Joel Grimes: Passion & Obsession in Iconic Photography

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For every variety of creative professional, attention to detail is key. The process of developing a work of art requires an obsessive eye for perfection—from start to finish.

Joel Grimes, who’s been a commercial advertising photographer for more than 30 years, understands this relentless precision better than most. His signature technique requires dramatic overhead and side lighting that results in edgy, impressive photographs that appear in advertising and marketing materials for global brands—as well as Grimes’ own passion projects. This technique lends itself well to Grimes’ love for sports photography, which he applies to both his passion projects and to his client work.

“I love making [athletes] look like superheroes,” says Grimes, whose interest in sports began in high school. “What I like to do is think about my pictures almost like they’re movie posters.”

As Grimes built his career in portraits—first photographing athletes at the University of Arizona, and later shooting for advertisements for global brands—he experimented obsessively with lighting until he perfected his technique.

And it wasn’t long before Grimes’ relentlessness paid off, and he was able to do more sports photography—and apply his technique to his existing clients.

“As a kid I was really drawn to album covers,” Grimes says. “I love that imagery, that bold statement: this is what this person is about.”

It was with that mindset that Grimes was able to take on his most challenging project: a campaign that would show five famous athletes perched on the roofs of buildings high above the cities where they play.


photos by Joel Grimes

Going to Great Lengths for a Great Photograph

So how do you get a photograph of then-Chicago Bears’ wide receiver Devin Hester on top of a building in Chicago? Enter one of Grimes’ specialties: Compositing.

Creating exceptional, believable composited photographs presents special challenges, but with nine years of experience and a keen eye for detail, Grimes set to work.

“[Compositing] opened a huge door for me, but the logistics of getting all of those elements at the same time is really challenging and expensive,” Grimes says. He mitigates that challenge by developing an extensive library of photographs he can use for composites. “Early in the morning I get up and roam the streets of downtown and take photos.”

For the athlete project, he started out with players in a studio, having them crouch or sit or stand heroically on crates.

But then he had to get shots on the roofs of buildings in New Orleans, Chicago, Philadelphia and other cities. He started out with a location scout, but had no luck there. So he started calling the buildings and working his way up the chain of command to a building manager. He said the process of getting permission—navigating permissions, signing waivers and liabilities policies to get on top of buildings that, in some cases, no one had ever been on—sometimes took 50 phone calls or more.

“Being a photographer is not just about taking pictures,” Grimes says. “It’s about all the other hats you have to wear: being a location scout, getting props, making phone calls. People think I have a staff of ten people.”

The Value of the Print

Naturally, Grimes’ obsessive attention to detail extends to the print as well. Nothing, he says, is more rewarding than seeing his work on the wall—and that requires a high-performance printer.

“Standing in front of the print and saying ‘I did that’ is the best feeling in the world,” Grimes says. “The print on the wall is literally the greatest expression that an artist could do. It’s everything, the ultimate final expression.”

Fortunately for Grimes, his Canon imagePROGRAF PRO Series printer allows him to control the entire creative process.

“The print on the wall is literally the greatest expression that an artist could do. It’s everything, the ultimate final expression.”

“The quality of paper has gotten better, the inks have gotten better, the longevity is better,” Grimes says. “In the darkroom there were always differences between the photos. Now I can be consistent with my outputs. It’s a wonderful time in history to be able to make a beautiful print off of a machine without using the darkroom.”

Printed work is essential for portfolio building, Grimes says. The printed pieces you include in your portfolio define your personal style, so quality is essential. Grimes advises building a photography portfolio out with about 25 percent client work and 75 percent self-assignments. Self-assignments, after all, truly demonstrate a creative’s passion and skill.

For the final print, Grimes uses both the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 and larger PRO-4000 to deliver stunning shadow reproduction, higher density blacks, precise color recreation and superior anti-clogging technology for a print that can last 200 years or more.

“It’s pretty amazing quality, and the resolution is beyond what our eyes can see—and better than what your monitor can provide,” Grimes says.


Photography in the Digital Age

While Grimes has seen great success with the advent of new technologies, the downside, he says, is the way members of the digital generation fly through images in seconds. “When you think of the amount of information my kids store versus someone my age, it’s just incredible.”

It’s his dedication to the craft and commitment to the tangible print that has helped him stand out in this environment.

“The digital explosion has fallen at the later part of my career, which has been great for me. I’ve been able to adapt to the digital age with the old-school discipline.”

It’s that old-school discipline that drives Grimes’ dedication to perfection. The key, he says, is following his instincts and creating something truly unique.

“I have to minimize external influences and let my intuition be my guide,” he says. “Things happen in life that influence you in the rest of your life, and that’s what makes you unique.”

Showcase what makes your obsession unique with the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO Series.