At 13, Graphis Master Hugh Kretschmer was introduced to photography by his father, a photo-instrumentation engineer for NASA from the Mercury through the Apollo missions. Hugh received a BFA from the ArtCenter College of Design, and then moved to New York City to start his commercial career. His client list includes Old Spice, Penn & Teller, Sony, Honda, Yamaha, Purina, National Geographic, Vanity Fair,Rolling Stone, GQ, Esquire, Oprah, and The New York Times Magazine. The International Photography Awards, American Photography, Communication Arts, PDN, Graphis, and SPD have recognized his images. His work has been exhibited in Berlin, Seoul, São Paulo, Serbia, New York, and Los Angeles. His photographs are on permanent display at the 9/11 Museum in New York and the archives of the Library of Congress. Hugh Kretschmer has also lectured and led workshops at the Eddie Adams Workshop in Jeffersonville, NY, Gulf Photo Plus in Dubai, and Fotorama in Serbia. He teaches photography part-time at the ArtCenter College of Design, UCLA Extension, and the Los Angeles Center of Photography.
What inspired you to have a career in photography? It was all my dad! He showed me how to process and print my first images. I got hooked immediately when my first print began to develop and never turned back. I was 13 at the time, and full of wonder and amazement. At that moment, I knew I wanted to be a photographer, and I had his complete support from that day forward.
What is your work philosophy? “Create from the heart, and you can’t go wrong.” I heard that phrase at an optimal time early in my career, and it’s something I’ve been practicing and sharing ever since. When I’ve gone against that philosophy (and I’ve tried), it never seems to work out. I hope to never go against it again.
What is your favorite type of photography? What’s your favorite subject to shoot? Right now, it’s my Plastic “Wave” series. It’s a passion project intended to benefit the WaterKeepers Alliance, a nonprofit devoted to water conservation. The series involves not only photography but sculpture as well. I make these 3D models of waves that are based on 2D reference photos and paintings. The sculptures are made from recycled and repurposed materials, most notably plastic garbage bags. They’re very challenging to make, and it can take months to complete just one. The payoff after all that work is putting it under the right light and seeing it finally come to life. I regularly get asked where my ideas come from, and I usually can’t pinpoint any particular influence. But when an idea strikes and, more importantly, sticks, I need to follow through, especially if it’s gnawing at me; I’ve learned to blindly move forward in such cases, regardless of the outcome. That can be challenging because I struggle with trusting the process. No matter how solid the project feels, I still find myself asking questions about how it’ll move my career forward or what will happen if it fails. However, the small successes during the process keep me going. They’re primarily benign little discoveries and “ah-ha” moments that are like breadcrumbs to follow as I make my way through the technique. For instance, finding the right garbage bag that stretches is a subject that would make any layperson yawn, but that was a huge discovery that made this project possible. Then there are the more significant events that came after three years of creating this series. In one case, one of the images was chosen for the cover of Time Magazine last summer. I felt very honored and validated, make no mistake. However, the best part was that I got to send my first check to the Water Keepers Alliance, fulfilling my philanthropic objective.
What is your most outstanding professional achievement? There are a few. Last year, I had a retrospective at the Hoban Museum in Seoul, which was a wonderful experience. We managed to fill the 12,000 sq/ft space divided into 17 galleries. There were seven interactive displays and a media room, and the curators did their best to recreate my studio in one of the more prominent galleries. There was even a gift shop filled with all sorts of tchotchkes and memorabilia. It was astonishing to realize they put the entire exhibit together in just three months. That is breakneck speed, from my understanding, but they pulled it off exceptionally. After the opening, I received dozens of photographs of the exhibit and was awestruck by the scale and scope of what they put together. I was so overwhelmed that I wept openly. My only regret was not being able to attend the opening, but that was during the height of the pandemic. However, as lovely as that exhibit was, my most cherished achievements center around 9/11. One of my photographs from that awful day is in the permanent collection of the 9/11 Museum at Ground Zero, and the other is a poster I collaborated on with the School of Visual Arts commemorating the first anniversary of that day. I get to experience its message, “Art is Healing,” every day. That poster now has a home in the Library of Congress, giving me a feeling of purpose.
To read the full interview and to see more work by Hugh Kretschmer, preorder Graphis Journal #376 at graphis.com.