Ever wondered what cows get up to when we’re not looking? Glen Wexler reveals all in our in-depth Glen Wexler profile.

Secret Agent Cows cover

Glen WexlerIt started as an ad campaign, but has taken on a life of its own. Los Angeles-based photographer Glen Wexler’s cleverly constructed images of cows as superheroes and secret agents has gained a big following among fans of both bovines and surreal imagery. Using a combination of sets, props and Photoshop, Glen Wexler’s popular-culture inspired world is both strange and familiar at the same time. Glen Wexler tells Philip Andrews how it all came about.

Q: What drew you to photography as a career?

Glen Wexler: I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to begin shooting album covers while still in art school. My first album cover shoot was for the Brothers Johnson, a multi-platinum group produced by Quincy Jones. This opened a lot of doors. My intention at the time was to pursue fine art photography, but I dropped out of school to work in the music industry. I found a lot of creative freedom with album art and many of the projects were conducive to pushing photographic boundaries, which was what I intended to do with fine art photography.

Q: You’ve been credited over the years with being a leading pioneer in the field of image manipulation. What prompted your interest in this aspect of image creation?

Glen Wexler: Photography has been manipulated as a means of artistic expression since its inception. I’ve admired and learned a lot from many great photographers. About 20 years ago I was a very early adopter of digital technology. It was serendipitous that the technology emerged and I gained early access to proprietary imaging equipment that would fast-track my work. In my opinion, the integration of these tools, which are now commonplace, is the most significant leap in the medium.

Glen Wexler Profile - BeeflesEverything is possible. In school I became enamoured with the notion that there is no such thing as an ‘impossible image’. My interest in photographic image-making is about the realisation of an idea, which would often involve the creation of an improbable or fantastical reality. Prior to digital post-production I would use conventional camera and darkroom methods to merge multiple photographic components into a single image. I instantly latched onto the new technology. The speed, efficiency and flexibility gained from it gave me a better way to make the kind of images that I was already creating.

Q: You have been involved in the creation of many iconic images in the music industry. Is this an area that holds a special interest for you?

Glen Wexler: Sure, as a teenager in the 1970s my art collection was my album covers. Much of this artwork was influential. Many of my friends are musicians and there was a tremendous amount of creativity that surrounded the music of that time. Often, the album cover would be the visual extension of the music; I’ve always enjoyed that connection. Unfortunately, the influence of the album cover began to wane when LPs were replaced with CDs. Now that the distribution of music is shifting to internet downloads, the significance of the cover art continues to diminish. So my interest now lies in finding other mediums to reconnect creative and inspired images to the music.

Glen Wexler Profile - Book coverQ: The images featured in The Secret Life of Cows were initially created for an advertising campaign for Chick-fil-A. Tell us about the background behind the creation of the images, and your inspiration for the characters.

Glen Wexler: With all of my commissioned work, there is a primary obligation to fulfil the marketing needs of the client. The image in the beginning of the book – of the old farmer couple with a video camera documenting cows disembarking from a UFO – was an ad for Sony camcorders.

The Secret Agent Cows and Superhero Cows that make up the two chapters of the book were commissioned for calendars to promote fast-food chicken sandwiches. The ad agency developed the long-standing campaign in which cows protect their species by advocating that people eat chicken instead of them. The marketing is very funny and successful, but my personal challenge and inspiration lies in transcending the commercial intent. In the end it’s all about the image: does it hold its own beyond the intent of the marketing? Stripped of the aspects of commerce do the images have relevance or significance as part of our art and culture?

Tim Wride, who is the curator of photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, wrote the introduction to the catalogue for my 2005 exhibition, 25:25. He discusses the breakdown of the barriers between commissioned photography and fine art photography. My original intent was to be a fine art photographer – however, commercial commissions, starting with album covers, allowed for the opportunity to make images that otherwise would have been financially out of reach.

Q: What have been the highlights of your career to date?

Glen Wexler: The personal highlights are when a final image meets my artistic expectations.

In terms of specific events or projects, the publication of my first book, The Secret Life of Cows, is certainly a highlight, as was my 25-year retrospective exhibition last year in Los Angeles. Working with Michael Jackson at the pinnacle of his career, and with Shaquille O’Neal and KISS, and jazz legends Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea has also been very memorable. Album covers for Van Halen, ZZ Top and Black Sabbath are also high on the list as is shooting a cover for Time magazine. One of my first big advertising assignments was working on the famous Maxell campaign. I am also honoured to be featured in prestigious magazines such as Communication Arts, French Photo, and Zoom, and to be awarded Editorial Photographer of the Year by the International Photography Awards.

Glen Wexler Profile - Mission Impossible

The Glen Wexler Workflow

Glen Wexler recombines captured elements of the real world to create a fantastical vision. He starts by visualising the finished image, then breaks it down into manageable components to be individually photographed and, finally, digitally seaming it all together. All compositional elements, lighting, and perspective decisions are carefully considered before the shoot.

In creating the images for his book The Secret Life of Cows, Glen Wexler’s production designer and collaborator of nearly 20 years, Anthony Tremblay, enlisted the services of Charles Rivera to sculpt a very realistic one-third-size miniature cow. Next, a mould was made of it, for the purpose of creating several foam castings that could be cut and individually reassembled in the pose desired for each cow character. The cow forms were then dressed. The Superhero costumes were styled and fabricated by Gayle Davis. The Secret Agents were styled by Lori ‘Tin’ Wornom, and the costumes fabricated by James Hayes, who creates wardrobe for the Muppets.

Anthony created production drawings for each set and built them in miniature with a team of model makers. The sculpted cows were photographed in the miniature sets. It took 30 days each for principal set and element photography, followed by several days photographing the actual cows. With the help of a team of cow wranglers, the Hollywood cows were lit and shot in perspective to match their sculpted ‘body doubles’ in the set photography. Special effects were also shot. Then there were hundreds of elements to combine in Photoshop – nearly 600 hours for post-production image editing.

Glen Wexler Profile - Explosion

Glen Wexler – History

Glen Wexler photographed his first album cover for Quincy Jones Productions while still a student. He quickly gained a reputation for his imaginative and elaborate photo illustrations for Michael Jackson, KISS, Black Sabbath and ZZ Top among many others.

During the mid-1980s, Glen Wexler’s images began to attract advertising clients. His signature style has earned an international client base including Sony, Adobe, Microsoft, Warner Bros Pictures and hundreds of others. Glen Wexler was among the original artists to adopt digital imaging technology as a creative tool.

Credited as a worldwide leader in the field, Glen Wexler has been invited to speak at numerous conferences and colleges across the United States. In 2005, Wexler commemorated 25 years of his career with an exhibition in Los Angeles and the release of his retrospective book 25:25. Glen Wexler resides in the Hollywood Hills with his wife and two children. For more info visit www.glenwexler.com

Glen Wexler Profile - Getaway

Glen Wexler’s Kit Bag

  • Hasselblad H3D-39 – Hasselblad’s latest H-system medium format camera houses an impressive 39MP sensor
  • Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II – with its full-frame 35mm sized sensor the EOS-1Ds MkII has found favour with a lot of professional photographers looking for large files
  • Sinar P2 film camera and Hasselblad ELM film camera
  • Two 17-inch MacBook Pros – with a large screen and plenty of processing power Apple’s 17in MacBooks are great on location and make ideal ‘portable’ storage devices for the large files coming from Glen’s cameras
  • Two 30in Cinema Displays and two 23in Cinema Displays
  • Wacom Intuos 2 graphic tablets – working with a mouse is all well and good, but a graphic tablet and ‘pen’ is a much more natural way of working, especially when tricky selections need to be made
  • LaCie external FireWire drives
  • Epson 9600 and 4800 printers – Epson’s wide format printers not only help you make exhibition-sized prints, but they’re great way of visualising how your work will look ‘Big’, with a capital ‘B’
  • Adobe Creative Suite
  • Extensis Portfolio – Portfolio is a ‘digital asset management’ system that helps you keep track of all your images. Not essential for home users, but when you’re working with large numbers of pictures it can be a life-saver.

Glen Wexler Profile - Book coverThe Secret Life of Cows
by Glen Wexler
Foreword by Eric Idle
Published by PQ Blackwell Ltd
Available from all good bookstores priced: $14.95 (approx. £7.72)