Mark Laita: Peeling Back the Layers

By Anne Telford

Award-winning photographer Mark Laita’s work ranges from close ups of flowers that he took to cheer his mother while undergoing chemotherapy, to monumental portraits of Mexican lucha libre wrestlers to a striking book of serpents that dazzles the eye and forces the question, “how does he do that?”

For his personal, or non-commercial work, whatever subject he tackles, he goes all in, with incisive glimpses into other worlds inhabited by those we often choose to ignore, such as Created Equal, in which he pairs portraits of disparate groups or individuals to show social inequality through powerful juxtapositions that force us to reexamine our feelings about rich and poor, good and bad.

His fine art representation is the prestigious Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles, meaning he is managed by the best in all aspects of his work.

Laita’s approach is always fresh. He photographed insects and reptiles with plants and flowers but made them look like still life paintings with their monotone richness.

Undoubtedly any subject to which he turns his lens will prove provocative and revelatory.

Descriptions of his work, such as “The rare concurrence of beauty and death found in ornithological specimens” make it sound more like a line of poetry or a scientific display, than a visual chapter in an ongoing book of nature photography.

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I recently had the chance to speak with Mark about past projects and what the future holds with new representation and a studio set up for large-scale video shoots.

How do you go about researching a topic?
There are so many ways to learn whatever we want now. For things like locations, wardrobe and talent, the Internet works well. For live action editing techniques, for example, I prefer to work one on one with someone very experienced in that. It’s a wonderful time in our history for those hungry to learn. I remember when I was just starting out learning photography or darkroom techniques. I’d have to wait for a library or bookstore to open. There’s no excuse for not being knowledgeable now.

What inspires you?
I find traveling is the most inspiring thing I can do. The different cultures, foods, colors and people are so stimulating to a creative mind. Whenever I get comfortable (and stale) I know it’s time to plan a trip. It’s as if your cells are all replaced when you travel.

Where are you happiest?
Either at home or shooting portraits, which usually means I’m traveling somewhere. These are almost opposite experiences, but I find a combination of both of them keeps me very balanced and happy. I shoot a lot of different subjects (still life, people, animals, etc.) and I’m often asked what I prefer to shoot. I always say that I love to shoot a great concept. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, but if the concept of the ad is strong, it becomes so much more fun to work on.

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What is your favorite tool?
A good power drill is nice. Fire is pretty great, as well. I cook a lot.

How do you put regular folks at ease when you are photographing them?
At an early age I developed the ability to see situations from the other’s point of view. I think growing up and trying to communicate with my Lithuanian grandparents who didn’t speak English helped me develop this ability. When I’m photographing anyone, model or not, I’m always very aware of how vulnerable they may feel and I try to make them very comfortable, which always affects the images I capture.

What’s it like to be bi-coastal? How do you divide your time? What do you take away from each place? What is each studio like?
I’ve been going back and forth between LA and New York for twenty years now. LA is home, but I’ve spent a couple years of my life in New York (when you add up all the shoot days) and I still love it. Maybe because I spend less time in NYC I find those trips more stimulating and inspiring. LA is very comfortable once you unearth the many hidden and wonderful things it has to offer. My LA and NYC studios are very similar, so there isn’t much difference there and that consistency helps. Now that all jobs are shot digitally, it’s very easy to produce a shoot in any city, so I get the chance to go to Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, etc., quite often.

There used to be distinct differences between shoots with still or video photography, now you are being asked to do it all. What is your approach to shooting motion?
They’re very similar up to a point and then elements like timing, editing, and storytelling come into play. I love shooting video because of these new challenges. Editing is so fun for me. All the serendipitous interplay of music, timing and movement in editing live footage is magic.

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When you say you are set up for big production video shoots, what type of work do you envision for the space?
Last year I rewired my LA studio to handle all the lighting I need to shoot extreme high speed footage using a Phantom camera, so now we shoot things at my studio that I normally would have to rent a big stage for. This has really changed what I can offer my clients in terms of shooting motion clips or commercials. The fact that I no longer need to rent a stage means I can produce shoots with very high production value without all the extra expense.

How do you define what you uniquely bring to your craft?
It’s complicated because I do so many styles of photography. There are very different approaches for all three of them, personal work, people, and still life. Usually I’ll nail down the basic template of what I want to do but leave room for something serendipitous to happen. My personal work lately has been portraits of people around the country. Since these portraits are of real people there is often too much to that sometimes. The randomness of meeting a stranger and getting to know them and photograph them, you can’t duplicate that.

You also can’t duplicate the happy, and sometimes unhappy, accidents that occur while shooting exotic subjects. Laita provides some background about one of his most notorious shoots while photographing for the book Serpentine.

“The majority of the snakes we shot were roughly about two to three feet long which means they can move about the length of their body. I used to catch snakes as a kid,” he reminiscences. “That length is easier to handle. There was a handler for most of the shots. [They were] shot from above.

“There were two snakes that were a different story, the black mamba and king cobra—twelve or fourteen foot long—they can move quite a bit faster. The king cobra’s owner told me, ‘I won’t let you shoot it.’ So I built a six-foot glass cage that I could light through and shoot through the top. For the black mamba however, the owner who was also the handler said it was very docile. I’m standing over this snake photographing it, everything is going fine; at one point I stopped shooting for a second, the instant the handler stepped away, the snake wrapped itself around my ankle. I knew not to panic or move quickly. I put down my camera and asked the handler to hand me my point-and-shoot camera. I fired off 20 shots of the snake while he was around my ankle.”

Long story short: Laita ended up being bitten, during a commotion when the handler’s hook snagged on a camera cord and frightened the snake. “The snake bit the artery in my calf. That was one instance where I carelessly thought that everything would go as it usually had with other snakes. Since I was bitten in the artery, I should have had an immediate reaction…but nothing happened. We assume the mamba didn’t inject venom,” Laita calmly relates.

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Quick thinking, resourcefulness and grace under pressure are valuable attributes when photographing both animals and humans. It’s the rare individual that can remain composed enough to fire off twenty frames while a startled black mamba snake is literally wrapped around your ankle, and even capture the exact instant it bit you! A true story that could have ended very badly if not for the fact that he received a dry bite and not a venomous one. Chalk it up to experience and one of the most radical shots he’s likely to take.

When asked if he has a worse story to relate, he says with a laugh, “There are some equally horrifying things that have happened in Appalachia when I was working on Created Equal, but they mostly involved people.

“I’m currently doing more American portraits like Created Equal. I’m also doing a lot more beauty now. I love the magic that happens when you have things that aren’t nailed down and certain on the shoot; I enjoy the randomness of shooting people. All the variables that make things interesting: I look for that now in everything I shoot.

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“When I was younger in my career I wasn’t ready to take that on. I love photographing people now. There are so many elements to a photograph of a person: the styling, the attitude. I still make most of my living shooting products but I’m ready to take on more challenging subjects.

“Almost every job we shoot now incorporates video. The last seven or eight jobs have been projects where we’re shooting both stills and video. With video there’s the same element of serendipity, even if you’re shooting something as simple as a product, but there are so many elements that make it more interesting. It becomes new again.

“With my print work if I’m shooting still life I tend to think minimally. I light simply, and compose simply. I find that doesn’t work so well with live action. You want to have a lot going on, the camera moving, the product moving, the lighting changing. It’s the opposite of stills in some ways. The more going on the more interesting it is. More is more sometimes.”

More. New. Different. I can’t wait to see what he turns his lens to next.

Thank you Jimi Stine for help with the post.

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