Director-cinematographer Henry Sandbank estimates that he has shot some 1,200 to 1,500 commercials over the past 20 years. That's a remarkably long time for anyone to survive, let alone thrive, in a venue as volatile as TV commercials. Yet, after all of these years, Sandbank is still recognized by his peers as an innovator and visionary. He has won innumerable awards for directing and shooting commercials, but the following conversation indicates that his focus is on the future rather than past achievements. Following are excerpts:
AC What got you interested in photography?
Sandbank: I was born in Burg, Germany. When I was very young, my family took the last commercial liner out of the country before the war started. Being an immigrant, I was uncomfortable with the English language. I think a lot of people who have problems communicating verbally end up working in the visual arts. In high school, a teacher who taught photography had a catalog studio, and he hired me as an assistant. I worked part-time in the afternoons. The day I graduated, my teacher had an argument with his partners and walked out. They hired me.
AC. What did you do?
Sandbank: I did everything, took pictures, processed film, worked with color dyes and made prints. I also worked with the company that did our printing, and that was a help later in my career, because I learned a lot about controlling colors on the press.
AC: How did your career progress?
Sandbank: I was in the infantry during the Korean war. Afterwards, I settled in Syracuse, where I worked with another photographer, Henry Beach. That's where I learned my craft. After a few years, I decided that if I was going to be a photographer, New York City was the place to be.
AC: What did you do in New York?
Sandbank: I worked as a freelance magazine photographer. I never tried to copy anyone else's photographic style. In fact, I never copied myself, !would do something once, and discard it and do something else on the next assignment. I never belonged to a particular school of photography.
AC. You got a lot of recognition for your still photography during the 196Os. The U.S.I.A. had a touring exhibit of your photographs. You lectured at various schools. You were the president of the American Society of Magazine Photographers. Why did you give all of that up for TV commercials?
Sandbank: There was a period during the 197Os when agencies were treating commercials like print ads in magazines. Some of the people I shot stills for encouraged me to extend my craft by shooting commercials. It was an easy transition. I had always worked with tungsten light. And unlike photographers who were taking pictures for news stories, I was trained to design images. It was just a question of adding another dimension, and I enjoyed that challenge. It was a gradual transition.
Ad What is the most significant trend for W commercials?
Sandbank: I think more sponsors are going to question the rationale for spending a half a million dollars to $700,000 to buy 30 seconds of air time on the Super Bowl and similar programs. I think they'll look at alternate channels like CNN or Discovery to reach specialized audiences.
AC: How will that affect commercial production?
Sandbank: When I was a still photographer, I would ask, 'Where is this photograph going to appear?' and they would say, 'Why do you want to know?' I would say, 'So my work will be different and stand out from the others.' Not everyone on this planet can be unique, but if you're a cook, you want a very interesting menu. If you're someone who produces images, you want a very interesting menu there too. There are some well-produced commercials which provoke strong feelings. But ask people if they remember the sponsor. The chances are that no one will, because so many of them are alike. If you can do something unique, the whole world remembers. It can be very simple, very clear and very conceptual. …