Interview With Photographer Marcus Ranum

This interview was for the website Louco por Fotografia, a Brazilian website devoted to photographic arts.

1 - How did photography came to your life in the very beginning ??? How was your learning process ??? What is photography for you today ???

My first real photographic experience was back in high school when I borrowed a friend's camera so I could take pictures of my girlfriend. I managed to convince her to pose nude for me and I happened to take a few photos (largely by accident) that were quite beautiful and which I treasured for years. Somehow I just held onto that interest. I didn't buy my first "real" camera (a Pentax K1000) until 1991.


2 - Glamour and nude photography is one of the most interesting subjects
of photography. What is glamour and nude photography for you ???

I really like the way girls look and I think they look best without their clothes on and posed enticingly! When I was younger I was always a big fan of "girly art" (Frank Frazetta, Playboy, Vargas, Petty, etc) and it seemed pretty natural to want to try to make some of my own. When I started I thought, "how hard can it be?" and then I discovered that glamour and nudes are just like everything else - it's easy to do it badly. And it's hard to do it well enough that it looks like you made it easy. When you look at one of those pictures in Playboy you don't realize that you're looking at a huge amount of work, very fancy and sophisticated lighting, and tons of post-processing. It just looks like a natural photo of a pretty girl without clothes on, but it's actually a highly constructed and composed production.

The word "glamour" in the old English means "casting a spell of seduction or enchantment." The Irish used to say that the faeries would cast a "glamour" over a person and they would see the world through an imaginary veil that deceived them with its beauty. So I think the word "glamour" is perfect for the kind of photography many of us do. You're trying to create an impression of something that isn't really there. For me part of the thrill is to fool my viewer. If I can make them think an image was shot with natural light out of doors and it was shot in a parking garage with a flashlight, I've gotten the last laugh.


3 - Why do you think amateur and professional photographers and general
peoples are so seduced by the beauty of nude and glamour photography ???
Why this mysterious seduction ??? Why is it also so debated ???

Well, I think most people don't mind looking at an attractive member of their preferred sex, displayed to seduce and tease. There may be some people who, for religious or cultural reasons, can't handle seeing that, but if you look at prehistoric cave paintings, they show nude people and sex. I think Fox Talbott's first photos were of a building and his second and third were of a nude woman. I remember someone once said that "the first use of any new medium is to exchange pornography." Glamour nudes are more sophisticated than pornography but it's just a matter of degree. We like sex. We're made that way.

The topic is hotly debated because a lot of people want to believe that when you take an intelligent, interesting person and turn them into an erotic image, that you've somehow reduced them in scope and denied them some of their interestingness. Other people want to see art used for purposes that ennoble and elevate the human spirit. Really, it boils down to value judgements - I know which of my models are smart and interesting, I know which art provokes me to great thoughts and which art puts me to sleep. It's just a question of personal preference but a lot of people want to see their preferences respected as somehow superior. Some of the smartest, most interesting and cultured people I know would rather look at a copy of Playboy than go to an opera. Some of us do both. I think the whole controversy is silly. It would be as if I felt someone was somehow inferior if they liked one kind of music more than another. That's just as ridiculous. Art fascinates me because it's one area where the artist's desire to express themself is absolute. Nobody can judge your art but yourself. One hopes that other people like your art, but only a very insecure artist can worry about being judged.


4 - You often shoot in color and then turn the images into BW. You say colors distract you when composing. Is there any other reason to do it, any aesthetics, emotional or technical reasons perhaps ??? Tell us a little more about your relation with the BW imaging and photography ???

I started off shooting in BW because it was easier for me to develop and process it myself. But then I found that the style matched what I like - the simpler tonal range of grey scale is somehow easier for me to work with. I find color distracting - if I look through the viewfinder and see a field with a single bright red object in the middle, for some reason the color winds up immediately dominating my attention and I find up that the pictures I take become all about the combinations of contrasting colors in the viewfinder and not much else. That's just a personal preference. My wife, for example, shoots in color. She'll see a rock with green moss in all kinds of delicate shades of greens and blues and she gets very attracted by the combinations of colors. I look at the same rock and it's completely uninteresting to me. I don't know why.


5 - Is BW photography more difficult to hand, compose and process than color photography ??? Why do so many amateur and pro photographers say that BW photography is more difficult than color ???

I think that's all nonsense. A lot of photographers say "X is hard" or "Y takes more skill than X" but usually what they mean is "I like Y and because I like it, I am going to look down on the people who like something else." I used to engage in this debate a lot on in the early days of USENET. Some photographers would say "black and white is artistically superior to color!" and I'd respond by saying that "If that's true, than charcoal on paper must be superior to black and white, right? It's even more minimalist and monochromatic and so on and so forth." But it's a pointless discussion. You like what you like and I like what I like and if we kind of like the same thing you might enjoy my art and then we share a private moment of happiness and communication.

(My first platinum print. It's not very good but it wasn't very hard, either)

BW is easier to print than color, for me, because I know how! I don't have color printing equipment and chemistry, and I never learned. So when a lot of photographers say something is "artistically challenging" you need to understand that that is entirely in the context of what THEY KNOW HOW TO DO! I had a real eye-opening experience about this the other day. For years and years I have wanted to try doing platinum/palladium printing. I just love the look of platinum prints. So I ordered a Bostick and Sullivan pt/ptd kit and picked an old contrasty negative and speed-read the directions and tried a print. I expected a disaster. But it came out pretty nicely! So, now I wonder how many of those people who say platinum is hard are just saying it because they've never tried, or they just want to feel that what they are doing is somehow more special and important. Or maybe it's harder and I just had beginner's luck. I don't know yet.


6 - What kind of subjects except nude and glamour you like to shot ??? Why ???

I also really enjoy shooting still-lifes of machines. I have no idea why. I used to go to the junk yard and buy old car parts - gears and pistons and so forth - and light and photograph them.

I have no idea why.


7 - What do you think of the quick advance of digital photography ??? Is film dead ???

I personally would rather shoot film than digital. But a lot of people would rather shoot digital than film. Either is fine. The differences in quality are getting increasingly small. I used to dislike digital prints - I still don't make prints of my digital images because I don't like how the quality compares to a fine print on silver paper - but that will change eventually, too. I suspect film will eventually become a craft for the fine artist - just like alternative processes like Cyanotype and Bromoil prints have become. That's also fine with me. No matter what I'll be able to find something I can work with. I have an 8x10 view camera and if film dies I'll start making and exposing my own glass plate negatives!! Actually, I think that would be fun.

I originally got my digital camera as a kind of fancy light-meter and composition aid. When I bought my first good digital SLR I discovered that autofocus and autoexposure really open up new possibilities - fast-moving objects and difficult lighting. Photoshop opens up new possibilities, too! I just can't understand how someone can complain with all the wonderful tools and possibilities that we have available to us.


8 - If you would have an unique chance to shot a great uber-model, just like Gisele Bundschen or Naomi Campbel, with no rush, no commercial purposes, just and unique chance to shot a great model for fun ... and you could just use one equipament (body and one lens), or your DSLR with a 512MB card (no download allowed during the photo session) or your old Pentax K1000 with 25 roll of BW film and 25 rolls of BW infrared ... What equip would you use and why ??? Why not using the second choice ??? Is the equipment determinant for great shots ???

First off, I'd want to shoot Christy Turlington. That's been a dream of mine! I actually tried to get her to pose for me back in the early 1990's. That didn't work! In retrospect, that's a good thing because the kind of work I was capable of doing at that time would have wasted the opportunity.

(Christy Turlington, photographed by Richard Avedon)

So, assuming I had the opportunity, and no rush, I'd want to shoot everything possible! When I did my shoot of Jewel Shepard, I shot video, 6x6cm infrared and Tmax, 8x10, and 35mm HIE infrared, 8x10 polaroid, and I got some low-res pictures with a little prosumer digicam. In other words, I tried everything! Why not? I've found wonderful things I liked in every one of those formats, even the video - you ever notice that some beautiful women are even more beautiful when they're moving? Any photographer who says that only one format is best is saying more about his limitations than he is saying about the limitations of other formats.

But, to answer your question: if I had to limit myself, I'd want my Hasselblad with my 150mm lens, a red filter, and Konica infrared film. For two reasons: 1) Because that's the gear I know best and I'd have the best chance of being happy with the results and 2) Because Christy has beautiful tan skin that would look glorious in Konica infrared, and her dark hair with brown highlights would also look terrific. That's assuming I was shooting in a studio with controlled lighting! If I were shooting outdoors in natural light, I'd want my Pentax and HIE, and if I were doing grab shots (say, of her walking down the street, naked, in New York) I'd want my DSLR with the autofocus, autoexposure, and rapid "film advance."

I think that one of the reasons that it's tragic when photographers refuse to try anything except for the one thing they like, is because they ignore the fact that in each situation there may be a piece of gear that is best for that one shot.


9 - A lot of amateur photographer don´t have idea about how to direct models in a nude or glamour photo session ??? How do you do that ??? What techniques and tricks you could teach ??? What is model direction anyway ???

OK, I will teach you my super secret technique. But once the secret is out, then everyone will realize how easy it is and nobody will be impressed by my work anymore! So don't spread it around too much. :)

Ask yourself - "why am I shooting nude pictures of this model?" Probably the answer will be "Because she looks good!" So, you've already learned something really important. She looks good - that's what you're here to do: capture that look and that leads the next question: "what about her looks good to you?" Different guys are going to have different things about a woman that they like to look at! Some guys like breasts, some butts, some legs - whatever works for you! But once you've answered that question you can ask, "what are some positions in which my favorite body part looks best?" Pose her in that kind of position and then work from there - put the parts you like in the light, the parts you don't in the shadow, or hide them, or whatever. Posing a model is sometimes as easy as telling her to "just move around a bit" or "maybe do some stretches, bends, and kneeling stretches" and then see what looks good. Take a normal body position and accentuate it.

Another good technique is to look at other people's photos or paintings and think about what you like about them! You don't need to copy someone else's work but if you look around at all the photos on the 'net, and start asking yourself "what do I like about this?" then you'll learn a tremendous amount. You'll learn about yourself, as well. I always liked sexy pictures of women kneeling with their butts in the air, their chests down and their ribs and breasts highlighted. After you start collecting images you like these patterns jump out at you. Then you can start extracting elements you like and creating your own work from them.

One of my photographer friends introduced me to a great game we used to play. One of us would send the other a photograph, and the person who got the photograph had to look at it, and figure out how the photographer who shot it lit the scene. Some scenes are really really tricky to figure out! Others, you look closely and you can see catch-lights in the models' eyes, shadows on the floor, and reflections on shiny objects and go "oho!" that's neat! You learn how to tell what was done with a softbox or an umbrella by the shape of the highlights, and so on. It's great practice!

When I started out with shooting erotic nudes, I found it was hard to get models to visualize the poses that I wanted from them. So I spent a lot of time looking for and printing out photos that showed poses I liked. That way I'd just show the model a photo and say "like this!" She'd interpret the pose in her own way because everyone is different - no 2 photos ever come out exactly the same. My favorite place for coming up with ideas was by searching the Japanese erotic art sites and garage kit sites. Check out Hobbyfan or Cody's Coop and look at the resin anime kits and look at some of the wonderful poses that the Japanese come up with. I still keep a stack of printouts in my travel photo kit in case I run out of ideas. Usually I can just look through it for a few seconds and inspiration will hit.

I had one friend who was photographically stuck in a rut who wanted to start doing nudes. But he was worried about posing his models and learning how to light them. I told him to go buy a Barbie Doll and spend some time posing her, lighting her, and doing some macro photos of her. He didn't listen to me, but I thought it was a good idea!

Now that I have more experience I have found that it's very easy to come up with ideas on the fly. As an ice-breaker I will often show the model the pose that I want her to hit! This is a great way of helping the model relax; nothing is funnier than seeing a 40-year-old photographer trying to stand like a sexy girl. Showing some willingness to relax and be funny about yourself really keeps the mood at a shoot positive and fun.

mjr. (2004)