Unless you’re a 16-year-old teenage boy, swimsuit calendars wouldn’t be you’re thing, right? Think again.
New York-based fashion photographer Nicholas Routzen is elevating the medium and expanding its reach to trendsetters and art lovers alike; taking the genre back to the golden days of legendary shooter Richard Avedon, circa 1968, on the beaches of the Bahamas with actress Lauren Hutton.
A native of sunny California, Routzen is a longtime surfer with a deep affinity for his salty local scenery. “The ocean has always had an inescapable presence, and eats at me more and more, living in NYC.”
With his latest project, “Salt + Air“—a non-profit photo series available to the public in book and calendar form (holiday gifting idea!)— Routzen taps into his childhood passion for the sand and water, translating it into a beautiful collection of black and white photos, set on the coast of Puerto Rico.
Featuring a a variety of female models Routzen calls friends himself, the single commonality between the bunch is self-confidence, according to the photographer. “Since a majority of the shoot was based around the body and figure, I was looking for confident women,” he explains. “Though all the girls were very different, they all seemed to maintain a strong face and confident presence. These women are all very beautiful and bright—personality always plays a strong role in my bookings.”
And like his models, the beauty of his project as a whole goes further than skin deep, with proceeds from the sales of his series being donated to Surf For Life, an organization Routzen commends for its “great vision helping ocean-based communities by way of building schools, health clinics, and community centres for children and their families.”
Since launching the series at Milk Studio’s Jam Room in New York, Routzen has been busy travelling with his exhibit, most recently stopping over to woo the gallery-goers at Miami Beach’s Art Basel. Below, the photographer takes us inside his creative process and behind the scenes of 2015’s most seductive, charitably-minded fashion shoot.
To start, what inspired your “Salt + Air” photo series?
“Salt + Air” was originally concepted to help raise funds and awareness for a non-profit and a creative outlet. It had been about four years since I launched my last non-profit fundraising project. I felt it internally, I knew it was the right time to have some fun, get creative, and put together another project. It’s tough to dedicate 12+ months to a project like this while maintaining your regular schedule and everyday life, but it’s a passion project.
How did you decide on what charity your photo series would fund?
I decided to pull in a non-profit having to do with the ocean and children, and as luck would have it, shortly thereafter, I found out my brother was on the board of an expanding non-profit, Surf For Life.
Sounds like it was meant to be! How would you sum up the story behind your images in the series?
This series was all about having fun. There were no art directors, creative directors, etc. The calendar is about intimate and playful moments with each of the models. We handpicked the models (Barbara Fialho, Abby Brothers, Hannah Ferguson, Yaya Kosikova, and Kate Potter), all of which are great friends. I think the established comfort level—not only between myself and the models, but also the energy between each one of the girls—had a great impact.
The photos have a really alluring vibe to them for sure. How would you describe them as a whole?
The series is stylish, moody, and captures a continuous dark gray tone throughout. The ocean and sand were the starting and ending points each day.
Why did you decide to shoot the series in black and white?
Walking into this project, I felt a black and white series was going to be the most suitable. I wanted the series to feel classic, timeless, and tasteful. Color hadn’t registered in my mind to be honest. Additionally, I knew shooting this moody and underexposed would look really strong in black and white.
Well, you’re instinct was spot on! What led you to choose Puerto Rico as your shoot location? Did you have a few other places in mind before settling?
Puerto Rico is one of my favorite places to surf, “locally.” I’ve spent a lot of time there in the winters, over the last four years or so. Budget was also a big concern, and I knew we could pull some strings down there to help get the job done. We photographed the entire shoot on the island of Vieques, where it’s stunning and isolated. Of course, I had other Islands I was considering, but keeping everything on budget and maintaing certain clarity of water was very important.
Was it a bit like a vacation getting the opportunity to shoot a series that focused on locations near the ocean in Puerto Rico?
It was definitely an amazing experience and such a genuine crew. However, we definitely had long hour days…early mornings for sunrise and late evenings for sunsets.
We had a pretty good system though. Almost every meal we cooked at home in our villa. We’d drive out to shoot early, then come back to the villa for a meal/break. Everyone had their duties and added to overall experience. After 7+ days with a crew everyone becomes very comfortable with each other. Lunch time for most was spent in the pool relaxing, drinking a cerveza, with a bbq going in the background. The evenings you could always expect a large homemade meal with everyone participating, and cold beers flowing. Work hard, play hard!
Of all the photos in the calendar, is there one in particular that stands out for you? One that really embodies what you set out to capture?
This is a tough one to answer…the image of Kate Potter, May 2015, is such a stunner! Kate is ascending underwater—about 5 feet deep—bare chested and arched backwards. It’s just such a magical moment.
Tell me a bit about the limited edition book you’ll be releasing in conjunction with “Salt & Air,” will you be sharing behind-the-scene photos and image captions?
The book is next in line to start working on. The book will launch with the formal exhibition, we’re hoping Spring 2015. The images in the book are a bit racier and just as strong. There’s a lot more room to play around with the imagery in the book and up to 70 pages of imagery, which really gives the viewer a deeper sense of how much went into this series. We’ve put a grid of behind-the-scenes images in the back of the calendar, which is quite fun. We’ll definitely be adding behind-the-scenes to the book…I feel it gives the viewer a bit more insight on what goes into a shoot, and how many stages there are in the process.
If you had to choose, what would you say you are most excited about: the gallery exhibit showcasing large scale prints, the launch of the calendar or the book preview?
The calendar launch is basically a touring three city party, which will help us really get the project out there and getting Surf For Life more support. The book is going to be stunning and very strong, as will the gallery. I’d say I am most excited about the book because it’s completely creative with no rules on layout. I’m working with Tim Miller of Engine Three, who is incredibly talented and holds the same taste for aesthetic as I do when it comes to design and layout. The book will showcase a lot of imagery that may not be seen in the calendar/gallery.
You ran a very successful Kickstarter campaign to fund “Salt + Air,” was there ever a point when you weren’t sure if you were going to reach your fundraising goal?
Kickstarter was both a major success and a major stress point in my life! (Laughing.) The daily stress of wondering if you’re going to achieve your goal is draining…some days have more donations than others.
I imagine it’s really time consuming too, getting the whole campaign together and keeping tabs on it as the donations come in.
Running a campaign like that takes a lot of time, outreach, and support. Getting people to donate money is difficult…you need to have a good product, reward, and cause. I found that by utilizing all of my social media outlets, I was able to get the campaign in front of enough people. You have to be creative and think outside the box in getting supporters attention. Not only that, you have to be persistent until you reach your goal. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be as rewarding.
It’s true. Up until this point, what is your fondest “Salt + Air” memory?
To be honest, there have been so many great memories attached to this project. However, that feeling of achievement once fully funded from the Kickstarter campaign, and when the team arrived to the villa in Puerto Rico for the first time, those were two of the most exciting moments!