NEW YORK — “I’m the luckiest bastard on the planet,” says Christopher Griffith, sitting at a table in his bright Williamsburg, Brooklyn, photo studio. He takes a few drags off a cigarette and stubs it out before repeating the exercise a few minutes later. Then he begins pulling out boxes of his older work to illustrate the trajectory of his career.
Griffith, who once subsisted on a diet of potatoes and baked beans during his lean early years as a fashion photographer living in London, is now sought after for advertising work by designers, beauty companies, airlines and banks, among other industries. Meanwhile, his recognition as an art photographer continues to grow.
“Fall,” his new book (Power House), has just been published, and a corresponding exhibition of photos from the book opened last week at the Power House Gallery on Charlton Street that runs through Nov. 20.
Griffith sees things a little differently from most people. By isolating his subjects from their environment with white scrims and drapes, he makes utilitarian and industrial objects look graphic and architectural. Even his fashion images are carefully composed like still lifes with models treated as objects.
The idea for “Fall” came to Griffith about a year ago when he saw some Virginia creeper crawling up the wall of his brownstone. The leaves, he says, seemed to be glowing from within. Griffith photographed the leaves to similar effect by lighting them from behind using the natural light that streams through his studio window.
“The more I got into the leaves, the more they became an obsession,” he says. “The leaves had to be humidified and then they had to go into coolers and into the fridge. I shot 400 leaves.”
The 42-year-old, Canadian-born photographer majored in science at McGill University in Montreal. He gravitated toward a group of artists, architects, painters and models who inspired him to take some photography courses. A few years later, while pursuing a PhD in biochemistry in London, a young designer he met asked him to shoot her fashion for a catalogue. It was just enough to whet his appetite.
For a while, Griffith’s worlds of academia and a burgeoning photography career overlapped as beautiful models paraded through the sterile research lab piercing the academic hush with the click of high heels and chatter.
“Science is mind-numbingly boring,” says Griffith, who had wanted to study Third World infectious diseases. “Physical research in genetics is incredibly laborious and repetitive. I was juggling two lives. I needed to make a decision.”
He did. Four months before earning his PhD, Griffith traded petri dishes and bacteria for a Linhof camera.
Things moved slowly in London, so Griffith moved to Paris. His work caught the eye of Jenny Capitain, then fashion director of French Vogue, and his career took off.
“I developed a technique for fashion,” he says. “My fashion work wasn’t about the girl. I felt that 95 percent of fashion photography pushed the same buttons. There’s a lot of adoration and a lot of guilt. I wanted to try to push different buttons. What is reality and what’s not?”
His fashion work plays with depth perspective and spatial relationships. In one whimsical black-and-white shot from a fashion story, a model is holding an inch-thick ribbon that appears to get wider and wider as it stretches toward the foreground until it looks larger than life. Another, of a model standing in a manhole, looks like it was cut and pasted on white paper or digitally engineered. Griffith actually built a huge backdrop behind the model and covered the street around the manhole with white fabric.
But by 1998, Griffith was getting restless, so he walked away from the lucrative fashion work to start a book called “States.” Griffith and a team of five traveled highways and back roads across America in a Winnebago shooting faded churches, abandoned filling stations, down-and-out motels and other forgotten icons that might be seen along Route 66. While the photos in “States” are as far as you can get from the glamorous cult of fashion, they’ve resonated with the fashion industry. Kate and Andy Spade hired Griffith to shoot the fall Kate Spade ad campaign based on what they saw in “States”; calls came from Bottega Veneta and Etro. He also has projects in the works with Aveda, Kenneth Cole and Deutsche Bank.
“I’m not the highest-paid or most fabulous photographer,” he says. “I’m on the tip of everybody’s tongue, but at the end of the day, I’m doing a career I really love.”
But, like anybody creative, he’s not without some degree of angst. “I’m very critical of my work and very proud of it,” he says. “I’m a complete odd mixture of self-deprecation and arrogance.”
— Sharon Edelson