DA Simple Question
"We try to make the impossible possible," notes West, whose fine-art and commercial work often blurs that line between the real and the imagined. They’re images that may not reflect how the world actually is, but how we sometimes imagine it could be.
Even when an assignment involves a commercial job where the needs of the client have to be met, West is still asking himself the very same questions he would ask when producing his personal work.
"I don’t think I’m completely happy with anything I put out there unless it somehow challenges the audience to ask questions," he says.
West’s ability to consistently produce such a successful string of work likely lies in the question he asks himself before committing to his next image.
"Why? It’s a question that I always ask," he says. "It’s incredibly important before I begin a large composite to understand the reasons I’m beginning this quest. With images sometimes taking over three months to produce, the last thing I want is to get to the finish line and realize the images just didn’t have all the values I had hoped for."
The comparison to a quest isn’t a light one for West, who explains that because of the length of time involved with the creation of his images, it can result in moments where doubt and insecurity rear their ugly heads and make him question whether all the work will prove worth it.
"When I have such moments, I always have to go back to why I’m doing this," says West. "Why is it important that I make this photograph? There are moments when I’m working on an idea and then I have this desire to back out from it. But I’m always pushing myself and thinking that I started this and I can make it work. I believe that if I push myself during those moments when I don’t think it’s working that somehow I can do it. It’s a commitment, but that’s why the research and the planning are so critical even before I get into production."
Using Creativity To Serve Others
Even when an assignment involves a commercial job where the needs of the client have to be met, West is still asking himself the very same questions he would ask when producing his personal work. For him, there’s little to distinguish between his commercial and fine-art work other than the budgets.
For his staff photograph for Jam 3, a Toronto-based digital design agency, he was provided with a lot of creative control, but with the ultimate goal of demonstrating how this team faces the daily challenges of producing exceptional work in what can be a very chaotic environment. West proposed a vision of the team as members of a submarine crew. They were each intently focused on their respective duties while fending off the distractions and potential catastrophic events as represented by a sea monster.
"They were really willing to push the envelope with this draft of a concept I came to them with," he says.
Drawing inspiration from the film, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, West imagined a surreal world that aptly captured the real-world challenges faced by this creative group of people. He photographed a decommissioned ship’s control room, which provided a large portion for the setting. Dials and controls were photographed throughout the ship and composited later in the shot. Though, admittedly, the control room is much larger than what would be found in a submarine, it was a degree of artistic license that served his vision for the image. West photographed the subjects in his studio in Canada, where he now resides.
For his monster, he experimented with a variety of different octopuses and squids, searching for the ideal candidate, which he found in the Pacific red octopus. To get the right degree of flexibility and articulation to the tentacles, he practiced boiling them until they were just right. However, this resulted in some consternation with some of his family members. "The smell was pretty disgusting," he admits.
Adds West, "In many ways, I feel like I’m an architect because I’m creating a new space based on all these elements that I’m bringing together. I’m often thinking about story and narrative with my work. It’s a big part of any image that I make. I’m always working toward telling the audience something with any image."
That sense of commitment is something that can be seen in so many of his photographs. Taking on the task of creating photographs that may contain a wide diversity of disparate elements isn’t for the faint of heart. More importantly, there has to be a confidence that bringing these elements together will result in something that works.
Such a sensibility didn’t come naturally. West attended the Queensland College of Art, where he developed his technical skills as a photographer. But it wasn’t until he had the opportunity to study with Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf that he began to understand that there was more to photography than equipment and technical skills.
"At the time, I was still focusing on the technical, but he helped to redirect my attention," he says of Olaf. "He inspired me to think about what I wanted to say in my photography."
After graduating from Queensland, West immediately entered the world of commercial photography. He had begun assisting during his second year at the university, so upon graduation, he was already refining his skills to compete in the professional marketplace.
"It’s extremely important to start assisting as soon as you can to develop the skills you need to work on a commercial level," he says, admitting to a strong competitive spirit, even when he was studying photography during high school. He was always striving to be the best. And while a dedication to hard work played as large a role then as it does now, it’s having something to shoot for that makes all the difference.
"Being competitive, having set goals to work toward, is the only way to conduct a growing business," he notes.
When the economy took a downturn, West saw it as an opportunity to focus his creative energy on sel
f-assignments and more personal work. Exploring different aspects of mythology and story, the "Fabricate" series has garnered him much attention from the fine-art world, where prints are in high demand among some collectors.
"The ‘Fabricate’ series was my first real attempt at producing artwork since finishing university," West says. "I wanted to implement the new skills I had acquired from my commercial practice and push myself to create something completely different from my earlier work. I became interested in mythology and how I could appropriate these extraordinary tales in my own work. All myths are stories of a special kind. They’re imaginative, surreal, magical—the perfect foundation for me to experiment with high-production photography."
This pursuit of the personal work during both fat and lean times has allowed West to produce work consistently, even with the commitments of time that some of his images call for. The result has been not only an established reputation in the commercial and fine-art world, but also the opportunity to collaborate with other artists.
Adds West, In many ways, I feel like I’m an architect because I’m creating a new space based on all these elements that I’m bringing together.
West’s collaboration with LEGO artist Nathan Sawaya has resulted in a series of photographs that are not only recognized for their beauty, but also appreciated for how they challenge viewers to think twice about what they think they’re seeing. The photographs revolve around locations that have a sense of the iconic of them—an old movie palace, a train station, a house in the desert. In each photograph, there’s the presence of a pensive human figure.
When you pay closer attention, however, you suddenly realize that the dying tree in the yard isn’t a real tree, but one constructed from LEGO blocks. In another photograph, it’s the umbrella the man is holding, or the train tracks the cowboy is standing in front of, or even the red dress the girl is wearing. What a photographer may mistake for some sort of JPEG pixelization in the image is revealed as a surreal element within an already surreal environment.
It began with the germ of an idea to include LEGO-constructed elements into his photographs, which West had initially imagined that he would construct himself. But the urging of his then-girlfriend convinced him to reach out to Sawaya, a LEGO artist from whom he was drawing some of his inspiration. So, he sent Sawaya a package explaining his idea, as well as examples of his work. Sawaya responded that he liked West’s work and the idea, but he also had a simple question for West. "So, when are you coming to New York?"
A distance of almost 10,000 miles isn’t to be taken lightly, but West knew a challenge when he saw one.
"I felt that he was wondering if this guy from Australia was for real," recalls West. "’I’m going to test him to see if he would really fly to New York City to make this happen.’"
Two weeks later, West was in Sawaya’s studio.
"Right then, we committed that we would do whatever we needed to do to make it happen," he says. For West, that included moving to Toronto, Canada, and taking his photographic career to the other end of the globe.
Their creative collaboration began in Amboy, California. From there, they embarked on a road trip, which provided them with an opportunity to discover locations that would serve as the building blocks for their photographs. It also provided a chance for each artist to learn about the other and to cement their mutual passion and commitment to their craft.
"The photographs are an emotionally charged series with the subjects at a point of self-reflection," says West. "They’re asking themselves, ‘How did I get here? What am I doing?’ It has a lot to do with the idea of creating one’s own identity."
Vision: The Most Important Tool
Though West’s work might make it appear that much of his time is spent in the field shooting with his Contax 645 and Zeiss lenses or sitting at the computer, the bulk of his time is spent doing the footwork to make sure the images can be pulled off. It’s that work that allows him to see his vision manifest itself into the final photograph, which he produces using Adobe Photoshop 6 and a Mac Pro with 32 GB of RAM.
"I have two Dell screens side by side," he says. "On the left, I have my work screen, and the right screen is filled with my brushes, actions, layers, history, etc. I don’t use plug-ins on any of my composites, as the images are so stylized from the set design to styling that they don’t require additional color grades. Images are always saved as 16-bit RGB files."
As adept as he is with the technical, it’s the pursuit of his vision that has allowed West to achieve success on two continents. It’s not something that he takes lightly or for granted.
"As a photographer, you have to accept the fact that failure is going to happen at some point, but it’s how you process that failure and help it to take you to the next level," he says. "You really have to believe in what you’re doing and where you’re going with it."
See more of Dean West’s work at www.deanwest.com. Ibarionex Perello is the host and producer of The Candid Frame (www.thecandidframe.com), an interview show that features conversation with the world’s best emerging and established photographers. He’s also the author of several books, including Chasing the Light: Improving Your Photography Using Available Light.