Photographer Kevin Steele recently collaborated withÂ ad agency Lawrence & Schiller and South Dakota Tourism for their 2017 campaign â€œMy Great Placeâ€. Â The campaign focuses on the different moments visitors find during their vacation that become theirÂ Great Place in South Dakota.
The project was magical not only for the incredible locations but for the kindness and enthusiasm of everyone involved: the real people cast for the Â scenes, the crew, the agency. Â With his 1st asst/scout Kacie and Art Director Sarah they created a triad of epic vistas while capturing a series of authentic outtakes of found and created scenes. Â The campaign was introduced in mid-January to the tourism industry by S. Dakota Governor Daugaard and will be appearing on billboards, on-line and in print.
Traveling across the Black Hills of South Dakota was inspirational for Kevin: one of his first ad campaigns twelve years ago took place literally on the faces of the presidents of Mt Rushmore as Kevin balanced on Jeffersonâ€™s nose to create a unique landscape of National Park Rangers lowering down Lincolnâ€™s profile.
Kevin is known for creating an authentic emotional connection with his beautiful cinematic scenes of people enjoying life. Â In the past year heâ€™s produced images and motion for clients ranging from American Express, Delta Airlines and Bayer through to travel/hospitality and resort clients across the Americas. Â Â
What happens when Digitas andÂ Kevin SteeleÂ get together? They travel to the insanely beautiful island of St. Lucia to photograph a new campaign for American Express and Delta Airlines. As you can imagine, hanging out in the West Indies with a crew of amazingly friendly and creative people resulted in a seamless collaboration on four stunning shots full of warmth and invitation, a signature of Kevinâ€™s work.
He was so inspired by the location they meticulously sourced for this particular project, he decided to stay on the island post wrap to create a new body of personal imagery. Just like the production for Amex and Delta, personal work takes some planning. Kevin collaborated with the local crew from their original production to help find additional models, while the locations continued to influence his ideas and sketchbook.
As Kevin explained to us, he spends a lot of time thinking about the image he wants to create: the colors, the light, and locations.Â These elements are integral to his process of composing a final image that evokes a feeling and draws you in. â€œSometimes serendipity strikes,â€ says Kevin â€œbut usually itâ€™s a combination of careful scouting and prep along with an open attitude on set that results in a stellar image.â€
He also notes that â€œlistening to that inner voice is also very important.â€ Kevinâ€™s imagery certainly does evoke a number of feelings, including the â€œwe need a vacation to St. Lucia NOWâ€ feeling. This trip was such a huge success and we cannot wait to hear back from Kevinâ€™s next adventure. Stay tuned.
South of Zihuatanejo, on the Pacific coast of Mexico: a 200 acre property that combines simple elegance with natural beauty. A sustainable boutique hotel that provides guests with an immersive experience into the local landscape. The property includes a turtle sanctuary, an Aztec archeological site, an estuary, coastal forest and mangrove ecosystem along a mile of beachfront. Â Eight rooms, private casitas, Â hand crafted from environmentally-conscious materials provide a luxurious immersion into the rugged and unspoiled beauty of Playa Viva.
We wereÂ there to photograph this unique eco-resort for their ad campaigns: capturing theÂ beauty of daily life over many weeks. A treehouse crafted from bamboo is nestled among the coconut palms, the unique cylinder looking like a spaceship that’s landed or about to lift off from the beach.
All the casitas are fully open to the environment but as we found on our first few nights sometimes you need to batten down the hatches: we arrived at the tail end of the rainy season and thunderstorms would lash out in the middle of the night with torrential downpours and raging wind.The Playa Viva Turtle Sanctuary is staffed by an all-volunteer team of community members from the nearby village of Juluchuca. It was founded to protect the Olive Ridley turtles from predators and poachers alike. They nest year round, peaking between July and October. After a 45 day gestation the hatchlings are released â€“ between 100 and 800 were released almost every day while we there in October-November.
Hurricane Patricia was the most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere in terms of pressure and the strongest globally in terms of 200mph maximum sustained winds. Â We rode it out in our casita as it passed 100 miles off the coast, hitting landfall as a category 5 hurricane north of us in a rural area and fortunately away from the cities and villages that could have been hammered. Â Here’s the surf the morning after Patricia:
Started by a husband and wife team, the resort is dedicated to the principles of sustainability. They are moving beyond green (doing less damage), beyond sustainable (net neutral) and moving into regeneration (making the place better).
It was truly aÂ regenerative experience for us: to create a set of images that tell their wonderful story.
I’m honored to be featured in the first issue: Paksy Plackis Cheng has authored a wonderful book profiling thirty inspiring people and their social impact: “Impact X“. Â Building on that book she’s just launched a web magazine that features thinkers and doers who make a cultural, social or economic impact.
“We feature thinkers and doers who drive impact. Starting with Santa Barbara and moving to a new city each month covering impactmakers in Arts & Culture, Business, Science &Â Technology and Human Interest.”
Her question to me: Who is an Impact Maker you photographed and why? I chose Eckhart Tolle: Here is the Impact X story
I received a call to photographÂ Eckhart TolleÂ for a cover shot and feature forÂ Spirituality & HealthÂ magazine. Eckhart has influenced millions through his spiritual writings. From his first book and bestseller,Â The Power of Now,Â through to his present teachings he has continuously made an impact in the world.
In Eckhartâ€™s words, â€œLife is nowâ€¦itâ€™s through the very challenges of daily life that you become more motivated to awakenâ€¦the answer lies within rather than obtaining more possessions, or achieving this or that, or changing the world out there.â€
In preparation for the shoot I wanted to learn as much as I could about Eckhartâ€”there is plenty of information in his writings and online but a personal connection is important to me, as a portrait is collaboration. As Edward Steichen said, â€œA portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it.â€
We had a few location options in Montecito, California, including the home of Eckhartâ€™s close friend Oprah Winfrey,Â and settled on a beautiful garden setting at another friendâ€™s home nearby. Itâ€™s a favorite quiet retreat for Eckhart, with paths that lead past statues of Buddha into a shaded grove of Jade plants. Eckhart was able to spend an afternoon with me on the day before the shoot, strolling through those gardens. I learned that, like myself, he loved photography at an early age, and would spend high school afternoons in the darkroom after school. We shared interests in astronomy, and connected with what itâ€™s like growing up in different countries. He has a sweet tooth for dark chocolate. In short, we came to know each other, and the following day Eckhart was relaxed and comfortable as we created photographs together.
This was in early 2013, and a year later while shooting in Mexico I fell backwards off a cliff, breaking my back. Incredibly lucky to survive, let alone fully recover, I reflect every day on the power of living in the present moment: take nothing for granted and treasure daily life. It was an honor to spend time with Eckhart; humbling and inspirationalâ€”he is truly an impact maker.
Unexpected things can happen at the end of a typical photoshoot…
AÂ country lane stretching to the horizon, rolling through green hills and countryside. An undulating stretch of road, simple, pure lines, a lone cyclist at one with the landscape. The pharmaceutical client was very specific about the location for their international ads. Â The first thought that came to mind was the Amish countryside of Pennsylvania. We scouted locations in New York, New Jersey and sure enough the ideal road was found just outside Lancaster Pennsylvania in the heart of Amish country.
The lane was framed on either side by large Amish farms: no electricity, no modern conveniences. As we rolled in with our motor home, our lights and production set-ups the contrast was obvious. We had arrived from California and NY the day before and were amused byÂ the horse drawn buggies sharing the roads.
Sunrise: we went to work. Â Models in the RV going through hair, make-up. Â Final wardrobe selections and options. The crew setting our lighting and testing…
I can’t show the scenes I wasÂ shooting that day: they’ll be out in ads running outside the USA soon enough. While we had the road closed for the morning an Amish father and son looked on from the roadside edge of their tobacco field, cornfields beyond and their dairy and farmhouse in the distance. They watched: curious and friendly, asking what we were doing. Â During breaks our crew struck up conversations and throughout the course of the morning there was a comfortable Â vibe as we created our scenesÂ and our neighbors would come over from the field every hour to see what was up.
And then something interesting happened. Â We had wrapped. The client and agency headed back to the Big Apple, our models as well. It was just our crew moving at an easy pace cleaning up the production hardware: sandbags, C-stands and cases of lights and cameras. The amish farmer asked if we wanted to take a look at his dairy: he normally doesn’t take non-amish visitors into his home. Â Just drive down the road, take a right then the next dirt road to the right leads up to the farmhouse: “I’ll meet you there”.
We rolled up in the SUVs, parked next to the horse-drawn buggy and right away kids came from all over: playing in the yard, from out of the farmhouse and from out of the dairy barn next toÂ us. Curiosity everywhere! We’re introducedÂ to the children as his wife emerges from the farmhouse, smiling. Our hosts take us into the barn, telling us all about the daily milking, the chores that start well before sunrise, what life is like each day. Â The kids are quiet but clearly interested. Â The youngest don’t speak english: they learn that in school after 1st grade or so. The early language is the amish dialect.
We’re invited inside the farmhouse, a very special treat as he mentioned they never get non-amish visitors. Â His wife offers to prepare cucumber sandwiches…as we enter we see the girls around a big table off the kitchen, slicing cucumbers for pickling. Â No lights, no electricity. Simple life.
I have to head back to the hotel and leave the rest of the crew to enjoy their hospitality – they ended up spending magical hours together, packingÂ the cucumber sandwiches in baskets and taking the horse drawn buggyÂ down to the river for a picnic… As our wardrobe stylist Louise said “It was the best experience ever”. Â A wonderful meeting of very different cultures and a great end to a fun day.
Sometimes life can take you in wonderful directions. With a few commercial shoots planned in NYC and Pennsylvania this past summer we decided to base out of my girlfriendâ€™s townhouse in the heart of urban Philadelphia. While we were renovating that space I took time to soak up the Philly experience and dive into a new series – experiencing a new city, place and culture. The creative juice always flows when things are changing. Â Within the first few days of a three month stay I was amazed by an alley we drove by â€“ while in traffic after touring a museum I looked to my left and grabbed an iPhone shot of theÂ alley that would be one of the core scenes for future shoots.
Over many weeks, scouting the sketchy sides of the city led to more scenes and possibilities: weÂ would drive to an abandoned lot and spy a basketball court another street over with kids playing after school hoops. It wasÂ was as if each view opened into another leading on to ever more interesting locations and possibilities. Â I found my favorite near Girard and the 9th St bridge, where the overhead subway rails through former projects provided a backdrop of the current atmosphere of youth, graffiti and daily life amidst the basketball pickups and skater life in the tunnel beneath.Â This is where I based myself.
Getting local.Â Showing up with nothing and sitting on a bench absorbing, watching. Then over days of the same getting to know the neighborhood, the locals and the players. Â Building trust. Bringing a small camera. Then a bigger camera. Becoming just part of the scene. Â Finding models was a lot more difficult in Philly than LA and NY â€“ I ended up finding friends and friends of friends: musicians and actors and artists. Once I had the neighborhood trust I could stage and shoot the scene, and as usually happens people get interested in what’s going on. One thing leads to another and then serendipity… A former Golden Gloves boxer comes over and tells us about a gym we should check out in the neighborhood; skaters tell us the story of building their skate park overnight from dollars dropped into a bucket and the Philly PD and city letting them go against permits and zoning so they could create a community and underground skatepark. All of this: focused on the feeling, letting intuition flow and the creative process be front and center. Â The work showed in Santa Monica in early September and will be also public in Santa Barbara in February 2016.
A year ago I joined writer and author Steve Friedman at Hiker Heaven, an “angel” rest stop at mile 454 on the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail. Â The assignment: create beautifully realÂ portraits of the hikers coming through and Â capture the feel of this unique rest stop on the PCT. Â Hiker Heaven is legendary on the trail. Â Thru-hikers arrive to hot showers, soft cots, laundry service, shared kitchen, boxes and boxes of gear and clothing to swap, bikes to checkÂ out, laptops for check-ins and a general ambience to enjoy a “zero day” or two or three before heading back into the mountains. Â Run by Donna Saufley and her husband Jeff in the small town of Agua Dulce at the base of the San Gabriel mountains and at the beginning of the long climb into the Sierras, this angel stop sadly closed it’s doors for this 2015 season. Â Donna and Jeff are hiking the trail themselves this year – and giving Hiker Heaven a break. Possibly it grew too successful? Was it creating a bottleneck on the increasingly popular PCT? Just this past year the number of hikers increased 50%, manyÂ spurred on by Reese Witherspoon in the movie Wild.Whatever the future holds for Donna and Jeff and the army of volunteers that supported all hikers, no questions asked, I feel lucky and honored to have spent days with this motley crew of amazing people: teachers, students, drop-outs, doctors – all walks of life walking a hell of a long way. Check out the June 2015 issue of Backpacker magazine for over 60 of my photographs and a very well written story by Steve…
Last month my crew and I spent a few days creating lifestyle shots for a Laguna Beach luxury resort. Â Known for being the closest resort to the water’s edge, we slept to the sound of waves crashing on the sand and enjoyed golden sunrises and pink sunsets.Â Â Assistants Sara Bielecki, Sara Samario and Aidan Steele helped keep everything looking greatÂ along with the models and the team from the ad agency and client. Â Here are a few shots from behind the scenes of us all working together along with some outtakes: