Check out PDN (Photo District News) January 1996 Issue pages 26-28 or read article below.


Brandtner & Staedeli Find Success In The States by Hal Stucker

In the public imagination, California has always held sway as a magical land where anyone from anywhere could go to reinvent themselves. Twenty-five year-old Peter Brandtner and twenty-four year-old Josh Staedeli can attest that there is some truth to the myth. Though a complete makeover of their photographic style and technique had not been on the agenda when they recently moved to San Francisco from their native Switzerland, this is what their first year in the Golden State saw them accomplish. 

Arriving with their portfolio, the two were quickly absorbed in things American. They knew life here would have a daily tempo much faster than anything they had known in their own country and it was this, along with the challenge of making their way in the huge and potentially lucrative American advertising market, that had initially lured them to these shores. They also found, however, a country with a high level of visual sophistication, a culture where images, blared out by advertising, movies and television, are constantly bombarding the populace. The two realized that, for their photographs to compete with the intense media saturation endemic in the US, they would have to abandon the old techniques that brought them commercial success in Switzerland and find something radically new. And that they did, superbly, picking up such clients as Parenting magazine and Nike and shooting stock for Tony Stone Images.

The realization that they desperately needed to rework their book grew in large part out of a meeting with Deanne Delbridge, a photographic marketing and creative development consultant in San Francisco. When the two first showed her their work, Delbridge says, "I remember thinking, 'God, these guys are really lost. They've got all this old-style work that's never going to fly here.' " Delbridge gave the two a crash course in contemporary advertising photography, showing them several slide trays of work currently in the marketplace. "I told them, 'Look, you've got to come up with some kind of style. An artistic, fine-arts motivated style.' "

The two were less than thrilled. "We were very angry when we walked out," says Brandtner. The two had hedged their bets, however, previously talking to other photographers and other reps, "and they had all told us the same," says Staedeli. "That we need to find a style, do a new portfolio, that this stuff may work in Switzerland, but not here." 

In fact, the pair had been quite successful in Switzerland, building an impressive client list in the two years between their graduating the Zurich School of Art and coming to the US Clients included Visa, BMW, Jeep and Phillips Electronics. Brandtner and Staedeli had even done work for the Swiss government, photographing an antique railroad train for use on the new 20-franc Swiss banknote. Their photographic training in Zurich, however, had been conservative and technical, much more like studying engineering or architecture, with a licensing exam required at the end of four years. "You go to school two days a week," says Staedeli, "then work for a commercial photographer in his studio for three. You study some art, but mostly it's commercially oriented." 

After their initial meeting with Delbridge, Brandtner and Staedeli went back to their studio, experimented with multiple-exposure/multiple-imaging techniques and returned with a body of work 180 degrees the opposite of what they had originally brought in. "As a consultant," says Delbridge, "when I have a photographer come in with really straight work like Josh and Peter did, I know that, by the time they hammer out a new style, create the images that they need, complete a new portfolio, create a promo piece and get out there in the world, it's going to be two years. What's really unique about Peter and Josh is that in three months, they tapped into their fine-art sensibilities and came up with a radically new style and a really extraordinary body of work."

Where the old pictures were hard-edged and literal, Brandtner & Staedeli's new work is soft and dream-like. An image might be repeated several times within the frame, going from a hazy blur in the background to sharp focus in the foreground. Objects dissimilar in both appearance and function, such as a laptop computer and a bare tree on a hillside, are juxtaposed, the difference here between the smoothness and symmetry of the man-made object and the jaggedness of the tree's naked limbs creating a marked visual tension. In another picture, a women's face melts into an image of palm trees and a seashore, the effect recalling the beginning of a flashback sequence in a black-and-white Forties movie. They shot their new work in a contrasty, sepia-toned, black and white (as opposed to the four color used in their old style). This would make the structural elements of their photographs much more prominent and give them room to show off their impressive compositional ability. The big break with their past, however, would be to start making single pictures, photographing dissimilar elements and later combining them to create a single shot.

Though this method may sound exceedingly laborious in the post-Photoshop world, Brandtner & Staedeli are unique in that early on they decided their new way of working would be computer-free. Though the two photographers are tight-lipped about the exact methods they developed to create their pictures, they are quick to point out that a computer was not involved. "I like working with computers," says Staedeli, "but I don't want to do this kind of work on a computer." The machine-made look that digital images often have, he says, would not convey the subtlety and photographic qualities they wanted for their pictures. All of their images are created either in the camera, in the darkroom or are re-photographed from projections. The two decide what elements they think would most effectively convey the ideas they want the picture to express, these elements and scenes are set up and photographed and then they combine the results to create the final shot. For the new portfolio and for the commercial work the new portfolio is now bringing in, the most important idea has been to create a unified body of work by using elements and techniques that are entirely their own. 

Their new working methods also furnish the two with a great deal of creative flexibility and allow them to explore avenues of expression that were previously closed. A recent shoot for Parenting magazine provides an example of the way the new process works. "They wanted to illustrate a story about how unhappy workers make unhappy parents," says Brandtner. "They told us, 'There is a nasty boss, a mother and a child,' and then we talked over some ideas about what to shoot." With the art directors present, they shot a series of single pictures in the studio. These included people and elements such as a hand holding a hammer. "We produced eight different final images," says Staedeli, "so they could pick the one they liked, with a range from conservative to wild." 

Delbridge introduced the two young photographers to the woman who is now representing them, Betsy Hillman. Hillman had come over to Delbridge's office for a meeting and noticed some of Brandtner & Staedeli's new work on Delbridge's light table. "I've been in the business for 15 years," says Hillman, who also represents, among others, Hank Benson and Holly Stuart. Though she says there were only four pictures sitting on the light box, "there are some things you look at and say, 'Oh, I know where I can go with that.' This work isn't like that, it's like, 'Where can I not go?' You just can't pin it down. Their work is unique and I knew right away it was something that would really interest art directors." 

Hillman says Brandtner and Staedeli's pictures particularly impressed her because of the way they fused so many elements. "It wasn't like photo-illustration, it wasn't like straight photography, it was like something on its own and it was work I knew I could get an immediate response on. And when people see the portfolio now, though they may not know if they're going to use it, it's something that stays with them." 

Hillman's faith in the quality Brandtner & Staedeli,s work proved justified when she got them their first Nike shoe company on the idea of sponsoring a sports-related coffeetable book. "I showed the Weldon Owen people four of the slides they shot for Deanne and some of the older stuff," says Hillman. "Nike is one of their high-end clients and these photographs got them really excited." Others have noticed as well- an image shot for the Nike book pitch was recently included under the Best Unpublished Work category in Communication Arts magazine's latest photography annual.

Brandtner & Staedeli realized that a high degree of self-promotion is necessary to keep a studio alive in America. "In Switzerland," says Brandtner, "we had a book but we never had to show it. You grow up in the business, you work for people and you get to know people, it's a very small community." Staedeli concurs, "In Switzerland you work more on jobs; here you have to work more just to get a job." No one in Switzerland, the two say, has an agent or even bothers to do mailings. But here, the pair put together their first mailing to go along with the new portfolio. Hillman keeps a prioritized mailing list and the three go through it, picking 100 names at a time, mailing out the printed pieces and then following up with a phone call. "Everyone we mail to gets called," says Hillman. 

With Delbridge's help, Brandtner & Staedeli came up with "Future Memories" as the title for their portfolio. The idea, they say, is that on some levels their pictures are meant to be perceived intuitively, as relating to a feeling or idea the viewer holds unconsciously but has never had a real-world equivalent with which to associate. 

The two have decided to keep San Francisco as their home base. And, as would any good nouveau Californians, they have embraced American automobile culture as openly as they have embraced American visual culture. The two went out and bought a king-size, gas-guzzling 1974 Mercury Marquis. And within 24 hours of their purchase, the city of San Francisco initiated them into the mysteries of American car ownership by towing their vehicle for illegal parking. 

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