January 01, 2011 — It would be a stretch to describe Joplin, MO, as an international center of cutting edge fashion design or photography, but you certainly could be convinced it was by the eye-grabbing, provocative images from Brian DeMint’s Eyeworks Photography.
Surely these stunningly bold and colorful images, which cover the gamut from the cute, quirky and sexy, to confrontational and disturbing, are the product of a full-on fashion photography studio based in New York, London, Milan or Paris? And the way-out styling and costumes—and the models clad in them—must also come from avant-garde houses of fashion and modeling agencies?
Well, no—not at all. The visual creative genius behind this dazzling portfolio of images is Brian DeMint, a self-taught photographer whose studio is rented space in a warehouse and whose photographic equipment is testimony to the simple truth that it’s the practitioner, not the tools of the trade that produces great work. The fashions, styling, theme—and the look—originate from the creative imagination of the photographer. And the models are, for the most part, inexperienced local high school or college students. Brian’s wife Dena, who is also self-taught, crafts the stunning hairstyling and makeup.
And there are more surprises. While Brian’s images have been widely published and featured in international editorial fashion spreads and advertising campaigns, he didn’t start serious photography until 2004. Brian’s photography is primarily an artistic outlet, albeit a passionate one, from his full-time job as an operations supervisor at a power plant.
Technically and artistically the photography is superb. And yet the photographic equipment is relatively basic. Most images featured in his online galleries were produced with a Canon Rebel digital camera. His current camera is a Nikon D90 with a zoom lens in the wide-angle to short telephoto range. Postproduction facets are more technical and complex, even though he does not capture in RAW—“it just adds to the processing time and the images are ridiculously huge”—and favors JPEG medium, occasionally capturing in JPEG large. Every image differs in the amount of digital manipulation—all postproduction is done by Brian on a quad processor HP computer using Windows Vista and Photoshop CS5—from simple tonal and texturing work to more complex multi-layers (as many as 30) depending on elements to be added or subtracted, or the desired effect.
“I never use actions, as it’s important to me that I be involved in every stage of the creative process with as little automation as possible. I try to do all my compositions in camera, but sometimes do crop to emphasize the point of interest. Also, I do very heavy color manipulation on many images, giving them more of a painterly quality versus that of a typical photograph,” Brian says.
His small reflector lights, bought from a hardware store for as little as $6, have been referred to as “chicken warmers.” “I have tried other types of lighting techniques, but I’ve always stayed with my little reflector lights. My usual setup is with 100-watt soft white bulbs, either one or two lights, and a complex setup for me is three ‘chicken warmers.’ I always hold one light in my left hand so I can place the key light wherever I need to on the fly. The second light is a fill light and is usually placed low, and the third light is used sometimes as a hair light or to back light. Sometimes I bend the reflector to create a spotlight effect,” he says, before adding another technical tip. “Occasionally I do duct tape one to a stick so I can step back farther from the model and still place the light where I want it. It’s simplistic to the point of much ridicule, which I don’t mind. It gives me the painterly and dramatic Baroque period qualities in lighting that I’m looking for—that’s all I’m concerned with.”
That almost throwaway line about the painterly qualities reveals a vital aspect of Brian’s artistic background—he was formally trained in drawing and painting, specifically portraits. One could reasonably assume that the transition from painting portraits, a discipline that demands mastery of light and shadow, composition, color control and capturing the essence of a person’s character would be relatively simple. In Brian’s case, it was not an immediate transition. “I hadn’t actually picked up a brush in 20 years before I started photography, so I can’t really say I made a switch,” Brian says. He does, however, emphasize the benefit of that training. “By having a firm grasp of the principles and elements of design, I believe I have the knowledge of what creates a visually stimulating image. To be an excellent photographer you have to understand the elements that compose visual imagery and how to manipulate them to your best advantage for every picture you produce.”
“I feel an art background is a must for fashion styling. I make all selections of outfits, hairstyles, jewelry and makeup using the elements and principles of design, texture, form, shape, color, value, repetition and space to ensure that everything is congruent to the overall look. However, I liken it to music in that sometimes it’s interesting to have a few dissonant notes to break up the monotony and the expected,” Brian says.
That painting background has also been invaluable for creating his own backgrounds, painting onto $10 canvas drop cloths to create brilliant examples of Abstract Impressionism and often applying non-toxic children’s paint onto the models’ clothing and faces.
Control Freak Photography
Many creative pursuits, especially those such as fashion shoots that involve a multitude of facets, are invariably team efforts. So, are the Eyeworks’ creations the result of round-table discussions with each team member contributing ideas? Well, not exactly. Brian likes to call all the shots, a trait that his colleagues have learned to live with. “Some models have even suggested that I change the name from ‘Eyeworks’ to ‘Control Freak’ photography since I make all the decisions on hair, makeup, outfits, jewelry, accessories and backdrop. It is important to me that everything for a set is congruent and works together.”
“Dena’s role is that of an incredibly talented craftsman who can give me exactly what I ask for. She is also our technical engineer for things such as making a full cake stay on top of a model’s head. However, neither she nor the models has any—or at least very little—input in styling or the theme. The models get their turn when they pose on the set. I let them interpret the theme and play the role, simply because they are far more creative than I am in that area,” Brian says, adding that he believes the lack of formal training for both Dena and him has allowed them to avoid the parameters of traditional education. “Through experimentation and trial and error we’ve found our own methodology of working, which explains our style, which is hopefully interesting,” he says. He would get few arguments on that point.
Brian DeMint’s mind is invariably awash with visual possibilities. “The images are influenced from a plethora of ideas floating around in my head. What most influences the work are the visual or musical styles that I find intriguing and appealing—from directors such as David Lynch and Krzysztof Kieślowski, musical texturing and mood from bands such as the Cocteau Twins or The Knife, creative fashion design by John Galliano and the late Alexander McQueen, a helter-skelter spattering of artistic movements such as early Christian Byzantine art, the ‘Fauves,’ the Russian Avant-garde, abstract expressionists and Pop Surrealism. And also from photography, such as the classic fashion works of Irving Penn and David Bailey, the incredible color styling of Miles Aldridge and the ethereal and gorgeous work of Paolo Roversi,” Brian says.
To bring his creations from concept to reality, Brian relies on the inherent talent of models, most of them inexperienced and untrained. “Working with inexperienced models can be very rewarding because they do not have a set repertoire of poses that they go through from rote memory. They have to be creative on the fly, which results in poses that are fresh, unique and inspired. I consider myself overwhelmed with the talent I am so fortunate to work with,” he says.
Brian has a basic approach to harnessing the full potential of his models. 1.) He makes them look the part with hair, makeup and styling. 2.) He coaches them to understand the part, describing their role or making up a short story for them to act out. 3.) He sets the atmosphere with music to help them feel the part. “Posing for me is acting, playing a role,”
While he has worked with models from agencies such as Elite and Ford, Brian says little separates his local talent and the professionals. “The main difference between the girls that I work with and the ‘real deal’ is that the local girls have just not pursued modeling as a career. My first local muse, Sammi Sutton, has incredible natural talent, equal to or better than most professional models, and will always be a far better model then I could ever hope to be a photographer,” he says.
And while not claiming to have “discovered” Los Angeles-based model Sarah Hilker, Brian says he had worked extensively with her before she moved to Los Angeles. And by his estimation, another local model, Lauren Simmons, has the potential to also reach the pinnacle of modeling, and he is encouraging her to realize that potential.
Beyond City Limits
The impact of Brian DeMint’s photography has been felt far beyond the city limits of Joplin. His stunning images caught the attention of acclaimed fashion magazine Fiori and the Indonesia-based publication has featured his work on its covers and in editorial spreads. The magazine’s editorial philosophy and bold use of fashion photography are a perfect fit with Brian’s style. Another printed portfolio is in his self-published book Eyeworks Photography: The Art of Color and Light. A second book, of a yet-to-be-determined style, content and title is in the works.
Additionally, Brian has become a popular lecturer with professional photographer associations and his programs are far from boring, featuring a full shoot from start to finish. “I find it hilarious when I finish because the faces of the beginners and of those with an artist’s mental block are usually full of smiles and inspiration, while the more hardcore technical photographers look as if they’ve just witnessed some horrible accident,” he says.
There’s no doubt that Brian DeMint’s photography has affected and influenced many people, and while he’s flattered when his images are used in magazines or are otherwise published, one incident that made significant impact involved a young model who lacked self confidence and was reluctant to be photographed. Eventually, however, she went along with her mother’s wishes. Brian recalls: “After we did her hair and makeup, I took her onto the shooting set and within a few shots she started posing on her own. I wanted to show her how well she was doing so let her view a couple images on the camera’s LCD. She immediately started crying. I was taken aback and asked why. She replied, ‘I have never thought of myself as being beautiful, until this moment’.”
That revelation was not lost on Brian. “The job we perform as artists is important. We have the ability to build or crush the confidence level of our subjects, not only with our images, but also with our demeanor and choice of words. I hope that story will help relate that importance,” he says.
To see more of Brian DeMint’s work and more information go to www.eyeworksphotography.com.
Writer/photographer and author Peter Skinner has been a contributing editor to Rangefinder Publishing’s magazines for nearly 30 years. He is now based in Queensland, Australia and can be reached by email at email@example.com.