"When I went to Art Center," she says, "I kind of wanted to do fine art, but it’s a very commercial school. So I learned all of the commercial stuff and just kept doing fine art on the side. Then when I came out of school, I was doing a lot of album covers—that’s where I started—and it evolved into more advertising. Now it’s mostly editorial and some advertising."
Cutting’s work should be familiar to listeners of Kenny Loggins, Bonnie Raitt and Patty LaBelle who, among others, have featured her photographs as album covers. Readers of TIME, Science and The Washington Post have seen her work on those covers, too. She’s clearly a master of precision when it comes to crafting her "whimsical" commercial photographs, but with personal work she’s free to move away from the rigid technical requirements of client work into a more freewheeling space.
"I think in this work I’m allowed to be more illustrative," she says. "You don’t need all the detail, you don’t need everything to be sharp, and size ratios can change. It’s a place to play. It’s sort of anything goes. Let’s say I have a Diana toy camera image that I like, but it doesn’t stand on its own; I might make more of a story with it by adding other parts. I can come up with anything with this body of work because I’m just creating it. It’s not documenting. It ends up being kind of fun."
One personal project, in particular, is instantly recognizable for its dreamy, textural quality. She thinks of this grainy, dreamlike series as "other places," images of man and his journeys.
"I don’t really have a name for it yet because I feel like I need more images," she says of the body of work, which she has been building for a decade. "I feel like there’s a common thread of man and machines that he has created to travel. It’s sort of otherworldly. It’s a little dreamy, it’s a little mysterious, it’s a little bit fable. It’s a little on the darker side, too."
The fine artist’s prerogative is to create work that asks more questions than it answers. Aside from being her own art director, though, creating artwork is an entirely different experience than when she’s photographing on commission because of the room for open-endedness. Commercial work, she says, is very much about delivering a fully formed equation in which A plus B equals C.
"Right now, all advertising and editorial is colorful and sharp and uplifting, or illustrating a story," Cutting says. "It’s very specific, because if they’re going to commission you to do something, it better be really specific and not just look like a stock shot they picked up. But this is sort of the alternative. It’s more moody; it’s more generic and more intriguing. It invites the viewer to have a totally different response than the next guy. Make up your own world around it."
Cutting’s imagination is also open in terms of technique. It’s grounded in her origins as a film photographer, but there are no rules in this place of play.
"For me, it starts on an emotional level," she says, "often with a mood. I like a sense of awe. I like moodiness, a sense of maybe some foreboding, but also maybe some light. A sense of some journey. I might start with an island and a bridge or a tunnel, and then go, okay, I need something otherworldly and something grand, something unexpected, and it needs a second read. So then I’ll play and I’ll throw things in. And then I’m like, oh, it needs something passing by….
"Maybe I had a dream," Cutting continues. "Or maybe I saw something interesting in a book. You go see a movie, you read a book, you look at art, you listen to music—all of that stuff will come in and it all influences what you come up with the next day, right? I start with an idea and then I build it. Instead of drawing like an illustrator—which I would love to do, but I’m not very good at it—I build it in Photoshop and just add layers and composite until it’s right, until it’s done. A lot of times I have to go away for 24 hours and then come back the next morning and go, oh, this sucks. Do something different. Oh, it just needs a line here and then it’s done, or whatever."
While the images may not follow formulas for content or technique, there are common threads in her approach. Cutting’s experimental darkroom history remains quite evident in all of the images and, in fact, many of them include film photos in the layers that make up the final composites.
"They all have in common a few attributes," she says, "like some Polaroid scans that are there, and sometimes I scan tissue paper for texture. After you shoot for 20 years, you amass a huge collection of imagery. And so now and then I can come up with something and, oh, I’ve already got it, or I’ve got a piece of it. So I can combine them all and illustrate the idea. Keeping it really simple is also important. You can do all the big high-production stuff, but it’s fun to keep it simple.
"I’ve been doing this for a long time," Cutting adds, "and back in the day I used to love to work with paper negatives in the darkroom, where you would print through a thin piece of paper. And I liked to work with Polaroid, and I liked to use distressing techniques, and I liked to use grainy Agfachrome 1000 film and push things to their limit of distress. And I was always attracted to that lost and found look and feel. Then as I got to using Photoshop more, I got into doing this in layers and kind of realized that, oh, my, I can bring the darkroom to the desktop. It became a blend of that. It’s sort of a place where I play and experiment. And every now and then, I get something cool."
Ann Elliott Cutting’s award-winning conceptual images appear on the covers of numerous publications and for clients that include Nikon, Nike, Target and more. Cutting is on the faculty at Art Center College of Design. See more of her work at www.cutting.com. She’s also one of the judges for our inaugural Black & White photo contest. Enter today at dpmag.com/blackandwhite.