimate. I find that when I pull an assistant in, it adds another layer.” Recently, however, business has been demanding enough to require two additional editors to handle the increased workflow.

So Humphrey seems to be right back where he started, working solo and reporting with a camera.

“This is my baby now,” he says. “And I love it because, with this technology, I can do it all myself. I can create the concept, shoot the concept, edit it myself in Final Cut and deliver it to my clients.”

Humphrey sounds almost relieved about how much simpler his work process is now, instead of the huge efforts he experienced when producing music videos, with days and days of wrangling and back-and-forth.” Now, he says, “it’s just me, a reportage photographer once again, doing exactly what I want to do.”


CAMERAS: Nikon D7000, D3s

AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G
AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G
AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED
AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II

 LIGHTING: Nikon SB-800 Speedlight, 126 LED hotshoemounted digital camera/ camcorder light

AUDIO : Hotshoe-mounted
Rode shotgun mic directly into the camera

MEDIA : SanDisk Extreme IV CF and Transcend Class 10
SDHC flash memory cards

STORAGE: Two G-Drive Mobile 500GB mini hard drives from G-Tech

ADDITIONAL GEAR : Manfrotto tripod and monopod, plus a lightweight Tiltall tripod

BAGS: Lowepro Flipside 300 and Tamrac rolling airport bag

COMPUTING POWER : Macbook Pro 15 inch and
Apple 24 inch Cinema Screen





© Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos
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PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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