After 25 years as a fashion and portrait photographer based in New York, E J Carr moved to the west coast of Ireland with his family. The rugged faces of his new neighbors inspired a portrait project, and a distinctive style revealed itself as he manipulated the first portrait in Photoshop. With no predetermined artistic boundaries, Carr is now transforming the contemporary faces of western Ireland to embody the characters of King Arthur and the legend of the round table.
Web site: www.ejcphoto.com
Project: Self assigned portraits of Irish neighbors in the style of the King Arthur legend.
All images in this article © E J Carr.
ASMP: How long have you been in business?
EJC: I have been working professionally since 1979; my first studio was a shared space on Broadway and 18th street, for $200 a month. With one Nikon F, a set of studio strobes and a few umbrellas. I had $1,200 dollars to start with when I moved to NY.
ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
EJC: I was a member back then on a student membership. I let it lapse and I rejoined in 2005.
ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
EJC: I have worked in fashion and portraits for most of my career with advertising clients, catalogue, editorial and musicians for recording companies. There was a ten-year period where most of my assignments came from celebrity portraiture.
ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.
EJC: This particular body of work has been a large risk for me. It was about having an idea and making the images with no boundaries or pre-production or direction. Totally my own idea, treatment and direction for no reason other than “I want to.” I have been fascinated with the Arthur Legend for quite some time now; maybe the last 20 years the fantasy and wonder keep showing up in my life.
All of the work is created digitally in my small studio in the loft of my house in Ireland. The space is small and I have room for a few backdrops. I am lighting with battery-powered flash and a few dynalites plugged into a transformer to convert the current from 220 to 110. Images are raw files and processed in Photoshop CS3 and all of the treatment has been experimental. Sort of trip over the solution as I paint with Photoshop.
ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
EJC: There was a time when I feel I would have said my most valuable piece of equipment was my Hasselblad or Nikon. Now, if this qualifies, it’s my mind. And my eye. After that, it’s still my Nikon and then it would be my Macbook Pro.
ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
EJC: My style? Hmmmm. Hard question. I do feel that there is a thread that travels through my work. Whether it’s portrait, or fashion or landscape. Somehow there is a connection. I do know that I have worked hard to limit the cerebral process in the shooting aspect and to try to make it more heart-driven, feeling-driven, spontaneous, even in situations that require more control, such as an editorial shoot for a fashion magazine or a portrait story. I feel that I can go into a situation without much pre-production and make it happen. In fact, I believe that a situation like that fuels the creative process for me. In addition, I have an ability to help people feel relaxed with me. It opens up many opportunities for creative expression if my subjects feel comfortable in front of the camera. Have you ever sat with a lens pointing at you in a stark room? Scary!
ASMP: You recently moved with your family from New York City to Ireland. What were your reasons for this move? What were your reasons for choosing Ireland?
EJC: We came to Ireland on holiday in 2006 for 6 weeks and rented a house on the sea in West Cork. My wife is of Irish descent, her mother born here. That being true, she holds an Irish passport. She has always wanted to live somewhere remote and West Cork fits the bill. When we returned to the US after the holiday, we decided to sell our suburban home in NJ and spend a year in Ireland. We came back, with our children and rented the house that we stayed in on holiday long term. That year has turned into two years and counting. Not sure yet what’s next for us.
ASMP: How have your existing clients reacted to your move? Has your new location brought new opportunities for work?
EJC: Most of my existing clients have responded positively to the move. Not that they have any assignments for me here. I have done a few assignments for a few magazines from the US.
Being here has been an eye-opener in lots of ways. I’ve found magazine editors and non-editorial clients to be very responsive. It’s a small market and you have to work hard at it, but people have been open to new talent. In my first year I’ve worked with magazines, PR firms and music clients. I also have a gallery representing me and selling work.
ASMP: Your original vision for this project was a portrait series on the men in County Cork. What was your original idea and goal for the series and how did this change once you hit on the Arthurian concept?
EJC: My original idea for a project was to shoot black and white portraits of the men/faces I had seen here on my holiday in 2006. The farmers, fisherman. Local rugged faces. I had a vision as to how they would look. After shooting the first person, really as a test, and spending some time working with the image in Photoshop, tweaking, retouching, enhancing, the project revealed itself. The subject emanated the energy and feel of who I thought King Arthur might have been. Everything changed in an instant. I saw all of the faces playing a part in the round table story.
ASMP: How did your first portrait subject bring the legend of King Arthur to mind? Was this inspiration related to the image or to a literary description of Arthur that your subject seemed to evoke?
EJC: I think the first portrait, of David, a local expatriate Englishman, just embodied all that is Arthur to me. The eyes, with the mysterious, yet clear, vision and the beard and wisdom of the face, all sent me a strong message. The inspiration came from the image for me. The interesting thing is that it’s the only portrait where the costume is not accurate. The literary references are so vast; he could have been one of many different images based upon that. Clearly my image of the character drove this project. The connection to Ireland is really the Isolde character of the Tristan and Isolde story. Tristan sat on the round table after his adventure of self-discovery with Isolde. Some fans of the Arthur legend speculate that County Cork is really Avalon from the Arthur tale. I have been inspired by the magical landscape and ever-changing, mystical backdrop of this place. One of my landscapes titled “Avalon” was included in a showing of this work at a very early stage.
ASMP: What was your process in developing a list of subjects for your cast of characters? Did you develop a list of characters first and then search out suitable subjects, or did you find the subjects, and then assign them characters?
EJC: At first, I identified all of the characters after the portrait sitting. Excluding a few, i.e.: Lancelot, Guinevere, and King Lot. (The subject actually knew who he should be, before the shoot). Eventually, it became more predetermined. Merlin, Isolde, Perivale.
ASMP: In general, what do you look for in a portrait model and how do you go about recruiting your subjects?
EJC: I think that I look for a character, a mystery and beauty in a potential portrait subject. That is, of course, for my own projects. Being assigned a person to make a portrait of … then the true talent is required. Can I bring it out of them? I find my models in many ways. On the street, from referrals. Some people ask me to make an image of them.
ASMP: In this project, what methods (such as casting calls, public announcements or scouting trips in local villages) did you use to find subjects?
EJC: Regarding the Arthurian project, I have found that it has generated its own energy. People all around the villages of my small corner of Ireland are interested in being part of this. Some people are offended that they haven’t been asked to participate as of yet. I keep finding parts for people to fill. I’m not sure how far I can go… Its version of the legend, I can make it whatever I want!
ASMP: How did you convince the subjects to participate? Did you pay a modeling fee and have models sign model releases?
EJC: I haven’t paid any fees beyond supplying a print to my subjects after the shoot. I should probably be thinking of model releases, but having not seen it as a commercial endeavor; it didn’t seem appropriate. Now it seems that it could become commercial.
ASMP: How did you arrive at the wardrobe choices for the portraits? Did you do research into authentic costuming? Did you work with a stylist or costume designer?
EJC: The wardrobe has been chosen in a very impressionistic manner. “Something like this, or these colors and fabrics….” I’ve pieced costumes together, used my wife’s hooded coat, my turtleneck sweater, felt scarf, etc… Some of the characters have played reenactment roles in the Arthurian legend so they have the costume. It’s been very abstract in some ways. I do have a sense of the costume and period, so I have been able to make good choices on altering colors and looks with Photoshop. There has been styling in some of the images and it has come from the subject or myself. It’s been amazing how much energy people have around this story.
ASMP: Was there any make-up used in preparing your subjects for a portrait sitting?
EJC: The only people who have had any make up are the female subjects I’ve used. As for the men, a simple wipe of the face with a damp towel. The rest is Photoshop, clone tool or patch tool or layering to create skin tones that I want.
ASMP: Please describe any post-production work you did to enhance the images.
EJC: There has been a good bit of post-production Photoshop work to create the looks I want in these images. All of the images have a grey scale version and a color version. In most cases the color has been used. I’ve used many different Photoshop tools to create the look of the images in the series.
ASMP: How many King Arthur characters have you completed so far, and what additional characters and scenes do you intend to capture?
EJC: I have created maybe 10 or 11 characters up to now and there are more to come. I have also started to create illustrative images of events in the story. Young Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, Isolde nursing Tristan on the shores of Ireland. I planned a few more of these. Images of Excalibur and the grail are still being planned and more characters. Galahad, Lady of the lake, Another Merlin. Portrait of Tristan, Arthur as a young man. It truly seems endless. Morgan Le Fey is happening soon also.
ASMP: As your project became known in County Cork, what was the response from local residents? Have you received any support or encouragement for this work from local arts or government organizations?
EJC: All of the people here are interested in the project. Everyone wants to be part of the lineup. I’ve had people approach me in the pubs and on the lanes asking to be part. They are willing to show up for a shoot, no questions asked. A gallery in Kinsale, County Cork is now representing my work and this project was instrumental in getting their attention. Haydn Shaughnessy Gallery, Galleryica.com. Haydn has GalleryICA and Ten Cubed, a virtual gallery in second life. The images have been shown in both places and in a show with GalleryICA and Virtual Dublin during St. Patrick’s Day, in March 2008. The buzz around the images is exciting. There has been talk of showing the images in an opening in Cork city this fall and possibly Dublin.
ASMP: What kind of response to this project have you received from existing clients and contacts? Has any assignment work resulted from your Arthurian project?
EJC: Most of my existing clients who have seen the work are very supportive. I’ve been careful not to push it too quickly. I want it to be fully developed when I finally give it a stage! No assignments have resulted directly from the work as of yet. I think it’s only a matter of time until the right people see it. There is genuine interest and excitement around the images.