Lion's eyes

Lion's eyes

Brave as the lion eyeballing his Phase One P65+, Brad Wilson’s fearless nature is mirrored in the gleaming eyes of his growling, whiskered subjects. Embellished with nothing more than razor sharp canines and glossy coats, his dignified animal portraiture is as rare as the topaz blue irises of a white tiger. And it’s his honesty he has to thank for these fine art marvels. HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY After realising he was never to be the next great American sculptor or painter while studying visual arts in North Carolina, Wilson accepted his fate and ploughed forward with photography following classes after university. "I loved studio art and art history but I never excelled at those mediums." Brad says, "I continued to look for one that I could understand more completely. It seemed that photography offered a more unique creative opportunity: the ability to make a living commercially, while, at the same time, pursuing fine-art applications." Dead-pan faces and years of glazed expressions from our own species equalled an uninspired forward thinking photographer seeking alternative subjects, he admits, "For years I had stared into the eyes of human models in New York City and on assignments around the United States. But you reach a point where you feel like you said what you want to say. Without new challenges and new rhythms things get repetitive, and it easy to get stuck in a comfort zone, which almost always leads to a dead end. "For me, the transition to a different species as a primary subject seemed quite natural, and even necessary. Sometimes a journey into the unknown is far more valuable than a journey into the known. I wanted to see if I could apply the same studio lighting used with human models in New York City for animals and create similarly dramatic portraits." Brad adds, dramatic probably being an understatement. As outsiders, it would be natural to assume months of detailed planning efforts helped carve out Brad project, named ’. In reality, sleepless nights and an empty wallet ensued before any of it materialised. SLEEPLESS NIGHTS AND EMPTY POCKETS "There were many sleepless nights leading up to the first shoots," Brad remembers. "It was important to me from the start of the Affinity project to achieve a sense of intimacy with the subjects. This was absolutely primary. I wanted to create a detailed and powerful image of each animal. Not just a straightforward snapshot of the subject, but a revealing portrait. I wasn’t sure that this was going to be possible." Financial qualms contributed to his worry, and his brain was working both day and night to contemplate logistics. Understandable considering Brad had to fork out ?5,000 for the most expensive, exotic animals such as the giraffe and the African elephant. "My sleeplessness was made worse by the fact that I had to pay 100 per cent of the costs for the animals several weeks in advance, and there were no refunds. However, I was very careful to hire animals that, for the most part, could work without restraints," a wised up Wilson says. Multiple trainers appeared on set at all times marshalling the sometimes dangerous animals which had arrived from California and New Mexico in special transportation lorries, and allowed Brad to move in close as he clicked frames. From spider monkeys to snow white Arctic foxes and roaring mountain lions, the creatures were flashed by strobe lights several times before being herded into a hired studio (large enough to drive the transport into), to avoid a stunned reaction which could prove unsafe.

Mountain Lion

ON SET "You never want to surprise an animal," Brad defends, in response to his use of light after giraffes and the rest of the clan had tumbled from their trailer in a NoahArk type fashion. "I try to keep a very calm energy while they are in front of me and its best to avoid sudden or quick movements, so no prey response is activated in the large predatory animals." Though the 48-year-old professional wanted a pure black background for his minimalist, non-commissioned series, he illuminated the animals with six different Profoto and Speedotron strobe packs, ranging in strength from 2400 Watt/Second to 4800 Watt/Second each. The results are highlights perfectly translated without a washed out feel. He explains, "The challenge with photographing this type of subject is the fact that a lot of movement around the set has to be accounted for. Generally, the animals aren’t going to stay in one place for long. You cankeep running on set to change lighting every time they move —its both distracting for the animals and dangerous for you. Therefore the light has to cover a broad area and still be interesting. That’s the challenge. I didn’t want the lighting to be so specific that it was distracting. Finding that proper balance is very important. I never want the lighting to become a compositional element by itself —it should enhance and help reveal the subject, but never overwhelm it." Like most portrait photographers, no matter what their specialism, Brad expresses that the eyes are the greatest connection point and he focuses on them exclusively in every shot. With such a set up, how does he manipulate the light so it is retained as a glimmer in the subjects’ eyes? Perhaps carefully placed reflectors I conclude. Im wrong. He tells, "The lighting is positioned to highlight the eyes. No white reflector cards are used at all. There are large black sheets of foam core (lightweight board used for photo mounting) on the set which are used to control flare in the camera lens, but nothing else." Brad uses the Hasselblad H Series lenses designed for the medium format Hasselblad H1 camera. His 100mm and 120mm are his favoured as they allow him to get close to his subject without creating any noticeable distortion. One thing Brad is adamant about is kit and, wait for it, his full frame Phase One P65+ back with 645 sensor boasts 60 megapixels, creating an individual image size of a staggering 173MB! He says resolution and overall detail is unparalleled,’ and it allows him to make very large prints with no loss of quality. CAMERA THREATS Obviously a hefty amount of tact is involved with Bradwork, but because all animals do not interpret an intimate glance in a harmless way, it can make a photographers job testing to say the least. Brad recollects, "Male baboons interpret direct eye contact as a challenge which they feel the need to answer, usually with intense aggression. We were told never to look them in the face, or even look in their general direction if possible. Fortunately for me, baboons do not view the camera as a threat." Though clearly not as intimidating as a loaded gun or rival fighting for the last dregs at the local waterhole, I wonder if the camera did pose a threat to any of the animals. I ask Brad if any precarious moments occurred while being within a hairbreadth of his subjects. I’m aghast with blighted expectations when I’m told that most of the roars and provoked reactions are down to food rewards, though the photographer does not try to encourage any particular expression. But that doesn’t mean that the experience is not daunting. Brad says: "Once, during a break in the shooting, I left the studio and when I returned the tiger I had been photographing was lounging in the middle of the space over six metres from her trainer. I asked him what I should do; he simply smiled, and in a completely relaxed voice said, run.’" Thankfully for Brad the presence of these vital animal trainers is mandatory, and there can be two to five present at any one time —with them strategically positioned so they don’t interfere with lighting and the camera setup. And hiding behind the camera has proven his greatest from of defence, as has refraining from sporting garish shirts. "With a camera in front of my face, I feel strangely removed from the environment around me and Im simply unaware of any intimidation or danger. But some animals are curious, some are wary and some are completely indifferent. Primates tend to be more curious, prey animals like the zebra are wary, and predators like the big cats seem mostly indifferent. Also, many of the most dangerous animals don’t immediately take notice of me when they first come on the set and part of that is by specific design. I don’t wear any brightly coloured, graphically patterned clothes that would potentially draw the animals’ attention. A large part of it, however, is related to the fact that the animals are mostly keyed into their handlers. For example, I had been photographing the white tiger for 30 minutes before his trainer said to me, starting to notice you now. ’At the time, the comment sounded ominous, but everything continued to go smoothly."


ANIMAL SAFETY It would be immoral not to broach animal rights territory with Brad. He has a few hours with the beings, where he looks to nail five or ten good minutes’ with no more than two or three animals per day, but they are still in an alien setting. I ask what he has to say to activists who might be appalled by visions of a white tiger claws clasping onto a wooden stool as they are distracted by bait while the photographer probes his lens into their space. "I understand this could be a concern, but everything in the photo studio is set up to maximise the comfort and safety of the animals. I only work with professional trainers who use positive reinforcement techniques, usually food rewards. During the shoot, the animals are in charge as much as possible —we proceed at their pace and never try to force anything. For the most part, they don’t seem bothered by the lights flashing. The entire time they are on set, they are being fed a steady stream of their favourite foods, which keeps them occupied and interested." He also reassures me that he only has one photo assistant with him and a formal safety briefing is always given, outlining limits. However, he was almost snubbed by trainers when he first approached them to try and organise the shoots because of his portraiture background. "Production of the project was very difficult at first, and I almost abandoned the idea. There are very few animals in the U.S. that can work in a studio, and they are managed by a small group of individual trainers, non-profit sanctuaries, and commercial agencies. Since I had never worked with animals, I was unknown to these people. My initial phone calls were not returned, and when I was finally able to reach someone, they wouldnt give me firm pricing or any real commitment. Eventually, though, I was lucky enough to find an animal coordinator working in Los Angeles who was willing to assist me." EXHIBITING AFFINITY Forking out such cash for a personal project was a risk for Wilson. But he says that regardless of that  these new and powerful images of these endangered species  will hopefully  help stir a feeling of connection and a desire for conservation, which ultimately benefits everyone. But with a clientele which ranges from Esquire magazine to Sony Music and Toyota, he s probably pretty smug about admitting he wasn’t cut out to be a sculptor. He was approached by a director of the Doinel Gallery in London to exhibit his bold collection this autumn from 15 to 27 October 2012, which will allow people to make their own judgements about this work. For those enamoured, its a worthy visit. I might pop along and take a detour via the bank —I wonder if NatWest offers a lion loan package?

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