Written by T.K. Dalton
Edited by Jesi Khadivi
Where others see a silhouette Leon Steele sees a new horizon. Through his lens, people become physical features, camels and cows become simple textures in a larger landscape. In a cutthroat industry where sexuality often sells, Steele turns that idea on its head as well: a shoot for an organic food company becomes an artistic statement. “We took these girls into the middle of a field, stripped them naked and turned them into landscape,” he says. The same innovative aesthetic has been utilized in our featured image, a personal piece entitled “Cheekscape.”
For this shot, Steele wanted to create an image that was tack sharp and would be large enough to print several feet wide while preserving fine detail. His technique for maximizing sharpness and creating a large file to print from was to create ten separate exposures of the talent, each one focusing on a slightly different part of the face so, when everything was combined in Photoshop, the result would be extreme sharpness throughout the image. Steele required absolute stillness from the talent, who also happened to be one of his assistants, and all of the lights and equipment to be firmly in place so nothing would move during the ten exposures. Steele used City 5000 power packs instead of his more usual Profoto equipment. He’s a fan of older equipment, despite its risks. (“Damn heavy and will blow your head off if used incorrectly,” he says, “but well worth the extra effort and insurance premium.”) He used two heads, each with a 5’ strip light and barn doors, running off the packs. The lights were placed partially behind large light blue boards and bounced in such a way to create a very precise moonlit look. A silver reflector was also placed behind the camera to add a bit of detail to the shadows. He placed the camera, a Sinar P2 with a 55mm lens and a Leaf Aptus 75 digital back less then an inch from the subject’s face. Each of the ten exposures were f/16 at 50 ISO. Retouching took five days; the final file weighed in at over two gigabytes.
In all his work, whether it be commissioned or fine-art, Steele sees a single, subtle stylistic vision. “I try to break things down without too much clutter or fuss.” His trademark as a commercial photographer is finding the beauty in anything. This feature is evident in his personal work as well. Steele strives to view the beauty of a subject from unexpected angles, starting with a portrait of his nephew’s back. Some critics claimed it was not a portrait; it has since been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery. “There was a big brouhaha about it because [they] debated whether it was a portrait or not. The animal backs and cows have been really well received and they were hugely enjoyable to shoot,” he says.
In fact, many of the successes in his impressive career have only come after untying some serious knots. He calls of an early shoot for New Balance, “a real baptism by fire,” and “the most stressful thing I have done, but the great thing is nothing has come close to that. Nothing is stressful anymore once you’ve been to the point where you’re almost doubled up on your hotel floor thinking that you’re going to mess this shoot up. It’s really good to put yourself through that.” With luck this too worked out—it was early in his career and Steele’s technical skills had some holes. Those holes have been filled in, leaving him free to look for his next new vision. “Often the way I work [is] to catch a glimpse of another angle, which turns what I’m looking at on its head,” he says. “It’s a way of seeing. The technique is the easy part. The magic is in the idea.”
Steele was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
F STOP: Please tell us a bit about the Cheekscape photo, our featured image. Where did the idea come from?
Steele: The idea came whilst working on another job. I was photographing an ad for a TV program called Criminal Minds. I remember there was something interesting about the way that the light fell across the subject’s face, and what I tend to do is to hone in on something that interests me during a job and come back to it after the shoot. I was fascinated by the fact that something was going on with the side of this guy’s head. I’ve been shooting abstracted landscapes since 1993 so this kind of imagery is in my sphere of thinking.
F STOP: You’ve also photographed cows and horses in this way too, right?
Steele: The cow/horse landscapes were exhibited here in New York.
F STOP: So basically you just visualized the idea from something you saw on a past shoot?
Steele: I can’t really sit down and predetermine what’s going to happen with my personal work. I happen upon things more instead of siiting down and deciding what I am going to shoot. I love the fact that the things that interest me to shoot are out there waiting to be discovered, and the discovery comes with altering how you perceive
F STOP: Tell us about the technical side of the Cheekscape shot, how did you create the image?
Steele: I wanted to be able to produce a large detailed end image, something that I could do as a large print with amazing detail and sharpness. This meant I couldn’t crop into the image and had to fill the frame. I was about five inches from the side of the guy’s head, and so had an incredibly shallow depth of field. I remember for that particular shot I racked the camera focus ten times from the front of his cheek to the back of his hair and then laid the files together. Everything was absolutely pin sharp and when we blew it up, we got amazing detail in the hair follicles and skin textures. For the blue light, I basically just bounced that light in off two big blue boards which were painted, letting the light come through these tiny little slits to bathe across the model’s face. Cutting the slits give you amazing control of the light because you’re only allowing a little light to come through. I used these two big packs to generate plenty of light and squeezed it through these little gaps on the boards. I am actually not a hugely technical person. For me my lighting techniques are not set in stone. This way you don’t stagnate and you can create new things as you go and happen discover new ways to light subjects. It makes it hard for the assistants because they can’t set things up before you arrive at the studio in the morning.
F STOP: Did you combine the separate images, with their different focal points, in Photoshop?
Steele: We just overlaid layers and brushed them through. That particular shot took a ridiculous amount of time to do. My retouching guy finished it off, but it must have taken maybe four or five days to match them up.
F STOP: What was the size of the file?
Steele: I think that one was probably about 2 .5 GB as a layered file, something like that.
F STOP: Was it shown in any galleries?
Steele: If I do have another landscape exhibition that it may be included in. I think it is really important to get the file size as big as possible because there may come a time when that image may be 10 feet across.
F STOP: I’ve noticed that the backgrounds in a lot of your work is quite subtle. What’s your decision making process for the color for the background?
Steele: I guess I can just feel what’s right for an image. As I am shooting something, I can feel what strength and colour the background needs to be. Most things these days are shot on white and then I’ll wash in the color myself afterwards.
F STOP: So after you shoot you’ll leave some information in the file and fix it up in Photoshop?
Steele: You have to leave some grey in the background, otherwise it’s very difficult to wash color in. The tone and quality of the background needs to be right as you shoot so that your subject matter and the background hold together. After that you can just tweak it slightly in terms of coloration. The trick is to get the photograph looking right in camera, so that retouching is more of a finessing tool as opposed to a rescue mission. Retouchers are usually not photographers as is evident by the amount of overworked crap we are seeing these days. Although a photographer will sit in and direct the retouching there seems to be too many options and no one knows when to say stop.
F STOP: What was your path to becoming a photographer?
Steele: It was my hobby as a kid. It was my mother that decided I was going to be a photographer when I was 14 and that was very intuitive of her. She set me up with a camera and had me get on with it. I absolutely loved it. I was a graphic designer for a little while with an eye towards photography. I left college and moved to London. I worked with an editorial photographer for two and a half years as a full time assistant and then I worked with another guy, an advertising photographer, for another three and a half years. So I did quite a stint as an assistant until I was 26 I think.
F STOP: How old are you now?
Steele: I am 38.
F STOP: So you’ve been a full fledged professional for about twelve years now. Do you do mostly advertising work now?
Steele: 90% of my work is advertising, although I suspect that will change over the next few years.
F STOP: How?
Steele: I would like to put my work out into different areas. Advertising is a really great way to earn a living, but there’s a lot of other great photography out there.
F STOP: So what kind of ideas do you have for yourself for the next couple years?
Steele: I will carry on working in advertising of course, but I’ve been starting to do a lot more portraiture although I am best known for my still life work in the advertising world. Often you get put into one box and that’s where you stay. If I want to carry on doing portraiture then I will need to look into shooting for magazines or the music industry. This may of course create new opportunities in advertising for me.
F STOP: Do you have any interest in exhibiting in galleries?
Steele: I have done and it would be great to do more. I think it’s as cut throat an industry as advertising, however. When I won the National Portrait Gallery’s Prize I was approached by several galleries, but I was very much into my commercial photography and the timing wasn’t right. Back then there was a split between advertising photographers and those who exhibited in galleries. That is not the case now.
F STOP: You just mentioned that the fine art might be as cut throat as advertising is, how have you managed to do so well and last so long in the advertising world?
Steele: I think by not doing exactly what is expected of me. I don’t spend much time looking at everybody else in the industry. Having good agents is hugely important. But Number one is working for a good photographer as an assistant. Once you’ve done that for a decent amount of time, you are ready to move on. It puts you in the right sphere, you start to meet the right people at a young age. You are exposed to the art directors at the studio and you’re soaking up all the information about how to do things by working alongside somebody that is a successful photographer. You also need to develop a way of looking at things that is unique to you. Art directors are looking for something unique in your style and thinking, not just some retouching technique, but a progressive style.
F STOP: How would you describe your style?
Steele: It’s subtle. I try to break things down without too much clutter or fuss.
F STOP: What would you describe as your inspiration for your personal work?
Steele: That’s not easy to answer off the bat. I guess it’s just getting up in the morning and going out and keeping your eyes open. I told you my favourite things are things you kind of happen upon. My inspiration would really just come from looking around. I’ve got a massive collection of art books that inspire me. Although I can’t sit and look at books for too long because I get the urge to get up and do something myself. For example….Right now I am looking out my studio window now and there is a dwarf child sitting opposite with an old sewing machine. The environment is quite grubby and dirty, but if I brought that kid up here with his beaten up sewing machine into a sanitized environment things would start to happen. This sounds bizarre but he’s really there. I’m not on drugs.
F STOP: What appeals to you about shooting in the studio versus shooting on location and incorporating more of the real world?
Steele: Number one is the control that you have. Across the road there are all sorts of distractions in this kid’s environment right now. If I brought him into the studio, you’d start seeing the textures of his skin, you’d see the textures of his clothes. You hone in on very different things. I would be simplifying things. The fascinating thing for me is just him with this old sewing machine. I love texture, I’m quite anal when it comes to things like that. I want to see lots and lots of detail in things and I don’t want to be distracted by external things.
F STOP: What has been your favourite thing to shoot so far in your career?
Steele: I won the National Portrait Gallery prize years ago. The photograph was of my nephew. It’s just shot with his back to camera, and he looks really old. It won an award for portraiture and there was a big brouhaha about it because the debate was whether it was a portrait or not. The animal backs and cows have been really well received and they were hugely enjoyable to shoot. I tend to earn a living shooting rather dull objects and making them look expensive and beautiful. Advertising is great in that we are paid very well to do the job we do and it allows us the time and funds to continue to shoot personal work. Advertising is a great patron to the arts.
F STOP: What’s been your most challenging shoot?
Steele: That would have to be the New Balance sneaker shoot in New York. I ended up shooting nearly 50 ads over four years. It was a real baptism by fire being early in my career. The other photographer that was in the running for the job was Albert Watson, so I felt a little out of my league from the off. It was challenging because there were a few technical things that I had work out on the hoof. It’s the most stressful thing I have done, but the great thing is nothing has come close to that since. Nothing seems stressful for me anymore. Once you’ve been to the point where you’re almost doubled up on your hotel floor thinking that you’re going to mess up a shoot…with hind sight it’s really good to have been through that.
F STOP: What were the technical things you weren’t sure about?
Steele: This was in the early days of converting color to black and white. And we’re talking shooting color film, and converting that to a black and white file. It never really looked that great when I tried the conversion in my studio. The results were always muddy. It’s easy these days, you just hit the curves. I remember on a phone call with the agency where I was asked whether or not this picture in my portfolio was something that had been shot in color and converted to black and white. And I said, “Oh, I shot in color and I converted on my computer,” but it wasn’t, it was shot in black and white, which is why it looked so amazing. I just got carried away with myself. The problem was that the images for the campaign had to be shot in color and converted in post-production in order to retain the colored logo on the sneakers and have the rest of the shot in black and white. So I got out to New York thinking I don’t even know if I can do this. I was working really close with this amazing retoucher and I told him what I was hoping to achieve and even he said that it sounded a bit tricky. So he was taking all the film and going out and trying to figure out how this was going to work for me. I was ringing him every afternoon after all the models had gone home, and we’d spent another few thousand dollars that day, and I would say “How’s it going?” and he would say, “We’re getting there.” So on the Friday having done five days shooting (and spent most of our budget) he came into the studio in the morning and he had a proof under his arm. I was shooting this model and I remember looking across the studio because I was just so nervous waiting for this guy to come into the studio just to let me see that everything was alright. And he just winked at me to say I cracked it, it worked! It looked amazing, when he pulled this proof out. It was a thing of beauty, So I basically blagged my way onto my biggest advertising campaign although I wouldn’t recommend this cavalier approach to anyone with a weak heart .
F STOP: That’s a great story.
Steele: I believe you need to take a few risks now and again to get anywhere in life.
F STOP: So what would have happened if it didn’t work out?
Steele: I don’t think I’d be here right now.
To see more of Leon Steele’s work visit his website.