Photographer Profile - Tyler Stableford: "My work has to stand on its own"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday September 13, 2016

Carbondale, Colorado, is not the center of the advertising world. About 170 miles west of Denver, the town of nearly 7,000 people is nestled in the valley of the Roaring Fork River, downstream from Aspen. It’s a quiet mountain town, and Tyler Stableford  calls it home.

“I’m a three-hour drive from the nearest ad agency, and since I’m a commercial photographer and cinematographer, that means I’m traveling a lot,” he says.

It also means that regular face-to-face networking with creative directors and clients is out. Nonetheless, Stableford has managed to stay on the radar of ad agencies, both as a photographer and as a director/cinematographer. He has shot print campaigns and TV spots for clients including Wells Fargo, Ford, Stetson and The North Face.

“I’m not in any ad agency’s back yard, and what that means is that I have to be very good. My work has to stand on its own,” he says.

Stableford grew up in Vermont and Connecticut and first came to Colorado when he was in college. A rock climbing enthusiast, he had an internship at Climbing magazine, which later turned into a full-time job. Now he’s raising a family in Carbondale, and growing his career. “It’s a beautiful spot to live, and I’m lucky to have a talented crew working with me, and that makes being here possible,” he says.

He spends about 100 days a year traveling, however. “People who’ve seen my motion work have asked whether I would do feature-film work, and I said no, my kids are eight and ten and I don’t want to spend longer and more intense periods away from home than I do now,” he says.

On the other hand, he has brought a lot of his work to Carbondale and the surrounding country. “It is a stunning area, and we can shoot beautiful campaigns here. We’ve got western ranches and mountains and red sandstone desert, all within a day trip from here,” he says.

Stableford’s work, both stills and motion, is often suffused with a sense of place. But that place isn’t a specific location — a desert or mountain or ranch; rather, it’s a sentiment that turns up consistently in his work. You see it in the lyrical pacing of the stories he tells and the elegant light he captures wherever he is, near home or not.

“It’s hard to think of anything less important to the world than TV commercials swaying people to buy stuff they don’t need,” Stableford says. “But with anything, commercials included, there can be a kind of visual poetry, and that is compelling.”

Written and Visual Languages

A good example of Stableford’s advertising work is a 60-second TV spot he created for Cabela’s, the outdoor gear retailer. The ad is a series of exquisitely rendered scenes featuring people disconnecting from their digital devices amid nature. The script draws clever comparisons: A s’more cookie being toasted over a campfire becomes an alternative “Instagram.” A boy’s reflection in a pond is a different type of selfie.

“Tyler does far more than create images. He creates a true collaboration,” says Ryan Johnson, founder and creative director of Denver creative agency Defy Them All. “His vision is as strong and flexible as your own, meaning every time you get in the trenches, you know the project will turn out better than you could've planned.”

The Cabela’s spot, which was named a winner of the International Motion Art Awards, draws its impact from concision and evocative imagery. “It starts with scripting,” Stableford says of his work. “It’s a written language that’s converted to a visual language.”

When Stableford came to Colorado to work full time at Climbing magazine in 1997, he started out as a writer and all-purpose editor, and he says that working in video has allowed him to return to the kind of storytelling he used to do as magazine journalist.  “I feel very much at home with commercials and short films because of that,” he says

While he was at the magazine, Stableford also worked as a photo editor, and he began taking pictures himself. The pastime turned serious, and he began contributing stock work to Getty Images. After leaving the magazine in 2004, Stableford devoted himself to building a freelance photography career, focusing on outdoor and adventure work. “I was always asking my friends to ski this or that run so I could shoot them for stock,” he says. He went on to become one of Canon’s Explorers of Light group, and then in 2008, when Canon introduced its 5D Mark II and ushered in the DSLR video revolution, Stableford’s life changed again.

“For me it was pretty clear that I was going to start shooting motion work,” he says. “Print advertising was declining and the high-end stock business was diving, and I realized that diversification was not just helpful, but necessary.”

Hats and Big Mustaches

In 2013, Stableford approached Canon about creating a film as branded content for the company. The result was Shattered, an intense and beautiful six-minute short that Stableford calls “a visual poem” about the sport of ice climbing. He shot alpinist Steve House, who scripted the film, ascending frozen Bridal Veil Falls near Telluride, Colorado, during the last big snowstorm of the season. Filmed in natural light — predawn sequences were illuminated by the lamp on House’s helmet — the film’s mood is ominous and mysterious.

“The film was a personal project that turned into a project for Canon, and they gave me total creative control over it,” says Stableford. “It ended up in film festivals and won an Art Directors Club award for cinematography. which was great for a film that was shot essentially with two handheld cameras and a monopod.”

Stableford also turned an idea for a personal photo project into work for Canon: “A couple of years ago I had some downtime, so I started photographing ranchers near my town, which actually started as a ranching and farming community in the 1800s,” he says. “I just started knocking on doors.”

He showed samples of the work to Canon’s ad agency, Dentsu, which asked him to shoot more for series of large-format prints. “They wanted to show off their printers, but it didn’t feel like advertising. It felt authentic,” Stableford says. “I didn’t want to just photograph hats and big mustaches, so the challenge for me was, how do I connect with these subjects? How do I open my heart to them and connect with their hearts? Most of the ranchers had never been in front of a DSLR before. So it was a process of humility for me, a growing and spiritual process.”

Stableford’s work, personal and commercial, still and motion, often seems to connect with something larger or deeper than its nominal subject. Whether he’s photographing ranchers, celebrating ice climbers or selling outdoor gear, the result is a richer experience than you might expect. You might find yourself wondering about what things and what places are worth holding onto.