The Retouching Academy just released Part 2 of their series “Storytelling in Concept Photography” with John Flury. I had the chance to ask him some questions about his amazing work and the ideas behind it.
DIYP: Hi John, can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
JF: I was born in the Swiss alps 38 years ago. Luckily, my parents decided against having a TV at home, so I had to make up my own entertainment with whatever was available to me. I played a lot in the woods, made stacks of drawings and later paintings, I recorded myself telling/playing impromptu stories or wrote them down on an old typewriter.
I was helplessly obsessed with stories. The more fantastic and imaginative they were, the better. One summer I even wrote a good bye letter to my parents because I was all but certain, that I would be picked up by two friendly aliens in their UFO. It almost creeps me out today how far I spirited myself away. Somehow they never showed up though. But the impact that my own stories had on me is something that would stick with me until today. At first, it was the simple pleasure of getting lost in these alternative realities, but later I discovered that there is actually so much more to be found in stories, artistically, philosophically, etc.
In my teenage years and twenties, I’ve tried almost every possible way of artistic expression in order to find out what will work best for me. I think the only thing I hadn’t tried out was stone masonry :). So you could argue that for a long time, I was actually all over the place and not very focused on one specific niche of art. That’s why I didn’t actually study art, but quite the opposite, I went to study IT and am today working 3 days a week as the IT manager of an institute at the university in Zurich. This leaves me 2-4 days per week to follow my passion(s) without always having to think about how I’m going to pay the bills. This might change in a few years, because I do intend to start a family, but as long as I have this freedom I intend to fully enjoy and exploit it.
DIYP: Why are you doing the conceptual kind of stuff?
JF: I entered the world of photography rather late. At 31, I bought my first DSLR and quickly found myself drifting back to stories as my source of inspiration. In my eyes there are two kinds of photographers, those who are great observers and have the ability to catch precious moments (e.g. photo journalists and wedding photographers) and then there are those who try to recreate something they’ve previsualized. I belong to the second group. We try to “control” what is in front of the camera until we have enough material to combine it to the photo we have in our head. In that sense, I feel closer to a painter than to a photographer.
In addition to that, there is a strong appeal in creating something that looks convincingly like a photo, but obviously bends reality by introducing a surreal element. It’s like somebody managed to take his camera over into his own dream world, photographed what he encountered and came back.
As with film and literature, story-driven conceptual photography has the potential to take the viewer on a journey alongside the character/subject of the art work. There is one big problem though, a story is told as a chain of events. So one could argue that it needs a time-based or at least sequential medium to be told. A medium such as film, music, poetry and literature that effortlessly supports the dramatic flow of tension and relief, rise and fall, expectation and resolution.
However there are methods of overcoming these problems, like overlapping events, clever use of space, gesture and direction to hint to what might happen next. In fact there are many possibilities, many of which have yet to be discovered. And BANG, welcome to conceptual territory, population “100”. No seriously, there aren’t many of us. It seems that most photographers aren’t interested in spending that amount of effort in the conceptual part, but would rather be shooting. That’s totally understandable! It does sometimes take me several months for a project to mature conceptually to a point where I’m ready to set a date to shoot it. This is why I also do some wedding photography. It’s the exact opposite and it hones a totally different skill set as a photographer and last but not least, I just get to shoot a whole day long.
The other big reason for my interest in conceptual photography is my curiosity in human beings. My stories aren’t just the result of my own fancy, but they are the result of a collaboration with the people I’m shooting. I’m very particular about their role in the project. I don’t see them as models, as a matter of fact, so far I haven’t worked with professional models, rather my intention is to let the story be part of the person’s life. This doesn’t have to be literal. I prefer a symbolism that could be interpreted many ways, creating an individual meaning for each viewer.
DIYP: Do you use special or extraordinary equipment?
JF: It always depends on the project, but I love to find technical solutions for complex visual illusions. Sometimes that means building props or do some “light hacking” with tin foil and other no-budget tools. If I can’t use photography or lighting to achieve a certain effect, I at least try to make my life easier in Photoshop by having a precise game during the shooting. I noticed that when I think “ah, we’ll just see how we can fix that in Photoshop”, then it will always become a disaster later, where I wish, I had put more thought into a specific approach. Other then that, I put on my pants one leg at a time as well. I shoot mostly Canon and Hasselblad, though I’m thinking about selling my H4D again. It feels like a camera with severe autism to me, extremely gifted in a few areas but severely challenged in many others. For lighting, I use ambient light wherever possible, but love to work with studio strobes or even speedlights as well. I have two gel packs, one for the strobes and one for the speedlights (you can buy them a ZebraFlash). I trigger both my cameras and the strobes with PocketWizards Plus IIIs. And I shoot always tethered, either on my iPhone (with EOS Remote), on my iPad (with ShutterSnitch) or directly to the mac with a cable.
DIYP: Could you spontaneously tell me some of your special tricks they are essential for your pics?
JF: There is a certain style of lighting I use very often. I like to call it zone-lighting. It’s not exactly an invention of mine, but I haven’t seen yet many people use it the same way – except maybe in architectural lighting and product photography. It’s a mixture of lightpainting and exposure blending. For this technique I trigger my camera remotely while lighting the scene manually with a hand-held flash, one exposure at a time. Picture by picture, I paint the light using my flash, concentrating on one zone of the image at a time. I usually start with the background and then work myself toward the front – similar to a painter. I have to watch that neither myself nor any light stands are inside the image zone I’m currently working on. Any clutter outside this zone is irrelevant because I’m only using what’s inside the specific zone that is relevant in a particular exposure. This works really well and lets me create complex, beautiful lighting for the whole image. There is a tutorial on my webpage for whomever is interested: http://obsoquasi.ch/zone-lighting-tutorial/
Another thing I like to do is to include the light source in the scene. Well, maybe not the actual strobe, but something that looks like it might be the light source: a lamp, the moon, a window, a magically glowing object, some bulbs etc. In cinematography they call them “practicals”. These practicals are great tools to help telling the story, as they draw our attention to a specific part of the image and create a convincing mood setting. You’ve probably all noticed how shooting a light source is no trivial matter. Most likely it will result in one of two results: an overexposed light bulb and/or everything else underexposed. In other words, the dynamic range is too great. In order to reduce it, I set up additional flashes to mimic the output from the lamp, so that the lit surfaces and the practical(s) are on a similar level of brightness. If you look at paintings from the great masters like Michelangelo, the light dynamic between lit surfaces and light source isn’t realistic either which makes perfect sense: A painter’s canvas has even less dynamic range than our computer screen. You could in theory simple shoot the scene again, but underexpose it and then use just the (now correctly exposed) light bulb on a separate layer. But the high dynamic range is not the only reason why I like to help the practical’s light output with an additional flash. I can also use this flash to shape and tweak the light. I discovered that there is some leeway in mimicking a practical’s light with a flash. Your source might be a small lamp, but this doesn’t mean you can’t use a medium-sized softbox as a supporting flash. Even the angle of the supporting flash doesn’t have to be perfect. If you’d rather light your subject a little more towards the front to catch more of her face, you may absolutely move the strobe a little bit away from the lamp. Of course the general direction has to remain the same though, but there is definitely some elbowroom. It seems our eyes can be tricked very easily in this regard.
DIP: Are all of your tricks light-related?
JF: Most of my trickery is light-related. Some technical challenges are due to the sheer absurdity of a project idea and to be honest I absolutely love to tinker and find solutions for these. Tinkering simply makes me happy.
This was also the case with my most recent project “Provincial Uprising”, where we created a royal dress made entirely out of real-life hands! At first when you hear this you might think: Ah nice, shouldn’t be too difficult though! Just get a couple of friends and create some sort of mesh of hands. In reality it’s pretty much a nightmare to create a dress with hands! There are so many problems, that I quickly realized I needed to approach the project in a very systematic, almost scientific way. That meant, several cycles of coming up with new ideas and experimentation. All of my initial approaches fell through for various reasons: too complex, too “busy looking”, the pesky arms that happen to be attached to the hands could not be hidden away successfully, the resulting pattern had too many holes, hands wouldn’t bent in ways I needed them to, etc. Here is what we ended up with: We used textile chalk to draw a raster of about 8 cm by 12 cm on the black dress the model was wearing. This raster helped us to concentrate on one patch of dress at a time (similar to my zone-lighting work approach mentioned above). Seeing this raster on the dress also helped the three “hand models” (= 6 hands) observing in what direction the dress is actually falling. If it’s stretching, bending, folding or simply continuing straight.
Thanks to this, the final dress of hands achieves a certain natural flow. If you like to watch a little bit of our this process, we created a little making-of video about the process.
DIYP: Is this the life you like or do you have a kind of a plan what you want to achieve in future with your art?
JF: I realize every day that I am very fortunate to be able to do what I do without the daily pressure of being a full-time professional. And I have huge respect for my colleagues who decided to face this uphill battle. A lot of them are struggling at best or slowly loosing the passion for their craft at worst. I’ve decided I’d rather be driven forward by pure passion then the need to pay my bills. The funny thing is, ever since I made that decision not to become a full-time professional I actually got a lot more assignments that are perfectly aligned with my storytelling interests. Live is strange that way sometimes…
In the future I’d love to do more book covers, editorial work and artwork for music groups. My big project for the next 3-5 years however is to compile my story-projects into a book and have them exhibited in and around Switzerland. So I’m starting to look for a publishing partner now.
DIYP: Who are your favourite photographers?
JF: Kristy Mitchell, Andrew Kufahl, Brooke Shaden, Andrien Sommeling, Eric Johansson, Caleb Kuhl, Keda Z, Miss Aniela and John Wilhelm.
DIYP: Can you share some advice for someone who wants to start in conceptual photography?
JF: Not all forms of conceptual photography have to be story-based. As a matter of fact, if you google “conceptual photography”, you will be hard pressed to find a concurrent style or technique. It’s really very much a matter of your own preference and artistic vision. But if you are interested in stories as your source of inspiration, I’d like to point you to an article I recently published on the Retouching Academy’s blog with the title “Storytelling in Conceptual Photography”.
The important part is to remain truthful to yourself. Islandic singer Björk once said, if you are trying to please everyone, you won’t please anybody. It doesn’t matter if your work doesn’t appeal to everyone, as long as you are excited by it.
Another tip would be to let your concepts mature. Don’t rush this step! Write everything down. Then come back to it another day and think about it some more. And then some. Think about all the elements in there and how they interact. Is every single element in your photo set to tell the story you want to tell?
A superb tool for this is drawing sketches. In drawing a sketch, you are actually simulating a photo shoot. The process makes you think about everything, the composition, angle, lighting, posing, balance, etc. This will actually save you a lot of time and nerves on the actual shoot and elevate your technical abilities. If you ever felt that you should have done things differently after a shoot, then chances are, doing a detailed sketch could have warned you of the problems in advance. Sure initially, you might not be satisfied with your drawings. But they don’t have to be any good, it’s much more important that you go through the process of drawing them.
Do I sometimes overthink things? Absolutely! I don’t just overthink my concepts, I over-over-overthink them. Sometimes I have to put a project down for a month, because I got so mentally stuck in it. But that’s what works for me and it’s probably another reason, why I feel at home in conceptual photography. I like to come to the shoot well-prepared, with a clear game plan. That doesn’t mean I don’t have some Plan B’s (which I also overthink by the way). If something isn’t absolutely 100% sure to work, it’s essential to have some alternative approaches in the pocket. What I never do, is to just show up on a location and try and just wing it. Even if I have a wedding session, I show up at least an hour earlier and scout, plan and jot down some notes.
Last but not least, get inspiration from a broad set of media, not just photography! Try to be fresh, not shooting what a million other photographers have shot/created before you. Looking outside of photography can definitely help with that.
About John Flury (Obsoquasi)