A Little Story about The Latex Story
By Ron Beaver www.ronbeaver.com
Creating powerful fashion shoots in the studio is a major challenge. Shooting a model standing in front of a piece of seamless grey paper is about as exciting as waiting in line at Starbucks in Tarrytown unless the model, styling, hair, makeup, lighting, photographic direction, color-grading and retouching, and crucially, the concept are all strong. A fashion editorial or campaign is only as strong as the weakest of these links. In particular, the concept - the overall creative plan - determines the ultimate potential of a fashion shoot before pre-production even starts.
This issue was in my mind as I prepared for the summer 2018 cover story assignment for Alice Magazine. It was a particular challenge for me as my work tends towards dark and moody. Even in summer. What can I say? I live in Seattle. Melissa Rodwell, Alice’s EIC and BREED’s Founder, preferred something higher-key for summer, which made my conceptual challenge that much greater. She is a legend in fashion photography and photography education so the bar was set very high. Yea, I’m brown-nosing.
At about this time, Tyler Mitchell, my digitech, retoucher, and good friend, was helping me in Seattle with a couple of shoots, the images from which will never see the light of day. He and I were discussing this concept over excellent Indian food in Redmond, home of Microsoft, because that is just what one does in Redmond.
One creative technique that I often use is to take something to an extreme. So, in this case, what is the extreme of high-key? Pure white! But wait, skin and hair are not quite white. So that means we need to use body paint! And what’s better than white latex body paint? White latex body paint with silicone oil! I had shot oiled latex fashion before, and I think it is magical how, with proper lighting, the resulting highlights and shadows carve the body contours. In short, it’s just bleeping hot.
Next in the creative journey was deciding what to shoot on this all-white canvas. I often like dramatic graphic concepts, so as we polished off our plain naan and waited for our respective curries to arrive, we thought it would be super cool to shoot an exclusively red and minimalist fashion story against the white.
Lighting and color toning plans are always an integral part of my concept development. For me it was a no-brainer to pop the latex and the fashion - and satisfy my shadow fetish - with a strong loupe key light and an opposing rim light. This enables the angles that reflect the light to the camera in an interesting manner. I would normally add an opposing black flat to deepen the shadow but this studio is about the size of a bachelor’s closet so its red brick wall worked well enough. I also knew that we would add a very slight red color wash. It’s warm to emphasize the summer vibe and ties everything together. (It is imperceptible until you take it away and realize that the final “polish” step is missing.)
One note of caution is due at this point: creating novel concepts over a beer or three at the local Indian restaurant, no matter how good the damn beer, increases the likelihood that you will miss something. We only missed one very minor thing: you cannot actually use silicone (or baby) oil when you have wardrobe with a replacement cost that runs into the many five figures. (Well, maybe not so “minor.”) This meant that we would have to add the “shine” in post-production. As I had shot oiled latex before, I can say without hesitation that Tyler did an amazing job with a very difficult task. And we are still friends. He says.
Pulling this off requires a model who looks amazing wearing, well, nothing much but body paint, and who has other-worldly posing skills. Everything else exactly the same, with a weak model this shoot would have been an expensive and messy embarrassment. I had worked with Elena Kurnosova (Muse Models NY) on an earlier shoot, and there was no question she was the right model: she is almost 6-foot tall, a former ballerina, and an extraordinary runway model. Her posing and movement creativity makes me shake my head in admiration every time we collaborate. Afterwards, removing the latex turned out to be a little painful and tedious. Elena and I are also still friends. She says.
In this case, hair and MU were relatively simple, but again a mistake here - trying something too complicated that distracted from the core concept instead of supporting it - could have weakened the shoot. Hair stylist Kirsten Bode, body paint and MUA Cheyenne Timperio, and the shy and retiring manicurist Rachel Shim all did an amazing job. We wanted to bring a bit of “humanity” back into our sexy white plastic mannequin, so we added the red lip and left the bit of blond hair showing.
The same comment applies to styling. Our stylist Mindy Saad did an amazing job - and was able to satisfy her red fetish - choosing high-impact items and putting them into looks that were minimalist. Trying to include too much wardrobe would have been a rookie mistake here, one that we were able to avoid due to her expertise.
And finally, something always goes wrong and everyone needs to eat, so our PA Ryan Hall wins kudos for running to get another gallon of latex paint at the very last minute, and for efficiently organizing lunch. No Indian food this time.
Gear such as lenses is only seldom a primary question, and this was true in this case. I used a 50mm for the full-length images and an 85mm for the close-ups such as the cover. Aperture was something like f13, which allows everything to be sharp in these images. I could have used the longer 85mm for everything, just to save the hassle of swapping lenses, but this studio was too short. My camera is a Nikon D850 and I used continuous single-point focus mode here since she was moving but I like to pick my focal point. (It was not critical here, it’s just habit.)
I did use a different lens, however, for one look. In the image here with the Vivienne Westwood platforms and the Balmain cape, I wanted to make her look even more other-worldy (and as practical matter I needed to capture the width of the cape), so I got down near the floor and used a 35mm which yielded minor distortion. (Who do you think is taller: me in my cowboy boots ay nearly 6’ 6”, or her in those heels? See the video!) Normally this optical difference is not a good idea in an editorial because the one image looks different than the others and the story is not cohesive. However, this entire shoot was surreal to begin with and the effect was subtle, so it works.
The photographer usually gets the credit for a successful shoot, similar to the quarterback in football. And yes, that means I am comparing myself to Tom Brady. (You should see MY girlfriend.) But you can see from this story about the story that it is a team effort beginning with creative direction and ending with retouching, and involving a half-dozen or many more professionals in between. It is no cliche.
I am incredibly grateful for my collaborators and to Melissa Rodwell for the opportunity to shoot a cover story for such a beautiful magazine.