Written by T.K. Dalton
Edited by Jesi Khadivi
For a series of pieces on sideshow performers, Matt Hoyle called on the talent of an unconventional modeling agency, Ugly NY. “The hardest part was getting a giant,” he recalls. If that sounds like a recited line of surrealist poetry, imagine weeks of preparation along the same lines. His conceit was to document the fictional town of Barnumville, itself based on a Florida town of retired circus workers. “It’s one of the only towns that was zoned for elephants. The post-master general was a midget,” he says. But the fictional set had a few specifications the real town did not, such as a lack of hotels to discourage gawkers. So he turned to CGI out of necessity. “It would have been nearly impossible to find a town fitting the specifics of the story,” he says. Each set he produced without CGI would have cost $20,000 but digital supplements allowed Hoyle to fulfill leave his aesthetic vision without compromise. Our featured image comes from this series and it is appearing for the first time here on The F Stop.
To create this image Hoyle first created a rough wireframe of the background in CGI and then matched the camera angle and lighting based off the light sources in the background image. Next he photographed the people individually in his studio using two large umbrellas to emulate a softer light that he can later add contrast to in Photoshop if necessary. In the case of the Siamese twins Hoyle notes “one umbrella was to the right emulating the streetlight, the second was a soft wraparound fill from the left that made sure we had the detail on the shadow side of our subjects.” Hoyle chose a Canon 1DS Mark III “which gives me a large enough digital file and allows me to be more mobile than a larger format camera,” he says. He shot with a 35mm lens “as that was the same angle and framing as in the background shot.” The exposure was f/11 at 1/125th of a second and he shot about 4 feet from the subject in order to fill the frame. After the shots were captured he used a deep etching program called Vertus fluid mask “which works beautifully on masking hair and other hard to select areas,” he says. When the image is ready he imports the backdrop, which he would have already created in CGI with the program Vue Infinite, into Photoshop. He then composites the two together which “involves playing with contrasts, white balance, curves and color balance.” Hoyle continues on “once the images feel right and natural, I distress the background and create a depth of field to give a sense of space in the shot.” After all the tweaking Hoyle tones the shot with a hero color “which in this case would be a cool blue to emulate a night scene. Night time does not really throw a blueish tint in real life but for artistic shots, including ones in movies, a slightly blue feel will give a sense of night.” The last step is to create a final layer of a a black vignette with 10% opacity to “subtly frame the subjects in their environment.”
Hoyle preceded his photography with a 20-year career in advertising. “I left because I was quite simply disillusioned. I worked in management and there wasn’t much room for creativity. After leaving, I just started shooting. It was just this natural outlet. I hadn’t picked up a camera before then in any serious manner. People in the industry said ‘you’ve got a good eye you should really do this.’” He gained attention and respect at a pace he calls “laughably quick.” After his series “Icebergs” he found an agent; within four years he had gone from a hobbyist to a fully-fledged professional living solely off his images.
Naturally, he learned something in his two decades on the other side of the desk. “All that discipline that I had learned as a creative in advertising I can now do without restrictions. It definitely helped me think of themes rather than just aesthetic one-shots. I can think in holistic themes, and extract each theme differently unto itself. I feel if you can create a great common thread, but also each one is striking in its’ own right, then you’ve got something strong,” he says. That’s not to say it ‘s easy: to create the realistic effect he desires for his CGI images can take more than 40 hours in front of the computer.
Hoyle believes the time is worth it, if only to record the true nature of his subjects. “I’m primarily interested in colorful characters,” he says, taking the phrase literally as well as figuratively. “It was going to be a real wasted opportunity to have this amazing group of people together and not capture them in stark black and white.” With nearly three dozen images of Barnumville’s residents, his goal was to capture “a contextual shot of what they do,” working as a pharmacist or a sheriff.
The search for raw reality is evident in his personal work. Regularly eschewing the beautiful for the exceptional, Holye finds himself drawn to subcultures: aging boxers who used to be champions, winter swimmers or sideshow freaks. “I love the beauty in imperfection. They make great stories,” he says. “Every great story has a flawed character. I just try to magnify them.”
Hoyle was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
F STOP: Please tell us about the Barnumville series.
Hoyle: Barnumville is a fictitious town in Florida that I loosely based on Gibsonton, Florida a real town where sideshow performers, or freaks as they used to call themselves, spent their winters. It’s one of the only towns that was zoned for elephants. The post-master general was a midget. It just inspired me to create a town of circus performers. The series does have a little bit of a darkness to it, but I wanted it to be hauntingly beautiful. I wrote a back story for the town. A ring master in the 30s and 40s got tired of the exploitation of his friends and colleagues and wanted to create a town. We found residents for the town through this great casting guy, Oliver, at Ugly NY.
F STOP: Is that a modeling agency?
Hoyle: They cast people that aren’t really models. Anyone from tattooed people, to twins or sideshow performers. We made a wish list that included everyone you could imagine in an old school circus sideshow. The hardest part was getting a giant. We got someone who absolutely looked the part, a giant from the film The Wrestler. The project evolved from the back story I wrote and hit a more cinematic approach, which was where my work was headed anyway. The town had the look and feel of an old Florida town with an urban feel; a little bit dilapidated and a little bit darker. I started creating the backgrounds in CGI, cast the characters and got some great stylists involved.
F STOP: Was the decision to shoot the background in CGI out of practicality? An aesthetic reason? A thematic reason?
Hoyle: It was all of those. I wanted a town that would’ve been inhabited by sideshow performers. For example, part of the story was that Barnumville didn’t have hotels because they didn’t want outsiders coming in. It would have been nearly impossible to find a town fitting the specifics of the story. As for the aesthetic side, I really wanted to create something where my vision wasn’t compromised by budget. CGI was a tool that allowed me to not compromise any of those things.
F STOP: You mentioned that it was a total cast and crew of forty. Did you photograph them over a period of several days, weeks?
Hoyle: Several weeks.
F STOP: Did you have one location or did you go on location?
Hoyle: We shot at the studio here. It was easy to do in this central location. We shot them here with widescreen background. Whether I shoot CGI or a photographic plate, what I do is consider the lighting and camera angle. I’d already created very rough wire frame back drops to the 14 scenes and then I matched the camera angle and the lighting for the scene I had already created with my portrait shoot here at the studio. Basically I shoot for that exact scene. Then I cut it out, obviously in post, and drop it in. I spend a lot of time trying to create reality with the two scenes, trying to composite them. Creating reality means making things imperfect because a lot of times everything becomes too angular in CGI. I use photographic textures to begin with so it should look real in a lot of ways because it’s a plate of a photo just wrapped on a wire frame image. One thing that helps is my lighting experience. Many CGI artists really don’t have that lighting experience. When I’m compositing the two scenes together I make it as organic as possible. And that takes time: scratches, dents, paint falling off, dirt, trash, blurs, depth of field. There’s a whole bunch of tricks and things you do that you learn and they take some time, but it’s worth doing. And then you create this fantastical thing that would’ve otherwise cost $20,000+ for each production piece.
F STOP: Do you do everything yourself?
Hoyle: I do everything myself for personal projects. On commercial jobs where I have a budget, I work with a team.
F STOP: How much time does it take to do one background?
Hoyle: Anywhere from 3 days to a week.
F STOP: 8 hours a day?
Hoyle: Oh yeah! And then, of course, there’s rendering. Rendering takes a good day.
F STOP: So it’s a lot of time in front of the computer?
Hoyle: Yes, but it saves so much time. Try getting a crew to fourteen multiple locations in a town of forty and it’s going to cost a lot of money and coordinating everyone will be difficult.
F STOP: Do you prefer a white background to a green or blue screen?
Hoyle: Back to when I was directing or shooting TV for advertising, you shot with a chroma-key background and it was easier to key with technology. But, in terms of photography you want the background to contrast against the tone of the person. It depends on what they’re wearing and it’s as simple as that.
F STOP: So, it’s all about contrast?
Hoyle: It’s just about contrast and being able to capture that. I work with a pretty progressive piece of masking software that I also endorse. It also gets the hair. It’s pretty advanced. It sees the scene like your eye sees and it’s been designed so that it captures things and separates things from the background. You have to look at it when you light it that way to separate it.
F STOP: Tell me how your black and white portraits without CGI fit into the series.
Hoyle: I’m primarily interested in colorful characters. That obviously can manifest itself with a black and white shot of a forked tongue, a tattooed giant, some sort of interesting person. While they’re black and white, they’re still colorful and a character without anything else. It just seemed like such a shame to limit it to a full color scene when they have so many interesting features on all of their faces. From the giant where his elongated features were very prominent to the little people to the circus fat lady to the tattooed people, it just seemed like it was going to be a real wasted opportunity to have this amazing group of people together and not capture them in stark black and white. The 28-30 images are going to be the town residents of Barnumville. You’re going to see them for who they are. And then of course, we’ll take you into their life. The scenes will be a contextual shot of what they do. Some of them work in the local drug store. The strong man is also the deputy of the town; the sheriff.
F STOP: So is this a fine-art project meant for a gallery setting?
Hoyle: Yes. There will be large format black-and-white portraits peering at you throughout the room. There’ll also be wide-screen scenes. What I’m trying to do is to extract as much character as I can from our collective imagination of what sideshows are. There is a collective cultural imagination that we have of them whether it’s the series Carnivale or just what we remember growing up or what was depicted during an X-Files episode. It is an amazing thing that doesn’t really exist that much anymore; it’s seen as politically incorrect. I just want to extract as much personality out of this in a way that hasn’t been done before, both in a cinematic way which creates an entire experience, and with black and whites which show them in a beautiful way. There’s a nice symmetry about them; the way that they’ve been lit that makes their features seem extraordinary.
F STOP: As of the day of this interview, people haven’t seen the CGI backgrounds, but they have seen the black and white portraits. How have they responded so far?
Hoyle: With any work it’s very subjective. But by all accounts and comments, this has probably been one of the most successful things that I’ve created. I think that there are comments anywhere from, ‘Matt’s captured what’s been in my imagination for a long time, but haven’t really seen’ to ‘he’s made these guys beautiful and almost seem just like you and me.’ To the more sensational, ‘these guys just look like they’ve stepped out of an X-Files thing.’
F STOP: This is your third project where you’ve created the backgrounds in CGI. Do you think you’ll continue in that vein?
Hoyle: I don’t know that I will. As an artist, I’m going to go back to really just shooting characters. I’m still working on Barnumville, but I really want to get up close and personal in terms of going back to exploring faces and everything, similar to the black and white. I’ll let the CGI happen when a client in my commercial life requests it, especially for movie posters or Broadway posters.
F STOP: Has the personal work that’s been based on CGI gotten you work in the commercial realm?
Hoyle: Yes, for the more cinematic magazine features as well as a few bigger production Ad jobs. I think creating CGI backgrounds is definitely a technique that helps a vision be realized. But, it shouldn’t stand out on its own. It should just be there to help you realize that vision. So, in commercial work sometimes I use CGI as a more cost-effective way to create a set.
F STOP: Is your previous work where you used CGI backgrounds fine art?
F STOP: And has it been for sale?
Hoyle: Not yet, but people have expressed interest; I want to choose the right gallery. Barnumville is the first series I’ve done with a proper launch.
F STOP: So tell me how you got your start as a photographer.
Hoyle: I started as a creative director in advertising and worked in the industry for twenty years. I left because I was quite simply disillusioned. I had worked my way up into management and there wasn’t much room for creativity anymore. After leaving, I just started shooting. It was just this natural outlet. I hadn’t picked up a camera before then in any serious manner. People in the industry said “you’ve got a good eye you should really do this.” I did a series about Australian winter swimmers called “Icebergs”. That is where my career catapulted because the “Icebergs” series hit a chord. The retouching was minimal, but still it captured the essence of what my work is about. Almost slightly hyper-real and very textural with raw characters. The series got me an agent.
F STOP: How long did it take between picking up a camera and working professionally?
Hoyle: It was laughably quick. I didn’t have to be an assistant. It was about 2000 when I left the ad industry and I picked up a camera. In 2001 I started my personal series. Between 2003 and 2004 I was a fully-fledged professional in that I was making my career and money off of photography.
F STOP: Do you think working in the advertising world has helped you?
Hoyle: It’s helped me amazingly. All that discipline that I had learned as a creative in advertising I can now do without restrictions. It definitely helped me think of themes rather than just aesthetic one-shots. I can think in holistic themes, and extract each theme differently unto itself. I feel if you can create a great common thread, but also have each image being striking in its’ own right, then you’ve got something strong. That is what advertising has taught me, among other things.
F STOP: How do you feel about where the advertising industry is right now?
Hoyle: I am optimistic about it. I think that I have seen the aesthetics cycle even in my entry into the field. At first it was a very raw, then it went to the other extreme where it was over-retouched and very plastic. With the tools that we have with us today and people being more educated, there is starting to be a maturity to not over-use all the different techniques now. I am optimistic and I see more art buyers and photo editors being open to new ideas.
F STOP: Stylistically, where do you see things going?
Hoyle: I used to think that I could predict things; especially when I was a creative director. But now I absolutely don’t know. I think that things work in cycles. There will be more sophistication with post-production. I hope people won’t over-use Photoshop and use tools more sparingly to help realize their vision, rather than over compensate for their lack of.
F STOP: So you don’t think CGI will overtake the photography industry?
Hoyle: No, photography will still be photography. But CGI will be another tool the same way a set builder or a retoucher or even a filter might be a tool.
F STOP: Is your visual style a conscious decision? Did it arise out of experimentation?
Hoyle: I developed a visual style in “Icebergs.” I had found a group of extraordinary
swimmers. They weren’t the beautiful people of Bondi Beach, which is similar to Malibu, but Baltic Russians or giant freckled kids. I wanted to make the images beautiful and not Photoshop the hell out of the essence of the subject. So it was natural to do the contrasting. It wasn’t done as a style. I did it to bring out the freckles, laugh lines and character of each person. Toning was also important. I toned them a certain aquamarine, blue-green because they are winter swimmers and I wanted to give the viewer the same feel that I got when I photographed them.
F STOP: Can you tell us a little bit about how you work.
Hoyle: Often I’ll shoot a person very simply using three-quarter, Rembrandt lighting.
I never flatten out the person. I want a sense of dimension and for them to
pop off the page. So obviously I use some angular lighting and shadows. In post I try to de-accentuate anything that’s going to get in the way, anything that competes with what I’m trying to get out of the subject. I’ll do that with exposure. I’ll play with the depth-of-field. Once I have the exposure and the depth-of-field then I accentuate unique features like freckles, baby fat or piercing blue eyes. I avoid the overly sharpened degree a lot of photographers use and try to stay quite natural and raw. Sometimes I’ll tone a background to compliment the model’s skin. A lot of time cyans or blues and greens work nicely because they are at the other end of the spectrum of the peach or flesh color.
F STOP:What made you interested in portraiture.
Hoyle: People have always interested me. It may actually be as boring as that. I love sub-groups and the sub-cultures. Whether that be aging boxers who used to be champions, winter swimmers or sideshow freaks. The imperfections of society are what interests me also and that’s why I try to unapologetically bring them out. I love the beauty in imperfection. They make great stories, don’t they? Every great story has a flawed character. I just try to magnify them.
To see more of Matt Hoyle’s work visit his website.