Chasing Shadows: The Photographer Interviews
Place 2 photographers next to each other, with the same subject in front of them, and they will create 2 different images. Give them the same photo and they will edit it in a different way.
This shouldn't really be surprising: give 2 different people a pencil and ask them to draw the same thing and you will end up with 2 very different images as well.
The camera is a tool to create with and, as a photographer myself, I'm always fascinated by the way other people approach and use this instrument. I love reading interviews with photographers, but often get frustrated that the kind of questions I would like to know the answers to, don't get asked.
So I've decided to rectify this by starting a new, hopefully monthly, series of interviews with some of my favourite photographers. Inevitably there will be a few technical questions, of interest probably only to other photographers, but overall I'm more interested in their approach to the subject and how they see the world - and this should have a wider appeal.
This is early days so please stick with it. Skip over any questions you're not bothered about, as I'm sure you'll find something more interesting further along. And any feedback you care to leave in the comments would be more than welcome.
Preamble out the way, I'm delighted the first photographer to join me on this new venture is the amazing Bill Gekas.
Born and raised in Australia, Bill has achieved global recognition for his captivating photos of his daughter, Athena. Gracing the covers of endless numbers of photography magazines around the world, she is usually dressed in a variety of outfits and the images seem to owe more to classical paintings than they do to photographs.
Kim: Hi Bill, thank you so much for taking part and being my first guinea pig! I'd like to start with this point about your artistic style. Would you say you are influenced or inspired more by painters or other photographers?
Bill: Definitely painters moreso than photographers. I've always loved viewing the works by the golden age painters. The colours, the atmosphere, expressions and the way they painted in the light, I think the right words are hauntingly beautiful. I find it quite limiting how most photographers are generally only inspired by other photographers.
If photography is an art, a visual medium that in the whole scheme of things is a fairly recent invention, then why limit ourselves to being only inspired within this brief timeline period. As a visual medium it makes sense to take in inspiration and ideas from as far back as when drawing and painting first occurred. Just my thoughts.
Kim: I think one of the first photos of yours I saw was one of Athena playing chess with a stuffed rabbit.
At Night We Play
Is there a particular image where you felt you crossed a line and made a significant move forward - in your sense of what you were able to create with the camera?
Bill: That image was one of my first Athena shoots, or perhaps second. But yeah it was at the start when I was practicing and refining my lighting techniques around 2010. I think you're correct in that particular image perhaps is when I realized the almost endless possibilities in how I can light my work, and shortly after that the ideas were just pouring out of my head. I felt like a kid in a huge toy store where I was told I could have almost whatever I wanted.
Kim: I know what you mean - I love that point when you discover something - a new style, technique or insight and suddenly a whole new world of possibilities open up! So if that was one of the first of your Athena photos, was there a particular image which you feel propelled you into a much wider audience and recognition?
Bill: That image came a lot later in 2012. The photo 'Pleiadian'. Technically a simple image but it just came so well together with the expression, colours, lighting and framing that it's been my most well received image amongst many people.
It's been printed in newspapers, graced magazine covers and won some awards in photography competitions. Shortly after I made this image my body of work was noticed by a much wider audience. Something I never really expected but was quite welcoming at the time.
Kim: I'm sure I can't be the only photographer who gets a little frustrated when the public at large have a different sense of taste about my work than I do. One of my favourites of yours is a less popular one (at least I've not seen it on any magazine covers) - The Joker.
Do you have any you are particularly fond of that you feel never really got the recognition it deserved?
Bill: Ahhh yes... The Joker! Well that image was a bit of a double edge sword. Many people know my works as being sort of bright, colourful, cheerful with a touch of class perhaps. But I am also fascinated with the darker side of art. That image was sort of me testing the waters a little bit.
I'd probably say the majority of people loved it but there were many also that found it a bit uncomfortable and I did cop some flak on it by people that thought it was a bit of a darker image for such a young child to be in. The reality... it was one of the most fun shoots we had as a family, it also happens to be Athena's favourite image. (I guess the younger gen think it's cool!)
Perhaps the timing wasn't right for the audience at the time but I also look at it this way as per the quote by Cesar A. Cruz "Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable."
Kim: I love that quote! OK, as this is a photographer interview, I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you a bit about the equipment you use. What camera & lenses do you use most often, or are your favourite?
Bill: For the last 20 years up until recently I've always shot with the Pentax system from their 35mm film cameras to their latest dslr bodies along with generally wide to medium focal length lenses. The system worked for me and as I had invested much money into the brand over the years I just stuck with it up until recently.
If I had to pick a favourite focal length it would probably be the 35mm equivalent in full frame format as it's a length that is so versatile doing conceptual portraiture where you may want to include some environment.
Honestly I don't have a favourite lens and have even used the kit lens with some of my work. At the right aperture (sweet spot) and favoured focal length they're all good! :)
Kim: I remember you mentioning before you'd always been a Pentax man, but more recently I've seen you chatting about the Fujifilm X series too - what's the appeal?
Bill: Mid last year some time in 2015 I finally decided to cut my losses and switch to a mirrorless camera system. The Fuji X system is what I found the most interesting. Apart from the excellent image quality and their fine lenses I really liked their retro styled camera bodies with the aperture rings on the lenses and shutter speed dials on the bodies like the traditional cameras I grew up with.
I agree with many people saying the system slows you down a bit but that's a good thing as you can put more thought into the work as well when shooting. The live view feature in seeing exactly what you'll get along with the lighter in weight camera bodies has just made the photography experience more enjoyable.
A bit like enjoying the charm or nostalgia of shooting with old camera bodies but without the traditional time consuming and costly process of film. I haven't looked back and mirrorless cameras seem to be the way of the future.
Kim: Given the global impact of your images, I'd assumed you were a full time photographer.
Bill: I'm not a full time working photographer. I don't even think I'm a part time working photographer.
Kim: So what do you fill your time with when not setting up shots with Athena?
Bill: I own and run a business in the manufacturing sector of the local building industry where we manufacture stone (marble & granite) benchtops for kitchens in new and existing homes.
Kim: Does your photography at least bring in a reasonable supplementary income?
Bill: Not really as I don't pursue it for any income. Some of the companies from the products I use do lend me some gear once in a while to play with or review but nothing too serious, just the occasional perk.
Kim: I guess all photographers dream of the day the camera or lighting companies will start sending them kit to play with :) Do you have ambitions to become a full time photographer?
Bill: If you asked me this question 10 or so years ago I probably would have said yes! But my philosophy to the craft and my own journey has changed and I wouldn't be interested in doing it full time or even part time.
I have a steady and secure income from my business and photography is my creative outlet where I have the freedom to create what I want, how I want with who I want and when I want without the external pressures associated with the commercial side of photography. I think I've found the perfect balance.
Kim: I know you have Greek heritage - does that impact on your life or even your photography?
Bill: Honestly I don't think it has in any way at all. Sure, I admire and respect the classical Greek art but more in a historical context than it having an influence in my work in any way at all.
As I was born here I'm as much Australian as anyone else that was born here. I'm proud to be an Australian citizen and will be even prouder when we eventually become a republic but I also have deep connections with friends and relatives in Greece and have always been proud of my heritage. I think it's important for every one of us to respect and recognize our roots and culture in one way or another as well.
Kim: Moving on to your relationship with your most famous model: I've found on social media sites that I can put up my latest, greatest work - one I'm really pleased with - and I'll gather a handful of "likes" and "comments". However, if I stick up a photo of my daughter, I'll get 40 times the amount of response. Of course, for you, you combine both as your daughter, Athena, is also the star of your most well known work - is she a willing participant?
Bill: So much good photography being done these days by so many talented photographers and I think the difference between works being received very well and others not as much has to do with two things. Firstly the popularity of the photographer and secondly the point of difference. I don't believe my style is unique in any way at all as it's been done before in the commercial realm as well.
But the point of difference that most people find appealing is the fact that it's a young child that's starring in it that also happens to be the photographer's daughter. Couple that with the longevity of the project and people find the whole story interesting. I keep reminding myself not to take it for granted as I've just been fortunate that she's been willing from a younger age and still enjoys being involved in it.
Kim: Even the strongest of Daddy-Daughter bonding can be tested to the limits when the model is hanging around waiting for the photographer to change the lights and set up, though. Is she particularly patient, or do you do a lot of advance planning to work out your lighting?
Bill: All the set up and positioning of lights and props etc. is always done way ahead of her even putting the costume on. I never have her waiting around as there is that possibility I'll lose her enthusiasm. I want her to walk onto the set and me start shooting immediately. Sure I might throughout the shoot move a light slightly but it's just a flow that I try and maintain whilst shooting.
I try to keep the shoots within half an hour or less, sometimes a little more when on location but generally it's all been setup and pre-planning is key. I know this can be testing for adult subjects to wait around while photographers are fumbling with dials and settings so I'd think it would be perhaps more boring for an energetic kid as well.
Kim: A lot of attention is given to Athena's outfits. Do you buy them or make them? And does she get any say in it?
Bill: Some we buy online, other times Nikoleta, my wife, will make them and other times we just mix and match costumes to create something different. Costumes are always a bit of a challenge and when we end up making something it's just Nikoleta quickly sewing some scraps of fabric together to give the impression on camera it's a costume but many times it's just some fabric being held together with safety pins.
We improvise a lot here and over the last year or so Athena has a say also of which I've taken on many of her ideas in the shoots. An example was with my recent shoot 'Coastal Gatherer' where I had planned for her to wear a peasant type head scarf of some type but she said to me "What about my hair as a loose bun instead?" I loved it and went with it.
As she's been getting older I think it's vital she has input into each project as well and if her idea doesn't fit then I explain my reasons to her and she usually gets it. But I think she finds it more important that i'm actually listening to her input more than anything else.
Kim: So how is your wife, Nikoleta, with all this? Is she an enthusiastic assistant, or does she just leave you to get on with it once the costume is sorted?
Bill: A lot if not most of the credit goes to her! She's involved from when the concept is still fresh in my head and I explain my idea right down to the final stages of post production when we're culling down the images. She'll make a costume, find the right props, hold my lights during the shoot, do hair and costume etc. She's been all for it right from the start and is my right hand, it just wouldn't happen without her.
Kim: You've always been very generous with your knowledge - I've seen numerous blog articles and interviews where you're more than happy to show exactly how you set up a shot, what the camera and light settings were, and your thoughts behind its creation. Is there a danger it can spoil the mystique of the image - like knowing how a magician's trick is done - or do you feel it can enhance people's experience of the photo?
Bill: The reasons I share some of the techniques is because it's easier to write about it once than always answering the same emails over and over. The other reason is that the lighting techniques I learnt were over the internet from other photographers like David Hobby (Strobist), Zack Arias (Dedpxl) etc.
In a way I think it's a way of perhaps giving something back. It's really only photographers that are ever interested in that type of information and they only come across it if they actively go looking for it, other viewers aren't really interested in the technicals and I believe they probably enjoy viewing the works moreso than photographers.
Kim: Strobist and Dedpxl are fantastic resources for anyone interested in honing the craft of their photography - when I invested in my first flashes, I completely immersed myself in David Hobby's Strobist blog!
In the few years I've known you I've lost count of the number of times someone has tried to pass off your work as their own, or paintings that have been copied directly yet no credit was given - it's even become newsworthy
How do you deal with copyright and people stealing your images?
Bill: When it first started happening a few years back I was gutted! I just wanted to find a way of turning the internet off. Over the years I found that unless it's worth challenging legally I'd rather take the name and shame approach. I've developed alligator skin to it and in most cases it's been enthusiast painters using my work as reference material without asking.
These days I usually send an email or two asking them to stop and take it down or at least credit back to the original photograph, if they refuse or ignore then I just show them up.
Honestly I can't understand how some people can risk their whole reputation as reputable artists which is worth a lot for the sake of an image or two and to rip off works that are recognized does my head in. I'm still waiting for a case when a solvent company does it, at least it'll then be worth my while.
Kim: Despite the global recognition you've achieved with your photos of Athena, I notice much of your recent imagery going up on Facebook is Street Photography. Is this you branching out before she reaches an age where doing stuff with Dad is just, like, soooo embarrassing?
Bill: Good question and something I've confused some people with as I haven't really disclosed anything about it, I guess it's taken some people by surprise.
I've always enjoyed viewing street and photodocu type work. About mid last year I realized I was getting a bit too comfortable with my own work and the main reason for shooting street is that I decided to stretch my mind by practicing another genre. The time came where I needed to challenge myself and street photography was going to do that.
It's as opposite to anything that I've been doing than any other genre. Where my usual style is all preconceived and planned where I have complete control of everything, street is something that's an open canvas, I just don't know what I'll come back with if anything at all and a genre of which I have almost no control. It's been challenging yet frustratingly rewarding where luck can also play a part.
It sounds ironic but losing control has actually felt very liberating. It's not a shift from one genre to another but a detour in my journey via the scenic road. I'll always be a portrait photographer first and foremost and ultimately from this detour I believe I'll come out a better portrait photographer because of it. No, I have many more concepts I'd love to shoot with Athena and I'm sure there's still a few years to go or even longer provided she's still keen.
Kim: You are always stretching yourself to see what you can do next, not content to sit still. What are you chasing? Is it light, a mood, or something deep inside driving you?
Bill: Although light is important it's not the driving force, neither are any of the other technicals. Mood, atmosphere, emotion is what I try to portray and it's not something I've been able to put into any formula which I can keep repeating. It's just one of these things that you know you've nailed when you do because it transcends from seeing an image which is always a good thing and turns into feeling it.
Although that's what the aim is with my work I rarely get it. One image that I nailed was the image 'Sanday'. In that image I captured the child in her, her middle age and more mature self, like a glimpse into her future in one image. Personally my most powerful once in a lifetime image, that one means the most to me.
Also some of the most powerful portraits I've seen from other photographers are technically the most simple in technique yet hit you like a steam train at 100mph. If I ever work it out I'll share it with everyone.
Kim: I look forward to that :) Have you any interesting projects in the pipeline - what can we expect from you next?
Bill: For the next six months or so I'll be focused on some more street as I've given myself a one year street trip and I'm sort of half way through this detour. I have many concepts I'd still like to shoot but some of them would need larger budgets which sort of goes against my philosophy.
I'd hate for it to become size of budget correlated to popularity of image thing as that could be interpreted that more money makes better art, unfavourable territory.
Kim: Finally, are there any questions you never get asked, but wish you were, recognising the interviewer has just missed a golden opportunity to discover a particular insight?
Bill: There is! I've never really been asked what I think makes a successful image for a photographer that shoots for themselves? A lot of people think it's the amount of 'likes, shares, awards, etc.' but I believe that's just the bonus. A successful image for me is one where my concept, the previsualization in my mind was created as intended. That's a successful image regardless whether it's considered a good or bad image.
Kim: That's a great one - I'm definitely stealing it and you can be sure it will crop up in future interviews I do here :)
Many thanks for your time and insights, Bill. Visiting Australia is on my bucket list so hopefully one day we can carry on this conversation face to face.
If you've enjoyed this interview, make sure you come back as I'm planning on doing these more or less monthly. Please feel free to leave any feedback or thoughts in the comments.
In the meantime, here are some other places you can find Bill Gekas online: