Doane Gregory has many photographers dream job: he spends time at movie sets and takes pictures of the top stars. But that is only the common interpretation of his job title and it doesn’t even scratch the surface of what Doane actually does.
Doane Gregory is an acknowledged American motion picture still photographer. He started out by specializing mostly in editorial and portraiture but ended up gravitating towards the film industry and succeeding in the field. We finally had the opportunity to talk to him and get to know more about his personal journey into the role of a motion picture still photographer and uncover its real terms.
Tell us about you. Who is Doane?
I was born in Hempstead, just outside of NYC, and, being the son of an Air Force officer, I moved a great deal the first several years of my life: Montgomery (Alabama), Chicago (Illinois), Anchorage (Alaska), and Fort Lauderdale (Florida). I spent most of my grade school and high school years in Northeastern Pennsylvania, and then followed the call of the mountains and moved west, graduating from Colorado State University with a degree in Philosophy and Comparative Religions.
While in University I became friends with someone whose family owned a large cattle ranch in central British Columbia, and upon graduation, I accepted his invitation to visit there. I fell in love with the wide-open spaces and the freedom accompanying these spaces and decided to stay.
The following decade was spent working on a number of large ranches in the region, and subsequently becoming a builder of custom log homes. It was an incredible time and place, and I still spend a part of every in an area known as the Cariboo region of British Columbia, in a home I built myself at the end of a dirt road. When not on location for my work, I divide my time between the Cariboo, Vancouver and a wonderful village in the south of France.
When did you fall in love with photography?
When I was 18, I was given a small Olympus SLR by a friend, and I just never looked
How would you describe the role of a still photographer? What does your day-to-day look like?
A still photographer’s role on a film set is a unique one, and filled with unusual juxtapositions: you are the head of a department, but it is a department of one. You are embedded in the very heart of the essential film-making process, often inches away from the moving camera and their operators, not to mention a constantly moveable feast of highly paid actors, each with their own often mercurial dispositions and preconceived ideas about when, where – and even if – a still photographer should even be in the same room while they are performing.
You have been charged with creating the images that the studio, publicity, and marketing departments absolutely need to promote and market these wildly expensive productions, but you need to accomplish this in total ninja mode. You need to be ever-present and invisible at the same time – no easy feat.
A good still photographer must have a keen understanding of human behavior, and an innate sixth sense about where and when to be on a set at all times. Stephen Vaughan, one of the all-time great (and recently deceased) still photographers once famously remarked: “You have to be in the moment to capture the moment.” Words everyone can live by, but particularly the unit still photographer.
A good still photographer must have a keen understanding of human behavior, and an innate sixth sense about where and when to be on a set at all times
What made you gravitate towards this niche of photography? How did you get into it?
I had a studio for a number of years, specializing mostly in editorial portraiture for a variety of magazines, but also shooting fashion, architecture, some advertising, and the occasional annual corporate report. In short, a variety of work necessary to survive in a relatively small market at the time – which was Vancouver (Canada) in the late ’80s.
I loved all of it, but waiting 90-120 days to get paid was painful. The film industry was just beginning to take off out there, and when I heard film technicians were paid every week, well, that was all I needed to know. I worked on a number of TV series, pilots and MOWs the first few years until someone in the feature world took a chance on me and offered me my first feature film. Seventy features later, I feel like I’m just now really and truly getting the hang of this job. It’s the kind of work where you never stop learning.
Seventy features later, I feel like I’m just now really and truly getting the hang of this job. It’s the kind of work where you never stop learning.
What are the biggest misconceptions about your job? For an outsider, we like to think that your day-to-day is full of glamour, is it true?
When it’s three in the morning and you’re standing knee deep in mud beneath a rain tower in your 14th hour of work, or shooting in some sewage treatment facility (or any number of other loathsome locations) film techies will often turn to one another and say: “Oh the glamour of it all!”
But then there are the days when you’re in a helicopter sitting with a group of wildly talented people on your way to some spectacular location to bear witness to an Oscar-worthy performance, and you’re repeating the “I Love my job” mantra over and over again all day long.
The truth is there is an incredible variety of environments and situations one encounters on a daily basis as a film still photographer. But working conditions can often be extremely challenging, and the hours are very long, often bordering on downright brutal. Great stamina is absolutely essential to this job. It’s also extremely competitive. It’s very much a long-term commitment.
What are the biggest challenges of your job?
There are three parts to this answer. First
Third, gaining the trust of a stills-shy actor who may have been burned by an overly aggressive still photographer in a previous production. It only takes one unaware and/or ego-driven stills person to ruin the experience for every photographer who comes after him/her. Making a film is a total team effort and not all photographers are capable of understanding this. It is a delicate dance at times, requiring great people skills and a ton of patience. There is a reason the word Still is used in the job description.
It is a delicate dance at times, requiring great people skills and a ton of patience. There is a reason the word Still is used in the job description.
When you feel overwhelmed, what do you do to stay focused?
Go and check out what’s interesting at craft service.
You are a member of the Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers (SMPSP) who represents the world’s leading photographers in this field. Could you tell us more about the group?
The Society was founded in 1995 as a non-profit, honorary organization dedicated to the art of motion picture still photography. They promote the archival preservation of stills pictures shot on sets and provide a forum for members to exchange ideas and discuss issues facing photographers today.
I am a relatively recent member of the Society, having been invited to join in 2015. Through the years I have followed the careers of some of its founding members with admiration and respect, and so to be included in this highly respected group is very much a great honor for me.
As to how important it is for still photographers to be there, I will say it is an organization devoted to upholding the highest standards of this unique profession, and to create greater awareness of just how important the role of a still photographer is to the film industry as a whole.
I stipulate in every deal memo I sign that the initials SMPSP appear after my name in the film credits, and I can say with some confidence that every member of this group does the same. To
What was the movie you had the most fun working at?
The opportunity to travel for work has always been a great lure, and I have been fortunate to work on films in numerous countries. But if I had to single out one, it would be the film Casanova, with Heath Ledger, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller et al.
I lived and worked in Venice, Italy for five months, and spent every waking moment of my free time shooting this extraordinary place. By the end of my stay, I felt as though I had lived there most of my life – if not this one, then maybe a previous one. It was a glorious time.