It seems like everywhere you look recently you see one of Kelvin Murray’s photographs. He’s won eight major awards for his imagery this year alone and you’ve likely come across our featured image in the 2009 PDN Photo Annual or in the 2008 Lürzer’s Archive 200 Best Ad Photographers Worldwide. Despite all of his success Murray is happy to
reminisce about his years as a budding photographer. He says he can’t underestimate the impact of the studio where he spent his first ten years. “I am a massive fan of the training that still-life brings you,” particularly, he adds, in the form’s emphasis on the fundamental aspects of images. “It’s great training for the mind as a photographer. You’re looking at every single aspect of your image and I think you can see [the influence of still-life photography] in the ‘Boob’ image.”
The concept for our featured image, or as we’ll call it the “Boob” image, was a collaboration between Murray and his art director at Getty Images. The idea was to focus on peoples’ anxieties around body image. “The original idea was a man in a studio just holding his torso which was kind of a strong upper torso body,” he explains. It’s a solid concept and Murray took it to a new level by using beautiful clean locations and casting people that “were real and might have really thought they wanted a smaller bum or bigger boobs.”
The lighting in this image may seem fairly straightforward (natural light from one large window you might have guessed?) but it’s actually all artificial light from two light sources. Murray had his team climb up onto a platform and place one Elinchrom head attached to two Elinchrom 404 power packs outside of a window in the bedroom. They then put a 1 stop silk between the Elinchrom head and the window to soften the light a bit and proceeded to set both packs to full power. Murray also had a ring flash attached to his Hasselblad V System camera to add a bit of fill light. Numerous flags were then used to help shape the broad light sources and prevent a flat look to the image “the light you take out is as important as what you put in.” Attached to his Hasselblad was a 40mm lens and a Leaf Aptus 75 digital back. The exposure was f/11.5 at 1/60th of a second and the back was set to 50 ISO “the best speed for the Leaf back.” Photoshop work was minimal. Murray adjusted the tones in the image and then added a bit of high dynamic range processing to the image for “a little bit of that digital crunch.”
What’s amply evident in our featured image is Murray’s wry comic touch. His style has been popular both in the UK and across the Atlantic and he’s frequently complimented for the humour in his photography. Interesting enough, however, Murray doesn’t view his work as having a comical feel, he says that’s largely accidental. “It must be how I look at the world. Even the body series, the “boobs” image you’re running, I don’t know if I see it as humorous. It may be humorous to other people but that’s not how I see it,” he says, adding that any smile it evokes is “more of a gentle smile, the acceptance that we all want a body different than the one we’ve got.”
Murray was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
F STOP: Can you tell us a little bit about the idea for the featured image?
Murray: The image was a personal shoot from my portfolio. I often give my personal images to Getty images because it gives me the courage to go out and spend more money than I would normally spend on a personal project. It allows me to have more latitude and freedom in approaching test shots in a more aggressive and colourful way because there is a chance I will recoup some of the money in the end.
Murray: It’s a kind of emotional management, if you will.
F STOP: We’re featuring an image from a series about body images. Were they all done on the same location or various locations?
Murray: I found a location two or three years prior that we never used and decided that I had to find that location again. It had these lovely different coloured rooms that were all vaguely plain without too much human contriteness lingering around. I hadn’t kept notes, but I knew what part of London it was in. I tracked it down and it was such a perfect location I was able to do all four shots in that one location.
F STOP: What was the whole budget was for this personal shoot?
Murray: It probably ended up costing about three and a half thousand pounds.
F STOP: Was it worth it?
Murray: I absolutely love this series and it’s done me very well. It’s in my book and it fits beautifully. It’s winning awards and getting me a lot of good publicity. I almost use Getty as a sort of emotional trigger early on and then I forget about it.
Murray: It’s so easy for me to sort of get lost and run around in circles. I really envy photographers who can manage their emotions to the level where they don’t have all that background noise. But you can argue that all the background noise and doubt is part of the process. If you don’t go through it, you’re taking a short cut. Otherwise you just end up producing something that you already know you can do and not pushing yourself. It’s not going to really move you forward.
F STOP: Where did you get the idea for this series?
Murray: My art director at Getty pulled an ad from a German or Swiss magazine and showed it to me. It spent about a year on my desk. I had lots of ideas the whole time. I have these massive magnetic orbs up in my studio that are covered in ideas. The idea changed slowly and became a much more involved idea with a room set with different characters and a different body anxieties.
F STOP: What was the original idea?
F STOP: Did you shoot the images on the magazines that each person is holding up in the series?
Murray: Yes, I completely forgot that, when we priced it out I forgot the body parts! We spent around another thousand pounds on those.
F STOP: After you shot the images of the body models did you print them out to look like it was on a magazine?
Murray: It was the other way around, I shot the four hero characters initially. I was pretty specific when I started. The models were cast for one specific body part. But I didn’t want it to be over the top or garish. I wanted it to have a real element of honesty about it. I tried to find people that were real and might have really thought they wanted a smaller bum or bigger boobs or that kind of thing. When I shot the magazines I spoke to the retoucher first. He said the best approach is probably to shoot a magazine that’s not too light, not too dark and add an element of sheen to it. It shows the retoucher where the light is coming from and how to mimic the final image when it goes in.
F STOP: Now it looks like there is a bit of HDR retouching, kind of post brushing feel to it. Is there a degree of HDR in this?
Murray: A little bit for the hero images, but I try to limit it. I don’t like images to look overly Photoshopped.
F STOP: It looks like just a hint of it.
Murray: That’s a good way of putting it. I like to play with colors afterwards, if the colors aren’t right. I try to work with a limited color pallet, which is why that house was so appealing to me. It has these lovely plain walls. We only slightly adjusted some of the colors to fit better together with some of the props. At the end it took quite awhile to explore and I ended up putting a little bit of that digital crunch on.
F STOP: It’s a really beautiful series of images and I think it resonates with a lot of people. Is it a project that you created with the intent of sending to award shows?
Murray: Absolutely. I take these projects on because they are great for my career. I think without them your career isn’t going to blossom in the same way.
F STOP: Can you mention specifically how it has been great for your career?
Murray: I think I’m doing very well with a number of different projects in the awards. And then you start to get calls from people that you haven’t met or worked with before because they’ve seen something you’ve done somewhere. It’s shows people where I am going as a photographer. It’s hard to separate the good from the bad, so winning awards is a good indicator.
F STOP: Has shooting this type of personal work helped get you into that type of category?
Murray: Absolutely, it just to keep your book moving on. Otherwise there’s a strong danger that your book stagnates. If art buyer sees that your book hasn’t changed I think that’s a negative statement, especially in London.
F STOP: How did you get your start as a photographer?
Murray: Even in my early teens I was drawn to 35mm cameras.When I was in university studying psychology I met people that heard I was a very keen photographer and I got a job in a studio in London, a still-life studio. When all my fellow students were off in Thailand or whatever they do I was pushing brooms and picking up burgers in the studio. When I left for university the photographer offered me a job as an assistant. Then I worked my way towards being a still-life photographer. I think if I had gone to work in a different studio I would have ended up as a different type of photographer. I think the studio you get your first job in has a massive impact on what you see and what you learn. I started off as a still-life photographer working on 8 x 10 large format cameras and I assisted for 4 years and at the end of it the guy I worked for said what you need is ten beautiful 8 x 10 and if you go off into the world with 8 x 10 ‘s you’ll get work and he was right. I worked really hard as an assistant, I would be in the studio whenever I had an idea, and I shot everything. Looking back on it I was manic. Part of it being that I was allowed to use the remnants of shoots. So if the person I was working for had bought five boxes of 8 x 10 for a shoot but only used 3 ½ I was unofficially allowed to use that box and half. I used to use Polaroid in the same way. When you’re not paying for your resources, everything became very studio based. I did that as an assistant and when I went out on my own it went very well, even though there was a recession going on I was very successful in still-life. And that’s the way it continued for about ten years. I became more and more frustrated by being locked in this studio but I am a massive fan of the training that still-life brings you. I think I am still influenced by my training in still-life. If you break everything down to texture, composition, color, you’re much more tuned into the sort of basics of it because you’re so used to working in a black studio where you have to find your background and compose your subjects. In a still-life studio you build it from the ground up and I think it’s great training for the mind as a photographer. You’re looking at every single aspect of your image and I think you can see that in the “Boob” image. You can see how I used really simple composition techniques, really simple use of color and texture of the carpet, and the simple pink walls.
F STOP: Do you still consider yourself primarily a still-life photographer?
Murray: No, definitely not. After ten years of doing still-life I became increasingly frustrated with it and I started to move my still-life studio into the outside world. I traveled a lot and I would do still-life in Vietnam or Chilli or Bolivia just really simple stuff. At the time no one was really doing much of that, still-life was very much in the studio. This is about a decade ago. And I came back and built this portfolio of still-life on location, it was more just to show my commercial clients I was trying to achieve new things. I assembled a leather bound print book of still-life on location and I took it around to a few art buyers and they were incredibly excited by it and I began to get still-life on location work straight away on a very commercial scale. Then it began to move into staged shots with models. I’m definitely not a lifestyle photographer.
F STOP: A lot of your images now seem to have a strong sort of humorous vein through them. Is that planned?
Murray: Definitely, I don’t even know if I would call it humour.
F STOP: It has a subtle quality of humour to it.
Murray: I think you’re right. I did a series of people carrying things. On my website there is a shot of two boys carrying a portable football goal and there’s these two old men carrying this very modern pink sofa. And these are things that just amused me. I looked out the window and I saw these two boys carrying a goal back from the local sports field. And they were arguing because the one in the front wasn’t carrying it right and the one in the back was really having a go at the one in the front. And it really made me smile so I held that idea and I kind of recreated it. Then I saw a couple carrying a sofa up the road. Obviously someone had out a sofa up in front of their house and they took it and were carrying this sofa up the road. So I recreated that as well, but I took away all the extreme information. These two men are stepping down these old steps with this very old plain stone wall behind them and they are carrying a pink sofa. That’s when you can really see my still-life roots coming through, in that you see how I strip things away and try to almost put something on a background.
F STOP: So it seems like a lot of your imagery kind of has that humorous kind of touch to it now, would you agree with that?
Murray: It’s not really intentional, I hear that said about my work all the time and it’s always a positive thing, ‘we like the humour in your work,’ but the irony is I don’t tend to see it that way. It must be how I look at the world. Even the body series, the “boobs” image you’re running, I don’t know if I see it as humorous. It may be humorous to other people but that’s not how I see it.
Murray: But it’s more of a gentle smile, the acceptance that we all want a body different than the one we’ve got.
F STOP: Do you think that there’s a large market for that type of imagery in advertising?
Murray: I think there is. I picked up an American agent just before the recession and I did a lot of work rather quickly, which then stopped when it got really bad about 18 months ago. One thing I kept hearing about my book was how the American market really likes my softer humour.
F STOP: I have heard people say that during a recession people want to laugh more. Have you noticed people gravitate towards work with a light humorous quality?
Murray: I am quite busy at the moment and I’m working harder for less. People don’t really define it, they don’t say, “hi Kelvin, I’m using you because you make me laugh in a sort of gentle sort of way.” In a nutshell, I think I am benefiting from the fact that people want to feel happy about things and I think my work is instinctively clean.
F STOP: In many feature films, comedies or anything with a humorous nature, there’s a very high-key look to everything. It’s kind of like the signature lighting style for comedy. Now we’ve talked about how you’re images aren’t necessary outright comedic, but they do have a humorous tone to them. Do you approach lighting in a similar way, using a high-key look to communicate that the image in question has a degree of humour in it?
Murray: My lighting varies shoot to shoot, although I think you do see certain themes running through. I tend to be happier with large banks of soft light. For example the shoot of the “boobs” image, it’s a girl’s bedroom, although we changed the tone slightly, we didn’t change the color. Other shots are quite different but on that shot that worked. I used that style the whole way through that series. I had to hire these massive stands to get up that high because the minute you bring the light into the room you change everything. On that “boob” shot there was a large black fiber hanging taking the light off that left hand part of the wall and then there was some smaller blacks doing other little things. You start with a large amount of light then you slowly begin to remove bits of light. That comes really from still-life where you a lot of the time take light away.
F STOP: Do you ever build sets?
Murray: I don’t build them myself. But to be honest, I prefer to shoot on location.
F STOP: Why is that?
Murray: Because it is so hard to get a set really good. I just did something for the BBC and I guess there was water going everywhere and we had to do it on a set, but I spent a lot of time and effort making the set look real. There’s nothing worse than looking at a set in the corner of a cheap studio.
F STOP: You started off in still-life and you’ve transitioned into doing this location work, which is quite different, but you still have incorporated the roots of your still-life start. What’s next for you, what direction are you heading in now?
Murray: I am really interested in moving imagery and I think that’s where our work is going. It turns me on. I’m playing with the idea of covering still shoots with HD video. It’s a little more expensive because you need a track and someone to help assemble the track and get the dolly along the track. But you can do the two things in one environment. It excites me the way people move the camera. I am not sure how I will incorporate this into my work, but I will just shoot things where it works.
To see more of Kelvin Murray’s work visit his website.
Written by T.K. Dalton
Edited by Jesi Khadivi
This piece was originally published 7/1/09 on Zack Seckler’s formally named publication The F STOP.