Paul Elledge

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As befits, we suppose, a guy with a rock pedigree - he's done just about all the art direction and photography for industrial band Ministry's albums since 1990, and he's even directed some of their videos - Paul Elledge has some way cool portfolio cases. They're hand-decorated by Elledge in a sort of psychedelic Day-Glo paisley, and if they announce "fun and quirky," so does his high-profile work for Washington Mutual and agency Sedgwick Rd., whose recent outdoor blitz in the New York area has put his images front and center in a way few ad campaigns can match. Not that Elledge , 43, is a newcomer to ad shooting. He's been at it since the '80s, and he's also done plenty of rock photography for Rolling Stone and others, but he'll acknowledge that Washington Mutual - he was shooting a second round of the campaign at press time - is the kind of ad exposure that doesn't come along every day. "Yes, it made a big splash and the pictures are very quirky, especially for a bank," but Elledge defines success "as doing pictures you like to do. And that's what I've been doing all along, whether they end up in Rolling Stone or in a cereal ad."

The Chicago-based Elledge (see paulelledge.com) is a native of Springfield, Ill., and he was a camera bug from the third grade on. He studied photography at Southern Illinois University, assisted for about four years for Marc Hauser and others and went on his own in 1985. He was doing some ad work back then, but he was mainly a rock shooter and he's been so tight with Al Jourgensen and the nice fellas in Ministry over the past 13 years, he's even gone on tour with them. Not that he's some kind of corroded-metal head; "I like all kinds of music. I got hooked up with Ministry when I was supposed to shoot them for Spin and they didn't show up. When I finally got ahold of them, I said some bad things. So they showed up the next day, and they liked the fact that I was playing Hank Williams and that I'd stood up to them and wasn't afraid of them. All of a sudden we were best buddies."

This, apparently, is key to Elledge's portrait success: the photographer as fearless leader and the subject as fearless sitter. "I don't have a name for the kind of people shooting I do," he says. "I try to take pictures that look like the people trust themselves. They're passionate people with integrity, and everything else can go where it goes because they believe in themselves. That's why the photographs can have a certain curiosity or funk to them - because they're depicting people who trust their attitude and intelligence. Whether you're a lawyer, a banker, a plumber or a rock star, everybody has a point of view and a vision. When they're secure in themselves and confident in their abilities, they're free. That's what I think people are picking up on with Washington Mutual. It's the kind of thing usually associated with celebrities - 'Here's my hair and my clothes and my style, and it's me.' I'm trying to photograph that sort of confidence, where you're not afraid of failure and you believe in yourself."

Case in point: Mike Ditka for Consort men's styling products. "If you walk down the street and there's a pit bull and you exude a certain confidence, you can pet him and he'll be nice; if you don't exude that confidence, he'll chew you up. That's how Ditka is. I've shot Bo Jackson, and he's the same way. All my shoots are very tight and we're very organized. As long as you do what you say and say what you do, you're fine. If you go off course, anybody in a position of power will exploit that and eat you alive."

The bulk of Elledge's transition from rock to advertising occurred "somewhere in the mid-'90s when all this dot-com stuff started," he recalls. "A lot of agencies wanted to retool the look of their clients, so they went to photographers outside of their usual realm." Elledge has even shot quirky kids for Quaker and others, and while he notes there are shooters who specialize in kids, "I don't specialize in anything but an attitude. People are hiring me more for my point of view than for what's in the picture."

Elledge is a medium-format "traditionalist" who hasn't flipped over digital and whose major influences are not rock shooters but Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. "They shoot people, they're innovative and they do work that's used in commerce and hangs in art galleries." But at the same time, he's done some commercials directing (see mrbigfilm.com), and he'd like to do more. "I started directing in '91 on the side, and 10 years from now I could see myself doing more directing and just doing photography for myself."

Just don't lose those portfolio cases, man.