David Paul Larson Fashion and Video

By Kris Wilton

An image from an editorial fashion shoot with model Regina Feoktistova.

David Paul Larson is an up-and-coming fashion photographer who sought out the field after an accident put an early end to his military career. Larson has found the high-pressure world of models, makeup, and finicky clients a happy home for his military training. “I wanted to do something that involved attention to detail and was collaborative and deadline driven,” he says.

In fact, Larson has applied an arsenal of military principles to building a thriving freelance business: basic training, teambuilding, strategic planning, taking the long view, and never being afraid of the grunt work necessary to take yourself to the next level. Confident, organized, motivated and determined, he seems unaffected by the high pressure and stiff competition endemic to the field. “The pressure doesn’t really affect me like it affects other people,” Larson says. “What’s a bad day is all relative to what you’ve been through.” 

Medically discharged at the age of 19, Larson was forced to reconsider his aspirations of parlaying military experience into a career with the FBI or CIA. “I had my life to relive,” he says. “I took a couple years off and rethought my life plan.”

“Taking pictures” was something he’d always enjoyed, and becoming a fashion photographer – a successful one, at least – would allow him to “combine traveling and photographing and collaboration and deadline: so many of the things I would have been doing if I was still in the military,” he says. He enrolled at Columbia College in Chicago and earned a dual degree in photography and marketing. “I think I got a lot more from the marketing degree,” he says.

A decade after his basic training, there’s still something Marine-like about Larson. There’s a wholesomeness to him, both in speech and in looks. He’s tidily built, with tattoos across his chest, feet, and forearms. His “high and tight” hair style and high lace-up boots suggest that maybe the military association is one he doesn’t mind—or may even cultivate.

These days, Larson’s setting his sights, and his formidable drive, on new territory: video. A hedge for the increasingly motion-dominated future, it’s also a way of separating himself from the pack today. “There aren’t that many people being taken seriously doing video in photography,” says Larson. “I just don’t think there are that many people doing it very well.” 

Behind-the-scenes images from the filming of a 60-second spot for a diamond company shot on a RED Scarlet camera. Shot on location in Southampton, New York, the project involved a crew of almost 20 people, including two models/actresses.

Larson approaches photography not with the wavering whimsy of an artiste but rather like a military strategist. He’s building his chops in beauty photography and slowly building a video reel. He’s built a mailing list of two thousand contacts, to which he sends updates every 45 days. He had stickers printed up that say “David Paul Larson photographed models here,” which adorn various buildings and settings around town. Among the behind-the-scenes glimpses of models and studio shoots on his blog is ample evidence of the measures he’s constantly taking to make himself better, fitter, savvier: posts about running, inspirational posts, “what I’m reading” posts featuring titles more geared to the MBA student than fine artist, with titles like You Can Negotiate Anything. In 2010, he earned a public-speaking certification from the international club Toastmasters, writing on his blog, “A lot of people ask me why I take public speaking classes. Because communication isn’t optional. Everything from pre-production meetings to the day of the shoot is communication. Joining Toastmasters is the best investment I have made in myself since I moved to New York.”

Larson moved to New York four years ago, just before the Wall Street crash of 2008. “I’ve never known New York in a prosperous state,” he says, but he’s managed to list as clients ELLE Russia, Blank Jeans, MNG Mango, Modern Luxury, the Peninsula Hotel, Dom Perignon, and Oak NYC. “All I’ve known is you have to hit the pavement, and keep making pictures and showing them to the right people.”

Top: Larson on set for the Look Book.  Bottom: Image shot for BlankNYC’s Fall 2012 Look Book.

In addition to taking on his own jobs doing advertising, look books, and other projects, Larson has also assisted for high-profile photographers Mark Seliger, Steven Klein, and Craig McDean. This, like most of his decisions, it seems, was a strategic one. Beyond an opportunity to learn from consummate professionals, it was a way to connect with clients, crew, and especially art directors and photo editors. “There’s no way to meet them other than on set,” he says. “I know photo editors who get 800 emails a day, and when they tell me to get in touch, they have a special subject line to write so they know it’s something they should respond to.”

Larson grew out of photo assisting after about two and a half years, he says, but for his recent challenge of learning video, he reprised the role. Every time he assisted, he would go home and write down everything new he’d learned that day. “Assisting is great,” he says, “but it’s only great if you can go home and duplicate everything they just did.”

His aim was not to do video as a photographer might, but to do it on a truly professional level. “The last thing clients want is someone with a 5D thinking he knows everything about video,” he says. “For so many things you’re going to need a broad knowledge of what goes into a major shoot, a full-on produced shoot, and how that creative process works. You can read about it and read about it, but ultimately the only way you’re going to learn about it is to see it actually done.”

And he didn’t mind starting from the ground up. “My specialty had always been in lighting,” he says, so he started out in lighting before graduating to building cameras, then operating them, “then working with DPs where I wasn’t really touching many lights or cameras at all; I was kind of moving things around and telling people the feeling I wanted to get.”

The training has paid off. Larson recently directed his first television commercial, a 60-second spot for a diamond company shot on a RED camera by a DP he met while assisting. Shot on location, the project involved a crew of almost 20 people, including two models/actresses. 

“In a lot of ways it’s similar to a still shoot,” Larson says, “but it’s so much more complex. It’s such an exhilarating feeling, and also scary. It was like a million emotions packed into one day.”

It went so well, in fact, that although he had harbored fantasies of turning his eye to nudes in landscapes, which he has been doing all along, and maybe even landscape, he is wondering whether he should pursue video “more than photography.” Meanwhile, he plans to have his reel wrapped up by the end of the year and to find a representative in the next year and a half or two. Ultimately, he says, “It really doesn’t matter to me whether I’m doing stills or motion, because they’re very similar, and it’s all creative, and it’s all a great experience.”

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