Kristian Dowling: A Straight Shooter that Tells it Like it is, Part 2

Kristian Dowling, an accomplished celebrity-entertainment photographer among many other titles, moved back to his hometown of Melbourne, Australia in November 2011. Though his work has taken him all over the world, he recently shot an event quite close to home — Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia 2013.

In part one of our interview, he provided details on the technical aspects of using the Leica M during Australia Fashion Week. Here, he reveals more about the images he took and gives a behind-the-scenes look at this project.

Q: What is it that personally attracts you to the fashion milieu, which occurs at the intersections of art and commerce? Is there a deeper message here or is it just about revealing this aspect of the human drama?

A: It’s the excitement of observing and recording human creativity that draws me to shooting fashion and the events that drive the industry. I’d love to say there’s a deeper message behind my work, but the motivation behind these images is driven primarily by what my clients need and want. Unfortunately, being a professional in today’s modern world, I’m not paid simply to discover or create. I’m there to capture pictures with commercial value. This supersedes my desire to create something special for myself. Regardless, I do try to blend the requirements of my clients with my own style. If I didn’t, I’d have to give up photography as a profession.

If I had my way and didn’t rely on photography for my income, I’d love to go roam Fashion Week driven solely by my own personal goals, without feeling like a puppet to the needs of the commercial world. Don’t get me wrong, I am very appreciative of the position I hold, and I don’t know of many photographers that shoot only for themselves — only what they like, in the way they like. That kind of work is a rarity and something I see in the history books.

Q: One of the messages that comes across in your behind the scenes images is the hard work and dedication of the models, and the fact that while there are fun moments to be sure, these women have a clear sense of their identity and take their art very seriously. In other words, your portfolio is an antidote to the view that the fashion world is superficial and shallow. Do you agree, and what do you think these images convey to the viewer?

A: The world only gets a glimpse of the life of models, usually in their finished pictures, either on the runway or in fashion editorials. Often the misconception is that models live a fashionable life of fame and fortune, very much like the celebrities I used to work with in Hollywood, but the reality is far from it.

Backstage, the models go through rigorous changes with outfits, makeup and hair looks. Physically their bodies are stressed, and subsequently their minds are fatigued. Unfortunately, due to my unforeseen work changes, my time backstage went from about 24 hours to two hours, so my pictures tell only a small part of the story about what the models go through during a hectic fashion week. To paint a picture, a model can work at up to 10 shows a day, with hair and makeup being wiped off and reapplied for each show. During each of the 10 shows, they can change up to eight times, having to show off the clothing with true professionalism, walking the long catwalk each time. This means that a model can walk up to one mile each show, not including backstage hustling — that’s up to 10 miles per day, in heels!

If I had the full 24 hours, there would have been more time to delve deeper into several side stories of the various experiences of those hardworking models. But with just two hours of shooting time spread over a week, I only had time to document what I was seeing. I shot pictures that were of relevant interest to me at that moment; some were motivated by design, some by beauty, and some by fleeting moments. Ultimately, my goal was to capture the models in a positive light, to show the respect I have for them and the job they do. The M was instrumental in this process because it is small and unobtrusive yet still professional looking.

Q: This pair of images come together to make a powerful statement. The top one, showing the model looking at her image in a mirror, has (pardon the pun) an introspective quality. In the bottom one she is presenting herself and this image captures both her assertiveness and vulnerability. This pair of images comprises a diptych that documents a kind of transformation. Is this interpretation over the top? How do you see these images?

A: That’s a good question. As a photographer, the way I see a model is often different from the way a model sees herself. I use the camera as a tool to convert what I’m seeing into a physical picture, and I get excited when I can show the model what my vision was. To distinguish and design my vision, I use lighting to sculpt my model. By controlling and sculpting light, I create shadows that add character, feeling, and sometimes personality. In this example, I used an LED light called the Ice Light, which is an LED stick that has amazing color accuracy without the usual LED green color-cast. Combined with the M, this setup is ideal because of the speed and ability to shape the light and shadows carefully in real time, as opposed to using flash which can sometimes be hit or miss in such situations. In this instance, I wanted to not only create a strong image that showed the qualities of the makeup, but also convey a little about myself.

Q: These two young women in outrageous bouffant hairdos are facing the camera with expressions that convey both engagement and detachment, as though they are role-playing. It has an almost surreal quality. What’s happening here and what were you thinking when you composed this picture?

A: I usually shoot most of my pictures as either defined portraits or captured, unaltered moments. This picture was a setup portrait, so I placed them in that specific location where I felt the aesthetics were interesting, as opposed to the black wall they were originally standing in front of. I don’t often tell models what to do, as I enjoy the spontaneity of the way they interact. In this situation I felt comfortable to let them position themselves and to be as natural looking or as posed as they felt like being. I was pleased with the initial reaction so I let them embrace and took the shot. The funny part was that immediately after I took the shot they started laughing, which was a strong contrast to the impression they had intended to create.

Q: These two images above definitely have a fun, offbeat quality; was that what you were trying to convey? Is outlandishness a key element in these shows, and how does that fit into the artistic and commercial goals of the companies involved?

A: In my photography, I look for contrasts, some that appear naturally and some I have a certain amount of influence over. The first picture showing the line of working models is merely my observing and recording them from an editorial perspective. The second picture is highlighting my engagement with the models, whereby I’m working with them to bring out some personality that shows the fun of it all. I also used flash create some harsh shadows and that is all part of the decision making process. Good photography is about doing things in the best way possible, not just the way I’m most comfortable. I use my equipment strategically as problem solving tools and utilize natural/ambient light, flash and LED lighting in a way that best suits the situation.

Outlandishness is sometimes employed, but mostly, it’s a by-product of the attitude of the models who just want to have fun in the course of a very hectic week. It works both artistically and commercially because people want to see models acting up and having fun.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over the next three or so years, and how do you think the Leica M will be part of that process? Do you plan on acquiring any new lenses for your M, or to press some older ones into service?

A: Over the next three years I plan on establishing an education program and photo hub for the industry, so I won’t be shooting as much as I’d like, but it will be worth the effort in the long run. I have some ideas for some small projects, but need to keep those to myself.

The M cameras have been with me for nearly 18 years and will always be by my side. It is the only camera I can relate to, dare I say it, romantically. I compare the love of a Leica to the love a couple has. The intimate relationship between a photographer and his Leica M is more like a love affair than say, a workman and his tool. There’s just that special something you feel when you pick up a Leica that makes you smile every time.

I do plan on getting some more lenses, most of which I’ve owned and sold before, including the Summicron 28 mm, Summilux 75 mm and possibly the APO-Summicron 50 mm f/2 ASPH., if I win the lottery. I like to keep my kit light and simple. I never carry more than two or three lenses at a time in order to minimize the decision making process when choosing lenses. This has been a key element in the success of making great pictures with my Leica for the last 18 years and I hope that will continue for many more to come.

Thank you for your time, Kristian!

- Leica Internet Team

To learn more about Kristian, visit his website, blog, Google + and Twitter.