Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Art Space Talk: Michael Daks

Michael Daks is an English photographer recently returned to London after 15 years in NYC. His book of nudes JUST GOOD FRIENDS (photographs of his friends naked) is being published in 2009 by adelita. His portraits of Dennis Potter and Kenneth Branagh are in the National Portrait Gallery permanent collection. He has worked for the past 25 years as a fashion and portrait photographer in London, Milan, Paris and New York, with clients including The New York Times Magazine, The Tatler, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, VIBE, Blender, Levi's, SONY, Energie Jeans and The GAP. He is currently working on 'IN HINDSIGHT - A personal landscape' : A 30 year retrospective of his landscape photography. He also teaches a course in fashion and magazine photography at Southampton University, England.

IN HINDSIGHT: Coastal Pipeline by Michael Daks
Brian Sherwin: Michael, you studied at Wolverhampton University and Southport College of Art. Can you tell us about your academic background? Did you have any influential instructors or peers?

Michael Daks: Two significant things happened to me at Southport College of Art. I went there at sixteen, straight from school, and did a two year Foundation Course. Most of the other students were already eighteen, and my friend Pauline and I were by far the youngest. On my first day we had life drawing classes; when the model took off her gown, Pauline fainted, and I discovered my life long love of nudity.
Then my friend Simon, who was already a very talented photographer, sold me his magic camera: A Yashica TL electro. He told me it was impossible to take a bad photo with this camera providing I only pressed the button when I saw something that was really amazing. It took me three months to finish my first roll of film, but I was hooked.

At Wolverhampton I studied Visual Communication, which is just a fancy way of saying Graphic Design, and then majored in Photography. One of my lecturer's, Michael Chalk, introduced me to French Vogue and the photographers Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, and that is how I became a fashion photographer.

IN HINDSIGHT: Whitesands Stop! #2 by Michael Daks

BS: The photographs for your IN HINDSIGHT series, at least the ones that I observed, have a foreboding quality about them-- there appears to be a sense of danger within this collection of images. Does my perception serve me well? Tell us about this body of work and the themes you explore within it.

MD: 'IN HINDSIGHT - A personal landscape' is my current book project. It's a retrospective of my landscape photography from 1979 -2009. In my introduction I call it "An emotional response to the landscapes of my life."

The book begins in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where I lived from 2000 until 2007. What struck me immediately about this neighborhood was how much it looked liked a movie set, particularly at night. A lot of movies are in fact shot there, hard boiled movies like Ridley Scott's 'American Gangster', and Scorsese's 'The Departed' were both filmed there shortly before I left (even though 'The Departed' was set in Boston - Scorsese is a New Yorker, and the Park Luncheonette is on the edge of McCarren Park in Greenpoint). There are also a lot of film studios in the area like Silver Cup so there are always productions going on, and a lot of TV shows like 'Third Watch' are also film in the 'hood.

I also lived there during 9/11, which I witnessed first hand and from way too close when I went to drop film off at my lab on 21st street. After witnessing the second plane strike I walked down to Washington Square Park in time to see the first tower collapse. I then walked home to Brooklyn over the Williamsburg Bridge with 50,000 very frightened people. It was so quiet. And there definitely was a sense of foreboding then, like the bridge would explode at any moment.

I sat on my roof for a few days watching the smoke blow across Manhattan and drank a lot of Guinness. But, I didn't take any pictures. It just didn't seem right at the time, at least not for me. Later, when I started to shoot the Greenpoint photo series, I was trying to record that element of danger and suspense; of something about to happen - How real life events had strayed into my movie set life.

The photographs that I took at The White Sands Missile Range Museum in New Mexico certainly had a definite intent: It was shortly after the invasion of Iraq, and seeing the US Army missiles pointing out over the desert sand was a dramatic reminder of recent events. I was trying to make a point about American Imperialism and war mongering. Not that the British are any better. And, we've certainly been doing it for longer.

IN HINDSIGHT: US Army Missile, White Sands NM. by Michael Daks

BS: With JUST GOOD FRIENDS it is my understanding that you had friends pose nude for you. When I view this body of images I sense an awkward distance between some of the models-- your friends-- and you-- the photographer. Did you strive to capture that sense of disconnection?

MD: I wasn't necessarily looking for a sense of disconnection, but obviously, when someone is naked in front of you, no matter how well you know them: the dynamic is changed. After 25 years of photographing strangers for a living I wanted to give my best friends, who mostly work outside the industry, an understanding of what it is like to be photographed by a professional fashion photographer, and hopefully make them look beautiful in the process (because that is the way I feel about them). I just thought it would be more interesting both visually and psychologically if they were naked. (We have already established my obsession with the nude).
This is my introduction to the book, which I think explains my thought processes quite well.
"Since Eve first took a bite from the apple, nudity in art has been a recurring theme. What is our fascination? Is it the beauty of the human form, or merely titillation? Almost every great artist has at some point put pencil to paper, chisel to stone, or a finger to the button. All in search, perhaps, for the perfect nude.
This project began with a muse. My friend Tara Stiles, a dancer, writer, and yoga guru, who agreed to work with me on a series of nudes; we called them “play dates”, just the two of us, a camera, some lights, and a bottle of scotch. Eventually, it occurred to me that it might be interesting, both visually and psychologically, to photograph all my friends naked.
Some were more easily persuaded than others, of course, but they generally succumbed to my persistent English charm. Trust is obviously a prime factor, as is feeling comfortable, so I built a small studio in my apartment, dyeing canvas drop sheets for the backgrounds. For variety, I sometimes took pictures in their apartments, or at a friend’s house in the Hamptons.
I think that being naked in front of others can be very liberating, after the initial embarrassment wears off. The day after a shoot in the Hamptons my friend Callaghan suggested that we all play Tennis ‘au naturale’: Very Bohemian.
Some of my friends have said that they feel a lot closer to me now that I have seen them naked. Others have even brought their friends over to enjoy the experience. My friend Leah jokingly said, “ Michael, it’s taken three years, but you finally have me naked in your apartment.” A friend, who she had invited over, then stood up, took off her dress, and said, “Yes, Michael, but with me, it only took thirty minutes.”
So here they are, my friends naked.
I wonder what Freud would say?"
JUST GOOD FRIENDS: On The Deck by Michael Daks

BS: Can you tell us about your influences? For example, are you influenced by any specific artists, world events, or movements in art?

MD: As previously mentioned Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin were early influences, and then Irving Penn, David Bailey, Deborah Turbeville, Sam Haskins, and Peter Lindbergh. Those would be my main influences in terms of fashion photographers, but for my nude, portrait and landscape work I would have to cite Nadav Kander, Jock Sturges, Araki, Albert Watson, Julia Margaret Cameron, and my new favorite Frantisek Drtikol.
These are all photographers, but I have also been influenced by painters and sculptors. I love Rodin and Modigliani for example, and of course Henry Moore, Giacometti, Matisse and Egon Schiele. And movie directors like Jean-Pierre Melville, Wong Kar Wai, and of course Hitchcock.
JUST GOOD FRIENDS: Eddie Stretching by Michael Daks

BS: What can you tell us about your process in general? Give us some insight into how you work; at what point do you know that a specific idea could easily become a series?

MD: I tend to pre-visualize images in my head, and then try to recreate them with my camera. I do a lot of sketches, and write ideas down in my notebooks, but when I actually shoot the photos I don't refer to them at all, but trust that my instincts will take over, and that normally works. The image in my head generally has an imaginary focal length that doesn't seem to exist in the real world. But, I do the best I can.

I am old school, in that I still like to shoot on film, certainly for my personal projects, I then scan the negs at the highest possible dpi, and then do a bit of dodging and burning in photo shop. I still find this a sad turn of events, as I loved to go into the darkroom and print, but my favorite papers are no longer available, and since moving back to London, I no longer have access to a darkroom.

However, it is much easier to do an edition from a digital file and still keep the image consistent, and you can print much bigger and still keep everything looking sharp. Except for portraits, I like to think in terms of a series, probably from watching too many movies, and shooting a lot of eight or ten page fashion spreads.

For IN HINDSIGHT I am currently re-visiting a lot of the places where I used to live, and photographing them now to see how they have changed over the years and how I feel about that. I think it will be interesting to see how these photographs match up to the photographs that I took 20 or 30 years ago when I actually did live in these places.

JUST GOOD FRIENDS: Ashley in her bed by Michael Daks

BS: I understand that you have worked as a fashion and portrait photographer for over 25 years. Your clients have included The New York Times magazine, Cosmopolitan, GAP, Levi's, VIBE, SONY, among others. In other words, you know the business-side of photography. How has that experience helped you as an artist as far as marketing your work?

MD: The world of magazines and advertising is as much about marketing and networking as it is about talent - much like the Art World I am sure. I am lucky in that through my connections I can usually get my work published and hopefully seen by the right people.

The London Sunday Times magazine just did a feature on my book of nudes last weekend (Jan 18th) and the book isn't even due out until November. I have already had a lot of very positive feedback from that, and a few print sales. I am also being featured in the launch issue of xxxxmagazine.com, a new online art and culture magazine that will be on the net in February/March. They are featuring my nudes and my landscape work, combined with music from my friend’s band The Dokteurs, so I am very excited about that.

I am also planning a publicity blitz for when the book is available, and have already spoken to a lot of art editors and art directors about giving the book some good exposure. Art on the Underground has also been in touch about showcasing my work on the London Underground. Although I am not sure how much nudity I can get away with on the tube (subway).
IN HINDSIGHT: Banker ST. (B&W) by Michael Daks

BS: Your work can be found in the permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery (London) and in private and corporate collections throughout the world. In your opinion, what attracts collectors to your photography?

MD: I am certainly not as well known in the Art world as I am in the commercial world, so hopefully it is the strength of the images that attracts my collectors. Obviously, there is a market for nudes, so that is advantageous, but it is also quite a saturated market, so the work has to stand out.
The landscape work is very new in terms of public exposure, so I have only really sold prints to people who already know my work, but I have been getting a lot of interest recently now that some of it is out on the net.

BS: Speaking of collectors and collections-- will you be involved with any upcoming exhibits?

MD: I am currently talking to a London gallery about an exhibition in conjunction with the publication of the nude book JUST GOOD FRIENDS, and I also have a friend in Paris who is interested in showing the landscape work. I will be publishing the details once they are finalized.
IN HINDSIGHT: "NAM" by Michael Daks

BS: Do you have any concerns about the art world at this time? There has been a lot of debate recently about copyright and the rights of artists. For example, orphan works legislation is bound to return eventually-- as a photographer are you concerned about the current form of the legislation? Do you have an opinion on issues such as that?

MD: Yes, I am very concerned about our rights as Artists and photographers. It is difficult enough making a living as an artist as it is, without your work being used without recompense. I have sued for breach of copyright several times in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. I have had several images copied, or used in advertising campaigns without any acknowledgement or payment; basically stolen. I am also interested in the outcome of the case between Richard Prince and Patrick Cariou, which could have huge repercussions.

BS: What about the Internet? One could say that the art world is starting to catch up-- more galleries are turning to the World Wide Web in order to further exposure for their artists. How do you think the Internet will impact the art world in say a decade? Can you see a meshing between the traditional market and alternative (online) markets taking shape?

MD: Saatchi gallery online springs to mind. The Sunday Times magazine first saw my nudes there, and my friend Michael Callaghan got his first London show from his paintings appearing on that site. It's obviously the way of the future in terms of worldwide exposure and accessibility, although it is probably a better fit for photography than for painting and Sculpture, due to the lack of scale or a sense of texture.

IN HINDSIGHT: A Room with a View by Michael Daks

BS: Do you have any advice for photographers who are just starting out? Any words of wisdom, so to speak?

MD: Trust your instincts, find your own style, be persistent, and as my old friend Simon would say. " Don't press the button until you see something really amazing!"
BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the goals that you have?
MD: I think it is quite difficult to be taken seriously as an artist after a career as a fashion photographer, but in my opinion some of the best 'Art' photographers were once fashion photographers, or still are. Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and Helmut Newton for example. Edward Steichen used to shoot for Vogue, and more recently Tierney Gearon who just had a brilliant show at Phillips de Pury in London. She was a model and then a fashion photographer.
Things are improving, but I would like to see the Art world really wake up to the fact that commercial photographers make an important contribution to our culture and archive of imagery. Where would modern art be without Warhol? And he was a commercial illustrator.
I am now planning to shoot a book of portraits on my great grandfather's half plate camera - A Thornton Pickard Ruby Camera from 1907. He used it to photograph Buffalo Bill's Wild West show when it traveled to the North of England. I still have an unopened box of Kodak glass plates, but I have adapted some of the plate holders to take 4x5 film.
You can learn more about Michael Daks by visiting his myartspace.com profile-- www.myartspace.com/michaeldaks. Michael Daks is a seller on the New York Art Exchange-- www.nyaxe.com/michaeldaks. You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page-- www.myartspace.com/interviews

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor
New York Art Exchange
London Calling


TSL said...

Brian, this was an incredibly insightful and entertaining interview. Well written, well executed, fabulous choice in Michael, not a dull second, I loved it.

Shea said...

I love these pictures.
How do you subscribe? I can't find it on the blog?