Dark Chemistry

by Kate Stanworth

Chris Anthony

September 01, 2010 — Los Angeles-based photographer Chris Anthony’s moody, atmospheric photos draw from a childhood obsession with all things Victorian and Edwardian. His rich, macabre scenes are populated by circus freaks, masked Venetians and corseted ladies who play out strange narratives in dusty theaters and decaying stately homes.

One of his first photo series, Victims and Avengers, won the 2007 Grand Prize in American Photo’s Images of the Year Competition, and his unmistakable style captured the imagination of clients like Sony and rock band My Chemical Romance, for whom he created shadowy and theatrical images for their album The Black Parade.

“Darker colors and textures have always influenced me since I was a little kid,” Chris says. Growing up in the cold, northern climes of Stockholm, Sweden, he immersed himself in Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries set in grand old English manor houses, and the dark, gothic illustrations of Edward Gorey.

However, it was music rather than images that first inspired him to pick up a camera and start shooting at the age of 12. “I met two young rock photographers and what they were doing mesmerized me. I picked their brains every chance I got.” says Chris.

In pursuit of their exhilarating lifestyle, the enthusiastic youngster created his own fanzine and began to call record companies. “I talked my way into all this stuff and started shooting everybody,” he recalls. “The first pictures were terrible but I learned as I went. Then I started selling my pictures to music magazines. When I was 15 I got an agent and my work was seen all over the world.”

Despite his early success with still photography, Chris went on to study film, and in his early 20s he worked in every part of the film business. The industry led him to Los Angeles, where he got some work on a cartoon production in 2001. Despite initially hating the place, which he described as “unruly and daunting,” L.A. became his home base.

It wasn’t until 2003 when Chris, having become disenchanted with film, picked up his still camera again. “Some of the things I’d wanted to do in my filmmaking were too expensive,” he recalls. “So I thought, well, I can make my own still images instead and not get bogged down with all the costs.”

At first he was shooting for fun, not really knowing whether he would pursue it. “I was fooling around and falling in love with it again,” he says. “I went to a fabric shop and bought a huge piece of brocade as a backdrop, and began shooting portraits and orchestrating simple scenarios.” Chris collected period costumes and used his friends, many of whom were actors and musicians, as models. “They are people I come across who are interesting,” he says. “I rarely work with professional models.”

Chris’ girlfriend at the time, actress Emily Deschanel (top, pg. 46), played a key role in his Victims and Avengers series along with her sister Zooey (above) and their mother, Mary Jo. They play sufferers of domestic violence: fragile, bruised figures in frilly period dresses who stalk down dark passageways clutching daggers with which they appear to have exacted their revenge. In some photos, children also appear in masks and strange costumes, but all we see of the anonymous male tormenters/victims are blood-stained legs and feet—the rest of their bodies lying out of frame.

Shockingly, the subject of the series was drawn from Chris’s own childhood. “My father used to brutalize my mother when I was a kid, so I saw that quite a lot when I was growing up,” he says. “It was always something that was eating away at me.” The course of making the images proved to be cathartic for him. “It was very good for me to do. The revenge aspect definitely comes through, as it’s the women and the children that have survived and have done away with the father.”

In addition to being therapeutic, the process was also painstaking. Having no backing to build sets, he shot the walls, props and models separately and brought all the elements together later in Photoshop, which he had taught himself from scratch. “I would get wallpaper and paper a wall in my apartment, shoot it and wallpaper it again,” he says. “Some images have over 20 elements that I pieced together like a puzzle.”

Chris’s hard work paid off when the images not only won an award, but were spotted by Gerard Way, the lead singer of My Chemical Romance, who asked Chris to shoot the images for his album. This time he could afford to hire an atmospheric space—an old L.A. hotel that had played host to stars like Charlie Chaplin and Humphrey Bogart.

Gerard had a strong idea of what he wanted and, luckily, the two were in total creative sync. They produced a striking image showing the musicians dressed in black marching band jackets, joined by a host of strange, haunting characters, against a huge theatre backdrop and a gothic fairy-tale sky (pgs. 42–43).

Although Chris captured most of the image on the day of the shoot, he did a lot of post work on the sky, degrading and piecing together stock photos. “It took one day to shoot and about three or four weeks to complete,” he recalls.

In contrast, he has recently taken a simpler approach for his photography, foregoing compositing in favor of capturing everything in one image. This and an attempt to make his photographs look more like those of the Victorian era photographers he admires—such as Julia Margaret Cameron—propelled him on a new quest: to experiment with old equipment.

“I had started off by tinting the hell out of my portraits in Photoshop to give them that old look,” he says. “But everyone in the whole world does that, so it didn’t feel right. So I started researching for months about the technology from the 1860s to the turn of the century. I started buying lenses on eBay—lens after lens after lens—and testing them.”

Now Chris sometimes uses lenses that are 150 years old, such as a French “Darlot” lens. “It’s as primitive as it gets,” he says. “There’s no shutter or diaphragm—you’re just working with one opening at about f/4. I hold a black card in front of it and once we’re set I take it off and put it back. It’s slow and methodical and I’ll rarely take more than a dozen or so pictures.”

The results are haunting and beautiful. Images of masked figures and wooden dolls from his series I’m the Most Normal Person I Know have a painterly quality produced by a gentle blur that circles the centre of the image and gets stronger toward the edge of the frame. By using color, Chris gives the images a unique look, as these lenses were originally only used with black-and-white film.

While the antique methods on their own yield great results, for many of his shoots Chris still mixes a traditional approach with modern post-production techniques to create the ethereal feel he is seeking. For his latest series, Venice, he shot his characters in an overcast seascape using his 4 x 5 camera, working on the shots later in Photoshop to produce more muted tones. “The films today are very saturated because they’re so good on color—too good for my taste,” he explains. “Even if the sky looks grey, it photographs more blue. So I would take the scanned image and suck out the blue and the cyan to make them more grey and neutral.”

From time to time he also uses a fully digital setup. For instance, to create his morbid and fantastical ad for Sony Playstation (above), in which a broken, beheaded chess piece lies in a pool of blood, he says, “We opted for digital for their magazine ads, and I rented a high-end Hasselblad back. It was really pleasant. We’re hooked up to the computer screen as you shoot and see exactly what you’re getting as you go along.”

Having achieved success through both the latest and the oldest approaches, is Chris’ future looking more digital or antique? The answer is both. Having experienced the old methods, Chris has a heightened appreciation for the convenience of digital. “I definitely do think about how nice it would be to shoot digitally more. It’s so practical and so much easier to handle.” It will still be a while, however, before he is ready to invest in his own digital Hasselblad back. “I blow some of my stuff up to eight feet wide, so the resolution is still not good enough—not as good as 4 x 5 by any means.”

Even when a full digital kit becomes more accessible to him, Chris is not looking to abandon the old methods, and by no means will he let the decline of film affect his choices. He recently did a course on collodion wet-plate photography, an early technique whereby chemicals are put onto a plate of glass or aluminium and inserted into an old wooden camera while still wet. Chris is excited to explore it more. “The results are so organic and you can really feel the chemistry involved,” he says. “The way it’s going now they’re going to stop making film, but with that old technology you can always make your own plates.”

See more of Chris’ work at www.chris-anthony.com.


Kate Stanworth is a British writer and photographer. She works as an editorial photo editor and writes on diverse aspects of art and culture in London and Buenos Aires.

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