Not everyone gets a second chance with a team of Navy Seals. But, for photographer Morgan Silk, inspiration is hard to shake. It wasn’t enough that he’d shot the special forces as they reenacted a hostage rescue scene. Silk wanted to get down from the director’s platform, away from the commercial constraints and create his own intense, individual portraits.
After completing the Sony Playstation shoot for TBWA/Chiat/Day, Silk re-recruited the Seals for a second, more personal session. Unlike the complex scenes shot for the strategy game, Silk’s portraits reveal the power of the individual. “These guys are all in the same kind of uniform, they act as one, they follow the same orders, but they’re all individual guys with a different personality,” says Silk, “They switch off from what they’re trained to do and they talk to you like anybody else.”
They may talk like anybody else, but Navy Seals sport some pretty intense gear. Silk wanted to focus on the power of their weapons, their special training. In order to let these elements emerge, Silk kept the setup pretty basic, blending natural and artificial light. “I just wanted to concentrate on the subject. I didn’t want to complicate it.” Silk shot with a Hasselblad H2 with a Phaseone P45+ back tethered via Capture One software to a MacBook Pro. He used a 80mm lens and an exposure of f/11 at 1/60th of a second. The lighting was straightforward: a beauty dish directly above the camera acted as the key light, two Profoto heads slightly behind the subject added edge light and a reflector below the subject added some fill. The sky was shot separately on a Canon 5D using a 16-35 LII lens and was composited with the portrait images in post.
Once the basic portraits were in place, it was time to tweak the images in post-production. Silk added layers of contrast, saturation and sharpening until he’d produced the grit and grain that added to the psychology of the portrait. “I wanted to almost enhance blemishes, if you know what I mean, rather than polishing them out.”
Thanks to years spent as a highly sought after digital retoucher, Silk had no need to hire out post production. Retouching for global ad campaigns, Silk was known for his ability to translate the photographer’s style to the image. Working for a range of photographers meant he built an enviable repertoire of treatments. Tools that he now applies to his own work.
Venturing beyond observational landscapes and fine art, the London-based photographer discovered a new inspiration in the gritty. “I spent years polishing things to perfection for advertising. It’s like it’s therapy to get out there and find something that’s a little bit shabby and dirty and…real. And then maybe just enhance it in a way.”
For the last six years, Silk has focused exclusively on his own photography, leaving behind the career in digital retouching. Getting discovered by Young & Rubicam London led to shooting his own global campaigns instead of retouching them for others. “Like I say, it’s a journey. And you know, doing formal portraits one day and then maybe hanging out of a helicopter the next,” says Silk. “You can’t just sit in front of the computer all your life.”
Silk was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
Silk: In September I was in San Diego shooting a print ad for SoCom, a strategy game for Sony Playstation. We used real Navy Seals in a shot and the whole thing had to have Pentagon approval. It was a massive complicated job with lots of multi-part comps, a film and movie lighting crew, and a big set. There were about 15 people in the shot. I ended up directing this thing from a cherry picker platform, so I never got to chat with the guys and shoot some stuff with them separate from the job. I spoke to my agent afterwards and told him I wanted to shoot the Seals. He got in touch with them and they organized for a regroup at the same location where we shot the ad. I wanted to get these guys back together and look at them in a different way without commercial constraints
F STOP: What was your approach to lighting?
Silk: I wanted to analyze everything about them in terms of their power. What they were wearing was important. I wanted their gear to look worn, not too clean. So I lit it with that in mind. I used a Profoto kit, it was a basic three light set up. I did two standard profoto heads side lighting from slightly behind the subject. I kept it simple and symmetrical because I just wanted to concentrate on the subject and didn’t want to complicate it.
F STOP: Tell me about the post-production. It’s a very distinctive look..
Silk: I do all my own retouching. My background is partly post-production, so it’s affected the way I shoot. For this image, I wanted to bring out the textures in everything. I also wanted to work with the idea that these guys operate at night and always do their missions under darkness. The Special Forces guys have a reputation that’s got a sort of mystique to it. I wanted to take a combat field, gritty and enhance the blemishes, rather than polish them out. I used different layering. I played around with contrast, saturation, sharpening, and grain. I would take it almost too far and then pull it back. I might end up with something that’s way, way too graphic, then I can overlay it with the original and then fade it through and find a happy medium that works well in print. I feel my way through until I know something is right. There’s no kind of system in place. Post-production is important, it’s something I wouldn’t want to hand over just to anybody.
F STOP: How long did it take to do all the post-production on this?
Silk: It took about a day. I worked on it on screen to a certain level and then printed it. I looked at the print, went back to the screen again and then worked to the print from then on. My color is pretty good from screen to print, but there’s a very different feel to a print than a monitor obviously.
Silk: It certainly was like going back to where I started. Because I started out studying photography at college and thought I was going to be a fashion photographer.
It’s been quite a long time since I shot any portraits. I thought, “Hey, I’ve got these guys here, let’s do this,” because it’s not very often you get the chance to shoot these Navy Seals. I didn’t just want to get them doing stuff because these guys are all individuals. They’re all in the same kind of uniform, they act as one, they follow the same orders, they do the same things, they drill, they repeat, but they’re all individual guys with a different personality and they switch off from what they’re trained to do and they talk to you like anybody else. I wanted to do very simple, very straightforward portraiture because I hadn’t done it for so long.
F STOP: Is this going to be a new direction in your work?
Silk: I’m going to incorporate more people into the work. That’s definitely something that I need to do from a commercial perspective as well.
F STOP: Why do you need to do it?
Silk: Every time a book goes out to agencies, they ask, “Oh, have you got any more people shots?” It’s been such a long time since I focused on photographing people.
F STOP: I’m curious to know how you arrived at your distinctive look.
Silk: It’s quite an organic process when you work on your own images. A lot of it happens subconsciously. You find a way of printing your work that you’re happy with.
I was doing a lot of retouching for different photographers and so I’d work on different photographers’ images. I had to adapt to different styles of retouching to different photographers’ work for different commissions to set up specific feels. I developed my own treatments to suit them.
F STOP: Do you have certain techniques that you generally gravitate towards?
Silk: A lot of my work is shot on film, so the scanning stage is very important. I’ve adopted a lot more digital capture these days, but a lot of the work that you see on the website and in my portfolio was shot on film. It’s only just recently that I’ve been shooting digitally for clients. So it all starts with the film and the way that that’s treated. For instance, the zoo images, were all shot on transparency, medium format film, and then I pushed it for a grainy look. It suited the mood to sort of bring out all of the imperfections. I’ve always been into manipulation of images before digital.
F STOP: Are you still primarily shooting film?
Silk: I just invested in a Canon 1DS Mark III. I’m going down that road now because I’m quite interested in experimenting with HDR and stitching, and other techniques in post-production. It changes the way you shoot things and how you handle the camera. It’s an exciting voyage.
F STOP: Tell me about your transition from retouching to shooting?
Silk: I’m 38 now. I left college at 22. Time flies. I buried myself under some books about Photoshop for a couple of years and did some teaching, and moved to London. I was assisting for a couple of years. After 10 years of building this up, working in post-production and working on my own I had to get back into shooting because I missed it so much. It’s like a therapy, you know. I bought myself a Mamiya 7 and went off to Italy and shot a load of stuff.
F STOP: When did you start shooting again?
Silk: 2002. I stopped for about 5 years. It’s great though, because if I had just stuck at what I was doing then, I wouldn’t be shooting the same stuff I am now.
F STOP: So all the images up on your site are basically from the last six years?
Silk: Pretty much.
F STOP: A lot of them are found images (non-produced imagery) right?
F STOP: So tell me about your process of creating this body of work. What kind of equipment are you using?
Silk: It’s a similar philosophy to the idea of lighting those portraits. I kept it to a basic one bag, one camera, one lens set-up. I focus on things that most people would think was kind of mundane,. But it was fresh to me because maybe I’d go to a different country and go and look at the landscape and see what there was there.
F STOP: So your basic process for creating your personal images is to simply go find things that interests you?
Silk: Pretty much.
F STOP:Do you have a particular goal or a message that that you are looking for or are trying to fulfill?
Silk: Of course. The goal now is to keep shooting. I enjoy the mystery and excitement. When you first get into photography, you can’t wait to see how something is going to come out and you watch the image appear on the paper. It’s magical I don’t know if that answers your question, but in terms of philosophy, it’s more about looking for things that aren’t perfect: anomalies, imperfections, textures, quirky little things.
F STOP: What appeals to you about that?
Silk: I spent years polishing things to perfection for advertising. It’s like therapy to get out there and find something that’s a little bit shabby and dirty. I’m continually trying new stuff out and learning. You can’t just sit in front of a computer all your life.
F STOP:Tell me about how that sitting in front of the computer has affected how you shoot now, because you obviously have a wealth of experience from doing all this post-production for these global ad campaigns.
Silk: In terms of personal work, I’ve developed more of an interest in digital photography, so now I’m stitching images, and overlaying the exposure brackets and capturing a wider range than I used to be able to on film. I like to keep personal work a little looser, more free. Those Navy Seal shots are the first personal images where I’ve actually comped stuff together, and that’s partly due to the location. Other images I’ve produced are pretty much as they were shot and I comped it slightly and adjusted the colors. I like to keep it simple if possible, but on jobs it’s very difficult these days. There’s a lot of reliance on post-production. It’s almost become a way of life in the industry, you know. People just fix everything later. Whereas I try to fix everything as much as possible at the shooting stage.
F STOP:It seems like a lot of your images are in the American West, what do you like about that location?
Silk: I’m like a kid in a sweet shop when I go to a new place. I just have my camera with me and I’m just constantly looking for new things to shoot.
F STOP: Was it difficult to break in with your first advertising job?
Silk: It took a while, but I got a break when an art buyer from Raney Kelly found a picture from my zoo series, which won a gold AOP award. It was unheard of for a new comer, so my portfolio started getting called in. They liked my treatment and the way I approach things and they had a small budget job that they wanted to try me out with for Land Rover. It didn’t involve an automotive subject. There was no car in the shot. It was a shot of a grassy mountain with rugby posts, because Land Rover was an official sponsor of the England Rugby team.
F STOP: Do you have any fine art exhibitions?
Silk: I shot an award winning series of aerial landscapes in Cape Town last year. I’ve been asked to exhibit them in Shanghai, at the ninth international photography show. Up until now I’ve exhibited locally in small galleries.
F STOP: Are you moving in the direction of portraiture for your personal work?
Silk: I don’t really want to become pigeonholed just yet. I’m going to play for a little longer before that happens. I’m working on pursuing some projects which involve a little more of a narrative. It’s all experimenting at the moment. Not so much formal portraiture, I don’t think it will all be down that road. I think I’m going to incorporate people into the landscape, into the location.
F STOP: Why haven’t you done many people shots up to this point?
Silk: It wasn’t a conscious thing. I produce a lot of images with people in them, but they’re not the main subject. I really enjoyed working with the Navy Seals and have started some new people based projects. The more you work in the industry, the more people you meet and the more involved you get with people, so you incorporate more into your work. When I got my camera, it was more therapy. It was about getting away from the computer and looking at other things. Looking at and focusing on creating new images for myself and getting out there into the world. It’s a solitary existence when you’re doing post-production and working for yourself.