Bill Gekas from Melbourne, Australia, wanted to create eye-catching images that mimic the paintings of the Dutch, Flemish and Italian 17th-century masters – such as Rembrandt, Rubens and Caravaggio. Mr Gekas, who uses his five-year-old daughter Athena as model, painstakingly creates settings that evoke the correct time period and uses strobe lights to mimic the effect of soft, natural lighting. Bill, a self-taught photographer, has spent years mastering the process, through hard work and experimentation. He began learning the techniques on 35mm film cameras but has since switched to digital.
What was originally intended to be just a few personal portraits, became an ongoing art-project for Bill and his family. Mastering the intricacies of studio lighting, combined with a huge amount of preparation painstakingly undertaken by the photographer and his wife in their spare time, has allowed Bill to capture these incredible images. It’s important to note during the time of creating these images, Bill didn’t work as a full time photographer – he part-owns and successfully runs another business in a completely unrelated industry.
This project now has a worldwide following, countless published interviews, a whole bunch of coveted art prizes from around the world, and a huge influx of requests for commissioned work, workshops, exhibitions and other projects.
More Bill Gekas’ photos you can also find on Alafoto Gallery here.
Bill – can you tell us a little about your switch from film to digital photography? When and Why did you make the switch?
My transition from film to digital happened in 2005. Up until then I was primarily shooting both positive and negative 35mm colour and doing my own developing and darkroom printing from 35mm negative b&w film. As good as what traditional processes may have been at the time the switch to digital capture and post processing just opened up a whole new world which really simplified the process by a large degree.
What impact did this switch have upon your work?
This had the most positive impact on my work where I discovered I could finally create the images in my mind’s eye without spending the time and money using traditional processes! Digital capture simplified the workflow to the point where the tools and workflow were now a transparent part of the creative process and not getting in the way, it felt really liberating in that sense and it was very much welcomed!
Has portraiture always been a major focus of your photography? If not – why is it something you seem to focus upon so much today?
Portraiture came into becoming my main genre about the same time in 2005. Up until then I really was shooting a bit of everything but after discovering some amazing portrait works by the great past photographers I realized that the subjects in these well known photographs although were complete strangers had connected with me, the portraits were eerie, almost surreal and that’s when I knew it was going to be portraiture, portraiture with a fine art aesthetic and a creative flair where I could fuse historical references be it light, props or atmosphere with a more modern contemporary expression from the subject.
Your most recent work has a very distinct style. I hesitate to label another photographers work but how do you describe it?
This style is usually defined as fine art portraiture and you’ll find it lacks the more candid, high key, usual smiling expressions by subjects of modern portraiture that is in current vogue at the moment by many portrait studios. This is a more emotive and creative style of portraiture which a certain type of audience finds appealing.
Can you talk to us a little about what has drawn you to this style of photography?
The emotive, atmospheric, almost surreal nature of it! It’s the type of expression that your subject will give you and sort of remain with you long after you’ve viewed the image. I believe that portraiture can reach a level where we’re no longer seeing the image but actually feeling it, and this essentially comes down to the strength of the connection between subject and photographer/viewer.
Your work strikes me as being quite meticulously planned. How much work goes into the preparation of your photography? Where do the ideas come from and what steps do you find yourself moving through to bring the idea to fruition?
With this type of set-up photography I usually take the photo before I execute the shot! What this means is that the photo has already been taken in my mind’s eye usually days before and then it’s just a matter of pre-prep work. This method enables me to have every aspect of the shoot and post processing worked out to the point where the research and prep time may be 90% of the time that goes into it and the remainder 10% of the actual time is in the shoot itself.
The key to executing a shoot like this is to have it all planned before the subject enters the scene, the lighting, props, composition etc. From thought to finished post processed shot ready for display a typical shot can average a total of 8 hours.
Many of the ideas come from my appreciation of the works by the old master painters. Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Raphael, Velazquez etc. But I also find I get a lot of inspiration from watching foreign films where the cinematic scenes play a prominent role. Fusing these worlds together help create an atmospheric portrait.
Of course any film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet also raises inspiration to create, and I always keep a notebook with rough sketches and ideas by me.
What camera and lighting gear do you use for a typical shoot?
Currently I shoot with a Pentax K5 dslr camera and an assortments of Pentax prime lenses and a 16-45/4 zoom. No particular reason for using this brand other than having some old lenses from the past which I can still use on their latest dslr bodies.
My camera bag is actually quite modest in comparison to my lighting bag. The lighting is key to many of my works and I own many speedlights, an einstein studio strobe, light modifiers, reflectors, rf triggers etc. Most of my indoor studio work is usually lit with a 28″ softbox as a key light, sometimes a second speedlight with a gridspot attached pointing to the background to light it and a white reflector on the opposite side of the subject to fill some shadow areas.
In an outdoor shoot i’ll typically only use one light modified by a circular type modifier being a medium sized octabox or shoot thru umbrella. I try to get away with it by using speedlights due to their versatility and will only really use the einstein strobe if I need to overpower midday sun.