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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

His Work In Images

The most readily accessible compilation of Michael Thompson's work can be seen in the recently published Images (Harry N. Abrams, Inc). The photographs were taken between the years 1991 and 2004, and provide one with a beautiful introduction to Thompson's aesthetic sensibility and deep creative ferment, all the while presenting a broad scope of his work.

In the foreword of Images, the renowned art critic, columnist and curator Vince Aletti discusses the intersection of art, artifice and fashion. Aletti writes that art makes its own rules and changes them constantly. Art seduces, confuses, arouses, thrills and disturbs—sometimes all at once. Artifice might be an acquired taste, but without it, fashion would simply be clothing and fashion photography wouldn't exist.

And therein lies the greatest challenge for a fashion photographer: to mix art and artifice to create the illusion that the item of clothing or jewelry has power and is capable of going beyond its purpose as a mere article or accessory to be worn. Fashion photographers are charged with making it new, or at least eye-catching, over and over again.

Aletti continues by explaining that fashion photographers are professional dreamers, veteran illusionists and tricksters. Realism becomes a style and authenticity an attitude. Since fashion photographers work on the cusp of art and commerce, it could hardly be otherwise. No matter how imaginatively conceived, the photograph must show a woman and a dress, or a shoe, or a necklace, or a handbag (or, ideally, all of the above), whose brand name can be printed prominently nearby. Artistic ambitions aside, fashion photographers have a great deal of work cut out for them.

How Thompson Works

How does Thompson approach a shoot for a client? What are the creative motivators as well as the fundamental task of a particular job?

“Usually, for an ad job, there's a concept that the ad agency has come up with and that has been approved by the client,” says Thompson. “I then offer my opinion based on the concept, whether it be lighting, composition or angle.”

Thompson draws on a variety of sources for inspiration, ranging from “movies, old and new photography, and paintings from the old masters, as well as contemporary modern artists.” He finds that “inspiration can also come from my personal experiences, from my family, as well as my travels.”

Given Thompson's long tenure in the fashion industry, his many years of experience and the work he has created thus far, one would think that he'd find the challenges greater to weave an original story and create the fantasy that is fashion. Thompson explains that in some ways it's true, but that's the ultimate challenge.

“I think that there's no replacement for experience, but I do think that in order to keep things fresh, I like to challenge myself and not take the easy way out,” he says. “I try to experiment with different lighting and cameras, looking at different approaches to creating an image.”

There's a variety of themes that any photographer may come back to now and again in order to create fashion stories. Some projects are naturally an opportunity to start from scratch.

Says Thompson, “Much like fashion, which has its reoccurring themes, I think photography does, too, but my goal is to shift the idea so that it becomes new again.”

Thompson is open to exploring other forms of photography, notably the styles of documentary and reportage. “I like to dabble in the styles of documentary and reportage through my fashion work,” he says. “This makes it interesting for me, as well as gives the assignment a twist.”

With the explosion in digital acquisition, management and printing technologies, Thompson has taken a hybrid approach toward the confluence of analog and digital: “Right now, all my postproduction work is digital, but I use traditional films and cameras. However, we're exploring the different and vast possibilities of digital capture. It's very exciting.”

To the degree that he applies digital technology in his work, Thompson finds that the new technology helps his creativity. “Just speaking from the postproduction point of view, I think digital definitely helps,” he says. “I don't rely on digital retouching, but it does provide endless opportunities for creativity. I view it in the same way as I look at different films and cameras and lighting. They all aid in the creation of the image and making my ideas a reality, but nothing takes the place of looking through the camera, positioning or finding the light and pushing the button.”

From his early days shooting wedding candids in his father's studio to the digital frontier in the 21st century, Thompson remains a true artisan, mixing traditional analog acquisition technologies with state-of-the-art post-production digital technologies to weave the illusion that is fashion. It doesn't matter how you tell the story as long it's well-told. Michael Thompson has managed to do what few in the past have done. Beaton, Horst, Penn, Avedon, Newton and Bourdin would be pleased and proud.



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