Studio Visit
Adam Voorhes, Photographer

It all started with the pistol, if only because it was “the simplest to do,” says photographer Adam Voorhes. He first studied the gun, looking for ways to segment it, then he took it apart so that its innards were exposed, right down to the bullet casings. “Some objects can be separated like a technical drawing, while others look more organic, like a football helmet with its straps weaving in and out,” he says. The pistol was squarely in the former camp. He took its disassembled parts and built a kind of 3-D installation, each part hanging from a fishing line in proximity, so that the gun would appear to have exploded in mid-air, a bit like the artist Damián Ortega’s axonometric Beetle or this iconic ad from the ’60s. The wires could be erased in Photoshop once Voorhes got the final shot. After the pistol he did an Etch-a-Sketch, and an old-school telephone, turning the studio experiments into his best-known series and then selling commercial clients like ESPN and Spirit magazine on the technique.

This is how Voorhes works — he is a commercial photographer. He’s not interested in gallery shows. He tests ideas, and then he sells them. “The exploded photos seemed to communicate to people, but the idea was just sort of an accident,” he insists, noting that he’d done loosely related work in the past for a technology magazine. “I was thinking of art directors I wanted to reach out to, just trying to figure out what they’d be interested in. I don’t do art for art’s sake. I like stuff being used, I like it being published, I like it having a purpose.” Voorhes fell in love with photography after taking a class in high school, and he ended up studying it all the way through his graduate degree at the Brooks Institute, which is where he discovered commercial photography. “Before then it never crossed my mind that the pictures in magazines were people working in studios making a living doing this,” he says. He began shooting beauty products while still in school, then moved to L.A. to assist the likes of Jack Andersen and Trevor Pearson. From there, he built a business. He’s constantly asked to be creative — especially when dreaming up novel ways to illustrate magazine stories — but what he really loves is using his camera as a way to study an object.

Based in Austin, Texas, since 2004, Voorhes now works with the art director Robin Finlay, who also happens to be his wife. Together they style and shoot ad campaigns for companies like Sweet Leaf Tea, Texas Monthly, and Full Throttle, a new energy drink by Coca Cola, often building intricate small- or large-scale sets from scratch. The exploded objects series has raised his profile and gotten him so much attention on the blogs that he’s begun working on a way to codify the approach: an online outlet for self-generated photo and illustration concepts with a thought-provoking slant, intended to help them go viral and their creators attract clients. Called Society for Thought, it should launch in six months. Meanwhile, we took a trip to Voorhes and Finley’s studio to learn more about how they work. Here’s the grand tour.

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The minute you enter Voorhes’s Austin, Texas, studio — which he shares with his wife and art director, Robin Finlay, and fellow photographer Matt Rainwaters — you see a conference table with some of his best-known work hanging above it: his exploded objects series, which resembles exploded axonometrics in architecture and engineering. It began as a self-initiated project and has since won him quite a bit of related commercial work, but coming up with the idea was, as he puts it, “just sort of an accident.”

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An exploded Etch-A-Sketch, which Voorhes chose to shoot because of its universal appeal. "It reminds people of their childhood," he says.

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The studio itself is about 2,000 square feet, and affords enough room to produce ambitious commercial product shoots and even custom-built sets. It’s part of a former industrial complex on the edge of town that’s been transformed into space for creatives and other small businesses.

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“These are props we used for a tiki cocktail story in Spirit magazine,” says Voorhees. “We built dioramas for the drinks, with hula girls and umbrellas inside. Robin finds the props in thrift stores, or on eBay, or we’ll special order them. We needed a scorpion bowl for this shoot, so we called a bar in town that does tiki Tuesdays and borrowed theirs. Most of the time the props get donated after, because we only have so much room for them here. The chalkboard has been in so many magazines it’s ridiculous: a Texas Monthly article on charter schools, where we made a classroom set, plus an ad where we made a stop-motion animation in chalk, and a photo for a magazine talking about football and love — because the Superbowl and Valentine’s Day are so close this year. We made a football diagram shaped like a heart with ‘XOXO’ at the bottom.”

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Some of the props Voorhes and his wife make themselves, like this remote control. “We made two of them to illustrate a story on using Bluetooth technology to control everything in the home of the future,” he explains. “They’re made from all kinds of stuff. The box was from some kind of audio mixing equipment, and the buttons and knobs are from Radio Shack. The little video screen was made out of an old camera filter, the antennas are from some remote control toy, and inside them is a flashbulb — it’s just a bunch of crap and some spray paint.”

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They also built this adding machine for a shoot out of office supplies like staples, file tabs, binder tabs, and Post-It notes.

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The studio’s chillout zone. “The book in the foreground is Helmut Newton: Sumo," says Voorhes. "I was never a huge fan of his until I read his autobiography — it blew my mind. I’m more obsessed with Irving Penn and Guido Mocafico. The photos above the sofa were from a campaign we did for Anthony Nak, a jewelry designer. We wanted to do a series that was low key and dramatic with taxidermy animals, so we went to this guy’s house who had well over 200 of them. When I’m working directly with a client like that, it’s more of a collaboration. When I’m going through an ad agency, everything’s signed off so fully beforehand, so we’re 100% doing whatever it is they’ve already sold. But a lot of what we do is for magazines, where they’ll send me an article, I’ll read it, and propose half a dozen concepts to convey the idea. We’re constantly producing ideas.”

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“This is a prized possession, purely for personal enjoyment,” Voorhes says of the Colt 45 lightbox ad at the back of the room. “Robin was searching for props one day on eBay and she stumbled upon this. We all got very excited and started bidding, but it went up to $200, so we were like, ehh, forget about it. Six months later we looked again and found three of them listed, and ended up getting it for something like $30.”

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Early mornings and late afternoons at the studio tend to be crazy busy, and the group routinely blows off steam with video-game breaks. “It’s a morning coffee thing,” says Voorhes. “You come in and there’s a million things you need to do, and your brain is a little fried, so you go over there for ten minutes to stop looking at one screen and look at another. My wife is a sweetheart, and she thought we needed someone to hold our beer or coffee while we were playing Soul Caliber, so she rigged this mannequin up for us. Behind it is a photo I shot for Sweet Leaf Tea, one of my first commerical clients here — those cutouts are all over Texas, at convenience stores and gas stations, and it’s one of those things I see around that’s mine that makes me happy.”

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“In the room behind the video games is a setup I’d just used the day of your visit. I do this a lot: If I want to photograph something floating on a black or white background, I’ll filter light through the translucent panel, place the background below the glass table, and shoot the object from above. It’s a setup I’ll use once or twice a week, a really easy way to photograph something. I don’t have any rules for my setups; typically it’s just looking at an object and figuring out how I want to balance the perspective, composition, and lighting. I typically use a small compact view camera that’s set up to shoot to a digital back. It’s about as crazy and specialized as it gets: an Arca-Swiss, which does all the same things as a 4x5 camera but is about half the size. I also use Hasselblads.”

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The back of the studio encompasses two rooms: one for equipment, and this one, for props. “This is a bunch of random stuff that we end up using a lot, like any food-related wares, or football helmets,” says Voorhes. “We did some work for ESPN and got a bunch of them, and any time any other magazine is doing something about football, they come out. The plastic brain we only used once, but it’s still there, I don’t know why."

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"There are also medical supplies like syringes and forceps, plus magnifying glasses, scale models, mannequin heads — that’s the kind of stuff that comes in handy over and over again,” he says.

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“Food shoots are harder than alcohol,” he says. "A lot more goes into cooking a dish to make it look correct, and a lot of food sounds delicious but isn’t pretty. Whereas liquid in a glass with ice and a sprig of mint is going to look great no matter what you do. We shoot cocktails for magazines every month; sometimes we fake it, and sometimes we have to get specialty alcohols, so there’s a lot that comes through the studio I suppose. We use real ingredients when we need to capture the true color of a drink, or the layering — the way you mix a juice and a liqueur or an alcohol, there’s a certain viscosity that looks different if you fake it.”

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Atop a shelf in the prop room, I spot a box labeled “Dead Things,” which turns out to be entirely literal: “I was showing my exploded photos to an art director friend of mine who suggested I explode a frog, so we ordered some frogs online. While we were at it, we figured we’d get a few other things: a squid, an octopus. Since then I also photographed a human brain for a magazine, which was kind of amazing. We borrowed it from a university; they let us bring it to the studio, which really surprised me. I really like doing science-related photos, so I try to pursue that — it’s just interesting to me. You really can get anything online.”

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When I asked to take a peek at a few of said dead things, Voorhes showed me a frog, a snake, and a few other animals carefully preserved in plastic bags, then pulled a homemade specimen out of the freezer. “I’ve used this bird a handful of times,” he says. “It flew into the window one day a couple years back and abruptly ended its life. I’ve since used it to photograph jewelry. My work goes back and forth — sometimes it’s dark and morbid, other times we’re asked to do stuff that’s very playful and kitschy. I think it’s hard to do too much of any one thing in this business, and anyway it’s nice to balance things out.”

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“There are wires everywhere in our studio,” he says. “Things need cords and plugs. The closet in that room has even more hammers and saws and all kinds of stuff — we build things from time to time. The garage set we made to shoot the ad for Full Throttle was the most ambitious — we constructed a whole room for the shoot.”

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A shot of the set, which Voorhes, Finlay, and their team built in a corner of the studio. It only existed for one day. “When we went to find the props, we ended up with so much stuff in the back of my car that the back end was sagging — scrap metal, all kinds of tools, old beat-up tool boxes. But it looked legit. We have these industrial tile floors here, and so we put down a surface to make it look like concrete. Faux concrete walls and floors — pretty ambitious.” Only a tiny sliver of the set is even visible in the final ad.

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The equipment room, which is full of backgrounds and seamlesses, gear, grips, lighting equipment, cameras, etc.

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A meticulously labeled toy-storage system. “We use stuff like this all the time — little people, little trees, little helicopters, trophies, water pistols, legos, googly eyes,” says Voorhes.

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“You’re telling a story, you have an article about dinosaurs to photograph that’s supposed to be a little lighthearted, and a little kitschy — it’s just a fun way to illustrate a concept," he adds.

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At the front end of the studio are Voorhes’s, Rainwaters’s, and Finlay’s desks, with a napping area for Voorhes's dogs — Emma and Catfish, two English bulldogs — in the middle. “The sofa was a prop that cost $40,” he says. “It was originally for someone else’s shoot, photographing store owners in the middle of a field somewhere, which Robin styled, and it’s been in a lot of photos since then.”

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Finlay’s desk, “with a photo we did for an article on the rock paper scissors world championship hanging above it,” says Voorhes. “It’s a serious competitive sport these days. We shot a rock, paper, and scissors, but made them look as though they’d been in a fight. Our idea-generating process starts with the publication itself — if their aesthetic is fun and playful, we go that direction; if it’s a tech or scientific magazine, we have to take it more seriously and make it visually exciting but more literal. A more journalistic story will have a cleaner look and a more neutral emotional tone. This was a silly, lighthearted story, so we approached it in a lighthearted way.”

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Rainwaters’s desk. “He photographs people, commercial portraiture and documentary work,” says Voorhes. “The guy in this shot is a homeless man, Danny. We were doing a project for a local nonprofit called Mobile Loaves and Fishes, whose goal is to feed the homeless and ultimately end homelessness. Robin was designing their magazine and Matt did these portraits for the campiagn. They also did a publicity stunt to help raise awareness for the cause: Danny stood on a billboard all day and night, and the sign above him said something like, ‘Text five dollars to this number to help Danny and Maggie get a home.’ He was up there for a week. But they got an RV for them, so they’re not homeless anymore.”

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The bulletin board hanging above Rainwaters’s desk. “The guy in the contact sheet, his name is Chuck, and he lives across the street from Matt’s grandparents,” says Voorhes. “Matt photographs people just to tell interesting stories about them, and that one’s significant to him. He’s also got this weird thing about jackalopes; I don’t know why, but Robin and I were at a junk store, and we found that antique postcard and bought it for him.”

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Rainwaters himself, looking a bit like Sean Penn circa Fast Times at Ridgemont High. “I took that picture of him,” says Voorhes. “We were just testing a camrea he got, making sure it worked. An old Polaroid Land Camera.”

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Voorhes’s own desk, with a recent commercial assignment up on the computer screen. “It’s what I was photographing on the black background you saw earlier — jewelry. It’s just an object on black, but I have a couple of jewelry clients and I take their work very seriously because these pieces are one of a kind, very high-end, very special. They’re as much pieces of art as they are products. The star chart above the desk was a prop we got when we were making a classroom, and it’s awesome, so I kept it. There’s a can of Full Throttle up there, which I needed for color reference when I was retouching the campaign we shot. Same with the bottle of booze.”

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There are stacks of Polaroids Voorhes took of his dogs everywhere — on his desk, pinned to the wall behind his desk, in the conference room, and more at home. “When they’re looking really cute, it’s hard not to take pictures of them,” he admits. "They're probably my most-favorite subjects to photograph."

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At the moment, though, he’s more focused on a different type of animal: insects, which he’s been experimenting with as a personal project. “I like getting in really close and making this tiny, tiny thing look gigantic,” he says. “There’s so much depth and texture to it that you can’t see with your eyes. I photographed bugs when I was living in New York almost seven years ago, but the equipment I have now is so much better, and I hope that I’m better now, too. So I really want to revisit it. I’ve been trying to explore showing the insects’ personalities, but they don’t have expressions like people do, so it’s really difficult. I’m also working on getting more human brains to shoot, but I want to do the opposite: I want to objectify them. Most people have an adverse reaction to that idea.”

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“Three years ago, before all the 3-D movies, I had this obsession with Viewmasters and 3-D photography,” Voorhes says. “I found a company to make these promos for me: One was a desert sand scene with a cowboy and horse, and this one is of a stump I dug out of my backyard when I was working on my garden. I photographed it with a normal camera; I took one picture of it, then moved the camera three inches to the right and took a second photo. Then you overlay them with the two colors that correspond to the glasses, and there you go, it works!”