Skip Bolen is a talented film set photographer based here in New Orleans who has worked on many of the major TV and film sets in the city since Katrina. Set photography is something that Skip fell into after working as a successful artist and art director for media companies and nightclubs in New York and Los Angeles. Despite all of the successes throughout his career, Skip has remained a very down to earth Southern gentleman. He was very forthcoming about what it is like to work in close proximity to some of the biggest names in entertainment.
NCM: Where are you originally from?
Skip: I was born in Lafayette, LA. I’m from the sticks! And when I say sticks, I mean we were right outside of Lafayette.
I lived one block over from the street that marked the boundary of the Lafayette High School zone. I went to a high school that was built way out in the country that had no windows and air conditioning. It was considered the latest greatest thing! Then I went to USL and I moved to New Orleans when I was 21.
Life started for me when I moved to New Orleans. I started a punk band and had a studio downtown. I had two floors in a warehouse building. I rented each floor for $50.
On the second floor, I did large scale screen printing that was 40 by 60 inches in size. I’m surprised that I’m still alive today because I was pretty much swimming in mineral spirits.
On the third floor was all the band equipment and we would rehearse there. The band was called The Front. We opened for Siouxsie and the Banshees and Snakefinger. And actually we’re going to put out a CD of our old tapes, hopefully before the end of this year!
NCM: Did you study photography or a different type of art in school?
Skip: At USL I decided to go into advertising and design because I was concerned about making a living. I took a lot of fine art courses like printmaking, painting, and drawing. I got a BFA in Applied Arts with emphasis in Advertising.
My first job was for an advertising agency in Lafayette. I hated it. Because you worked for clients that you didn’t believe in. I also worked for a radio station in Lafayette, KSMB, which was fun. Then I moved to New Orleans and worked for a graphic design studio and then shortly thereafter met this woman named Connie Atkinson who was starting a music magazine called Wavelength. I worked on the first issue and shortly thereafter I got hired to be the art director.
I had that job for several years. I met another woman who wanted to do a magazine called Les Beaux Art magazine. Sort of based on Interview magazine, an oversized publication. We did 12 issues, each focused on interviews with local artists and architects. I also worked at Gambit magazine for a while. In fact I worked on the first issue of Gambit.
All this while I had dreams and aspirations of moving to New York and wanted to work for Andy Warhol at Interview Magazine. Then Les Beaux Art came to a close, the owner having decided to fold the publication. I had $50 in my wallet, so I sold everything, moved in with a friend and sent out resumes. Then one day I drove up to New York, where I slept on another friend’s couch.
While in New York, I interviewed with Rolling Stone a bunch of publications but it was looking pretty dismal. Then I ran into a friend from New Orleans, Michael Staats.
He was working in a club called Area, which was at 157 Hudson on the lower West Side. He offered me a job as an artist at Area. Area was a club downstairs and upstairs we worked on themes. Every month there was a new theme. In between themes, the club was shut down for a few days and we would decorate the entire club for the new theme. Opening night was A-list only, with people like Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, David Byrne, David Bowie, Richard Branson. All sorts of famous 80’s celebrities showed up. It was an amazing time.
That was my life for a while. I was there for almost a year and it was just it was just an amazing time. And because I worked at Area, I also got into other clubs, like The Palladium and The World. I was a club kid for a while. I got to know Hayne Suthon, a woman from New Orleans who had a lot of money. Her parents bought this place for her in New York that a big closet, and I slept on the top shelf of it. The shelf was like six feet by four feet!
During this time I was subscribing to Rolling Stone Magazine where Derek Ungless was the art director. I saw a paragraph in Rolling Stone saying the next issue would be completely redesigned: “Our Art Director is going to take Rolling Stone in a new direction.”
So I took a Sharpie and I went through that issue critiquing the whole the new format. I wrote things on each page like, “What sort of asshole design school did you go to?” And then I sent it off to them.
A year or two later I’m in New York interviewing at Conde Nast. Anna Wintour had just come over from British Vogue. I was interviewing with the art director of House and Garden magazine and she happened to introduce me to Derek Ungless. They informed me that he was going to be my art director for the next six months to “guide us in a new direction”! Then she has to take care of something and leaves Derek and I alone in the room together. Ungless closed the door and said, “I’ve received a lot of critiques in my lifetime, but yours really took the cake!”
I was sweating bullets. I wanted that job so badly! Luckily the photo editor came back in the room and interrupted us. The interview was over and the next day I get the call that Anna Wintour wanted to meet with me.
She wore sunglasses during the entire interview, which lasted only eight or nine minutes. It was very uncomfortable and I was very nervous. Then she put’s her hand on my shoulder and said, ” I’ll be talking to you soon.”
Afterwards I remember standing outside and I found a 20 dollar bill in the street, so I was able to get a cab back instead of taking the subway. The next day I got the call that I had gotten the job at Conde Nast!
It was quite a unique situation. There were no budgets. For example, if I needed to hire Annie Lebowitz and she needed to fly the Concorde with a crew to go to do a photo shoot, I just booked it! Conde Nast gave me a stack of vouchers. I had car service home every night. All meals and dry cleaning service were paid for, but I basically lived at Conde Nast. They knew you weren’t going to leave because there was nothing better out there!
NCM: What brought you back to New Orleans?
Skip: I was living in L.A. in August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. In January 2006, I was laid off from my job and lost the home I was renting on the same day. I was the Art Director for the House of Blues in L.A. at the corporate offices. We were designing for all the venues, new venues, and the company store. Live Nation wanted to buy the company. So in order to make the company look more profitable on books, they let go of 80 midlevel managers!
That same afternoon I was evicted from the house where I had been living, in Beachwood Canyon under the Hollywood sign. For seven years, life was great. Then I lost my job and house on the same day!
The job at the House of Blues was really unique in that I got to photograph every live music show there. One day when I was in the photo pit one of the owners of Wire Image approached me and asked who I shot for. I told him I shot for myself and the House of Blues. He asked me if I wanted to make money with the images.
So I started shooting for Wire Image. And six months after that, Getty Images bought them. I was now a Getty Images photographer. So by day I was Art Director the House of Blues and by night I was shooting concerts, red carpet events and openings. That’s when I kind of got my foot in the door of photography. Prior to that I had always been an art director.
I tried to stay in L.A. after I got laid off. However, my landlord had been charging me really low rent. When I started looking around for another place, I couldn’t really get anything close to that. Job wise, I was tired of working for somebody else.
I attended Jazz Fest right after Katrina and that was a huge homecoming for me. I realized I needed to move back home.
July 1, 2006, I moved back to New Orleans. There were no jobs here. But luckily there was a lot of Getty work. A lot of people were moving here. Brad Pitt was just starting his Make It Right Foundation. That was one of my assignments.
Then I fell into the film industry. There was a film shooting down the street from my place and I went to check it out. The Director thought I was paparazzi. I told him I was shooting for Getty Images. He asked me for my name and number. I uploaded to the images to Getty and all the directors, the producers, and a couple the actors were in the shots. The director sent me an e-mail saying they were really happy to see all of these behind the scenes photos. I asked him what I had to do to work on sets. He forwarded my information to Fox in L.A.
Fox called soon after. They were excited about having a still photographer in New Orleans because they didn’t have to send someone here anymore. They even took care of getting me into the union, which is very hard to get into. I used to fantasize about being a still photographer in L.A., but never did because it cost too much plus they are too exclusive about who they let in.
Since then I’ve been working nonstop. I’ve worked on: Memphis Beat, True Detective, Trueblood, and Queen Sugar. Right now I’m working on NCIS New Orleans.
I don’t really work in the studio anymore. It’s all about showing up to the set and capturing those magic moments.
NCM: What kind of equipment do you prefer to carry in your mobile studio?
Skip: I used to use a Jacobson. Sound Blimp. It’s big and bulky, great to hide behind. When you work in film sets you have to be completely quiet – If my camera were heard on set, I wouldn’t have a job anymore. There’s one little man named Jacobson in North Hollywood who makes these Jacobson Sound Blimps. Professionals have used them since the 70s through today. I have two, but I don’t have to use this anymore. I went to a camera that makes no noise. A few years back Fuji and Nikon started making mirrorless cameras. Canon is coming out with one soon. And Sony has one that is supposed to blow them all away.
I carry two cameras. Basically one on each shoulder. I got my newest about a month ago and it is incredibly quiet. There is a little bit of a flicker that you see when it is taking pictures.
What’s great about film and television, in most scenes the lighting is the same throughout the entire scene. For the most part once the camera is sealed up, I am good to go for a whole scene. But for images on the fly (in between scenes) and you want to capture an actor talking to somebody else and the lighting changes, I used to have to pop open the gear every time. Now with this new equipment, I have access to everything.
I feel like Sony is the company that is investing money into research and development of low light photography, which will be beneficial to film set photographers.
NCM: If you could shoot whatever you want without regard to your bank account, what would it be?
Skip: I love going to cemeteries while it is raining or right after a rain. While it’s raining, the marble comes alive and the cast iron is black. There is a richness to everything and I like the dramatic signs. I was into documenting cemeteries. I like documenting old buildings and architecture.
I’d also like to do some Jazz photography because I know a lot of those musicians and no one is really doing Jazz photography anymore.
NCM: Did you have any artistic mentors? Or anyone who really influenced your style?
Skip: Herman Leonard was a great photographer and printmaker. He knew how to really make magic. When he photographed in Jazz clubs everyone smoked. It created a mood in his photos. I also saw all of this great work at Conde Nast like: Bruce Weber, Herb Ritz, Mapplethorpe. I was in New York at a really cool time.
Francis Wolf did a lot of the Blue Note album covers in New York. Ray Avery and Chet Baker also influenced me.
NCM: If you could photograph anyone living or dead who would it be?
Skip: My mom, because it would give me a chance to see her again. I do miss her. My life is different because I meet famous people all of the time and I realize that they are just people.
NCM: was anyone else in your family an artist?
Skip: My mom grew up in an orphanage, but her dad was a printmaker. He died from ink poisoning. My brother was also always creating works of art growing up. But he ended up working for the phone company.
NCM: Do you have any favorite images?
Skip: Right now I am enamored with my Ramones images. I have images that I find from a long time ago. Now I can go into Photoshop and use that the way I used a dark room long ago.