Finding a New Road, with Photographer Michael Grecco


Michael Grecco is one of the most respected celebrity and portrait photographers working today, a master of lighting, conceptual storytelling, and attitude. His portraits are infused with humor and drama, and his versatility is exemplary. I was fortunate enough to chat with him about his process, gear choices, and some of his current projects.

“They’re making killer cameras.”

While Grecco sticks with Hasselblad for most of his editorial and commissioned portraiture, I was surprised to learn that he is now using Sony cameras for his smaller-format work. He described Sony DSLRs as “killer cameras,” and works primarily with the A900. When shooting a movie with Zeiss cinema lenses on a Canon 5D, he had a moment of truth. He shot some stills with it, and said “...the color, the saturation, the lack of flare and sharpness was so far superior,” to Canon lenses, that he was compelled to explore further. He soon realized that a Sony body with Sony/Zeiss glass was the way to go. Grecco still uses the Canon 5D Mark III to shoot motion, and when I approached the subject of brand loyalty, he seemed to chuckle at the idea, rattling off the number of times he had gone back and forth between Nikon and Canon over the years.

“You take a road, and if the road is working, you follow it, and if not, you find a new road.”

Speaking about process and, in particular, a well-known portrait of Steve Martin, Michael reflected on how that shoot was originally set to take place in Martin’s home garden. Grecco had collaborated with an editor from Time magazine on the idea of having Martin sit in a small chair in a garden, but when Martin realized the size of the production, he balked at having that many people at his house. With an idea already established, a decision needed to be made. Do you scrap the idea and go smaller, or find a way to make it work? They decided to build the garden in a studio, and with input from the subject, “...things evolved, and things evolved.” The shot ended up being an award winner, and one of Grecco’s favorites.

“I don’t do just one thing. Every situation I work on, I need to make it individual.”

If a shoot isn't going well, if the road needs to be changed, do you rely on a particular idea that worked for you in the past, or do you have a go-to setup, if all else fails? These were my follow-up questions, and Grecco answered with a perfunctory, “No.”  

“I don’t get lost in the technical side. I know enough to get what I need to get.”

When asked if he considered himself a “gear head,” Grecco made it clear that he’s savvy with technique, and familiar with a wide range of cameras, but that concentrating too much on the technical elements and the equipment itself can take away from getting the shot you want. A flexible but persistent work attitude, and having the confidence to follow your vision, will get you closer to great pictures than anything else.

“I was totally, still am, into that music.”

Grecco mentioned that he is trying to put together a show of music-related images that he took while working at the Boston Herald. As a recent college graduate, Grecco had started working freelance for the AP, and eventually landed a job at the paper. He was a working photojournalist, and often found himself covering the Boston music scene. He spoke of shooting The Clash, Elvis Costello, Billy Idol, and “...all the big bands of the era,” including a particular night hanging out with Johnny Rotten. However, Grecco realized that photojournalism was not his calling; his interest lay more in the “image” than in the “moment,” so he made his move West, to start work as a portrait and editorial photographer in Los Angeles.

“When I travel to foreign cities, I take panorama photos with my Hasselblad XPan.”

...having the confidence to follow your vision will get you closer to great pictures than anything else.

Grecco recently released a limited-edition portfolio of nocturnal urban panoramas called Michael Grecco: Urban Landscapes, and I asked him how that project developed. While the images and very unique boxed portfolio are fascinating, the back story is touched with personal sadness. On a visit to Brazil, Grecco met with mutual friends of one of his oldest colleagues, Time magazine Picture Editor Jay Colton, who had died suddenly while attending a photo festival in São Paolo. He sought these people out in order to learn more about what had happened regarding the death of his friend, and it turned out that one of the men ran Schoeler Editions, a publisher of high-quality photography books and portfolios.

Together they conceived an idea for a limited run of portfolios containing these bold, colorful, personally signed photos that reflect the thoughts of a solitary traveler; after the lights go dim and the parties are over, a man wanders the neon with his film camera, documenting the city at night. As if to bring it full circle, to suggest that his nightly rambles are also a time for reflection and maybe tribute to a lost friend, Grecco mentions that while he lost the XPan he had shot these images with, he replaced it by buying Colton’s XPan from his widow. 

“Because I’m a portrait shooter, I carry an 85mm with me, and I like the 24-70mm. So for the most part, those are my lenses.”

Talking about a trip that he made to Lagos, Nigeria, Grecco mentions the two lenses he carries with him when shooting for himself. The trip was not an assignment, but he noted that he’s always trying to shoot “...what interests me,” and that as a fan of the late, great Fela Kuti, he sought out the new Africa Shrine Club, and shot there. “I went out of my way to find images, to find interesting people,” and that led to the portraits he did with his Sony A900 of tower construction workers in this sprawling city. The lenses he used were the Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss T* lens and the Sony 85mm f/1.4 Carl Zeiss Planar T* lens.

“My work is about the lighting and the idea.”

I asked Grecco if he often experiments with lenses, such as trying odd perspectives and angles, and he pleasantly brushed off the idea, stating: “I don’t get into crazy lenses. A lot of my portraits are relatively formal in some ways. They’re concepts where the subject is often treated like the hero, and I don’t need to use a fisheye or a long lens and be all over the place.” When working in medium format, his typical lens choices are straightforward: the Hasselblad HC Macro 120mm f/4 II and the HC 55-110mm f/3.5-5.6.

“You have to have a reason to switch, and it has to be a good reason.”

In terms of changing gear and buying the next best lens or camera, Grecco was clear that he always balances the tradeoff, and won’t just buy something new because it’s bigger or better. As an example, he cited the decision about whether to buy a new 60MP digital back over his current 50MP, and weighed the improvement in resolution against the large size of the files that would be created by the 60MP, and how that might slow workflow and eat up memory. He noted that he absolutely thinks past the shot itself to how the format he chooses will affect the workload, even recalling when he started shooting with digital backs and had to decide on a case-by-case basis if the tradeoff in image quality was acceptable in the face of his clients' desire to have the images right away.  

"It’s a side business, but I own the company that has it.”

With a work and travel schedule that's almost non-stop, Grecco employs a full-time retoucher, a part-time archivist, and a part-time organizational person, but he clearly gives a lot of thought to file management and image storage, to the point that he invented a closed-cell, anti-static foam unit for storing SATA hard drives. The product, known as Pro-Storage, is marketed by Image Mechanics and, sure enough, sold here at B&H. Who knew?

“It’s about getting the picture!”

We wrapped up our chat by talking again about gear, and whether or not Grecco feels a relationship with his equipment, outside of its ability to get the job done. Not surprisingly, he was practically nonplussed by the question. Did he have any problem switching from one camera brand to the next, or between formats, or even from stills to cinema? Clearly he did not. He is at home with a camera in his hand, and is comfortable across the spectrum of formats, models, and brands. The subject of his cinema work, which is becoming a larger part of his portfolio, came up. I asked again about camera choices when directing motion and, true to form, his answer was, “ all depends on what the job needs.” His regular DP has a RED camera, but they will use a Phantom high-speed camera, or more recently, the Panasonic GH4 with DCI 4K capture, depending on the job. “We’ll put the right camera with the right tools to get the right picture.”

Michael Grecco is conducting several photography workshops as a part of the Fstoppers Workshops in the Bahamas in late May. Don't miss out!