Groove Magazine: Vincent Sung

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Surreal.

Surreal about sums up my experience shooting famed fashion photographer, creative director and bon vivant Vincent Sung at Studio 504. I’m not sure if Groove knew what they were sending me out for when they asked for a piece on Sung’s latest exhibition, Les Fleurs de Mal. To be honest, neither was I. A couple people asked me if I was nervous about shooting a famous photographer but I don’t think I was. I joked that I’d only be nervous if I had to shoot him naked. Well…

Vincent didn’t get naked, but his did shed his a few pounds of cloth during our session. I wanted to make images of him the way he makes images of his models; bare, raw and self-aware.

Plus, he doesn’t have to get naked. He has other people get naked. More on that little shocker later.

As I usually do I worked out a few portrait concepts prior to arriving at the studio. These things generally fall well short of expectations but often provide a stepping stone for what will become a print-worthy image.

Generally. They generally do.

I had been feeling the heat for about a week after a particularly nasty creative dry spell. I couldn’t write anything worth reading and I hadn’t taken a single picture I didn’t want to delete from this world (the SPC/Greg James Hanford shootout post will provide a few more details on this later). A lot hinged on getting something done right from the start.

Melting Sung’s face with a purple gel? No, that wasn’t going to get it done. Fun, but not going to get it done.

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I took a step back and went all Jerry on the situation. Puffy pirate shirt that is.

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Still wasn’t getting it done. Vincent had spent the first part of our meeting showing me around the studio, showing off the prints for the exhibition and letting me get a feel for the materials he uses to make his images – flowers included. Realizing we could do a little more we went retro on the background, lost the shirt, wrapped Vincent in a sheet and got to work.

Flash_30610xiI tossed out my notes and plans and relied on the flow of our conversation about the art to dictate the tone of our images. The frame below is the one that leads the magazine article and as a product of the shoot captures nearly everything I wanted to communicate; the vision, the strength, the dynamism and the organic melding of image and nature.

Flash_30631-2x I like to think we captured the essence of Vincent’s work with these images – in my own style. Regardless, they work better than the purple gel. Not sure what I was thinking there. And you know that you have to work a bird’s nest into a frame when it’s sitting on the coffee table. You’ve got to!

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Here’s the setup; simple Simon. SB-80DX camera right, softboxed, as key, slightly off access to spill light across Vincent dramatically and another SB-80DX in a softbox camera left and slightly from behind as rim. I think Vincent got a kick out of the fact that I set up my own strobes when he has more than $50,000 worth of lighting gear hanging from the ceiling of his place.

I do what I can.

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Vincent isn’t the vulnerable sort. Not on the surface anyway. But his work is vulnerable; there’s a depth to his imagination and I worked to capture that. A couple people asked me why I didn’t smooth out the background and the floor in post. I left the wrinkles in there because they are all part of the organic process of creating these images (without getting too caught up in the ideology…). This is as close to avante garde or retro chic as I’ll ever get without turning into a pretentious dingus, so I ran with it.

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My second challenge was capturing an image of one of Vincent’s models while he worked. It was good fun using a space heater to light Maria while the rest of the lighting gear (save a lone monobloc on the background) lay dormant. Next time out we’re going to try lighting a church with a candle and the inside of a blue whale with a lighter on a monopod. I’ll keep you posted.

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Classic 80s muslin, black canvas, space heater and a single monobloc = neo-noir.

I might have been the only one in the room who was surprised when Vincent asked Maria to replace her top with flowers. She might have been, too, I suppose, but she played along. I didn’t really stop to ask her; not like I wanted to ratchet the awkward up to 11 or anything. I grabbed a few quick fine art frames for the magazine then packed my gear while Vincent and his creative team worked a myriad floral combinations into what was once Meliza’s hair and face.

PHOTO REMOVED.

Same lighting mix in the photos above; space heater on a chair camera left and a monobloc on the background. No, Space Heater isn’t the name of Nikon’s latest strobe or something Hobby whipped up in his Man Cave; it’s a thing used to heat the skin of hairless mammals. The space heater is often found inhabiting the floor space of Korean homes and windowsills of American trailers.

At the end of the day it was great to get a glimpse at the interior workings of an artist’s puppet shop, though I suppose it was more of a meeting of Bizarro Geppettos than anything else. The experience reminded me not to be so rigid in my planning – there’s a time and place for that – and that so many images come about as the result of the collaborative process; when one man asks another to bare his chest and flowing locks for all the world to see the creative nucleus is sure to receive a jolt.

Click for more from Vincent Sung.

For information on his 6th solo exhibition @ Vincent Sung: Fleurs de Mal.

For More Groove Magazine.

10 Magazine Assignment: Green Gallery

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Green isn’t one of the first words that comes to mind when I think of Korea. If there were a list (and I suppose this is) words like hegemony, fan death, yellow dust and soju would be higher on it. Yet Korea would like to position itself as a global leader in the green movement for a better tomorrow, though it’s not fully intent on giving up on clear cutting, erecting high rise apartment buildings on top of tigers, cleaning garbage off the streets of Seoul or cutting down on spitting anytime soon.

Case Study: I recently had the pleasure (?) of proofreading a business proposal outlining a bid for the reconstruction project of the land currently occupied by a military base near Seoul. Conclusion: “We would like to burn down/chop/generally destroy what remains of the nature on site to build a new, technologically enhanced and people friendly nature on top of it. With wifi.” end quote. Nature + Starbucks = ftw.

I digress. And I kid.

I don’t feel like I need to qualify myself to my readers (both of them) but a few weeks ago your friendly neighborhood Flash was called out for making things up as he goes along. Well, I say to that, no shit. I write fiction for a living, people. So just keep in mind that I’m joking half of the time, 75% of the time.

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Back to work.

Green Gallery is an eco-friendly, or at least eco-conscious restaurant/constructing/engineering/design firm located in Bundang, that other Gangnam we all know and love (except when we’re trying to find it on the city bus from Osan. Then we don’t love it. Not at all). It’s tucked into the corner of a commercial complex that is less charming than totalitarian and looks like your grandmother’s garden shed from the outside, replete with a busted sign, angry dog and 3,000 discarded plant pots.

There are a million and one things I enjoy about this place. First of all, it’s like a jungle in there. Seriously. The building was constructed around old trees and 101 plants and flowers were tossed into the mix later, contributing to a decently low-key and relaxed atmosphere. I am not sure how well it’d play in the summer, though; so many plants, so much mist and water, it might get a little muggy. Frizzy hair city, if you know what I mean. But the place has a working woodstove and when you’re seated in the rear of the restaurant you can’t help but feel a little like Paul Bunyan, blocks of lumber stacked around you and raccoons descending from the ceiling to pick at your lunch. I dig it.

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Just remember, when you’re playing with the woodstove, try not to set yourself of your neighbor on fire. It can get awkward quickly under cramped conditions.

Now, since this is a photography blog, I suppose we could talk about the photography for a moment. In making the frame above, I decided to keep things simple. Probably too simple, to be honest; I lit the tubes and the bamboo shoots with direct, hard light from a bare strobe camera right. Why did I do it this way? Why didn’t I soften things up with an umbrella or softbox? Well, lately I’ve been digging the hard light, the bold highlights and blown out touches of white in images. Rethinking that here might have been beneficial, as the light on the leaves – the lower section, specifically – is a little hot for my liking. I should know better!

 

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This is how the same set looked with a grid on the strobe; I isolated the plants, let the sun coming through the window lift the exposure on the plates and brought the level of light on the wood way down. Two looks, only a grid between us. Poetic, in a way. But not really.

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This assignment had me shooting the interior space with less of a focus on the food. Too bad, since the food was some of the best I’ve had in Korea to date. I went in thinking natural light would be the way to go – it streams in through frosted glass that wraps the place in a cozy little blanket – yet expected to encounter a few exposure issues along the way. Or twenty. And the place didn’t disappoint.

The light was coming in a little too hard and fast to flatter anything, so I took the exposure way down and blasted a couple of strobes into the roof – gelled CTO – to drape the place with a little warmth. You can see the mix of light on the menu in the image above and the ray coming through an open window that cuts across the frame. I let the light mix this way intentionally to create a bit of natural flow and to hide a few of the less-than-pleasing pieces of junk scattered about. Like people. 

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By the way, how was the food?

In a word; sensational. Though the garlic bread retained just a hint of that all too familiar Korean sweetness we’ve come to associate with Italian cuisine here on the peninsula, the rest of the meal was brilliant. The gorgonzola was creamy and rich though the dehydrated sesame could have been left in the kitchen. I wouldn’t mind getting the name of the little fruit/nuts they sprinkled on top, though. Those were fantastic, if not a bit earthy on their own. The mozzarella cheese was as good or better than shoving a fresh cloud into your mouth and the cheesecake…well. Just wait until you see the cheesecake. Prices were less than reasonable, however; unless I’m eating this stuff at a Florence cafe there’s no reason whatsoever to charge 18,000 won for caprese or 12,000 won for a strawberry smoothie. No one is ever going to convince me of that.

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Thick, succulent bricks of fresh mozzarella cheese. Easily the best I’ve had in Korea. Too bad it costs about the same as my camera.

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Bellies full and back to work!

I like to ground my interior shots with subtle foreground elements, like the menu in the previous image. And sometimes things aren’t exactly so subtle; these bamboo stalks fall more into the sledgehammer category. But the light mix works well and I’m especially happy with the foliage shadows that my gelled flashes tossed onto the ceiling. Not so happy with the white drape I foolishly allowed to remain in the frame. Bugnuts!

At any rate, a good example of mixing ambient and flash to create drama and emphasize atmosphere throughout a scene.

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We mixed some food into the equation, letting the natural light spill through the bamboo and create a few shadows on the dish. A little hot? Sure, but I like the brightness. Still don’t like that white drape, though. Dang white drape!

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I’m happier with this frame; happiest, in fact. Solid exposure throughout, no white drapes, a nice little swathe of green courtesy the chair in the foreground. I turned this frame into the magazine; they asked for comfy interior, so they got it. All of these interiors were done handheld with a little help from my trusty flash system, as always triggered by flashwaves.

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We put a bare strobe with a grid just to the right on the window sill and let it push light back down onto the food. A little understated food photography, if you will, in a three light set; one for the foreground foliage, one for the ceiling and one for the food.

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Natural light!

Gasp! Egad!

Yeah, I did it. I’ve mentioned the excellent quality of the light that we had streaming through the windows, so I used that the best way I could when shooting from the 2nd floor balcony. I have made a conscious effort as of late to work natural light work into my assignments before breaking out the strobes – it’s a great way to integrate myself into a scene and I don’t have to worry about bogging down my life with 200lbs of equipment. I can appreciate that. Besides, it just looks nice.

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I did what I could to capture the essence of Green Gallery as you experience it; vibrant, organic and, perhaps surprisingly, green. Very, very green. And orange. I decided to shoot this with the mid-day sun helping out in an effort to toss light through the glass to create a bit of a lightbox effect. Things would look much different at night or with the waning sun, but these are the choices you live with.

I shot wide, as I do with these things, though I’m beginning to appreciate the value of shooting at a “normal” focal length when shooting interiors; straight lines stay straight and it’s possible to make the food look like it’s not about to fall off the table. That’s apparently important to restaurant and magazine folk.

Man, I need a tilt-shift lens.

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I wasn’t tasked with shooting as much food as usual at this job, which is too bad, since it was some of the best tasting and well-presented eats I’ve encountered in the city. The bread didn’t give anyone a diabetes sugar shot, either!

I lit the cheesecake here quite simply; a gridded strobe high camera left with a big gobo – my reflector with cover on – keeping light from spilling all over our reluctant hand model.

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Simple as pie; a single strobe gridded, behind the food and high (for the shadows under the plate). There’s a substantial mix of ambient in this image (as you can see in the background and streaming lights). I love to do this where possible because it lends a natural feeling to the scene, but it’s important to remain ever cognizant of your shutter speed; sure, the flash is going to keep your food sharp 9 times out of 10, but that background in the natural light is going to be another matter entirely.

* There’s also a reflector blocking the sun from ruining the exposure on the cake in this frame.

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My brief didn’t call for moody interiors or dark atmospherics, but if it had I would have spent half the day upstairs in what I can only really describe as the caves of Green Gallery; four cozy dining sections surrounded by concrete walls. It’s not nearly as gloomy as it seems.

Still, I couldn’t miss the chance to toss a couple of flashes around. In the room to the left is a bare strobe, gelled CTO. On the right is a bare strobe gelled blue; not hard to see the potential for fun here. We just had to move on.

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Of course, we took all the time we could to play with our food…

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And even got to take a little something home with us. Though Megan wasn’t big on her plant; she traded it in for a block of wood. It can get cold in our apartment. Really, really cold.

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