Dean West: Clarity Of Vision

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.

A multimedia collaboration with sculptor Nathan Sawaya, West’s "In Pieces" series is an example of the visual puzzles found throughout his commercial and conceptual photography portfolio. West’s subtle tongue-in-cheek humor works to offset pretense in the high-art compositions, while highly stylized set designs force the viewer to slow down to appreciate and explore the work, especially as there’s a "pixelated" LEGO sculpture placed provocatively within each image to poke fun at digital imaging while hinting at a deeper meaning behind each photo.

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."

Staying Focused

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.

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