Interview with 300: Rise of an Empire Still Photographer Clay Enos
How did you get involved with this project?
I have worked with Zack Snyder and his remarkably talented team since Watchmen. I think he knows that my efforts go beyond standard publicity images and lend themselves well for the behind-the-scenes books he and his folks love to make.
What do you particularly look for when shooting set photography projects?
The set is a tricky place to make photographs. The best composition is almost always privileged for the movie camera. They’re making a movie after all. So, I simply try to make an image that evokes the film from my perspective. I also love the fact that while the camera only rolls for a small amount of time, my responsibilities extend far beyond the narrative. I have an all-access pass to the entire production and I revel in the amazing amount of coordination and talent that gets assembled under the banner of moviemaking. Shooting in that environment is a treat. There’s so much to see and engage with beyond just the set and the moments between “Action!” and “Cut!”
Your style has been described as being very spontaneous. Does this work well with most of your portrait work, especially those involving film?
I think spontaneity is a critical piece of my artistic modus operandi. While properly run film sets are quite predictable and scheduled affairs, there are many opportunities to apply my aesthetic, especially with portraiture. Between set-ups, or even between takes, I can grab a background character to make a portrait. It’s almost always a down and dirty affair using natural light. If I was burdened by lights and backgrounds, it might be a very different thing, but since I keep that process very simple, it affords me endless subject matter with which I try to make quick work. I am always keeping an eye out for subjects so when I see something, time-permitting, I grab it.
When you photograph portraits for film projects, is your mindset to shoot to reveal the actor or the character?
When I make portraits of folks on set I see them as both the actor and their character. I allow them to strike dramatic poses or simply stand there with a self-conscious gaze. Beyond that, I am always amazed at craftsmanship of the costumers, make-up artists, and everyone else whose contributed to that subjects appearance. Hopefully, I’m honoring their work and evoking the given fiction in a single frame. Sometimes it’s fun to reveal the contrivance and at other times I can get caught up with the imaginative side. At best, they give the whoever sees them a glimpse into both.
Name three celebrities who stand out for you as far as having a special rapport with communicating with your camera.
I really don’t separate celebrity from background actors or crew. Everyone who poses for me has my complete attention and regard. If there’s one thing I’m proud of with my work it’s that it doesn’t get hung up on the cult of celebrity that’s so pervasive in our culture. The ubiquity of entertainers and personalities needs to be challenged and I see my portraiture as a single arrow in the quiver of aesthetic pluralism. We all have something to offer with our gaze. Just because one set of eyes seems more familiar doesn’t make them more profound. Give me an awesome, wizened best boy over a supermodel any day. (Photographically speaking, of course).
300: Rise of an Empire is a highly anticipated film to the graphic and gory 300. Did you find a match in your gritty style with the subject of ancient warfare and the brutish personalities?
I think my photographic efforts reflect the film only in that all the costumes, actors, stunt performers, etc., were aptly clad in such fare. Let’s just say that all that mud isn’t computer generated. How can I pass up making a photo of a wet, dirty, sword-wielding, muscle-bound adonis? I am in service to the film, and in this case, it’s hard not to make compelling images that evoke it’s graphic nature.
Are there any surprises we can anticipate from the book, as far as your photography input in concerned?
I was pleasantly surprised to see that the book includes a section dedicated to my portraits. Ever since Titan published Watchman Portraits, I’m always asked if there is going to be something like that with every film on which I work. While that’d be great, I understand the reality of book publishing enough not to get my hopes up. I’ll take a dedicated chapter any day.
If you could shoot the set photography of any 5 films throughout cinematic history, what films would those be?
What a fun question. Right out of the gate I think something like Ben Hur and The Wizard of Oz would have been amazing. Anything on such a grand scale and without the high-tech trappings of modern filmmaking would be amazing to witness. Star Wars Episode IV is a no-brainer. And then maybe Wong Kar Wai’s 2046, and Zack Snyder’s original 300. It was visiting Zack’s set that the idea of set-photography was first sparked within me. I’m so glad 300: Rise of an Empire gave me a chance to revisit that place.
What about 5 names on a wish list of personalities to shoot from any period? Conversely, is there anyone you would refuse to photograph?
I wish I could have made a portrait of some of my personal heroes like Nelson Mandela and John Muir. Even if I had only been in their presence for a moment, that excitement and admiration would have to have shown up in my photographs. Since we’re time-travelling, wouldn’t it be amazing to make portraits of early homo-sapiens? How about a deep, revealing looking into the eyes of Genghis Khan? Come to think of it, maybe I will get to shoot some or all of those folks on a movie set (wink). The point being, I love making portraits, and a question like this gets me excited to shoot as many as possible while I’m alive. I don’t care if they’re famous, infamous, or just a random passerby, they all have something to offer my lens. Pixels don’t care what they render, it’s the photographer’s bane to evoke the more ephemeral, interpretable nature of their subject. I proceed fearlessly and reserve judgement.
Have you indulged everything you would want with your photography, or are there still some areas you’d like to cover?
Oh my! My love affair with photography is only beginning. My camera is a catalyst for so much discovery and conversation that to think that I’ve somehow achieved all I want in photography is tantamount to sticking a sword into my chest. It’s not gonna happen. This adventure is long from over and I am excited to see where my path is headed. For sure, there will be more film sets, and who knows what else. I just hope the images are strong and they inspire others to engage in photography for themselves. It’s a remarkable artistic medium in which we can all engage. I’m never going to stop.
Clay Enos refuses to be pigeonholed into any one category of photography. From a portrait session with Sting to a print campaign for Red Stag Bourbon or a spontaneous portrait on the street, Clay consistently captures moments that feel both real and transcendent. Always spontaneous and edgy, Clay’s unique style shines through his commercial, editorial and personal photographs.
Clay enjoys the fast pace of shooting on the fly. His relaxed style allows him to be creative and resourceful with whatever he is shooting. His recent commercial clients include Red Stag Bourbon, Hudson Bay Company, and Warner Brothers. He has photographed over 50 popular celebrities Kid Rock and Robert Plant to Jon Hamm.
In 2007, Director Zack Snyder hired Clay to document his film adaptation of Watchmen for Warner Brothers. That effort resulted in Watchmen Portraits, exclusively dedicated to 220 on-set Streetstudio-style portraits made during production. Covers of Entertainment Weekly and Empire Magazine have featured that work as well. In 2009, Clay returned to Snyder’s team to document the filming of Sucker Punch and again in 2012 for Man of Steel and 300: Rise of an Empire.
Clay’s most recent personal work had him going across the country on a Vespa to document the state of food production and the power of local economies. That project then spawned another Vespa trip through Central America to photograph the myriad aspects of coffee for his side project, the Organic Coffee Cartel.
When Clay is not riding his bicycle on the streets of New York, he is roaming the globe discovering memorable photographs of far away places (49 countries so far). Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers has tapped him to document their innovative development projects worldwide. And Tom Ang featured his travel photography in Digital Photography Master Class published by DK. He speaks Spanish and French, has no problem traveling coach, and sleeps like a baby on airplanes.
Clay has a BFA in Film, Photography and Visual Arts from Ithaca College. He has studied further with the VII photographers Jim Nachtwey, Gary Knight and Antonin Kratochvil.