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Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Fellini of Fotographs I: David Houston

How It's Done

By David Houston
Staff Writer/Photographer
Initially I had to learn lighting in order to take decent slides of my
sculpture, a sort of miniature stage lighting, really. In broad , even
light they looked plain, they lost expression and in hard or clear light
they became almost unreadable, like corn beef hash or something.

I worked in terracotta from models with a group for twenty years and then by myself on longer poses, partly so I could do multiple figures. The models were from the Model Guild, and few of them were art students so
you would see what the popular mind thought an 'artistic' pose should be without the overlay of art school brainwashing....

I mean teaching. The best models were dancers and actors because they knew to stay in character, that the pose was interior too.

One of the things that make the pictures stand out is that it is the same hand doing the background painting, make-up, costumes and lighting. At the same time, what makes them so much fun is the collaboration, being the 'mirror' for the models, creating a setting and then encouraging and praising [and pampering plus a little white lying] until sort a dance starts.

We usually shoot for three hours so I end in a flop sweat. From my own experience in dance I know how important it is to get a flow going so I use all 'yes's' and keep shooting rather than critique or correct to get what I want. Another side of this is that it sounds so much better to say 'Isn't she great!?' than, 'Aren't I great? Much easier to promote, in other words.

You would be surprised how small the sets can be, only eight or ten feet wide. Also the level of detail is very low because once things are shrunk down to picture size all the little and not so little flaws disappear. And lighting effects are even funkier: a branch in front of the light, water tossed on a mirror, light bounced off crunched up
mylar, exhaling on the lens to steam it up -- anything goes.

I use all hot lights because I like the look of stage lighting, performance photography, film noir and old MGM glamour lighting. Most of the photography you see day to day is brightly lit, soft and round and all
about focus and detail. I want to make pictures that take longer to see, that draw you in.

The early work is 35 mm, then I got a Hasselblad medium format and also a Contax 645 [same size film but more frames which are rectangular instead of square]. I also use a Canon digital which is remarkably good.

At a show last August, I set up a studio at the gallery and brought costumes and props and shot portraits at the opening. I would like to do more of that partly because of the value portraits hold for people. When we had the big fire in '91 and three thousand homes burned, people's photographs were the thing mentioned over and over as
the only thing they missed.

(David Houston, a Junto staff writer and photographer, lives and works in Oakland, California).