It’s rather difficult to define what it means to push the boundaries in the world of art in 21st century, and photography in particular. With endless possibilities of digital tools, nothing seems to surprise anymore. Nevertheless, this can be a great opportunity for photographers to challenge themselves in real life. One of the directions taken by the them is to create unexplainable reality shots, which, surprisingly, have nothing (or little) to do with digital manipulations. An interesting example of this concept can be found in the works of Anna and Bernhard Blume, German photographers of the 20th century. Their photographs seem to be a product of absolute hallucinations: levitating bodies in strange positions, flying objects that attack the people and all the other chaotic elements, which establish a sense that the spectator is viewing a disturbing vision of a reality. What is more, the artists themselves participate in this world of swirling chaos. Photoshopped pictures of gravity-defying things are not a surprise nowadays, but this can’t be the case of Anna and Bernhard. The photographs were made without any post-production montages; only slight editing in the laboratory while developing the negatives.
The surreal fantasy finds its echo in Mike Dempsey’s works. While the German duo was inspired by paranormal phenomena, Los-Angeles based photographer draws his inspiration from skateboarding. His photographs, going against the laws of gravity, are born from endless experimentations with motion than require not only technical skills, but also creativity and loads of courage. Mike insists that changes during the editing process are only minor.
Could you comment a little bit upon your first steps in the world of photography – did you enter the world of photography purely out of love for skateboarding or there were any other reasons?
Photography found its way into my life through filmmaking. I took photography class in high school (and the basics in college) but filmmaking was always my first passion. My dad bought me my first video camera in 6th grade and the purpose of this camera was to shoot skating and comedy videos with my friends. It wasn’t until after college that I discovered my passion for photography. In 2013 I was writing treatments on music videos and no one was buying them, every now and then the video would work out but the concepts seemed to get lost in translation – they always ended up being not what I originally intended. It was very frustrating. I realized that I could accomplish some of my concepts within a single photograph so I started to test it out. I had no idea about how to use Photoshop so I would come up with a concept, shoot it, and then my roommate would do all the editing. From there it was complete snowball effect and I haven’t stopped since – I edit the photos now myself, though.
Do you remember your very first photo?
I don’t remember the first photo I shot, it was probably something terrible from high school. I enjoyed messing around with long exposures and tilt shift lenses but nothing really seemed to stick…
When and why did you come up with such an untraditional concept of photos?
I think my first attempt at shooting a levitation photo was in 2012 back home in the woods of Connecticut. I’ve always been attracted to the concept of gravity within photography and how it allows the audience to assume what happens next. I tend to compare this to skate photography where someone can look at a photo and judge the complexity of the trick based on where they assume he will land – my favorite skate photos are probably the ones where the photo was triggered mid fall, every person who sees that photo will have their own perception of where he/she fell and how badly it must have hurt. I’ve always had a passion for skating and I’ve always had a passion for filmmaking – I feel that photography is an extremely comfortable medium. It’s hard for me to define the style but I would say this concept is a relationship between pain and pleasure with a heightened sense of gravity, the point of no return.
In one of your interviews, you insist that 90 % of the photos are done “as practically as possible”. What challenges do you have to face while trying to take such surreal shoots?
The practicality of my shootings originated from my lack of Photoshop abilities. In addition, my friends and I love to run around and jump off of different things, so I saw no reason why we couldn’t actually have our subject jumping off a roof or falling down a flight of stairs. Some challenges may occur when there are drastic lighting changes, I need to choose a time of day to shoot where the lighting will be consistent or at least 20 minutes. One of the main reasons I like to shoot my subjects physically in their ending positions, weather it be standing on a wall or being pulled by a dog, is that I don’t have to worry about the lighting not matching or their clothes and hair looking fake, it truly makes the process easier for me. I don’t claim not using Photoshop and by no means am I against it – it’s a beautiful tool and it allows me to bring my concepts to life.
How does the process of the shoot look like?
It’s usually just a model and myself (but I would like to collaborate with more creative minds moving foreword!) I have a concept and location in mind and we basically just play around until we get what we want. The camera is set up on sticks and I sit by camera and call out the cues but sometimes I just leave it on burst mode and go onto set to physically move the subject’s hair or dress or anything else. Many photos involve balance and patience and sometimes we shoot over 300 frames to get what we want. I use a battery powered leave blower to add movement when the subject is static. Most of the photos that I am in are done by myself, I just leave the camera taking a photo every second.
I find some parallels between you and the German photographers’ duo Anna & Bernhard Blume, who are the masters of transcendental photography and who rebelled against the concept of ‘reality’ suggested by photography. Do you see yourself as a rebel and revolutionist in this field?
Their work is incredible! I don’t see myself as a rebel and definitely not a revolutionist, though. I love growing as a photographer and I love failing as a photographer. The biggest education I have received in this field is finding out what does not work and what not to repeat. I look forward to my growth as an individual as well as everyone in the community.
What would you answer to those who insist that manipulated photos are distant from the essence of photography?
I would say that photography is too broad of a subject to be focused on an isolated essence. Distance from origin is subjective, you can’t blame a tree branch from growing too far away from the planted seed, call it ragtime or bebop but it’s still jazz! The essence of photography for me is creating images that satisfy emotions, whether they’re positive or negative.
What do you think is the future of photography?
The growth of photography is exponential. Everyone has a different set of eyes and it’s impossible to see the world exactly how someone else sees it. There is endless room for new concepts and I am excited to be attached to even a fraction of its evolution.