Spir­i­tual An­i­mal

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Dan Thaw­ley

Im­age mak­ing in the 21st cen­tury is a nu­anced and rev­o­lu­tion­ary art, as­pired to by many as a re­treat from the mun­dane, and an op­por­tu­nity to see the world from an enig­matic new per­spec­tive. With cur­rent trends in fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy lean­ing heav­ily on a nos­tal­gia for ana­logue, there are a mere hand­ful of pho­tog­ra­phers who are gen­uinely push­ing the bound­aries of their craft and Tim Richard­son may be counted amongst them. Known for his bold dig­i­tal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and im­ages puls­ing with colour and move­ment, the Aus­tralian pho­tog­ra­pher has called New York home since 2005, a move he made af­ter find­ing his feet in both art di­rec­tion and pho­tog­ra­phy in his hometown of Syd­ney. This year Richard­son cel­e­brated a decade in the Big Ap­ple with the May re­lease of Spir­i­tual Ma­chine, his sec­ond book that delves into the past five years of his work, and which he de­scribes as “a crys­talli­sa­tion of many ideas— it’s a the­matic ap­proach, it is not a ret­ro­spec­tive”.

Crys­talli­sa­tion is a fit­ting metaphor (and Richard­son chooses his wisely) for his post­mod­ern ap­proach to pho­tog­ra­phy, wherein the pho­tog­ra­pher’s pos­si­ble space evolves through filmy lay­ers of sym­bol­ism, tech­niques and ef­fects that re­spect the clas­si­cal ground roots of his work pro­pelled for­ward by new tech­nol­ogy and chang­ing at­ti­tudes. It is a world of con­trasts— aes­thetic and oth­er­wise— of which the book’s ti­tle Spir­i­tual Ma­chine is a suc­cinct sum­ma­tion. “The name has a few mean­ings,” ex­plains Richard­son, of the Pres­tel-pub­lished book, which was de­signed by famed New York art di­rec­tion bureau Baron & Baron. “It is sort of a de­lib­er­ate fu­sion of two very op­po­site words. When I am work­ing I use du­al­i­ties to start ideas and cre­ate a con­text for what I am shoot­ing. It is about hu­mans and tech­nol­ogy, which are some­times di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed and some­times uni­fied. It is about that in be­tween state. Now fash­ion is so in­flu­enced by me­dia in terms of ex­e­cu­tion and rep­re­sen­ta­tion. The way that de­sign and busi­ness are fused; there are a lot of cross over points. The cre­ative process can be com­pro­mised by the speed of things right now. I try to have a fric­tion go­ing on in my work, tak­ing op­pos­ing aes­thet­ics and try­ing to find magic when they meet. It is about ex­plor­ing tra­di­tion and blow­ing it up a bit with fu­tur­ism.”

Scat­tered with quotes by his avant-garde he­roes like James Gra­ham Bal­lard, Philip Kin­dred Dick, Joy Di­vi­sion and Amer­i­can nov­el­ist Wil­liam Gib­son (whose novel Neu­ro­mancer ush­ered in the cy­ber­punk genre), Spir­i­tual Ma­chine em­bod­ies Richard­son’s re­spect for great thinkers who imag­ined the unimag­in­able— each paving their own way with spec­u­la­tions on the 21st cen­tury’s dystopian and utopian pos­si­bil­i­ties. What it doesn’t ex­plic­itly re­veal is Richard­son’s learned sense of homage that is wo­ven through­out his flick­er­ing, frag­mented im­ages, where ref­er­ences to Fran­cis Ba­con or per­haps Car­avag­gio float be­neath the sur­face of his metic­u­lously con­structed fash­ion land­scapes. “Every­thing in the book is based on the hu­man fig­ure,” con­tin­ues Richard­son, a sub­ject that he both cel­e­brates and de­con­structs in myr­iad ways — from ab­stract por­traits ex­plod­ing in show­ers of dig­i­tal con­fetti to wide, elab­o­rate tableaus where mod­els spin like dancers. “Dance and move­ment in gen­eral has al­ways fas­ci­nated me,” he said, “I like to study the body in flux, the way it changes shape. A friend re­cently re­ferred to it as trans­fig­u­ra­tion.” One par­tic­u­larly evoca­tive menswear shoot for the now-de­funct Vogue Hommes Ja­pan took Fran­cis Ba­con’s trans­mo­gri­fied por­traits as in­spi­ra­tion for a sex­u­al­ly­charged se­ries where leather har­nesses, tuxe­dos and bare, vir­ile flesh dis­ap­peared in flur­ries of move­ment like hu­man smoke.

Dance it­self en­ters con­cretely into Richard­son’s oeu­vre, with one se­ries of stills im­mor­tal­is­ing 6 Breaths, a per­for­mance at the 2010 Venice Dance Bi­en­nale fea­tur­ing dancer Richard Cilli, chore­ographed by the Syd­ney Dance Com­pany’s chore­og­ra­pher Rafael Bonachela. “It was the first time I used 3D scan­ning,” ex­plains Richard­son, who was one of the ear­li­est fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phers to adopt the tech­nique. “It be­came a gi­gan­tic float­ing pro­jec­tion of mar­ble fig­ures as­sem­bled from frag­ments into a uni­fied cou­pling, which then dis­solve again into frag­ments in a cy­cle.” That project spawned an­other a year later en­ti­tled Per­pet­ual Mo­tion, in which Cilli’s ac­ro­batic se­quences were cap­tured through time, dis­tilled into swoop­ing curvi­lin­ear forms, and trans­formed with chrome-like metal fin­ishes to be­come ex­tra­or­di­nary alien im­ages. “Learn­ing how to di­rect through time is such a dif­fer­ent mind- set to shoot­ing print,” ex­plains Tim, re­fer­ring to the in­dus­try de­mand for mov­ing im­age that so of­ten ac­com­pa­nies print com­mis­sions to­day, “Our gen­er­a­tion is hav­ing to per­form in a much broader dy­namic than ever.”

In or­der to pro­duce such grip­ping visual stud­ies, Richard­son re­lies not only upon the com­puter’s 3D ca­pa­bil­i­ties but the for­ward-think­ing out­look of his col­lab­o­ra­tors. He counts stylists like Ni­cola Formichetti, Rob­bie Spencer, Michelle Jank, and makeup maven Pat Mcgrath amongst his con­fi­dantes. “It is funny how Lon­don stylists have given me the most room to ex­per­i­ment and try new things,” ad­mits Richard­son, cit­ing a film work for Dazed Dig­i­tal with Aus­tralian jew­eller Jor­dan Askill amongst those early achieve­ments. En­ti­tled Cross­ing, the 2009 piece placed Askill’s del­i­cate avian jew­els in a mas­cu­line con­text, blur­ring lines be­tween body and coastal land­scapes. “Both the pho­tog­ra­phy and film rep­re­sent a sym­bolic jour­ney” said Richard­son, “a vi­sion of the fragility of ado­les­cence in the eter­nal pres­ence of na­ture. ‘Youth’ be­comes a mythic fig­ure, float­ing above the ‘eter­nity’ of the oceans mas­sive hori­zon- cross­ing the di­vide be­tween the real and the imag­i­nary.”

For all the fragility he at­tributes to his male sub­jects, Richard­son’s women border on Ama­zo­nian— their con­tours and ex­trem­i­ties ac­cented with per­spec­tive and dig­i­tal ma­nip­u­la­tion, a sen­sual ath­leti­cism defin­ing their dra­matic poses. Pow­er­ful fig­ures like Ja­panese ac­tress Rinko Kikuchi, su­per­model Guin­e­vere Van Seenus, and New York so­cialite Michelle Harper count amongst Richard­son’s sub­jects; each ren­dered al­most su­per­hu­man in his ex­plo­ration of mul­ti­ple ex­po­sures and stitched im­ages, float­ing di­aphanous fab­rics and frag­mented post-pro­duc­tion ef­fects that of­fer a sec­ond life to the ar­chi­tec­tural jew­els and props of his col­lab­o­rat­ing stylists. Ni­cola Formichetti in par­tic­u­lar, known for his youth-driven fu­tur­is­tic punk style, has cham­pi­oned and com­ple­mented Richard­son’s work, af­ter a chance meet­ing in a New York bar saw them shoot­ing Elle US just one week later. That shoot in­volved mount­ing a quest for their ‘dig­i­tal muse’ dur­ing the su­per- stylist’s ten­ure de­sign­ing Mu­gler in Paris: a project which was, as Richard­son ex­plains, “an em­bod­i­ment of the way that tech­nol­ogy, de­sign and soft­ware came to be a part of how fash­ion is made. It was an al­le­gory for all of that. It was a test­ing ground for me.” It is in­deed Formichetti’s wild imag­in­ings that have adorned

Richard­son’s im­ages with a wealth of em­bel­lish­ment de­rived from both high fash­ion and street cul­ture, with later shoots for V Magazine and Sun­day Times Style in­cor­po­rat­ing in­tri­cate body jew­ellery, eye­wear and millinery, all push­ing graphic bound­aries to ques­tion where the body be­gins and its dec­o­ra­tion ends. “I still look at the work of Hus­sein Cha­layan,” said Richard­son, of his own ap­pre­ci­a­tion for fash­ion and the deep cul­tural ref­er­ences that mark the work of its great­est prac­ti­tion­ers. “With Alexan­der Mcqueen be­ing can­on­ized right now (his ex­hi­bi­tion Sav­age Beauty be­ing pre­sented at both The Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in New York and the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum in Lon­don to stel­lar re­views) there are some sweet spots in fash­ion that are so iconic that they are be­ing re­cy­cled right now. It is in­ter­est­ing from an im­age-mak­ing per­spec­tive.”

Also in­trigu­ing is gaug­ing to whom Richard­son’s work has ap­pealed, and to whom it has not— the fash­ion world’s dusty es­tab­lish­ment can be a lit­tle slow on the up­take at times. Even to­day, his work re­mains pri­mar­ily in avant­garde magazines, a fact the pho­tog­ra­pher is happy to con­cede. “There is an old men­tal­ity that comes from the purists,” said Richard­son of his pre­de­ces­sors, the canon­i­cal top pho­tog­ra­phers whose work process re­mains un­changed for decades, “And an­other from our gen­er­a­tion that can’t af­ford to be. It is about ex­plor­ing tech­niques that were used in science fic­tion films and bring­ing them into print shoots and beauty cam­paigns. And I think my work, and my lat­est book Spir­i­tual Ma­chine in par­tic­u­lar, em­bod­ies that mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary process.” Richard­son feted his new tome dur­ing the New York edi­tion of Frieze Art Fair, invit­ing his au­di­ence into his dig­i­tal uni­verse at Milk Stu­dios through a large- scale pho­to­graphic show and a video in­stal­la­tion that Richard­son ex­plains as a mix­ture of an­i­ma­tion and a 3D scan­ning. “When I did my first shoot with Guin­e­vere, we ended up do­ing some 3D scans of her at the same time,” he said. “We scanned her to get her face and her body, and then I cre­ated the an­i­ma­tion af­ter with a com­pany called Frame­store. They are widely known for their spe­cial ef­fects work for Grav­ity and pro­duce re­ally beau­ti­ful work. I ba­si­cally had this idea of her be­ing a kind of glass cou­ture crea­ture. You can see some Alien ref­er­ences, Prometheus and a few other things. I wanted to take some of that dark­ness and bring a bit of life to it. It’s al­most pris­matic and crys­tal or gem-like.” Equipped with such am­bi­tions to evolve con­tem­po­rary fash­ion im­agery through the ex­po­nen­tial pos­si­bil­i­ties of the dig­i­tal realm, Richard­son is prov­ing wrong the mul­ti­tude of pre­tenders in his field. While oth­ers re­cy­cle and pla­gia­rise the work of their pre­de­ces­sors un­der the guise of homage, Richard­son’s vi­sion tran­scends the tra­di­tional bound­aries of the craft; bridg­ing im­age-mak­ing dis­ci­plines to tell his dy­namic tale of our stark, bright, hy­brid fu­ture.

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