Commercial Photographer Steve Tague – Bend Oregon and New York City
Dog, Lifestyle, Industrial and Product Photography
March 5, 2018
Steve Tague, PhotoServe’s March Member of the Month, grew up in Southern California and studied at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. After school, he moved to New York City and assisted some of the top photographers in the world before going out and shooting on his own.
After his first son was born, Tague moved his family back to the west coast and began venturing outside of the studio. He shoots a variety of subjects and works out of studios in both Oregon and New York City. When not in the studio, he can be found chasing light, and sometimes dogs, with cameras all over the country. His clients range from dog-product manufacturers and liquor companies to wastewater treatment plants and lumber mills. In our Member of the Month interview, we find out what inspires Tague and how he became the versatile shooter he is today.
Peter Berberian: What made you first decide you were going to be a photographer?
Steve Tague: A Kodak Instamatic, a freezing cold California stream and Fotomat are what lit the photography fire for me. When I was 11 or 12 years old living in California, my parents took me up to a lake in the [Sierra Nevada mountain range]. They had a Kodak Instamatic they used to take family pics with and one day I decided to grab it and take some of my own photos. At one point, I was trying to get a picture but I just couldn’t seem to find an angle that worked for me. I ended up crouching in the water in the middle of this large stream in order to get a shot of the sunlight coming through trees and glistening on the water. I was freezing and soaking wet, but somehow satisfied and feeling like I got something special. Weeks later, after dropping off the 110 cartridge at a Fotomat, we got the photos back and there it was. I remember my dad asking, “How did you get that picture? It’s really good!” That’s all it took: some positive feedback from dad and I don’t remember ever putting a camera down since then.
PB: Is there a photograph you loved as a kid that pushed you into being a photographer?
ST: It was a moment more than a photo. Kind of like a lightbulb turning on, but in this case, it was a cigarette. It was just after high school and I was hanging out at a friends house talking to her dad, Bill. The sun had gone down and the room had gone dark. Bill took a draw from his cigarette and the end of it glowed bright orange in the darkness and lit up his face. He exhaled and asked, “Have you ever thought about being a photographer?” At the time, even though I loved taking pictures, I had no idea you could make a career out of it. He went on to tell me about a photographer that he had met and suggested I look into it.
That was the beginning. From there I ended up going to the Art Center College of Design and then moving to New York City.
PB: What do you primarily photograph?
ST: The range of my photo gigs have covered the spectrum from airplanes to [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg. My focus, no matter what the genre, is always keeping my style and lighting consistent. I started in Los Angeles and NYC as a product shooter. NYC especially really forces you to specialize, so I became a home furnishings product photographer. My first client was House Beautiful Magazine and from there I started shooting for other home furnishing magazines and for the companies that advertised in them. I was even quoted in the contributor section of a magazine saying that, “I loved shooting products because tables and chairs don’t whine and get tired like models do.” That’s not exactly how I wanted to be portrayed, but I was eventually forgiven by my living subjects.
After years of shooting in NYC I moved to the Pacific Northwest. Outside of Portland and Seattle, the Pacific Northwest is not as specialized as the larger cities so if you tell someone that you’re a product photographer, they may ask if you can shoot their daughter’s wedding next month. But, it provided me with the opportunity to shoot people, dogs, lifestyle, food and architecture, and still get my fill of products in the studio. I also travel quite a bit now between Oregon and NYC, with an occasional job in LA. When I’m in New York, I shoot out of Dakota Studio on Fifth Avenue, which is right below the studio I had when I lived there full-time. (It’s no coincidence that my oldest kid is also named Dakota!)
Over the past couple of years, I have really enjoyed photographing the energy and connection between dogs and people. Industrial work has also become a focus. Both of them are extremely challenging and require a lot of technical ability to do it right. I love being challenged and lighting things so they don’t look lit.
PB: Do you do anything before a shoot to prepare yourself?
ST: The creative process is one of the things I love about my job. I really enjoy it when the agency or company asks me to be a part of their brainstorming sessions; figuring out how to achieve their goal with the image. Participating allows me to explain what is possible to get in-camera and what is possible or needed to be done in post. While most art directors are aware of this stuff, it’s always great to be on the same page before going into the shoot. When you’re actually a part of the process and not just there to take pictures, I think the cohesiveness shows in the final product.
I’m also a firm believer that being prepared is key. Whether the shoot is on-location or in the studio, I put in a lot of preparation for each job. Lighting, from the sun or from my lights is always the largest piece for me. Mentally, I go through the shoot in my head several times, working the lighting setup and running through various scenarios that may come up. By the time the actual shoot comes around, I’ve already been there.
PB: What is your favorite set up to shoot with?
ST: I love the 4×5 camera. I still have the Linhoff Karden and the Schneider lenses that I used at Art Center and throughout the days of film. It’s unfortunate that most jobs just don’t give me the time needed to be able to utilize such a great tool.
Most of my shooting is done with Nikon D5’s these days. Especially anything that is moving. And while I’ve always been a prime lens shooter, I absolutely love my Nikon 24-70 f/2.8. For people and portraits, my Nikon 85mm f/1.4 usually does the trick.
PB: Who are your greatest influences in the art world? And why?
ST: When I first studied some of the paintings of the old masters, Caravaggio really stood out to me. The light he created was stunning. The depth, the detail and even the shadows blew me away. It was the first time I looked at paintings as if they started from a black canvas and bits of light were added to reveal the subject.
Rubens is another painter that I really enjoy and I think the way he used light was similar to Caravaggio. But to me, his light showed more sculpting of his subjects and not quite as much contrast and depth in his scenes.
I can spend days in museums looking at the old master’s paintings, studying their light and just soaking in the beauty and the history.
PB: What is your favorite photography quote?
ST: “Light is not so much something that reveals, as it is itself the revelation.” That’s from James Turrell, but I really wish I had said it.
I also heard one a while back that I think is really fitting these days. “Go outside, pick up a rock, throw it in any direction and chances are you’ll hit a photographer.” That one may have been me. Just saying.
PB: Who are your three favorite photographers? And why?
ST: Pete Turner is the first photographer whose work really influenced me and that helped me to see things differently. His color, composition and bold graphics mesmerized me. Eric Meola, who assisted Pete and had a very similar style, also created work that I love. He continues to produce beautiful images.
I think Albert Watson’s work is perfection. I love the way he captures his subjects and reveals just enough of them with his light, like a sculptor. In a way, a lot of his work reminds me of the paintings of the old masters.
And then there’s J. Barry O’Rourke. He is my hero. Not because he was Chief Staff Photographer at Playboy and traveled the globe photographing the most beautiful women in the world. And not because he was one of the founding partners of The Stock Market, one of the first stock photography agencies. But because he taught me, and everyone else that worked in his studio, how to treat people and live life.
I was fortunate enough to meet Barry and his brother Gene, who was an agent for Pete Turner, Leroy Neiman and many others, through a mutual friend just before I entered Art Center. They became good friends and were the reason I moved to NYC from LA. I assisted Barry during my first years in the city and learned a lot about photography and the photo business. With Barry, we could be photographing Donald Trump one day, girls in underwear for Playtex the next and then pack up and head for Jamaica to shoot for a magazine that night. Not only did I learn how to photograph just about anything from working with Barry, I learned how to deliver beyond expectations.
Most of all, Barry taught me how to treat not only clients, but everyone that walks into the studio. Assistant, stylist, model, another photographer, messenger or creative director, everyone was treated with respect and as a friend. It made for such a great work environment. He liked to say, “If you can’t have fun doing it, you shouldn’t be doing it.” He also said that a photographer can’t work on an empty stomach, and we usually ate pretty well.
PB: If you were to do anything else for a living, what would it be?
ST: That’s funny. I’ve been telling people that if I weren’t a photographer I’d be a professional wrestler or doughnut critic, because of my love for contact sports and baked goods. But honestly, I’m not sure. I would need to do something creative, and I love numbers for some odd (or even) reason. So, maybe I’d be in the marketing department of a large accounting firm.
PB: What is your favorite photo that you have taken?
ST: This past Summer I was down in Arizona shooting for a performance dog gear company. We were photographing Nico Barraza, an ultra runner sponsored by La Sportiva, and his dog, Sol. It was early, the sun was coming up and I was laying in the wet grass, shooting Nico and Sol running down a trail trying to capture the bond they had between them. I had lost my dog, Rocco, earlier in the year. Rocco was my buddy, my third son who never left my side. After a few passes by Nico and Sol I started thinking about Rocco, wishing he were there with us. At that moment, Sol broke away from Nico, which he hadn’t done previously, and came over and laid down next to me. Everyone was calling for him to reset with Nico so they could do another pass but, for a couple moments, he just stayed there with me. It was as if somehow he knew what I was thinking.
The image I got from that setup was used on the cover of their Spring/Summer ’18 catalog. I can’t look at it without thinking of Rocco.
PB: What is your favorite personal picture you have taken? Why?
ST: It’s more of a series of photos. I was a single dad for several years. My boys, Max and Dakota, have always meant the world to me. When they were young I set a backdrop up in my garage and took some photos of them together. Years later, I thought it would be fun to do the same setup to see how they’ve changed. Well, they may have grown up, but they certainly haven’t changed that much. The photos totally capture their personalities and serve as a reminder to me of just how fast they grow up. I love those shots of my boys.