Interview

Dreadfully Delightful: A Conversation with Jim Fiscus

Skilled as a conceptual, celebrity, and portrait photographer, Jim Fiscus brings the highest level of visual expertise to his work. Jim’s series of key art for Showtime‘s new horror-thriller period drama, Penny Dreadful, can be seen prominently displayed throughout NYC’s Grand Central Station through June 18th. We caught up with the AtEdge photographer recently to find out more about the project,  his work style, capturing celebrities, and Victorian technology.

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Tell us about Penny Dreadful! The production design looks exceptionally rich.

The project was shot at the Ardmore Studios in Dublin. The show’s creator, Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan had taken over the entire complex and filled the stages with the most elaborate and convincing sets I’ve ever worked on. He is a very focused person and his attention to detail is amazing. To execute his ideas, he chose an incredibly strong group of people, including Gabriella Pescucci for costume design and Jonathan McKinstry for production design, both of whom I’d previously worked with on the Borgias campaigns. So the sets were exceptionally rich due to their genius. I’m at a point in my career where I am fortunate to work with such professionals at the very highest level. I feel like my photographs benefit most from this collaboration, and I’m learning more than I ever have before.

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Jim Fiscus strolls through the terminal where his images can’t be missed.

How do you distill the essence of a moving image format like television into still photographs?

I read the scripts, watch the shows, and then write ten words onto a blank sheet of paper. From there, my goal is to make a photograph that illustrates those words. This allows it to become a conceptual image rather than a literal photograph of people. Once those clues have been established, I make visual triangles to draw the observer’s eyes around the frame.

How does it feel to see your work so prominently displayed in public spaces such as Grand Central Terminal?

We shot this campaign in December, and have been working on the images ever since. After becoming so familiar with them, I was actually surprised by how much they moved me.  Showtime’s placement is powerful — the images are dark and silent and luminous. They show particularly well in that chaotic environment. I was with my family and a close friend when I visited Grand Central; it touched me to see how proud they were.

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Are you familiar with the source material for this series? Do you have any favorite classic horror stories?

I read Frankenstein and Dracula years ago, though my weakness is sci-fi and fantasy. In my research for Penny Dreadful, I have become aware of the parallels that can be drawn between horror and sci-fi genres in that the stories are often a metaphor for society’s fears and the human nature we battle.

Reeve Carney as Dorian Gray. Photo by Jim Fiscus for Showtime.

Reeve Carney as Dorian Gray. Photo by Jim Fiscus for Showtime.

Photography was the new media technology during the era Penny Dreadful takes place. Did you try to incorporate the aesthetics from this time in your shoot? If photographic methods had remained the same from the Victorian Era, do you think you would still be a photographer by trade?

This is a subject that was very much discussed prior to the shoot; we actually debated using view cameras. Those cameras are slow and methodical, and you have to put a lot of thought into what you are doing. I took that method into this shoot, even though we ultimately used modern technology. The positioning of the characters in these portraits is very structured, formal and still, much like photographs from that era. In each portrait we showed the person and indicated their character through the use of a single hand prop (aside from Vanessa, around who the show revolves). The color palette, light quality, and propping is very important in that they indicate events that will be unveiled as the show progresses. I tried to make these images in a way that if all the color was removed, they would look like a portrait from the Victorian Era. Interesting, I recently completed a personal tintype series using a view camera (one of which is featured on the cover of AtEdge Microview 43). The equipment is simply a tool used to tell a story. On PD we just used quicker tools.

You’ve shot promotional portraits for several award-winning television shows, including Dexter and Downton Abbey. How did you get started with this specialty and what do you like most about photographing celebrities?

I began my career doing conceptual portraits for testimonial advertising, tasked with telling a story about a real person within one frame–where they worked, what they did, etc. After practicing this for years, I slowly began doing entertainment work. Again, a complete story has to be told in one frame. In a single frame, I get to convey a person’s character as well as the environment in which the story is set. Each job is different in that they’re lit to illustrate the specific concept, era or feel. I am continually evolving so that these images reflect the needs of the show rather than just my personal style. As for celebrities, I enjoy having the opportunity to work with people who are skilled at becoming something other than themselves. A large part of my role as photographer is directing actors, which takes an understanding of each character and their dynamics within the story.

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See more of Jim’s Penny Dreadful cast portraits here.

Go to fiscusphoto.com, stocklandmartel.com and At-Edge.com  for a range of Jim’s advertising and entertainment work .