I admit I'd never heard of the Italian photography magazine Progresso Fotografico, but apparently it was established in 1894!! In late 2021 they contacted me and to my surprise asked me for an interview. It is an Italian language publication so I've added the text of responses to their questions below. And here's a link to the original article (in Italian).
When, where and why did your passion for photography begin? What kind of equipment did you use at first?
I remember playing with my father’s Brownie and my Grandfather’s Voigtlander as a child. I received a good technical grounding in the technical aspects of exposure and film development in high school. As I grew up, I always had a camera but only for snapshots of travel and life events. I bought my first digital camera, a Pentax K100D, around 2007 to travel to New York.
In 2009 I was working in the fire services when the Black Saturday fires broke out on 7 February. 173 people were killed, and more than 2000 homes destroyed. To help cope with the stress and pressure I realised I need an artistic outlet decided to become more creative with my photography. I dabbled with still life for a while and when I was more confident with artificial lighting, I started photographing people. Portraits are now all I shoot, predominantly fine art nudes.
Your portraits are made both in natural light and studio. In both cases the attention to the balancing of light and shadows and the transition between the two are at their best. This shows a great attention to composition and exposure. Did you start with flashlights or in natural light at your very beginning? Did you frequent any school / academy or are you a self taught photographer?
Apart from a few early workshops on managing artificial light I’m largely self-taught. I think it was that early technical learning in controlling artificial light that was the most useful. Although today I prefer to use natural light, learning the basic principles of the amount, direction and qualities of light was invaluable and equally applicable to using natural light.
I enjoy solving problems and puzzles and every photographic situation presents its own problems to be solved. I used to keep a journal of the creative and technical issues of a shoot. I’d note down everything that went right and everything that went wrong. Every few months I’d collate these and develop my own lists of ‘do more of this’ and ‘do less of that’. This was one of my most valuable learning experiences.
What do you want to express, transmit or represent today through your images and your style (I read something on your profile about your interest in people…)? Where do you usually get your inspiration from?
I like to ask models to interact with the physical shooting environment, even if that environment is a bare studio with a simple prop, or an abandoned farmhouse. In that interaction aspects of their true personality emerge, and that is what I try to capture. My ‘Antaido’ series is an example, where models simply interact with a length of rope. Some will dance with it; some be weighed down and some will be held up by it. I think it is in those moments that we see, or at least glimpse, the real person.
Why shoot like this though? I’ve studied psychology and worked in several fields where people have been under considerable stress and pressure in their lives. I’ve always been fascinated by what is going on in their minds and how they make decisions for their actions. This spills over into my photography.
Does technical equipment influence the aesthetic result of images and projects? Can you please tell us what your standard equipment is today?
My first digital camera was a Pentax and I still shoot Pentax today. This is less out of a sense of brand loyalty but more a practical consideration given their continuity of lens mounts. The lenses of a few decades ago are still good today. I’ve even backtracked a little and acquired a Pentax film body.
Most of my images are shot with Pentax FA limited lenses, either 77mm or 43mm. These lenses are compact and produce beautiful bokeh. They are also fast, with maximum apertures of 1.8 and 1.9 respectively, which I need as I shoot a lot in low light. My other main lens is a Sigma 35mm Art Series (the only full frame Art Series lens Sigma made for the Pentax mount). This lens kit gives me the most faithful rendition of colour and contrast, to my eye at least. I dislike using zoom lenses for portraiture.
For studio work I find the lighting units themselves make little difference but I do bring my own diffusers, either a 150cm or 120cm octa.
That summarises the equipment I mostly use, but does this affect the aesthetic result? It doesn’t directly, rather it is my familiarity with this gear that helps me work toward a desired result. Knowing how each piece of equipment will work, and what its limitations are, is critical. For example, the sensor in the Pentax K1ii I shoot with has very good low light properties. However, its autofocus, particularly in low light, is nowhere near as sophisticated as other brands. You just have to know that and work with it.
In your opinion, what is the most important element that could make a photograph look great? (Light? Balancing? Subjects? Composition? Technical perfection? …)
Light is king. It is the single most important aspect of a photograph. Other considerations such as equipment, composition, subject matter, technical trickery, and post-processing are secondary. Important, but secondary. If the light fails, the image fails.
There are two aspects to light. The first is how it enters the image; its direction and strength. Is it from overhead or coming from the side? Is it subtle or dominant? The second is how it is distributed within the image; this is the question of contrast. A lot of my images have very strong overall contrast with strong, sometimes complete, shadows and the main subject highlighted in a shaft of light. When I do use colour I like it to be rich, sumptuous and luxurious (I think it is a trap for photographers to only think of colour only in ‘digital’ terms, ie hue, saturation and brightness).
I make no secret of the fact that the work of Caravaggio is both an inspiration and a reference point for me. His application of chiaroscuro and sfumato are techniques I try to apply in many of my images.
In your work we can find some recurring elements: ropes, dancers, window lights (and shadows). Why do these elements attract you so much? Where do they come from?
Shadows are certainly a strong element and I’ve already talked about how much I like chiaroscuro. But there are other shadows, apart from an absence of physical light. These are psychological shadows where there is something that the subject projects into the image that they may not consciously be aware of. I use the rope quite deliberately to evoke these responses. I ask the model to imagine it is a metaphor for life and they deal with it how they will. Some dance with it, some are weighed down, some entangled but struggling to overcome. These images try to reveal the psychological shadow.
Why does this interest me so much? Some portrait photographers talk about capturing the subject’s soul. I think that term is bit esoteric. But I am interested in people and what makes them tick, particularly subconsciously. My photography explores that, and shines a light into that shadow.
The bodies of the models that you portray are always shot with very plastic, three dimensional results through the use of light. At the same time they express feelings and emotions through their faces and gestures. Is it difficult to direct models on the set / location to get this result? How can you relate and interact with them? Are you used to working with the same experienced models or do they change often?
I brief models as to the theme of the shoot and then let them do their thing. I’m lucky to work with experienced models who can express themselves in the settings and lighting conditions I use. I rarely work with someone ‘cold’, where they just walk into the studio and we start shooting. There is always a pre-shoot meeting to get to know each other, although I am fortunate to work with a group of models that I’ve worked with repeatedly over the years, some for more than six years. The key here is to have a relationship of confidence and trust.
You seem to be at ease both with minimalism and with natural environments where lots of textures define the scene and surround the model. What is the difficulty in the two different perspectives of work?
Studio work, which lends itself to minimalism, can have the challenge of quickly becoming boring. How can an image in a white cyclorama possibly be made interesting? The key is to use the negative space to make the subject the focus of attention. This is achieved through lighting and posing. The viewer’s eye won’t see the background so a well presented, compelling figure is essential. Any compositional elements that are out of place will be more apparent to the viewer.
Location shoots often have the opposite problem. There can be so much extraneous detail in the background that the central image becomes lost. Careful attention needs to be paid to shooting angles and lens choice to get the right balance between subject and background. A lot of my location shots are in places that have a lot of natural clutter or rubbish. I do a lot of ‘hands on photoshop’ by picking up litter and removing other distracting objects. Easier to do it once for all images than trying to edit a series of images later. The problem here is opposite to the minimalism of a bare studio. Instead of a neutral background it is busy and full of distractions for the viewers go to go wandering around. More though has to be given to how all those background lines, shapes and colours are contributing to my vision.
Even it would be difficult to answer: do you prefer shooting in a studio with flashlights or in natural light? What is your preferred location / set ever? Your love goes to colour or b&w? In any case: the blurred glass portraits in color are definitely great!
This is very easy to answer. I always prefer to shoot in natural light if possible. But I will use strobes if I must. Natural light lets me explore all the options of a location without having to move gear. The shoot can be more spontaneous and it’s better to work with the natural environment rather than fight against it.
My favourite location is fortunately only a 13 minute drive from my front door. I must have shot there dozens of times over the years. It’s an abandoned farmhouse with gorgeous light streaming through the windows. There’s lots of weathered timber and rusted tin to use for beautifully textured backgrounds. And kangaroos, wombats and lizards. And probably snakes too but I haven’t seen any yet.
The decision of colour or black and white is never the same. It is really a matter of whatever works best for the image, but I do have some guiding considerations. Is the image about mood or drama? Black and white seems to me to suit moody images best, and colour best suits drama. Could you imagine an Opera in black and white? Of course not, drama needs colour. I love old film noir detective movies of the 1940’s. Their mood is enhanced by being in black and white.
And there is another consideration. In the image introspective or outward looking? Is the subject absorbed with their inner world of thoughts and feelings, or are they making a statement to the audience. Black and white, to my way of thinking at least, suits images where the subject is self-absorbed and inward looking. Colour is best suited where the subject is working to an audience.
Importantly, these are just considerations. They are not rules. This is what I will think about in deciding between black and white or colour. Most times I’ll apply these, but often I will not. Ultimately my judgment is subjective.
How much does a shooting session usually take? Do you shoot lots of frames to select the good ones later or are you always waiting for ‘the good ones’ before pressing the trigger?
Two hours is a typical shoot. Three hours at the maximum. I find that’s the necessary period of time for maximum creativity. Any longer and everyone involved is getting tired. Any shorter and were not doing justice to the concept. That said, my shoots are fairly relaxed (at least I think so) with lots of breaks, conversation and ‘back of camera’ reviews.
With every session I shoot less and less. My eye is finally getting better at judging what is a good shot to work on and what will just be ‘filler’. I’ve also learned to quickly abandon any idea that just won’t work. One or two shots, a quick look at the back of the camera, and I can say let’s forget this idea and do something else, it’s just not working.
What is your approach to editing and color correction? Do you try to maintain through your projects and work a coherent aesthetic style? How can you do that?
Editing is a challenge for me. I don’t like spending a lot of time editing, but I really like the results I can achieve. Also, I have arthritis in my right arm which limits how much time I can spend editing. I think photography has a fundamental problem in that it takes objects (in this case people) out of the real world and renders them as a two dimensional image. As photographers we then show these images to our audience and try to convince them the image was originally three dimensional. The overarching goal of editing, I think, (and of all aspects of photography) is to make the resulting image appear as three dimensional as possible. To achieve this my approach (after the RAW conversion and any necessary corrections) concentrates on contrast and colour.
Contrast I adjust both locally and globally. I dodge and burn extensively to make the model three dimensional and to truthfully represent the idea of the light. As I work almost exclusively with single light sources, studio or natural, the light will have a definite direction it’s falling in. I’ll apply contrast adjustments to the whole image to produce that beautiful chiaroscuro I spoke of earlier.
If the final image is to be in colour, I’ll want to get the maximum value out of what colour there is. I’ll push colours near to saturation. I dislike weak, washed-out colours. I want the image to look like an oil painting, not a water colour. There’s a few techniques I use in Photoshop to maximise the impact of colour. But for inspiration I look at the Baroque painters and their use of colour, particularly Caravaggio and Gentileschi.
Newbies in photography are usually at ease with natural continuous sunlight because they can see it and because they do not need to create it from the start. How to convince them to move towards experimenting with artificial lights? How to start with?
Artificial lighting is craft of its own. The best way to learn is to undertake some instruction. There are many professional photographers and institutions offering courses in lighting. And I think the training has to be hands on; there’s a limit to what can be learned on YouTube. And within a week or two, while things are fresh in your mind, book a studio and practise everything you learned.
There always seems to be, at least here in Australia, a ready market in used studio gear. Invest in some good quality, basic gear and keep practising and experimenting. The expensive, top of the line gear can wait until you really know what you want.
I think that you are used to seeing the work of lots of photographers, both expert and not. Shooting nude in artificial light is not an easy genre to start with or to deal with if you are not very skilled and experienced: what are the main limitations of those who try their hand into shooting this challenging genre?
I think it’s natural to feel some trepidation starting in this field. There are three skill areas to become competent in. The first is using artificial lighting which I just talked about. The second is in shooting a model, and feeling comfortable in directing and communicating with them (and I can’t stress communicating strongly enough). The third is working with a nude model. A beginner would be wise to build up these skill in a sequence. Become comfortable with lighting first, and with working with a clothed model. Then you should find working with a nude model an easier step.
In talking about learning lighting, I emphasised the importance of training. The same applies here. Again, there are many respectable, professional photographers offering workshops in art nude photography. And again, do the workshop, and within a week or two hire a studio and a model and practise everything.
A suggestion to our readers: what could be 5 good reasons to step into portraiture under studio artificial lights? And 5 tips to improve their skills?
1/ You will be in control of the light; it’s quality, amount and direction. You won’t have to deal with the sun disappearing behind clouds and adjusting camera settings to suit.
2/ Some locations just don’t have suitable natural light. One of my favourite locations is a former mushroom compost factory where the only available natural light is murky and flat. There is no choice but to use artificial light.
3/ You can produce effects that natural light just can’t. Multiple light set-ups can produce three dimensional, cinematic effects. Gels on lights can throw colours onto the subject. Fog or smoke can be introduced into the image in ways that would be difficult or impossible with natural light.
4/ Freezing moving subjects, dancers for example, becomes much easier than it would be under natural light. This is essential when shooting dancers or athletes.
5/ There is greater consistency in the final images as it is possible to keep consistent exposure settings. A current project of mine involves compositing 9-10 images of a model. As they are all shot under artificial light all images have the same ‘look’. This is important when I bring them all together so that they harmonise and intergrate. This would be more difficult under natural light.
And five tips to improve skills.
1/ Do a workshop on studio lighting. Especially one that will teach you the theory (it’s not complicated, but it is essential) and let you get ‘hands on’ with the equipment.
2/ Practise what you learn, ideally as soon as possible while it is still in your mind.
3/ Keep notes about what lighting set up gave you the results you aimed for, and what didn’t. Review these.
4/ Take any opportunity you find to observe other photographers working. Observe how they position their lights and their subject. Note the angles and heights they use. Practise these and learn.
5/ This is the most important tip. Learn how to see light. This sounds strange because we see light all the time, but what I mean is learn to see how it behaves. Is it warm or cool, strong or weak, what direction is it coming from, is there more than one source, is it producing a hard or soft shadow? This can be done at home, at work, or walking down the street. Look at anything or anyone. What is the light doing? How is the light behaving? Would you like to photograph in that light? Why? Why not? This skill will help you understand the lighting setup you need to produce the effect you desire.
Can you choose a "Favorite Photo" from your archive and tell us how, where and when was it taken? Why do you love it? Tell us something more about it...(I chose to respond to the image published of Fanny dancing with rope)
This image epitomises what I try to say in my Antaido series. We are all constrained and restricted by our life circumstances, as symbolised by the rope I use in these shots. But the key thing in life is to acknowledge those circumstances and rise above them, or as Fanny does here, fly and soar. She demonstrates control and grace.
Shots like this take a great deal of eye/hand coordination and a good judgment of when Fanny was going to be at the peak of her leap. I had to take into account the fraction of the second between my eye watching her trajectory, my finger pressing the shutter release, and the camera to actually fire and trigger the strobe. It’s only a split second but the tiniest error ruins the shot. Lightroom tells me we shot around 300 frames on this day in 2019, with Fanny in the air for most of them.
This was shot in my friends’ studio in Melbourne. It’s the only studio I know that has a wood heater and this was shot during a cold Melbourne winter. The shooting angle here was important to emphasise the height of Fanny’s leap, so I was initially shooting while crouching down but once we established the right angles I used a chair. The studio cat also came to visit us during the shoot.
So this shot is memorable for all those reasons. I’m sitting on a comfortable chair in front of a roaring fire with a cat on my lap shooting Fanny while she is doing all the hard work, a couple hundred times over. And the shot worked.
People interest me. From early psychology studies I became curious as to how the unconscious interacts with, and influences, everyday behaviour and activities. Through photography I try to bring these interactions and influences into view; if not explicitly, at least implicitly. The human mind, and therefore our behaviour, is largely driven by factors and forces we often can’t identify. Psychoanalysis and psychotherapy strive to understand these factors by bringing them into everyday consciousness. One way of doing this is to observe a person’s interactions with objects and symbols, however disconnected to their everyday experience that may be. The Rorschach Inkblot Test is an example of this. My images are observations of people interacting with items and environments which give some insight into their inner life.
We can never fully understand our own mind, nor that of others. What we can see is always surrounded in shadow. I try to shed a little bit of light into those shadows.
2017 Ballarat International Foto Biennale, Group exhibition, Fourms
2017 Ballarat International Foto Biennale, Solo exhibition, Absorption
2018 Brunswick Street Gallery, Melbourne, Solo exhibition, Absorption
2019 Ballarat International Foto Biennale, Group exhibition, Fourms II