Sheryl Nields Interview

Above: Sheryl Nields

Sheryl Nields is always on the move. My interview with her is arranged and then rearranged a number of times to accommodate her busy schedule, and when I finally manage to pin her down I find her excitable mood to be utterly infectious. Over the course of our conversation we talk Hollywood, discuss the gravity-defying phenomenon of short dresses in Las Vegas, house prices in London and the sad exile of her friendly neighborhood prostitute from Venice, Los Angeles, where she has lived for the past 16 years with her son Doss.

When I do manage to steer her towards talking about her work, and in particular photographers shooting moving images, she tells me in no uncertain terms that it is the future of her industry. “Every job I’ve done there’s motion, motion, motion. It is generating the economic infrastructure for funding of projects. It’s all web and it’s all motion,” she states.

Nields is so dynamic on the phone that I know the answer to my next question before asking it. “Oh I find it to be an extremely exciting time because it suits me and the way I work. If you haven’t guessed already I am always in motion. You could take any one of my set-ups and drop all the images into an animation program and then just watch them go.”

Over the years Nields has shot countless celebrities, including actors Adrien Brody, Ben Stiller and Orlando Bloom. The list of musicians that have stood before her camera includes Prince, Foo Fighters and Beck, and then there are actresses such as Eva Mendes, Rosario Dawson and Mila Kunis. It was her video of Kunis for Empire magazine that first caught my attention, for its intrigue and energy, which Nields is well known for among her colleagues.

“I am notorious for moving on my shoots. I am the person that will set up lights and my assistants will be like, ‘This is great.’ Then I’ll turn around and shoot straight into the lights. I like to be able to walk around a room and see what happens. For me a set-up is just a jumping off point. I am very technical. With ad jobs it’s different, but with general work like press, PR, editorial, album packages, you have this loose idea of where you want to go. However, the magic really happens when the two creatives involved get together and the combined energy goes to the next place. That’s when it gets cool. If I was staying on a mark and stuck with one thing in my head I probably wouldn’t be able to access this next level.”

Working in Los Angeles requires a particular mindset for a photographer. Every city has its idiosyncrasies when it comes to the type of work being shot there. In the City of Angels, however, the industry must deal with celebrity and all that brings; which first and foremost for Nields is a lack of time. “Celebrities are always jamming 4,000 things into their schedules when they have a day off, so time is usually short. If I do an ad job I can wait and then all of a sudden it’s a go. With Charlize [Theron] for example, I sat in Berlin waiting nine days for her. It wasn’t a bad place to sit around, don’t get me wrong, but after those nine days I had just 45 minutes to make 12 shots, ranging from eyescapes to using full Plexiglas cities I had built. But those are the requirements that get laid on you; you have to be able to think and move quickly and not be shaken by it.”

Working as a commercial photographer for several years prepared her for this fast pace. “I was raised on a hardcore diet of, ‘Get it! Twelve shots in two minutes – go!’” she says. “This means that even when I have somebody that has been in front of a camera for 60 years and doesn’t want to be photographed and only gives you four minutes, I am used to it. It doesn’t scare me at all. In fact, I tend to get along with the bigger or more difficult personalities because I respond well to people that know what they want.”

I wonder if when shooting moving images Nields has more time, but she does not. “It’s the same sort of thing,” she says. “All of the work I have done has been right on the back of, if not at the same time, as the stills; where I’ll put my stills camera down and pick up a motion camera. It’s never really been a separate day. The motion is usually scripted out in a sense that I will have an idea of shots and clips I need to make the client’s request work, and then I always do what I want to do after that. For the Kunis shoot I had just five hours for hair and make-up, styling of four or five clothing changes and the film to shoot.”

A surprise revelation to me is that Nields regularly recruits a director of photography for her video work. I ask why a photographer with her level of experience would need someone to oversee lighting and camera work for her. “Well I don’t want to have to always crawl around with my underwear hanging out of my pants looking like a crazy person with scraped knees and bloody elbows. I want to be the one shouting, ‘Do this. Do that!’” she replies. “No seriously, this work requires a special keen of focusing ability which I have lost after some 20-odd years of shooting. My eyes are not what they used to be and I don’t think I could even pull focus on a camera and walk at the same time. Those things are heavy. Even with the DSLRs, you have to weight them to get the stability you need. They are so lightweight, there isn’t any play with them. You are pulling focus in a centimetre of space which is very difficult to do and any movement is seen so you have to rig it up and, being a girl, my centre of gravity is totally different to that of a guy’s. The way I carry my weight is so different to a male photographer and rigs are designed for guys, so I urge the girls out there to make a cool rig and make it fashionable!”

Also surprising is the fact that some photographers are being asked to turn over the complete copyright for their work. You don’t need me to tell you that video is absolutely everywhere. You only have to go online to work that one out. Demand for this media is high and there is no shortage of people that can supply footage; whether that’s behind-the-scenes clips from an awards show, stolen moments from a film set or a polished story.

Magazines in particular need moving images to drive their online growth, and while this is great for photographers and filmmakers, it can come at a heavy price. “Often the contracts being issued today state that the magazine owns all the footage outright and that the copyright is handed over to them,” says Nields. “I am not really down with this concept because I feel it is unfair. It should be that if you hire somebody for an editorial job that the rights revert back to them. Ultimately I am responsible for the imagery created on a shoot and it’s not fair to the artist or the client artist if work ends up in some ad two years down the line. Don’t think for one second that I am not going to get an inquiry. Celebrities have publicists. I have great relationships with these publicists, so generally it’s not a problem. However, some clients are real sticklers and will slap you with a lawsuit because they don’t like the images that are out there. This may seem a little extreme, but that’s just the reality of where I am located and the client base I have.”

Not so new, but just as troubling, is the age-old problem of time-consuming presentations required by many companies. “I think it is weird when you are put up for big campaigns which have a full creative team on board already, who make you submit a full presentation, even when you are just in the top five people being considered for the job. Why do I have to do this? They take time and I don’t even have the job? I wonder why they have a creative team on board. I have had record labels say I am confirmed in a job, they ask me to submit a presentation and then the next day the job is pulled.

“It bugs me when I feel like people are abusing the creative process because I think there should be creative respect. Everyone is there to do their job and no one is more or less important than anyone else. A perfect shoot is a living breathing machine with everyone in motion doing their thing, having fun and adding to the pot, so it’s just growing and growing.”

While many photographers the world over must deal with these concerns, Nields has an additional complication, which is also perhaps the strangest. Working in Hollywood means celebrity, and where there is celebrity there is paparazzi. Over the years she has had to deal with intrusions of privacy. “It’s a nasty part of the deal, but it comes with the territory. If you are a celebrity, people want to know about you and you will be hunted down. Some people can fight it and have their security guards go out and try to get rid of them, or they can go out and say, ‘If we give you five minutes will you leave then?’

“I did a shoot with Pixie Lott recently. We were downtown and there were people on top of 30ft private sector buildings that you couldn’t even get into from the outside; which means they were scaling the buildings from the outside to get to the tops of the roofs. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve shot a lot of people, but this was probably the most insane paparazzi move I have ever seen.”

Generally Nields manages these intrusions and it does not affect her work, but occasionally her subject becomes irritated or upset and it takes that little bit more effort to keep their attention. “I was knocked out by a paparazzo once. I have a rule which is, ‘Nobody stands behind me when I shoot,’ because I move around so fast. He had come up behind me to shoot over my shoulder and when I turned around I hit his camera. So I am not enamoured with the guys, but they’ve got to make theirs too.”

Nields’s strength as a photographer lies in her ability to adapt to rapidly-changing situations. I might even go so far as to say that she thrives on chaos. For as I feel I have come to understand her and her work, and prepare to say goodbye, she surprises me yet again by returning to the phenomenon that had her so amazed at the start of our conversation. “I actually think it is one of the wonders of the world. How do those girls in Las Vegas wear those dresses so short, where it’s one wrong move and it’s all out for everyone to see? Yet no matter what they do – bend over, sit down, stand up, dance – the dresses never move. How do they do that? They must have a secret weapon. You must discover what this secret weapon is.”

With Sheryl Nields in motion, how can I do anything other than promise her I will?

© Sean Samuels 2012

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