Sacha Waldman

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Sacha Waldman's album cover for rap star Nas currently looms over the tourist masses in New York's Times Square. Quite an achievement in itself, but for the 31-year-old Waldman, things are only starting to come together. The New York-based shooter has already had enough music and celebrity work to fill a separate hip-hop portfolio, with portraits of Eve, Ja Rule and Erykah Badu, among many others, but he's eager to make his next step: landing a big ad campaign. On the other hand, he's prepared to be patient. "I haven't been thrown a huge campaign, which is not a bad thing," he says. "I don't look at it negatively because it's got to be done properly to harness yourself into a vision, to stamp yourself onto the world."

Nevertheless, Waldman, who's represented by Levine & Leavitt, has already developed a personal signature, seen in his work for the School of Visual Arts, in its 1999 "Put Your Passion Into a Program" campaign. The posters, designed as well as photographed by Waldman, feature offbeat characters like a birdwatcher and a bumpkin adman in surreally intricate environments. Densely textured and detailed, from the tiny creases in a face to hairs on a leg, the images look perplexingly half-real. It's uncertain whether they're the work of a skilled photographer or a painter.

In a way, they're a bit of both. Waldman shot all the elements in-camera, then fused them in PhotoShop. While he readily embraces digital tools, "straight photography is the biggest building block behind what I do," he notes. "People tend to forget that you have to have the fundamentals of a photographer in order to do digital. The digital thing is just another color in the palette. I do a lot of straight photography and use that knowledge all the time. The digital side gives me far more latitude to be creative. But it's very subtle. I often will put digital with straight photographs in a row, and people can't tell the difference."

A veritable globetrotter, Waldman was born in Italy and grew up in South Africa, where he studied photography for three years at a technical school in Durban. He lived in London and dabbled in the arts before moving to New York six years ago, where he freelanced as a graphic designer. He was working with ad veteran Ed McCabe when he created the SVA campaign, but Waldman's biggest advertising project to date has been for the long-running "Milk Mustache" campaign, out of Bozell/New York. Bernie Hogya, Bozell ECD and one of the creators of the campaign, says that Waldman fit the bill perfectly for an ad that featured the final three cast members of Survivor II. "I wanted it to look like a movie poster, a Mad Max kind of thing," Hogya explains. "We pulled in a lot of portfolios, and Sacha's book just blew me away. He shoots super sharp portraits that include massive amounts of detail, and he has a talent for placing his subjects into incredibly creative landscapes. Most important is that no matter how complex and layered Sacha's images are, he manages to make sure the subject is the hero of each shot. It's a very complicated thing to do, but because of the way he lights and he post-processes the film in PhotoShop, the subjects just pop."

Waldman shot the cast members in the studio and PhotoShopped them into a terracotta landscape that he shot in New Mexico. Being involved from start to finish was only natural for him. "I have an ethical problem with someone else doing the retouching," he says. "You paint something on a canvas and it's yours. You aren't going to let someone else take it over. It's the same thing with a photograph; I have to do the retouching myself."

Waldman's current work remains character-driven but he's been moving steadily toward story-based images, evident in recent projects he shot for The New York Times Magazine, Graphis and Black Book. As for advertising, he just shot a campaign for MVBMS and the Partnership for a Drug Free America. His rigorous casting demands, which involved finding real drug users, reveal another recurring theme in his work - an appreciation for the real-life subject, which he hopes will make an impression on agencies. "In advertising or media there's a certain mentality of how products should be perceived, and then you just walk out into the street and you see the ugly and the interesting. It's everywhere and I'm so inspired by that. I'm always trying to bring real people into what I do. It just kind of makes an even balance. The world is youth-obsessed, which is really starting to scare me. People are starting to lose the identity of what reality is. A couple of wrinkles here and there I think are beautiful. Let yourself go a little bit."

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