Four Seasons in Review

Two-thousand-and-twelve, the year I published my first, and last, ‘Year in Review’. I love photography, I love data and I love blogging, so why has it taken me SIX YEARS to finally sit down and reflect on another year gone by? I can only speculate it has something to do with family, work, fitness, mindfulness, health, relationships, priorities – all that jazz that we can comfortably blame for derailing other plans.

This year I’m going to do things a little differently (from that ONE time I did a year in review), this year I’m going to break these ‘Year in Review’ down by genera. Today’s post is extra special though, because it’s not just limited to one genera, it’s a single client (drum roll badadadadadada) The Four Seasons Hotel.

Doing commercial photography for the Four Seasons Hotel on a monthly basis has been by far one of my most rewarding, and demanding jobs of 2018. It’s still rare for me as a freelance photographer to work on a regular bases with the same client on the same kind of jobs. It’s ironic actually, we freelancers often leave our secure, routine jobs (ie. teaching) to pursue our passion only to discover how wonderful it is to have regular clients on the roster for stability.

I started work for The Four Seasons back in March of 2018. How this came to be is actually an inspiring story (at least I think so) so I’m going to share it, because that’s what I do, I write very long blog posts…

GSP (that’s the short hand for Greg Samborski Photography) covers a lot of photo genres – portraits, editorials, engagements, families, events, architecture, super cars, umbrella proposals… I cast a really wide net in the beginning because I had to to ensure I could keep my wife and daughter fed, clothed and housed. Event photography has been the one constant of all the genres through the years. I love it, you get to explore new places, meet new people, learn something from the keynotes, indulge in a tasty meal (steak 90% of the time) and some drinks on the house. Imagine being paid to learn, mingle, eat, drink and network all while doing your favourite thing, taking photos!

Many of the events I covered were hosted at what I believe to be Seoul’s finest hotel (and I’ve visited every major hotel in the city numerous times), The Four Seasons. Monthly visits the The Four Seasons over four years meant I got to know the general manager at the time, Lubosh Barta, a charismatic, impeccably dressed European gentlemen with a great smile and unwavering standards. We would always catch up up briefly in passing.

One day as I greeted Lubosh at an event I asked, “Do you think I could come in one day and photograph your spa? I absolutely love the lines in there!”.

— PAUSE —

I need to share the backstory on the spa, because now I realize the decision to spend what I thought, and still believe, is an insane amount of money on a bath, is likely the very reason I was offered this job.

One day I had come from a hot and sweaty half day shoot hours north of Seoul directly to The Four Seasons to cover an event. My schedule was such that I really didn’t have time to stop by home and freshen up. I explained my situation to the receptionist at the Four Seasons hoping I might get free access to a shower in the fitness centre. She said the only option was to pay $60.00 to enter the spa. I was already thinking “nope, I’ll take a bird bath in a nearby sink” but then the receptionist added that she was making a very rare exception in my case, usually only Four Seasons members have access. Well somehow this newly discovered exclusivity had the power to make me reconsider the situation, now I felt like this was my only chance to experience what I could only imagine was… well, so good that it had to be exclusive!

I slowly pulled out my MasterCard, the voice in my head justifying the cost by repeating, “You worked hard Greg… two photoshoots back to back! Hey you shoot all this week! YOU DESERVE A REST!!! (and you really shouldn’t be stinky…)”

It was the best bath I’ve ever taken, so far beyond amazing it ruined jimjil bangs (Korean bath houses) for me from that point forward. Every corridor, light and detail was perfect, it was like entering another world. I was completely enthralled by the lines, decor and artwork. I sat there, submersed in 28 degree water overlooking the city, listening to down tempo electronica thinking, “I NEED TO PHOTOGRAPH THIS PLACE!”

— Rewind | Stop | Play — 

So I asked Lubosh if I could take some photos of the Four Seasons spa. I wasn’t trying to get a job, it was the last thing on my mind. I had no intention of trying to sell the photos, I would send them over in return for the favour. I was simply inspired by the design, and looking to build my portfolio. Lubosh replied that it would be fine to arrange the photo shoot on a cleaning day. Then he asked, “Do you do other kinds of photography besides event work?”. I stood there shocked at how easy it is to be pigeonholed and rightfully so when customers/clients only see working within in one context. “YES!” I may have shouted, “I do all kinds of work!”

Lubosh explained that the hotel was looking to hire a new photographer for their domestic promotions and said he would pass my name along to the director of marketing.

Between email ping-pong, Christmas holidays, and the multitude of other responsibilities a director of marketing has at the Four Seasons it took a few months, and meetings, to get things all lined up. I really had my doubts it was actually going to happen. The thought of working for such a major hotel both excited and scared me. Finally the big day came, my fist photo shoot with the Four Seasons, a probationary one on March 15th. The subjects, caviar and beer!

So that’s the story of how I came to work at the Four Seasons. I walked out of the probationary shoot doubtful that I would return again but the next week I they called me back and signed me for a year. Not all the shots below are portfolio worthy but they represent my best efforts working in a very new genre, with a new team often under very challenging circumstances. We covered A LOT of ground every shoot often doing food, portraits, product and cocktails all in the same day. Enough preamble already, here are the photos:

March

Osetra Caviar – I can’t think of a more challenging probationary photo shoot to have begun with. Caviar isn’t exactly photogenic and it didn’t help that I had no experience with the product. How should I have known it’s never served with a metal spoon (psssst metal oxidizes the eggs, mother of pearl spoons work best!)
Caviar & Martinis – Here I learned how challenging it is to photograph clear liquids. This is an exclusive bespoke pairing of Korea’s finest caviar with beautifully crafted cocktails and champagne.
LE75 French 75 Style Ale – Then there was the new beer, a collaboration between Charles H and Magpie Brewing. Bottles are some of the most challenging subjects to photograph, the rounded glass reflects the entire room. The Four Seasons didn’t want a studio shot, we needed to capture the Charles H ambiance so this made highlights tough to control. The gold foil lettering is one of the signature elements of the beer bottle and needed to be bold and beautiful. It took me a few tries to figure out a lighting pattern that would emphasize it. Finally there was the age old challenge of getting the beer foam just righ. I learned a ton about reflections and how to mange them on this shoot.
LE75 French 75 Style Ale – Then there was the new beer, a collaboration between Charles H and Magpie Brewing. Bottles are some of the most challenging subjects to photograph, the rounded glass reflects the entire room. The Four Seasons didn’t want a studio shot, we needed to capture the Charles H ambiance so this made highlights tough to control. The gold foil lettering is one of the signature elements of the beer bottle and needed to be bold and beautiful. It took me a few tries to figure out a lighting pattern that would emphasize it. Finally there was the age old challenge of getting the beer foam just righ. I learned a ton about reflections and how to mange them on this shoot.
Wedding Setup – All out floral decor by Nicolie Bergman
Wedding Setup – All out floral decor by Nicolie Bergman

April

Interns & Assistants – I was lucky enough to have Shannon intern at GSP for 6 months. While her foucs was on marketing she was always with me on my shoots assisting and working hard. Hanna didn’t come on as an intern but rather volunteered her time so she could get a taste of the industry and see if it was a good fit for her.
Berry Bingsu – Melting ice cream, a doozie to shoot but oh sooooo yummy looking when you get it right. On this shoot I learned how to create frost by spraying air duster upside down at the bowl. Some of these photos would be printed and slid into frames in the Maru Lounge.
New Cocktails at Charles H – Starting to get a feel for how to integrate Charles H lighting and atmosphere into a product/lifestyle shot.
Burgers & Beer Promo – Mention the “Burger & Beer” shoot to the marketing team and Four Seasons and watch their expressions turn stone cold. Now I understand why food photographers fear burgers. We had the added challenge of trying to make a mid winter rooftop terrace look like mid summer.
Second Choice – Not everything we created was used. Generally the bigger the company, the more stages of approval an image needs to go though. Often it’s not technical reasons that keep a photo from being shared but rather the feel of the image, the all essential “what is this communicating?” If the burger looks anything less than scrumptious, if the beer looks too large/small compared to the burger, if the background doesn’t look summer-y enough, if the model looks too posed or the wardrobe doesn’t fit with the environment… if any single elements isn’t in harmony with the client’s message then the image is axed. We took three tries at the burger and beer. The global photo and styling team even gave it a shot too when they were in for another project and I THOUGHT our efforts didn’t make the cut. I was quite surprised when I passed by our work printed on this cube outside the hotel after a long day of shooting a few months later.

May

Boccalino Buffet Candids – After a year of photographing food and drink and the Four Seasons, I’ve noticed the dishes that often look best were those shot “candidly” that is, they were prepared and put out for the guests with no intention of ever being photographed. I snapped these shots dishes ready for the lunch buffet while waiting on approval of a staged food shot. One of the hardest things to do is create light, styling and a setting that doesn’t look contrived. I have more respect than ever for food and set stylists, sadly on these domestic jobs we didn’t have allocated budget for a stylist so it was myself, my assistants, the marketing team and managers all lending a hand.
Ken Seet – I voluntarily spent my birthday assisting Ken Seet, the incredibly talented photographer who has created the vast majority of interior, exterior and lifestyle images for all of the Four Seasons in Asia. I learned more in a day watching and helping Ken than I learned in months online.

June

Summer Floral Display by Nicolai Bergmann – The seasonal floral displays created by Nicolai Bergman are absolutely stunning and thus it’s tough to find a moment where a guest isn’t in the frame, photographing it.
Four Seasons Bespoke Perfumed Candle – Bring the smell of Four Seasons home! (I really do like the smell). This photo was printed for the candle display stand and also used digitally on screens in the elevators. Gold foil print – not a problem, mastered that on the first shoot 😉
Elevator Promos – A few of my images were displayed on the screens installed in all 12 elevators of the hotel.
Smaller foral designs by Nicolai Bergmann were placed throughout the hotel.
Charles H Portraits – We were shooting monthly at the Charles H speakeasy hidden in B1 of the Four Seasons. I had the pleasure of making some portraits with head bartender Lorenzo Antinori. Many of these would later appear on the Charles H and Lorenzo’s personal instagram feed.
Charles H Portraits – We were shooting near monthly at the Charles H speakeasy hidden in B1 of the Four Seasons. I had the pleasure of making some portraits with head bartender Lorenzo Antinori. Many of these would later appear on the Charles H and Lorenzo’s personal instagram feed.
Tropical Libations – The golden grate at Charles H always appealed to me as a background element. Sometimes I would shoot flash through it for more contrasty highlights and shadows.
Nice-Ice – One of my favourite images from Charles H, simple, warm and classy.
Alex the New Pastry Chef – Portraits, my strong suit! Maybe this was the first and only shoot where we didn’t have a curve ball thrown at us. For one of the photos Alex needed to imagine he was designing/sketching a cake. An illustrator later drew the cake in and the photo was printed at poster size and hung in a display case near Maru Lounge.
Alex the New Pasty Chef – Portraits, my strong suit! Maybe this was the first and only shoot where we didn’t have a curve ball thrown at us. For one of the photos Alex needed to imagine he was designing/sketching a cake. An illustrator later drew the cake in and the photo was printed at poster size and hung in a display case near Maru Lounge.
On Display – I have an immense love for projects that happen in stages, I think it’s the collaboration, delayed gratification and never quite knowing what the outcome will be. I was approached with the original concept, “We’d like to hang a photo in this display case.” Which was later fleshed out to, “we went with was our new pastry chef Alex creating and customizing cakes for all occasions.” This was a collaboration between myself, Chef Alex, the marketing team, illustrator, graphic designer and printer that worked out splendidly in the end. It’s very exciting as a photographer that first time you see your work displayed prominently in the Four Seasons, usually months after the actual image was shot and you’ve long forgotten about it!
Manhattan Flight? – A quintessential American Cocktail and a template of whiskey, vermouth, and bitters that inspired many a barman to take liberties.
The Big Guy – Lubosh Barta, General Manager of The Four Seasons 2012 – 2018
Yu Yuan New Menu – Being a Michelin-starred restaurant, Yu Yuan got a LOT of our attention over 2018.
Just For Fun – What do you do while waiting for approval on Yu Yuan shots? Make portraits!.

July

More Candle – Lifestyle bespoke presumed candle images now featuring FIRE!
Bridal Party – A bridal party setup straight out of the most romantic movie you’ve ever seen.
Bridal Party – A bridal party setup straight out of the most romantic movie you’ve ever seen.
Charles H Staff Portraits – It was always a pleasure watching the Charles H team go about planning for an evening with military-like precision.

August

Strawberry Season – New pastry creations by Chef Alex.
Attention to Detail – Yu Yuan chef adding the final touches.
New Cocktails – The Jockey Club, Monkey 47 Dry Gin & Plantation Rum Sour, topped up with Brut Champagne and a touch of Yuzu.
The Martini Cart – One of Charles H’s unique specialties is that they roll up with a martini cart and mix your drink at your table.
Crispy Fish – Another food photo session at Yu Yuan featuring their flavours of the month.

September

Fall Floral Arrangement – It was always special to arrive to a new floral arrangement by Nicolai Bergmann.
Fall Floral Arrangement – Finding new angles on the lobby arrangements was a challenge.
Cacao Month – September was all about cacao for Chef Alex at the Four Seasons.
Maria – One of the best things that has happened in 2018 was hiring Maria as my full time assistant for two months. There are so many positive aspects another person brings to the shoot aside from the obvious extra set of hands. Maria already had an awesome foundation in photography and is one of the most diligent workers I’ve ever seen. She’s always two steps ahead of me, grabbing my iphone charger when she knows my battery must be low, predicting the lens I need before I even know. When busy season returns I hope to bring her on again.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month – Confections by Chef Alex
Tiki Cocktail Promo at Charles H – I felt tiki cocktails were in a kind of interesting juxtaposition to the Charles H interior.\
Charles H Staff Portraits – Some portraits of the other superstars working at Charles H.

October

Knives & Lights – Lighting tests for our super secret celebrity chef shoot.
Celebrity Chef – Images from this session are slotted to appear in the February and March issues of Noblesse, Elle and Vogue and rolled out on all social media platforms. Super excited to see how things look in print!
Pumpkin Month at Boccalino
Beef & Pine Mushroom Promo at Yu Yuan
Beef & Pine Mushroom Promo at Yu Yuan
New Dim-sum Baskets at Yu Yuan – One of my favourite food photos from 2018. More often than not the client wanted to keep the food photos very simple with the food itself taking up most of the frame. I love depth, texture, context, colour and movement (steam), I feel the dim-sum at Yu Yuan offered us all these elements to play with.

November

Marcello – Marcello wrote me from Italy asking if I could use any help while he was in Korea during November visiting his father. Maria, my current assistant, would be away visiting family in Mexico. Having trained many interns and assistants I was a little reluctant to invest the time with someone new during my peak season. The only reason I agreed to the interview was the fact Marcello had some education and experience in photography, illustration and retouching. Also, I’d never had a male assistant/intern and as strange as that might sound, I wanted to see what the dynamic would be like working with another guy. During our first meeting I asked Marcello if he could tackle a moderately difficult client request, erase a person out of a scene which meant having to rebuild a complex background. Marcello stood at my computer and got to work, within the first 30 seconds of watching him I knew he was GOOD, REALLY GOOD. I’m so grateful to have had the chance to work with Marcello. He brought calm and laughter through his quirky wordplay and ideas to what would could have been immensely stressful situations to face alone. He wasn’t afraid to make suggestions and never took it personally if I decided no to employ them. I turned to him for advice, tips and tricks for all things photoshop. I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to have someone I could learn from on my shoots. Most importantly he was my friend and confidant, someone I felt was always on my team, company over lunch and while waiting on approval, someone who would endure my venting post session frustrations over grilled meat and beer. I will miss Marcello.
Alejandro Bernabe – Lubosh left to oversee the completion of the New Four Seasons in Bangkok and Alejandro became the new General Manager in Seoul. I had the honour of taking is first headshot for the Four Seasons Seoul.
Festive Cakes – Chef Alex must be a very busy man concocting all these new confections to sabotage my diet on a monthly bases. This time it was eight new festive cakes for the holiday season.
Festive Cakes – Chef Alex must be a very busy man concocting all these new confections to sabotage my diet on a monthly bases. This time it was eight new festive cakes for the holiday season.
Festive Cakes – Chef Alex must be a very busy man concocting all these new confections to sabotage my diet on a monthly bases. This time it was eight new festive cakes for the holiday season.
New Yorker Companion Series – A new cocktail inspired beer collaboration between Charles H and Magpie Brewing for the holiday season. The New Yorker is brewed with various spices used in a Manhattan cocktail and aged on Michter’s Rye Whiskey raising the level of sophistication on all-time favorite golden drinks.
New Yorker Companion Series – A new cocktail inspired beer collaboration between Charles H and Magpie Brewing for the holiday season. The New Yorker is brewed with various spices used in a Manhattan cocktail and aged on Michter’s Rye Whiskey raising the level of sophistication on all-time favorite golden drinks.
Truffle Promo at Boccalino – Would you believe that’s $200 worth truffle we grated onto that pasta? Me neither.
Festive Floral Boxes by Nicolai Bergmann – November was an extremely busy month for photography covering all the festive promotions from flower shop to the bar.
New Cocktails at Charles H – Charles H jumping on the truffle promo with a truffle inspired cocktail. Gin, hazelnut liqueur, sweet vermouth and cold brew coffee served with freshly grated black truffle on top!
New Cocktails at Charles H – It’s never a dull photoshoot when you have smoke to play with. This cocktail is a delicious combination of Sour Mash, Michters Whiskey, Korean Strawberries and a Spiced Mulled Wine Reduction with a little smoke on top.

December

Christmas Creations by Chef Alex – Our final series of shots in 2018. I can’t even put into words how rich and delicious these creations were. On this shoot we had a little more freedom to create an environment around the food so we went for very warm, festive, golden and dreamy.
Festive Lobby Floral by Nicolai Bergmann.
Insta Good – A collection of some of my shots used on the FSseoul and CharleHSeoul instagram pages.
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