From farming to shooting Ferraris – and back again?

| 23 Jun 2015 | 02:51

Walking up the six steps from the parking lot and through the door to Hudson Valley Studio feels strangely like stepping into the bottom of an empty swimming pool. The perfectly white floor curves upwards into walls without the intrusion of any angles. The paint job is so fresh that when Adam Kurtz walks on this part of the floor, he first kicks off his sneakers.

This nondescript Pine Island warehouse is ready for the arrival of the latest “hypercar.” In addition to his regular gigs with Mercedes Benz, Kurtz has also shot for Ferrari, Cadillac, and Pagani, whose hand-built carbon fiber Huayra costs over a million dollars. They only make 40 of them a year.

For the past decade Kurtz has made a name for himself shooting commercials and magazine spreads of cars sliding at high speeds on rainy roads, or tearing up a snow-covered ski mountain. Now he can shoot them here at home, too.

Kurtz, 37, gets a kick out of the juxtaposition between the building’s utilitarian exterior and the swanky studio inside. “I tell the clients, you’ll feel like you’re in the wrong place,” he said. He likes to introduce them to Dominick, the donkey that grazes opposite the loading dock.

When Kurtz bought this space, an old railroad track ran through it, and the floor sloped to a “v.” Being a local, Kurtz knew why. In the sixties, this warehouse was a state of the art cold storage facility for onions and celery grown outside in the black dirt. Workers brought produce in on railroad cars within 15 minutes of being cut. Kurtz has an uncle who worked as a packer in this very room. It took 220 50-pound bags of concrete to level the floor, and $80,000 to turn the place into a photo ready commercial studio.

The funny thing is, Kurtz doesn’t even consider himself a car guy. He’s an entrepreneur; he has been since he started a lawn mowing business in sixth grade. Before he segued into automotive photography, Kurtz worked in the family business, growing and selling fresh cut flowers. Grammy’s Garden, started by his parents, was growing 300,000 plants on 12 acres at its height – snapdragons, sunflowers, zinnias, claytonia, bells of Ireland – and selling at nine farmers markets.

“We used to be able to gauge the economy by how many fifties and hundreds were in the pile at the end of the day,” said Kurtz. “By the end we had fives and ones.” As the flower business declined, Kurtz, who majored in photography, spent more time behind the lens.

But “I still have growing in me,” said Kurtz. “I have the yearning all the time.”

It happens that Kurtz’s top client, Mercedes Benz USA, is moving its headquarters from New Jersey down to Atlanta. Without Mercedes, it will be hard for Kurtz to compete with Los Angeles, where they’ve got beach, desert, mountains, and world class studios within two hours. “Here, winter shuts things down for four months.”

So Kurtz is planning his next move, which may bring him back to his yen for cultivation. He and a partner have formed a start-up called New York Herbal Fusion, and are bidding for one of New York’s five licenses to grow and sell medical marijuana. He’s been talking with Cornell University and the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets about a tucked-away section of the new farm bill that allows states to offer hemp trial programs through universities. If Kurtz were working with Cornell, could he grow hemp? Perhaps the world’s most useful crop, it can be turned into food, fiber, oil, a fuel called hempoline, even lightweight high-end car parts, like the hemp door panels on the BMW’s i3 electric car, he said.

On Kurtz’s desk, alongside two flat screen monitors, is a canister of seeds. It’s “Indian hemp,” or Corchorus, used to make burlap. It’s a different plant than the one that’s illegal here, but you can’t get these seeds in the U.S. Kurtz envisions black dirt farmers growing it instead of onions, building up a domestic seed stock.

Growing cannabis and hemp, he said, “I can have a much more positive impact than I ever can taking pictures.”