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John Kuczala

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John Kuczala
Photo Illustrator
By Tom Kirkman

There's an old song called "Every Picture Tells a Story" that is perhaps an oversimplification of what John Kuczala does, but it's a good way to begin to understand what a photo illustrator is. While photo illustration is a distant cousin to photojournalism, they do share certain methods and qualities. The camera, for instance, is used to document certain aspects of life and, in the process, unspool a story through the visual medium of photography that may or may not use captions or supporting text. While the photographer may have a perspective, it requires the viewer to find it in the images. Of course, the concept of integrity comes into play. Most news publications won't publish a Photoshopped image since what they're selling and held accountable for is delivering truth, not fantasy. Even so, while a photo may capture a moment in time, suggesting objectivity, when and where it is used may reveal an agenda.

As a photo illustrator, John Kuczala is unfettered by these concerns. More than a photographer who can draw, he's a model maker, inventor, artist, stylist, and a number of other things. "Renaissance man" is a term that's often overused and under-appropriate, but Kuczala's the real thing. His chosen field is, in some ways, the antithesis of photojournalism; strictly editorial, his photos are nearly always manipulated—it's almost a requirement. Photo illustration has a definite agenda; it is not constrained by objectivity and is often "mixed media," containing models or constructions that don't appear in the "real world" unless placed there. Kuczala's photos, either on their own or supporting type or copy, are visual metaphors that convey an entire story, narrative, and perspective in a single arresting image—by any means possible. They often embody wry humor.

Kuczala moved to New Jersey in 1998 and did a number of shoots there over the years. During this time, he kept a studio in New York City, until he decamped to New Jersey full time, in November of 2013. From 1998 until 2004 or so, it was still film and dial-up Internet and messengers running film around New York City. Like the foreign correspondent in mainstream journalism, he works remotely, tethered to his clients via computer, phone, and UPS. Unlike an editor, instead of reporting it, he literally makes the "news" in visual form. Perhaps the best introduction to Kuczala's work comes from a self-assigned exercise.

"The cans are something that I did that was fun and that clients might find interesting," says Kuczala. "I wanted to shoot the series a bunch of different ways, sort of like a story; the can comes up to this white surface and rolls around and then rights itself, floats and then pours itself out, like a narrative."

Working with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and an EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro lens, he purposely picked a difficult reflective object for his "visual workout," and used a hard strobe light with black and white cards to create modeling on the can. A byproduct of the shoot was the realization that he was very good at pouring tomato sauce and subsequently splashes Champagne and other liquids. An artist at heart, Kuczala's work usually starts with a sketch, often based on a nothing more than a concept or story. "Half a day is typically brain-wracking, sketching out, and a couple or more hours shooting variations." He cites his working relationship with Wall Street Journal Art Director Orlie Kraus as ideal. "Sometimes she has an idea, but she won't tell me, she'll say 'John, see what you come up with, then we'll talk.'"

Their collaboration yielded this sketch and final shot:

The medical field seemed to be in the crosshairs. Another photo illustration produced this cover for BusinessWeek magazine:

Much of Kuczala's work comes from the Financial-sector magazines like Money, Forbes, Smart Money, and Barron's—and the model maker in him does some wickedly amusing things to cash.

His love of drawing and interest in advertising design led him to a dual major from Syracuse University that gives him an edge in a number of ways over image makers who are highly specialized. A photo illustrator has to deal with both art departments that work on a budget and photo departments that work with fees and expenses. Knowing "what it's like to typeset and get a layout to work from, you have a good idea of where they're coming from," says Kuczala, and anything you can do to make these busy people's lives easier is always to your benefit. Working with Kuczala is also "one-stop shopping." His multiple skills allow him to switch gears on a photo illustration shoot, for instance, and transform it into a product shoot.

If model making is involved and changes need to be made on deadline, Kuczala is already on the scene to make them instead of outsourcing.

An interesting quality of the work that may relate to his design background is that, unlike most photographers, his work seems to read well despite the layout for which it was shot.

A sense of playfulness pervades Kuczala's work and he rarely misses an opportunity to inject fun into a shot. Although used in another format, one of the most unusual things he's done was this marching ants shot for Smart Money magazine.

Done in December when ants are a rare backyard commodity, Kuczala found that there are people in Oregon who will gladly sell you a vial of harvester ants. He put them in a cool place to slow down the frenetic insects, made a little runway for them and spent a couple of comic hours trying to get them to walk in single file before getting the shot with his EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM and subsequently created the shadows in Photoshop.

Another great example of photo wit is evident in this "Darker Side of Your Desk" series, done around Halloween.

Perhaps it's because he doesn't draw a creative hard line between the mindset he brings to his commercial versus his personal work, the same sense of levity and occasionally whimsy is evident in both, whether it's a photo of vines from his backyard, fish created in Photoshop, or very amusing before-and-after shots of food.