Norman Classen: Horsing Around
Andrea Blanch: Norm, Can you tell me how you started in photography?
Norm Clasen: Yes. Actually, it was kind of an around-the-clock type of thing. I had a little ad agency in Aspen. I could never quite get the photos that I wanted, and so one day I decided to just do it myself. I picked up a camera and started taking pictures, and realized I really enjoyed doing it and that I was pretty good at it. That’s really how I got my training. Next thing I knew, I was asked to provide photographs for magazines. They wanted ski photographs, so I started doing that. One thing led to another and I just sort of evolved into it. One day an agent for Larry Dale Gordon gave me a call asking if I could scout a location for them for Marlboro to do a Christmas shoot. My old standing joke is that my arm went up so fast I dislocated my shoulder. I said yes of course, and my first test shoot was an absolute disaster.
AB: What else were you shooting? Or did you only focus on this work?
NC: Well, I had to make a decision, whether or not I wanted to give up the agency and really focus on my photography. I had come about this in a very fortuitous way, and I realized I couldn’t do both. If Leo Burnett called me and said, “I want you in Montana next Wednesday morning. The crew will be there on Tuesday,” then you were there. If you were in the middle of a deadline with an ad agency situation, you couldn’t do both. I sold the agency, focused on photography full-time and did work for them. I did a lot of fashion around here, and I worked for United Airlines for a while; that was another Leo Burnett account. I mean, you don’t work for Marlboro all day everyday, but you have to be there when they call you. It was kind of a delicate balance, but it certainly worked out well.
AB: You must have made a lot of money.
NC: Yes, it was terrific. It was financially successful for me and I think all the other photographers who worked on it. There was such a sense of pride to be able to work on that account, knowing fair well that it was probably the most iconic campaign maybe in the history of U.S. advertising.
AB: Were they all shot around the same area? Or did you go to different areas in the west to shoot them?
NC: Oh no, the whole magic of that campaign was giving credit to Leo Burnett for being so brilliant in design. Those cowboys were basically designed to be a spirit that was all over the west. I mean, one minute you’d look at a billboard or an ad and they would be in the rolling hills of Oregon and in the next one you see them down in the desert of Arizona, and in the next one you would see them in the mountains of Wyoming. As a result, you were constantly shooting in new locations all over the west. I think that I shot in every state in the west with the exception of Nevada. It was just a matter of going out and establishing a style and a feeling for storytelling. That’s all Marlboro was, storytelling using the cowboys.
AB: They gave you lots of freedom then?
NC: When I first started, I was really under the thumb of the art directors that would go on every single shoot. And I understand that completely. They had a job to do, they had directions from the agency of what they were trying to capture. Whether it was in a different location or different story, they would do sketches and we would go out to try and interpret those sketches. After a couple of years, yes, I really found that I was given a lot of freedom, so I was able to create my own material without following a series of sketches or any sort of prepared agenda. It really opens up a certain freedom to the photographer to put their own personal touch into the images.
AB: Of course. And what do you think your personal touch was?
NC: I started using a lot of backlight. At first they were highly critical, saying that it was too effeminate. They wanted a little bit more of a masculine look. But after working with it for a while, they really went for it. They adapted their shooting demands, allowing for backlight.
AB: When did you make the decision to use backlight and why?
NC: I really think that the west–as masculine as they were trying to present the image–has a certain beauty to it, and backlight adds to it. The west really is that beautiful, with those sunsets and that beautiful light creeping around in the evening, big sky country. And i just started using it, and at first they were critical of it and then after a while they really got to believe that those images were strong. Another thing that I did—my senior art director always said “you know, horses only look good when they’re running uphill or flat,” and I said “well, you know, horses if they go uphill have to come back downhill” then I started doing that—I’m a rebel I guess. Lowe and behold, after a while they fell in love with that and so a lot of my ads are horses running downhill. What I was doing, I think, was sort of breaking the pattern a little bit for them. I really looked at the account as if I’m going to put my own expression in here then I have to be honest and break some of the rules that the agency had established over the years, and I did that. And sometimes I got a good chewing out and other times it went well. Very soon they just turned me loose and let me do pretty much what I wanted to do.
AB: Since this became such an iconic campaign, and because it became one of the largest players in the tobacco market, did you have any moral or ethical qualms being associated with the campaign?
NC: Not really. I looked at that as any photographer would. I approached it as a professional and I knew that I could bring to it a certain feeling. I’d seen so many stories when I was working as a young man on ranches and I knew that I could contribute to that and ethically. I realized that no one is forced to smoke. That’s a decision people make and I just left it at that. I don’t smoke. It wasn’t something I was promoting. I promoted it as an artist, and I promoted it as a professional.
AB: Can you tell us a little bit about the cowboy culture? Is it really the way it’s depicted in the photographs or is it something else?
NC: Well, let’s dig into that for a second. The life of a cowboy is not necessarily as glamorous as we all think it is from the movies and from various photographs. I mean these poor guys get up in the morning about 4 o'clock in the morning and their wives have some food for them. They finish their breakfast, they go out, load up and work until dark. They come back and they’re so tired that they can hardly move. They go to bed and start it all over again the next day. It’s a very rugged, tough life. How do you translate that into something that is far more glamorous for the average viewer? That was our job. All of these little vignettes that go on into a cowboy’s life, it was up to us to identify those. We had to tell the story in a different way, and that was the challenge. You can’t ask a model from New York or Los Angeles to put on a hat, go out and be a cowboy. There’s a body language, certain things you learn from a young age, like how to hold a rope and how to ride a horse. It was part of their culture.
For more of this interview, check out the feature in our previous issue entitled “Motion” here.