I like to plan my photoshoots around opportunity. Though I don’t have the luxury of having a studio or an in-house production crew at my disposal… I have managed to build, with time, a relatively large social following and numerous travel opportunities through my contracts and speaking engagements. As a result, my shoots are quite often designed around where I happen to be.
Back in September, I was invited to speak for Broncolor at Photokina in Cologne, Germany. As a result, I began looking out for opportunities and locations that would be interesting to shoot around the area. One of my old friends Mateusz was looking to sponsor a shoot for a start-up he was going to be working on and offered to help me in any way possible to put a project together.
Together we began brainstorming the various sights and scenes that were available to us. As always, I wanted to find not only something exotic, but something that I had never done before. This meant no abandoned buildings, woods and forests or underwater shipwrecks.
When we discovered the amazing caves of Feengrotten in Saafeld I knew that we were set. Now this was something I had never had the opportunity to do before! Not only was it exotic, it was only a 5 hour drive away from Cologne. Completely doable.
One of my three secrets to success is to work with people who love what you do, and I always like to keep that in mind when assembling a crew. I needed to find people that would be willing to not only drive 5 hours to the caves, but also continue straight on into a full midnight shoot in an 8 degree cave. That’s some real dedication. Long time fans (now turned friends) of mine Eva Creel and Nicolas Cormier were the first to hop on board before even knowing what exactly the schedule was going to be. Throughout the week, as things slowly started coming together, random fans that I met along the way during Photokina such as André Appel, Lia Luftikus, Florence Heyer Zoe Klomp and Bjorn Lubetzki moved their entire schedules around to be part of the project.
Though everything is more expensive in Europe, the one thing that’s actually quite affordable is travel (once you get there). Everything is close by. This meant that I could use the opportunity to work with amazing talent, without breaking the bank. Supermodel Jen Brook who was only a short flight away in Manchester, UK was flown in for the adventure while makeup-artist Anna Kunz and videographer Nadja Elinger came in all the way from Berlin and Munich respectively (3 and 8 hour train rides!) just to be part of the creative project.
The one remaining peace of the puzzle was clothing. Finding unique and exciting clothing is always a challenge but the brilliant thing about social media, is that if you stalk the people whose work you love, they will link and credit the people they work with. I’m not quite sure how I discovered the work of Agnieszka Ospia, but I instantly fell in love with her designs. Her work was exquisite and guess what… she did international rentals.
Though quite pricey, her work was stunning and I wasn’t about to cheap out on the last piece of the puzzle! I sent her a message.
Shoot day began by first figuring out where we could go, and where the lighting could be set up. The folks over at the Feengrotten were kind enough to lend us a couple rain boots so that we could reach the most photogenic areas. Shlepping thousands of dollars of equipment through about two feet of water into a muddy slippery grotto was the last thing I wanted to do, but the shoot called for it, and what’s the point of having great gear if not for it to be used?
As a result of striving for the best shot possible, I found myself crouching with wet socks and pants in freezing knee deep water, patiently attempting to light and frame the perfect shot. 38,000$ of Mamiya Leaf Credo 80 hovered just inches above certain death should I clumsily trip over my 3LT tripod.
Lighting the sets was equally challenging. Not only were the cave ceilings covered in fragile stalactites, the ground was uneven and surrounded by mud with hints of stalagmites creeping through. The Para 133 we had brought along, though a beautiful light modifier, was quite huge and required two people at all times to carefully move around and make sure that we didn’t destroy the fragile environment around us. A careful combination of moving light and model so the two were in the perfect position was required for each shot. In each instance, the final touch, was to ensure sure that a small kick of light was brought in to light the background and give it that little kiss of depth.
Due to timing and scheduling constraints, the entire project, including the 5 hour drive in from Cologne, to picking up Jen Brook from the airport, to doing hair, makeup, scouting, set up and shoot was completed in just a single day.
To some, the trouble may not have been worth it… but for me, these are the types of adventures that I live for. I invest time, money and effort into my shoots… so that hopefully the works that result are anything but mediocre.
Of course, I’m only one part of the equation. These are the people that made it all possible.
Walking into Stift Admont was like entering Disney’s Beauty & the Beast library.
Never before had a creative photoshoot been done in the Admont Abbey, the oldest monastic library in the world… yet here I was, standing at the entrance of what can only be described as the most magical mix of architecture and art I had ever experienced.
For a few priceless hours, we were going to be given free rein to create some magic.
Doing a photoshoot in a library like Stift Admont had been a dream of mine that, for the longest time seemed completely unachievable. Preliminary emails and calls out to similar locations were consistently met with flat out rejections or exorbitant shooting rates. Just when all hope seemed lost, we received a positive reply from Brother Maximillian, welcoming us with open arms to come, create and share the magic of the abbey with the world.
Growing up, Beauty and the Beast had been one of my favourite films from Disney. I had watched it countless times as a child, and never once, did I imagine that I would find myself inside a fairytale myself, creating a Disney princess of my own surrounded by priceless frescos adorning the ceilings, marble floors beneath my feet and the soft musty smell of old books.
In retrospect, I suppose it would have been impossible for younger me to picture a 27 year old me, looking through the viewfinder of a 40,000$ camera system, surrounded by state of the art Broncolor lighting, capturing my muse, Jen Brook, a beautiful blond model from the UK wearing surreal and fantastical designs by Polish designer Agnieszka Ospia, with hair and makeup completed meticulously by makeup artist extraordinaire Bianca Kristin Woltsche whilst assistant Zoe Klomp, whom we had only met a couple days before at a german photography trade show, hid beneath the dress in order to give it just a little bit more volume… and all this in the largest monastic library in the world.
Lighting up the library was quite a challenge. It’s beauty was wildly dependent on the 48 windows of sunlight to illuminate the 70,000 books and manuscripts on display. Unfortunately we were only given permission to shoot after hours so that meant trying our best to re-construct the lighting as naturally as possible.
We used a series of small speedlights to light the different arches and ceilings of the library to maintain the depth of the space, as well as our larger Broncolor lights to make our model pop out of the background. A longer shutter speed was used to bring in a tiny bit of the ambient warmth and the flashes were manually triggered by hand when the cloth was thrown to capture the perfect moment.
To me though, the final cherry on the top was actually getting Brother Maximillian himself, a real live monk, to model for us in one of our shots!
I have always loved photography for the adventures and opportunities that it brings, not the hours I would spend retouching in front of a computer. As a result the desire to search and explore the most exotic locations and make a shoot out of it, has always been a particular passion of mine.
Projects like these are particularly magical because of how they bring people together. From fans (now turned friends) Eva Creel and Nicolas Cormier, American expats and photographers living in Germany willing to embark on a spontaneous roadtrip to drive me across Germany so that I can indulge in my creative shenanigans, to friends of friends likeOliver Schlichtherle,who drove all the way from Switzerland through Austria just to assist in whatever capacity possible… People from all walks of life somehow end up gravitating towards these amazing projects.
And at the end, we not only have fantastic imagery to share with the world… but a story to laugh and remember for the rest out our lives.
Dream big, anything is possible.