Against a sonic backdrop of Aerosmith’s driving “Dream On,” the graphic and the fantastic, the psychedelic and surrealistic keep the beat of this 1973 rock ‘n’ roll hit in Photoshopped still images celebrating Adobe’s 25th birthday. The 60-second commercial, designed by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, aired on the Oscars in February 2015. About three-quarters of the way through, and just for a second or two, a boy in a sailor cap holding a small telescope stands in a bathtub hanging from a striped hot-air balloon that drifts above a cliff-lined sea.
The San Francisco-based advertising agency came across the photograph on Adobe’s Behance website, a self-promotion venue, and Jimmy Williams couldn’t be more thrilled. “I believe this photo carries the imaginative concept of the commercial, as well as being inspirational, and that’s why they chose it,” says the 61-year-old Raleigh, North Carolina fine-art and commercial photographer, and motion director who created the composite image, part of his Dreamscapes series. “The commercial value of the image is pretty clear. It creates an emotion and generates feelings, aspirations and beliefs that help companies tell their stories.”
Williams’s photo won him the Photo District News Self-Promo Award 2015, which joins nearly a dozen other awards for his work in the past several years, including The Addy Awards, International Photography Awards, FotoWeek DC International Awards, Communication Arts Advertising Annual and the Lucie Awards. He has licensed his Adobe-commercial image to at least three companies, and to a couple of advertising agencies for their internal use; and it appears in National Public Radio’s online article about Adobe’s anniversary.
From Caribbean beaches and the Tuscan countryside to Tahiti and the base of Mt. Fuji, Williams has traveled to many of the world’s most stunning places “to capture the perfect photo for my clients,” as he puts it. Since 1976, U.S. Virgin Island Tourism, Norwegian Cruise Line, Harley Davidson, American Airlines, Bank of America and others have turned to him for his location and studio photographs, Photoshopped and not. They’ve also been highlighted in The New York Times, LensWork, Colors Magazine and Black & White.
He still enjoys that creative and challenging assignment, but more and more personal work, like Dreamscapes, is finding its way into his portfolio. From his 4,000-square-foot studio that he’s had for the last 33 years, Williams talks by phone with Claire Sykes about that series and others, how he dreams up ideas and brings them to life, and what matters most to him when he’s got a camera in his hands.
What first inspired your Dreamscapes images? Even before the invention of Photoshop, I’d always wanted to create a photo series about childhood dreams. Now, today, if you can dream it, you can create it. I’ve modeled this series a lot after my most remembered childhood dreams. I always want the viewer to feel what I feel when they see my photos, and in the Dreamscapes series, I’d like people to experience my dreams, to put themselves into the photos. I often am told, when I show the photographs, that they “feel like dreams.” This is before I even mention that I’ve titled the series, Dreamscapes. So perhaps I’ve accomplished my goal. But it wasn’t until the technology became so advanced that it was possible to achieve the look I’d envisioned—one that’s magical and mysterious, child-dreamlike and fun.
The sky, and things that float and fly in it, figures prominently in your Dreamscapes photos. Why? I feel there’s a great deal of power in the sky, that a great deal of energy comes from it; and it sets the entire mood of the photo. Sometimes there are enormously powerful cumulonimbus clouds that feel bigger than the earth itself, and other times, the clouds are delicately soft and wispy or threateningly dark and scary. I’ve always created photography where the sky played a very strong role. Now I have the ability to digitally add intriguing and mysterious elements to the image. In the Dreamscapes photos, the sky helps to quickly establish a mood and generate the feeling and emotion I’m looking for.
From finding your subjects to creating the actual images, how do you construct the Dreamscapes images? What do you consider regarding location, subject, composition, color, lighting and narrative, etc.? There are a lot of moving parts in putting these photos together, and it’s not always linear. But basically, with all my photography, I start with the feeling. What is the feeling and mood of this photograph? That’s also what I react to first when I’m shooting. I consider the emotional aspects in the photograph essential to it being successful to me as an artist, and to the viewer’s experience of it, as well.
For the Dreamscapes photos, next I’ll think of a theme, balloons, for instance. Then I think through “dream” ideas that might be fun, quirky, mysterious and just interesting to me. From there, a series idea emerges. At somewhat the same time, I’ll research my extensive stock archive of photos that I’ve taken that could provide a suitable background for this series. If you notice, each of the Dreamscapes photos has stunning backgrounds. I didn’t go out and shoot those for most of the images in this series. I drew from images I’ve created over many years, which also include landscapes, people and animals. Once I’ve solidified the idea and the background, I begin the process of creating all the elements that make up the photo.
By the way, it is important to note: I don’t do all of this myself. My wife and business partner, Dorothy Howard and I work very closely together, along with our team of five people who help with everything from beginning to end, including the creative concepts, research, styling of props and wardrobe, finding the appropriate talent and executing all of the digital artwork. Every element has to be photographed with a high degree of attention to details, to keep the overall photo integrity consistent with every component in the final photo, such as camera angles, lens length, color temperature, lighting direction and image quality. And the connection with the subjects within the photos is pivotal; they must be captured within the true spirit of the photo’s narrative.
How does the Dreamscapes series fit with the rest of your work? I go after the magical, quirky and mysterious a lot in my work. You can see it in different ways in different photographs. Not in every one, but there’s a hint of it often. Up until this series, though, my work had been very photo-realistic. However, retouching has always been a significant part of all my photos. It’s just that, with the other series, you can’t tell because it’s intentionally done in such a way that keeps it photo-realistic, so you don’t know I’ve done it. But with the Dreamscapes series, you obviously can tell. And I want that.
Why? Aside from the artistic value of the series, I have another motive. I want to promote my stock archive of photographs to clients, and make them aware of the value of it and being able to use it, not just by me, but also them, letting them know they are available to license these images from me. Second, I want clients to understand that retouching is a significant part of my studio’s capabilities, and to associate me with creating beautiful and conceptual imagery. They’re not just pictures of things. They’re stories, and interesting ones.
How do you see the Dreamscapes story continuing? I think the next stage could be to take what’s in the Dreamscapes and create something new about adults’ real-life experiences. It would be more of an adult dream. I think it’s taking the children’s-dreams concept, but generating stories around adults. It could be about their dreams or fantasies, and their fears, hopes, desires, etc. It’ll be emotional, whatever it is. I don’t know where it’s going, yet, but I’m starting to see some vision as to what it might be.
What inspires you, in general, with your photography? I find that the most important element of the photo is the story being told and the artistic vision in the way it is expressed. This allows for constant challenges, which spur growth and evolution in my art. I also still love and am excited by the interaction with my subjects when photographing them, knowing that I have to rise to the occasion time and time again to achieve something unique and special. That never seems to grow old for me.
I find that the most important element of the photo is the story being told and the artistic vision in the way it is expressed.
How do you come up with new ideas, and stay fresh? A lot of my ideas are spontaneous and come to me when I’m creating the photo, perhaps even more than when I’m conceiving the shot in advance. Some artists conceive the photos’ ideas wholly in advance and then execute. I want to be loose on the front end and have the magic happen when I’m photographing, as well as in post-production. I’m clear on the feeling I’m after and seek it in each step. I’ll capture the main elements of the photo and then, somewhat like a painter, when I’m retouching the photo I step back and look at it, and think what more does the photo really need to make the story more interesting and express the feeling I’m after.
Ideas also come from shooting my personal work, like the Dreamscapes series. Once in a while, a client’s project may be a catalyst for an evolution in my work, as well. They may have an interesting idea they want me to execute and it may not be what I’ve ever done or am doing. But more often than not, inspiration comes from my personal work, from finding something I’m passionate about and pursuing and creating work I’ve never done before. And this happens because you don’t have the constraints that you do when shooting for a client. A client comes with the need to and a set of requirements to accomplish a certain result. But when you shoot for yourself, you start with a blank canvas, and that’s where the magic happens. You’re able to experiment and evolve toward something brand new.
Are you working on any personal projects now? If so, what are they? I have several projects underway right now. One is Equus. I’ve photographed horses off and on over a long period of time. They are just magnificent creatures typically surrounded in beautiful settings. There’s a lot to love here. Recently, as a member of a local art gallery, we hosted a benefit for an organization called Corral that supports rescue horses and at-risk teenage girls. I was one of 20 artists—I’m the only photographer—who were asked to create works related to horses that the gallery then sold, and the profits went to this organization. So I continued working on this series a result of that benefit, because I enjoyed it.
Another series I’m working on is Fog, which came out of my long-time fascination with fog. It’s so elusive and fits all the criteria of the things I say I like—mystery, magic, illusion. It has such delightful and constantly changing lighting qualities. Music Makers is an older project that I started about ten years ago, because I enjoy blues. I began photographing blues musicians in the South, as a promotion for the Music Maker Relief Foundation [in Hillsborough, North Carolina]. It was an opportunity for me to work with blues musicians, who I find fun, quirky and fascinating. They are completely unpretentious, down-to-earth and authentic. Every quality, from their personality to their music to the clothes they wear, echoes who they are in such a beautiful way. Like Equus and Fog, with the Music Makers work, I’m shooting something I feel passionate about, but others also benefit. All three of these personal projects have their own look; they’re visually different from each other. But I think you can look at them and feel that the same person did them.