Loft Talks w/ Ian Shiver
Back in September, we hosted Ian Shiver, a photographer based in Philadelphia, in the loft above Garden Party. I was able to watch Ian's process as he shot a few things for us, and we also took some time to chat about his work. Full disclaimer: This a transcribed and edited interview that was intended for a podcast. Unfortunately, the recording failed half way through and some of the juiciest parts were not recovered. Although I was being a big baby about it, I knew it would be lame to not share with you. I personally found a lot of Ian's story inspiring and know you will too, regardless of the format. Thanks for reading!
GP - Ian, would you just introduce yourself, tell us a little bit about who you are, what you do and why you're here?
Ian - Here on this mortal coil? I honestly don’t know yet. But my name is Ian, and I’m a still life photographer out of Philadelphia. I make work that references sculpture and architecture, with color as a strong element. I think, for me, every photo that I take should tell a story, to have some meaning behind it even if its just to me. I try to keep in mind that nothing exists in a vacuum, and that idea informs a lot of my work.
GP - We met each other through Instagram. And one of the things, following your work through companies we carry; we love the style and the brands that you work with, but I'm wondering, like, how did you land that product Photography? Right? Like, what are you, a little kid, like "Mom and dad - I want to be a product photographer when I grow up. I just really want to take pictures of Coca Cola."
Ian - I landed in the strangest way possible. I guess its important to first know about me that I'm a person who's always hated jobs. I hate working for other people. I hate working for no good reason. As a kid I never understood Capitalism or why you have to work just to live and why you have to do really shitty jobs... And so pretty much my whole life was just always getting different jobs and getting fired from them or like quitting within a few weeks. I’d keep them enough to make money to live for a while on almost nothing and then just do something else. It was more exciting for me to get a job, and try something new, then making money. I’ve never cared about money.
You know, I left my family home when I was 21, moved to New York City for a couple of years. Then here in Asheville, Iowa, Pittsburgh. Every time I was somewhere new, I was doing something different, trying and learning different skills. I don't know. I guess I've never been a person who wanted to do the same thing forever. Or sometimes for more than 5 minutes.
I eventually ended up in Pittsburgh and I started shooting weddings for a little while and that was one of my introductions to getting paid for photography. Then I moved to Philly seven years ago, I mostly didn't have a job but I was trying to pay for school. And I went to my cousin and I was like, "man, I need work." He says, "I can get you some photo assisting jobs in New York probably." And in a very me fashion I was like “Cool i guess this is my life now." So I started taking the 5:45 a.m. BoltBus from Philly to New York. I eventually started working with this guy Travis Rathbone, he's one of the more successful product photographers I’ve met. He really opened my eyes to this industry and what it's like on a very high level. I just started working for him all the time.
I was there a few times a week to the point where I basically, like, had to drop out of school. I’d been trying to balance going to Temple, working in New York, and starting to shoot weddings on the weekends. It was sort of impossible. But it also taught me a really crazy work ethic. I worked for Travis for a long time, but still had no idea that I wanted to shoot products. Like, no concept of that at all. I accidentally got to work for one of the best people, you know, in an industry that I didn't care about but was paying the bills. It took a long time to set in that I had stumbled upon something great. GP - Was there a mentorship role?
Ian - I'm sure he taught me a lot through me paying attention. You know, the biggest thing I picked up from him was probably customer service. Just the way he treats his clients and the care and the experience of being there, shooting with him, like he's not just taking great photos. You come in, there's an amazing breakfast and maybe someone’s making you drinks at five o'clock. The studio looks sick and like you feel like you're part of a thing. Its all connected. But its not even about impressing clients. Its about creating your own world that you love and bringing other people in to it. So I think that attracted me almost more than the photography itself. Back in Philly, I had a roommate in a two bedroom and he was planning to move in with his partner. We had a massive space on Broad street, andI had been kind of thinking about getting an office space or studio anyway, so I said fuck it I’ll just take the whole apartment. And it was way more money than I could really afford. But I thought, I'm just going to do this anyway, and try to figure it out. Thats how I’ve always been, much to my parents’ chagrin.
GP - With the intention of using it as a studio?
Ian - Yeah. Sort of an office. Sort of a studio.I just started shooting some stuff for fun. I had all these plants that I had around the house. Basically I thought, "OK, I live alone now, like I should be an adult. So, like, what do adults do? They buy plants." So I started buying all these plants. And then it turns out you have to actually take care of them. You are supposed to know how to do that. Of course they all died. So I had these dead/dried plants all around my apartment. And I started taking photos of them because they were there. They were these really sculptural, beautiful things. And it was funny to me to, like, shoot these dead sculptural things on really bright colored backgrounds.
GP - When is this timeline? So we can link the timeline in our minds. Ian - Around 2016. So it hasn't been that long since I started and it just...it just went and it didn't stop at all. And I just kept pushing. Even though the jobs weren't paying any money, I just started making things with no intention of making it a career.
GP - It's this circuitous route, yet like I learned, it does not feel that way now. Obviously you have a niche right in your work, like there's a certain body of work that really sort of would represent what you're doing right now. Does it feel like that's something you're even more stoked on or does it, are you arcing through, do you imagine yourself pivoting again at some point?
Ian -That's a hard question. I’ve had every job imaginable. When I was in Pittsburgh, I was apprenticing at a motorcycle shop and working for music venues and also just doing all sorts of, well, stuff I shouldn’t talk about here. It's just whatever I could do, I didn't want a real job. A part of it was like, "OK, what's next?" I want to do something new. I want to learn. And I have come to really appreciate that about myself and put it into my work for a long time.
Ian - At first, I saw it as a negative and I was like, man, I just can't stick with anything. And like the kind of things your parents say to you, like just stick to one thing. And I'm like, why? I could be a hundred people in this life. There's so much to try. But to try to answer your question, I think that I'm always evolving within what I do. I think that that's a thing that I love so much, is that I can evolve within it. I try to keep specific elements similar so that there are anchoring points that in turn help me evolve further. Like controls in an experiment. I gave a talk about this recently called Through Lines. So I have some things that are always there, just conceptually or with lighting or with color and then everything else around it is adaptable and can change because those sort of tie everything together. And to me, that is my version of career progression and change and keeping myself interested. It's like, OK, I know I have these tethers. So then what can I fuck up? What can I mess with? Like how can I grow and change? I went from shooting on solid color stuff to just loving shooting with mirrors as my surface or as a background and just playing with depth. And now I'm doing a thing where I'm taking vortex type textures and putting them underneath things. So it looks like objects are either getting sucked in or they just exist within an optical illusion. But the light is exactly the same. I always have strong color in all of them. And to a degree, if it sits next to something else that I make, you can understand how they fit.
Am I going to pivot? I don't know. Yeah maybe, but I'm liking it right now. And as the opportunities continue and as long as I can feel like I'm growing and getting new clients and achieving new levels, both with the art getting better and with the commerce and the level of jobs that I’m getting, I see myself doing this for a long time.
GP - What does a normal day look like for you?
Ian - What's a normal day? I don't have a normal day.
GP - So it just changes from day to day depending on the job and what's going on.
Ian - If I have a shoot day then I try to schedule my shoots on a little bit on the later side because I'm not a morning person. The first thing I do is walk to get coffee. Going to get coffee is the thing that sets the tone for the day. I don't care about drinking coffee as much as I care about the experience of leaving my work or home to go get it. My assistant and I do that and we talk about the shoot. Then we get set up. We make a nice breakfast for the client, usually just pastries and some eggs and some other things, you know, and get going from there. Usually my shoots are ten hour days. Then they wrap up and I stare at the wall for a while. It takes just about all of my energy in a day to get through a shoot.
GP - So in that day, typical shooting. I mean how many variations; there's a lot of styling involved in your work. There is not a lot of editing really done in a post. So I mean, how many different iterations do you do? I'm sure sometimes you land on something quickly, but it's hundreds? Thousands?
Ian - Yeah, hundreds. You know, sometimes it's a couple hundred shots to get one photo. Move something a little bit, shoot, move something again a little bit, shoot. I mean you just watched this in the loft, but I'm very heavy handed with styling. A lot of photographers, I didn't realize this until recently, a lot of photographers aren't like that.
GP - That's why I asked. Yeah, it's an interesting process.
Ian - They hire stylists. There's one person who that's their job, and to me it's like, well, starting out I didn't know anyone. I didn't go to school for it. I was in a city where I didn't have any connections to the industry and I wasn't going to wait around for anyone else. You just learn how to do a thing. You do it. To me that was actually more interesting than pressing a button. Like, I didn't care about that. To me, I'm pointing a light at a thing. But it's the thing that I'm creating. It's the sculpture. It's the placement of the object. It's the storytelling. To me, that's the job. That's photography. That's my art and what keeps me interested. I love it.
GP - Do you look for any and do you find inspiration when you're in a creative rut? Do you have any go-to things you like to do to just sort of shake out the cobwebs?
Ian - Yeah. The biggest thing that I say is if you're in a creative rut, turn off Instagram, get rid of it. When I’m feeling down or in a rut I do this thing where it's like I don't look at Instagram and see a thousand different photographers - I see one photographer who's just made a thousand incredible photos. So it's like me versus Instagram, not me versus the thousand other photographers. I get totally down on myself seeing so much amazing stuff and wondering where I fit in. So I turn that shit off as much as I can. I go to art museums, I look at old things, I also just have friends that I love to talk about ideas with, you know, it's not even necessarily photography. We talk about funny business ideas and say, "What if?" You know, the ideas are what are really important to me. So it's all about having tricks to get myself in that zone. Though with COVID it's been really, really tough stay focused and feel like I'm consistently having good ideas and making work I’m proud of.
GP - That was actually one of my next questions. How has COVID it changed the way you work or do business, or even like how you sort your ideas? Obviously, you're not hanging out with people, like having people over to the studio. These creative processes, the magical little moments that happen are few and far or just different. Right. And it's not that it's impossible, but how does it change your work in your life?
Ian - People's comfort has shifted a lot, you know. At first, everything was like fully remote shoots, no one on set. But theres the opposite mentality from certain people. Sometimes clients don't actually understand that we're in a pandemic and they are like, “why can't we have six models at the same time?” And I have to set it straight. But yeah, at first there was like a solid month where the phone stopped ringing, and that's like every photographer's nightmare.
GP - Phone stopped ringing? No emails?
Ian - Nothing. At first I spent a lot of time staring at Gmail, refreshing. Everyone's trying to figure everything out and there's so much going on in the world. I'm just like, well, me doing these cool photos is the last thing anyone gives a shit about right now, which is fine. But also, you know that that starts the "what does it all mean" types of thoughts in your head and the weird existentialism. Because you're like, well, I finally have a chance to stop and think about my life… and I think everyone experienced that. So that messed with me a lot. And then I went from that to having the most profitable and busy month of my entire career, like out of nowhere, like everyone was like, OK, we're back! I think it was June. Yeah. Like somewhere around there, June or July. It was just like every single day was suddenly filled and the jobs were big and they just did not stop coming. And I was like, OK, well that definitely saved me for sure and made it so I can pay rent. But after a long time with absolutely nothing. And then it slowed down again and now it's different.
I'm doing a lot more preproduction, because again, there's less showing up with a bunch of stuff and let's shoot some cool ideas, there's less people on set. We want to plan ideas ahead of time because, yeah, there's a story or some like shot lists, little bit more mapped out. Less organic, more production, which is a good thing. Also I can't just go and get or order props online two or three days before, I need to have decisions made a couple of weeks in advance. So that's a totally new way of working for me. Aside from larger shoots where there's a prop stylist where they're handling all that stuff. Normally when it's me, on smaller shoots, the whole process is very organic. Less so now - I’m working on getting back to that.
GP -I know it's probably different client to client, but you do seem to have a lot of creative process in your work. Are most people like, "I like your style. Give us whatever you want," or are clients like "these are the things we must have, go wild with it?" Are you pretty much in this preproduction mode that you see now, but a little bit more structured? People are very particular, which then leads into my next question. What's your most challenging shoot in mind? Why was it a challenge?
Ian - Okay, where do I start with that one? What was the first part of the question? Oh, like creative process to people.
GP - Kind of like "Yeah, let the artist art." Or is it more like "no, we need like something very specific."
Ian - A lot of times the less money that's at stake, the more they let me do my thing, you know, and that's just sort of how it is. And for the first two years, it was mostly me doing my thing until I started doing bigger national stuff. And then that obviously changed a lot. And the bigger the company, the more they want some sort of say in it. So a lot more opinions, a lot more people get into the mix. I love it when I can kind of do my thing within a context. I'll say “tell me the problem that you want to solve. Give me the colors you want to work through, let's talk through the story and then I'll ideate around it,” that is my ideal thing. I'm doing a shoot for this company, Two Robbers, on Monday and they are doing a partnership with Shake Shack. Two Robbers came to me and basically said “We want to have a burger party. Do you want to shoot it?” "Yes, absolutely. Here's six other ideas we can try” I said it before but the ideas are everything to me. Photography is just my current medium for expressing those ideas. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about being an artist versus being a practitioner, while still existing in a commercial world. And thats why I try so hard to hold on to an organic process in my shoots - building in the time and space to experiment and to create on the fly. Thats what I find the most joy in doing. Thats what I’m always chasing after.
Many thanks again to Ian for taking the time to tell us a bit about his creative process, and for being our very first guest in the loft space above our shop. Stay tuned, because we hope to do more of this in the future!