Written by Lloyd Wise
Edited by Justin Hertog
Diagrams by Halina Steiner
Nitin Vadukul is a leading commercial photographer, filmmaker, and an avid dreamer. Claiming to “specialize in diversity,” Vadukul has shot portraits of A-list celebrities and advertising campaigns for major international corporations, his work landing in the pages of publications as varied as Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Vogue. A trip through his online portfolio reveals the scope of his work: everything from a grainy, high-contrast photo of Tim Roth jumping off the hood of a bombed-out car in an urban ghetto to high-gloss campaigns for Nike, Hewlett-Packard, and New Balance. Vadukul has worked as a photographer for most of his life, beginning his career as an apprentice at a London advertising studio at the young age of 13 and starting to freelance professionally at 19. He has been shooting for ad agencies, record labels and magazines ever since, relocating to New York City in 1994 where he now works.
His best ideas, Vadukul insists, come from dreams—the inspiration for our featured image “Stealth.” In it, an antique pilot’s helmet sits on a table in a dark room, the visor emitting a bright glare as the breathing tube exhales a whirling cloud of smoke. From the dense center of the haze, a steaming human skull begins to take form. Dreary and gothic, “Stealth” is part of a larger series titled The Art of War, which seeks to expose the “sinister and surreal world of the warrior.”
When lighting the shoot, Vadukul wanted to give it “a sense of drama and mystery, hence a dark motive but with subtle tones for detail.” The helmet’s exterior was illuminated with two Profoto heads and 7a packs at a distance of three feet. To achieve the glow from behind the visor, Vadukul drilled a hole through the table and positioned a light inside. Vadukul positioned the camera, a Deardorff 8 x10 equipped with 165mm Super Angulon Schneider lens, four feet from the helmet. Exposure was f45 at 125th of a second on Kodak 160 VC film. The background was created especially for this image and was built to evoke the look and feel of an asylum.
The vapor was photographed separately using one Profoto head with a standard reflector positioned ten feet above and behind the subject against a black background. The camera was seven feet from the subject. No real skull was photographed—one was used only as a reference in postproduction. To get the whorls of smoke right, Vadukul had to experiment: he settled on a blend of several different types, finding that incense, a smoke machine, and burning cottonwood doused with water worked best. “As a painter looks at his subjects and paints, we looked at the skull and painted with vapors.“
The helmet and smoke were combined in an arduous process of post-production. Vadukul first made a rough low-res file of possible variations on the final image and gave this to his retoucher to use as a guide. Vadukul and his retoucher took a total of four months to achieve the perfect balance “because I like to study the image over time to be at peace with it.” Vadukul has destroyed images of his works in process, letting only the final image stand to speak for itself.
Vadukul spoke with our Editor Zack Seckler about his philosophy toward his art and success:
TFS: How did you come up with the idea for your Art of War Series?
Vadukul: I guess how the story begins, sometimes my work actually happens, usually when I’m sleeping, or I’m day dreaming, or just not listening to somebody, and I go off on another tangent, which, I’m not trying to be rude or anything, but sometimes conversations are not interesting, and I go off on another planet. This particular image, I had this idea, this vision. It comes from cinematography, because I love film. Sometimes my ideas are born from moving images or a story. This particular image was actually born form an idea of a museum that contains archived pieces of warfare. This is actually a moment in the evening where everyone has gone home and everything just ignites and comes back to life and the spirit of this fighter pilot just pops out of that helmet for a short while but no one ever sees it. So it was a little story that was going on in my head when I was sleeping and this was the image that I came up with. I just loved the idea that you generally don’t see who that person is. In fact, in warfare, in aerial combat, the pilots never see each other. I love the idea of not what that pilot looks like, but the spirit of that pilot inside. There is something very evil, something sinister. I don’t know, it’s just something really passive, it’s my interpretation of that.
TFS: Why is the theme of warfare so important to you?
Vadukul: I don’t think anybody really likes war. Nobody likes killing or fighting. But there are different types of fights in life. We are battling different things in different forms. I love the design of everything to do with the military. I love the graphics and all that stuff. But the ‘Art of War’ has no blood and gore. I’ve taken portraits of these warriors–I call them warriors–set in their own bizarre worlds. It’s a surreal representation of what I think these characters may be experiencing. It’s got a lot to do with them showing up in places where they’ve died in combat and being reborn in this surreal place before they become pilots and go through the whole reincarnation process.
In war you’ve got combat and in real life you’ve got combat in some other form or manner. Every day you wake up and there are things that you have to just do. There are things you have to attack. To get through life you have to go through it. You can’t sit there and do nothing. You’ve got to move mentally and physically to evolve. Your intelligence and sensitivity become more powerful. Progression should lead you to a higher point every day of your life. Regression is not a good thing. I’ve been doing this since I was sixteen, this war stuff. I’ve always had a fascination for this. It’s only in the last two years that something clicked–don’t ask me what it is–it was always there. Every single image kind of has a story behind it. There was no conscious decision to choose this to represent philosophical or mental battles that we face every day, some of which are good and some of which are bad. It may look like it’s conscious, but it’s actually totally subconscious.
TFS: Do you think Art of Warfare the series represents not just warfare but also the battles that people face within themselves?
Vadukul: In my mind it does. In that way it’s so personal. That’s what art is: it’s whatever you make of it. My explanations go much deeper than what ‘The Art of War’ is on the surface. I’m very interested in the layers that we all have. We all have layers–hundreds of thousands of them. There are a lot of layers of meaning behind these images, like how do you interpret a dream?
TFS: You are unique in the sense that you shoot a broad range of subject matter in varying styles. It’s interesting to me as a photographer because ever since day one people say that you have to specialize. How have you succeeded as a photographer without specializing?
Vadukul: How do you measure success? Do you measure success by quantity? Do you measure it by fame? Do you measure it by money? What is it, you know? I think success in this case was actually getting it through those different commercial subject matters, like if it was music, or advertising, or if it was a live record… fashion, etc. The thing is, it all comes down to sticking close to what you want to do, and not really giving in too much. All this stuff… like money, all these things, whatever you want to do, you have to, as I tell you, you have to live, and eat, and survive. What tends to happen when you’ve got such a diverse range of styles or a very personal point of view, people get very exited or attracted by it. Most of the time the work they’re actually doing isn’t really that interesting. So it’s quite mundane. When they see something that is pretty exciting, they say “how could I apply this to this product, or to this idea?” Sometimes you actually get inundated, like “this one would like to work on this campaign, how would you approach it? What work can you come up with, ideas to make this breathe?” You know, it’s pretty exciting in doing it your way. Now that’s very, very rare. So, you know, it’s nice when you’re able to. When you’re not, that’s when you have to kick back on your personal work … you must keep that going, you know?
TFS: As far as marketing goes, do you have separate books for different styles or do you put everything together in one book?
Vadukul: There is a general book, and there are books that we make up, actually kind of tailored for a specific project. You have to be really quick on how you put that together. Sometimes the client won’t tell you what the job is, they just want to see a book, so you give them a general book. Sometimes they’ll call back and say, “do you have something more specific this?” Of course you say, “yes, or course we have,” and you provide it. My reply today is, I don’t do it, and only because you can do it after you specialize. After you specialize, then you can go completely mad and do what ever you want.
TFS: How did you avoid becoming a specialist?
Vadukul: I did it the other way around. I specialized in diversity and basically I’m not really trying to specialize in anything right now. Once you’ve done that you set your goal, your identity, your ground, and that’s what people remember you for, which is a great thing. You tend to get put up for the most creative jobs, because jobs that aren’t so creative, quite simple, the clients tend to get quite scared, they don’t know what you’re going to do, even though you’re not going to come back with a picture that is not what they are expecting, you know what I’m saying? They’re terrified, and they really don’t know, so that fear is not a good thing to have around. The only advantage from my pint of view is that I’ve retained an extremely high level of integrity about what I do. I haven’t really sold out, you know, I have to say, to get my head in the door, and then come back and say, OK, now what I want to try to become is this, which is fine. I’ve just always been like that. I do what I do and that’s what I do, if you want me to do this I can do that too. If you want me to shoot a very simple portrait I’ll shoot a simple portrait and it will be a really great portrait. That really brings you into an arena of creatives that I guess in some respect is on par with your level, you know? You’re not working with somebody who is very insecure and terrified to use you. Or not really knowing how to. The best jobs that I’ve ever worked with are where the creative director says “I just want your best shot – give me a great image.” Go and shoot something that’s really going to knock me off my chair. That’s the brief – go out and make a great image. When you look at images shot by Penn, Avedon, etc., you know that they are really strong images. They’ve gone in there with a 35 mm camera and armed with a great eye, and see things. So, diversity is a great thing, I believe, because you explore things you never would have really explored. At the same time it’s always very important to stick close to what you’re really good at. Don’t try to be a jack of all trades, which is certainly not my intention. It’s just that I love approaching everything. If you give me a flower, I’ll go shoot a flower. It doesn’t really matter, I’m interested in everything. As I said, traveling from ordinary to extraordinary, that’s a great philosophy to have. How can you make this thing that’s been seen a million times by somebody look like something you’ve never seen before?