Dave Aharonian is a Victoria, British Columbia based photographer, focusing on what we love the most, nature, alternative processes and ambient nudes. Calmness and a profound love for nature are both reflected in his imagery, whether he captures the dramatic aspect of Canada’s impressive landscapes, or the bare essence of a woman in enchanted forests, modern woodland sprites. We talk about inspiration, 19th century photographic techniques he uses and of course, muses.
Interview by Demetrios Drystellas.
Dave, how did it all start? What attracted you to photography instead of geography and how did you develop your visual style?
I was very fortunate that in Grade 6, we made pinhole cameras out of shoe-boxes. We used photo paper for negatives. When I saw the image come up in the tray of developer, it was like pure magic and I was hooked. I got my first summer job after grade 7 which I used to pay for my first camera, an Olympus OM-2.
In many ways geography won out over photography. I wanted to study photographic arts in University but could not see how to make a career out of it so I studied geography instead. That followed from my interest in the landscape and the natural environment. My first 10 years of photography was just nature, landscape and outdoor photographs. After a few years working for the government I decided to finally try photography as a career. That lasted for almost 10 years but the reality is it’s a very difficult way to make a living and the financial pressures were making me enjoy it less, so I went back to my previous career. Now I can shoot whatever I want and still pay my bills – so a sort of balance has been achieved. Although I do wish I had a less expensive hobby…
My love of landscape has always influenced my visual style. I had very traditional influences – Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Wynn Bullock, Minor White, John Sexton – all B&W photographers whose work I still admire. The transition from straight landscape to nudes came about from some of Weston and Bullock’s work. Placing the female figure into the landscape just seemed like a natural thing to do, so I made that a major part of my work.
Are there particular artists that have shaped you and how do you translate this in your images?
Like the ones mentioned above, plus people like Michael Kenna and Roman Lorenc. I am still drawn to very “traditional” photographs. Good, simple b&w images where the photographer really knows how to make the best use of light are inspirational to me. I will admit that a lot of new colour landscape photographs do not appeal to me as they are frequently over saturated and processed to the point where it just looks too “digital” to me. I don’t dislike digital at all – but I find many photographs today are far too over-processed.
Female nudes and natural landscapes occupy an important place in your body of work. How do you touch those subjects? A lack of contemporary references is evident and almost all the outdoor images glow with a timeless quality. What personal choices does this reflect?
Its interesting you mention a lack of contemporary references because the truth is I don’t have many contemporary influences now. There are so many photographs out there now I feel the need to not look at them so much and simply do what I want to do – follow whatever path I feel like going down. I find there are very few photographers shooting the nude in the landscape in a way that really appeals to me, so I am just following my heart and doing what I want. To me, both the landscape and the female nude are beautiful, inspirational and somewhat mysterious. I want to portray them in a way that gives them the respect they deserve while also showing their beauty and mystery. I think that sounds a bit contrived, but its the best way I can explain it.
More often than not, the subject dominates the image in photography. This is especially seen in landscapes and nudes alike. What are your thoughts on it and what are the biggest challenges you meet especially regarding nudes, where it is a collaboration unlike natural landscapes.
I must admit it’s not something I really think about. Whether I’m shooting just the landscape, just the nude or a combination of both, good composition (and light) defines the photograph. I’m always looking at landscapes to see how best to shoot them and with nudes how I would place the figure within the landscape. Certain compositions just work while others don’t. I have no rules to follow here its just as matter of looking and seeing what flows into the frame in a pleasing way. There are also logistical issues like the cliff edge or the giant waterfall…
Shadows make for a vital part of your visual language. In essence they embrace the body and sculpt the image. What is your favourite time to have a session and what do you look for in a location lighting-wise?
When I shoot landscapes I like dramatic light – so evening or dawn, but I also really love overcast, soft light. That has become my favourite. Shooting my nudes in the forest usually (but not always) requires overcast light as the contrast between bright highlights and shadows simply doesn’t work in a forest setting. I typically process my film to achieve a low contrast then adjust the negatives afterwards. A long time ago a very good photographer (photojournalist Ted Grant) said “always shoot from the shadow side” and when I do shoot in direct sunlight I try to use that to my advantage. Any form of back-lighting or strong side-lighting is usually more appealing to me, but given a choice, I’ll usually take a nice overcast sky.
How do you select the models you collaborate with and how would your ideal model be, both in terms or character and appearance? What is more, I observed a lack of tattooed women. Personal choice or coincidence?
I’m extremely fortunate in that I have been able to work with many truly amazing models. Not just as models but as people. I think the style of my work attracts certain models that leads to them having an interest in my work, as opposed to somebody simply looking for paid work. I have a fantastic small network of photographers/friends here who all share information on good models which is a huge help. For me personality is just as important as appearance because my shoots are a collaboration and I want the model to be engaged in the process and know their ideas are important too. I need to have a rapport with the person I’m working with – and quite frankly, I need to like them. If we don’t get along, the photographs are not going to be very good. I don’t have a specific ideal, but I have tended to prefer models that have a more natural look over a “glamourous” look. Certain models just have that something extra which you can see when you look at their work. If all they have in their portfolios are cheesy glamour shots, i’m less interested than somebody with a variety of more creative work. I like to have a sense that they can deal with me too as I can be a bit of a goofball… I have been drawn to “clean” models with no tattoos or excessive piercings I think because the tattooed look seems to not fit with the natural settings I have typically been photographing. Lately though, as I have done more indoor shooting I have seen a number of tattooed models I would love to work with. Hattie Watson – please call me!
You use a number of technically demanding cameras where, unlike the ease of the digital era, the room for errors is minimal. What is more, lately you have integrated a 19th century photographic technique into your arsenal. Would you like to elaborate on the process, the challenges of photographing on wet collodion outdoors and what drew you to this process?
I have always loved shooting film – especially large format. I now use both 4×5 and 8×10 cameras regularly and love them. Film makes me think about what I’m doing and large format is a very deliberate process that forces me to think about and plan each shot I take. For me, it’s a great way to work. Again, nothing against digital – I lust after several new digital cameras – but I always come back to my film cameras for the satisfaction I get from working with them. I also develop all my own film and enjoy the process. Its tedious but strangely calming too.
I have been intrigued with wet plate collodion for years. The images have such a unique quality that I knew someday I would learn the process. Just over a year ago I took a workshop and instantly knew I was addicted. With film and digital you can replicate your images from negatives and digital files. With wet plate positives, there is only one. It’s all or nothing.
This is a first for me, and I love the ability to create a unique piece that is truly an original. You cannot make another plate. I do scan my plates so I can share them online, but I do not make prints from them. It’s also a very frustrating process. Learning the chemistry, sourcing the materials, and adapting to its limitations has led to the very large stack of “garbage” plates I now have. They far outnumber the good ones I have made so far.
Collodion is demanding especially if you shoot on location as I plan to. I have built a “darkbox” for my car to develop the plates and I also learned last year that hot summer days do strange things to the chemistry. I have many failed images due to chemistry issues, but every time I shoot wet plates I learn something new and that is pretty amazing.
Large format cameras were the norm in the past, now models are used to move constantly given digital medium’s ease of capture. How do contemporary models perform with this particular time-consuming technique, which is new to them? What are the most common issues you meet?
It really hasn’t been an issue. If I work with somebody that has not done large format I explain how slow the process is and that we are going to plan and test each shot we do. I have had a few models comment that they feel shooting with large format film is a more special type of shoot for them as they know how much more demanding it is. That makes me feel pretty good! The biggest problem I’ve had (and it has not really been a problem) is with models that blink exactly when I expose the film!
Back in the day when you started, everything was analogue. Then digital came. Did you take a break from analogue photography or was the commitment unwavering?
I’ve never stopped shooting film. I only bought a digital camera when I started doing commercial photography. I have been shooting mostly large and medium format film as long as I can recall. Recently I picked up my old Olympus 35mm camera and realized how much fun that is too. Grainy 35mm film has such a beautiful quality to it.
If you had the chance to photograph 3 people, living or dead, free of any budget constraints, who would they be and how would the photographic session be?
Wow. That’s an interesting one.
Neil Young, because he is such an interesting character. And I love his music. And he’s Canadian. He would make a fantastic wet plate portrait! Preferably shot on location at his ranch in California.
Cindy Crawford. Some of the first nudes I loved were the ones Herb Ritts shot with her years ago. I would love to shoot her in a beautiful rainforest setting. With the 4×5 camera and my old petzval lenses.
Desmond Tutu. I would give anything to get a great portrait of him laughing. He has the best laugh ever and his smile is that of a person very close to enlightenment. Maybe the Dalai Lama could join in too. Definitely an 8×10 wet plate portrait.
Any interesting accounts from your shoots you would like share?
Well, years ago I was by myself shooting in Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta Canada. I was on a sandstone ledge which I slipped on when adjusting the camera. Had I not stopped sliding down the slope I would have fallen over a 100 foot cliff onto a mass of rocks. It actually shook me up quite a bit as nobody knew I was there and I would have not been found for quite some time.
Another time I was shooting nudes in the forest with a very nice, quiet, soft-spoken model. She saw a man spying on us from behind a tree. As I tried to figure out how to tactfully deal with the situation, she yelled “WHY DON’T YOU FUCK OFF YOU FUCKING LOSER!” and he left. I was speechless.
What should we expect to see in the future?
Much more wet plate work. I plan on overcoming the problems I had shooting on location last year so I can make good plates out in the forest. I want to continue with my rainforest nudes in wet plate as well as general landscape wet plates. I am planning on building an 11×14 wet plate camera with the help of a good friend who is a woodworker, so I’m looking forward to making nice 11×14 plates. I also will be doing a lot more portraits. I have never really done portraiture but I now have a lighting set-up in my home and I love how people look in wet plate. I think it will be nice change to take plates where people actually wear some clothes. But not that many.