Stephen Allen, a member of the Higher Education Management Group, is a photographer working out of central Florida who shoots advertising, architecture and editorial work, with an emphasis on higher ed and prep school advertising.
KCH: Colleges and universities take the management of brand and identity more seriously than in the past. How has this shift changed the nature of your work in higher education photography?
SA: Everyone is aware and concerned about brand and identity today. It is changing the way business relates to the market place. Colleges and prep schools are definitely getting the message. As far as how it has changed my higher ed work, the real change I see is not my photography but the attitude of my current and potential clients. They know you can spend a boatload of money on re-branding but what’s the point if the images used to promote your product (school) are sub-par. A friend at a higher ed marketing firm told me that he tells prospective clients if they have a limited budget and can only spend money on one thing, spend it on photography. What is the first thing you look at in a viewbook or website? The photos. They are your first impression.
KCH: Your work is set apart by its use of “real people”. At the same time, though, you present these people in a rather Romantic/dramatic fashion. For me, the photographs are compelling because they illustrate the (often ignored) beauty and drama of everyday life. Can you explain the logic behind your approach?
SA: My logic is that this is advertising. It’s not photojournalism. Not to say I don’t use a photojournalistic style at times but we’re in this together to sell a product. I know this is not a romantic view of an approach to making good images but but it is a necessary one.
You touch on a good point mentioning the use of “real people” or “non-professional talent” as we call them in my line of work. The goal in all my photographs is to make the people seem like they’re in a real situation even though they most certainly are not. They have been put into a scene that’s been propped, lit with photographic lights and then coached into a comfort zone where they eventually become “real”. It requires total coordination with the client. In fact, the client has as an important a role in this process that I do. Making a photo shoot schedule, getting full cooperation with professors and most importantly picking the students who’ll be featured in the photos.
Why not just go to a campus and photograph what you find there without any preplanning? Because the odds of finding the right place with the right light and the right kids just rarely or doesn’t happen. So, we get the right places, the right light and the right kids to get the right shot. Also, a note about lighting-We bring our lighting gear to get that romantic/dramatic look in the photos. When shooting at a college or prep school, almost every area is lit with the soul-sapping hue of florescent lights. We light it in a way that may have a little drama but will (hopefully) always look real.
KCH: Advertising is notorious for using (and creating) cliches. (If I see another ad in which the subject is working with their laptop on a beach/cottage dock, I’ll gag.) What are the today’s cliches in higher education advertising and how do you steer clients away from them?
SA: The cliches you see are almost always “stock” photos that are purchased from an agency that supplies photos to clients for use on web or in print. You can scan many a stock site and come up with just the right person with the right clothes, the right laptop in the right beach cottage or on the right dock to gag on.
I don’t really have a problem with clients looking for any cliche. They usually just want to show their campus in the best light and will trust me to get that done. If they do show me a photo of something they’d like to reproduce that may border on “cliche”, we’ll try to find a way to do a different version.
For more information about Stephen’s work, visit . . .