David Tan: “Collaboration. Trust. Friendship. Models have also flown in from other countries just to shoot the Tainted Perfection series with me or to do testshoots at their own expense”
22 Apr, 2012
I was born in Singapore, but lived in Australia and the USA for almost ten years.
I started photography when I was at the university in Melbourne, shooting mainly sports for the college yearbook. It is important to already ‘see’ the image of your mind on sports photography as you need to anticipate and capture the moment. There is no second chance!
I also attended law school at Harvard, and I am now a full-time professor teaching entertainment law. I have contributed to magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Marie Claire, FHM, Men’s Folio, Da Man and Men’s Uno.
Some of the campaigns I shot have appeared in Vanity Fair, GQ and Time. But photography is only a professional passion. On average, I have photographed and styled about 8 editorials and 4 fashion campaigns a year.
For the first five years of my professional photography career, I shot only in natural light, on film and with no digital retouching.
His most influences on photography
I was very much influenced by Herb Ritts’ sense of aesthetics, especially his outdoor nudes. In a media interview, the journalist called me “Singapore’s answer to Herb Ritts”; I was deeply honoured. In fact I have in my personal art collection a number of his original limited edition silver gelatin prints of nudes of Christy Turlington, Tony Ward and Boris Becker.
With the more contemporary photographers, I love Steven Klein’s sadomasochistic references.
The digital era: easy tools to a poor techical execution
The digital era provides easy tools to remedy a poor technical execution. Rather than pay closer attention to makeup, styling, lighting etc, one can just ‘perfect’ the image in photoshop. I am still somewhat ‘old-school’. I like to get all the styling and lighting as perfect as possible before I shoot, and try to avoid using photoshop if I can. There are of course advantages with the digital medium, but there is still a certain magic looking a silver gelatin print.
In 2003, Cartier presented the first nude photography exhibition in Singapore titled “Tainted Perfection”. It featured beautiful naked male and female bodies stained with black acrylic paint that signifies the psychological taint associated with nudity in contemporary society. I worked with models from over a dozen countries to bring this artistic vision to life, and it received a lot of positive media coverage.
It was photographed exclusively on film with no digitial retouching. Since then, I have been experimenting with the digital medium and expanding the Tainted Perfection series. I am hoping to launch a coffeetable book and exhibition next year to commemorate 10 years of Tainted Perfection.
Worlwide economic crisis on fashion photography?
It is going to be more and more competitive as the digital medium is making it easier for many to call themselves ‘fashion photographers’. But it is difficult to be truly creative and original, and I see so many copycats out there. At the end of the day, I believe it is all about connections – who you know, who likes you, who you hang out with etc. Perhaps I’m being cynical, but I think talent may not be so significant in the 21st century.
Working with models: trusting, partnership and friendship
I have worked with so many models over the last decade, and I am privileged that they have believed my vision, and trusted me to pose nude for Tainted Perfection. Many models have never been naked for a photoshoot ever, but was happy to do it for the first time for this series because they want to be a part of creating this artistic work. Some of the more well-known Brazilian models I have worked with include Diego Fragoso, Marcio Patriota and Jean Carlos.
It is how the industry works. Collaboration. Trust. Friendship. I have done free testshoots with many models to build their portfolios before they became ‘famous’, and it is nice to see that success has not made them arrogant and forget who had helped them in the past. Of course, there will always be those who become egotistical after they have done a few shows in Milan/Paris or have shot a campaign in Europe; it is so disappointing to see this kind of behaviour.
One of my best friends, David Brooke (picture below), is from Canada.
I first shot with him in Singapore in 2004 when he was starting out as a model, and then he went on to model in Milan, New York etc. We reconnected in 2009 and he flew all the way back to Singapore to shoot the Crocodile campaign three times for half his usual rate! Harrison Wraight whose career I started in Australia went on to shoot an Abercrombie & Fitch campaign with Bruce Weber, but he is still so down-to-earth and also travelled to Singapore to shoot the N.Tyler campaigns at ‘friendship rates’.
Models have also flown in from other countries just to shoot the Tainted Perfection series with me or to do testshoots at their own expense.
The special moments, the perfect pic
Most of the time, the ‘special moments’ come unexpectedly. I might have certain poses in mind at a session, but the model would say ‘how about this?’ and that would be the image which I end up using for my exhibition or fashion campaign. I often feel this adrenaline rush when I look through my camera viewfinder and see that perfect picture! I call it ‘serendipity’. For my Tainted Perfection series, that often happens when the model is so completely at ease with being naked and painted and starts to moved fluidly in a poetic dialogue with the light.
The unusualfunny backstages moments: an involuntarily hard-on!
Most of my photoshoots proceed according to plan. The only funny – and awkward – moments I can think of are a number of recurring incidents during my Tainted Perfection shoots when the male models involuntarily get a hard-on and become very embarrassed! We just laugh, take a short break and when things have ‘calmed’ down, we carry on.
Top cool places for a shooting
In my studio! I am not too keen on location shoots. Well, maybe the Grand Canyon or Punaluu Black Sand Beach in Hawaii.
IMAGE worth a THOUSAND WORDS?
Tainted Perfection featuring Taner Sigirtmac. A possible cover for my next coffeetable book.
One of the most special moments is when Cartier presented my Tainted Perfection exhibition at the Raffles Hotel in 2003, and seeing the gigantic two-storey high exhibition banner on the façade of the hotel! I am still working on the Tainted Perfection series. Any models want to work with me?!