Belgian photographer Kurt Stallaert imagery is as broad as it is idiosyncratic. He shoots fine art, fashion, advertising, and more recently motion pictures. His work is united by a shadowy cheer and quirky humor in striking images. For these reasons, and because of his inexhaustible drive, his work is distinctive and has earned him dozens of major ad campaigns and from many top industry publications. Few of his images demonstrate his creative prowess and his tenacity on the set more than our featured image which was featured on the cover of Luerzer’s Archive.
Advertisements for paint companies are typically about as interesting as watching paint dry. This campaign for Belgium-based paint company Levis certainly splashed new color on the genre. Ad agency TBWA had the idea of promoting the “Fashion for Walls” concept (paint colors inspired by the latest catwalk trends) somewhat literally: turn the paint into a dress. The idea was brilliant and the execution of creating the image had to be similarly brilliant or it would fall flat. Stallaert approached the project initially thinking CGI was the answer but quickly realized that that technology was best for reproducing something that already exists and that wasn’t the case here. Once the decision was made to do everything in camera he started out by putting fabric on a mannequin and blowing it in different directions with a wind machine to get an idea for basic shapes that could be made with the “paint dress.” Once he and the ad agency were happy with a shape they proceeded to get down to the dirty work.
Stallaert and his team built a basic set consisting of two Chimera soft boxes attached to one Broncolor power pack each. One soft box was placed about three feet directly above the mannequin (which was used in place of the real model ) and the other about 12 feet to the left of the camera position at about four and a half feet above the mannequin. A Hasselblad with an 80mm lens and a Phase One P45+ digital back was brought in for image capture. After the gear was in place came the plastic tarp. The whole set was meticulously covered in plastic to prevent any of the splashing paint from wrecking the gear. Once the set was done came the fun part: the team proceeded to throw about 25 gallons of red paint at the mannequin as Stallaert snapped image after image of mid-air paint mayhem. The goal was to get a range of splashes that could then be melded together in Photoshop to create a whole dress. Afterwards they setup a duplicate lighting setup with a human model and created images that would be composited onto the paint dress.
The shoot went as planned and the client was happy with how things turned out but Stallaert and his creative partners at TBWA weren’t quite satisfied with the shape of the paint dress. So a week of work was scrapped to start the whole process over again. The second shoot fortunately produced a more perfectionist pleasing range of paint shapes. They used the paint images from the second shoot along with the original model shots to create the final image in Photoshop.
The amount of planning and dedication Stallaert gave to the Levis campaign is no less then what he puts into a personal project. He recently shot a big budget personal shoot based around the concept of children with large bodybuilder type bodies. He captured these beings, existent only in the world of Photoshop of course, in somewhat surreal situations—carrying each other like surfboards, oddly squeezed into a housekeeping uniform, or seated at a card table with bulging legs visible and Bicycle cards swallowed by their tan, oiled hands. The personal project began as a passion, and evolved; Stallaert says the same thing about his start in the business, which he calls typical. “You have to be a little bit lucky to get the good jobs and to make good pictures. Yet continuously, I’m looking for new techniques, new evolutions, that’s something I have to do to do all time. I don’t want to find a technique and to keep this technique for the rest of my life.”
Stallaert was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
Stallaert: Every year or so European paint manufacturer Levis asks a famous designer to create some special paint colors for their Fashion for Walls concept. So this ad was created to promote their new color. It was a rather difficult job for me. When I saw the layout I was immediately thinking about 3D in combination with real paint. But CGI is good to reproduce something which already exists and then mix in something new. But this was a shape which had to be invented. It’s wasn’t a good option to use CGI so I decided to shoot everything in camera. I started out using fabric to get a basic idea for shapes we could eventually create with paint. The fabric was only used as a guide to creating realistic shapes that would ultimately be made with real paint. We used the fabric to give a rough idea to show the client what kind of shape we wanted to make and once we agreed on that then we started with paint. We used wind machines blowing into the fabric to create an elegant and natural feeling. Ultimately the fabric shapes ended up being much too simple so we threw a lot of paint also in the air with different intensities and different amounts of paint in the bottles. We also threw it on a female mannequin to see how it would look on a real person. All these little things we used to make this model.
Stallaert: It was a mess. The stage was full of paint. Lamps, lighting, everything was full of paint because you cannot control it. We threw it and then it just splashes down everywhere. We’d laid lots of plastic down, of course, but it was quite a mess.
F STOP: The main part of the ‘paint-dress’ is so smooth especially where her thigh and leg area is how did you accomplish that?
Stallaert: It’s almost one shot.
F STOP: Really?
Stallaert: Yeah. The middle part is almost one shot and then you have little parts that are left when it came out of the can. The left and the right side are little splashes but the middle is almost one shape.
F STOP: Why do you think you were chosen to do this project by the ad agency?
Stallaert: I am somebody who jumps into a project and just goes for it, and I am not happy when it is not good enough. This project we had to go as far as we could. It was quite a hard job. In the beginning we had another shape we created for the paint dress and after retouching the client was already happy but neither the creative team nor I were happy so we had to restart everything. It was almost one week’s work for nothing. They didn’t like that a lot, but now they are very happy they restarted it. I have a good feel for sensual images that are not too perfect. My images are not too retouched. We do a lot of retouching but I’m not the kind of photographer that’s going to make images look too retouched. This is an image that has a natural feel to it, it’s not too perfect. I do not like images that are too perfect, I don’t feel that they are realistic.
F STOP: How did you achieve that not too perfect look?
Stallaert: We left in little imperfections, not perfectly smooth areas, shadows that don’t look perfect. Like under the hands to the right, those types of dark imperfect areas. If it was perfect it would look more fluid and more uniform. But here you feel that it’s realistic. I didn’t want to make the shape exactly like a woman’s body either so that you body takes away attention from the overall look. Under the breasts you feel her shape much more, but I didn’t want to do it everywhere because then it becomes too easy. This had to be more elegant and fashionable without being too sexy.
F STOP: Let’s talk about how you started off as a photographer.
Stallaert: Like a lot of photographers, I suppose, it was a hobby. I think you have to be a little bit lucky to get the good jobs and to make good pictures. It’s still a passion, photography. I never feel like I am working. Yet continuously, I’m looking for new techniques, new evolutions, that’s something I have to do all the time. I don’t want to find a technique and to keep this technique for the rest of my life. Photography is an evolution and that’s what I like.
F STOP: Now when you say techniques, what are some of the techniques that you are referring to? Are you talking about lighting or retouching…?
Stallaert: It’s a combination of everything. In general I adapt my technique, my lighting and my feel of the idea. Especially when I am shooting for advertising. The idea is most important and then the picture has to explain the idea as well as possible. What is quite important in advertising is that you work in the fashion of the work and the client and not in the fashion of what you want to do yourself. I have pro bono for that and my artistic work for that. When I am working for a client it’s a combination of working together with the creative.
F STOP: The Levis campaign we’ve featured was done for the European market, which many observe is quite different from the US market. Do you think your imagery translate well a to American advertising?
Stallaert: I think my images are quite creative and not very classic. I have the impression that the American market is a little more classic.
F STOP: Now what do you mean by classic? Do you mean conservative?
Stallaert: Maybe a little less humour, more…
Stallaert: Yeah I think so.
F STOP: So I want to ask you a bit about your television work, how did you get into that?
Stallaert: It started from a client that wanted to shoot stills and film. I proposed to do the film portion and they agreed to give me a shot. It was not a very difficult job as I am used to directing a lot of my models. It is completely different though. You work with a bigger team, a lot more people who have influence on the project.
F STOP: Did you feel like the technical side was fairly similar to shooting stills.
Stallaert: Yeah the camera the lights, that’s something I understand. I see if it’s good or not and I can ask to change it, it’s very much like working as a photographer. I tell my assistants how I want the light and they make those changes.
F STOP: Earlier in our conversation you mentioned how people are almost always in your images. What is it that you like about photographing people?
Stallaert: I think it is the human contact. When they ask me to make a still life shot, even for a simple thing, I am even more stressed then when they ask me to shoot several people together.
F STOP: What images are your most proud of in your career thus far?
Stallaert: The bodybuilders series in my personal work is my favourite because I like the feel of the images and the subject matter. The images are in normal situations, it’s not a bodybuilder flexing on a stage, it’s something more realistic. These are some of the first images I’ve created that I’d like to put in my living room. It’s not easy to make an that I’d like to look at everyday.
F STOP: How did you create the bodybuilder images?
Stallaert: First, like usual, I’m looking for good locations, good casting, perfect styling. Once all of that is together on the shoot day I first put the bodybuilders in place and photographed them in certain positions. Then I put the children in the same place. My camera didn’t move when we were shooting so it was easy to composite the children over the bodybuilders’ bodies. I used a combination of daylight and artificial lighting.
F STOP: How long does it take you to create a project like the bodybuilders?
Stallaert: The idea took me the longest. I had several ideas and I of course only want to use the strongest idea. Once I have the idea finalized it can go quite fast. I think it was done in one month. I was looking for locations, checking locations, checking people, casting, checking stylists. I was lucky because my production company which I use quite a lot was helping me with all of this. So they did location hunting and then I checked everything. The shooting was during two days and then retouching for four or five days, almost one week. It is quite expensive, but I really wanted to do it and make it right. I enjoy investing in my own projects. The feeling I get when people buy my images, it’s so special to feel they really like my personal work and vision. I am not thinking in a commercial way when I am making my own images, instead it’s a little bit like a musician making his own music.
To see more of Stallaert’s work visit his website.
Written by T.K. Dalton
Edited by Jesi Khadivi
This piece was originally published 11/1/09 on Zack Seckler’s formally named publication The F STOP.