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