Creative Rebirth Through Reinvention


One of the first things people should understand about my work and me is that I’m proud to be from the old school. That being said, I think I’ve done a good job of keeping up with the daily bombardment of new technology.

Like many of my contemporaries, I have been overwhelmed with the changes that have taken place in our industry. Obviously, the equipment has gone through a tremendous evolution. I started out shooting 8x10 and 11x14 film in a wooden view camera, and now I can capture hundreds of images on a compact card the size of a stamp!

When I opened my first studio, my assistants would make countless round trips each day to the lab, for film processing. I was also spending hundreds of dollars every month on messengers, delivering my portfolios to prospective clients.

I’ve seen the launch of Federal Express, answering services give way to answering machines, pagers come and go, and advertising agencies complaining that next morning delivery was “Stone Age.”

When I moved my operation to the Hawaiian Island of Kauai, my biggest concern was how long the drive to the nearest drop box was. Within a year, that was no longer an issue, as uploading files could be done over the Internet.

Throughout all of this incredibly distracting change, one thing has always had to remain functional above all else: my ability to keep being creative and convince people that I’m shooting something worth looking at.

Now, to many people in a lot of other businesses, this doesn’t seem so different from their daily challenges. Every businessperson has had to deal with all kinds of technology, which constantly requires the kind of attention that pulls him or her away from the real tasks at hand.

For photographers, it not only affects running your business, but eventually it impacts on your ability to produce stimulating work.

The short-term answer is, of course, staying focused on the primary objective: taking great pictures. The long-term solution is reinvention. Reinvention means constant self-examination to make sure you’re satisfied with the direction your work is taking. If you do not feel creatively challenged, or worse yet, your images look like anyone could have taken them, it’s time for a change. By reinventing yourself you’re accomplishing a number of important objectives.

You’re letting your audience know you’re not stuck in a rut. You’re convincing yourself of the same thing! You’re keeping up with technology and current visual trends. Over time, you’ll be creating a body of work that will show your evolution, but hopefully will have a signature look, which people will identify as being uniquely yours.

How do you do this? Well, it is a bit tricky. Every time you reinvent yourself, you run the risk of confusing people and diluting their perception of exactly what kind of photographer you are. Think of a rock band that everyone loves, and the songs they’re identified with. All of a sudden, in an attempt to flex their creative muscles, they try a new musical concept and totally confuse their audience.

Keeping some link to what you’ve already done is a key ingredient to reinvention. With that in mind, as a photographer you have to have blind ambition, never spending too much time wondering about the validity of what you’re shooting. You must always keep in the back of your mind that what you’re currently working on is the next great image people are dying to see. It’s very easy to beat up on yourself. You can procrastinate and talk yourself out of moving forward with a project. Over-thinking shouldn’t be confused with intelligent decisions.

So, using some of my better known images, I’m going to illustrate how, over the years, I’ve reinvented myself while maintaining a signature look to in my work. Hopefully, this will be the motivation you can use to keep your eye on the big picture.

I started out, at least as far as my professional career is concerned, as a still-life specialist working for Fortune 500 Companies. I developed a reputation for doing meticulously lit, technically complicated studio shots, which had graphic simplicity, allowing the product to grab all of the attention.

My image, Gibson Explorer, is a perfect example of this approach. It’s also reminiscent of a time when I would spend hours in front of an object contemplating exactly how it should be photographed. I’d often place whatever I was shooting on a table and spend half a day just looking at it from every angle. This was before I even started to experiment with the lighting. Looking back on this part of my career, it’s now obvious why I was primarily a still-life photographer. Not many models are interested in being stared at for hours before you even take the camera out.

Now, at this time, we’re talking long before computers and Photoshop. If I wanted to do any kind of montage or layering, it was all done in the camera—in other words, taking one picture with one studio setup, removing the film, putting it into another camera looking at something else, and exposing the same piece of film. This technique is called “in-camera masking” or “in-camera layering.”

This led to what I would call my first reinvention. I’ve used my image, Medical Still-Life with Stethoscope, as an example. I evolved into this style of shooting based on combining multiple overlapping objects in one finished photograph. Sometimes I would have as many as five setups in the studio, all to produce one final sheet of film. I was working with Toyo 4x5 and 8x10 view cameras and exposing a small fortune in film, not to mention the trips to the lab, processing, and cases of Polaroid test film.

When you look at this medical still-life image, although it’s quite a departure in technique, it still manages to maintain the signature look I was establishing.

While the advent of desktop computing and Photoshop certainly opened up new doors for me, it signaled the end for the need to do all of the work in camera. Although I was now producing some of my best montage pictures, with the output going up and the expenses going down, the handwriting was on the wall. What used to take me days could now be done in hours by anyone with a desktop computer. It was definitely time to start thinking about a new direction. I’d been shooting primarily in the studio for close to fifteen years. I needed to get some fresh air.

My next reinvention came in the form of what I like to call Road Trips—flying to a destination, picking up a rental car, and driving thousands of miles around America, shooting whatever I happened to find or dream up.

Sometimes, I would have as many as twenty hotels booked in advance. I’d often ship props and unusual objects to these hotels so they’d be waiting for me when I arrived. I was entering a period of shooting still-life images on location, with a bit of surrealism thrown in.

My image, Be Prepared, is an example of being in the middle of nowhere, with an inspirational prop and the clear head to do what I wanted.

While commercially I was being rewarded shooting these offbeat pictures, I was also drawn toward more traditional landscape work, which I was filing away for use at a later date.

In the midst of all of this, I moved my studio operation to the Hawaiian Islands and, once again, my work took on a very different direction. As always, the challenge was to keep a visual link with the past.

My image, Lanai Pines Reflection, reinforces that visual link, and maintains the stark composition and bold color I always preferred.

I was now consumed with producing pictures of Hawaii’s incredible natural beauty, including a lot of ocean photography.

When I gave myself the assignment of capturing the surreal color and clarity of Hawaii’s water, I immediately knew that backlighting would be my strongest ally. There’s no shortage of spectacular beaches on the island of Kauai, and it was on the remote western shore that I photographed the panoramic image pictured here.

Reproduced on a grand scale for a corporate lobby, Green Wave was shot with a Nikon D800. It’s a great example of how far camera technology has come in expanding the ability to make large archival prints.

Considering my pursuit to generate unusual landscape work, naturally I’m thrilled to discover situations with an offbeat quality begging to be interpreted. It’s not enough to just record these places; you must always be searching for that hidden opportunity.

I found just such a location near my home on Kauai: a junkyard on the ocean with cars and engines, transforming the natural landscape into an unworldly terrain. My resulting portfolio, titled Glass Beach, was a project encompassing almost every phase of my career. The images are a collection of surreal landscape and graphic still life, the latter done in a makeshift studio right on the beach.

While I did most of the landscape side of this project extremely late in the day, sometimes even after sunset, the object images were shot on a white background with direct midday sun.

I wanted the shadows to play an important graphic role in the overall composition. Just as the panoramic landscapes have a dreamy look caused by the flowing water, the rusted engine parts take on a life of their own, isolated from their surroundings. This portfolio illustrates that time spent thinking about how to approach a project is always as beneficial as the actual shooting.

Glass Beach Engine Wasteland A and Glass Beach Tractor Rear End couldn’t be further apart in their approach but yet, are linked by a common thread of manmade objects and their relationship with nature.

The full story of Glass Beach can be seen in its entirety at Beach.

Even though my location work now occupies a larger percentage of my time, I can’t resist returning to my roots and enjoying the total control the studio offers.

The last example I’ve selected for this article is more a return to the past, rather than a complete reinvention. At the end of the day, this studio image looks very much like my earliest work, and that’s a validation of my point about reinvention while still maintaining an identifiable look. Constantly striving to move forward, yet staying grounded with all of the building blocks of past projects, should be the goal.

George Diebold's Gear:

Nikon D800

Nikkor 14mm f/2.8 

50mm f/1.2

24mm f/1.4 

85mm f/1.4 

100mm f/2.8 MACRO

300mm f/4

Tenba Case

Gitzo carbon fiber tripods

Dynalite strobes in the studio

Although an image like Veiled Woman and Woodpecker, from my Matchbook Dreams portfolio, could have been done on film, the ability to expose hundreds of images digitally and edit down was a tremendous advantage.

I think, to fully appreciate this series, it’s important to understand that the resulting images have no basis in Photoshop. They are the product of a lot of matchbooks and careful editing, to find the apparitions that were created in the smoke. The greatest joy from this project comes from seeing the expressions on people’s faces when they connect the title with the hidden characters revealed in the smoke.

As for my latest project, I’ve completed a book: GEORGE DIEBOLD PHOTOGRAPHS. Available in hard copy and as an eBook, the four chapters explore dramatically different directions my work has taken me.

Included are images from my travels throughout Hawaii, month-long road trips in the American West, street photography in Manhattan, and studio still life. Each chapter ends with an index and short narrative about the individual images. Although brief, the comments give precise insight into how I generate and conceptualize ideas on location and in the studio.

I hope reading this article and enjoying my images has inspired you to keep your nose to the grindstone and remember that all-important word: REINVENTION. 

Trained by one of Life Magazine’s foremost illustrators, and formally educated as an interior designer, George Diebold has blurred the line between his commercial, personal, and fine art work. Known for his success as a conceptual advertising photographer, Diebold is an artist who draws his inspiration from nature, as well as man’s creations. His career has spanned more than three decades, creating images for hundreds of international clients. Diebold's work is part of the permanent collection of American Landscapes at the Montclair Art Museum, The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum and The Nelson Atkins Museum. His images have been featured in Graphis International, Communication Arts, and Studio Photography.

Diebold lives in New Jersey with his wife, Lisa. When not shooting in his East Coast studio, he is on the road or in Hawaii, where he maintains another studio on the island of Kauai.

George Diebold’s eBook can be ordered at:

Other works: Saltwater Portfolio, Matchbook Dreams



1 Comment

Can't wait to show that image of the Gibson guitar to a musician friend of mine! Thanks, George, for your articulate, eloquent article in words & images. It helped me to see my images, though nothing like as coherent as yours, as somehow connected thematically & stylistically from my life at 13 to 67 now.