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BEST OF 2011, Steve Thornton
Marietta, GA
Project: Cowboy/Western lifestyle fashion work, lingerie shoot in a Cologne, Germany, brothel … as well as a number of other projects.

© Steve Thornton


© Steve Thornton


Fashion photographer and brand image consultant Steve Thornton is at home creating memorable campaigns both in Europe and throughout the United States. His recent projects reflect a colorful panoply of venues, from a Colorado homesteader’s cabin to a brothel nightclub in Cologne, Germany, to a trendy theme hotel in Palermo, Italy. A self-described two-meter-tall American cowboy photographer, Thornton revels in capturing the allure of cowboy life. Dressing the part as a long, tall cowboy in Europe, he often becomes a media darling himself and is always warmly welcomed by clients.

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

ST: Full time, 25-plus years.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

ST: I think three to four years.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

ST: Cowboy, Fashion and Beauty, Lifestyle, Aviation.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

ST: Other than my personal vision (my way of seeing) and a camera? The entire line of Sunbounce light modification devices.

I am sponsored by Sunbounce, but only after I had bought one of everything they had (at the time) did they ask if I would be interested in being sponsored. Also, in the last three years, the FourSquare travel softbox system from Lightwaredirect.com has played a huge part in a lot of my images.

ASMP: What is unique about your approach or what sets you and your work apart from that of other photographers?

ST: Color has always been at the forefront of my imagery, but I also have a very good understanding of black-and-white. Normally only my personal work is in black-and-white. I think the reason is most of my clients really like my color work so much that they rarely think of me as a black-and-white photographer.

I think another aspect of my work that sets me apart from most other photographers is the sheer volume of finished imagery in any given type of imagery. I have had clients and photographers alike comment about the body of work I can show in my core imagery.

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.

ST: I bring a bag of camera bodies and lenses to every project but normally only use the same two or three lenses. I have used every lens I own at some time, but three in particular get used a lot, the 16-35mm Series II, the 85mm f/1.8 and the 200mm f/1.8.

In terms of my process and technique: I move around a lot, changing position relative to the model or subject. I change the light direction, the light quality, the light intensity; I change the background; I change the lenses; I change the location of the subject in the frame. I almost never shoot vertical, knowing that with today’s chips you can crop for a vertical from a horizontal and be just fine. (I do shoot vertical, but only when the location is so limiting that I do not have a choice, or when the shot will only “work” as a vertical).

ASMP: You’re well known as a cowboy photographer, with an authentic sense of this subject, yet you’re a native of Atlanta, Georgia. When did were you first stung by the allure of the cowboy? Please tell us about the timeframe and process that transpired between your initial passion for the subject and turning it into a viable photographic business niche.

ST: I had my first horse when I was two years old. My first childhood memory was talking to a ranch hand in the stables when I was about three years old. I still have my first pair of boots. Cowboy movies and TV series were my programs of choice and still are high up on my preferred viewing list. But by the time I was five years old the horses were sold or given away.

It was not until I had a client who liked my photography ask me to shoot a cowboy scene that I got into cowboy photography. Around 1992 or 1993 was the time frame for that first shoot. In shooting this I was introduced to a new circle of friends and I just shot cowboys for fun. Not until 2000 did I decide to get serious and go after some western clients.

ASMP: Your bio says that you’ve visited 47 of the 50 states. Which three states have you not gotten to yet? What are the 11 countries you’ve visited internationally and when and for how long did you live in Paris? How much time do you currently spend in Italy and what are the other top countries you work in (besides the U.S.)?

ST: Alaska, Hawaii and Maine are still on the “Not set foot in” list. Canada, Mexico, Bahamas, Jamaica, France, England, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Holland and Italy are the countries I’ve visited. I lived in Paris for a total of two years and I’m in Italy two to three times a year for a total of about 65 to 80 days. Most of this time is spent in Milan.

ASMP: Please compare your photography for U.S. clients to your international assignments. In what ways has your style been influenced by working on European campaigns?

ST: For me, style is an evolution. I’ll land on something I like and work in that mode for a period, then move to the next phase of what I like. Italians like the strange and unusual, so that opens a wide variety of directions one could go stylistically.

ASMP: How do you see your work as differing from the international photographers you compete with in shooting European fashion? Would you say there’s much distinction on the level of image style, or is it your customer service or other business factors that are the most significant point of differentiation?

ST: Service is a big part of it. After all, the Italian photographers are Italian and food and wine comes first… just after a coffee. Many clients I have are so glad to see me walk into their office. The first words out of their mouths are “Steve! I’m so glad you are here. Let’s go to the bar!” And I’m not kidding.

Another quality that I’m known for is the speed at which I shoot. I can see what I want to do very quickly and normally get what I’m looking for within the first few minutes of a shot. This allows me to change my POV, lenses, change my directions to the models for them to change what they are doing. All of this allows me to get a large volume of different imagery on the same “look,” giving the client a wide range of selects to choose from.

ASMP: When you’re working with clients of different nationalities, do you find that you have to switch gears in your approach or your pace? What kind of cultural hiccups have you experienced?

ST: When I first moved to Como, Italy in 1985 to shoot fashion in Milan, I had an appointment with a client and there was a transportation strike going on. Just so you know, the Italians will go on strike if the Coke machine quits working, or because of some perceived slight by some official. There is no shortage of passion there. So I knew I was going to be late, four hours late in fact. To the Italians, I was right on time. That was, and still is, a real issue for me to deal with. I run on New York time, if I’m not 15 minutes early I consider myself to be running late. So I now ask about any meeting time: “Are we talking about Italian time or New York time?”

ASMP: Given your experience shooting assignments in different countries, please comment on the current state of the international business climate. Has your international work been hindered at all by recent economic factors?

ST: Yes, the economic financial problems are everywhere. Even the big name designers have cut back on the imagery they want to pay for.

ASMP: One of your recent projects involved a lingerie shoot in a Cologne, Germany brothel. News of having an “American Cowboy Photographer” working there attracted 35 members of the press and 2 German TV crews, who were interested in you as the subject. Is this a common occurrence for you and, if so, in what countries is this kind of reaction most prevalent?

ST: This was a test shoot for me. I was considering shooting lingerie in brothels as a concept for a book. One of my sponsors picked up on the idea and released what I was doing to the press. As a 6’6” (2 meter) tall American cowboy photographer, I do attract more than a modicum of attention. (This is not entirely by accident… I do help it along.) I would not say this level of press attention is common, but it is not unusual either.

ASMP: Does this media attention on you, as mentioned above, ever translate into new business?

ST: Not directly, but as long as they spell my name correctly it does not hurt. I think I may put in the minds of clients that I’m a mover and a shaker.

ASMP: Your appearance and wardrobe is very much in character with your Cowboy niche. Have you always dressed like this? If not, at what point did it occur to you to make this part of your “branding”? Please talk about the degree of influence your appearance has when meeting with potential or new clients, especially first-time encounters.

ST: I started dressing like this in 1993 or so. I have always had Cowboy boots and jeans but not any hats, shirts, wild rags, chaps, half chaps, hitched horsehair belts, Buffalo coats, dusters, spurs and other cowboy accouterments.

As for clients, depending on who they are, I will adjust the level of the cowboy “regalia” I elect to wear. It does make a statement and I haven’t yet had any issues that I’m aware of. Except for that one time….

ASMP: Please talk about your support staff. Do you employ full time administrative staff, assistants or tech support? How many regular freelance helpers do you work with, and how wide a range of sources do you consult when assembling a crew? Do you have any tips for keeping a crew motivated and working well together?

ST: I have a producer I have been using for over 20 years. Everyone is freelance. Most of my projects I’ll have a producer and two to four assistants. Beyond that, it depends on the project. I hire the best I can find, and I have several team members in different parts of the world.

ASMP: What methods do you use to find assistants when working internationally? Are there certain countries where good help is hardest to find? If so, which countries are most problematic and why?

ST: I contact well known photographers in any area I visit and ask them if they can suggest crew. I do this if I’m in the U.S. or in Europe. So far I have had no problems getting quality crews.

ASMP: For your images of cowboys on horseback you work with one primary horseman, Craig Marple. What kind of compensation does he get from your work together? Do you have a standard modeling fee with him or does he get a percentage of the profit from your pictures of him?

ST: Craig uses me as much as I use him. He has an ongoing need for cowboy imagery and just today asked me to put together a Web site for a new cattle and ranch business he’s starting up.

ASMP: Your Web site describes you as a brand image consultant. For how long have you actively marketed yourself in this way? How much of your business is from assisting clients with their branding in addition to the photography?

ST: Most of this is in Italy. My business partner there suggested it after seeing what I did in client meetings. I’d look at the imagery they had and would suggest other uses that they were not thinking about. When asked, I would tell the client if I thought the imagery they already had was good or not, and why.

ASMP: How do you price your services as a brand image consultant? Is this a growing area of your business? Do you ever consult about branding without providing photography services?

ST: It is by the job. I ask a lot of questions about where they are now and where they want to go. I ask if they want to brand themselves to the trade only, to the end consumer only, or to both. I ask them how long they want to take to grow into a larger company, and I give them a price on how long I feel it will take to give them a report.

I do just consult without shooting. Sometimes they just can’t afford me; sometimes what they have is solid imagery that, for them at that point of time, is all they really need. For me this is a long-term investment, like planting seeds and, like seeds, some grow and some do not.

ASMP: One page of your Web site is called “Problems and Solutions” and features before-and-after images with imperfections corrected in postproduction. How useful is this page when you’re in discussions with potential or new clients and how often do you specifically direct people there?

ST: I use this when I’m asked if I can provide retouching. It is just one more tool I use the put in the prospect’s mind that I’m the right guy.

ASMP: Do you do post-production on images yourself or do you outsource these tasks? If the latter, do you have any tips about effectively communicating the work you’d like to have done on any given shot?

ST: I do most of the work. I enjoy the retouching part and it’s another way to make money. If I get overloaded I use www.digitalretouch.net because their work is stunning. Yet, communicating what one might consider even a simple request to someone not sitting next to you can be a nightmare. What I currently do is to send a sample image with arrows and text on the photo describing what I want. Even then it can get done wrong. Sometimes I’ll do a really crude retouch/correction/assembly as a layered PSD file, then reduce the file to 1500 pixels wide and send that along with a full sized JPEG of the original image.

ASMP: A page on your Web site offers fine art prints of your cowboy images and many of these are flagged as sold out. How many cowboy prints do you sell on a regular basis, and who are your biggest collectors (and in what countries)?

ST: The U.S. and Germany were the biggest buying countries. The print sales have slowed mostly because I have not been actively pushing that part of my business.

ASMP: Are any of these images represented through art galleries or other types of distributors, or do you handle all print sales directly? Please describe your procedure for handling print sales directly. Generally speaking, what is the timeframe between someone purchasing a print and the delivery?

ST: I was with a gallery in Santa Fe for two years or so. The delivery time frame depends on where I am. If I have a sale of a large print, I prefer to sign it in the U.S., just due to shipping costs to and from Europe and the potential for damage. If the client really wants the image right away I can do that. If I’m in the U.S. they will have the print in about a week, with an additional four to eight days if I’m in Europe.

ASMP: You edition your work in three different sizes, offering 125 to 200 copies in each size, plus three larger sizes in smaller editions. Do all of these offerings have to sell out in order to strike an image from your Web site? Also, your print sales page says the images are shot on film. Is that still the case?

ST: Yes, when every image sells it is closed. All of the images for sale on that site were shot on film. I have not updated the site in years, due to the time it takes and my travel schedule of being gone on average of 175 days a year.


For more about Thornton’s images pictured above, including technical details, shoot locations, additional takes from the same shoot, and even production stills and descriptions of lighting setups for some, go to http://bit.ly/asmp2011.