Q: Will you?
A: Well, I don’t want to give away too many trade secrets, but in broad strokes: The camera that we used was a Deardorff 8×10 camera with a 19-inch commercial Ektar lens, which was made by Kodak. The 12 and the 14-inch commercial Ektars were the workhorses of the industry. Later on Gold Dot Goerz Dagor lenses sort of replaced them. They were better glass. We shot 8×10 film. We lit with a mixture of tungsten and flash. That was a little cheat because there wasn’t flash in those days, of course. We did it just because the studio was set up in such a much easier way to use it. That was interesting, to mix the two lights. It’s not something that’s done very often today, if at all. When you have fixtures that range from little lights up to 10k spots, you got a really full box of brushes. You can really highlight little details. You’re lighting like a painter. You’re putting lines exactly where you want them, on the edge of glasses. All of this shows up in the still life. That is not something that we’re accustomed to seeing today. When we are seeing them, we’re mostly putting them in afterwards in Photoshop.
I was told for years, by the way, that I wouldn’t need to worry about any of this stuff. Just shoot digital and I could achieve the look of yesteryear on Photoshop — no problem. I want you to know that that is not true. I tried to do it for two months on many formats, working with some of the best retouchers in New York and I was not able to imitate those looks of the ’50s and ’60s. Because of that, in my studio, we regularly mix large-format and medium-format analog photography with digital photography with very compelling results. Having a level of craft like that is to have freedom over your artistic expression.
In Photoshop, for example, one of the key components is layers. All that masking, which is what those layers represent electronically, we used to do it all in camera. I did hundreds of them. We could place the moon in a girl’s mouth and put her sitting on the sun, all in camera. Retouching was a big deal. You usually had to do dye transfers. Retouching a photograph could take six weeks and you needed to get it done for the ads. Photographers like my father and Irving Penn, they got paid a lot of money at that time, and part of the reason was they did it all in camera. They were saving money, actually, for the publications and advertising agencies, on what we now call postproduction.
Then when we went to digital and I did exactly the opposite. I worked with a Nikon D800. I love the camera. It’s got the resolution of my 8×10 camera. It’s amazing, but allows me to shoot in real time, to be involved in my photographs differently because I become not as much a voyeur as when I’m working with large format, but rather a participant in what I’m shooting. When I shoot on that format, I’m shooting a relationship between myself and whatever I’m shooting. Whenever I’m shooting large format, I’m more of a voyeur, shooting at something. It’s a very different psychology between the two and I think it shows in the pictures. The digital pictures have a lot of movement. You can’t really do that in large format. That’s a significant formal difference between the two. There’s a contrivance in the digital pictures — in digital image making. I don’t call it photography.
For me, photography is a photochemical process. In digital image making, the whole principle is different. It’s about putting together components that are shot at diverse time periods. That’s the advantage of it. You’re composing with time when you make a digital image. That’s fascinating. In digital image making, I dream a lot. I don’t worry. Neither do I worry how we’re going to do it, because at this point, I’ve been photographing for over half a century. “How” is generally not part of the equation. The approach when I do digital image making is that the sky is the limit. I almost approach it like a surrealist painter does — or would have — in terms of a collage. This gives me a huge amount of artistic freedom. I can basically break through dimensions and perspectives and all kinds of time barriers to composite something. You see that in the images that I created here, balancing a shot glass on the stem of an orchid, for example. Pushing over a cocktail until it’s flying in all directions. Having the control of knowing where I’m going to place every single droplet in that splash.
The most challenging image of the group was “Ashes to Ashes,” the one looking down at all of the things pouring into the cocktail shaker. That is a fantastic example of what I’m talking about because it’s actually an image that is built in three perspectives. It’s not a doable real-life situation. The main image was shot with a fisheye lens, which distorted the bottle so much that I shot the bottles and the pours separately with a longer lens. The swirling action of the liquid in the shaker was an additional photograph, as was the pouring of the sugar. In a very interesting way, you’re looking at almost what is, in a sense, a cubist image. The basis of cubism was being able to collapse time and perspectives into a single instant. That’s what I did in a certain way, conceptually, with that image.
It may look to the untrained eye like that’s a plausible photograph that I did in camera, but the perspectives that are used in that picture are impossible. That was done on my part purposefully to create something that was in absolute contrast to what I did with the analog photography that reached back to my father’s work. It’s really wonderful to have the chance to bring it all together at this point in my career and have people appreciate that. It’s fun for me because I get to play in the sandbox that I grew up in and that I’m still living in, but in a way that still honors every aspect of that process and every phase of that process and the history of photography and the history of image making. That made the assignment very exciting and very significant.
Q: We should mention briefly that the order in which we decided to print this series was slightly different than how you proceeded, so I want to give you an opportunity to address that.
A: There is a sort of chronological order to this production in that obviously the ’50s stuff came first as an homage to my father’s work. Then there was kind of a development in a kind of Pennish way of these more austere, graphically composed still lifes against white. For me, the final image was the CGI collaboration with my partners at Imaginary Forces to basically take this simple idea of the tropical drink against the sunset and just push it through the wall. Rather than a sunset, you’ve got the burning ball of Sun behind the drink. You’ve got this weird sort of [Rene] Magritte surreal dimension change where the drop of sweat is dripping off the glass, which is somehow floating above the set. That drop has collected into a puddle on the set above the drink. The whole thing is kind of just a mashup of clichés, cultural expectations, the heritage of cocktail photography, and then the whole thing pushed through the wall with computer imagery. That was the idea of it. The idea of it was to play a little bit with kitsch, a little bit with irony. The assignment that I was given was to do kind of a retrospective of it, so that would be the end. The future is the end.
Q: You seem to have a strong interest in cocktails. It always comes up when we talk. Is there anything more to that?
A: The table is one of the civilizing props in our culture. The table was the original altar. That’s why we ate at a table: it was a spiritual, religious experience. It was all about sustenance. It was all about survival. The existential predicament: you didn’t get to eat unless you were concerned with those things. That has evolved, for me, as a core belief of mine, that our opportunity as human beings is to elevate situations. It’s to go beyond our biology. To go beyond our pathology. In a certain way, act as gods or creators. Eating for me is an artistic challenge. I have to do it. It is biological. The question is, how do I elevate that into something that mirrors how I would like to define myself?
I like to think of myself as being cultured and a creator and a collaborator and those things, which means we have to build a culture around the most mundane — eating and drinking, for example. We also have to do it for our housing, thus architecture. For our village planning, thus urban planning. What we use to shelter our bodies, thus fashion. That’s why these kinds of cultural languages intrigue me and seduce me in a sense. When you’re talking about cocktails, you’re talking about a whole culture. You’re talking about fashion. You’re talking about food. You’re talking about social discourse and the history of it. All the great social arrangements pretty much have been done in bed or at the table.
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