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is John Lacy,
a commercial photographer
based in the
metro Detroit area.
We produce high quality photography
mostly for business to business marketing.
Our principal markets are the construction industry and the automotive
manufacturing industry. A significant portion of our work is also divided
among the hospitality industry (hotels, resorts, casinos & restaurants)
Our specialties include
(interior & exteriors),
(interiors & exteriors,
studio & location),
shooting manufacturing facilities & equipment.
>> Environmental & Studio
for Editorial, Annual Report
glass, plastic, package goods & food.
In addition to photography we also offer
>> Digital Retouching
>> Large Format Printing
>>Graphic Design & Offset Printing for brochures, catalogs and promotional
Website Design & Hosting.
We've been in business since 1987
Every week I get a call or an email from a high school student, a college
student. Sometimes it's someone who's just out of school or somebody newly
out of work. They all want to become photographers and do something like
what I do. Here's how I got to where I am now;
I have seen many
new photographers having just gotten their degree from a prestigious art
school get a loan, lease a studio, take out a yellow pages ad and wait for
the phone to ring, only to find out it doesn't work that way. My own
journey was well planned but every single step in this plan changed as I
fell into unexpected situations both good and bad. I would adapt my plan
as I came to each fork in the road or hit a pot hole or rolled easily
ahead. I never would have thought I'd end up where I am now when I started
out, but I was able to discover who I was along the way and mold my career
to best suit what I'm best at and enjoy doing.
To give you the full
story so you'll have all of the context that influenced me through this
journey I need to start at the beginning. My Grandfather was an architect
and one of only two senior partners with
Eero Saarinen, the son of a
famous Finish architect that designed Cranbrook, a prestigious school in
Bloomfield Hills Michigan. Eero Saarinen was the school's most famous
student. With the help of my grandfather he designed the
GM Tech Center, John Deere Headquarters, the US Embassy in London, the
TWA terminal at JFK airport, schools and auditoriums at U of M, Yale,
Dulles Airport as well as many many other projects. I felt some
pressure on myself to live up to his level of achievement. He gave me some
drafting equipment and I quickly found out that I was not interested in
the engineering aspects of Architecture, but I was interested in the
Not long before this
when I was in 4th grade I took an instamatic camera I had received for my
birthday to school. Rather than being treated as if I had brought a toy to
school I was encouraged to snap photos. I shot photos of my classmates and even
organized the whole class for a group shot.
I started formally
studying photography in high school art class. I experimenting with a
camera my father had taken to Vietnam. It was a viewfinder 35mm that I had
to manually set the focus and exposure on the lens, a Kodak Pony 35. I would setup the
model aircraft I had built from kits outside and shoot them
in poses similar to what I saw in the model kit catalogs.
I decided that rather than becoming an architect I would become a "famous"
In high school I got my first new high quality camera. I was interested
in getting a really fast f/1.2 50mm lens with it, but a professional
photographer my mother introduced me to suggested I'd get more use out
of a "macro" version of the 50mm. At f/3.5 it was much dimmer than even
the cheapest f/1.8 lenses that normally came with the camera, but in the
end it proved to indeed be much more versatile. My mother was working on
a text book with a professor at UofM and needed some quality photo
illustrations. She and her coauthor offered me the job and I was paid a
token fee to produce a few shots which were used in the book. The book
became a standard text book in the courses of several universities and
while still in just 10th grade I was already published. The following
year I joined the high school year book shooting the first year as the
second photographer and in my senior year as the primary photographer.
This was in the early 1980's and I was shooting B&W film that I loaded
myself from bulk 50' rolls, processed myself and printed myself, forcing
me to learn many of the fundamentals of my craft.
For college I wanted to go to an
"art school" but my parents insisted that I get a "rounded" education
at a university. Both
of my parents had graduated from the University of Michigan, but I was
somewhat intimidated by it's size and reputation as a tough school. I
ended up starting at Western Michigan University which I attended for about 2 1/2 years. There
I learned my basic art skills, intro photography, art history and several
sociology classes. What I mainly learned there was how to be out on my own
and how to party. It was something I just needed to go through to get it
After 2 years I spent a summer in Kalamazoo taking classes and working I decided to
transfer to Michigan. I was unhappy with the faculty at the art school at
Western. I had produced several series of photographic works that I though
had really stretched my creativity and lead to a lot of self discovery but
my grades did not reflect the level of work I thought I had produced.
Transferring to Michigan was a shock. I was expected to attend all of my
classes, unlike at Western where I could more or less float through. I
felt like I had gone from one of the smartest people in my class to one of
the dumbest. While the classes were much more challenging and I had to
literally learn to study in my 3rd year of college. I was much more
In my photo classes I was recognized by the head of the department for my
commercial ambitions and my technical skills. In class he started
referring technical questions by students to me. At the time they had a
very old and dangerous strobe system. I was the only undergrad permitted
to use the system.
What surprised me most was how much I was getting out of my design
classes. I fell in love with graphic design and typography. My instructors
were very inspiring and showed me both intuitive and logical processes
that I could apply in design. Not only did a layout feel right but I could
work the design to function in moving the eye around the page, directing
the audience to the message. This is something I still use to this day.
My timing to transfer from Western to Michigan was not ideal. I was given
only 2 credits for each 3 credit class I had taken. I had lost a full year
of the 2 1/2 I had already been credited. The very next year they changed
this policy awarding one for one, but I was not given back my credits
retroactively. To make matters worse I failed one of my classes in my
first semester, a Saturday drawing class that overlapped my new season
tickets for the Michigan football schedule. As a result, after 5 years of
college I was still 10 credits short of a BFA degree. The degree required
128 credits, while a "standard" degree was only 120.
At this point I had started working for a local commercial photographer
part time. He shot jobs for local businesses and small ad agencies. He
took me under his wing and gave me a key to his studio and the alarm code.
I would go to the studio at night and use his lighting equipment to shoot
samples for my portfolio.
The following spring I
was done with school, deciding that I had had enough and that the degree
was not important to me. I was learning much more working for photographers.
I worked for a couple of other shooters in Ann Arbor once or twice as they
could afford an assistant. I helped a photographer for Car and Driver
Magazine shoot some cars and got my photo in the magazine driving a red
I decided that I wanted to shoot cars and found out that the world's
largest, most famous car photography studio was in Detroit (Highland Park,
which is actually surrounded by Detroit). I moved in with my girlfriend
and her family in a Detroit suburb and started working at Boulevard
Photographic for the spring to fall "season" as a "third assistant". My
responsibilities soon elevated from painting huge coved studios and
washing cars to setting up the huge "hollywood" style lights and moving
the wall flats and suspended "clouds".
That summer I worked
for the photographers that had been producing the bulk of automotive
advertising and catalogs since the '50s. In the basement of the main
building was a sort of a lunch room that I and the other assistants would
hang out in. There were file cabinets that we would explore in which the
original films from years past were stored. We would find originals 8x10
transparencies for Cadillac catalogs from the late '50's to the mid 70's.
I worked my way up to
setting up the camera and loading film. Working for each of the 7 staff
photographers I learned an amazing amount of techniques, tricks and
processes that they utilized in an age before computer retouching was
practical. We would spend days working on a single photograph. I had
graduated from being a third assistant to a second.
My girlfriend and I rented a two bedroom apartment. I setup the second
bedroom as an office. I bought my first computer (33mhz!) and started
organizing myself more as a business. I found an occasional shooting job,
but at this time I only had a basic 35mm system. I bought my first 4x5.
Because I didn't yet have a lens I practiced shooting Polaroids with a
pinhole lens I had made. I eventually bought several quality lenses and a
good heavy duty tripod for this system. I continued to shoot samples for
my portfolio even though they were relatively expensive to produce.
Later that summer the
work slowed down at the car studio and I refused to sweep the parking lot and pick weeds to
stay busy. Because of this I was one of the first to be laid off. At the
studio I had found a list of some of the other major commercial studios in
town. I also had met a few ad agency people and people from model
agencies, food stylists and set builders. Through them I built a list of
all of the photographers in town. I worked my way through this list to find only
the photographers and studios likely to hire me either full time or on an
as needed basis.
I put together a simple mailer. A photo of me dressed in my new leather
jacket and Porsche sunglasses sitting on a steam grate. I claimed that I
was "Detroit's Top Assistant".
I started getting calls and worked for various photographers on both car
shoots as well as other commercial projects. I worked many jobs for only a
single day while a photographer could bill my time. In other cases I'd
work with a shooter on a car catalog for several months straight. I helped
the photographer hire additional assistants to work under me. I was now a
"First" assistant, even occasionally being call "the assistant
While in school I had gotten involved with the American Society of
Magazine Photographers (ASMP) now called the American Society of Media
Photographers. I volunteered to help out at meetings and worked for
several of the local members. I organized an "official" assistants list. Having
worked with so many other assistants I was already referring my friends
when a shooter would call and I was already booked. I expanded this list
from a few names to over 50, with my name always at the top. While this
was of course self severing I did get a lot of work for many of the other
people on the list as well.
Being the principal
contact for the local ASMP for photographers coming to the Detroit area in
need of a local assistant I worked for many many shooters who were
shooting for magazines and needed to be picked up at the airport, find the
local pro labs and where to stay near the shoot. They had a much different
approach and style compared to the local car and commercial photographers
I'd worked for.
At this point I had worked for nearly 80 photographers. While most of them
were confident in their abilities, some of them encouraged me to offer
advice or ask how I would approach or solve a problem in setting up or
lighting a subject. I was
envious of all of them because it seemed that every project produced a
great shot for a portfolio. At the time I was going to great trouble and
expense to fill my portfolio. Most of my paid shoots were not worthy of
the portfolio because they were so simple.
I got a call from Ford Motor Company. I had sent them my resume with a
list of the photographers I had worked for. They were looking for an
assistant as they had recently graduated one of their assistants to
photographer. Additionally their two top photographers were very
competitive and each one wanted their own full time assistant. In the
interview the head of the department said that we were work-for-hire on a
daily basis, not employees, but we did get overtime after 8 hours, even if
we only work one day that week. He also said that the pay rate was not
negotiable. It was 50% more than most studios paid on the "outside". I
later found out that the photographers only made slightly more than the
assistants. Outside photographers would occasionally come in with their reps
looking for work only to breakout laughing when they found out the rates
I started working with
"Joe" (not his real name) who had been trained by a top portrait
photographer, then once he came to Ford had worked with their top car
shooter. Now he was the top dog, his mentor having since retired. Since I
had worked for so many car shooters on the outside Joe wanted me to work
with him. I showed him many of the little tricks I'd learned like taking an
unused cigarette butt to dab latex paint on the chrome name plates on the side of
the car instead of trying to make a perfect reflection on the chromed
We worked together for
more than 5 of the 7 years I spent there. I lobbied to shoot and was told
that while I could borrow some of the Ford owned equipment I would have to
own my own core medium format Hasselblad kit. The Hasselblad at the time
was about the most expensive camera system. I saved up and finally bought
a basic camera for more than $3000. Up until then all of my samples were
shot on 4x5 as were about half of the jobs I got here and there. I was
quite familiar with the Hasselblad system though because, except for cars
in the studio nearly everything else was shot with a Hasselblad, whether
it was the photographer's kit or one of Ford's. Many of the photographers
outside of Ford also had used Hasselblads. The system is light and
extremely high quality, plus as a modular system you can use components
that are brand new or as much as 30 years old. I bought used film backs
that were nearly as old as I was and work well and dependably.
They started me out
shooting in their portrait studio. Every Ford employ of management level
had to have an up to date photo in their file. In addition we would shoot
portraits for passports, visas plus press releases and the annual report.
I must have shot over a thousand subjects. They would lineup Tuesday and
Thursday mornings down the hall of our door to our offices in the basement
of world headquarters.
I next was given
assignments to shoot "grip n grins". These were recognitions of
advancement or achievement where an employee would shake hands with his
boss or more likely his bosses boss while holding a plaque between them.
I'd also get sent to shoot anniversary and retirement parties. I had to
think on my feet and come up with the shot quickly. I would sometimes have
as many as 4 or 5 such assignments in a day, running from one to another.
Sometimes these were what I called suicide assignments where I would be
forced to shoot a bad picture because for instance I had to shoot a whole
department of 80 people and when I got there it was raining outside so we
had to do it in a way too small lobby. I really cut my teeth on these jobs
and only occasionally received any praise. More times than not I was told
what I did wrong or how I should have done it better. I didn't appreciate
it at the time but this did keep me motivated even when the work was not
the most exciting.
Eventually I got some assignments in the studio. Because I had been
working on it for years I was pretty good at doing table top shoots and
started shooting components in the studio both with the 4x5 and my
Hasselblad. I shot several glass awards that were challenging and tested
my ingenuity. They even let me shoot a few cars, mostly on location, such
as a design team surrounding a new truck in front of a building, but also
a couple of times in the studio.
With Ford I also got
to travel. I probably saw every facility Ford has in North America
(including Mexico and Canada). I also got to go to Europe once for the
Most of these assignments were as an assistant working on the Annual
Report or shooting the entire line in Palm Springs for press packages. I
contributed to 5 consecutive Ford Annual Reports. I saw glass plants where
they make windshields, engine plants, assembly plants, stamping plants
where they shape the sheet metal and even casting plants. I also got to
meet all of the top people in the company including 4 CEOs, the members of
the Board of Directors which included the CEOs of Coca Cola, Nabisco,
Hallmark Cards, Digital Equipment, among others and the entire Ford
At Ford I honed my skills and knowledge about shooting automobiles.
Interiors, Exteriors in the studio and on location. I learned about
portraiture, both studio and corporate environmental. I also learned about
architectural photography and even food photography as we would be sent
out to shoot new offices, hotels and restaurants built on Ford owned land.
And of course I perfected my skills in shooting table top as well as light
and heavy industry.
During my time at Ford
I had broken up with the girl I had dated and lived with for about 3
years. I met a new girl with who I bought a house together and soon after
then married. I setup the basement as a studio and one of the bedrooms as an
office. I now was up to a 150mhz computer and a used laser printer. I
designed a business card that held a slide and was very impressive to
everyone I showed it to. Because it looked like a slide I made my
letterhead look like a piece of sheet film. I had been marketing myself as
an assistant for some time and knew a little about how to deliver a
message. I designed and printed a series of postcards promoting my
commercial photography and started building a mailing list. I got names
from the phonebook, from newspapers and local trade magazines. My wife
called each of the names on our list to verify the information and see if
they ever hired photographers. She got me lots of meetings and a few
turned into projects.
I was slowly moving
away from Ford, taking only shooting assignments and avoiding assisting. I
was ready to move on.
It worked out
perfectly for me. I was just starting to get regular work from a variety
of clients. They all praised my work and the pay was 3 times what I made
at Ford. I even started doing jobs that resulted in photos worthy of
showing in my portfolio. Some of the clients would know exactly what they
wanted and in many cases they wanted a lot of pictures at the expense of
making great photos, however I also had clients who needed only a couple
of shots and wanted them to be inspired and graphical. I was given free
reign to design photos that utilized my graphic design skills along with
the technical tricks I'd learned to make what I called a "stopper" where
the viewer would stop to look at the image for a moment, captivated with
the composition and then letting the eye be lead. These shots not only
ended up in my portfolio but I also used them on my postcards. This lead
to more work. I was up and running.
That was over ten years ago.
more to come...Developing
my Commercial Photography Business
John Lacy's Resume
Written commentary ©2003
JOHN LACY All rights reserved.
Just to clarify; I formally created my business in 1987 when I started
shooting paid assignments for a variety of clients. In mid to late 1993
I stopped assisting and in early 1994 I left Ford to concentrate on my
photo clients full time. As such in 2007 I celebrated 20 years in
business, 25 years as a published photographer and 14 years working
exclusively as an independent shooter.