The World of Monica Stevenson’s Visual Onomatopoeia

Wed 24th Jun, 2015

By Staff in New York

Interview by Debra Hershkowitz. Home page cover photo © Monica Stevenson.

Work that is exciting, fresh, clean, sharp, inviting, whimsical. This is the world of Monica Stevenson’s visual onomatopoeia. At first glance, you can actually hear “pow” and “pop” and “ssssp” and “fffzzzz.” Her images exude an excitement that surpass words and even concepts. It’s very visceral. And oh-so-much fun. This photographer’s own assessment is that the end result is a combination of science and art in which magic happens. Magic indeed.

What is your background?

I have a diverse background in just about every way. My family moved around and traveled internationally when I was growing up, and I was exposed to many different cultures, people, habits, and environments. I am a cultural mélange myself: my mother was German and Chilean, my father, Scottish and Welsh. Dad was a chemist/opsimath (look THAT one up!) and Mum was a stay-at-home crafty bee with OCD. Both of their families were extremely peripatetic; my father was raised in several South American countries, and my mother, born in Mexico, also moved around with her family as a child. My mother’s Chilean grandmother was a talented painter and my grandfather, a pianist. My father’s dad made beautiful ivory carvings on a lathe, growing up in India and learning the craft when the ivory trade was still legal. I think my artistic genes came from all of them.

What brought you to this kind of photography?

The type of dynamic and technical photography that I create suits many parts of my personality. I am curious about why things work and I love to experiment with the raw materials involved in making these pictures. I have a bit of a scientific bent (I was a chemistry and math major before I turned to photography), and my husband is a food chemist, so we chat about bond energy and isotopes over dinner. On the other hand, I love the serendipity and potential for unexpected beauty when one plays with materials and processes in this way. Like most still life photographers, I definitely like to be in control a good part of the time, but I have an infectiously energetic and slightly giddy personality. Shooting fast-moving, potentially uncontrollable subject matter is right up my alley!

© Monica Stevenson

How did you get started—was it in school, or were you always shooting?

From a very early age I concocted projects of various kinds, both photographic and non. When I was about six, I made a “camera” out of an envelope box that had a clear, acetate window; that was the “lens.” I then filled it with drawings of all the people and things I came in contact with on a daily basis. I was never without my treasured little “box” camera. I recorded images of Dad descending the stairs of an airplane after a business trip, my pets, our garden, etc. I have always had a love affair with life, and most especially with objects that I deem “beautiful.” I think this fascination with surfaces, textures, smells, and colors expanded into the passion I now apply to my work as a “still-life” photographer and motion director. I loved learning to cook, but never in a “regular” fashion. I served our small family mashed potatoes that I had tinted blue, and made them suffer through bread I had dyed orange and black!

Where did you go to school?

When it was time for college, I enrolled in technical and science majors, but it was the class titled “Physics 45” (Physics of Photography) at UNC in Chapel Hill that turned the tables for me. From then on I was obsessed with image making. I spent almost all my free time shooting for the UNC yearbook, the “Yak” (a huge deal there). I used to shoot Michael Jordan shooting hoops!

I did my freshman and sophomore years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I studied chemistry, math, and calculus, and took the aforementioned, life changing, Physics 45 class. Then I took a year off to mull over my options for the future. My parents had since moved from Atlanta to Cleveland, so I transferred to Ohio University in Athens; the in-state tuition was a draw. Luckily, the school had a stellar reputation for art—photography in particular. I spent a year in NYC assisting Albert Watson before graduation, and returned afterwards to continue the job.

How long have you been in business?

Long enough to know the difference between right and wrong! I hung up my sign in the late ’80s, when NYC was teeming with accessible, local creativity. CBGB’s, Danceteria, The Tunnel, The Full Moon show with Tom Murrin, Jo Andres, and DanceNoise—all these were places where our wild enthusiasm for creating things was let loose.

How do you come up with these concepts, and how do you accomplish them so stunningly?

As to the source of my ideas, I can't give you one definitive answer. My drive to create and make imagery, however, is an ever-present and omnipotent force. Those who put up with me on a daily basis will tell you I have boundless energy, and thus my mind and body are forever searching to and fro for creative fodder—do-si-do-ing around all types of sensory data. I read voraciously, watch too many un-heard-of films, travel as much as possible, and engage in active collaboration with other creative types.

As for the second part of your question, thank you. I am flattered, but the final results are nothing if not a team effort. I surround myself with people who are equally as passionate about their métiers as I am. A lot of talent goes into making these photos and videos.

© Monica Stevenson

Do the products themselves “speak” to you, set their own stage?

Yes, I would say so, in that I shoot to enhance their most beautiful, or graphic, or luscious, or compelling selves. Nothing is rushed. I research the products if have lead time. I work with my stylists to choose backgrounds, props, and concepts that will fit both the product and the assignment. And when we’re shooting, we pay careful attention to the shapes and surfaces. It is what most still life photographers do—we are very detail oriented. I also feel that unless it is the concept of a particular project, you can’t FORCE a photograph or muscle your way through the process. Every subject—whether product, person, or animal—has its own particular energy and personality. It is my job to convey that inherent personality while staying true to my own working methods whenever possible.

Are you represented by an agency or do you rep yourself?

I have repped myself quite a bit throughout my career, and in the process established a strong network, solidified my reputation, and worked very hard at marketing the business. I am repped now by Bruce Levin, of the Bruce Levin Group. We have known each other for many years and are also very good friends.

What do you shoot for personal pleasure when you’re not in the studio?

For years, my personal work has focused almost solely on horses, their riders, and their environs. I am deeply entrenched in the horse world and strongly motivated and inspired by all of the passions and athleticism that accompany it. I have a Dutch Warmblood horse named Zoe whom I ride competitively in dressage, and who is the star of a complex project titled “Seasonal:Zoe” (see Monica Stevenson Photography). I worked with my friends Marie Yan Morvan, a stylist and creative director, and Lisa Sacco, a photographer/stylist, on this series. We hand painted Zoe with human body paint and photographed her in the woods and fields near the stable where she lives. The project—four years from start to finish—is about beauty, fantasy, surrealism, dreaming.

© Monica Stevenson

From where do you draw your inspiration?

I’m very sensitive to stimuli, and I take great joy in experiencing light, color, texture, sounds, and smells. I visit museums as often as I can, and tend to study painting as opposed to photography. Bad weather is also a huge inspiration for me—the light and colors are often quite striking. All of this sensory input gets thrown into a cauldron of inspiration to be regurgitated later as part of a project. And we can't forget the dogs and horse—who isn’t inspired by wagging tails and horse breath?

How much is done in-camera, via straight photography, and how much via other, virtual, tools (Photoshop, Illustrator, models, etc.)?

My pictures are usually what I call “augmented reality.” To that end, we do much of the “trickery” in straight photography, and then enhance and refine with Photoshop. Yes, the chocolate kisses were added in postproduction, and the liquid jellyfish were comped together.

So, how much of what you accomplish is by intention, and how much by happenstance—as you characterize it, the “happy accident after preparation”?

It always starts with intention, but then we just let the good stuff roll. We set the stage for what we have planned, try to achieve that effect, and then leave ourselves UTTERLY open to whatever other goodness happens in front of the camera. Serendipity can be wonderful, and our working method allows for the gloriously unexpected and unplanned thing to occur within the technical framework we have put in place. My goal is to loosen up even more—really let my hair down!

The Purple Shoe is a perfect example. As much as people refuse to believe, it happened very, very closely to what you see—by throwing a tub of paint into the air and waiting for Serendipity to cast her spell. The shoe was “enhanced and refined,” but it REALLY did take form as a splash in the air.

© Monica Stevenson

Can you speak to your use of strobes to attain your effects?

I rely HEAVILY on short duration strobes for my still work, and seriously powerful continuous lighting to capture the action of the speeding objects—water, bullets, glass, whatever it is we are trying to “stop.” Without Broncolors and Profoto, and 20Ks, I would be sunk.

How many tries do you usually make towards your conceived end product? Or… are you working from a general feel, going with the flow, until the solution actually presents itself?

The answer to this is so dependent on the situation at hand. Sometimes the first couple of frames are beautiful, with all our planning coming to a head and working in perfect sync. If this happens, we tend to purposely throw a wrench into the works to create an “accident.” We set the stage, and let it all fly. As I said earlier, I love the potential for discovery and surprise when playing with materials and processes.

In closing, I’d like to note that you speak of a “reverence to the details” of the products you shoot. This must make your clients happy and loyal. Yes?

Yes, this makes clients VERY happy. I have many repeat customers, and I like to think this is because we pay respect to the product, which in turn is respectful to them. This is a business, first and foremost, and my job, commercially, is to provide stellar imagery and customer service for my clients. It is my artistic and technical background that allows me and my team to do this, while at the same time putting our visual stamp on the final result.

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