I live in New Zealand.
In 2008, I forgot our family point and shoot when we visited relatives in the UK. My wife marched down to the local camera store and got a deal on an entry-level Canon DSLR and a couple of cheap lenses. I twiddled the buttons and discovered you could do fancy stuff if you moved it off the green square (‘Auto’). I was hooked.
Did you go to school to study photography?
No. I’ve been on plenty of workshops though – most recently your excellent four-day VIP in Prague ! I’m a nerd so I also read widely about art and photography. My wife’s an artist and I have a circle of friends who are practicing artists, and this informs my practice as well.
What was the first photograph that meant something special to you (by you or anyone else), and why?
During my first workshop in Winchester, UK, to help get beginners off auto and into aperture and shutter priority, I took a long exposure using an ND filter of water running through a weir. Until then, everything was a snap – a record, at best. The idea you could manipulate time and space using this geeky piece of tech made the proverbial lightbulb go off in my head.
Your claim/positioning refers to “Art Photography”. Why?
It’s hard to find the right term. I call myself an art photographer mostly because I’m not trying to make a living from photography. I’m in the fortunate position of being semi-retired after a career in IT and finance. This is my creative outlet. I want to differentiate myself from commercial and professional photographers, some of whom are good friends of mine. I turn down paid portfolio, portrait and wedding shoots and point prospective customers to those friends, all of whom will do a much better job than me anyway. Many in my position describe themselves as hobbyists or amateur photographers, but If feel that there’s something pejorative about these terms. A commercial photographer called me “nothing but a glorified hobbyist” once. If you know what you’re doing, your images aren’t amateurish anymore, are they? And if you’re serious, I don’t think hobbyist cuts it either. Somehow it smacks of model railways (no offence intended!).
More philosophically, I’m not a photographer. I learned this at a local camera club I used to attend. It was full of photo-journalists. Taking a raw image is the first part of the journey for me. Its transformation into a work of art using software and analog processes is the second stage, and it’s a part I really enjoy. The camera club’s photo-journalists, who are proscribed from anything other than very basic post-processing manipulation by strict ethical standards, seemed to hate what I do. And I really mean hate. At one competition, a well-regarded press photographer came up to me and said, “You’re not a photographer. You’re just some sort of glorified Photoshop artist.” She said it with complete disdain and spat out the word artist. But, minus the spite, she was right. Photo-editors would call my work photo-illustration. I’d say I’m aiming for a work of art. Sometimes I succeed, often I fail, but that’s the goal. So to distinguish myself from commercial photographers and photo-journalists I describe myself as a ‘photographic artist’, or art photographer. I worry sometimes that it sounds a wee bit pretentious but I can’t think of a better term.
What is the fascination that got you started shooting nude-oriented photos?
There’s a fabulous quote by Charlotte Jansen in her survey of female photographers called Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze that sums it up well, I think: “There is a fundamental pleasure in looking at women that is undeniable and unavoidable and tends to complicate the central place that women have in visual culture… Yet photographs of women are far more provocative and complicated than these viewing circumstances prescribe.”
The second part of the Jansen quote is very insightful. I feel there is no more difficult a photographically-based subject to ‘get right’ than a woman’s portrait, whether she’s clothed or not. I don’t mean technically. I mean in terms of its interpretation, both in private, in closed circles such as your website community and then with the public. It intrigues me how people react to a portrait of a woman, either clothed or nude (I regularly shoot both).
To generalize, today the public sees a nude and usually thinks, “sex,” and for lots of reasons sex is highly controversial. This is why the nude is so charged – and uniquely powerful. Yet in Western culture we are uniquely privileged because we inherit a cultural history dealing with the art nude reaching back nearly two and a half thousand years. The tradition of the realistic female nude arose in the time of the Classical Greeks with the sculptor Praxiteles’ idealized rendering of the goddess Aphrodite. Ironically, Pliny wrote that the contemporary public thought it a scandalous innovation – plus ça change, right? For the Classical Greeks, and the Romans, their artistic successors as it were, the nude summoned connotations of divinity, the mystery of procreation and the perfect Platonic Form of ideal beauty. Along came Christianity; by the Renaissance there were, broadly speaking, four ‘approved’ symbolic uses of the nude in Christian art: nuditas virtualis (innocence and humility), and its opposite, nuditas criminalis (lust, vanity), nuditas temporalis (shedding worldly concerns), and nuditas naturalis (a primitive innocence).
In the 1970s, postmodernism and feminism castigated the art nude for objectifying women. So, today, Western culture is loaded with many other ‘positive’ symbolic connotations for nudity such as health, religious ecstasy, cleanliness, youth, rebellion and political protest, self-confidence and pride. And there are plenty of ‘negative’ associations such as shame, immorality, anxiety, humiliation, female oppression and stereotyping, depression and so on, including the ultimate, death. Historically, Western art in all its glory feasted greedily on this confusion of associations, and, in so doing, told us something about ourselves, which helped us find a way to deal with the complexity of our humanity. So, if you want to, the nude can be used to summon any one of a plethora of symbolic connotations beyond its undeniable and ever-present erotic subtext. It’s all very complicated and that to me is enormously exciting, creatively.
Just by way of example, most recently I worked with a courageous young woman who wanted to use the nude as a way of expressing how clinical depression, anxiety and anorexia feels, and in so doing continue her journey to a full recovery. In her case her nudity was about self-confidence. Another model in the set of images I’ve supplied had just been through a double mastectomy, and she told me the images helped her rekindle her feminine identity. Collaborations like this transcend gender divisions and are much, much more than meditations on sex or beauty. I think they’re more than the sum of our parts when they work.
Do you prefer a certain style (like NudeArt, glamNudes, fashionNudes) and what is your idea/vision behind it all?
I’m a flibbertigibbet. I range across a lot of genres from fashion through to glamour. I like to try to understand the conventions underpinning each – the lighting profiles, the sets, the models’ physiques and posing styles, the costumes, the hair and makeup and so on. It’s like needing to know the rules of grammar before you can write poetry. But my vision or goal is artistic, and I’m aiming for an emotional reaction, as I outlined in the previous answer.
Are there any photographers that you consider to be a creative, artistic or stylistic influence on your work?
One of the photographs I’ve submitted shows a model with a pile of books from my library. I’ll cite icons photographers like Helmut Newton , Elliott Erwitt and Horst P Horst but I also channel the late-19th century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron a lot. She played around with technical imperfections and transformed her portraits into works of art as a result. She got a hostile reaction from her local camera club contemporaries, which chimes with me! I tend to prefer artists who confound norms and genres, such as Cindy Sherman and Maisie Cousins’ work, for example. There are many, many talented photographers and models out there whose works I chance across on modelling sites all the time – the FPIs on Purpleport, for example. I just found a bunch of outstanding photographers here on your site too. It’s not just photographers, by the way. Many models collect inspiring works they want to riff on. I also find a lot of inspiration in painting and sculpture, both historical and contemporary.
How do you find/cast models to work on your projects?
I’ve got a body of work (and references) models can see now which helps a lot. Practically speaking I often use modelling websites. My home city is small so the jungle drums of word of mouth work well. I get approached on social media regularly by models. In New Zealand, we’re fortunate to get a steady stream of fantastic experienced models travelling through as well. When I’m overseas I often rely on studios to arrange models, as you did, Dan, with stars like Dominika, Nici Dee, Ivana and Suzzi.
More importantly is what I’m looking for. I think of a model as a performance artist I’m going to collaborate with; she’ll absolutely love being in front of a camera and she’ll look fabulous when she’s there, of course, but I’m also looking for an emotional range too, which requires a talent for acting. But still be professional (turn up on time, and all that). Chemistry and a collaborative experience is important to me. Part of the joy of portraiture is that you can’t predict what the experience of shooting with someone will be like the first time.
Do you normally pay the models for a shoot or do you negotiate other deals like e.g. TFP (Time for Photo)?
I make a point of paying models and other creatives involved at the market rates depending on their experience. Occasionally, creatives refuse payment because they want to use images in their portfolio.
Where and how do you intend to present and publish your work (e.g. competitions, online magazines, guest blogs, brick and mortar galleries)?
All of the above, really. I used to be a bit half-hearted about publication, to be honest. The process of making the art – collaborating with someone, then the post-production – is what excites me. As I mentioned, my experience of entering competitions wasn’t exactly encouraging, and trying to compete against the tsunami of images out there requires an investment of time I don’t have. Until last year I just had a modest online following on Flickr with some correspondents I really value, but that was about it. Flickr’s unfashionable these days but one thing I like about it is its cleverly implemented three-tiered classification system. It means Flickr’s about the only large online site where you can post nudes without running into censorship problems. But it’s useless for selling work, I admit. I’ve sold work in local art shows and had the occasional image published but, again, the effort involved has to measure up against my real passion.
My wife and friends advised me to get serious recently and some others are telling me to write a book. I rebranded from a jokey name to my current name, ‘Richard Abbott Art Photography,” very recently and created a basic website which I’ll turn into a vehicle for selling selected works. I’m also upping my social media game. So we’ll see.
How do you – in today’s digital world – earn money with your fine art nude photography?
One of my goals is to sell work through my website – eventually – but as I’m just a “glorified hobbyist” I’m in the fortunate position that it’s not my priority to make money out of an artistic pursuit.
I feel that the wider question here is what reward you seek from your photography. I understand that a commercial photographer has to make a living. Some people seek recognition, financial reward or both, but fame and fortune are double-edged swords. It’s all too easy to get seduced by the chimera of online ‘social proof’ and start tailoring images to court popularity. For me, the reward is personal and emotionally-charged. The writer Roland Barthes invented a word, punctum, in his 1970s book Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography . I recommend it to anyone interested in art photography. He meant that some images affect you deeply, but that this experience is intensely subjective. It’s hard to say what it is about a picture, but, oh boy, you know it when you see it; “… it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me…” he said. Sometimes it’s not just the image but the process – the shoot, the post-production – too. I remember one particularly intense shoot recently when the model and I just stared at each other in a slightly glazed way when it was over. She had been modelling since she was six but she’d invested so much in that set she was almost weeping, and so was I, I’m not ashamed to say.
Peter Hurley , a famous (!) New York headshot photographer, talks about the therapeutic effects of a good shoot for his subjects – he calls it PsyPhotology; a developing model recently told me she can face life better because for the first time she felt respected, comfortable in her own skin and beautiful after our sets. Lots of professional models tell me similarly positive experiences with other photographers got them started. Punctum can hit viewers too. UK model Mischkah’s No Epitaph, and No Name in the set I submitted, which is about death, prompted a long, heartfelt letter from a man in the terminal stages of cancer. He really connected with the title, a quote from Andy Warhol, and the image. Never to be loved again, with US model Gwen, prompted a moving conversation with a woman who had been alone all her life after nursing her dying parents through her formative years. I find these kinds of feedback a priceless reward for what I do.
Do you prefer shooting indoors, in a studio or rather outdoor work?
I enjoy them all. I had a look at my list of concepts and they’re all over the place. The seasons dictate whether we go outside. In summer, I work more outdoors. I’ve lived in Wellington since 1990 so I know lots of locations and the city’s one unofficial nudist beach, a dramatic location with great cliffs, is a short hop away.
Many aspiring photographers would like to explore nude work but just don’t know how to get started. Do you have some advice for taking the first steps?
There are six things I wish I’d been told.
- First, get to know your camera inside out. It’s essential that you’re not fumbling with the settings while your model stands there shivering. By this I mean you know how to shoot in manual mode using the histogram on the back of the screen (or better still, tethered). You must be able get the exposure correct, which means you’ll be confident setting your aperture, shutter speed and ISO (the ‘exposure triangle’) to get the effect you want, such as a nice blurry background, a pin-sharp subject, high-key, low-key or whatever.
- Secondly, shoot exclusively in the raw format and use raw format editing and image management software such as Capture One or Adobe’s Lightroom and/or Photoshop. JPEGs, even the highest quality ones, simply do not cut it for post-production and printing large.
- I was once on a nude-fashion workshop where one of the rookie photographers rudely insisted on trying to shoot open-leg, adult shots of a high-end agency fashion model. It all got very uncomfortable and he was asked to leave. So, thirdly, do your research so you thoroughly understand the very different nude genres and the concept of nudity “levels.” A model’s levels basically cover how much of herself she is prepared to have photographed, and there are specific terms used, from “topless” through to “hard-solo.” Models are strict about the genres they will work and their maximum nudity levels. There is a world of difference between the pin-up, art modelling, classical nude, artistic nude, fetish nude, erotic nude and then the various adult genres, for example. “Glamour” is a very ill-defined term and its meaning is so elastic it’s almost useless. By the way, many of these terms vary from country to country, so be specific if you’re travelling.
- Fourthly, script some concepts that conform to the conventions of a genre and create mood boards of inspiring images to support them before you approach a model – and briefly discuss them with your models! These days I go into a lot of detail about lighting plans and storyboards, but for your first shoots it’s fine to keep it simple so long as you have an idea of what you want to come away with, even if it’s some simple portraits or bodyscape classical nudes, which are both good places to start, by the way.
- Fifthly, I strongly endorse what some of your other interviewees have said: for your first shoots, engage and pay a professional, experienced model.
- One last thing, as Steve Jobs said. Well, two really. If a model’s standing, get down on your knees. If you stand, it means that your camera’s angled slightly downwards at your full-length subject. The resulting image distorts your subject, making your subject’s head look larger and her legs shorter than they really are. If you’re a man, you’re probably taller than your subject and the distortion is magnified. Because your camera is angled slightly downwards towards your full-length model, you will make her look short and fat. Believe me, models do not like to look short and fat. The opposite applies to headshots. The general rule is to have your angle of view very slightly above eye-height. The teenage girls snapping selfies on Instagram all know this is the most flattering angle as it yields a slightly wider forehead, a slimmer face and a jawline.
What are your next photography goals?
I have lots of them. My list of crazy concepts keeps getting longer, not shorter, for a start. After taking your workshop, I want to employ the more advanced lighting techniques you generously passed on. I’m competent at Photoshop but need to take it the next level. I’m debating getting a studio so I’m interested hearing what others have to say about that. Other than that, marketing, basically. Despite what I said punctum, I’m currently grinding my teeth building ‘social proof’ (come and say hi to me on @richardabbottartphoto and I’ll do the whole #L4L and #F4F thing for you, dear reader) to reach more models to broaden my work’s reach. In time, I want shows in galleries and who knows, maybe some more competitions. I just need more time; don’t we all?
Tech QNA: Richard’s Gear DNA
Do you work solely digital or also analog these days?
99% digital, but occasionally I use an analog process in post-production.
What type of camera(s) & lenses do you shoot with?
Today I have a full frame Canon 5D Mark III and a set of pro lenses, but for a long time I continued to use the entry-level cropped sensor Canon DSLR my wife bought. I remember my late father-in-law’s advice very well: always spend your money on the best glass possible, not the body. I prioritised the pro lenses. Those pro lenses can’t be beat – their sharpness, colour rendition and all the rest is nothing short of sumptuous. Canon’s mighty EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM is a king-of-the-hill beauty-lens legend; a heavy, temperamental beast, but when you get it right, oh boy.
But I have a guilty secret – don’t tell my Canon. I sometimes travel with an OM-D E-M1 Mark II, a Micro Four Thirds system that I am growing to love, not least because it is so much lighter. There are some beautiful Leica lenses for the system that I covet.
What lighting equipment do you set up for a shoot?
It varies. Daylight and a reflector is so flattering for women. I have a very basic Elinchrom three light set-up which packs up into a couple of small cases. If I need more than that, which is rare, I’ll rent a local studio for a day.
How important is Photoshop for your final images?
I have the Adobe photography subscription which includes Lightroom and Photoshop. Coming late to photography I was encouraged at camera club to go raw (best advice ever!) and use Lightroom. I use Lightroom to catalogue images. I control the majority of my workflow and do most of my post-production there. The non-destructive editing is a boon. For beauty retouching and compositing, however, I switch to the big beast, Photoshop. That’s where the magic happens. I occasionally use plug-ins like the Nik Collection , which is free from Google and very cool. I know you’re a big Capture One , fan and while LR and PS work fine for me I’m going to give it a trial.
Are you rather a Mac or a PC lover?
I’m agnostic, really, meaning I don’t necessarily love one or the other. I happen to use the Windows platform because I know its ins and outs well for historic, work reasons.
Richard, thanks a lot for joining me and the time you dedicated to our readers!