By Sarah Baxter-Arias
A few years ago, I attended the Henna Intensive and Retreat as a volunteer/assistant/performer.
One of my functions was to assist with scheduling and setting up photo shoots. Each year, HIR offers a wonderful opportunity for new and established henna artists to take photographs of their work with professional photographers. I was delighted to work with the artists who chose to take advantage of the special packages offered by our photographer that year, Lee Corkett. Having more experience as the subject of shoots (I have been a dancer, fit model and print model for belly dance fashions for several years) than on the other side of the lens, I found I had much to learn.
I truly enjoyed working with Lee Corkett, the models and the artists who eagerly captured their work on film, and even got a chance to do an impromptu shoot with Lee myself! During one of the mass henna parties that occurred, I received an incredible piece of art on my back, thanks to Annwyn Avalon, and after Lee saw it, a photo shoot was inevitable! This was a marvelous experience in and of itself, but it also sparked the following interview, which I hope you will find enlightening and informative!
LETS’ BEGIN WITH THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S PERSPECTIVE: LEE CORKETT
SARAH: Lee, I was remembering the spontaneous shoot we did of the amazing henna Annwyn did on my back, and I got to thinking. Other than serendipitous/spontaneous shoots that arise when surrounded by other artists and nature (as ours was), and besides commissioned/promotional shoots (for businesses) what motivates/ inspires you to plan a shoot?
LEE: For my own shoots, the inspiration almost always comes from talking to other artists, hearing about what they’re working on, or through self-study of historical and contemporary works. More often than not, one thing leads to another when you expose yourself to other work. Having a flash of inspiration can be rare. Ideas almost always flow out of study, surroundings, and situations. That sounds a bit nebulous, but it’s an unpredictable and personal journey that can’t really be laid out in detail. These days, I’m much more interested in classic portrait photographers, and spend a lot of time looking at early-mid 20th work. I’m most interested in people. Not surprisingly, my ideas for portraits are often the result of interacting with people. Portrait work is a collaboration between subject and photographer. I rarely know exactly what is going to happen, even if I have preconceived ideas going in. It’s about being comfortable with the process, being ready for good things to present themselves, and knowing how to rely on the basics of light and composition – the groundwork of every photo – regardless of genre.
What questions do you ask yourself as you plan your approach?
The easiest and most important question is “What am I trying to achieve?” After that, it’s a problem -solving process of “what light do I need to produce the look?”, “what compositions, props, elements, or environments do I need to produce the look?”, “how can I do it in such a way that the production doesn’t overshadow the final image?” Testing, pre-lighting and working through problems with initial shooting is always part of my process. You don’t want any more unexpected problems than necessary.
When you are creating the concept of your shoot, how do you choose your location?
The location should support the subject, or idea, and should be a “setting” in a literal sense. It can either be a visceral, and of environmental importance to the subject, or abstract and thrown to blur. It can just be there to set a mood with color fields, or continuous textures, or it could be a metaphor for a message I’m trying to get across. For instance, if the shoot calls for a feeling of adventure, or freedom, I might look for open spaces, roads, or anything that metaphorically supports that idea. It all depends on if I need to emphasize the subject alone, or describe the environment in addition to the subject. More and more, I work these days to reduce the importance of the background/location, and simply use it as a design element in the final image. New photographers very often include too much in their images.
If you have a specific subject in mind, how do you decide what will best highlight it?
Light. It’s always about light. It’s the most effective way to distinguish the subject from the environment. If I need to be descriptive, I’d use open light with not much shadow. Using multiple hard lights works well for me on this, since I can keep the shadows open while still creating contrast. If the subject needs more drama and mood, I might use just one large light, and allow certain parts to fall to shadow. Lens choice is also important. Using longer lenses allows you to isolate the subject from the background, allows shallow depths of field, and a narrow angle of view, reducing the space the background occupies in the image.
How do you showcase your concept? Do you choose specific colors/backdrops/fabrics/settings?
In the past, I did a lot of set building and controlled every inch of the image. I still enjoy that process, but more often than not, these days, I tend to favor the authenticity of a given moment and subject. Rather than trying to control it too much, I let it be what it is. That doesn’t mean I won’t pose, or move the subject into a better light. I’ll take what works about what’s already there, and build on it. Bringing other elements into a shoot very quickly get complicated, and bringing in other experts is sometimes necessary. Playing all roles (set designer, stylist, photographer, director, lighting designer) can be overwhelming!
What are the benefits to capturing your subject indoors versus outdoors?
Working outdoors can be easier in some ways, and harder in others. Outdoors, composition is about finding order in chaos. Scouting is important, and it takes time. You can get the most wonderful light by chance, or flat/boring light that just won’t work with you. You have to be very flexible when working outside, and ready with any number of studio solutions for natural environments that aren’t working. Working in studio presents other challenges. You need to create everything from scratch using light, good modeling, and set design. If you have the imagination, shooting indoors means you have endless possibilities.
How do you deal with challenging locations? ( Nature! Busy outdoor sites, nosy onlookers, changing weather, etc.)
Locations always present challenges, mostly because you can’t control all the variables. You can choose the right time (but then clouds roll in); you can choose the right place (but then security blocks your entry); you can have all the ideas (but then your model isn’t giving you what you need). It’s rare that everything will fall into place, and you need to have a solid understanding of the craft, and stubbornness to push through. In public areas, you may get all kinds of people tapping you on the shoulder, with inquiries as to what you’re doing, or what camera you’re using. It’s incredibly important to stay focused. In tough situations, you never really know if the first frame, or the last one is “the shot”.
I remember one shoot I did, where I was getting “OK” shots from the model about an hour. But, I knew they weren’t all that good. The model was fun, but didn’t really have the experience to give me good poses. We shot, and shot, working through poses, and ideas. I was about to accept what I got and pack up, when I thought “hey, let’s try one more thing.” We shot two frames of that final concept, and I had my image. The keeper turned out to be the very last frame I shot. Sometimes it’s the first frame, sometimes it’s the last.
Do you personally enjoy indoor (more controlled settings) more or outdoor shoots?
Both indoors, and outdoors can be equally controlled and uncontrolled. It comes out to knowing what you set out to create. You need to always have at least an idea of what you want, but let happenstance happen. Shoot for Plan A, but be open to Plan B. It depends what you’re controlling, and what you’re leaving to chance. I tend to shoot more outdoors these days, as I’ve really fallen in love with “chasing light”. It’s a more engaging process from a photographic standpoint. Working indoors means more production, and often more work.
In your opinion, what energetic difference does it make to the final result?
Connection to the subject, period. Gear and ideas are nothing if you can’t connect to whatever you’re shooting.
Thanks, Lee, this is really giving me a clear picture (pun semi-intended). Let’s turn our attention to henna. When working with a subject like a henna design, how do you choose the best shoot to complement the design?
Working with henna is a specific challenge. The photographer is working with many, many, competing elements. There are compositional concerns that need to be addressed: the shape of the body the henna is on, the henna design itself, the style of the photographer, and the expectations of the henna artist you’re working with. At the end of the day, I’m not the one putting henna on the body, so I need to find a middle ground between what I do well and what the henna artist has done well.
Simplicity of design is always the way to make good photos. Henna artists are often interested in natural settings, and organic forms, but as I’ve mentioned when shooting outdoors, nature is really, by definition, chaotic. When I shoot henna, I look for metaphors for nature. I look for natural colors, organic shapes, and simple, bold designs. I look for good settings, but reduce the importance of the setting by using depth of field to blur the background, and long lenses to compress the scene, keeping the henna the point of focus in the image. With henna, making the art the focus is my biggest concern. The background is secondary. Working late in the day is good idea, as you can get better light that flatters the model. Harsh, midday sun can be tough to deal with. Clothing should complement the model’s skin tone (usually muted earth colors work best). Since henna often requires a fair amount of skin to be shown, finding interesting way to drape material on the model is something that can work very well.
Since the art is my main concern, if I’m shooting henna indoors I’ll look to the body of the model first, using light that flatters their shape. Next I’ll find poses that show the henna. If the piece is symmetrical, I’ll work for even, balanced poses in the model. If the henna is more conceptual and organic, I’ll look for movement in the model.
How do you communicate clearly with the henna artist/model to make sure the final result is what everyone wants?
I communicate, with a whole bunch of communication! 😉 Almost every one of my shoots starts with a consultation with the artist. I need to know what they want. We discuss ideas and hammer out the end use of the photos. It depends what market they want to reach. Art aside, we’re all in business, and we need our message to be heard. I need to understand if they’re looking to a market with “classic concerns,”where the audience cares more about the work alone, or if they’re looking to a more contemporary market, where concept and experience might be more important. After I feel I understand what the artist wants, I speak with the model and try to get them on board with what we’re going for. It’s really just about honesty. My job is to be a researcher and a technician. I need to understand what they want -and know how to get there.
What aspects of shooting henna do you enjoy the most/ find the most challenging?
Working with artists of any kind in incredibly rewarding. Ideas are never in short supply, and since henna artists are by their nature visual, it’s really fun to work through ideas. I love working with the human body. There’s an endless supply of shapes, corners and curves. More importantly, both henna artists and henna models are just great, open people.
The challenge is that the photographer is the final link in the chain. It’s up to the photographer to shape ideas into a transmittable reality, since henna is by its nature impermanent. I need to work to bring life to the artist’s work and present the model well. Again, communication is key. Trust between the photographer, the artist, and the model is paramount. Finding a synergy between technology, design, and direction is a balance a good photographer always strives to find.
SARAH: Thank you, Lee, for your perspective and expertise! I am certain that this will give some great new tools to henna artists who wish to work with photographers, or who want to get behind the lens themselves!
AND NOW FOR THE HENNA ARTIST’S PERSPECTIVE: ANNWYN AVALON
Thanks for being part of this conversation, Annwyn! As I was saying to Lee, I was remembering the amazing tree you did on my back, and the shoot that was inspired from it- that was quite spontaneous and probably is NOT how most henna artists go about photographing their henna work! Obviously, all henna artists who want to develop a successful business need to have some high quality images of their work, whether they be for business cards or a website. But other than promotion, what motivates/ inspires you to craft a specific design and plan a shoot around it?
ANNWYN: I’m really spontaneous and tend to do my best work when I’m not planning things. However, in the past, I have had photographers and models contact me for collaborative shoots. Nature inspires me the most: trees, leaves, flowers, petals, water and motifs that swirl and flow.
When you are creating the concept of your shoot, how do you choose which designs to use?
I actually don’t choose- I just work in the moment, slowly and carefully making sure my line work is good. I like to work with the body as a canvas, and so my designs are usually drawn onto the body, flowing the with curves of muscle and bone, rather than picking a design and making it fit.
How do you highlight your designs? Do you choose specific colors/backdrops/fabrics/settings/body parts/models?
I usually work with the Photographer for this. The photographer has a better eye than I do on body placement and the way the light hits. But I think one of the most important things is contrast, having the strong dark and light aspects to really help the henna work show. Sometimes a model will inspire me; I will see them and instantly I can see the henna on their body, so I will ask if I can henna them. Other times I have a model and a general concept and then let the design grow and flow depending on the curve of the body, etc.
Do you enjoy indoor (more controlled settings) more or outdoor shoots?
Outdoor shoots are the most fun! My designs usually tie in with nature, so outdoor settings are really fantastic! I love the way the sun, some shade, a leaf can make such a difference in a shot!
What are the benefits to capturing your designs indoors versus outdoors?
Indoors you can control the lighting, but to be honest, my photo shoots have mostly been outdoors! All my own photos are usually taken indoors, but I usually get just a shot of the henna.
Which do you feel represents your personal approach to henna artistry?
Outdoor shoots represent my personal approach and style. I think for others styles of henna, indoor shoots would be better: bridal, belly blessings, etc., but for me and my large nature-inspired designs, I love having the photo shoot outdoors- it feels like the art belongs in that setting.
What do you feel is most effective at attracting possible clients with whom you would want to work?
I think having a personal style and being very confident in your own art; not trying to imitate other people’s designs, but staying true to your own henna flow. When you have something you do, and you do it well, the work shines. Staying true to your own style is the way to go!
What is your internal process? (Other than following the body line.) Do you have a mental dialogue or has it become purely instinctive?
I actually try not to think during the creation process. Too much thinking hinders my progress. Before I create the design though, I will look at the skin, decide the direction of the flow and then let the henna tell me where it should go. On large pieces like the tree, negative space can play an important part as well, though my focus is usually on the design. WIth most designs, I want a clean line and I constantly think about that while I’m working. However with the tree I wanted texture, and so I was messy and went for what a tree looks like rather than perfect lines. I also spend quite a bit of time looking at the canvas and making sure the design is where I want it. On large pieces I will sketch it out to make sure that I get everything places correct. For my best designs they are instinctive, I love symmetry and balance. Sometimes I talk to the henna, especially when it is not doing what I want it to do. I have found that sometimes i’m so invested in a design that I actually forget to breath. So I have also found myself focusing on my breath during a creation and reminding myself to breath. Sometimes I also talk myself into placing parts of a design. “Place this flower here, and now that one there and one more here”
What are your favourite outdoor locations to use? (Specific place, or lake, grove, mountain etc.)
I haven’t done many outdoor shoots for henna, I did one in the stone amphitheater, and one in my backyard (which we decorated beautifully!) My favorite photo shoot for dance was on the beach. In the future, I want to do water shoots, mostly because of my watery nature, but also because I think they are beautiful- the sand with the henna stain on the body is just beautiful!
Do you ever try to evoke certain moods with your designs, or are you more attracted to shape, structure, symmetry, etc?
I’m very attracted to symmetry in my designs, but “flow” is the most important thing for me. I love elegant, mysterious and anything with bright colors.
What color backdrops or fabric types do you prefer for highlighting your indoor shoots?
Black velvet is my favorite for shots of just the henna, but I like bold texture- like stone walls and thick green leaves -to compliment the elegant lines of the henna and body.
How do you communicate to your models to get the shots outside? Do you focus on feelings? Angles? Concepts? Being a dancer has given me a leg up (;}) on this one, personally!
When I pose a model, I think of dance lines and (a few times) I’ve actually posed them before applying the henna to see how the skin will wrinkle. Elegant lines, directed gaze, mystery, elegant dance poses for the body, arms and fingers-all these are my focus. Small things like relaxing the wrist, dropping the middle finger, etc. can make a world of difference. Where the model gazes, as well as the feeling she is portraying, can also create a dramatic result.
How do you deal with challenging locations?
I remember one photo shoot was done at night-It was the only time we could get her down there naked! I had covered most of her body in henna and we were just draping cloth over her! It was an outdoor amphitheater, so we had a light brought in. The other shoot was in a closed outdoor location (fenced yard.)
Creative solution! How do you get the model to see your vision, to make sure the final result is what everyone wants?
Asking lots of questions, brainstorming and open communication is key. Most of the time, the models are really easy to work with, and are very flexible regarding what I want them to do and how to create each pose!
What aspects of actively shooting henna (for promo or art) do you enjoy the most/ find the most challenging?
I really like the posing of the model. There is something about it that is really exciting, moving arms and legs till the design looks and feels right. Henna is best shot when the paste is still on the skin- this gives it the darker color. With large designs it is very hard, because you must henna and shoot quickly, if you wait too long the henna falls off and looks gappy. When the henna paste is off, the shoot is much easier, posing is more fun -and less hazardous- but the color is different, not as bold. It is still a good look, though!
Thank you both so much for your in-depth answers! We so appreciate your willingness to join us, Lee and Annwyn!
Great chat with Lee Corkett and Annwyn Avalon! Stay tuned for more interviews!! Coming soon!
Interviews conducted and edited by:
Sarah Baxter-Arias – www.danceandsingsarah.com
Cowgirl Zen Photography- cowgirlzenphotography.smugmug.com
This blog was brought to you by the Henna Intensive & Retreat. Want to learn more about the art of henna and body art? Join us for a 5 day/ 4 night retreat in the beautiful mountains of sunny Southern California! Find out more about this life changing event at www.hennaintensiveandretreat.com