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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Michael Thompson - An Eclectic View

Like the very best fashion photography, Michael Thompson's vision is defined by looks and styles, which are in a constant state of flux

An Eclectic ViewWhile there's no shortage of aspiring fashion photographers today, few have garnered the praise of art directors, fashion editors and fellow fashion photographers as much as Michael Thompson. His work is original and captivating, and in his book, Images, every page shows a visual sensibility of an artist at the top of his creative game.

What Is Fashion?

When discussing fashion, it should be noted that a great image has to be many things—elegant, seductive, visually rich (bordering on extravagant), as well as intelligent. It's Thompson's opinion that a “successful fashion shot has to be based on an idea. There has to be a fantasy or story; otherwise, it's just a catalog shot.”

The majority of his photographs feature women. Says Thompson, “A man in a photo is always the same person, but you can put the same woman in a series of pictures and change her in each picture to tell the story you want.” In creating that story, Thompson draws upon artifice, illusion and the creative freedom that art allows.

Cecil Beaton said, “Artifice can be a dangerous thing. When misapplied, the results are vulgar and tawdry. Its correct use depends on instinct. It's up to the fashion photographer to create an illusion. In doing so, he is not behaving with dishonesty, but when properly invoked, the result is not merely an illusion; rather it makes the observer see what he should see.”

That's every fashion photographer's mission directive: to create illusion and make the observer see what he or she should see—and one that Thompson pays heed to and honors throughout his work.

Destined For Photography

Growing up in Edmonds, Wash., Thompson was exposed to photography at an early age. He often helped his father run the family business, Thompson Photographic Arts. The studio took in a variety of photographic work—from portraits to weddings to passport photos. The early exposure to the art and business of photography had a profound influence on the young Thompson. By age 11, he learned to develop passport photos as well as take wedding candids.

At 14, Thompson had his first true solo assignment. While assisting his father at a wedding, he was handed a camera and told, “Sit in the balcony, set the camera to ƒ/8, and when they kiss, take the photograph.”

It was his first sense of professional responsibility in that he had to document the exact moment that a couple's vows were sealed. He was excited, as well as nervous, that day, and Thompson has managed to maintain that sense of excitement throughout his long and successful career.

Before being old and experienced enough to take over the family business, his father passed away. To remain in photography and to succeed, he decided it was best to study photography properly. Shortly after finishing school in Santa Barbara, he interned in Los Angeles for a catalog photographer, gaining exposure to fashion. The experience of working with models and collaborating with everyone on the set only served to heighten his thirst for fashion photography. Thompson soon found himself in New York, presenting himself to Irving Penn—and unexpectedly became his assistant.

From Penn, Thompson learned that one has to work exceptionally hard to get the shot right, even if that means taking the picture over and over again to make it perfect. A profound sense of commitment to the task, coupled with an aesthetic restraint and a desire to make the image shine—trademarks of Penn's approach—became a part of Thompson's visual work ethic.

Thompson says it was “the crispness and directness” of Penn's photographs that drew him. “You get the message in about half a second,” he says.

Thompson's taste for fashion, in part, stems from the fact that “there are no rules. In editorial, there's a lot of freedom. As long as you show the clothes, it doesn't matter how you do it.”

As a professional fashion photographer, Thompson understands that any great photograph is the result of a collaboration with a number of people on set—hair stylists, makeup artists, styling experts, assistants and, most notably, subjects.


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