In Praise of Gentle Giants

Many of us struggle with life on social media these days: the bickering, the artless insults, the escalation of every disagreement to defcon 1… I find myself spending more time on Instagram, surfing the brighter parts of friends’ and relatives’ lives.

For my father-in-law, the brighter part of his life has always been his big dogs. Actually, anyone’s big dogs. So this morning when I checked my email, I wasn’t particularly surprised to see he had forwarded another one loaded with adorable dog shots.

But this one felt different. It was a collection taken by Andy Seliverstoff, a photographer based in St. Petersburg, Russia. His work features small children playing with very big dogs.  According to the email, Andy got into this subject later in life after taking family portraits for friends that included their Great Dane. He was fascinated by the relationship between the large animal and the young children. This dichotomy became his signature subject, to the point where early this year, he released a book called “Little Kids and Their Big Dogs.”

You can see a lot of Andy’s work on this page on 500px, a social network for photographers. I apologize that it’s not curated more ruthlessly, but if you are having an off day, or if you just like big dogs and play and smiling, click on the link and start browsing.

Some might find this work the canine equivalent of Anne Geddes‘ baby portraits; a little too adorable, too saccharine, too too. If so, I get it.

But compared to the sturm und drang of our political circus or the thought of Ted Cruz’ indiscrete habits, a healthy dose of gentle charm feels exactly right.

Happy Thursday.


Todd Baxter Is Chicago’s Best Photographer

Seriously.  At least to me.

Yesterday, the news broke that I was leaving Element 79 for the CCO job at OLSON in Minneapolis.  As part of this transition, I needed to take a press photo.  A tough gig given I’m a writer, not a model.

Despite my new employer hiring a big name photographer, the first shots didn’t work out so well.  I looked like a tired and overweight Mrs. Doubtfire, if Mrs. Doubtfire were an investment banker–not exactly the look I was hoping for to impress my new agency.

Panicked, I Facebooked a friend of mine who’s taken photographs of Element 79 staffers since we opened: Todd Baxter.  Basically, I begged him to save my bacon.

Todd found some time and asked if I had any ideas for the shot.  I thought of this photo which I’d seen online a few weeks earlier…

Dennis Ryan, Element 79, Chicago Advertising, OLSON

Something about this legion of mini-snowment made me laugh.  So I attached this sketch and sent them to Todd…

Dennis Ryan, Element 79, Chicago Advertising, OLSON

Todd jumped right into the concept.  Unfortunately, just as we shot last week, the three feet of snow piled on the deck behind his studio melted away during an unseasonable thaw.  Before it all disappeared, Todd found one lingering patch of icy slush down the street in a church parking lot.  His intern Ryan and studio manager Debbie packed it into ten jumbo garbage bags and lugged them back.

For the portrait, Todd sat me on some pillows covered with a white sheet on a white sweep…

Dennis Ryan, Element 79, Chicago Advertising, OLSON
Unfortunately, I forgot my big Sorel snow boots.  And given the snowy setting, my wardrobe was a bit drab.  But Todd was undeterred.  First, he and his team started making snowmen.  Initially, their little snowmen faced in all different directions but Todd wanted them to engage the viewer with their creepy-cute gazes and direct the viewer’s attention to me.  Additionally, he thought these little guys needed to represent two ideas simultaneously; that I am both a creative worker as well as a creative leader.  Oh and they should also be fun, stylish, modern, and expressive while still feeling classic and homogenous. Me?  I just asked for snowmen.  Thankfully, Todd thinks on deeper levels.
Dennis Ryan, Element 79, Chicago Advertising, OLSON

The snowmen proved hard to form and almost impossible to decorate, mostly because by this point, they were melting quickly.  Somehow, he was able to get enough shots to mix and match bodies, eyes, noses, and mouths into an army of tiny snow people.

But there was still the matter of my drab dress.  Todd suggested changing my wardrobe, and created this PhotoShop sketch to show the color he was thinking: bright yellow, a color I never wear.  But I had to admit, he was absolutely right about its impact.

Dennis Ryan, Element 79, Chicago Advertising, OLSON

Essentially, through the wonders of Photoshop, Todd wanted to dress me far more stylishly than I would ever dress myself.  He ordered a coat online and asked me to drop off my boots at his studio.  This is the coat he ordered, as worn by a legitimate model.

Dennis Ryan, Element 79, Chicago Advertising, OLSON

Tuesday, Todd worked late into the night, modeling and shooting the coat and boots himself to make them match the raw portrait.  Then, overtop everything, he sprinkled large flakes of snow.  The end result is remarkable–a seamless portrait that is both artfully believable and a total fabrication.

Dennis Ryan, Element 79, Chicago Advertising, OLSON

In the advertising business, we manipulate images every workday.  But when the image is your own, the stakes feel somehow higher.  Finding a creative partner who not only shares your vision but improves it markedly is one of this industry’s true pleasures.

Thanks Todd.  You made me look far cooler than I ever have.  Or will.


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


PS:  Todd is currently up for an AMD Visionary award.  Check out his video and vote for him here.


The Inexorable March of Time In Portraits

“I like reminiscing with total strangers. Granted, it takes longer…”  Steven Wright

This past week, a remarkable collection of photographs began popping up online. A personal project of Argentinian photographer Irina Werning, her series recreates old photos with remarkable exactitude of look and feel, albeit with the models assuming their poses after twenty years or more have passed.  Entitled “Back to the Future”, this collection makes the remarkable passage of time visual with a wide variety of people.  And yet, despite their specificity of time and place, the content feels remarkably universal.Dennis Ryan, Chicago Advertising, Element 79

Dennis Ryan, Element 79, Chicago AdvertisingDennis Ryan, Element 79, Chicago Advertising

Even without knowing the portrait subjects, the viewer quickly feels a kinship, a familiarity. We all have books and boxes filled with just these types of photos of our younger selves with our younger friends and younger families.  In our mind’s eye we remember so many aspects of those moments–the feel of the air, the smell of freshly cut grass, the pride of the new shirt or fancy bike.  And so, even decades later, the people recreating their earlier selves do so with remarkable alacrity.

Take a moment and enjoy Irina’s work.  It is bittersweet, hilarious and provocative, all at the same time, because it is so deeply human.  A very clever project, this.


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


A Monday Morning Visual Quiz

roundhouseworkerLook closely at this photograph.  Check out the color, the rich lighting and resolution, those freaking awesome goggles.  How old do you think it is?

Would you guess fifty-seven years?  This portrait of a railroad worker taken in the roundhouse of the old Proviso Yard in Chicago exists as part of an online collection in the Library of Congress.  Originally commissioned by the Farm Security Administration, this rare color photograph from 1942 looks like a movie still from some recent period film–probably because we lack any cultural references to relate to a full color snapshot from that era.  As far as I can tell, WWII was fought in grisly black and white, as opposed to the more visceral jungle green and blood red of the Vietnam War newsreels.  That’s just how we’ve always seen it…

What’s even more remarkable is that this entire archive was the vision of a government official.  Roy Emerson Stryker fought in the Great War and later earned a degree in Economics from Columbia.  When he lectured, he would illustrate his talks with his own photography.  Eventually, his Columbia colleague Rex Tugwell left to head the Resettlement Administration, which evolved into the Farm Security Administration.  Roy followed him there, eventually setting up one of the greatest photographic documentary projects in history.  To effectively communicate the hardships the Depression wreaked upon the American heartland and some of the promise of the New Deal, he sent dozens of photographers out on very specific assignments to bring back images which they would feed the press.  By the end of his project, the American public owned 77,000 published prints and 644 color images.

This economist, this manager, this amateur photographer proved to be one of our nation’s finest curators of artistic documentation.  He could just as easily have chosen to be another anonymous bureaucrat, punching the clock and biding his time until his 6pm highball or his twenty-five year gold watch, but not Roy.  His mind didn’t settle for the mundane but imagined something far more vivid.  And because he bothered to think of it, we have a remarkable trove of images that pack an eye-opening empathy.

Do yourself a favor and spend an hour or two with his work by clicking here.  After all, you own these images too.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

How Exactly Do You Sell A Book These Days?

Also Available In MP3 and Kindle   

Also Available In MP3 and Kindle

Books demand a considerable amount of time and attention; so how do you go about trying to sell them?  Traditionally, publishers send authors on book tours to generate word of mouth interest, which can be very effective.  Then again, the life of letters hardly prepares someone for a guest shot on Oprah.  Something as fundamental as book cover design certainly encourages potential readers to pick one up and consider it further.  And in the case of industry heavy-hitters like James Patterson, publishers occasionally turn to television ads, usually with unfortunate results.

But in the past month, I’ve come across two deeply-engaging websites that do an incredibly effective job of selling books.  Photographer Andrew Zuckerman has a new celebrity-interview powered book out entitled Wisdom and a tremendous multi-media site to promote it.  Photographer Phillip Toledano created a slightly less-sophisticated but deeply moving site chronicling the final days of his ninety-three year old father, a documentary project which will eventually become a book.  

Both authors are younger (thirty one and forty one, respectively), both are photographers, and both provide generous amounts of their work free to the public in this context.  The online medium fits their work incredibly well, though the challenge still remains to publicize the link and drive traffic to the site.  In both cases, I followed forwarded links, an admittedly far less precise media tool but one that carries considerable weight as recommendation.

Then again, if this is the alternative, less precise is just fine…

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79