Patrick Hoelck didn't begin his career as a photographer. In fact, he refers to his primary occupation of the past six-and-a-half years as a "grateful accident." Hoelck began as a youngster in New York City working in the music video world during what he calls the "rap era."
His involvement in video was highly formative, as it taught him about lighting, now so central to his work, and also forced him to learn quickly, as the attitude of the time was "sink or swim." He worked for influential figures for whom he was, " a personal slave," moving furniture and doing set-ups. "I got lucky to meet all these people and to work for them." The downside of this phase was his secret, but increasingly distressing drug habit, which ended with Hoelck checking himself into a rehab facility.
After getting clean, Hoelck returned to video work, but felt different about it. "I was on this massive half million dollar set and not really feeling creative or able to express myself." As an outlet while in rehab, Hoelck had begun to experiment with shooting stills. He focused on a documentary style, shooting at festivals like Lollapalooza, and followed stories of gangs and street life. He realized it was this kind of freedom that he wanted to pursue in his work, which meant taking the leap to pursue photography and which also led to his move to Los Angeles.
Hoelck's current work is a marriage of distinct influences. "I have a set sensibility," he explains. "I took the freedom of the documentary [photography] and the stage lighting and introduced them to each other." From celebrity portraiture to experimental nudes that walk the line between fine art and high fashion, Hoelck's work has a wide spectrum of possibility, all the while retaining his signature look. He has been working in two methods most recently, one with a full crew of at least three assistants, and the other alone with his subject. He is equally enthusiastic about both approaches. Having a crew allows him the freedom he loves to change things with the subject present. "They [his crew] can bust it [his lighting schemes and set preparation] in an hour." This ability to avoid the stress of long, complicated set-ups means he can focus on the subject and have the time to get the image he wants. This permits the subject to be in and out without a lot of hassle. He also feels this lack of stress on the set results in a better rapport, although he feels equally at ease with his subject whether working with a crew or alone. He sees the two styles as mutually supportive; the somewhat more personal work he does alone supports his work with a crew and vice versa.
When asked how he conceives of his distinctive lighting schemes, he is at a loss for words. "I don't know," he says. "It's just the way I see things. I don't put a lot on that [the specifics of the lighting design]." He does specify that his vision is always evolving with new and subtle refinements that may not be apparent to the casual viewer. "We're doing new stuff all the time. New changes. People might not see the changes, but they are happening."
When asked about influences on his work, Hoelck cites mainly painters. He says he was lucky to be around many of them early on and felt that they knew more about light than most photographers. As for specific artists, he goes back in time and mentions Velazquez. "He does amazing stuff," and in a more comtemporary vein, " I also love the spontaneity of Basquiat." Another less concrete influence is what Hoelck calls the "music video lawlessness" of his early years in New York. "You used to be able to pop out at 42nd street-Times Square with lights and the police would block for you because they didn't know what was going on. It was a fun movement." Recent work with Ben Harper and Alicia Keyes has re-ignited that sense of freedom.
Patrick also talks about how he views the career aspect of his work. He feels that if he thought about his work primarily as a business, "it would change a lot." He emphasizes that he is not interested in making images that are purely commercial or "visual wallpaper," the industry buzz-word he references. His primary goal is satisfaction with the work. "I'm happy with the images. I don't have to sneak a look in the mirror [at myself] and cry about them." He points out that in the commercial world it's harder to be "a little darker, a little freaky. It's a struggle." And while he is clear that, "we're not eating out of cans," he estimates that he probably misses out on about two million a year by refusing to conform.
Beyond this, Hoelck has continued his dedication to shooting analog photography. He shoots with a Toyo 4x5, a Mamiya 6x7, and with Polaroid. He only uses the Hasselblad H1 digital when shooting commercial jobs that need very quick turnover or when shooting for some very large formats, such as billboards. He sticks it out with film because of its aesthetic. Digital is, "not quite where I want it." He compares it to the difference between television and movies. He chuckles that despite amazing advances digital still looks, "a little porno."
This decision about materials has made him feel a bit like a dinosaur. He describes teaching
at the Art Center and how the students were dumbfounded that he would still use film. He says they kept saying, "It's going to be gone in six months so why should we bother with it?" He thought to himself, "I had it today and I hope I'll have more [film] tomorrow." Despite its slightly slower processing time and the fact that it makes him a bit of an anomaly in the commercial field, Hoelck is committed to the aesthetic film provides. He also prefers the work ethic it generates regardless of which medium he is working in. "I work really hard to make it [the image] come out right and I hold onto that even with digital." This also means his work is corrected as minimally as possible in post-production. He is grateful to "Joe and Chrissy at Digital Fusion for their retouching work and their support."
Even with these choices that make him something of an oddity in the current commercial market, Hoelck's dedication and unique style have gotten him noticed and have generated high-profile work. A fine art project he did early in his career, a book of short stories and images of women called "Tar," led to a show in New York. After seeing the show, Levi's approached him and asked him to be one of the photographers to shoot their "low rise" campaign. He loved this development. "It was so spontaneous," he says. Another break came from a contact with Vincent Gallo, who picked Hoelck over photography giant Avedon to shoot Gallo for the cover of Flux magazine in the U.K. "He had belief in me," Hoelck says of Gallo. This job got him in with many more editors since he had been chosen over the famous Richard Avedon (now deceased), even if only for one job. With this boost things were, as Hoelck puts it, "immediately ok."
Since then, Hoelck has shot scores of celebrities and says the experience has been incredibly positive. "I guess I'm lucky. Most people have been very gracious. It is such a pleasure to work with them." He has particularly fond memories of working with Dolly Parton, and also speaks of how pleased he was with the results of his shoot with Clint Eastwood.
When asked what's in store for him in the future, Hoelck has lots of ideas. "I'm more than just a photographer," he says. He is certainly not giving up his roots in film and video. He runs a film company called Fidel Films and is developing several features to write and direct. In the photography world, he is currently working on a new fine art book. Beyond that he is very excited about a venture he describes as being in the tradition of Andy Warhol, with lots of artists working and collaborating together. His excitement about this is palpable. He feels the cross-influence of artists makes everyone's work "better and smarter and more artistic." He says he loves being around other artists. "They excite me."