Interview by Jain Lemos. Photos ©2020 Tracy + David
© 2020 Tracy + David
Tracy Boulian and David Ahntholz, otherwise known as Tracy + David, had surprisingly similar career paths before teaming up as a photography duo. At 16, Tracy landed an internship in the photo department at the New Haven Register in Connecticut and at 18, David was shooting for newspapers in Iowa. Each finished their college degrees in the arts: Tracy has her B.F.A. in Photography and Imaging and Anthropology, and David holds a Master of Visual Communication.
Separately, they went on to work for a number of newspapers around the country. Tracy was a staff photojournalist at The Cleveland Plain Dealer. David was the art director at The State Journal-Register in Springfield, Illinois, and a photographer for The Des Moines Register. With photojournalism as their foundry, they started stacking up state, regional, and national awards. Tracy won third place for best portfolio in the photojournalist of the year category at the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar. David was awarded runner-up photojournalist of the year in NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism awards.
Their fateful crossing happened through their staff jobs at The Naples Daily News in Florida. Once they knew their road ahead was meant to be a combined one, they settled in Southern California in 2010. Together, they’ve continued to win awards for their work, including several from APA. They now call San Juan Capistrano home and spend a good deal of time on the road for clients and personal projects. Individually, their talent stands out. Together, Tracy + David are a force of special talent. It’s fascinating to hear from people we look to when defining partnership at its finest and I’m excited to hear what they have to say.
You’ve found an interesting way to combine the photo genre of lifestyle with landscapes. Is that a specific direction you’ve determined or simply a way to introduce your work?
We’re passionate about telling stories and creating imagery focusing on people living healthy active lives because we live this type of lifestyle ourselves, and always have. One of the things we love to do outside of work is to be immersed in nature, so connecting with nature through our cameras feels very second nature to us. We also greatly respect the outdoors and will search the globe to find beautiful places and epic landscapes to photograph. When we can photograph talent in those locations and capture both the place and moments of people adventuring in the place, that’s our signature—our sweet spot. We love when we can merge active people in amazing locations so it manifests as active outdoors imagery.
© 2020 Tracy + David
You’ve photographed some exceptional locations. How do these trips come about?
When we aren’t working for clients, we’re working on personal projects. As photojournalists, we were constantly on the lookout for story ideas in our communities, and now we continue to always have a growing list of project ideas that we want to pursue. We’re always looking a few steps ahead to think through what’s on deck next. We love traveling and going on new adventures as well and are particularly drawn to find amazing, natural locations to visit.
Many of the locations we’ve photographed as a team have come about through personal projects, though we’ve photographed some beautiful locations for clients as well, usually in the form of a lifestyle shoot in a beautiful or interesting location. We’ve been building a body of personal work of landscape imagery, that we’d like to approach galleries with at some point.
How hard was it technically—and in terms of your mindset—to switch from shooting news to making sense of wide-open spaces?
The biggest challenge was trying to define our style and to figure out what we really wanted to shoot most. As newspaper photographers, we were generalists and shot everything. It’s only in the last few years that we really started honing in on a focus. We believe our work as news photographers was the best bootcamp because it taught us how to handle anything that could be thrown at us.
As staff photographers at newspapers, we often had multiple assignments in a day, and were usually out shooting all day, every day. We might be shooting in the studio one day, a landscape or environmental portrait on the next, followed by an NBA game the following day. This helped us to feel comfortable in a wide variety of situations. Telling stories, photographing people, making lifestyle imagery, and creating establishing shots or showing landscapes were already part of our repertoire.
© 2020 Tracy + David
I’m sure the pace was quite different, though.
Oh, for sure. We worked at a very different pace when we worked for newspapers. It took some adjustment to get used to the change when we left that business. So much of our world was fast paced and at times, adrenaline-packed, in terms of how quickly things needed to be photographed and turned around for the website or newspaper. We rarely had time for preproduction before a shoot plus we photographed a lot of assignments—sports and news—that were particularly time-sensitive.
Often, images had to be ready for publication on the same day they were shot. Other times, we might only have ten minutes to shoot a front page or front section picture and get it edited, captioned, and transmitted for publication. We often had to work quickly, make decisions instantly, be flexible enough to change course on a moment’s notice, create interesting images with very little planning time, and remain calm and in control through all of it.
The fact that both of you have that type of experience is really a great advantage.
It takes a lot to faze us now. When we hear a project needs to be turned around quickly, it usually means we’ll have a few days or even a couple of weeks. That gives us so much more time to spend on preproduction and to think through the creative. We love having more time to plan and brainstorm and we’re thankful we are now often able to work in a more planned way, versus a more reactionary way.
But we definitely still fall back on our news background when we have a challenging shoot where weather or location or something else might not be cooperating as planned, because we’re comfortable quickly finding solutions, changing course, and making things work. That’s not to say our transition wasn’t without challenges. In some ways, there’s more pressure in what we do now, because images have a much longer life—they don’t become yesterday’s news quite as quickly.
A big part of your brand now is motion. How often are clients asking you to add motion to your still shoots?
It varies. We shoot a lot of motion and the majority of our projects are either motion-heavy or they have a motion component. We work on many projects that are straight motion work where we either aren’t shooting any stills or the stills are the secondary part of the project. We also have many projects that are entirely stills-based, but we’re finding that motion is becoming a bigger part of what our clients want.
Was this an easy skill for you to master?
We’ve come a long way since we started doing multimedia slideshows. When we worked at newspapers, we were marrying stills, audio interviews, and music for their websites. We really loved adding an audio component to help bring our subjects’ stories to life in another dimension. It was this kind of multimedia storytelling that made us want to learn about shooting motion.
In the beginning, we had to figure out everything as we went along. Every project felt like a huge challenge. We spent an inordinate amount of time on preproduction for our very first projects, planning and testing, finding people who could be a part of our team to help us, and making sure we could confidently do what we needed to do on a client shoot. We also took some film production classes so we could become more comfortable with the fundamentals of motion production.
And now you've added aerials to your portfolio, too.
Yes, as drone shooting started to become a possibility, we knew early on this was a perspective we wanted to be able to capture. We just love that birds-eye-view angle that drones give us. It is such a fun way to capture a sense of place and to give more visual variety to our projects. We started adding drone aerials to our portfolio about three years ago. We’ve also done numerous aerial shoots from planes or helicopters, but the ease and flexibility of what you can do with a drone is just so much better.
It used to take hours to go to the airport and charter a plane or helicopter, and then the shoot time often wasn’t very long. Now, we can just go out and do it ourselves. But there is a significant amount of pre-production and we have to have an extensive flight plan in advance of the shoot. We’re glad we are able to add an aerial component to our clients’ projects and expect we’ll be doing much more of this in the future because we can capture that extra angle or view that they wouldn’t otherwise get.
© 2020 Tracy + David
Of course, with more capabilities comes extra equipment purchases and upgrades to meet demands. I imagine your kit is very different now from your newspaper days.
We’re constantly upgrading equipment as technology changes and improves, though we’re very thoughtful about the equipment we use and purchase. It’s easy to want one of everything, but we upgrade when we feel we hit the limitations of the equipment or can’t implement ideas without something new, or when we know that we’ll use a piece of equipment frequently enough that the investment makes sense from a business standpoint.
During our journalism careers, for most assignments we’d often only carry one bag: 2 cameras, 2 to 4 lenses, and an on-camera strobe. For portraits, we’d also have a small lighting kit. With our commercial work, this simple bag has evolved into an equipment room filled with cases full of cameras, lighting, audio gear, drones, and specialized equipment including underwater housings. We outgrew our cars, and now we’re outgrowing our SUV. As our work has evolved into more active situations and remote locations for landscape work, we often find ourselves being more selective with what we carry, and are more aware of the size, weight, and quantity of what we bring with us.
Do you have a method to how you divide the workload on a day-to-day basis?
Over the years, especially on the business side, we’ve found specific areas in which each of us can take ownership, to best utilize our strengths. Though we can easily interchange our skills, we’ve found that having areas of focus makes us more efficient. Tracy tends to work more with clients, taking lead on emails, creative calls, social media, and initial brainstorming, while David leads on more of the technical details, from data management to general server and IT issues and maintenance. With a background in design, he also designs our branding and marketing materials most of the time. We both equally share shooting and editing.
We sometimes split up the duties of directing and cinematography, which allows us to focus on slightly different aspects of a project. We often do our own post, though we’re getting to the point of wanting to work with editors more regularly, as there isn’t enough time in the day to do it all anymore. Switching between stills and motion feels fairly comfortable now, though motion always takes more time and planning. We’ve grown immensely, though we still have so much to learn, and we continue to spend time experimenting and testing, especially when we’re exploring something new.
I'm just wondering if there is a marriage counseling equivalent for partner teams!
Working as a team to tackle everything in and out of the office has been invaluable, but we often still need an outside perspective. And previously, when we were starting on this path to advertising photography, we needed to find people with more knowledge and expertise who could help advise us and give us constructive criticism.
We’ve always felt that getting honest feedback, and new perspectives on our work has been a critical part of our growth. We’ve worked with a number of consultants over the past several years and have learned from and grown significantly from the guidance we’ve received from each of them. They’ve all helped us hone our vision, our business, and our approach in different ways. They’ve also helped us to better understand the advertising world in general and how we fit in.
© Tracy + David.
What’s ahead for Tracy + David?
We strongly believe that working on personal projects is critical to being successful and continuing to improve, and we’re constantly producing new self-assigned projects so that we can continue to grow and evolve. In doing this, we turn over a significant portion of our portfolio on an annual basis. This year is no different—we have a number of new personal projects in the works that we’re eager to start. The toughest part is deciding which projects we want to focus on first (because we want to do everything at once) and then getting through all of the preproduction phases, because all we want to do is get out and shoot.
Early each year, we assess what we’ve being doing, where we’re going, and what we’re most passionate about pursuing for the next six-to-twelve months. When it comes to potential business investments—such as marketing and equipment—we usually assess the return on our investment in figuring out how to proceed. If it seems worthwhile, we move forward; if not, it might go on a back burner. We’re working through this now and figuring out what the year ahead holds, and we’re looking forward to more great projects and collaborations in 2020.