February 4, 2016 by Lucia Accipe
Dale May is a New York-based advertising, conceptual & fine art photographer who has embraced his artistic side. For over 18 years, he has been recognized by his peers for his unique style, remarkable conceptual work and for capturing the most renowned celebrities. In this interview he shared with us both his career path and the behind the scene of his work.
Production Paradise: Have you always been keen on photography and how did you decided to make it your profession?
Dale May: I’ve always been interested in the arts but didn’t know that my career would be photography. I’ve been a drummer since I was five and enjoyed drawing through high school but ultimately, decided to go into recording, production and engineering at Berklee College of Music in Boston. After a semester, I realized that it wasn’t what I wanted to do and worked on an art portfolio, which landed me in New York City, at Parsons School of Design. After a year of general studies in painting, color theory and art history, I picked photography as my major, because it was a very technical field that I couldn’t learn on my own. This was before digital cameras, before a time when cameras could expose the image for you. Now, anyone can pick up a digital camera and create an image. I feel that everything I learned along the way helped to strengthen my love for photography and shape the artist I am today.
Production Paradise: Who of the world’s creatives have truly inspired you and influenced your work?
Dale May: I’ve always been drawn to painters and photographers that have a painterly style. Photographer Gregory Crewdson is a great example, whose work is produced on the scale of a feature film, all to create one highly detailed, beautifully lit image that draws you into his world and keeps you there. His DP, Rick Sands, is an absolute master of light. Nick Knight is another great example, a true innovator and a perfect blend of commercial & fine art. I also appreciate commercial photographers, like Norman Jean Roy, Vincent Peters, Anne Leibovitz, and David LaChapelle. Inspiration can come from anywhere, however my fine art work is very different from my commercial work. I have a series called “Lego Wars”, inspired by street art and pop art, where I use macro photography to create large scale, conceptual, pop art portraits of Star Wars Lego figures. I started “Lego Wars” in 2011 and it has done extremely well, being sold in galleries, beside other artists work I admire, such as Warhol, Damien Hirst, Peter Tunney and Shepard Fairey.
Production Paradise: You’ve worked with several celebrities. Was there someone you were especially curious to meet?
Dale May: I really enjoy working with celebrities and had the pleasure of shooting some of my favorites: Daniel Day-Lewis, Charlize Theron, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jared Leto. I was interested in Jared because he is an actor, director and musician as well. Jared is able to transform and immerse himself in a roll, practically becoming the character, to the point that you don’t realize he’s in the film. Panic Room & American Psycho are great examples of this and completely different rolls. When I photographed his band “Thirty Seconds To Mars”, he took an interest in what I was doing, asked questions about the lighting and made an effort to give me what I wanted. Another one of my favourite shoots was with Benedict Cumberbatch. Although I only had 10 minutes with him, he took an interest in my concepts and seemed to really enjoy the props and set I had prepared. I was able to shoot 3 setups in 10 minutes and even win a Communication Arts award for my projector image. When your subject takes an interest in your process, it makes all the difference in the final image.
Production Paradise: Your conceptual photographs are telling incredible stories. How do you come up with the ideas for those images?
Dale May: I do quite a bit of assignment work so the concepts are often created by the art director or many times, are a collaboration between myself and the AD. Because I do all of my own retouching, I’m able to contribute ideas at every stage of the process. This is especially helpful if we choose to change directions or if an image we captured inspires a new idea. For the majority of my work, the ideas are mine and they come from the subject(s) themselves. I ask myself, “Who is this person and what makes them interesting to me?” For celebrities and musicians, this is often easier, because I can play off of a recent character they have played, something they are known for or a recent album release. When my subject is unknown, I try to imagine how I might cast them in a film and what character they would play. I’ll use this as inspiration to create a narrative that can be suggested through lighting, set or props. Sometimes, I get ideas for composite shots, after the shoot.
I photographed comedian / singer song writer Stephen Lynch for the release of his album “LION”. My idea was to photograph him in costume, as a disgruntled Lion mascot. As the ideas developed, I decided to shoot him in the Lion costume, smoking a cigarette on the streets of Brooklyn. Mascots are usually happy and colorful but I’ve always imagined the pissed off guy inside, who is hot and sweaty. I wanted to mirror this contrast by shooting him against a clean white studio background. I loved the final shot and his expression but after the fact, I thought it would be a stronger concept if I changed the background to something that felt like the Lion’s “natural habitat”. This is a good example of something that started as a preconceived, in-camera concept to a composite shot, when a new idea came to me during post production.
Production Paradise: Conceptual photographs require a lot of retouch. What part is more exciting for you: the shooting or post production?
Dale May: I’ve always loved every part of the photographic process, from lighting to post production but there is something magical in the retouching process. I have a background in painting and many of the techniques are very similar; Dodging and burning, adding color and the layering of elements. Lately, I’ve been trying to do much less post production and return to a more classic, cinematic approach, creating as much in-camera as possible. I also really enjoy classic portraiture very much, which is more about connecting with people, something that’s usually absent in the retouching process or anything involving a computer.
Production Paradise: Is there any advice that you would like to share with other aspiring photographers in your field?
Dale May: Open your eyes and pay attention to the world around you that will improve your work. Shoot what you love and be authentic, because that is what will resonate with your viewer. I think people can tell when you are trying to be something you are not. Keep shooting, keep shooting, keep shooting, because success does not just show up, it creeps up on you and often times you have to look back, to even recognize it. Hopefully, when you’ve reached your goals, you’ve already set a new one. Finally, never wait for inspiration to strike; it’s the creative process and failed attempts that can bring you the most inspiration. So get out there, experiment and create something amazing but whatever you do, be professional and treat people with respect.
We would like to thank Dale for taking the time to share his story with us. You can see more of his work on Production Paradise Spotlight and Showcase photography magazines and find Dale’s full photography portfolio on his website.
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