End Notes: Photographer Bill Gekas
March 17, 2014 | We enjoy exploring the ways in which contemporary artists look to the past to inform their work. We are especially intrigued by the photography of Australian Bill Gekas, whose primary inspiration for these images of his daughter is clearly the Dutch old masters. Digital photography is his tool, but his evocative images are also the result of astute borrowing and improvisation. To see more of his work, visit billgekas.com.
When did you start photographing, and was your focus always on portraiture?
I've been involved with photography since my early twenties, in the mid-1990s, when I was shooting with film cameras and developing and printing black-and-white film in a makeshift darkroom. During those years I was shooting a bit of everything except portraiture, which didn't interest me until I discovered the great portrait works of Irving Penn, Alfred Stieglitz, and Diane Arbus. They had a haunting beauty that made the viewer connect with the subject. To create the same kind of connection has always been a goal in my work.
(Above: Pears, 2011)
How did your interest in approaching the look of old master paintings develop? Are any of the photos based on specific paintings-or at least inspired by specific paintings?
I never had any formal study in the work of old master painters but I always loved looking at them. The light, colors, emotions, and general atmosphere held me in awe. Since I could not paint or draw, the digital camera and modern digital post-processing techniques became my tools. My photos aren't re-creations of any particular works but are inspired by many. That said, I can take certain elements or stories from specific paintings and twist them to create something I can call my own. An example is Potatoes, which was inspired by Van Gogh's Potato Eaters, but with a kiss of Vermeer's light.
What are the trickiest aspects of their work to capture in photography?
The hardest aspect to capture is the overall atmosphere, as this is determined by all the elements that make up the image-light, color, texture, mood-the key is finding the right balance and making them work in harmony. It takes a lot of pre-visualization and compromise, and I often have to improvise.
Can you give a few examples of the way you have improvised to achieve that look?
For The Letter I had to turn my daughter's typical five-year-old girl's bedroom into something that would resemble an eighteenth-century Dutch interior. Removing the teddy bears and dolls was easy; the challenge was to create the illusion of a window where there was none. In Vermeer's paintings, the light always comes from the left, but the window in this bedroom is on the right. I decided to create the shadow pattern of a window using a cookalaris (cookie), an old photo lighting device but one I'd never tried, to give the viewer the impression that the subject is facing a window. After scrounging for some cardboard and using a razor blade to make French window type cutouts I had a window cookie.
Most of the props I use are found in thrift stores or in the basements of relatives' houses, or sometimes on eBay. The costumes in most cases aren't real costumes but scraps of fabrics or lace and old clothes made to look like the garments of an earlier era. I believe the creativity of a photographer doesn't just start and end at the camera end, it's the whole thought process.
Are you inspired by art outside the period of the Dutch old masters?
Yes. My Ivy, for instance, was prompted by the way light was hitting a patch of ivy, which reminded me of Claude Monet's brushwork. I've created a few other images inspired by other periods in art and can definitely see my future projects moving forward in art history. I think it's important for artists to move outside their comfort zone as it helps in refining their style.
Tell us briefly about your model.
When my daughter was about three my wife and I wanted some classically inspired portraits of her, and that has been an enjoyable family activity ever since. Now she often asks about certain periods in time when I show her paintings, and that becomes a sort of informal lesson in history as well. She is only in front of the camera for about ten minutes, as most of the work is done before or after the shoot.