I’ve gotten a little used to posting remembrances of G.I. Joe alums from the worlds of animation, comics, and toys, where the departed were born in the 1940s or ’50s. It’s sad, although it makes sense. But I was caught off guard this summer to learn that Andre Blais had died. He didn’t work on G.I. Joe, but for me, he worked around it. Longtime readers of this blog have “met” him, as Andre was my photographer from 2008 to 2017.
That’s a funny term, “my photographer.” We only worked together 15 times, so that’s just one or two sessions per year. But every time I retrieve printouts of the early sample chapters or a PDF on my laptop to show someone what my book looks like, there are Andre’s images. I would spend many hours in the days before a photo shoot gathering toys, thinking about textures and props (or not thinking about textures and props), and emailing Andre and book designer Liz with questions and ideas. They worked at the same studio. That’s how I “found” Andre. He was already there. And after each session I would await a PDF contact sheet, and then the big, uncompressed tiffs, the fruits of our labor. Andre would have spent a week or three turning his RAW files into something that looked good for the client, painting out dead pixels and adjusting color. In a few cases, I would pick a particular shot and ask for a bit of touch up. (Can you take the glare off Stalker’s thigh?)
And months or years later (oh boy, have I been taking forever to get through this book!) when it was time to link a photo from a particular photo shoot, I would pour over that contact sheet and decide which take, which select, would go into the text. For each chapter I make a big, complicated list with notes for designer Liz — what images go roughly with what paragraphs, what images should be after a page turn, or if three images could be smaller and grouped together. By this point, I wasn’t emailing Andre, but I was staring at his work and filled with the satisfaction of having hired a professional. A talented professional. (For a moment in 2005 I considered taking all the photos myself, but just a moment. You can tell a good or lucky amateur shot from a pro’s one. That makes all the difference, even for something basic like a small plastic man standing in front of a sheet of construction paper.)
Some of Andre’s effort was “copy work,” merely photographing a toy in its packaging in a neutral way. We’d spend time deciding on a background color, and any curve or ding in the package was an opportunity for distracting light reflections, so simple shoots were never simple. And some of that copy work was Andre photographing oversize original artwork that wouldn’t fit on my scanner. And that was straightforward enough that on one occasion I left a bunch of art with him and picked it up some months later.
Part of what made our collaboration feel like a bigger deal is that it wasn’t always just me driving to Pawtucket. Twice Andre and I met elsewhere at someone’s home, me having driven from my part of Massachusetts, and him from Rhode Island, to shoot a toy or prototype in their living room. That’s because that nice person was willing to let us in for a morning, but not interested in letting me schlep their valuable artifact to Andre’s studio. (But two times former Hasbro guys did let me schlep their artifacts over, which I returned the next day.)
And once, in 2015, Andre and I met in Texas to photograph a collector’s wares. We flew in separately on Saturday and started shooting, all three of us went to dinner, and Andre and I crashed at a hotel. The next day we shot more, and then headed to their airport to take our separate flights back to MA and RI.
Andre had two jobs. One was full-time photographer and videographer for Gladworks, that firm that’s designing my book. The other was his own wedding photography business. Wedding photography is hard. It’s a kind of photojournalism. When people think of this business, they imagine the staged images of the wedding party standing and looking at the camera. What interests me are the candids, those moments of someone talking to someone else, or someone telling a joke and someone else laughing, or a young kid fidgeting with their fancy clothes. My own wedding took place near my wife’s family, far from our home. We hired a pretty good wedding photographer. I remember sitting in her studio, trying to explain how I wanted the candids to resemble movie publicity photos, sort of effortlessly casual, and yet somehow brilliantly lit and staged. She nodded. Our photos turned out well enough, but I remember thinking of Andre’s photography website and all the gorgeously composed wedding photographs there. And sort of wondering if we should have hired him instead. (And flown him out to California? Yikes, that’s prohibitively expensive. Was he even available?) You have to be invisible to cover someone’s wedding, somehow capturing all the obvious moments without getting in the way or blocking the view. Or during the reception, you have to see everything, and somehow capture all the best moments — the best friend talking with the other best friend, a bit of foreground greenery stepping in from the left and out of focus; the friends from back home standing around and talking in a mini reunion; three older family members sitting and not quite looking at each other but sharing the same warm expression. Looking over his online portfolio in prepping for this blog post, I am very slightly jealous of those lucky couples around New England who had Andre Blais shoot their weddings in the last decade-plus.
One time, maybe around 2016, Andre and I were on a lunch break. We’d been shooting G.I. Joe toys on a cyc in the Gladwords studio room. I was probably eating a tuna sandwich. He pulled out his phone and showed me his new side business. Weddings are tiring, and being a successful wedding photographer means you have no weekends from April through October. Here was a way for Andre to make money while sitting at home! He was starting to upload his images to a few stock photography websites. He had an account. Whenever he went somewhere interesting, he’d be on the lookout for a striking image. Certainly a professional photographer is going to do that anyway, but Andre was looking for images that people or companies might license. You’ve probably landed on those stock image websites when Googling for something specific, stumbling onto a gymnast with a watermark, or a close up of jewels with a watermark. Now imagine you’re putting together a brochure and you need three people smiling in front of a tree, or a kid playing in a sun-dappled sprinkler. Or you’re producing a film and you need a neat sunset as a background plate. Then you’d head to one of these stock sites.
But with the spread of high definition both as a standard, and as something that people casually shoot with that device in their pocket, amateurs and indie filmmakers might need underwater imagery of fish, or that neat sunset not as a still, but as a continuous 30-second clip. Andre knew that common categories were crowded — puppies, smiling kids, athletes in action, flower close-ups — so he was trying to bank quirky and unusual clips. He showed me how many downloads he’d had, and where geographically the downloads were happening. He told me this was starting to ramp up, and rattled off a dollar amount that I can’t recall, but a nice little chunk of change he’d made for uploading and letting-a-stock-company-do-all-the-work with a dozen or three clips. One was, I think, a ’50s wind-up toy robot teetering in place in front of… a glass bowl of… fruit? The robot’s shadow or its reflection on the table was dramatic. Andre explained he took that robot or a few other interesting props wherever he went, because you never knew where you’d see something striking, and he could turn it into a quirky, unusual image or clip — not a kid running through a sprinkler in the grass on a bright summer day, but maybe a low-angle close-up of that toy robot with the sprinkler and the suburban house out of focus behind it. It was incredible to hear about this. I knew Andre had a great eye (my Joe toy pics), and was a crafty problem solver (color and BG choices for those pics), but he was a great businessman, too. And here he was solving a creative problem people didn’t know they had. And a pleasant kind of double-dipping, as Andre might already be on a paying job and could step aside for a minute and shoot something to make him more money, no one offended or the wiser. Did he then aim his camera and videotape some old Americana signage on the wall or a close-up of the pat of butter on his pancakes, while on this very lunch break? I don’t recall, but let’s say “sure.”
Now and then when I’m out and about, or traveling, and I see some overlap of weird but amazing elements — a hotel swimming pool populated by frolicking kids and relaxing adults, one set of legs straight up from the water as a teenager handstands and a few pool toy animals inadvertently migrate toward him or her — I vaguely think of Andre catching such an image, and naming and tagging it (“underwater walk”?), and profiting from it. And I smile.
My main memory of working with Andre is a composite of all of our “regular” shoots (the ones where we didn’t travel), looking for ideas in the junk at Gladworks. The above photo is after some office clean-up, and you’ll note the background is just office stuff. At times it was much more cluttered. But in those shelves and boxes were samples of tile, and paper, and sometimes baskets (Gladworks put together a grocery store wholesaler’s catalog, I think, so Andre one time had just shot a bunch of canned food and plastic fruit with fake grass and baskets on checkered tablecloths). I never prepared fully for our photo shoots. I’d have an idea of which figures would be in front of what kind of background. Sometimes I brought props, but mostly we used Andre’s collection of colored paper or dug around the studio for glass tile, or those baskets, never wanting to quite repeat ourselves. One time he said we should drive to Lorraine Fabrics, a discount shop nearby out of the 1950s. We bought some small samples, a textured yellow-sand piece bigger than a napkin, a pale blue sheet with an almost metallic shimmer, and it felt like art school again. Adventure. New places. Problem solving.
Some time in 2017, Liz told me that Andre had moved to Florida. I didn’t get to say goodbye, but I sent a text after the fact. (My book has survived without him — Gladworks hired a wonderful photographer and we had a shoot in late ’17.) I’m not sure what Andre was up to down south, but I think it was a good move.
Designer Liz tells me that more recently he moved back and was shooting for Hasbro. Ha! I don’t have any specifics, so I can’t speak to this brand or that brand, but the full circle is striking. He had avoided the big H previously. We would chat about product photography — here was Andre taking pictures of toys for me, and he knew people who did that for Hasbro locally, but he didn’t want that. Maybe it was having regular hours, or maybe the money was better combining the full-time photography/videographer Gladworks job with the fulltime-weekend-freelance-owning his own wedding photography business, but Hasbro was lucky to have him. And I wonder if, unknowingly, some toy I see online or in a Hasbro catalog this past year or in the coming months is his.
To Andre’s family, I’m thinking of you. Besides that great eye of his — the wedding couple kissing, leaning a bit forward toward each other, but on a curvature, reflected in the side window and door of the limo that will whisk them away, all in crisp black and white — I’ll miss his willingness to lie on his stomach (not precisely depicted here, but close enough), outside, to capture a dramatic low angle.