Creating Magic and Whimsy
“Never let ’em see you ache. That’s what Mr. Mayer used to say. Or was it ass? Never let ’em see your ass.”
― Carrie Fisher, Postcards from the Edge
As the only child of a university art professor and freethinker mother, I grew up surrounded by shapes and images. My love of art grew out of summer vacations filled with trips to galleries, museums, and art studios. At home I often found myself around the dinner table with an eclectic cast of characters—sculptors, writers, painters. They paraded through my childhood and I credit them all with shaping my artistic foundation and forming my eye for the candid beauty found in people from all walks of life. I’ve kind of been chasing characters ever since. I like to tell their stories through their faces, their bodies, even their costumes. I love the adventure and the challenge of making things work — the crawling around, the actual act of creating an image.
And while I like to share my work, to have the images I make – both commissioned and personal projects – find an interested and intrigued audience, sometimes I’m reluctant to give too much away, to walk people through the entirety of my process, or to talk about things in too technical of terms. Are photographs to be seen and not heard? I’ve never been one to geek-out on camera equipment. What I do trust and rely on is relationships, not only with my clients, but depending on the project, I’ve learned that the right post-production artist ensures a strong creative synergy and ultimately the best possible finish. But there always remains that little voice in the back of my head that whispers, “Doesn’t the magic disappear if you talk about it?”
So when the opportunity to contribute to this blog, to pull back the curtain a bit came my way, it got me thinking that perhaps the magic is also in the process itself. How an idea becomes a final image is a story worth telling. And storytelling is a core value in my photography. With each final image I make, my goal is for it to feel like a still out of a movie filmstrip, with its story living beyond any one frame. I’ve always believed in the vital nature of the journey, and these still images don’t exist in a vacuum. So it made sense to celebrate and share the how, the creative collaboration, the image making, and the post production, that is often a true technical marvel that elevates photography and adds magic all its own.
Yet sharing the process – the whole thing – is living on the edge for me. And while I have started to push myself and share more of my process and inspirations from project to project on both my Tumblr and @cademartinphoto pages, for this exercise I went back and chose eight different projects to show more than just images, and to tell of the experimentation and exploration, of technique and tweaking and testing and collaboration. These are my postcards from the edge.
Do keep in mind that for commissioned projects, I oftentimes choose to present a couple of options to the client, once we get in a good place image wise. It’s always a collaborative effort and we listen to the client and tweak to taste to bring it “home.” And as far as the personal projects, sometimes it’s the chicken or the egg scenario in that I get wind of something I want to do and I go do it. Everything evolves once you’re there and the thought process on post production usually happens afterwards when we can play around with possibilities until I get that little tingle – a gut feeling that something is right to me.
Wish You Were Here – The Mississippi Delta: Blues Men
While I love everything about the collaboration that comes with a commercial shoot, when it comes to my personal work, I find I am drawn to the one-on-one with real, every-day people. You can’t make any of it up or direct it – how they carry themselves or have decided to dress for the day is better than where my imagination could take it. I always go out of my way to make the subjects look their best, to present them in the truest, most sincere way- exploring the architecture of their faces, the texture of their clothes and so on.
I worked on this post-production with one of my go-tos, Sugar Digital. Our familiar relationship is great for both understanding my process and pushing me to experiment. My original intention going into this Blues project was to produce these as black and white portraits, but the more we played, the more I gravitated towards a bit of warm color that brings a little more life, as well as further defining the magnetic architecture of their faces.
Enjoying the Sights on Mercy Street! – PBS Mercy Street
Working with PBS on this project for their Mercy Street mini series was incredible and I loved every minute of it. Going in, we did not have a lot of specific creative direction other than a classical approach similar to what PBS had done with their monster hit Downton Abbey. That influence was a great jumping off point, but I was also interested in creating something a little more modern and contemporary to set this series apart. To achieve that, I set up a set within a set to create a classical look melded with a more modern lighting design and a subtly textured backdrop.
We delivered the images and I didn’t immediately hear back – crickets – I thought maybe they hated the photographs. I really liked them and wanted to plow ahead, which I did. On set (in Petersburg, Virginia) we had an old 20×20 silk as the backdrop. I also hunted down a location for the exterior images of Civil War era Petersburg, these images of cobblestone streets and buildings were layered in post with the in-photograph silks.
We used the silk as a base background and I really wanted the focus to stay on the characters so the background elements needed to be a “there but not there” type of thing – providing texture and a modern nod without overwhelming the images or the subject. Working with my partners at Sugar Digital, we worked back-and-forth to find the right layering balance so that the painterly background effect was there to support but not distract from the subjects. The colors and textures of the period wardrobe, along with the actors’ faces were a striking focal point, and I was after tones that would marry well with each other and could straddle the historical/contemporary setting of the images.
With the updated backgrounds, I now loved the images and sent them to the client. This time the client responded immediately that they loved the look and wanted to create the entire campaign around what we’d created.
Greetings From The Magical Forest – New York Philharmonic
One of the things I loved most about the concept for this project for the New York Philharmonic’s 2016 Biennial season, entitled “Let’s Play,” was how it needed to be as much about the environment as it would be about the narrative — an elegant pied-piper in an enchanted forest setting charming a group of curious characters. The resulting image combines a magical Northern California location with the Phil’s French-hornist, Leelane Sterrett, and an audience of curious carousel-horses.
Sometimes the reality of a project dictates the approach. I generally pride myself on photographing as much as possible in camera. For this project, the client wanted me to keep with that formula and that was my initial plan. I was ready to go and after a few back and forths and with a final green light it was “let’s go find a location and put all of the elements of the image out there.” While this was a doable idea, Ms. Sterrett was leaving for a tour in Europe within the week. So we went ahead and photographed her in a studio in NYC before I went to scout the final location.
Not only did I have to find the right location for the creative brief for this project, BUT I now had to find the perfect location that offered the same natural lighting that we had created in the New York studio. Working with producer Catherine Schramm, we found the forest two hours north of San Francisco and then I went to a Scooby-Doo Circus south of LA in Riverside, CA where we photographed carousel horses.
With these moving parts and challenges of time and space, the best way to answer the creative call of this project was to commit to a composite photograph. I worked carefully in each step of the shoot to ensure that every component would be as symbiotic to the whole as possible, the whole then becoming a magical sum of its parts. Aiming to have things line up seamlessly, CG horses were also created with the pros at Luminous Creative Imaging to match all of the pockets of different light that existed in the forest image – some horses are in open shade, others are backlit or side lit from the direct sun. Once each of the pieces of the image were layered and composed, the color and tones were massaged to radiate the playful feeling of a magical forest.
Our making-of is here:
Greetings From A Galaxy Far, Far Away – Star Wars for Target
Deutsch LA, Star Wars, Target. Any one of these names alone would make an attractive project. Put them together, along with a pinch of Disney and a dash of Lucas Films and I can’t be entirely certain I wasn’t dreaming.
I was completely geeked to be considered for the brief “to photograph the latest Star Wars toys for Target” – toys which would be released for the 2016 holiday season. It was a resounding “yes” for me.
From our first call, it was clear that the agency saw what I had begun to realize – that the movies and comics of my youth have been some of my greatest and most important influences in my life and my picture-making. These were key ingredients in what they sought — a photographer that loved cinema and also harbored an inner-nerd.
There are times when less is more. With a sweeping, cinematic vision for this fantastic project that could have been a candidate for a lot of post-production reworking, I pulled back and went as old school as I could. I approached this series of images almost as an old Ray Harryhausen stop action movie. I wanted all of the elements to be tangibly together, for these toys to inhabit sets that had been built with great care and detail to evoke another world.
Continuous lights were used, as were colored gels to shift the color to the worlds of the Star Wars narrative. Special effects were used on set so everything was captured in camera. In post, working again with Sugar Digital, we simply modified color and tones to play up the drama of the sets and accentuate the pop of Target red. Even when I pour myself into the in-camera construction, precise post is quietly vital to sharpen the product.
Wish You Were Here – Tea Time, Starbucks at the Greystone Mansion
I’ve been working with movie lights and crews for approximately 10 years now. When the Starbucks campaign for Tazo became a possibility, I knew I wanted to incorporate a cinematic and enchanted look and feel. Lighting and location were the driving force behind this project. The Greystone mansion is an historic and cinematically recognizable location from movies such as There Will Be Blood. The interiors had windows that never received direct sunlight so everything was lit artificially. I’m a nerd, a lighting nerd at that, and I love working with continuous lights and instruments because of the natural lighting effect they create.
As is my general preference, everything was photographed in-camera so all of the elements, including the floating teapots, were really there on set. I guess things could have been photographed elsewhere and composed in post after the fact, but I jumped through a few extra hoops to create these images in camera. Special effects such as smoke were also employed on set so that I could get the clearest picture of the whole photograph as I took it.
And an image’s magic can be in its mystery – how did they do that…?
Was the teapot really floating? Retouching with my friends at Sugar Digital in this case was mainly the pleasant task of playing around subjectively with color and tones to make the images as beautiful as we could. As with most of the projects I shoot, the heavy lifting is done on set. Pre-production, pre-production, pre-production. Good planning makes for a good production and detailed pre-production makes for painless post-production. The beauty of great post-production work can be in its subtlety – the icing on the teacake if you will.
Ultimately everyone’s commitment to the cinematic influence throughout the whole process helped achieve what Creative Director Daniele Monti described as “capturing the magic and whimsy of the new Tazo brand — something in between a modern Alice in Wonderland and an iconography that pulls from different eras, places and cultures.”
Greetings From The Four Seasons Stelara
File this one under the project dictating the process. For this shoot for Stelara, a pharmaceutical campaign, we needed to allow for an on-set curveball. The initial idea was the print campaign was going to play off of and use the same sets as the companion TV production, which had the model moving easily throughout the four seasons.
We arrived at the studio in LA the day before TV was supposed to film to see their sets and lighting setup. Everything had been built and we were all under the impression that the sets could be tweaked for print concepts after TV had completed. Once at the studio, we found out that the set elements could not be tweaked or moved at all. We marinated on all sorts of possible solutions, even the possibility of building entirely new sets just for our print project.
That night I went to bed and had the “still lying awake” idea of creating the entire background in CG. I immediately emailed the CG geniuses at Luminous Creative Imaging in Amsterdam who were 9 hours ahead of us in LA. They were game and available and I got an estimate, which I proposed and submitted to my client the very next morning.
Everything was quickly approved and off we went. We photographed the model in another studio entirely with minimal set design such as grass/snow flooring so the talent was grounded in elements she would be in for the final image. The background and field were created in CG by Luminous Creative Imaging to match the lighting design that we created on set. Color and tonal range were massaged to be beautiful, playful and pleasing as if the subject were out on a afternoon stroll. For the initial surprises, it felt so good to end up with a visually stunning image that rivaled the broadcast version of this campaign, one that ultimately surpassed expectation.
Greetings from the Bayou!
This shot was part of an impromptu personal project piggybacking a commissioned shoot in New Orleans. A location scout friend mentioned over a beer, fishing shacks you could only access by boat. New Orleans is utterly unique, its own ecosystem that’s both accessible and hidden at the same time. New Orleans and the bayou are such a draw for me, and these shacks – an hour drive and a half-hour boat ride into a different world were impossible to resist. I hired a waterman – from a line of lifelong watermen – to get me there.
The shack itself was perched low in the water and far from anything else, like a structure emerged from the brackish depths. It was somewhat improbable and otherworldly in that really New Orleans way. As I saw it in person and made my images, my mind kept wandering to what it would be like to boat up to a structure with other amenities – an even more unbelievable sight.
Besides bayous having a special meaning to me, ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved the comic strip Pogo. Pogo is the title character in a long-running comic strip that started in the 1940s by cartoonist Walt Kelly. Pogo is set in the Okefenokee Swamp of the southeastern United States. All the characters live in the swamp with Pogo the possum as the main character and his good friend Albert the alligator. Poetry, wordplay, puns and lush artwork all come together to create humor, wisdom and thoughtfulness that have been enjoyed by kids and adults alike all these years.
Another influence at work here was a childhood favorite, A Cajun Night Before Christmas, by James Rice and Trosclair. Here the classic Christmas narrative poem by Clement Clarke Moore is retold in a Cajun dialect with an alligator who helps Santa and then is left behind in the Louisiana Bayou. To finally bring my idea to life, I reached out to Souverein Weesp to help design and create these fun, dancing and singing alligators, jazz bands and the Bayou atmosphere.
The series has been very well received. The dance floor image which is the first one we completed was selected to be the main visual for the annual international Siggraph (Special Interest Group on GRAPHics and Interactive Techniques) conference.
My Well-Worn Chair at Sugar Digital: Wish You Were Here! – Tattoo Personal Project
When I went into this project, I knew what I wanted to capture. But as with most of my personal projects the final images were very much a product of inspiration, exploration and collaboration. On a break during another project, a client and I got to talking about tattoos. She mentioned a tattoo festival being held the following week in the Washington DC area. I don’t have any tats, but they’ve always intrigued me. And the promise of all those people with their stories essentially written on their bodies, those were the type of characters I’m compelled to chase. At the festival, I rented a space and set up a photo booth. I photographed everyone against a grey backdrop.
We had a great time, you can see more here:
I went into postproduction without a concrete vision of how to make them sing. The final images are a true testament to how much the relationship between photographer and retoucher matters. There was so much professional trust and respect involved as we threw out ideas and played around. Ultimately we sampled the tattoos on each person’s torso; from there we created a unique personal tapestry background for every subject.
Everybody I photographed had amazingly detailed, as well as personal, tattoo work, it was such a clear commitment of time – and money – on their part. In addition to capturing this in the portraits, the background helped showcase and amplify that investment in expression. This technique was nothing I’d tried before – and nothing I’ve attempted since – but it was truly right for these portraits. It felt as though these backgrounds allowed their stories to travel beyond their bodies.
And that’s it.
Thanks again to the fine folks at KelbyOne for asking me to share more about my process, present my work to such a well-respected photo community.
Say hello or follow us on Instagram or Tumblr or check out the full portfolio at CADEMARTIN.com.