For the 3rd in my new series of my photographer interviews, I'm delighted to welcome King Douglas - an extraordinarily skilled and talented photographer who was creating really cool special effects in-camera long before the days of Photoshop and Digital SLRs.
Through a career path that moved from professional dancing to marketing research consultancy, for a while he was a much sought after photographer. And although he no longer does photography for a living, he continues to push the boundaries of what the camera can do.
But King is also one of those people who makes you feel special. Despite the fact he has a level of photographic skill and knowledge I can only dream of, whenever I've asked him for advice he has been warm, generous, and full of encouragement in his responses.
All I can really say is, read on, and be inspired...
Kim: Hi King. Thank you so much for giving up your time to take part in these interviews. I have to say that self portrait looks a bit menacing, where is it?
King: I took in the parking garage at American Airlines taken with a little Kodak digital point and shoot camera. The fog is steam from the HVAC system on a cold day.
Kim: It's very effective! Now, as a quick introduction to illustrate this point of in-camera effects, perhaps you could tell me a little about this photo?
King: The orchestra conductor was a model hired for a Magnavox TV ad. His image was later comped into the featured television set, along with other models seen watching the conductor. The conductor was very carefull lit with electronic flash units. The little figure eight was created with a small spotlight that my assistant kept focused on the conductor’s hand, following the shape in a template that we had cut out of cardboard in order to keep light from spilling onto the conductors clothes. I think the model did a fantastic job of mimicking a conductors gravitas.
Kim: Thanks for that :) So, a little bit of background - where are you from?
King: My full given name is King Henry Douglas. It is a coincidence that I’m descended from King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitane. I was born near Los Angeles, California, and lived in and around that sprawling metropolis until the age of 22. I still consider myself to be a Californian, although much has changed there. I left to visit a friend in Texas in 1967 and simply never returned.
Kim: I was fascinated to discover you started out as a professional dancer.
King: Yes, I danced professionally, first in Los Angeles and later as a member of the Boston Ballet Company before retiring and moving to Dallas. Dance was an unlikely profession for a boy who was straight outta Compton and who had many schoolmates who went to work as longshoremen at the Port of Los Angeles shortly after graduating from high school.
Kim: Please forgive my appalling ignorance - all I have to go on is American TV shows and movies - but in a land of known primarily as a place of rednecks and cowboys, how did you end up in ballet?
King: My story isn’t uncommon among artists who have been inspired by the work of others to enter a field. I had been a gymnast in high school. I saw two excellent musicals that featured Russ Tamblyn, who had also been a high school gymnast: “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (1954) and “West Side Story” (1961). Having no plans for college and living close to Hollywood, I thought I might get into the movies.
My first notion was to become a movie stunt man... something macho. I went so far as to figure out how to get into the stunt man’s union in Hollywood and to get hired in the movie industry. That was going to cost me too much money up front, more than I could afford, but I was still determined to get into movies.
Although Russ Tamblyn was primarily a gymnast, he also had to dance in both “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and “West Side Story.” Long story short, I started taking jazz (dance) class with Bob Thompson, a cast member of the West Side Story movie when I was 18 years old and things progressed from there.
Kim: So how and why did the transition to photographer happen?
King: Photography was my first love. My mother collected old cameras and I spent hours learning how they worked beginning in the late 1940’s. Those old cameras were great toys. Some had a magic box quality: press the hidden button and the camera pops open, with a bellows that slides out on beautifully machined rails and fascinating shutters and viewfinders.
My family had a radio, but did not have a television until around 1952. This was the era of magazines such as Life, Look and The Saturday Evening Post. I spent a lot of time looking at photographs in books and magazines.
Later, my mother bought me a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye and I loved taking photos wherever we went. The film would go to the drugstore and prints would be returned bound into a little book, with a cover. The prints were trimmed with decollated edges. I thought they were wonderful.
Early in my career as a dancer and because of its sheer unlikelihood, my mind was opened to career possibilities that I hadn’t considered when I was younger. I decided in 1969 to become a professional photographer and started studying and working with great intensity to make that happen after giving dance a shot.
Kim: As you were growing and developing your photography, was there any 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?
King: Yes, this has happened to me a number of times and each time involved light more than the camera I was using. I was trained to create the best possible black-and-white negatives. (This involved, as it still does, precise control of exposure and development in order to get the shadow and highlight detail and separation on the negative that would make the desired print.) To do this, it was necessary to learn how to “see the light” in order to capture it on the negative, then the print.
I was photographing dancers in rehearsal. Dancers sweat a lot as they get warmed up. I was standing close to and studying one dancer’s back (yes, a pretty girl... satisfied?) and noticed that her (white) skin began to glisten before actual beads of sweat became visible.
I was able to see the sparkling, wet highlights dancing on her skin, then when beads of sweat formed, I could see the overhead lights reflected on each bead of sweat. I shot a close-up of her back and afterward anxiously examined the negative with a loop while it was still wet to see if I had captured the separation of the multiple highlights on her back: her skin, the water glistening on her skin, the lights reflected on the beads of sweat. It may not sound like much, but it was a moment of enlightenment for me.
However, I think the major thing was not a single event, but the growing realization that I had a talent for pre-visualizing (i.e., accurately imagining) images that I could capture in a number of different ways. This talent grew out of excellent training and education in photographic theory and technique, my willingness to try almost anything and waste a lot of film, a love of problem solving and a certain brashness and self-confidence that I seem to have been born with.
Kim: You mention training - did you go back to college, or work with a particular mentor?
After I decided to become a professional photographer in 1969 and knowing from my dance career how important teachers are, I sought out an experienced photographer to convince that I would be a good student.
I found an older man, a 1951 graduate of the Art Center School (now the Art Center College of design), who took me on as a kind of apprentice for several years. Only later did I discover what a good education I got from him in photography, including view camera work, lighting, portraiture, architecture, film exposure and development and printmaking.
However, like many artists, much of my learning came from observing the work of others, emulating, experimenting and trying to craft my own interpretation of the world around me.
It was only after I had retired from working professionally that I went to the art school at Southern Methodist University where I studied drawing, painting, printmaking, ceramics and design. I also took a delightful seminar with one of my photography heroes, Duane Michals.
Kim: Do you have any other photography heroes or people who inspired or influenced your work?
At first, my heroes where those of my first teacher, familiar names like Steiglitz, Steichen, Karsh and W. Eugene Smith. Later, my heroes were mainly those whose names I learned from other amateur photographers and whose work we could study in contemporary magazines; photographers such as Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz, Helmut Newton, and Victor Skrebneski.
Later, I was influenced by advertising photographers, especially those earning the big bucks and who were doing things that made me envious. But there was never a time that I was not fascinated by looking at photographs, no matter who the photographer might be. There are many photographers whose images I list among my favorites.
This is a photo of one mentor and friend, Kent Kirkley, in a taxi around 1975 when the two of us were visiting NYC
Kim: What about influences outwith the world of photography?
King: I’ve been greatly influenced by movies, and still am.
Kim: I thought that photo of Kent Kirkley looked quite cinematic...
King: Also, my career in theater exposed me to set and costume design, while choreography and dance have been a great influence on how I pose people for the camera. I collect art books and am influenced, of course, by painting, sculpture and architecture. The “Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty” retrospective has just opened at the Dallas Museum of Art and that will be a big motivator for me to visit the museum again.
Kim: Was there a particular image which you feel propelled you into a much wider audience and recognition?
King: I don’t think there was one image. My interests and my work have always been eclectic. I never concentrated on one type of photography to the exclusion of other types… well, that’s not exactly true. I’ve never been interested in wedding photography or commercial portraiture, although I’ve shot a little of both. I’ve probably gained more notoriety since I retired through participating in Internet venues such as WeeklyShot and 1X.com than I did in the film days. I’ll talk about two images.
The first was a mocking parody of two beautiful photographs of hands playing the piano, both beautifully lit and only slightly different from one another that were published on WeeklyShot.com. My version was lit similarly, but the subjects were my wife’s cat and a lizard that I caught in my yard. I added some motion effects in Photoshop just for fun. To my surprise, the silly photograph became very popular and was exhibited in a gallery show in the middle east.
Kim: Sometimes I despair that cats and kittens seem to be the most shared images on the Internet, regardless of the quality of the actual photography. This, though, has the benefit of being a skilled shot as well as being great fun :) What was the other image?
King: A portrait of my next-door neighbors, was a shot that popped into my head while my wife and I were out riding our bikes. I told her, “I’m going to photograph Mark and Alfretta. He’s going to be in profile with his shirt off and she will be standing behind him with her arms around him. I’m going to call it, ‘My Sweet Embraceable You’.” This shot appears to be especially popular in Asia. It fascinates me that we can track the unauthorized reproduction of our images around the world wide web.
Kim: You mention unauthorized reproductions - have you ever had to worry about people stealing your work or passing it off as their own?
King: It has happened to me more than once. I’ll give you three examples. In one case, an image of a shovel/cello double exposure was stolen from my portfolio while it was in a potential client’s possession. It was not recovered and I was glad that I had duplicates
Second, an arrangement of photographs that I designed and executed as an ad for an interior design client was almost cloned by another photographer, for which I was neither credited nor compensated.
Third, an advertising photograph that I created for a major beer client was reused in a different ad without consulting me. In this case, I contacted the client and pointed out their terms of usage. I remember what the client said…something like, “You caught us. How much is it going to cost us?”
Eternal vigilance is the price of the Copyright Act of 1976 (and its subsequent amendments).
Kim: I think most photographers have a different sense about their own work than the wider public does. Do you have any favourite photos you feel never really got the recognition they deserved?
King: Yes, several, but mainly they are images that I like that aren’t thought of as special by casual observers—probably because I was there and they weren’t. I’m a great appreciator of all kinds of photographs, including snapshots. I like blurry photos, grainy film photos, noisy digital photos, photos of high quality and photos of every kind of subject matter.
After many years, I’ve decided that I like my work, whether anyone else likes it or not. I largely take photographs to please myself, not others. I’m just as likely to be happy with a snapshot as I am with a carefully planned image. Here are some personal images that I like very much:
When the Boston Ballet Company was about to move into new studio facilities, I took one of the ballerinas into the new space to shoot a few photos, just for fun. Here she is posing on pointe on a pair of two-by-fours that would soon support a new floor.
Mel Tomlinson was an exceptional dancer was was a joy to work with. He could form his extremely long, lithe and flexible body with it’s ebony tones into impressive shapes and maintain the aplomb of a great dancer at the same time.
Krystal Kaiser was the wardrobe mistress for the Boston Ballet Company. I asked her to drop by one morning with a variety of garments. I wanted to do a vivacious shot as if she were out on the town with a charming companion, laughing and clinking champagne glasses. It turns out that Krystal was a night person and wasn’t able to provide what I wanted, gaiety, in a morning shoot. So I switched to something more somber.
One of the interesting things about this photo is that it was shot with a single light, placed behind her head and aimed at a highly reflective movie screen positioned just out of the shot on the left. I especially like the highlight on her index finger.
Kim: I'm very much a photographer of the digital age, so what smacked me between the eyes when I first came across your work was the incredible effects you created in-camera, on film, before the days of Photoshop. Can you tell me a little bit about some of your creative solutions?
King: Photographers of my cohort in the mid 1970’s through the 1980’s prided themselves on producing images that didn’t have to be retouched. Before Photoshop, to retouch film transparencies was very much an art, very time consuming, expensive and difficult and it didn’t always provide exactly what a photographer might want to see.
Photographers from the earliest days were inserting clouds into their black-and-white landscape and architectural prints and I had learned how to do that in the darkroom early on. I was also trained in multiple exposures against black backgrounds using the view camera and inspired by the amazing and legendary work of Jerry Uelsman. I produced one of my first special effects, in-camera photographs while I was still dancing with the Boston Ballet Company. Through experience (and many failures) I learned that with forethought, planning and precise execution I could create some pretty cool images in the camera rather than in the darkroom.
The dancer with her arms in the shape of a dove was created to link two other photos on either side that I designed as a triptych.
As with the other photographs that already existed, I didn’t want her legs and feet to show. In order to accomplish this, I used an old trick: the image is simply upside down. What makes it work is that I inverted the lighting. The dancer is sitting on a stool facing away from the camera. She did a backbend, shaping her arms as you see, and I clicked the shutter. I put the main light on the floor, pointing up. I lit the background so it went from dark at the bottom to light at the top, which is the reverse of the usual light (and the reverse of the sky, which on a clear day is lighter on the horizon and darker overhead).
I find it interesting that when this photo is view right-side-up it looks so upside-down.
I became known for my special effects images created on a single frame of roll film or a single sheet of film (4”x5” or larger) that needed no retouching. I had already established a reputation as a dance photographer when a new client, Taffy’s Dancewear, invited me to employ special effects to enhance the sense of movement in their dancewear catalogs. They were an excellent client and collaborated (at their expense) on many time-consuming and difficult-to-achieve images.
The rhythmic gymnast with the red ball is actually an exceptional and well-known American Ballet Theatre ballerina, Christie Dunham [Zembower]. This shot depended greatly on her talents. It is not obvious, but in this case the flash fired immediately on the opening of the shutter. The beautiful blur effect was created afterward as she step backward in a choreographed motion with the ball.
Christie is also featured in the next photo (legs moving diagonally from right to left) which employed an additional technique. In order to make identical passes in a prescribed space, she is standing (and moving her legs in place in what dancers call a bouree) on a platform that was mounted to 12’ rails with a motor drive to move the platform at a specific speed. The flash was fired once in the middle of the sequence. The tungsten lights were turned off just before I fired the flash, just before the platform reached the end of its run.
Kim: Superb! So a combination of continuous lighting and well timed flashes allowed you to create these wonderful effects.
I have to ask you about this photo, which is one of my favourites:
King: If you are not going to compose this in Photoshop, then all you will need, besides patience, lots of powerful tungsten spotlights, numerous and costly electronic flash units, a camera with a "B" setting and a big, wide cyclorama painted black, is a talented dancer - don't try this at home.
The space requirements and the immense amount of light required (both tungsten and electronic flash), play a big role in the decisions regarding how to execute the shot and what can be included or must be excluded. After everything is set up, it's just a matter of timing.
The moment when the flash is to be fired has to be determined beforehand. It can flash as soon as the shutter opens, just before it is closed, or somewhere in between. In this photograph, the flash (in a big soft box) was fired manually just before the shutter was closed.
The blur is a record of where the dancer has been as he moves across the set. Tungsten spotlights are located at each side of the set such that as the dancer moves away from one side light he moves closer to the other. In this way, the combined exposure value remains more or less constant. To maximize the effect, the dancer has to be in constant motion so as not to create an accidentally static image in the middle of the blur. Feet are especially problematic as they remain stationary momentarily, so I would attempt to limit the light to the area just above the floor. Plenty of lights bounces down there even then.
Because of my dance training, I could choreograph the movement to create the most aesthetic blur shapes leading up to the flash. We rehearsed with Polaroid prints and of course this would be so much easier with a digital camera. The final pose was also practiced and viewed on Polaroid prints before blending the two.
Blending the two photos takes practice. In this case, the shot began with the tungsten lights on and attached to a single breaker box set up near the camera. The shutter is set for B (the shutter stays open as long as the shutter release is depressed—I used an electronic shutter release so my finger was not in contact with the camera).
When the dancer began his, I opened the shutter, then at a choreographed moment an assistant would throw the breaker on the tungsten lights, causing them to dim rapidly, but not instantaneously. This kept the blur from overlaying the flash image too much.
Next, at the precise moment of maximum effect, I would fire the flash unit manually and close the shutter. Closing the shutter is the easy part because the studio is, by then, in total darkness.
Then we’d do it all again, then again, bracketing the exposures so that we were confident to have a properly exposed transparency when the film came back from the lab.
Kim: That level of skill, planning and execution had my jaw dropping. But now I have to ask you about this magician's photo, where I can't even being to imagine how you did this on one piece of film:
King: The dove that emerges from the fluttering cards is one of my favorite SFX (special effects) photos. The first thing I did was rent a magician’s dove (yes, I really did), which I took home and trained to fly to it’s cage when I tossed it in the air. To my surprise, this didn’t take very long as magician’s doves are very tame.
In the studio, I built a set where the deck of cards, the fluttering cards and the dove’s feather are independently positioned on black wires that extend through the background paper. The cards near the bottom are partially spray painted white in order to suggest that they are fading into the color of the dove. Notice the Dove of Hearts that my art director created just for this shot. Two more things completed the shot.
After I photographed the cards with my assistant’s hand in the white glove carefully positioned on the deck of cards—he wasn’t actually holding the cards—I did something that makes some photographers uncomfortable: I dropped the camera. The camera was mounted on the side arm of a heavy camera stand with bungee cords attached such that they could guide the camera in the same arc as the cards. After exposing the cards, I set the shutter to B, turned on a tungsten spotlight, loosened the camera clamp, lifted the camera, then opened the shutter as I dropped the camera, which bounced (gently) at the bottom of the bungee cord’s extent before I closed the shutter.
The last exposure was made as I carefully positioned the dove in the spotlight and gently tossed her in the air. She fluttered to her cage, which was just below and to the right of the set, just as I trained her. All shot on a single piece of 4”x5” transparency film.
Kim: Training doves, using wires and deliberately dropping cameras - I'm not sure if I'm inspired or scared witless. But it doesn't end there either - I seem to remember you saying something about building sets too.
King: This is a straight, single exposure of the scene that I created in my studio. If you had been sitting next to the camera, this is what you would have seen. The model, a young dancer, is carefully balanced on a strip of aluminium about 2” wide that I bent to match the shape her body would have if she were lying on a mattress - that is, not on a flat board. The aluminium was attached at two points to two-by-fours coming through the wall and counterbalanced on the other side.
Small flash units were positioned under the two-by-fours to eliminate the shadows that otherwise have been cast on the wall by the two-by-fours. She is slightly pointing her toes. Her right arm is not supported...she’s just holding it there and that’s another reason why I enjoy photographing dancers. Put a fan on the curtains and her hair and click, you have a magic trick.
Kim: Truly wonderful. Thank you for these amazing behind-the-scenes insights. I understand what you say about the difficulty and expense of retouching film transparencies, although I'm still gobsmacked (and delighted) at the lengths you would go to because of it. But how involved were you in the developing and printing process in your analogue days?
King: Most often, I developed my own b/w film, unless there was a large quantity in which case I used the best labs. With few exceptions (e.g., very large prints or very large orders) my work was developed and printed in my studio darkroom.
I have training and experience in developing and printing color films, but that job was usually left to a lab under my direction.
Kim: It probably wouldn't count as a proper photographer interview if I didn't ask you what your favourite camera and lens(es) are...
King: Early on, my favorite camera was my twin-lens (TW) Rolleiflex, whose popularity was renewed recently by the well-deserved attention devoted to the work of Vivian Maier. My Rollei TW was a beautiful machine and a joy to work with. My next favorite and a primary camera with which I made a living as an advertising photographer were my Sinar view cameras. Although I owned and shot with Hasselblads, I was never as fond of them as I was the Rollei.
I considered the lenses to be the most important thing and always spared no expense when selecting lenses. But I’m not a gear junkie. I hold with those that think photographers make great images, not cameras.
I still shoot film and have a functioning darkroom but I haven’t yet made it to the big leagues of digital cameras. I own two Panasonic digital cameras; the little LX5, which I think is a wonderful camera, and the micro 4/3’s G2. When I was a working professional, cameras were tools for creating images and had to earn their keep. But no one pays me to take pictures these days and I won’t let myself pour money into something that is just a rewarding hobby.
Kim: personally, I can't think of anything more rewarding to pour your money into... ;)
King: Right now, I’m saving my pennies for a used Sony A7R ii—my first full-frame digital body--that I will use with my excellent assortment of Minolta prime manual focus lenses.
As far as lenses go, I tend to like very fast wide angle through short telephoto lenses. If I have a choice, I’ll always buy the best lens I can afford.
Kim: Having spent years developing your skills with analogue cameras, how did you find the transition from film to digital?
King: The transition to digital has been a delight for me, although I used to be very puzzled when digital photographers would mistake exquisite film grain for sensor noise and would sniff with superiority because, obviously (but wrong all the same), their sensors were better than my sensor.
I mentioned my little Panasonic LX5 which has so many features that would have delighted me in the old days… and it has a Leica lens. Digital cameras replicate the almost-instant feedback that Polaroids used to provide and which were essential in my work. I love natural light and low-light photographs, which are greatly facilitated by high-quality digital sensors.
I was lucky to have gotten out of professional photography at about the time digital was sweeping through the industry, so I didn’t have to undergo the costs of new equipment, watching some of my best and most favorite film cameras become obsolete and the harsh effect that the democratization of digital images (and Photoshop) had on the business of working photographers.
Kim: So what are your feelings towards Photoshop? I've come across a few people who call themselves 'in-camera photographers' who are quite disparaging of it. Would you love to have had access to something like it when you were creating all these images on film, or do you think it makes photographers lazy and stifles creativeness?
King: I love Photoshop and consider myself to be expert in its use. It does easily, quickly and conveniently what I was already doing with great effort and calling for great expertise in the darkroom and in the camera.
With Photoshop, I don’t have to work with chemicals, in the dark, and emerge with stains on my clothes. On the other hand, the ubiquity of Photoshop makes my earlier, in-camera work appear to be magic ("No Photoshop? You’re kidding me!") or pointless because many (not all) of those effects are so easy to replicate in Photoshop.
I don’t think Photoshop makes photographers lazy, nor do I think it stifles creativity. It’s just another tool.
Kim: I'm very appreciative of your generosity at freely sharing your knowledge - especially as I have benefitted directly on a couple of occasions when you have very kindly made suggestions on how to approach a shoot when I've sent you a panicked email! But do you think letting everyone know how you created your images, runs the risk of spoiling the mystique - much like knowing how a magician's trick is done - or do you feel it enhances people's experience of the photo?
King: I had the great fortune or working with some great photographers in Dallas. For two years, I was president of the Dallas Chapter of the ASMP, which then stood for the American Society of Magazine Photographers and now stands for the American Society of Media Professionals. One of my goals as president was to demonstrate and encourage cooperation among our outstanding group of photographers.
Confidentiality and competition are sometimes necessary. Sometimes a non-disclosure agreement must be signed before beginning a job. Except for those cases, it has always been my view that if one of my competitors asked for my advice, I would freely give it, including lending (or sometimes renting) equipment to them that would assist in getting the shot.
If they were good enough, smart enough or clever enough, they didn’t really need my help and, perhaps, would solve the problems more successfully than I had. But if I helped them, not only would they remember and be open to returning the favor, but I also might be able to share a small amount of their success and be happy for them. I believe this helped build a strong and abiding sense of camaraderie among working photographers here in Dallas.
Kim: I get this completely. We've all come across the photographers who won't share a thing about how they do something, I guess out of fear they will lose their unique edge. However, I belong to a small local group of professional photographers called the Galloway Photographic Collective, where we are all happy to share experience, advice, knowledge and, on occasion, equipment. There is no doubt everyone benefits because of it.
However, you used to be a professional photographer but no longer are. What do you do now and why did you make the change?
King: I’m currently a marketing research consultant; expert in SPSS (a statistics and data management program), statistics, data management and analysis.
Although I had free-lanced in the advertising photography business earlier, I went into the business full time when I moved to Dallas in 1974. In the early 1980’s, Texas experienced a deep recession that drastically affected the advertising industry. I wasn’t as good a businessman as I was a photographer and by the middle of the recession, my studio was losing money.
By 1988, I was looking for another profession, so I went back to school and transitioned out of the photography business around the time that the digital revolution was sweeping through the industry. I have an MA in cognitive psychology from Southern Methodist University (magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) with minors in statistics and studio art.
Kim: So I guess photography has been an avid interest and practice for you for over 60 years. Have your tastes and interests in photography changed over time?
King: It has been my experience that the passage of time and the very process of aging has had an effect on my interests and enthusiasm in many ways, but not so much in terms of photography. I’ve grown in my appreciation of the work of others, enhanced so much by the digital age; for example the democratization of photography (including cell phone cameras) and the Internet. I’m still profoundly intrigued, inspired, touched and amazed by some photographs.
Kim: Recently I've seen you continuing your exploration of what can be achieved in-camera, playing around with coloured filters on your lighting and adjusting the white balance on the camera to.
So despite having retired from being a professional photographer, and despite the transition from analogue to digital, you care clearly still pushing the limits of your creativity and the technology of the equipment. What drives you? What are you chasing?
King: I’m curious by nature and that is my primary motivation for trying new things. The experiment you mentioned that I’m currently engaged in is not a new technique. It’s only new in the sense that I’m playing with a digital camera instead of a film camera. Once I nail down the technique, I intend to do a series of photographs with both people on the street and models… just for fun, of course.
I’ve experimented with filters in many ways. One memorable experiment involved creating a full color image with b/w film - this was a project for a design class in art school. Using direct positive b/w film (think b/w slides) I shot a flower arrangement, exposing the film frames successively through a red, blue and green filter.
Then I used three slide projectors to overlay the images on a screen. Each projector was filtered in the same way as the slide that was being projected. On the screen appeared, like magic, a full-color image, but since the three projectors couldn’t be perfectly aligned, the overall image was slightly out of register. I thought it was pretty cool. Again, this would be very easy to do in Photoshop.
Here is one of the b/w flower images… I don’t remember which filter was used:
I’m currently working on a problem that has my wife a bit concerned.
When I had my studio, I could photograph dancers against a 12-foot-wide roll of seamless paper hung 14 feet off the studio floor. In this way, I could shoot from a low angle and not worry about having adequate room in the frame above the dancer, even when they were leaping.
At times when I didn’t have a studio available, I would just use my living room, although I’ve never had a living room with a 14-foot ceiling. Now I want to photograph a dancer in my living room, again from a low angle. Here’s the problem: I don’t want to see the seam (or joint) where the wall meets the ceiling—and I don’t want to use Photoshop to solve the problem. Here are illustrations of a possible solution, along with a photo of my living room illustrating the wall/ceiling join:
This has my wife a bit worried. She doesn’t want to pay to have the ceiling raised to satisfy the needs of my hobby. I have it figured out, but it will take some time and a little bit of money. My wife is right to be concerned.
Kim: I remember meeting someone who had created an infinity wall (where there is a seamless curve from the floor to the wall) - is your idea, then to use the same effect on the ceiling? Or is it to knock a hole through to the upper floor?
King: I’m considering adding a seamless curve where the wall meets the vaulted ceiling. I have plenty of overhead room. I just need a smooth transition. I’ve built seamless cycloramas before, so I have experience. If you come over to my house for dinner, it will definitely be a conversation piece.
Kim: I'll be looking for an opportunity to take you up on that :)
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?
King: Since you ask, I think religion has also played a part in the development of my photography...
Kim: At the risk of being condemned to eternal hellfire, please expand...
King: I asked my wife if she thought my work had religious overtones and she said, “spiritual undertones is more like it.” If so, most of these are unintentional and after the fact.
I was raised in the Nazarene church, which is a fundamentalist Christian sect. Although I’m an atheist now, I’ve studied medieval Christian iconography as part of a university class, I’ve read Irving Stone’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” and I’ve thought about religious themes in literature and poetry, so the topic is something I’m familiar with: the sacred and the profane, blessing and cursing and the agony and the ecstasy experienced by all human beings.
Before I was born, a tornado ripped my family apart, killing my father’s first wife, who was pregnant at the time, and almost killing my father and older brother. My brother throughout his life held on to his grief over the loss of his mother and lamented how his life might have been different if the tornado had not killed his mother and ruined his leg.
So a sense of grief and lamentation is something I’m familiar with. My religious upbringing, of course, reinforced this with images of the crucifixion, the Via Dolorosa and the Pieta. These are also common themes and art and literature.
My conscious awareness of these themes in my work began with a dance photograph of Clive Thompson performing Alvin Ailey’s “Hermit Songs.” I was shooting backstage. Clive’s emotive performance captivated me. After examining the proof sheets later, one of my favorite images was, more or less, a crucifixion pose.
Then, in Agnes DeMille’s “Fall River Legend,” I photographed a scene where Lizzie Borden, lamenting over the killing of her father and stepmother, is consoled by the ghost of her dead mother... a very touching scene.
Another time I was doing some nudes of a choreographer in my very small studio in Boston, where I didn’t have room to do full-length dance photos—which was the beginning of my interest in photographing dancers from the waist up. He was good at improvising. I wanted his arms to fill the frame is a kind of diagonal S-curve and to try to convey a feeling of moving heavily through a viscous liquid. What we came up with was, surprise, another crucifixion pose.
And then there are photographs that only later revealed the religious undertones. What do you see?
Kim: I think there's always an interesting dynamic between the conscious intent of the photographer, the subconscious intent of the photographer, and the interpretation by the viewer.
In the image above, I see a shapely pair of legs, beautifully lit with a wonderful diagonal composition, along with the implication of someone attractive at the top of the legs, tantalisingly just out of sight. The cross on the wall, to me, is a subtle addition to the narrative, but I guess to someone else that cross might have a much greater significance.
I was brought up in a non-religious household, and although I have read the bible (and many texts from other religions), the symbolism and iconography is not particularly engrained. Point it out to me and I'll go "Aha, I see what you mean," but I might miss it first time round.
King: Well, she happens to be Catholic and has dealt with sexual issues over the years (she’s about 50 years old in this photo). The cross on the wall in the background contrasts with her sexy legs, twisted, one might think, to discourage men from getting ideas.
As a side note, my wife asked me to buy that cross along with several others at a garage sale. She just liked the shapes and finishes. The owner of the garage sale asked, “Oh, are you Catholics?” “No, ma’m,” I replied with a downcast gaze, “We have vampires.”
Kim: Love it! Well, we don't seem to have been struck by any stray thunderbolts... So, to start drawing this interview to a close, what's next for you?
King: As a retiree from American Airlines, my wife and I can travel for little or no expenses all over the world. I’ve been many places, but there are so many places to see, so travel is always a goal. I’ll take a camera of course. I want a full-frame mirrorless camera with a super fast, super wide lens that I can stick in my pocket. I have no doubt that someone is working on that. My Panasonic LX5 comes close, but the sensor is so small.
Many years ago, I sold the 5x7 Deardorff view camera that I used when first learning photography. It was a gift from my teacher. I recently discovered that I have the opportunity to buy it back and restore it - that would be fun.
I want to continue to learn and grow as a photographer, although I’m a bit more selfish with my time than I used to be. It’s a cliché, but as the years go by we become more and more aware that life is short. I’m not in this for the money, I’m in it for the fun.
Kim: What about collaborations?
King: I consider myself to be primarily a studio photographer who works with people. When I was a working photographer, models would drop by the studio on a regular basis. If I had an idea in mind for testing, I could always get a good-looking, agreeable, even enthusiastic model. Nowadays, no models drop by.
What I’d like is to find an older dancer (say between 30 and 40), someone past their peak performing years, but who is still in good shape and would like to collaborate with me on a series of dance photos that don’t depend for their effect on sheer athleticism. If I lived in a major dance city (e.g., New York, London), it would be fairly easy to find someone… less so in Dallas.
Kim: Retired dancers - if you're reading this, get in touch. I can't think of anyone else who could you make you look more incredible!
I was gutted I couldn't get the time to meet up with you when you came over to the UK last year. Looks like I'll have to figure out how to get over to Texas.
Meanwhile, where else can we find your work?
King: I’m very easy to find on the Internet:
My personal but not recently updated website: www.kingdouglas.com
My portfolio on 1X.com: https://1x.com/member/king
And, of course, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Kong.Fairbanks
Kim: Just before you go, what do you look like when you're not surrounded by steam in a car park?
Kim: Many thanks for your time and insights, King - it's warmly appreciated :)
If you have enjoyed this interview as well, make sure you come back as I'm doing these more or less monthly. Please feel free to leave any feedback or thoughts in the comments.
If you missed previous interviews, you can find one with the amazing Bill Gekas, here:
and one with the incredible Nicolas Marino, here: