SCHOOL OF THE ARTS, SAN FRANCISCO. “When asked about how I photographed this wave of dancers for the 30th anniversary of the program, I usually tell people that those involved had to draw straws to see who would be leaping from the highest scaffolding position. In truth, they were photographed individually, but I wouldn’t have been surprised, given their commitment, if they had done so.” Models/Dancers: School of the Arts San Francisco; Producer: Rapt Productions
Kitfox Valentín wants you to feel uncomfortable, at least for the time you’re contemplating his visual creations. For his exhibition “TOOTHSOME/LOATHSOME,” the Brooklyn-based photographer explores visual juxtapositions such as beauty and grotesqueness, serenity and fear, to provoke viewers to question their initial perceptions. People at times fly through Valentín’s scenarios, but seldom without an underlying sense of unease rather than the freedom normally associated with taking to the sky.
Concept development, whether for a personal fine-art series or interpreting a client’s brief, is at the core of what’s to follow. The combination of an artist’s mind, a scientist’s methodology and state-of-the-art visual tools gives us multilevel access into his surreal world that feels like a combination of the surrealist painter Salvador Dalí and his friend the surrealist photographer Philippe Halsman. Yet the work is also clearly from the mind of Kitfox Valentín.
DPP: What’s your photographic raison d’etre?
Kitfox Valentín: I’ve always been attracted to visual communication, but when I first got into photography there was definitely an emphasis on just taking pretty pictures. Over time, I began to develop a perspective and to see photographic imagery as a vehicle for communicating concepts. Advertising photography was attractive to me because it was usually conveying simple stories or feelings. More recently, my personal work has led me to explore more fine-art types of photography where I’m presenting my own concepts with a visual style that’s informed by advertising photography.
DPP: Beauty and a sense of unease come into place in a number of images such as knives with a subject’s foot hovering just above. What are you saying with these images?
Valentín: I’m drawn to the conflict that exists in what I started calling “the beautiful awkward” and eventually became an exhibition series titled “TOOTHSOME/LOATHSOME,” which uses a highly polished beauty-informed style to showcase scenes ranging from awkward to disturbing. While each individual piece has its own story, the overarching theme of the series is to confront what we take for granted as attractive or comfortable and get us to question those things, question our ethics of attraction.
DPP: Where do these ideas come from, and how do you turn these scenarios into reality?
Valentín: My image origins likely stem from an interest in observing culture and continually questioning what I see. The process of exploring the world around me and exploring myself inform one another and raise the ideas or questions that I want to visually discuss. When the image coalesces in my brain, I usually write a description and/or sketch a thumbnail in a collection of image ideas that I keep. Then starts the creative problem-solving process of turning them into reality. I’m not particularly a purist when it comes to photography, so I’ll consider all tools at my disposal when making an image and will often shoot as many elements as necessary to compile a scene. Budget is always a concern, whether working within a client’s or without much of one to speak of, as is the case with most of my personal projects. I’ve been fortunate enough to have support and helping hands along the way when I’ve needed assistance, whether it’s holding a light or having 20 naked people to roll around in a pool of paint. Working with people is a critical element of what I do. I’m currently developing a new collaborative project, “GROUND+CENTER”—@groundandcenter on Instagram—that’s my next stage of creative development in which I’m exploring the intersection of time and place, awareness and movement. It has started thus far with traveling to and exploring a variety of landscapes and how we can interact with them at the most fundamental levels.
DPP: Your work not only includes works on terra firma but underwater as well. For that body of work, are the models actually submerged or is that done in post? How do you construct these scenes?
Valentín: I exclusively cultivate relationships with North Atlantic merfolk talent for my underwater endeavors. Not really. Like I mentioned before, I’ll do whatever it takes to make the image, so while I prefer to actually shoot underwater, I’ve created scenes in the studio, as well as combinations of the two. I’ve shot in rivers where I set up elaborate reflectors to create on-location studios, but more commonly I’ll set up lights in and around a pool environment that I can control more easily. Once I get equipment and lighting set and rigorous safety protocols in place, the model and I will do some experimental shots to get comfortable in the space, discussing concept and direction each time we come up for air.
The underwater world is a difficult place to tame, so there’s always a certain amount of the unexpected, which can be turned into magic if it’s incorporated into the concept just so. In other cases, I’ve worked with subjects that couldn’t go under the water, so we used a combination of studio shooting with bubbles and such that I would shoot separately and composite with displacement maps in post to create the final image. In a couple of instances I’ve even photographed the wardrobe on a form in a tank to get a certain water effect, then photographed the model on dry land and combined the two.
I do love being in the water, though. I was so zealous to get underwater with the camera the first time I tried it that I risked drowning my only camera body at the time to put it below the waterline of a swimming pool in the dry interior of a half-submerged aquarium. I then graduated to an underwater housing that I built out of PVC pipe and vinyl. Every time I took it under, I was whispering to myself, “Please don’t flood, please don’t flood.” Now I use a camera housing that’s built for my camera, but I still go by the adage, “Whatever it takes.”
DPP: Who are some of your clients, and how are they making use of your images and imagination?
Valentín: I started out doing a lot of work for dance companies. While some were interested in concepts, most wanted some iteration of people flying through the air. You can see the influence of my background in movement in my work as I continued into the conceptual realm. I’ve also worked with some fashion clients that will give me a lot of latitude and are interested in my concept development within their branding parameters; however, the greater expression of my imagination shows in my fine-art work, where I really get to dig into the things I’m pondering.
DPP: What equipment are you working with for your commercial and fine-art work?
Valentín: I’ve been using the good ol’ Canon 5D Mark II for a while now with a variety of Canon L glass, though I’m exploring options for something new that I can jam ever more detail into my images with. I’m also in development on a long-term project that will require getting out to remote locations with a lot of gear, so I’m looking at lighter, more compact tools such as mirrorless cameras with which I won’t have to sacrifice quality. As for lighting, I use various packs and heads or monolights with Mola dishes, large softboxes, grids, parabolic modifiers, scrims, cans—whatever is going to go get me the look I want. I tether my shoots and do the majority of my grading in Capture One, with retouching in Photoshop.
DPP: What printers and papers are you working with for your fine-art prints?
Valentín: I work with Bay Photo Lab in California for my photographic printing. I’ve developed a great relationship with them over the years, and they’ve been very supportive of my work. For my exhibition pieces, I like the glossy metal prints on exhibit mounts, which I feel lend themselves to my somewhat minimalist and polished style of imagery. They have made pieces for me as large as a four-panel, 16-foot-wide metal print and can meet all kinds of custom specifications. In fact, they’re sponsoring me to speak at Photo Plus 2017 in New York, giving a talk called “PERSONALxPORTFOLIO: Shooting in Balance.”
DPP: What did you study in school?
Valentín: I mostly grew up in Northern California and got my basic education there. I didn’t go to school for photography or any other particular focus, instead being motivated to obsessively explore my interests, and am self-taught through a lot of experimentation, trial and error. I think that this perspective has influenced me to continue my searching and questioning. I see my photographic point of view as a process always in development.
DPP: What trends and advances do you envision for the near future?
Valentín: I may not be the best person to ask about the next niftiest sci-fi photo gadgets just over the horizon, as I tend to put more emphasis on what’s being expressed than the tools that are used to do it. It’s not that I’m not interested. As I just mentioned, I would like to go further, faster and lighter for remote location high production, and I do think that we will see continued advances in that direction. I find myself shooting more and more non-critical, behind-the-scenes project development images on my phone, and I look forward to the continued advances there as well. In terms of photographic trends, authenticity has always had value, but we’ve seen an emphasis on that in recent times.
I think that we will see that trend continue toward high-quality imagery that allows viewers to feel the vulnerability of a subject and relate to it. I also think—and hope—that the big businesses that use photography will be like patrons to the arts to a greater degree, not because they’re trying to control the art, but because they want to be associated with the authentic process.