THE MAN BEHIND “THE ARTIST WITHIN” – AN INTERVIEW WITH GREG PRESTON
Books about the comics industry and field don’t get any better than Dark Horse Books’ “The Artist Within” by Greg Preston. Assembled in this extravagant collection of portraits are the soul, gusto and imagination of over one hundred fine comic book artists, cartoonists and other graphic visionaries. From the immortal Jack Kirby to the youthful Adrian Tomine, we see the story of each artist in ways that words could never capture them. Here are all of our real heroes sharing their homes and personalities like never before. The millions of stories on all their faces make this book forever priceless. The lovely work in this tome was an odyssey to which professional photographer Greg Preston devoted 15 years of passion and commitment. “The Artist Within” is the first book of its kind in our field: one that forever tell us that real happiness is being true to one’s heart.
Greg, what led to your career as a professional photographer?
I started out wanting to be a comic book artist and all through high school I would take art classes and draw, and draw, and draw. When I got to college, I went to UNLV for two years and became a fine arts major, and continued drawing, but I was never great. And kept working at it. About halfway through my college here in Las Vegas, one of the teachers pulled me aside and she goes, “You know, you want to be an illustrator. You don’t want to be a fine artist. You need to go to an illustration school.” So I switched and I went to the community college here, and startied getting a degree in graphic design. And while I was there, and I was still painting and drawing a lot, I was still taking pictures for reference, and fell in love with photography. So I graduated with a degree in graphic design, and then went to another school in southern California, called Art Center College of Design, and studied photography. That’s how I got into it. Then, when I graduated, I got out and became a photographer.
What type of things have you done? Did you do a lot of freelance photographs for newspapers or magazines?
That’s what I do. I’m an advertising photographer. I do a lot of magazine work. Mostly, because I’m here in Las Vegas, our biggest clients are casinos. We do a lot of casino photography. And then we travel around the country doing the same thing. And then we do a lot of portraits and a lot of corporate photography. Things like that.
How long have you been a fan of comics? What were the comics that you really adored?
Oh, God. I remember very distinctly when I started reading comics. It’s funny. When I was 13 years old, I was hanging with a friend of mine, and we were over at his house, and he goes, “Hey, do you want to read comics?” And I had never read comics before. And I go, “Sure.” And so he goes under the sink in his bathroom, pulls out this stack of comics that’s probably a foot tall, and handed it to me. He said, “Here, pick something. Let’s read.” And the top comic, I’ll never forget, was a Neal Adams “Green Lantern/Green Arrow,” the drug issue. I read it and I couldn’t believe how great it was and that was the beginning of it. So he gave me that whole stack of comic books. He says, “Well, here, take ’em. Enjoy.” After I read all those, I started tracking comics down, and I’d go to 7-11 and buy them. I got a job when I was, like, 14, at 7-11, stacking the shelves so I could get free comic books, things like that. Then, as comic book stores started opening, there was one here in Las Vegas, and I kind of got a job there and just continued working at it.
So where did the inspiration for your book come from?
When I was at Art Center in LA, in the second semester I was there, there was an assignment to photograph an artist. And my friend, Lyn Pederson, had a comic book store here in Las Vegas called Page After Page, and so I knew that he knew a lot of people in LA. So I called him and I said, “I need to photograph an artist.” He said, “Well, you know somebody in LA. You know Scott Shaw!” I had met Scott through Lyn at his store, at a signing in, like, 1982, I think. I called, Lyn gave me Scott’s number and I called him, and I lined up and I took a portrait of him in his apartment with all his cool stuff. We became friends, and so, throughout the next three years, while I was in school, I would kind of keep in touch with Scott and see what was going on. When I got out of Art Center, I was still living in LA, and I was looking for a project to do outside of just being a photo assistant, which is what I was doing after I got out of school. The natural thing to do after you get out of school is to go apprentice with someone. So I was doing that in LA, I’d go around and I’d be an assistant for this photographer, or that photographer. And it was kind of burning me out after three years. Art Center is one of those schools that just beats the living daylights out of you, but, when you’re done, you’re as good as anyone working. And so I was looking for something to do, and I started photographing science fiction and fantasy authors at book signings, where I’d find out when the book signing was, and I’d go find the store, and I’d ask the person, “Could I do a portrait of this artist in your store?” And I’d go in and set up a portrait backdrop, right in the middle of the store during the signing, and take a portrait of them right there while they were signing. They’d look up, and I’d get them to pose. So I was working on that, photographing authors. I photographed people like William Gibson, who did a book called “Neuromancer” – that was phenomenal. Then I photographed Octavia Butler, Peter Beagle, and Stephen Donaldson, eventually. I got about thirty or so different authors going on this, and it was pretty cool. About 1988, I was at Comic Con and I was showing
this portfolio of authors around. And I met Jean-Marc Lofficier, who is Moebius’s manager. Moebius was there, signing, and I didn’t have any money. So I went up and I was talking to Jean-Marc, and I said, “Do you ever need any photography?” And he said, “I do need photography. Give me a call.” He gave me his card, and I ended up working for them, doing photography for Star Watcher Graphics. It was during ’87, ’88, I ended up doing a portrait of Moebius for a magazine article, and that kind of got me thinking, “How cool is that, to be able to photograph this guy?” I showed it to Scott Shaw!, and Scott was like, “You know what you should be doing? Instead of authors, you should be photographing comic book artists.” I was like, “I would love that, but how do you do that?” He says, “I’ll get you started.” And by that point I had moved to Las Vegas, and I would go down to LA about once every four months and Scott would set me up to photograph some artists. The first ones I did when we started was, it was like the best way to ever start a project like this was to photograph the very best guys, so it was Jack Kirby, Sergio Aragones, and then Rick Detorie, who does a comic strip called “One Big Happy.” With those three starting, it was like, here I’ve got Kirby, I’ve got Sergio, pretty much anyone I showed the pictures to after that was like, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” And so that’s how I kind of got started with it is through Scott, and he actually took me on the first three shoots. He took me out to Rick Detorie’s house first, and then we went out to photograph Sergio, and then we went out to Jack Kirby’s house in Thousand Oaks over a period of Friday-Saturday, and it was amazing. That’s how it got started.
Your shot of Moebius, it’s different from the rest of the pictures in the book, right? It’s on the beach, not in a studio?
The earliest shot was Moebius, 1988 ,at that point it wasn’t a project yet, that shot was done for “Twilight Zone Magazine” an article I think on Jean’s movie work. As I mentioned I had been doing some photography for Starwatcher Graphics mostly copy work. I would meet with Jean Marc and he would hand me a huge stack of Moebius originals That I would take back to my home studio and photograph. I had the chance to see some amazing original art. So At some point Jean Marc mentioned that Moebius needed some publicity shots for an article , and would I be interested in shooting with him.I had been such a huge fan of Moebius’s work that I was thrilled to have this chance, I mean getting the chance to hang out with Moebius — wow. So we set up a shoot with Jean. Moebius, at that point, he lived in Santa Monica, really right on the beach. So on the shoot day we met at Jean’s apartment. Initially I set up in his studio in front of this screen that he had. But after awhile we went out to the beach and shot some wonderful shots. I remember thinking he is just so calm, and relaxed, I asked about this and his living so close to the beach and he told me that every morning he would walk out to the beach and practice Tai Chi. At the time I remember thinking, “I gotta try that.” I’ve had the shot of Moebius on the beach in my portfolio ever since. The first shot for the project would have been Rick Detorie.
Did you have any idea when you started this book that it was going to take 15 years to do?
Oh, God, no. You know, it’s funny, 20-20 hindsight. If I knew then what I know now, I don’t know if I would have done it that way because it just, over those years, it just took so much effort to get out there and do it. Then, in between, I would go through these whole periods of being depressed, feeling like this is never going to work out. Then I’d be around the studio, moping, and my wife would go, “Okay, you’ve got to go shoot someone else for your book.” So she would send me out to do something else. Between ’92 and 2001, shot about maybe 35, 40 portraits, and then, between 2001 and 2005, shot the rest of them. Kind of got on it, you know.
Is your wife a comic book fan? How did she put up with your pet project?
She is not a comic book fan, but you know what? She’s a fan of me, I think, because she’s terrific. When we met she thought I was so strange because I liked comics and stuff. She’s very pro-us and she just felt like if that was what made me happy, then she would go with it. I’ve tried to get her to read comics over the years, but she’s never really jumped on it. She reads them and goes, “Okay.” She has a minor in English, and she’s very smart, and she just never got into the graphic visuals, you know?
How did you go about picking the artists in the book?
It really was word-of-mouth and from artist to artist. After I got the first three, I think Sergio was the one who goes, “Well, you should get this person and this person. Here’s their phone number.” That’s how it kind of went. Each time I photographed somebody, I would ask them, “Can you think of anybody I should go after,” and they’d go, “Yeah, here’s some phone numbers.” And then Jean-Marc one day opened up his Rolodex and said, “Take any numbers you need.” So I ended up with, like, 50 different phone numbers. Whenever I knew I was going down to LA, because there were so many artists in LA, I would just put a phone call out there and say, “Hey, would you let me come photograph you?” That’s how I got Burne Hogarth and Russ Heath and people like that are whom I would just cold-call. It just kind of built like that. But, by 2001, I think I’d pretty much felt like I’d exhausted the LA area. That’s when I went down, took my first big trip to Florida for the National Cartoonists Society. Scott had told me that they were having this thing, and he said, “If you go down to Florida, you’d be able to get a bunch of these retired guys, and a bunch of guys who lived down there.” So that kind of got me started in earnest getting the book done.
But you traveled all over the country with this book.
Yeah, I went to Chicago and New York a couple times.
Do you have any interesting stories behind some of your photos? I know that you had to work hard to get some of these guys.
It’s funny. [laughs] Quite a few people turned me down, and so I was always surprised when someone said no, because it was like, “Well, wait a minute. What do you mean, no?” I mean, Bob Kane turned me down. And so I pulled the Jack Kirby card, I said, “Well, you know, I got Jack Kirby.” Bob Kane was so funny. He goes, “Well, that’s good you got Jack, but you need me in this project.” And I said, “Absolutely.” He goes, “But I’m not interested. You keep after me. Maybe I’ll do it down the road.” There were a couple people that I would not have been able to get without help from someone else. In the book, Eric and Susan Goldberg are in there. They’re Disney artists, and Eric is the animator who designed the Genie for the movie “Aladdin,” and he got me in to see Chuck Jones, and also got me in to see Al Hirschfeld. I think, without his help, neither one of those would have happened.
How did you land Hirschfeld?
I had to work for it. When I knew I was going to New York for the first time, I called Eric and I said, “What do you think about me trying to photograph Hirschfeld?” Because he had mentioned it before, when I photographed him. He goes, “Here’s his number, call him.” So I called, and his wife goes, “What’s the book?” She was a little gruff, initially. And she goes, “What’s the book?” I said, “Well, I’m photographing cartoonists and comic book artists.” She goes, “Well, we’re not interested, thanks. Bye.” And she hung up. So I called Eric back and I said, “She hung up on me. She basically said they weren’t interested.” And [he] goes, “You’re kidding.” I said, “No.” And [he] goes, “Well, what did you say?” So I told him. He goes, “Let me put in the call.” So he puts in a call, and he calls me back, and he goes, “Okay, she’s expecting your call.” I called her back, and she could not have been nicer. So, the fact that Eric Goldberg said that this was a worthy project made it fine, but without his help, it wouldn’t have happened.
What are some of the lessons you carry with you from this book?
A little thought on the front end would have helped. Like, if I would have had any idea what the book would look like when I started, I would have probably done it a little differently. But I went through, like, the first 50 people without having any idea, and so then I had to go back. And some of the people would have died, and then I had to track down model releases from some of the people, because I wasn’t getting those early on, and tracking down the art, and the permission, and the bios. I probably would have done that a little differently, like, planned ahead. And the other part was be persistent. I mean, it was one of those things where “just keep after it” really was the order of the day, where if someone said, “Well, I don’t know. Call me back next week.” Just be persistent and keep working on it.
What kind of reaction have you gotten from some of the artists in the book?
Extremely favorably, for the most part. People have been really great. I’m trying to think if there’s been any negative at all. A lot of people, it’s funny, don’t like their own pictures, but they love the idea that this book exists. I think the artists are generally pleased. Although a lot of the comments are centered around how much has changed in the years since I started. How much their studios had changed or How different they looked now. Also I seem to get the occasional, “What took you so long?” and also “It’s a shame you didn’t get so & so.”
I think most artists like to see what kind of hardware their fellow artists are using in your pics.
Like, they look more at the background than the actual artist.
Oh, it’s true. Absolutely. I think, for the most part, the reception for the book from the artists has been very positive. I’ve gotten a lot of thank you cards for “including me in it,” things like that.
That was something you were really conscious of, right? Like, getting everything, as much detail and rich backgrounds as you could.
Oh, yeah. As a comic book fan, I was always interested in the minutiae of drawing, and what pencils do you use, what inks do you use, things like that. So I thought, as I went on, it would be cool to have some of that stuff, where people could look at it and go, “What’s on the board? What are they using? What’s on their bookshelf?” It was funny, because a lot of the artists would go through and they’d go, “I’ve got that book. I’ve got that toy.” Or stuff like that. I think that people did like that stuff, seeing what was there.
You originally just started working on it on your own, without a publisher, right?
Well, sort of. Before I got the deal with Dark Horse, I had photographed 155 artists altogether, and when I got the deal with Dark Horse, we went back and forth as to how many artists should be included in the book. And, being in the business, they had a price point in mind of what a book should sell for that would be successful. So, with that price point in mind, they came back with a number of pages they could do for the book that I wanted. We came up with, basically, we could do 100 artists in this book. So, I had to pare it down from the 155 that I had. Actually, it was 145 that I had at the time. Then they had some artists that they wanted to see in the book. Like, when I signed the deal, I didn’t have Frank Miller in the book. That came after, and they’d go, “Well, we’d love you to photograph Frank Miller.” And then my editor, Rob Simpson, was, like, “Well, I’d love you to photograph Kyle Baker. He’s my best friend.” And so I made one more trip to New York after I signed the deal, to photograph these artists. I had to figure out how to fit those artists into the hundred that were going to exist. And then I had one final shot, the John Severin shot. I got a job shooting a casino in Black Hawk, Colorado, which is just outside of Denver. I knew that John Severin lived there, and so I managed to get a hold of him, and that was the last shot I took. I managed to talk them into going to 101 shots, because Severin was such a big deal. So I had the 50 other shots from the first book left over.
Now what do you have to do? Do you have to pitch it again for a potential second volume?
Well, I think it really depends on how well the first book sells. And so I haven’t heard any numbers yet. I would imagine, if it does okay, and it’s gotten good reviews, and it did win an award–
You won an award?
It did! It won the Mystery Prize at the Stumptown Comics Fest in Portland, Oregon. And so, if it does okay, I talked to Rob, who’s the editor, and I said, “Well, what do you think about a second book.” And he goes, “Well…” He’s kind of tentative because you don’t know how this book’s going to do, but he said maybe we could bring it out during the 40th anniversary of Comic Con, which is in two years. So it would come out in 2009, in the summer of 2009. Maybe, if it does well enough.