Antony Crossfield has something of a dream life: the painter-turned-photographer makes a living solely from sales of his fine art works in Europe and the United States. His provocative, thoughtful images often take as long to compose as a painting. One image, “The Hunt,” took six months. Crossfield explains how the wait was worth it this way: The complex intellectual ecosystem of each image causes a process so long he sometimes calls it “epic.” Complexity, intellectual ambition, the desire to reinvent the image—that’s all part of the delay. The other part is money.
Many fine art photographers accept commercial work to pay the bills. Crossfield didn’t even accept it in his early career. Instead, the man who has made his name distorting images of human bodies spent his remunerative hours perfecting them beyond reality. “Photography as a whole seems completely preoccupied with the young naked female figure,” said the former full time retoucher. “Part of my interest in the body is to address that and to balance it with a focus on the male figure. I’m also interested in the imperfect body. The first thing that everybody wants a retoucher to do is remove all the wrinkles and fix all the lumps and bumps. I like to use the tools of commercial retouching that are usually used to remove all of those flaws in the body for different purposes and leave all the flaws in. I’d like to show a different view of the human body, as vulnerable to age and disease. Many of the artists that interest me take a raw, unsentimental view of the body.”
His focus on the imperfect human body is evident in our featured image. Part of a series entitled “Inversion,” his goal was “to make an image that addressed the rhetoric of photography as objective, factual information that corresponds to a system of understanding the world that implies complete objectivity and a totalizing theory of information.” In other words, he took on the camera’s omnipotence with the camera itself. The splayed human figure, to Crossfield, both undermines and alienates the viewer. Such an undertaking was not easy.
On a limited budget, he needed to create the main image of the room itself, shoot a separate image of the talent in a studio, stitch about 12 images together seamlessly in Photoshop and finally add 3-D elements to the final image. For the location he needed to find a unique room that was tall enough for a rig allowing him to shoot from the ceiling (but not with a super wide-angle lens which would create excessive distortion) but had very narrow walls. Once he finally found the location he proceeded to shoot it in about ten to twelve different spots that would later be composited together to create a very high-resolution file. He made minor adjustments to his lighting along the way: at first shooting just ambient light from the window and then adding strobes bounced off of reflectors outside the window to light a larger area of the room. Next he photographed the male talent in a studio hanging from a piece of scaffolding. He then lit the talent with two strobes bouncing off the ceiling in order to match the ambient light from the location image. He shot all of the images on film using a Mamiya RZ6. Other aspects of the image left him unsatisfied. Though the crumbly walls and exposed pipes evoked aspects of the imperfect body, the pristine radiator “didn’t fit the way I wanted it.” Using 3-D imagery, he made one himself. “Coming from my background as a painter,” he says. “I like my hand to be in all of the elements of a picture.”
Crossfield was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
F STOP: Describe your path to becoming a photographer?
Crossfield: My background is in painting. I didn’t develop a serious interest in photography until I got a job with a retouching company after graduating from college. The more I used retouching technology, the more I became fascinated by the possibility of making pictures photographically, but with the same sensibility that I would bring to a painting.
F STOP: How long have you been a photographer?
Crossfield: About eight years, but I’ve been making pictures for as long as I can remember. It’s always been the dominant thing in my life. It’s just that the medium has changed. There is a set of conceptual baggage that comes with photography. When people look at a photograph they assume a number of things. They assume a certain degree of objectivity and the idea of instantaneous fact. All of these older, pre-digital ideas still persist and it’s interesting to question and undermine them using computer manipulation. For example, I like the fact that images that took weeks or months to produce still have the aura of an instantaneous moment simply by virtue of them being a photograph.
F STOP: Do you think those ideas are going to change photography?
Crossfield: I think it inevitably will as the technology becomes more widespread and more understood. There are many photographers who cling to an old idea of photography before digital manipulation. There is a place for that kind of work. But many photographers use digital tools to imitate pre-digital darkroom techniques and disguise their use of retouchers. I think this is problematic. I prefer to exploit the digital medium to its full potential and acknowledge its use rather than just use it to imitate an older pre-digital techniques out of a kind of nostalgia.
Crossfield: I was dealing with the theme of alienation. I wanted to make an image that addressed the rhetoric of photography as objective, factual information that corresponds to a system of understanding the world that implies complete objectivity and a totalizing theory of information. I wanted to play with the idea of photography as a ‘God’s-eye view’ on the world. I place the camera on the ceiling and evoke imagery associated with objectivity like maps or satellite imagery. I play up all of these factors and then undermine them by inserting a figure into the picture to break the dynamic, but also to suggest an alienating idea of people who exist outside of the dominant structures of knowledge in the world.
F STOP: Please tell me about how you executed the image.
Crossfield: The image took about three to four months, including retouching. I do all of my own retouching. There were two shoots. Shooting the room was a huge logistical operation. I needed to find a location that was tall enough to enable me to build a rig to get the camera close to the ceiling and still allow access to it. The image with the man is shot on film, which made things a lot more difficult because you can’t run up and down the ladder changing film. It was all shot in sections on a Mamiya RZ67
F STOP: Did you stitch together several images?
Crossfield: I took about ten or twelve pictures of the room. I wanted to reproduce it very large and have a high-resolution final print. The shoot was entirely self-funded, which created a lot of limitations. I put together an initial draft of the room in retouching to get a particular feel and mood that I wanted before I shot the people. I built another rig with a big scaffold that the people could hang from and spent a day shooting them in different positions. I had two lights firing off the ceiling and bouncing down on him to create the effect of the window. I would have liked to have a soft box suspended above him, but the studio wasn’t equipped for that.
F STOP: What about the lighting in the room itself? Was that all ambient light coming from that window?
Crossfield: I had two big reflectors covering the window. The window itself was shot with ambient light, but for the rest of the room I had lights firing at two big reflectors that were covering the window. I was unable to have all of the elements to fill the room the way I wanted. For example, the radiator in the location looked boring. I wanted something old and slightly damaged, so I built another one in a 3-D program and then composited it into the picture. The door is [also]3-D.
F STOP: What do you look for when trying to find a location?
Crossfield: I like my locations to have a corporeal quality to them. A lot of my work focuses on the human body. The crumbly walls and exposed pipes evoke this, even though they are not literally bodies. So when the location didn’t fit the way I wanted it, I was able to augment it with 3-D imagery. I do all of that myself. Coming from my background as a painter, I like my hand to be in all of the elements of a picture.
F STOP: Three to four months is a long time to work on an image. Was most of that spent in post-production?
Crossfield: It was for two images. I like to spend a long time on pictures and developing ideas. I think it helps the imagery both conceptually and qualitatively.
F STOP: How and why did you choose to develop the human body as an over-arching theme in your work?
Crossfield: So much photography seems completely preoccupied with the young naked female figure. Part of my interest in the body is to address that and to balance it with a focus on the male figure. I’m also interested in the imperfect body. The first thing that everybody wants a retoucher to do is remove all the wrinkles and fix all the lumps and bumps. I like to use the tools of commercial retouching that are usually used to remove all of those flaws in the body for different purposes and leave all the flaws in. I’d like to show a different view of the human body, as vulnerable to age and disease. Many of the artists that interest me take a raw, unsentimental view of the body.
F STOP: Do you feel that you are a part of that commercial machine in any way? Or that you have a responsibility to show people more of a “reality”?
Crossfield: No, I don’t feel responsible if I’m retouching someone elses pictures. If a photographer tells me to make a model fatter or leave all the wrinkles in when I am working as a retoucher, I will do that. Ultimately, they are the author of their photographs, so I don’t feel responsible. But with my own work I take those issues very seriously because I think the relentless presentation of a limited idea of the beauty and the body in retouched, mass media imagery is a serious issue with serious consequences. However, I think digital manipulation has so much potential as a tool if it is embraced intelligently, but using it to just eliminate spots and wrinkles is boring and unimaginative.
F STOP: Is there a special message that you’d like your audience to take away after viewing your work?
Crossfield: I want people to come away from the pictures asking questions. Questions about photography and questions about how the body relates to identity. This issue is at the core of the Foreign Body. Some of the subjects are unadorned models with unusual shapes by normal beauty standards, but once you get past those stereotypical ideas about what a body should look like there is a huge amount of beauty.
F STOP: Tell me about your casting process. How do you find your models and get them to expose what many people would consider an imperfect form for the camera?
Crossfield: I tend to avoid professional models. They tend to pose in a very self-conscious way that’s completely the opposite of what I want in most of my pictures. Initially I hired life models because it was difficult to find models that would pose naked.
Sometimes I ask people randomly, not necessarily on the street, but at parties, or exhibition openings. They are often people I know socially and trust that I am not exploitative in any way. It also has a lot to do with their attitude in front of the camera. I like to work with people who are fairly uninhibited and not self-conscious.
F STOP: Do you still work as a retoucher for other photographers?
Crossfield: Occasionally, but less and less. I’m now represented by two galleries and my work is starting to sell.
Crossfield: I would rather focus my efforts on fine art photography; exhibiting and selling prints. There is just much more freedom to explore interesting areas of image making that commercial imagery wouldn’t touch. But I never rule out commercial photography. I’ve had some interest in that area from people, but so much of my aesthetic is deliberately tailored to go against the grain of commercial imagery.
F STOP: In your artist statement, you say you’re trying to draw attention to “the invisible forces of culture and psychology that shape and reshape the body.” Can you expound on that?
Crossfield: It’s inspired by the 20th century French philosopher, Michel Foucault. He writes about how the body is shaped by culture rather than natural forces. In Foucault, language, history and other discourses produce a kind of discipline and control over the body and, in a sense, inscribe onto the body the affects of society, culture and power. For example, this can be thought of in terms of how we organize our understanding of the body through language, or how gender and sexuality can be seen as social constructions. These idea interests me very much and I try to explore how society and culture is manifested physically in the body.
F STOP: It’s clear there is a lot of intellectual thought and reasoning behind your work. I guess this is kind of a chicken or the egg question…did you come up with the general idea for these bodies of work first, or did you start executing the imagery and then start to write and intellectualize about it afterwards?
Crossfield: It’s a bit of both. I have a strong interest in art theory, cultural theory, and philosophy, but at the same time I have a very strong propensity to just visualize pictures instinctively without any kind of intellectual structure. For example, there is an instinctive element to just develop a very powerful image in all of the Foreign Body pictures. But then, for example, there is another picture I did fairly recently called “The Hunt” which is a picture of a hunting scene and quite atypical of my normal style. It was a deliberate intellectual process. I’m not drawn to pictures of hunting scenes, but I was interested in the history of photography as it relates to painting and how the way horses were painted before the invention of photography was incorrect. Photography corrected this understanding. I was interested in reinstating the wrong understanding of how horses run, with all four legs in the air at the same time in order to reaffirm the subjective, expressive potential of picture making over mere information.
F STOP: We spoke earlier about how much time you spend on an image. Do all of your images take several months?
Crossfield: My interest at the moment is very much to compress long periods of time into single photographs. Sometimes restricted budgets mean projects take longer than planned. “The Hunt” was shot in multiple locations. Obviously the horses were shot separately from the background, which was a combination of different shots. The foreground was shot separately, the people on the horse were shot separately, and the dogs were shot separately. It turned into an epic project. If I had sufficient funding it could have been done a lot quicker. To return to my reaction to commercial imagery, it all has to be done “now, now, now,” there’s always this panic and so much is lost. Sometimes it’s great and you can get a lot of spontaneity doing something spur of the moment, but when I don’t have the commercial pressures I like to allow the slow accumulation of ideas and take time to indulge that to a degree. “The Hunt” took about six months, but with big gaps in between.
F STOP: Do you have an image or series that you are most proud of?
Crossfield: I’m most pleased with Foreign Body.
F STOP: Are you working on a series now?
Crossfield: I’m working towards an exhibition in New York scheduled for next November. The pictures explore a similar kind of aerial perspective as “Inversion.” Foreign Body is an ongoing project, but it has developed in a direction of exploring classical mythology. I’ve done a few like Narcissus and one called “The Invention of Drawing” that reinterprets Greek myths relating to the transformation of the body.
Crossfield: No, not at all. The whole question of what is and isn’t art is almost a bit of a red herring sometimes. I wouldn’t want to be too prescriptive about what a photograph has to be in order to qualify as art, however, I find it difficult that so many commercial photographers get bored with their commercial success and suddenly decide that they want to be taken seriously as artists. I’m not saying that being a commercial photographer rules them out, but I think it is naïve to think that the aesthetic of commercial photography can go straight into a gallery and be called art. I think you have to be doing something a bit more interesting than selling clothes in your pictures, for example. I don’t want to sound like I’ve got an issue about this, but I have been surprised by how many photographers want to make the switch from commercial photography to fine art photography without actually changing what they do.
To see more of Crossfield’s work visit his website.