Written by Lloyd Wise
Edited by Nisha Chittal
Cobwebs, tea-stains, and creaky doors; mirrors, daggers, and hallways leading to nowhere: this is Chris Anthony’s world. A film and television director for many years, this Visionaire of the gothic has recently returned to his niche in photography, a medium he loves because it allows him the freedom he needs. In film there were distractions—deadlines to meet, logistics to coordinate—he never had the space to experiment, to “just sort of free yourself and play.” And play is essential to Anthony’s work. The solitude of the studio allows him room for trial and error, and the chance his overactive imagination and idiosyncratic interests might mix to create an unintended success.
With its sepia hues, our featured image reveals Chris Anthony’s taste for the past. He has dressed the talent with his ever-growing collection of vintage props and costumes, and as influences, he cites movements as far flung as the pre-Raphaelites (not exactly standard fare for the modern photographer.) It was his European childhood, he says, that helped him hone this love of history; a love he even brings into his experiments: He employs his collection of antique lenses—those made from 1870 to 1910—in many of his shoots. But Anthony isn’t lost in time. Rather, his work depends on merging his vintage aesthetic with the technical advances of the digital age.
Our featured image is an anarchic scene, where dwarfs go to battle, hurling fireballs, wielding swords, and shooting guns. A debauched sleeping beauty lies sprawled on a table, the trophy, seemingly, in this doll-sized battle of good and evil. Anthony’s past in film and television attuned him to the trappings of narrative, so presenting a story is essential to his work. He says: “I think that really formed the way I like to make pictures these days,” shaping what is “not really story telling, but a certain narrative quality I think they have – a little bit like they are maybe a still frame from a scene from a film.”
To produce this image, with its aspect ratio mimicking a cinema screen, Anthony started with several separate shots: each individual figure, the room, and even the wallpaper. For the different setups a different configuration of equipment was necessary: a 4×5 was used for the room shots, and a Hasselblad with an 80mm Zeiss lens for the “little people.” Lighting in each of the shots took a flash from Calumet Travelite 750 w/s strobes with medium sized chimeras bounced off a 20 foot high ceiling. This, as it happens, also connects to Anthony’s love of history; photographs in the Victorian era were often taken beneath skylights, bringing light to the subjects from above.
After each image was developed, they were scanned and pulled together in a day-long process of retouching. Digital rendering was particularly necessary, as he didn’t have the resources to create a room big enough for the scene. He took a photograph of the wallpaper and then cloned it to bring the room up to scale. So with a little bit of digital tweaking, the separate images were woven together into one—as seamlessly as his career merges present to the past.
Anthony was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
F STOP: How did you get your start as a photographer?
Anthony: I started shooting bands when I was pretty young, like twelve or thirteen. I was living in Sweden, had a fanzine, and I shot shows and stuff like that. I was really not interested in photography as much as the music business, but photography was a way to get access to all of that. Over the next couple of years, I got better at it, and when I was fourteen or fifteen I was actually doing it semi-professionally. I moved to Italy to study art history, and at one point I stopped cold with photography and went into film– for the next eleven or twelve years, I worked in film and was a director. That really formed the way I like make pictures these days—with a certain narrative quality I think they have – each one feels like it could be a still frame from a scene from a film. I like to create a little world with characters as opposed to doing straightforward portraiture or shooting models or that sort of things. About four or five years ago, I picked up on photography again. I had found a new passion for it, and came at it very much influenced by what I had learned and done in film.
F STOP: How has your film experience helped you in what you’re doing now in photography?
Anthony: I was very hands-on as a director when it came to the visual side, because I did, after all, have somewhat of a visual background as a still photographer. When it came to the photography of all the films that I worked on, or costume, set design, all that stuff, I was very much on top of that. On some projects, I downright just did it myself as well. That was something that was a big part of filmmaking for me, and something that I learned a lot about while I was making films. Quite frankly, the one thing that I really love about doing still photos now as opposed to doing film is the control over the process. Whether it’s your own project or you’re hired to do a music video or something, no matter what, there’s going to be a lot of filters during the process – with other people – it’s just a much bigger kind of apparatus than doing a still picture with crews and all the logistics. What I’ve discovered is that I prefer doing things on my own as much as possible. With still photography, it’s much more possible to do that.
F STOP: Tell me about the process of creating the featured image FEAR OF EMOTIONAL CHEMISTRY.
Anthony: That image was kind of a test because I wanted to do a series of pretty big pictures that featured a main character all in different environments that would be in sort of a state of unconsciousness – either asleep or maybe even dead, or sort of whacked out on drugs or something. Then they have their environment explored by little people that are like eight inches tall. It would be a manifestation of what’s going on inside the head of the main character, a little bit dreamlike. I had a number of ideas for different images, with different characters, different environments, and what the little people in each of these pictures would look like and what they’d be doing. Basically, I had an idea that it would be a young girl falling asleep. It was going to be more of a benign visit from these little people. I knew what they would look like, a little motley crew of little guys. I just worked with the model and makeup artist, Jamie. We basically shot it all in my living room. We did it all in one evening pretty much. I just did one piece at a time. In terms of the makeup and the design, and the costumes and everything, I just sort of made it up as I went along. None of that was really thought out beforehand.
F STOP: It seems like all these images have a vintage look to them, what interests you about that style?
Anthony: I guess it’s a set of aesthetics or tastes that’s derived from many things. I was born and raised in the countryside in Sweden. I lived in Stockholm. We lived in the south of Spain. I lived in Morocco, then in New York, then back to Sweden. Of course, I went to study art history in Italy. I think this helped me appreciate a lot of European history and the aesthetics of certain time periods since I was really young. I was never really interested in modern, like 20th century art, or modern architecture; somehow that other Victorian time period really appealed to me always. I almost wish I lived in that world; it’s definitely very much a part of me. Of course when it comes to the two dimensional art that I like, it’s derived from the mid 19th century British painters and pre-Raphaelites and the symbolists. I love that. I love the Renaissance. I’m also more influenced and inspired by painters than other photographers. It’s a feeling that really appeals to me. I guess it’s natural that it finds its way into what I try to do myself.
F STOP: Do you have any particular painters you’d like to name?
Anthony: Caravaggio and the Flemish painters. Then photographers like Juliet Margaret Cameron. I love Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. I think they are absolutely fantastic, the portraits are amazing. At the end of the day, if I could draw worth a damn, I’d probably be a painter, not a photographer. I am experimenting a little lately with compiling a lot of different elements together in my photographs. I’ve been experimenting a lot the past few months with really, really old lenses. I’ve been buying up and gathering lenses from the 1870s to 1910, all kinds of different old lenses, and been testing them and found a couple that I really like. I’ve been doing a lot of portraits with those lenses and the quality is just fantastic. It has such a beautiful sort of swirly, blurry look to it. That’s really fun and different from what I normally do. There’s not much postproduction on that. It’s pretty much done once you shoot it. It’s really nice.
F STOP: This style that you have is so unique. How did you come up with it?
Anthony: The first couple of years that I picked up on still photography again, I was going much more straightforward. I was really just kind of finding my way with it again, and really just messing around for a good couple of years. On my web site there is a series called Red White Black and Blue. That is the first attempt I made at doing a somewhat cohesive series of pictures. It was during that process that I first composited two or three images together into one. I just started looking at it and felt like deconstructing it and putting it back together again. That’s when I started doing it and learned how to do it. It’s not really that difficult to do, it just takes a lot of time. It’s just a lot of little fine-tuning so to speak. You can take pieces from this and put it in that. When I started working on the Victims and Avengers series, I did not set out to do a lot of retouching with that series. I was actually shooting it much more straightforward. Then I realized that there were so many limitations of what I could do artistically. It’s like I could usually find everything I needed but it was almost always impossible to have everything together in one place at one time. I didn’t have the money or resources to build or manufacture these little worlds. It became a thing out of necessity to start by photographing the elements separately. Some of them are incredibly pieced together from many many pictures. Some are just a couple of images. Some are more simple and done all in camera. I really love that freedom.
F STOP: A lot of your images have this extreme horizontal format, what attracts you to this format?
Anthony: I think it has a lot to do with the narrative quality that I want in my pictures, the feel that something is really going on. I want it to have a context. It was more than just what the character was thinking or doing or what they had gone through, I want the viewer to really feel like they are in this space and something had happened in this space, and what did the affects of this space have on them emotionally? Again, that’s where I was thinking more in terms of film than regular photographs. It just seemed really appropriate to bring as much of the space that I could into the image and therefore doing it horizontally seemed to make sense, almost like an extreme version of cinemascope. I think it’s really nice on the eyes. In fact, I think in most of those images the aspect ratio is 1 to 2.5. I feel like actually 1 to 2 is the ideal. A lot of the stuff I’m doing now is basically two times longer on the width than the height. A great Italian cinematographer said that was like the ideal format for film. And it’s almost never been done.
F STOP: Are you currently doing more personal work? Or fine art to sell as prints?
Anthony: That’s pretty much one and the same. At the end of the day, my personal work is for the galleries. There is really no difference there, I’d be making the same photographs even if there wasn’t a show. That is the main goal with anything.
F STOP: Do you see yourself more as a fine art photographer or as an advertising photographer?
Anthony: I definitely see myself more in the fine art end of things. That’s what is most important to me – to be able to do my own stuff as much as I can. But the commercial side is really interesting and fun as well. So far, in the last year or so, I’ve been extremely lucky to do a few things that were really quite up my alley. It didn’t feel like I was in any way whoring myself out or anything. They were fun to do and it was fun to collaborate with the advertising agency and the record company, great people to work with. God, if I’m lucky enough to keep getting work like that every now and again, then what more can I ask for really? The fine art stuff has been only in the last year or so and is picking up in terms of sales and people buying prints and portfolios and stuff. I still need the commercial side to allow me to do the fine art stuff. It would be nice some day to just be able to do exactly what I want to do and maybe do some commercial job once in a blue moon. But right now I’m doing a little bit of both.
F STOP: What’s your approach to lighting?
Anthony: It varies because in this series the environments for each image are really quite different. That dictates different lighting schemes for different environments. In fact on this featured image, it differs a lot from Victims and Avengers. I actually did a lot of stuff on locations that entailed using available light. I rented a huge hotel for a few days just about a month ago, an old hotel from 1906 in downtown Los Angeles that Charlie Chaplin once owned. It has huge ballrooms and old suites and stuff. I shot several different environments in this place. The lighting was completely different from one shot to the next. In one particular shot it could be a huge open ballroom and I’d place the subject right near the window and pretty much just use the sunlight pouring in through these massive windows. In another one I’d do the same thing but maybe put a huge Octabank on a boom way high above. If there is any one thing that I do a lot it is that I almost always start with a top light; sometimes hardly anything more than that. I think that comes from my love of those old photographs from the Victorian era where a lot of times they’d shoot in a portrait studio where there would be a skylight. It’s very soft light coming from above. That’s the light I really, really like. Now when I’ve been shooting these portraits with the old lenses I’m shooting on an exposure of one or two seconds with these things, there’s no shutter, there’s no iris. I like it really, really simple.
F STOP: Where did you come up with the idea for using the little people in this series?
Anthony: It’s really just something from when I was a kid, I was kind of obsessed miniaturization. I could just sit there and stare at mundane objects on the table top, like an ashtray, a book, a pencil or something, and imagine myself being a few inches tall and how I would relate to the normal world being so little. Hours could go by where I would dream about that sort of stuff. It was always fascinating to me when I was a kid. It kind of stuck with me always. The idea to actually do it in a picture occurred to me last year at some point. It was really just going to be one little set of small people that were the main characters that you were going to follow through different photographs, but I threw that idea out. The idea of sticking with the little people, though, that was kind of fantastic, and also a little funny, with a little humor and not quite as dark and serious as the Victims and Avengers stuff.
F STOP: It seems like a lot of your ideas and influence on your work, a lot of it comes from your childhood. Why do you think that is?
Anthony: I don’t know. With certain people there are things that hit you so strong. When you are a kid there are certain influences, certain things in the world that affect you in such a deep way that it just sticks with you. I think it’s a really good thing as well to be able to be in touch with that side of oneself, and that sort of childlike sense, and of the things that amused you or frightened you as a kid. Those things just sort of stayed with me. It’s not like I sit around and reminisce all day long about my childhood, but certain things keep popping out. I can’t really let them go.
Note: The image featured in this article and more of Anthony’s new work will appear as part of the “I”M THE MOST NORMAL PERSON I KNOW” show at the Corey Helford Gallery at 8522 Washington Blvd. in Culver City, CA from January 26th to February 16th, 2008.