Greg Preston’s book, The Artist Within, was an amazing coffee table book of photographic portraits of cartoonists, comicbook artists, animators, and illustrators in their studios. Now, almost a decade later, Preston is back, Kickstarting a second volume that features more amazing portraits including Derf Backderf, Brian Bolland, Randy Bowen, Dan Brereton, Ivan Brunetti, Mark Chiarello, Geof Darrow, Kim Deitch, Ramona Fradon, Drew Friedman, Dave Gibbons, Basil Gogos, Phil Hale, Carmine Infantino, Al Jaffee, James Jean, Phil Jimenez, Dave Johnson, Ollie Johnson, Chuck Jones, Gil Kane, Jack Kirby, Keith Knight, Adam Kubert, Andy Kubert, John Lasseter, Jae Lee, Steve Leiber, Bobby London, Jim Mahfood, Alex Nino, Dan Panosian, Trina Robbins, Steve Rude, P Craig Russell, J.J. Sedelmaier, Joe Sinnott, Jeff Smith, Steranko, Drew Struzan, Kent Williams, Al Williamson, William Wray, Dean Yeagle and many more.
Greg took some time to discuss the project, as well as reveal why it took almost a decade for a sequel and which artists he found the most intimidating.
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FOG!: Nine years ago, The Artist Within Book 1 was published. How long has Book 2 been in development and why did you choose to go to Kickstarter rather than a traditional publisher?
Greg Preston: Sure, when The Artist Within was published back in 2007, I actually had already photographed over 150 artists. When I got the publishing deal, I was asked to edit the images down to 100 for the book. It was pretty horrible having to pare it down, kind of like choosing children (Sophie’s Choice), but I really was ready to get a book published, and didn’t know if the chance would come again, so I edited.
Several of the artists that didn’t make the first book were not happy and dropped out of the project, but most understood and stayed. So after Book 1 came out, I started working on shooting to more portraits to fill out a second book of artists almost right away, I now have almost another 120 portraits.
To answer the second part of the question, I have been shopping the second book for the past 2 years without much success, shown it to several publishers who really didn’t know what to do with it, and Dark Horse while not saying no exactly, didn’t want to commit to it.
I’m not sure why though, the first book sold out 2 printings for a total of 4500 copies, but since the the first came out, the economy has changed dramatically and money’s gotten tight, so after talking with a few of my artists, and my friend John Fleskes who is a publisher who has done several successful Kickstarters, I decided it was time to give it a try.
In your work, you capture artists in their working environment. Is there a common thread that these individuals share that you haven’t seen elsewhere?
That I haven’t seen elsewhere? I don’t know, I just like seeing into the artists spaces, all the clutter, the art, the toys, the tools, It just is fascinating to me.
Among the icons you’ve photographed (including Jack Kirby, Moebius, Carl Barks, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane, Alex Nino, Drew Struzan, Steranko Frank Miller, Al Hirschfeld, Joe Barbera, Joe Simon, Gary Baseman, and Walter and Louise Simonson), were any of them particularly intimidating?
Interesting question, I have been intimidated by some of my artists, but I think it was mostly in my mind. I remember I was pretty nervous going to photograph Al Hirschfeld. He lived in this 3 or 4 story brownstone in Manhattan, and his studio was on the top floor. As we went up the stairs to the second floor, we passed a low table on the second floor landing, and laid out on the table were maybe 6 side by side stacks of 6-7 photographs per stack of Hirschfeld by some of the most famous photographers ever, that seemed strategically set there just for us, kind of like a gauntlet, all the gods of photography, I stopped to look and I remember there was a shot by Henri Cartier-Bresson, one by Alfred Stieglitz, another by Edward Steichen, I think there may have been one by Hiro and maybe 30-35 more, these were all of my photographic heroes, and I remember stopping and thinking “what am I doing here?”
I took me a few minutes to start breathing again and compose myself (laughing). He could not have been nicer or more accommodating, and I think the shots came out really well, there is an interesting outtake of him in this new book, standing, which may be the only shot of Hirschfeld standing ever taken, really!
Another would have been Chuck Jones. I don’t know why I was so nervous but as we set up in his studio, I was tongue tied, I just couldn’t think of anything to say.
He was sitting at the drawing table while we were setting up, and every so often he’d look up and say some thing like, “do you need any help”, ” do you want me to do something different” that went on for about 20 minutes until I had the lights in place, all the while I am thinking to myself “don’t say anything too stupid” (laughs). There was a book shelf right behind me full of erotic art books, and I remember saying something like “oh, you like erotic art? ”
He looked up and his eyes just sparkled, and he said “who doesn’t?”
The tension was broken and for the next hour while we photographed we talked about all kinds of stuff including erotic art and the differences between different cultures and erotic art, it was like talking to a professor, and it was like that for every other subject we talked about for the rest of the time we were there.
Are there any artists that you weren’t able to photograph and wish that you had?
There were several. I remember I had gotten Bob Kane’s phone number from a friend, so I called and left a message, and he called back almost immediately. I explained to him about the project, and that I really wanted to photograph him in his studio, and he said he wasn’t interested but that he would send me a signed photo if I wanted. I tried to explain that the project was really about me photographing him, and he was like, “Yeah, I’m not interested” so in desperation I pull the Jack Kirby card, I said “well you know I have Jack Kirby in the project”, and for a second I thought I had him.
He said “well it’s good you have Jack, but you really need me in the project, but I’m not interested”, and then he said “But you keep after me” (laughs).
I was never able to get him back on the phone after that, I wish I would have accepted the signed photo though, that would have been cool.
I did reach out to Steve Ditko via letter, and he sent me a very gracious letter explaining he was not interested, but thanks for asking. Who else, Gary Larson, Scott Adams. I really would have liked to photograph Bill Watterson, but no one would give me any info on him.
I’ve been told by several people that he just doesn’t do that, but you never know, maybe at some point? As you can see, I’ve been turned down by the very best! (laughing).
Outside of the work in these books, what kind of photography do you do and do you have any particularly favorite subjects?
I am a commercial advertising photographer here in Las Vegas. We specialize in Hotel and Resort Photography. Partially because of book one, I also have been lucky enough to be the official portrait photographer for Spectrum Fantastic Art Live in Kansas City the last couple of years, setting up a pop-up studio in the center of the trade show and making portraits of all the amazing artists and illustrators that attend the show. I think we are going back again this next year, so that’s pretty exciting. You can see some of those portraits on my website sampselprestonphotography.com
Who or what have been the biggest influences on your work?
When I was in school, my favorite influences were Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and a little later Albert Watson, Mark Seligar, Andrew Eccles.
What are you currently geeking out over?
I loved the new Star Wars and the new Star Trek movies, pretty much anything by J.J. Abrams. My kid keeps introducing me to great books to read, the most recent being The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, and also The Name of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss ( I know, I’m a little late to the game) Amazing Books! I love a bunch of the new art books coming from Flesk, The Art of ElfQuest books by Wendy Pini, and pretty much anything by Mark Schultz.