The PEN: Arthur Mola - Photographer

I met Arthur last year through a mutual friend where we were both working on the same job. I could tell almost immediately that we were going to get along. Arthur seemed professional, smart and easy to interact with. As it turns out I was right and the entire shoot went very smoothly. Over this past year we have remained in contact and I have seen just how talented his work is. I know that Arthur will continue to be an incredible success as a photographer, and I look forward to continuously working with him over the coming years. Enjoy. 

I became very interested in photography when I was 16. I mean, I always loved looking at pictures but growing up my family never owned a camera (aside from the disposable ones or the super-touristy fully automatic film point-and-shoots that were big in the ‘90s) so making photos – at least the way that I wanted to make them – wasn’t really an option at the time. It wasn’t until I was 16 that my passion for it exploded and went from just enjoying looking at photography to really wanting to be a photographer. It was at that age when there was a turning point where I decided I wanted to give it a shot (pardon the pun) so my parents bought me my first DSLR.

This happened when I discovered the work of a Los Angeles photographer named Chris Weeks. At the time I was really into photo manipulation and I had been doing heavy Photoshop work as a hobby since I was 12 or 13 years old. I enjoyed doing things like pixel art and graphic design but my primary joy came from doing what was referred to as “photo manips.” I would use a variety of stock photos – things like faces, textures, industrial looking things that people had in their garage, etc. – and blend all those different images together digitally to create a new, finished image. A lot of my work back then was on the darker side, as were most “photo manips” because that was the style. I was making album covers for American metal bands who found my work online when I was 13 or 14. I was kind of a strange kid in that sense. But that was one of the things I loved to do in my spare time.

So how does this come back to photography? Well, I was a member of an online art community called deviantART where I posted my photo manips. This is also where I found Chris’s work. I don’t remember exactly how I came across him since I was mostly browsing the photography categories to look for stock images. Anyways, he was a photographer that was the real deal – shooting all the big stars and rep’d by an agency – but he also shared a lot of his photography on this community – both personal and commercial – and wrote blogs about the industry, his experiences, gear, etc., and I was totally hooked from the day I stumbled on his page. I was literally reading his blogs and looking at his photos every day and that’s really what made me look at photography in a different light. It made me see it not only as something I really wanted to do out of passion and love for what type of images you can make but also as something that a person can make a living with. At the time I never would have thought it was possible to make money off of something like photography. Chris really opened my eyes to a lot of things and in turn opened a lot of doors for me. I’m always grateful for finding his work there and I consider him my most significant mentor. We actually became friends and he has constantly given me advice and support. It really amazes me when I think back to it. The Internet can be a very useful tool for photographers if used properly.

So once I discovered Chris’s work and decided I wanted to work towards becoming an entertainment photographer like him, my first goal was to shoot my favorite band at the time, Korn. They were playing a show at the Ricoh Coliseum exactly two weeks after my parents bought me my first camera and my dad thought I should apply to get a photo pass. The only concert photography experience I had at this point was a battle of the bands that my friend played at his high school, which I brought my camera to so I could practice for Korn. I was a total purist (again, from Chris’s influence) and was adamant about learning how to really shoot so it was manual everything from day one. How I got credentialed to shoot Korn as a 16-year-old kid who owned a camera for two weeks is a story in and of itself but I managed to get approved an hour before the show and my dad and I raced down to the Ricoh Coliseum so I could have my first “big” shoot. The Korn concert actually happened to go very well and I realized that this was something I could actually pursue for two reasons: I absolutely loved every second of it and I actually walked away with good photos in a challenging situation: a dark nu-metal concert with fast-moving and head-banging subjects. The Korn show was a bit of a “test” for myself. I figured if I could walk away from that show with good photos after owning a camera for two weeks and having shot one concert beforehand … I could probably get good enough to be a photographer with some real practice.

At this point I was also wrapping up the year in grade 11 so University applications were on the horizon. Initially I wanted to study business or psychology but now all I could think about was shooting and becoming a photographer. I was always a very business oriented guy but I also loved the study of the mind and human behavior … and now I had a third option to consider.

After thinking about it, I decided I would enroll in photo school even though I really disliked the idea. I had the mentality that you can’t teach someone how to shoot and that, generally speaking, people who go to photo school are hacks who can’t learn to shoot on their own. In hindsight I was a little closed minded but that was how I thought at the time. Regardless, the reason why I decided to enroll was because I figured that if I really tried to make it as a photographer and had to miss class to work and build my career, my photography profs would be more lenient and understanding than my business or psychology profs who would probably tell me to stop messing around and put down the camera to focus on school. What’s funny is I was totally wrong about that. I got accepted into both OCAD and Ryerson, which was actually a surprise to me because I really didn’t think I would get into OCAD seeing as I showed up with a portfolio of concert photography (of people like Sean Paul, Shakira, The Who, etc.) and all the other hopeful students had things like sculptures and all sorts of varied artistic creations in their portfolios. Needless to say, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I chose Ryerson because it seemed like the more photo-oriented school out of the two and starting in first year, I would frequently skip school a week or two at a time to shoot things like Toronto Fashion Week and the Toronto International Film Festival. Even though I let my profs know where I was and what I was doing I still got threats of being failed (Ryerson had a rule where if you miss 3 or more classes per semester your professor has the right to choose whether or not they fail you regardless of your grades) and was told to drop out if work was taking up too much of my time. I was totally baffled by this but kept grinding it out for the duration of the four-year program since I wanted to finish what I started. My friends kept telling me to just drop out because I didn’t need school to be successful as a photographer – which I knew – but I didn’t want to waste the money and time I spent on it already – and I was kind of enjoying it. Even though the paper wasn’t going to mean much in my field, if anything at all, in the end, I still wanted to get it for some reason. I also looked at it as something to fall back on to pursue a different career – like teaching – if photography crashed and burned for some reason.

With all that said, even though I am “formally trained” as a photographer, I still consider myself self taught because I learned everything about shooting and worked on developing my visual signature as a result of skipping school. In fact, most of my school projects that were actual photo assignments where you had to submit pictures – as opposed to essays – were pictures I had taken while skipping school. My thesis project was a large-format coffee table book of all the entertainment work I shot at fashion week, TIFF, concerts, etc., called “During the Times I Skipped School.” It’s one of the things I’m most proud of. The idea and execution was perfect in my opinion. The first page when you opened the book was an email exchange between one of my profs and I of him telling me how if I missed anymore school to shoot TIFF or Fashion Week he would fail me and that if work was taking up my time I should drop out. That was printed on a see-through vellum paper and peeking out behind it all was a black and white photo of Angus Young from AC/DC doing the devil horns gesture in his famous schoolboy costume. What a way to finish my University career and be able to show my professors what I was doing when my seat in their class was empty. I wasn’t sure how they would receive it since I could see how it could be perceived as snarky but they actually loved it and were moved by it. It was the perfect finale to an interesting four-year chapter of my life.

However, I can’t ignore the merits of photo school nor do I regret my decision to keep at it and graduate, in fact, I’m very happy I did. I think, at the time, there was a lot of tension between the two world’s I was a part of – the “real world” of photography where I was shooting these big entertainment events and working with a big agency and the “academic world” of photography where I would sit in a classroom and learn about art history – but in hindsight I think photo school taught me a lot of valuable things about the history of photography, the conceptual thinking behind photography and how you approach a photo project and I had great learning experiences with 4x5 cameras, the darkroom, etc., all of which I am very grateful for. I don’t think photo school was necessary to learn how to be a photographer in the practical sense but it was definitely a valuable fountain of knowledge that made me appreciate what I was doing more and with a greater understanding of where it all came from and it made me think more critically about what I was taking pictures of whenever I would put my camera up to my eye. I think these aspects enrich a person so in a sense and can take their work to another level so I think I had the best combination of experiences that equated to a very beneficial education overall. 

in terms of my style, I definitely notice a difference from when I first started shooting to where I am now. Some things have stayed the same, of course, but as I experimented with different focal lengths, different compositions, shooting/post-production techniques, etc., I found the style and visual signature that I like for myself and what I’m doing – at least for now. I think that’s very important to play around with as an artist and I also think that that’s constantly changing – not necessarily in leaps and bounds once you’ve “found your groove” but in smaller steps.

I think I saw a noticeable change in my style when I realized that I enjoy working with primes as opposed to zoom lenses. I like being “in the mix” with my subjects and physically moving my body to go along with what’s happening rather than zooming a lens. As a fly-on-the-wall shooter, I prefer not being noticed when I shoot most of the time but I like to get right in there. Most would think that for someone who doesn’t want to get noticed a long zoom is ideal but I don’t like the look that gives me or the approach/feeling of being removed from what I’m shooting. I’m a big fan of street photography and love doing it on my own time, which has that sort of mentality/approach. A legendary photographer named Robert Capa has a famous quote that goes something like, “if your photos aren’t good enough, it’s because you’re not close enough.” I think that sums it up perfectly most of the time. When you’re starting out you might be shy to get up close and personal with your subjects but the more you do it the less of a big deal it is. And when I realized that my photos were looking how I wanted them to, that’s really all that mattered to me. Getting close and being uncomfortable for a few seconds while getting the shot is one thing … but having an amazing photo that you can have forever as a result of it makes it all worth it in the end. I always ask myself, would I be more disappointed if I were put in an uncomfortable situation for a short amount of time but got the photos I wanted (or my client wanted) or if I were more comfortable for a short amount of time but had to live with the fact that I walked away without the best images I could have made. 10 out of 10 times that works for me and gets me right where I need to be. Don’t get me wrong … I’m not a Bruce Gilden style shooter where I’ll stick my camera in people’s face from a foot away. I don’t invade people’s personal space like that … but … I like to be close enough to get what I need the way I saw it in my mind. I’m a fan of Bruce Gilden’s work, by the way, and saw one of his lectures at Ryerson. It’s just not my personal style.

In terms of the future of my career I’d like to have the kind of access at film festivals, concerts, etc., where I can carry out my vision in this style. I’d love to be a tour photographer for one of my favorite artists and shoot their backstage reportage … or be a roaming fly-on-the-wall on the red carpet at a film festival like Cannes or an award show like the Oscars and not have to be so concerned about getting the more “cookie cutter” style photos of celebrities that I know will get published. In the future I’d like to see my work and name get to the point where I can have that kind of access to these events and celebrities. I think the results would be beautiful. I’d also like to be doing more high-end portraiture. Big sets. Lots of lights. It’s something that I absolutely love and I totally see myself doing much more of it in the future. 

Whether it’s a premiere at the Sundance Film Festival or a fancy event for one of the biggest brands in the world, a Madonna concert or a corporate event with some of the most accomplished CEO’s, at the end of the day my job is to do a fantastic job at documenting something. I’m framing visual elements in a rectangle and building a story around what it is I’m choosing to record out of the “big picture” that makes up the entire event. I think my style of shooting lends itself well to all of these things but the major difference between them is the pace. A red carpet or concert will be a lot more fast-paced than a corporate event. What that means is you have a smaller window of time to get what you need. But aside from that, if you are comfortable with being dropped in any situation and being able to build a visual story out of what you see, you should have no problem. Great photography is great photography regardless of the event.

For me it’s about a balance. I enjoy shooting a variety of things because they balance each other out. I like different experiences and I like meeting different people. I soak it all in. And I’m lucky because I get to make pretty photos of all these experiences and people I encounter. I absolutely love it. I think my style is reflected in all the different things I shoot. I try for it to be at least. And I believe that’s why my clients keep calling me back. I’ve been told that they enjoy my visual signature – as well, they trust me, etc. – and that’s why I keep getting calls for more work. I think if my work lacked that visual signature … or if it was inconsistent from job to job … I’m not sure I would keep getting called back. I think that’s what differentiates a professional from a hobbyist, by the way. A professional can deliver consistent results in inconsistent situations. Every time. An amateur or a hobbyist may be able to make a good photo from time to time but lacks the consistency regardless of what situation they’re thrown in.

Picking my favourite shoot so far is a tough choice. I’m honestly not sure I can choose just one. I try to approach every shoot I take on with passion and interest. On one hand, my favourite shoots are the ones I’ve had with the bands/actors that I love like Jennifer Aniston or Jay-Z. On another hand, my favourite shoots are the ones where I felt an amazing connection with whoever it was I was photographing. And in some ways my favourite shoots are the ones where the assignment may not have been the most exciting to begin with but the images just turned out to be extraordinary or possessed some rare special quality to them that was unexpected from a seemingly mundane assignment. There’s so many ways to pick a favorite that it’s really hard to choose and every shoot means something to me in their own way. I think that’s a great problem to have when you’ve had so many shoots that you’ve loved or that have had a lasting impression on you that you can’t pick just one. I’m very fortunate to have this dilemma. 

Technology seems to be changing quickly and two of the biggest technological changes I’ve seen since I started shooting is the advent of DSLR video and the high ISO capabilities of camera bodies. I remember I was shooting the Foo Fighters at the Air Canada Centre a few years ago. I was still shooting with my first camera, which was a Nikon D70s since I was still just starting out at the time. I remember one of the newspaper guys bragging about how he was able to capture Dave Grohl mid-head bang because he could shoot a clean image at 1600 ISO with the new Canon that came out. We were all floored at the result because at that time with 99% of the cameras available you couldn’t really go above 800 ISO and even that was starting to get noisy. Now I can shoot 4000 ISO … sometimes 6400 ISO in some situations … and get clean files. It’s incredible. I remember thinking “what would all the original film shooters think of this?” On one hand it’s a nice luxury to have but on the other hand it’s also changing the style and aesthetic of photography. People were able to make photos in the dark with 400 ISO film back in the day. Yes, there might have been motion blur … or a bit of “movement” in the images. But did that matter? I’m not sure how I feel about this debate yet because I have mixed opinions. I know I definitely use high ISO’s for certain situations and I’m very grateful for this technological advance but we seem to exist in a tack-sharp-everything digital world and I’m not sure I like the look of that for everything. I think different aesthetics have a place in different contexts but sometimes I like to keep it on 400 ISO as if I had a roll of Tri-X loaded just for the fun of it. I remember handholding 1/5s at times at fashion week when I was starting out because it was dark where I was shooting. Now I can shoot 1/30s or 1/15s in the same situation. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very helpful in some situations but I also like the look of how things were shot back when it was all film. However, I think the most valuable thing that high ISO capability gives photographers is a chance to choose. Now I can choose whether I want to use motion blur or a slow shutter speed when shooting in the dark or not. Before high ISO’s and in the film days they/we didn’t have the option. And I think it’s always good to have choices when it comes to aesthetics. Speaking of which, I used to shoot a lot of film until a few months ago. I had a Zeiss Ikon rangefinder that I was using for all of my personal photography. It was the camera that I carried around with me everywhere. I just recently decided to upgrade to a digital Leica M(240) – and I absolutely love it – but only because film was becoming too much of a hassle to shoot in a sense that I didn’t have access to a darkroom anymore and didn’t like losing that control of developing my own film. But I still very much behave like a “film shooter” even though I’m almost entirely digital now. I think I was lucky to start shooting with one foot in each of the two worlds; film and digital.  

The second biggest technological change that I noticed was when DSLR camera bodies were able to shoot 1080p HD video. When Canon first came out with the 5D Mark II I remember thinking that it was somewhat gimmicky but after I saw the results from guys like Vincent Laforet who were shooting incredible footage with it, I was blown away. I think it’s an amazing opportunity for stills guys to get into motion with the gear they know and love and be able to get incredible results.

I’m more of a new adapter. I think that in our industry we have to be flexible and open minded to change, otherwise we’ll drown. You either sink or swim. I’ve gotten some video assignments as a result of the DSLR video capabilities and it’s opened up a new market segment that didn’t exist for me before. Of course I had to invest money into new gear (microphones, shoulder rigs, HDMI monitors, etc.) but you make that money back when you get jobs. I think it’s important to step out of your comfort zone and try new things as a photographer or videographer or any type of creative for that matter. It’s nice to get butterflies sometimes … to think on your toes. Feeling like a beginner again is the best way to learn new things and improve your skillsets.  

Photography is more than just picking up a camera and shooting but I think that’s probably the most important factor. Experimenting with different ways of shooting. Different aesthetics. Trying to shoot a variety of things to see what style of photography gets you the most excited. I think for a beginner these are all very important things to do in order to learn about themselves. For some it comes very naturally and seems obvious … for others it takes some searching. But practice and patience is everything when you’re starting out.

If someone is considering pursuing photography professionally, I would say the best thing to learn (after knowing how to shoot at a high level, of course) is how to value your work. I went to a photo school for four years and I kid you not, the business of photography and how value is added for clients was never once brought up. I was even in a “Business of Photography” course yet we never discussed rates or anything like that. I think the #1 problem with beginners is they undervalue themselves and therefore undercut their own work and as a result the entire market. It’s very important to understand what you bring to the table as a photographer or as a creative and know how to value it properly. Do some research. But be wary of where you look and who you trust. Talk to professionals. Assist. Learn. But understand the business behind what it is you’re getting into. And always remember to enjoy what you’re doing. 

You can also follow him here and here or instagram: arthurmola

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