Today’s Feature – April 3-4: Stephen Austin Welch

April 3, 2008 at 9:46 pm (Today's Feature)


I’ve always felt one of the keys to true happiness is turning your passion into your job, no matter what it is. In the case of Stephen Austin Welch (otherwise known as SAW), photography has been a more than successful venture as he celebrates more than 12 years of his advertising photography business, operating according to the motto, “make pictures and solve problems along the way.” SAW has plenty to fall back on as he discovers new solutions for his numerous clients – his career evolved from an impressive mix of music, filmmaking, fine art and graphic design.

Speaking of that client list; his is quite exciting. They include: Adobe, Best Buy, Corona, eBay, Glitterhouse Records, Intel, Levi’s, Microsoft, Oracle, Sega, Ubisoft, United Way, Yahoo and many, many more. He uses his eclectic experience wisely – “Photography and graphic design has such a beautiful relationship with emotion and math. I love the tension and release. I think visually. But the funny thing is; I don’t really think it is all that different from writing music.”

You can catch Welch’s work all over the place, noting that he is well versed in international production. He has worked for and won awards shooting for “ad agencies, annuals for design firms, packaging for record labels, stories on people, places & things for magazines and image libraries for companies grand & petite.” One of his best known projects may be his downtown LA work on buildings beautiful, but closed to the public. For now, SAW is going to continue doing what he does best, “solving client problems with visual solutions… and continue the adventure. Get into the XXQ’s to learn more.

XXQs: Stephen Austin Welch (PEV): Tell us about how you first got involved with photography and the graphic arts. Was it always a natural fit for you?

Stephen Austin Welch (SAW): When I was in high school I went on a ten day trip to central Europe. Coming from the mid-west, I wanted to make the travel abroad last as long as possible. In preparation I took a photography class so that I could document my journey. Long story short, photography changed the way I experienced the cities and the people. It helped me discover myself.

PEV: Growing up, what kind of artistic styles were surrounding you that may have influenced your work?

SAW: In Collinsville, Illinois the influences were corn and horseradish. And sports. And humidity. I discovered very early that one had to be inventive to have fun. I was always creating something, we just didn’t call it art back then. Music has always been a main inspiration.

PEV: Running your design firm SAWville and shooting award winning international ad campaigns for advertising agencies, as well as projects for design firms, record labels and magazines, is there one campaign/project you produced that stands out as your favorite? Why?

SAW: It is always about collaboration and collaboration is exciting. But what is really fun about being a photographer is having access to new adventures. I shot a killer project for art director Joe Kimberling at Los Angeles Magazine. It was a three week project that had me photographing buildings in downtown Los Angeles that are beautiful, but closed to the public. Joe was wildly enthusiastic about the project and gave me all the creative freedom I needed to create some fantastic work. Out of that assignment, grew a large body of fine art photographs that I call ‘urbanscapes’. That job was a thrilling balance between commercial work and personal work.

PEV: Tell about your earlier days in art when you were just starting out?

SAW: I have always been a eager person–not waiting around patiently for opportunity, but making things happen now. It is just my nature. An early example would be when I was still in high school, I hopped a plane after class to get to Chicago in time to play a gig with my band that night. When I was 20, I finished art school at the SMFA in Boston and I moved to LA to work on movie sets in the lighting department. My first big ad job as a photographer was for the ad agency TBWA\Chiat\Day at ripe old age of 21. Essentially I have always been excited about what’s next!

PEV: What drove you to photography/graphic arts over other genres?

SAW: Photography and graphic design has such a beautiful relationship with emotion and math. I love the tension and release. I think visually. But the funny thing is, I don’t really think it is all that different from writing music. There is a openness you need to have to your environment (or client’s needs) and then there is a discovering of the best way to capture the emotion (or client’s solution.) I love it.

PEV: What would we find if we walked into your studios at SAWville right now?

SAW: Well, it depends on which room… the main studio has a bunch of sleek metal computer design stations, an endless farm of hard drives and next to the CDs you’ll find our vinyl collection. In the conference room, hopefully you’ll find nothing! We try to keep it zen, with just a hand finished wood table and walls lined with glass door bookcases that holds over a thousand art & design magazines. Oh, and the bathroom has a keg. Just kidding, that was for a party we threw. It is long gone. R.I.P.

PEV: When you prepare for a shoot, what kind of “mind set” do you surround yourself in?

SAW: It is all about surrounding yourself with “good people.” I arrive to set ready to listen and ready to discuss. Communication is key. Besides that I am armed with caffeine, MP3s and jokes!

PEV: What is your take on today’s modern art scene? The good and the bad?

SAW: I am wowed by the “outsider art” movement. I am also a fan of designers getting gallery shows. But I’m bedazzled by the price of what some contemporary fine art photographs are going for at the auction houses!?!

PEV: If you could sit down with any artist – living or deceased, who would it be and why?

SAW: Oh dear. Well, I will answer your question this way. A few years ago it would be pointless to sit down with another photographer because they are always lying to each other. “My life is great” says photog #1. Followed by photog #2 saying, “No, my life is great,” on and on. I cut designer way more slack in this area. Just buy a designer a drink and they will tell you what they know. Then all of a sudden, over that past couple years, blogs started popping up. Somewhere in the process of venting these bloggers started doing this really weird thing–they started truthfully telling their stories! I am a big fan of the blog-o-sphere and having direct access to people that inspire you.

PEV: Who is on your iPod right now or in your CD player?

SAW: Okay, we have 4 of those buggers. In the car is a Robyn Hitchcock/The The mix. With me now in the studio is a mix with The Church/Steve Kilbey. In the bath is an ambient Oren Lavie/Harold Budd mix. And finally, in the airplane travel kitty is an iPod with a National Skyline/Cocteau Twins mix.

PEV: Is there an up and coming artist (any medium) that you think we should all be looking out for?

SAW: Katrine Naleid,

PEV: How have your friends and family reacted to your career?

SAW: All my friends are musicians, designers, directors and entrepreneurs of sort. We are very supportive of one another and great at commiserating when the time comes. I am close with my family. But it seems that maybe they knew of me being an artist even before I did. Case in point, my folks helped me pack the U-Haul when I was 18 and moved to Boston.

PEV: Tell us about the first time you saw one of your works hanging on the walls of a show?

SAW: You would think it would be no big deal because the artwork was just sitting there in your studio a week before. Not to mention that you have already taken the picture, photoshopped it, put it on the web and in your portfolio, etc… But in that moment, on that blank new wall, it gets fresh life breathed into it. The energy feels anew!

PEV: What’s something we’d be surprised to hear about Stephen Austin Welch?

SAW: I have a collection of Absinth. But you could probably guess that. Um, maybe that I like to watch ice hockey.

PEV: When you aren’t working, what can we find you doing in your spare time?

SAW: Really I work ALL the time. Note, that does not mean I’m getting paid all the time! “Weekends?” I have heard of them, but usually used in the phrase “working weekend.” Truthfully in our spare time we like to travel. But ya, you got me here too, because of course, I take my camera…

PEV: You were quoted as saying you “… make pictures and solve problems along the way.” What do you find to be the most challenging “problems” for you as an artist?

SAW: Solving problems on set with an ad agency and a client is easy. I mean, it is tremendously hard work, with a ton of production and a bazillion decisions that need to be made, but once everyone is on the same page with what we want to communicate there is a specific goal. And that goal is what we make photographs of. Believe it or not, art can suffer from a lack of parameters. I have always said that I do not mind some obstacles because it forces you to go deeper into your process to find you own true message.

PEV: What advice can you offer to an artist who is debating whether or not to pursue a career in photography?

SAW: Don’t do it. Now that we have that out of the way, figure out why you want to do it. Is it for the artistic self-expression aspect–or do you just really like beating your head against the wall. Commercial photography is a business and it is in a changing industry. You hear this all the time in the music biz. It is the same here. With all that said, if you want to be a photographer, take pictures. And keep taking pictures. That is the pure part of the business, whether you are on the art side or the commercial side.

PEV: What one word, best describes your work?

SAW: Honest.

PEV: Where do you think you’ll be in twenty years?

SAW: Dunno. What I do know is that I love my loved ones and I want the future to continue to provide me opportunity. Stated simply, I want to meet creative people and work with them on interesting projects. I plan to get more into film… I have always wanted to own a bar… Oh! I know, find out more about that odd term I hear thrown about, “the weekend!”

PEV: So, what is next for Stephen Austin Welch?

SAW: Make photographs; solve clients problems with visual solutions. Hang some large scale images on nice walls. Design a line of whimsical screen printed shirts. Answer the ringing phone. Continue the adventure.

For more information on Stephen Austin Welch, check out Also


1 Comment

  1. Brian said,

    Thanks for profiling my favorite photographer! Stephen also used to be in a great band named Pale Rain, but I don’t know if any of the music is available outside of the cassette tapes that I have. E-mail him and ask him. There are many great photographs that Stephen took of my band, The Great Crusades, at Check out the photo gallery of the photo shoots for the albums Four Thirty, Never Go Home, and Damaged Goods.

    Cheers, Stephen!

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