Home on the Range

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Jason Smith and Chris Wimpey are on the phone from Jackson, Wyo., headquarters for next year's Harley-Davidson print campaign. "The main thing with Harley is we want to shoot dramatic, real places," says Smith, an art director at Minneapolis agency Carmichael Lynch. "And we're going to go off the beaten path to places that really get the rider out there." Wimpey, a San Diego-based photographer who is shooting the H-D campaign for the second year in a row, adds simply, "We do whatever it takes to get the shot."

Smith and Wimpey return to Big Sky country on the heels of a recent win at the Magazine Publishers of America's Kelly Awards, where the 2002 Harley campaign took home the Grand Kelly - Carmichael Lynch's first since a win for Schwinn work in 1994 - as an outstanding example of magazine advertising. Shot on various locations in southeastern Wyoming - Smith won't be more specific - the winning campaign features Harley motorcycles shot against rolling ranges and big skies, along with wry headlines about the freedom of the road. Reads one: "May all your encounters with the law start with the words 'Nice Harley.' " "Those were some of my favorite photographs we've ever done, because of the location," says CD Jim Nelson, adding that before last year the campaign had been shot in California. "It's so graphic, but it's not a desert. It's got the rolling sky and some vegetation. It's very distinctive."

According to Michell Phelan, manager of the Wyoming Film Commission, the state hosts between 15 and 20 commercials shoots a year, in addition to still photography projects like the Harley campaign. All that big sky is particularly attractive for car shoots, and Phelan says Lexus, BMW, Acura and Nissan have all used it as a backdrop. "We definitely have an environment that lends itself to cars," she says. "We have wide open spaces and lots of performance roads." Wyoming's evocative terrain has also served as a feature location for Westerns like John Ford's 3 Bad Men and Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves and has appeared in sci-fi pics like Star Trek, Starship Troopers and, of course, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which Devil's Tower National Monument is practically part of the cast. John Wayne pictures like The Big West and Hellfighters were filmed there too, making it the perfect setting for Harley-Davidson's ultra-American image.

The iconic brand does put demands on a location, however. As far as possible, Smith says the campaign uses single pieces of film. Of the three ads in the Kelly-winning campaign, only one - "Nice Harley" - was retouched, and then only to remove some wires and a post. The campaign also avoids recognizable landmarks, like Devil's Tower, which Smith promises you'll never find in a Harley ad. "The other thing we won't compromise on at all is natural light," he says. "We won't light the bikes."

Wimpey credits the locations to New York scout Jake Mills, who has worked on the campaign for the last two years. "The kind of stuff we do for Harley includes a lot of intangibles," Wimpey says. And, particularly with the campaign's commitment to natural light, it requires some patience. Smith recalls that 40 minutes before the shot was snapped for one of the Kelly winners, "Peanuts," snow was falling and the temperature was in the 20s. Wimpey needed a pile of sandbags just to stabilize his tripod. The result is the most striking photo of the campaign - a lone rider under dark clouds that can't quite eclipse the blue sky. "Somewhere on an airplane," the headline reads, "a man is trying to rip open a small bag of peanuts."

As with this year's campaign, Smith won't disclose the exact locations for the current shoot, other than to say that it sometimes involves places where the local film commissioner is also the town preacher. He allows that it will take place primarily in Montana and parts of Idaho. "I like that part of the country," says Nelson. "What we want for Harley are these big, epic photos. In Wyoming, you get that Big Sky America."

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