Dean West is an emerging artist from Australia whose highly conceptual, stylized photography combines hundreds of different elements that are photographed explicitly for a specific scene and place. Bordering on the surreal, Dean's colorful portraits and enactments reveal, upon close inspection, layers of complexity behind the apparent straightforwardness of their composition.
Although he grew up in a mining town five hours inland from Sydney, Australia, Dean got an early start in photography because his rural school had one of the biggest darkrooms in the state; his teachers kept him excited and enthusiastic about the craft.
Dean made time in his busy schedule in Toronto, Canada, where he is now based, to discuss his work, what inspires him, who has influenced him, and what he's working on now.
Inspire: Your work incorporates elements of classical mythology and stage design. How did that kind of imagery become incorporated into your photography?
Dean West: The historical appropriations began when I went to the Queensland College of Art at Griffith University, where I studied photography and majored in visual culture and advertising. Mythology is something that I've always been interested in, maybe because it's like the epitome of our imagination; there are no boundaries. I'd like to think there are no boundaries with my photography either. Mythology is a direct reference for me because it's a way for me to be inspired about these beautiful stories and narratives, which reference who we are as people.
Inspire: When you brainstorm your concepts, do you start with a complete concept or do you begin with something more vague that develops over time into something more concrete?
West: I usually begin with an inspiration or a basic, nebulous concept and then fine-tune it throughout the creative process. After I do a lot of research, reading, and brainstorming, I sketch out basic references of what I think will be in a photograph. This process can go on for a long, long time because I don't like to scout for locations, props, or bring in the production team until I have a very strong idea of their placement in the photograph.
Inspire: Describe a particular work you've done and tell us how it evolved from the original idea to the final image.
West: Sure. I'll talk about the "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" concept where there are four members from Jam3, a creative web agency here in Toronto, Canada. I was asked by Jam3 to produce a series of portraits of their staff that represented each phase of the website building process. This was the "production phase," so they wanted to showcase a sense of chaos.
Three sailors and one captain are standing in the control room of a submarine, fighting with three large giant red octopus tentacles. One is taking control of the captain's leg, and a sailor is fighting off a tentacle with a broom.
This concept took two to three months to produce. I started by trying to find the perfect location to shoot a lot of control pieces that would reference an underwater facility. I ended up finding a ship called the HMCS Haida located about an hour away from Toronto. The control room in the photo was designed from many rooms in the ship. The red and white tile floor is actually part of the original control room. All of the dials along the back wall were photographed from different areas of the ship and then brought into the scene, along with the ceiling and the control pieces around the top.
Inspire: What about the octopus tentacles?
West: I spent many, many weeks driving all across the greater Toronto area looking for fish markets to find the right octopuses to shoot in this concept. I experimented with live octopuses, dead octopuses, cooking the octopuses — and I had some very disgusted family members upset with the smell of octopus wafting through the home. I finally came across a giant red octopus which, when slightly cooked, has just enough tension in it that you can construct it using fishing line but still looks like the actual giant red octopus that's in the photograph.
Inspire: Sounds like fun. Describe the kind of people you work with on your shoots. How much do you collaborate with them?
West: It depends on the budget. When working on a big project like "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," I collaborate with a variety of different people. First I meet with location scouts and set designers. Next, I collaborate with stylists to organize the wardrobe. I'll meet with the hair and makeup team to brief them on the concept. We usually have a wardrobe trial with the stylist before the shoot.
Of course, on smaller projects and when budgets are tight, I tend to do a lot of this stuff by myself. It really just comes down to cost and trying to work within budgets, trying to do things as cost-effectively as possible.
Inspire: What's your post-production workflow?
West: I usually copy everything into individual folders and then view everything in Adobe Bridge. I review the images — often thousands from one shoot — and get rid of the ones that are unusable, while tagging ones that are close to perfect or better than the rest. Getting rid of the work that's not usable is a pretty key part of the editing process.
Once I've made my selects, I usually mock up the elements using Adobe Photoshop in lo-res to get a bit of a gauge before we go and start processing all of the files in high resolution. I use Capture One Pro, which is a software imaging application that's uniquely compatible for my Phase One digital-back camera for processing. From here, Adobe Photoshop really comes into play. An image like the octopus will probably take two straight weeks to composite the elements in high resolution, grade the image, add shadows and reflections and any other effects that may be required. Then I look around and map the image and see if there's anything that I feel is not working, or [decide] maybe there's a light switch that could work just over there on the right-hand side. The post-production phase is very important in my process and I've become very good friends with Adobe. It definitively is a time where I can build on what was originally in my mind and really take it to that next dimension.
Inspire: If you had to pack a bag quickly for a three-day trip, what equipment would you bring?
West: Good question. I always carry my Contax 645. I can put a Phase One digital back on it, which exposes photographs at 60.5 megapixels. So that gives you an idea of the quality that each element is photographed with. That camera and its accessories, stopped being produced 10 years ago, would be the most important unit that I would bring with me. Besides the Contax camera, I'd bring a Manfrotto 055 tripod, my MacBook Pro, and a couple of little G-Drives.
Inspire: You started out doing traditional film photography and have now, of course, evolved into using digital formats. What are your thoughts about the advantages of either format and how they work together?
West: I have a soft spot for film and carry it with me at all times. Film has a nostalgic quality that just cannot be matched when shooting digital. I shoot digital these days mostly for cost reasons. With so many elements in the photograph, it's the only way to keep costs down.
Digital photography has made the impossible possible, and literally redefined the image or the imaging landscape. It's pretty mind-blowing when you think about the transition between film and digital over the last 10 years.
Inspire: Generally speaking, what single most important factor is important to make a great picture?
West: Narrative is most important. If you go back to Henri Cartier-Bresson and his "decisive moments," there's always a story — there's always a narrative behind a good photograph. I would like to think that when people look at my images, they can somehow paw their way through the image and try to define what is actually happening.
Inspire: What characteristics would you say are necessary for a photograph and artist to be successful?
West: You need to be willing to take risks, experiment, and break the rules. You need to be able to laugh at yourself, be self-deprecating if you can. Enjoy the craft and understand that failure is part of the creative process of building upon and developing your original goal.
As an artist, you need to have a sense of awareness, the ability to see the everyday, the ordinary, and make it extraordinary. Or even the opposite: seeing something extraordinary and then taking it even further than the extraordinary. Having an awareness of the resources around you and the world around you — that, I think, is important.
On the commercial level, I would say improvisation is critical — being able to make decisions and the right choices in unforeseen conditions and sometimes masking the bad things that are happening and ensuring that everybody knows that we're heading in the right direction.
Inspire: Is there anything that you're working on now that feels really new, unique, and challenging?
West: I started working on a project at the end of 2009 with Nathan Sawaya, a New York–based artist who creates large-scale sculptures using LEGO bricks — his website is brickartist.com. We started working on "In Pieces," a project which references digital pixelization and the commercialization of identity. It's these large-format photographs of American landscapes. They're stark and desolate. His LEGO sculptures are seamlessly integrated into the frames.
People look at the photos and feel it looks like pixelation but really they're LEGO objects that have been built-in. Nathan is an amazing sculptor. In one case, a red LEGO dress blows off into the wind.
There's another image of a gentleman who looks like an investor or banker who's standing in front of a very corporate building and it's quite monochromatic. He's holding a red umbrella. He was actually shot in the studio but the rain itself is real rain that I photographed with a Broncolor Scoro Pack and Pulso heads, a new high-speed flash pack that can photograph elements from a slow shutter speed right up to 1/8,000 second.
This project is a little bit different from the stuff that I've done in the past. The aesthetic is a lot brighter and more colorful than I think a lot of my other work is. This project has been going on for the last two years and our work is now culminating in an exhibition in New York.
Inspire: What other artists really inspire you in your work?
West: When I was in my second year of college at the Queensland College of Art, Erwin Olaf, who is a Dutch photographer based in Amsterdam, came to the Australian Center of Photography and held a master class for eight people across Australia. He was instrumental in changing what I thought about photography. I was young and impressionable, going through college and trying to emulate certain styles. He pointed me towards the classics, shooting in classic fashion like Richard Avedon or Irving Penn — those photographers who harbored the elements of what is true photography.
Big production values like Gregory Crewdson's art photography would be high on my list. You know, obviously, new art photographers like Andreas Gursky, who just sold a print for $4.3 million. Eugenio Recuenco is an amazing Spanish photographer who does incredible set designs. Advertising photographers like Nadav Kander and Andreas Smetana. Portrait photographers like Annie Leibovitz are unbelievable.
I like the new art photography that's coming through, like the young New York artist named Alex Prager. She's doing some pretty beautiful nostalgic renditions of photography, which I'm very much in love with at the moment.
Inspire: Where can we see more examples of your work?
West: You can visit my website deanwest.com or my Facebook page. We're exhibiting a component of our "In Pieces" series at the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio from November 9, 2012 to January 27, 2013 so be sure to check that out, along with the full show in New York.
Stefan Gruenwedel is the senior editorial producer for Adobe Inspire Magazine. He also produces developer videos for Adobe TV and the Adobe Developer Connection. Stefan occasionally finds time to make short-form documentaries.