Saturday, 28 November 2015

Mesmerism and Earthly Temptation, aka “How come I shot so little in 2015”


So, the story goes like this: last year I was approached by a certain glamour and fetish (and alternative…ish) model who wanted to try something different, more artsy and conceptual, and my photography style met her needs. We spent a few months brainstorming and exchanging ideas, discarded a few that weren’t feasible on a non-existent budget, postponed the shooting due to distance, holidays, work, university and, admittedly, my being ill at the very last minute once, until finally, in January 2015, we arranged our TF* shooting. Out of our brainstorming sessions, we had four ideas that were feasible and together would take a day to prepare and do. No problem, I’m 100% in.
I’m not going into detail of things that slowed us down and how one of those ideas could not be done in the end, I’ll just say that another one required a less than flattering pose to be done. After I had already postproduced it (and asked some friends to shoot for me some props that the model didn’t have so I could put them there digitally), the photo was scrapped by the model because it looked awkward. Whatever, I wasn’t enthusiastic about it either. Out of the initial four ideas, only two made the final cut.

Now, the idea for Earthly Temptation was entirely mine: when I was in Prague I visited an art exhibition which featured Dalì on one floor and Mucha on the next, so my mind made a connection and I thought it would be nice to pay a tribute to Dali’s Grapes of Immortality in an Art Nouveau-looking piece. I had no specific ideas about the model so I contributed this idea for the shooting not to look like I didn’t care while she did all the thinking. The model agreed, saw the styling herself before we shot, saw several postproduction steps before I hand-drew the skulls on the grapes, until she suddenly decided the photo wasn’t okay to publish. After I spent an afternoon on those skulls with my tablet. The reason? “It wasn’t her style”, which a) was kind of the point of the whole shooting, b) she could have told me straightaway before we even shot, let alone I was done postproducing. Besides, given that she approached me and not the other way around, one would assume she knew what she was hopping into. Nevermind, I told myself, I’m saving it – the idea and the postproduction – for someone else who’s really into fine art photography and won’t object to Art Nouveau. It’s not a big deal.

Then we had Mesmerism. Oh boy, Mesmerism. The prompt she gave me was, “I want to take a photo like this one of a certain photographer” – not much to go with, because even tributes must have subtlety. Okay, I thought, I can try and make this concept our own so it won’t look like plagiarism: we went on with preparing the outfit and props, which took nearly two hours, and we shot it at last. The basic idea, inspired by said photo, was much different from what you can see but, to give it some sense, I came up with the same background you can see in the final Mesmerism which, while being entirely digital, was but the tip of the editing-iceberg I had to do to that photo. The medical details looked awful so I had to liquefy the hell out of them, then I had to fix the fabric texture because it didn’t look good, then I had to shoot some dripping wax separately because the one we dripped on the fabric to replicate the original photo looked like seagull shit; blend everything to make it look realistic, add some fancy filters, and there it was, the final version of the photo. Side note: I had to come up with a concept and title retroactively because “We’ve got this idea but it has to mean something to be art”, but when I suggested Mesmerism and the lyrics to the model, she dismissed it because “It isn’t the concept I want my photo to represent” – which, as you can deduce, was non-existent to begin with, ‘cause “Let’s do a photo like that one” is not a concept.
The title wasn’t the only time I consulted with her during my work: at each step of the editing I sent her previews and screenshots, listened to her advice and asked if it was what she really wanted for the photo. Some photographers I talked to laughed at my face because the general practice is not to give a shit about what the models think and I was being too accommodating. Well, it took me three months to do everything, and only after that did she decide that “No, we can’t use this photo”. The reason? One very minor detail was off. And it was one of the three things that were there in the original photo, which she could have told me at the very beginning before I spent weeks fixing and editing everything else.
You know what the last straw was? When I told her there was no way I could edit it and have it still look even vaguely realistic, she just said, “If you’re not capable, why don’t you turn the photo to my photographer friend and see if he can do it?”.
Excuse me, bitch?
How about HELL TO THE NO. No one mess with my babies.
I swear I never felt more disrespected in my life. It was totally like I went there and asked her, “Honey, I really dislike your nose: do you mind if I shoot that of my smoking hot model friend and stick it to your face?”. I mean, can you even? Because I can’t even.

Now, that photo was mine and I could have published it anyway. But as you can guess, I had had it and I told her she could keep her idea and shoot it with any other photographer she wanted, I would keep my own work and use it otherwise – meaning the postproduction and the idea I added to save her input. Finally, I organised a shooting with my dearest, beloved, trustworthy BriarRose, and at long last the photos are done.

What’s interesting to know is, as meaningless as a bad experience with a pretentious person who can’t make up her mind might be, it affected me very deeply and is the primary reason why I’ve been so little productive this year (aside from paid assignments). At first I had this burden in my mind of editing those goddamn photos and I felt guilty about doing other stuff. Then, I felt really disheartened and started doubting myself and my work. When I talked about it with my psychologist, he looked at me and said, “Do you really need a minus habens’ approval to be at peace with your work?”. I laughed really hard and he was totally right, but I still couldn’t touch my camera for personal stuff unless it was photos I’d had in mind for years and felt were finally ready to come out. And yes, in the meantime I got plenty of positive feedback from people who commissioned and paid me for my work, but I just couldn’t shake off that one “failure”.
Despite being a retroactive title, Mesmerism and its lyrics came to really symbolise that particular phase of my artistic (and general) life I was going through, so I was twice as determined to do another take on those photos and make a job that would put the old one to shame. It was only a matter of schedule.
Well, looking at the unedited photos then and now, maybe (and I say, maybe) the problem was not me. A part of me even felt bad for putting the background to the new Mesmerism because it looked amazing even with an empty black backdrop. Conversely, the moment I saw the old one I really wanted to cry and tried (and, if you don’t mind, succeeded) to edit it into something amazing only because I didn’t want to waste the hard work that I put into setting it up. Spot the difference.

As painful and frustrating as this experience has been, it has taught me a lot of things.
a) Save your good ideas for people you know, love and trust.
b) If people can’t make up their mind, don’t invest your time and energy into thinking for them, especially if you’re not getting paid.
c) Make stricter release notes so you go on with your work over the model’s dead body.
d) Let them have a say only if they’re paying you for the service you’re providing – and even then they need you because you know how to get things done.
e) Disturbed ≠ deep, and if someone thinks so, run away and don’t look back.
f) If they treat other people like they’re doing them a favour in letting said people do them a favour, run even faster ‘cause they’re going to be like that with you too.
g) Always bring a back up light bulb for your softbox.
h) Always bring back up props because the more ambitious the model, the less likely they are to have everything on spot.
i) Don’t measure your talent on the ego and expectations of pretentious people and don’t let their judgement make you doubt yourself – you don’t care about their opinion anyway.
Now that Mesmerism is out, and with Earthly Temptation on its way I really feel relieved and confident. I swear I’ll try to pull myself together, make good of December and kick asses in 2016. And those who think I’m not good enough… well, are you good enough?