Tuesday, August 12, 2008
August Bradley - The Stylish Storyteller
Steering clear of photographic formulas and even simple rules of thumb, August Bradley embraces any method that gets his ideas
As the son of a photographer, August Bradley grew up studying the medium closely, yet he says the primary influences on his work aren't photographers, but authors. It makes sense, really, when you consider that his objective is to tell stories. He just uses a camera to do it.
“I was increasingly drawn to crafting scenes out of my imagination,” Bradley explains of his early transition from adventure and sports photography to a more fantastical subject matter. “I wanted to create stories, rather than capture events unfolding before me. I've always been a big reader, and I've found that there's every bit as much truth and insight in the best literary fiction as in nonfiction works. I try to bring a literary sensibility to my graphic images. My work has been influenced as much by authors such as Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace as by any photographer.”
If you're familiar with the works of Pynchon and Wallace, then you expect a densely nuanced twist on the typical photographic fare. Sure enough, Bradley's images are often surreal and conceptual—as much illustrations as photographs.
“It's a stylized look that I would describe as an illustrated feel with dramatic shadows,” he says, “polished and sharp with a nuanced color palette of muddy, nonprimary hues. Even though there's a flood of imagery out there, if I create something worthy, it will be noticed. It's helpful to go out of the literal realm of photography, to leave the boundaries we typically view the world from within. The stylization helps enable the viewer to forget about what they have come to expect from photography.”
Bradley's work is certainly unexpected, but as much as anything, it's new. After winning the 2008 Hasselblad Masters award, along with notable recognition from Graphis and IPA, Bradley's career only recently has taken off. He has just completed a project for Hasselblad's upcoming Masters book, one that showcases the type of work for which he's increasingly sought after—which also happens to be the kind of work that he enjoys doing most. As with presumably any hot new photographer, the computer is a crucial part of Bradley's workflow, but the very foundation of his stylized look comes from a firm grasp of traditional photographic techniques.
“The stylization is so dependant on the lighting,” Bradley explains. “It's exaggerated, but building on tones that are all there in the way the image was lit. Tonality and mood come 80% from lighting, 20% from post. Color comes from precisely defined palettes for wardrobe and set design, with overall tweaks to enhance mood applied in post. The look would be impossible without very controlled, deliberate lighting shot in-camera. All things equal, I prefer to capture as much as possible in-camera because it's more efficient and avoids a lot of complications. My hair and makeup team knows to make things as finished as possible in-camera; we never rely on a fix-it-in-post mentality. Post is for taking something to new heights in ways the camera cannot, not for correcting photographic mistakes.”
Whether it's fantasy or reality that Bradley is taking to new heights, one thing remains consistent in all of his images—the models are rendered meticulously and beautifully. He stops at nothing to show them in that light.
“I don't make her look beautiful,” Bradley says. “She is that when she arrives. I simply reveal the beauty in the clearest, most unobstructed way. Sculpture artists talk about how they don't carve the object, but rather find it within the rock and merely remove the excess debris around it, revealing the final piece. Same thing with beauty images.
“It's doing every tiny little thing that cumulatively has a big impact,” Bradley continues. “It's casting, makeup, lighting, composition, posing, camera settings, RAW conversion and postproduction all being done to their very highest potential that ultimately leads to an appealing look on skin—or anything else for that matter. To get that high-impact look, you have to have the cumulative benefit of every little ingredient. If the makeup is bad, I can cover it up in post, but to do so, you have to damage the texture, which is never ideal. To get the best possible look, one aspect of the process can't be covering up a shortfall elsewhere; it must be the cumulative effect of every element contributing to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. There are no shortcuts.”
When pressed for specific insights about exactly how he creates such perfection, particularly in terms of retouching skin for his beauty and fashion photographs, Bradley cheerfully bristles at the idea that there's a formula. In fact, he seems to oppose any suggestion of following a rote technique or adhering to general rules of thumb.