Creating still life images
(upbeat electronic music)
You know, why do I do still life? Well, when I was starting out really as a professional photographer, I was in Los Angeles. That was when I really started as a professional working, trying to make money as a photographer. And of course, at that point, in Los Angeles, you did a little bit of everything to stay alive. And still life kind of came my way. And it came my way in the form of hospital appliance catalog. Now, I think somebody says, well, you know, we'll pay you $100 a shot, and you can do 20 shots a day, or something like that, of still life, then you're gonna jump at the chance of doing some still life, even though you have no experience really of doing still life. So, the whole thing was a learning curve to me. And the actual first object I got was a bed pan. And I actually wish that I could get that bed pan back to re-shoot it because I went down this very complicated lighting, light tent road of trying to do this bed pan, which was, of course, i...
n bright chrome. It wasn't a nice dull chrome, it was in a bright chrome. And, of course, every reflection of everything sure enough. Of course, I was supposed to be doing 20 a day and in the first four hours, I managed to eventually get a half-decent shot of this bed pan. So of course, I was in real trouble and the art director was worried and so on. But of course, I stayed late until about 10 o'clock and got the job done. When I finished that, I actually said, I'll never do still life again because it was just an absolute nightmare. However, the art director loved the pictures. That was what was rather strange. I hated doing them but he loved the pictures. And I think he gave me several other jobs of different things to do still life, and I actually persevered with it, and I actually got better with it the more work I did. It happens with a lot of things. If you just keep going, you can sometimes get better with things. You practice, you work, you persevere, and you need to have this love of photography, not necessarily at that point a love of still life, but suddenly, you begin to see the beauty of still life and the beauty of objects. And then at that time, I began to look at some of the still life of photographers at that time that I liked, like Edward Weston, who was, of course, famous for sand dunes and nudes and beautiful nudes of women like Tina Modotti, et cetera, et cetera. But then I discovered his still lifes and of course, I thought wow, he took just mundane objects, like a toilet or an eggplant or a pepper and he did these beautiful still lifes. So from that point on, still life was always a little part of my life. I would always fit it in and do some still lifes and every so often, people would ask me to do quite important still lifes 'cause I was not really a still life guy. And they would ask me to do a perfume campaign of perfume bottles, which are quite tricky to shoot, wine glasses with wine in them and so on. And I kind of always in my schedule made room for that. And I persevered with it until I actually got better and better. And in the end when I decided to do some projects on my own, I decided to do a few still life projects that were really my own idea, not for somebody. And one of the first series that I really persevered to get was the Tutankhamun series. Now, this was a very difficult thing to do. I was interested in the personal objects of Tutankhamun. The objects are too fragile to travel. And I found out that Tutankhamun had gloves and socks and all these different things made out of linen. And of course, you look at it and say, that's the oldest glove in the world, the oldest sock in the world. 3 1/2 thousand years old. And I thought I'd love to photograph them. It took me 2 1/2 years of perseverance, eventually using a U.S. government connection that I had with a U.S. senator to get permission to get into the Cairo Museum to photograph these objects. And in fact, I turned up with a couple of assistants at the Cairo Museum on the designated Monday morning and they said, you can't do it this week. You have to do it next week. So, I had to hang out for one week in Luxor taking some pictures down there, and then I came back up to Cairo, and I ended up doing these objects of Tutankhamun. And this started a series of objects that I did over the years where I was, yes I was interested in the texture of the surface tension of objects, but in the end, I felt that it had to go further. And this came from my graphics training and conceptual training that I liked that the object wasn't just an old glove or an old sock with nice texture, the kind of thing you'd pick up in the street, but that it meant something beyond that. So, I decided to shoot a lot of these objects in a very simple way, a very straight forward way. Usually against white, so it was a very minimalistic approach. And I went from the Tutankhamun series, which I loved doing, and I ended up at Graceland, strangely enough, photographing Elvis artifacts, and there was a wonderful moment when Colonel Parker dropped off at the Graceland Museum, he dropped off Elvis's gold lame suit. And of course, that was a perfect object for me to shoot. And once again, I shoot these things absolutely minimally. Careful with the lighting but not trying to do anything else other than almost record them like a passport picture. I then got a connection with the Smithsonian, and I found out that the space suits of Armstrong and Shepard and a lot of the space objects were in a hangar outside of Washington, D.C., and I got permission to photograph them. And there was a wonderful thing actually happen that I got to photograph the suit of Neil Armstrong, and it was in its raw state. In other words, it was not clean. And unfortunately, if you see it now in the Smithsonian, you'll see that it's like brand new, that it's just been sprayed or vacuumed or washed or something and it's gleaming white. And the original one that I have has got basically all the moon dust on it and so on. So, that was a very nice thing. So, the idea of all these kind of objects was to really just do a passport picture of them and try and say that this object has some mystery and it's my choice of the object that's the creative aspect of it. And another series I did, I did a lot of sexual fetishes that came when I was doing the Morocco project that I came across. And I almost treated them the same way. I liked it that there was a strange dead bird that was wrapped in an old comic wrapped in string and women were supposed to sleep with this under their pillow, and that was supposed to make them fertile. So, I liked the idea that the object had another layer, had another meaning to it. It wasn't just an interesting object in itself but that it did something, it meant something, it had some charisma around it. So, that was part of why I did all of these things. Another thing that I had collected over the years, a whole series of objects that I collected, I had a large collection of hat blocks that were English, French, and American. And hat blocks are obviously blocks that they make hats on, they form the hat. And a lot of these things were from 1880, 1890, and sometimes, the turn of the century. These are things that I chose that were interesting objects. So, here I am falling into the trap of something that's texturally interesting, but I still liked that the object wasn't just an object in itself, it was there for a reason. It was a hat block, you made hats on it. And I chose to do these in a slightly different way, slightly more traditional way, and I did these against a canvas. And I did these on an 8x10 camera. Most of the other ones were done on a 4x5 camera, 4x5 Horseman. Actually, going back to the Tutankhamun series, when I was in the museum, they of course said, you can't use strobe, which I thought might happen. So, I ended up using the modeling lights off the strobes. They were fine with that. Most times, you're using a strobe with these things, but in the Tutankhamun series I used what would end up being the modeling light, which is essentially tungsten on that. So, the important thing here is the conceptualization. Try and have another layer beyond. So, if you find an object that you find interesting, that's fine, but try and put together a concept of still life that you feel that it says something, means something, that it has another layer so that it doesn't become just a texture of things. So, if you find a bit of driftwood on the beach, you really have to go all out to make that something special 'cause it can sometimes just be textural. And at that point, it can be quite pretty, it can be quite nice, but it's never gonna go kind of to another level. So, if you are gonna photograph a piece of driftwood, it really has to be kind of an awesome photograph for it to work. (upbeat electronic music) The technique of photographing against white, there's obviously many ways that that can be done. Sometimes, you're just simply laying an object on a piece of white plexiglass. And I prefer, there's a plexiglass that you can get that's matte on one side and shiny on the other. That's a really great thing to work with because the matte side, of course, has no reflection, shiny side, you can get some reflection of the object, which you might want or may not want, as long as you're cognizant of that. And another way of doing it is that you can, if possible, if the object allows you to do this, to elevate the object above the surface of the glass. And that means that you're, and that way able to really isolate the object. Now sometimes, the object doesn't let you do that. The Tutankhamun series, I had to take them as they were. And I wasn't able to do that, the object didn't allow me to do that. So, you can elevate that object above the glass. It separates the object from the background, and you're not only eliminating, by doing that, some reflections, but you're eliminating possible backlight contaminating your front light a little bit. So, of course, there's another way you can do this. Sometimes, the object allow you to remove them dramatically away, maybe two, three feet, which, of course, sometimes is really ideal. It depends on the object. It depends, an object that lies down, is it a freestanding object. In the case of the hat blocks, that's far more lit. That's much more like lighting a person because the object's freestanding, it's head-like as an object, and I approach that more as a portrait of a hat block, as opposed to just a straight forward passport picture. So, that's more photographically driven, you might say, than concept driven but hopefully, there's a little bit of concept in there as well. (upbeat electronic music)