"The way is long if one follows precepts, but short...if one follows patterns." -Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Roman Statesman
For a photographic artist, visual ideas and projects - ones that aren't motivated or suggested by a client - usually present themselves in one of two ways.
The first is the slow simmer, where the natural evolution of our work over time is due to a predictable change. An increase in shooting skill, an added editing technique, new equipment, or simply motivated by naturally expanding or refining our subject matter. We move on to the next logical step in the process.
Then there is something many artists share that is much more exciting and spontaneous.
The proverbial light bulb going off in our head!
An incredible idea pops into our brain (or at least an idea we think is incredible at the time), and it points us in a direction or down a path that seems quite different from anything we've done up to that point. And we choose to follow that path, many times not knowing what lies ahead.
Either of these two are perfectly good ways of deciding what type of work to produce, yet each has its own unique sense of purpose and personal satisfaction. Regardless, they both serve quite nicely to keep the creative juices flowing.
I mention all this simply because The Pattern Pinups, my erotic pop fashion art series, has characteristics of both. The idea began with a **POW!** (the light bulb), gained momentum and found limited success in a handful of exhibitions early on, but eventually got put on the back burner, as my life changed dramatically and I found myself involved with other projects.
And there it has simmered, giving hints at its potential several times over the years, finally coming to a boil again now, long after its beginning. Always in my mind, just waiting for the right time to surface. A natural part of the creative process...
What follows is - to me at least - a very brief history of The Pattern Pinups and how the series has evolved in nearly 25 years. Some may find it a bit long, drawn out and uneventful. If you're really interested in how I've developed an artistic idea over time, by all means read on. If not, you can cut right to some of final images here on my Gallery page., or on my Fine Art America site.
An introduction...and some background
The Pattern Pinups is a concept I came up with in 1991. Seems like a lifetime ago. Up to that point, my training as an artist fell mostly under the umbrella of Graphic Art, with most of my school years spent studying either photography or printmaking.
The printmaking process that fascinated me the most was photo silkscreen. Without getting into too much art theory, it involves the classic deconsrtuction/reconstruction of a subject, the final image created by combining a series of layers of colored ink.
Years after college, when my career as a photographer was in full swing, I still employed a printmaking (and specifically photosilkscreen) mentality to many of my art images, even though they were printed using traditional wet darkroom methods.
By the early 1990s, I had already been shooting fashion photography for several years as well as exhibiting my gallery work. I began searching for a way to combine the two.
J. Seeley and Patrick Nagel
I have never kept it a secret that the two artists that became the prime influence for my series, The Pattern Pinups, are J. Seeley and Patrick Nagel. Once you realize that, and look at their art, it is very easy to see in my work.
The individual aspects of my planning, shooting, and editing my models were all original. More importantly, the final images tend to have a style that combines that of two artists that came before me. Considering I have managed to go on to add my own visual elements to the work, I have never felt that I was blantantly copying or stealing any ideas.
That distinction is very important to me, and shows how you can truly admire the work of someone else, to the point of using it as a basis for your own, yet naturally steer the visuals in a slightly new direction that makes it your own.
Experimental graphic artist J. Seely has been at the forefront of depciting photographic imagery in abstract ways since his early days at Rhode Island School of Design in the late 1960′s. I bought his amazing photography book High Contrast in 1982 - a technical manual and bible of sorts depicting in-depth methods for shooting and editing in his visionary style - and my life as a photographer has never been the same since.
And while Seely has gone to evolve as an artist, moving the visual style of his work in very different directions, I still marvel at the the examples and tutorials of his early high contrast pattern and texture work, and they continue to influence me to this day.
Of the two, American artist Patrick Nagel (1945-1984) has achieved much higher noteriety and mainstream fame in the art world. He is probably best known for his sexy illustrations for Playboy magazine, and for designing the cover of Rio, a best selling album by pop group Duran Duran. He became famous for his simplifed and stylized high contrast illustrations of sexy women, often in various states of undress.
An extensive publication of Nagel's work was released after his death, Nagel: The Art of Patrick Nagel, and that is a book I cherish as well. For me, it has always been a very valuable art and fashion reference.
As for the lasting significance of Nagel's work, I'll leave it up to art historians to determine. While innovative at the time, his prints and paintings scream 1980s - and I'll venture a guess that few collectors now want their art or decor to scream 1980s.
That being said, there were two huge elements I took from Nagel's work and adapted to my own. One was the process - deconstructing an original photographic reference, stripping it down to large clean areas devoid of detail, then reconstructing the final illustration using built-up printed layers of bold color and line.
More importantly, Nagel was a master at posing his beautiful models - a fun blend of traditional modern fashion and traditional retro pinup poses. The sexuality of his often topless women was casual, carefree, and playful.
And that's how an exciting project emerges. J. Seeley revealed some wonderful secrets to me about using pattern, line, and texture to depict common subjects in a bold, graphic way. I was determined to emulate his visual style and technique, but I wanted the content of my art to be different. I wanted my women sexier, edgier, more erotic. Nagel's playful nudity and clean stylish model posing was quite memorable, and to me, the missing piece of the puzzle.
It was now time to go about creating my own work.
Vesna, my first Pattern Pinup
There are some advantages to living in an artist colony. In 1991, I was a tenant in the Art Center South Florida on Lincoln Road on Miami Beach. My neighbor? A beautiful Venezuelan painter named Vesna Vera. Aside from her looks, she painted these large canvases of flowing surreal, dream-like fantasies, many with sexual themes.
Now, who better to serve as my first model than someone who would not only look good in the photos, but also have an idea of what I was trying to do?
I asked, and she said yes.
Looking back, I'm not quite sure she ever really did have a clue what I was doing. Hell, at the time, I didn't even know what I was doing! And for better or worse, she was too guarded at the time to allow me to shoot any nudity. Fair enough, that would come later with other models. In any event, that first shoot proved invaluable in letting me see what worked and what didn't.
Pattern Pinups trivia - it's a distant memory now, but the name I originally came up with for this series was THE PATTERN VICTIMS. The name was actually very innocent, the idea being the models were "victim" to the patterns of the clothing they were wearing and the shapes it formed around them.
My first exhibited piece with model Vesna actually used that name in its title. I remember looking at it hanging on the wall, and realizing that "victim" didn't sound right. It wasn't what I meant, and wasn't really what I was trying to say. I thought it would be too easily misconstrued, adding a controversial meaning for some viewers where there was none intended. I decided right then and there to change it to "pinups"...
Katia raises the bar
Some time later, another friend agreed to model for me. French beauty Katia. By the time we shot, I had a much better idea of how I wanted to combine the various pieces of patterned wardrobe. I also refined the posing to body movement and positions that had much more potential to look really strong in the finished image.
At this point, I really didn't want to waste time (or film) just shooting things arbitrarily anymore, so now I put a lot more thought into planning and pre-visualizing my ideas, and it paid off.
The results clearly showed improvement, an evolvement of the creative process, and to say I was pleased would have been a huge understatement.
Still, up to now, my images looked very much like the J.Seeley work that I admired so much. Which was fine, except that I knew I wanted my models to exude the same sexuality that I saw and loved in the illustrations and paintings of Patrick Nagel.
It was time to show some skin...
¡Hola Señorita Agosto!
The circumstances that led to me finding professional swimsuit model Maria Checa, and convincing her to pose topless as one of The Pattern Pinups is too long a story to get into here. Let's just say sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. A Colombian stunner, she was featured as Playmate of the Month Miss August in Playboy Magazine not long before our shoot in December, 1994.
She also happened to live in Miami Beach, very close to my photo studio.
In any event, the planets aligned, we met, I sold the idea, she liked the idea, she had the time, and agreed to do the shoot.
I almost had to pinch myself, as I now had the perfect model getting ready to wear the perfect wardrobe, follow my directions, and allow me to finally get the perfect shots I had envisioned when I first imagined this series.
At least that was the plan.
For the record, shooting nudes or sexually provocative photos of any kind can be a bit nerve-wracking. Experience has taught me it is almost always better to find and cast a model who is already open to the idea, and then pitch the concept to them, rather than trying to convince someone cold who may have their doubts or hangups. This was no exception.
The vibe and communication between shooter and model on this kind of set has to be relaxed and comfortable, and Maria's experience shooting with Playboy thankfully meant the various sexy poses, especially the topless ones, were fairly effortless.
By the way, being a perfectionist (and considering the importance of this shoot), I had precious little time to enjoy the scenery as I worked, knowing I had to capture some very precise clothing combinations and poses.
And capture them I did. The quality and variety of the what I shot with Maria lifted The Pattern Pinups to new heights. It gave me a vast amount of great raw material to work with and craft into new images for the series.
Not only that, but a few of the final pieces made their way into a South Beach group exhibition, the highest profile showcase for the work up to that point.
But the best was yet to come...
Pattern Pinups trivia 2 - I'm not exactly a performance art kinda guy, but when a promoter from South Beach's Club Lua approached me back in 1997 about showing some of The Pattern Pinups photos at the club, and better yet, doing a live Pattern Pinup model photo shoot on an upcoming Saturday night there using a digital camera plugged into their television system for all to see, who was I to say no?
The camera they gave me, a tiny point & shoot Casio, was actually pretty cool gear at a time when digital cameras were still a novelty, and the good ones were very expensive. By no means state-of-the-art, but it was definitely better than what the average person would have access to. It was a fun experience.
Back to the future - 2000
Life and art can be a funny sometimes. Just when you think you know everything, you learn something new. And then you think you know everything.
At the time I shot with Maria, I felt I had all the technical information I needed to create The Pattern Pinups exactly how I wanted them to look. I mean, I had a great darkroom, and was perfectly content to print the series using traditional graphic art methods and materials, much as J. Seeley had done.
In my mind, there was absolutely no need to use state-of-the-art anything to make these images. It was the idea that was edgy. The concept. Conventional editing and presentation was fine.
I assumed that the formula now was to direct my energy to continue to shoot new models dressed (or not dressed) in new combinations of patterned clothes, and simply add variations to the series. I had hit warp speed, and could now just cruise into hyperspace...
I could not have been more wrong...
An interesting thing happened in 1997. I found I had to move from South Florida to Central Florida for family reasons, not long after my show at Club Lua.
I ended up trading in my wet darkroom for a computer.
Now, I have no idea how long it would have taken me to embrace digital imaging had I stayed in Miami, but circumstances forced the conversion on me sooner, rather than later.
A digital DSLR camera would come later, but my immediate concern in the late 1990s was editing my existing negatives and slides - scanning film into my computer - and learning a new photo editing program, Adobe Photoshop.
When things settled down in my new world up north, I found myself immersed in art projects other than The Pattern Pinups, specifically photos from my 1996 trip to Asia that would eventually become the exhibition Destination:China.
Almost all of my early learning and experimentation in Photoshop went into my China images, and I quickly made huge strides in discovering how to add graphic art, illustration, and photo silkcreen pop art effects to photos on the computer without access to traditional darkroom and printmaking equipment.
In 2000, I exhibited Destination:China locally, and it was a watershed moment for me. It marked my complete transition from creating and printing my work using an analog workflow (film, wet darkroom, traditional printmaking), to a digital workflow (computer software, inkjet printing). It was as if a whole new world of unlimited artistic expression presented itself to me.
Even for an old film shooter, there was no going back...
As soon as the smoke cleared from Destination:China, and I had some time to breath, I started looking at how I could apply what I had learned - the software tools, filters, styles , and techniques - to my other projects.
Eventually I started messing around with some of The Pattern Pinups. It only made sense to look at the shots I had done of Maria.
While it was not as intuative as one might think, I did marvel at the new type of images I could create. As an artist, it was exhilarating, but because there were so many more choices and directions I could go, the real challenge was implementing a consistent style to all the pieces in the series, or at least having groups of variations that made sense visually.
So I played. And played. And I got some pretty cool results (see photo above). I saw the work in completely different ways than I had originally imagined when I started back in Miami.
But nothing jumped out at me as the definitive new style that I wanted for the entire series.
And so, once again, the whole shebang got shelved...
Back to the future II - 2010
The art world waits for no man. Or woman. And when an artist gets creative block on a project - assuming it isn't on a deadlne - we usually just switch gears to something else.
And that's exactly what happened with The Pattern Pinups.
Destination:China continued to do well during the early 2000s, and the series was shown at several art venues in Central Florida. After that, I looked to shoot and edit completely new work based on exploring many of the scenes and visuals I found living up here.
And so, Floridustrial and Seaplanes and Citrus took up much of my time between 2005 and 2010. They were sucessful as well.
Along the way, I discovered something that would change the course of history. At least my history. As an artist.
Nik Color Efex Pro Photoshop filters, before they were bought out by Google and renamed the Google Nik Collection in 2012, were argueably the best conventional Photoshop plugins available. Pricey at the time, I decided they were a required addition to my digital toolbox.
The full version was a dynamite combination of classic straight photo correction and conversion filters, and an assortment of artistic photo - for lack of a better word - distortion filters.
It was these highly stylizing and image-altering filters that intrigued me. And while I am hesitant to credit an editing software plugin for my artistic vision, truth is these Nik filters changed the game for me. They allowed me to quickly experiment with nearly every conceivable element of an image. I could also then isolate precise details of a photo (deconstruct), then recombine them in a wide variety of ways (reconstruct).
When I finally had the time to return to The Pattern Pinups, and really took a serious look at applying variuous Nik filters to selective parts of my photos, then harnessing Photoshop's layering, blending, and masking features, I was stunned at the results.
As with anytime an artist is breaking new ground, I was not afraid of happy accidents. I tried all kinds of crazy combinations. And even though I was using cutting-edge digital tools, I know my experience in the past as a darkroom and photosilkscreen printmaker helped me tremendously.
I stuck to my tried-and-true method of deconstruction/reconstruction and methodically applied filters to entire images as well as small sections of them, then recombined the pieces in various layers.
One unexpected outcome of applying new filters and techniques to these old photos was a pronounced psychedelic effect (see Maria No.38 and No.08 variations above). It was never my intent to mimic any sort of 1960s San Francisco hippie rock poster style with this series. My visuals always tried to move forward, not look back.
But an old adage of making art is, if a result really excites you, don't dismiss or discard it just because it doesn't fit in with your expectations. Embrace it.
And so, looking retro or not, these incredible new variations became a part of The Pattern Pinups family.
Nude Night Orlando comes calling
It was not too terribly long after creating this new generation of The Pattern Pinups that I found an opportunity to exhibit them in a fairly high-profile gallery setting. Nude Night Orlando, an annual Central Florida celebration of erotic art and entertainment, accepted both Maria No.38 and Maria No.08 into their juried show in 2012.
Both sold, which of course always lets an artist know they're doing something right.
But, while praise is nice, and sales are nice, they don't guarantee a gallery series gets my undivided attention. My commercial work and other gallery art were more important priorities in 2012.
So, for the third time, The Pattern Pinups, despite achieving a very exciting level of visual style in my eyes, got put on hold.
"What the hell am I looking at? When does this happen in the movie?" "Now. You're looking at now, sir. Everything that happens now, is happening now..." ~ Lord Helmet and Sandurz, Spaceballs
Back to the Future III - 2015
As we finally reach the present, I refer back to the opening paragraphs of this post -
"Always in my mind, just waiting for the right time to surface..."
And that's what this is - the right time. When this happens, when I make a commitment to really concentrate on a specific visual project, it not only means my time and energy gets more focused, but I try very hard to raise the awareness of the work in the art community as well as the general (and art-buying) public.
What makes this a bit different from my other gallery work is that I consider this fashion art. That means creating new material requires me to schedule photo shoots using all the resources, pre-planning, and pre-visualization of a typical fashion shoot. Which can be extensive.
But it's an effort worth making. And that's where the real excitement lies. The thought of reviving the whole process and shooting new ideas with an entirely new generation of models. Which of course, will lead to entirely new images and finished pieces.
While there's a comfort to working with older material and reworking it in new ways, heading into the unknown is an completely different vibe and experience that most photographers get addicted to. I am no exception...
So, be on the lookout for new images of The Pattern Pinups, and more importantly, new shoots featuring new models, new wardrobe, and new ideas.
And models - if you've made it this far, you must be at least a little bit intrigued by this whole project. Please don't hesitate to contact me if you have any interest or questions whatsoever. And know that nudity is not a requirement at all to be included in a fun, artisitc photo shoot and ultimately become one of The Pattern Pinups.
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All photos ©Steven Paul Hlavac. All rights reserved.