AN INTERVIEW WITH GERHARDT THOMPSON
By Michael Hadley
MH : Where did you spend your early days and how did your youthful experiences influence your art ?
GT : I was born in Manly and grew up on the northern beaches of Sydney. I went to public school and did well at most subjects but I really hated the whole process because it was too rigid. School just wasn’t my thing and I dropped out in Year 10. My dad was an army engineer and he was away quite a bit so Mum pretty much raised my older brother, younger sister and I. Neither of my parents had much of an artistic bent but I suppose I inherited my eye for detail from my dad.
MH : What happened after you dropped out of school ?
GT : I took on a cadetship with OPSM and ultimately became a Doctor of Optometry. My main recollection of those days is the view from my office in Macquarie Street, Sydney. Since I worked in the basement all I could see through my window were the ankles of the passersby. I stayed with the health industry and ultimately, I became the general manager of a medical products company that specialised in vascular intervention. Somewhere along the way I was lucky enough to get to Harvard and I graduated with an MBA.
MH : It sounds like a long way to the top ?
GT : It was but I don’t regret it for a moment. Although I’m an optometrist by profession I consider myself to be a student of light. I’ve studied light, its mathematics and nuances and most importantly, I learned to use it to help others. Eventually, I also learned to harness the unique properties of light to share my visions of beauty and nature.
MH : When did you get your first camera ?
GT : I think I was about 12 when I was given a Kodak Box Brownie. The biggest problem I had was looking down through the little glass prism in the top. I just couldn’t get that you had to look down to see what was right in front of you.
When I was about 20 I bought a Russian Zenit to take on a world tour. It had two lenses, a couple of filters and weighed a tonne. It was a fairly good camera despite being relatively inexpensive and I mostly shot slides with it because I loved the vibrancy of the colour. I also used film for happy snaps but in those days I didn’t really consider myself to be a photographer although I believe that’s where the passion started.
MH : When you made the transition from film to digital, what caused you to switch and what difference did it make to you as an artist ?
GT : I made the transition from film to digital in about 1999. I was pretty much into Olympus equipment, starting with a C700 followed by an E20. The switch to the E300 I still use today was a natural progression. I don’t regret the move away from film because I always had issues with lack of control, the inability to see what I’d just shot and the absolute reliance on the film processing labs. Of course, digital overcame these problems. It provides a learning opportunity through immediate feedback, it gives control back to the photographer instead of the film processor, it’s a whole lot cheaper and inevitably, it will lead to an exponential growth in photography. That can only result in higher quality photographic performances. As far as my own development is concerned, I think digital allowed me to become a better photographer because it gave me more control.
"End of the Day"
MH : Your Olympus gear has been around for quite a while and it’s not considered to be top-end equipment. Why did you choose it and are you considering an upgrade in the near future ?
GT : I’ve always liked Olympus software and the hardware is capable of capturing light across an extreme range. It’s particularly suited to my style of photography, which is usually shot outdoors in harsh light. I also like the tones and contrasts it’s capable of producing in that environment and of course, it has spot-metering which is absolutely essential for what I do. And don’t forget Olympus was one of the first to develop true digital lenses. As far as the future is concerned, I may upgrade but there would have to be a good reason. I like what Canon and Fuji are currently doing but I’m also keen to see the next generation Olympus professional camera.
MH : Have you ever shot in medium format ?
GT : No, I haven’t but I probably would if the opportunity presented itself. However, in my kind of work, I really don’t think I need medium format ; 35mm works for me. I mainly shoot in landscape mode and 35 mm in the natural environment works well, particularly when you apply the rule of thirds.
MH : You are renowned for fine art nudes in the environment. When did you first become interested in that genre ?
GT : Again, I think it was about 1999. My wife Scarlet was modeling for other photographers and although she did a great job, they didn’t seem to be producing anything that was different. It was the same old thing where everyone was copying everybody else. I used to go along to the shoots and to be frank, it was boring, sterile and totally uninspiring and I thought I could do a whole lot better. At the time I didn’t really know how but I knew it could be done and I would recognise it when I saw it.
MH : How different was your early work compared to what you do now ?
GT : Well, to start, I decided I wanted to perfect my style before I attempted to publish so for the first three years I shot only with Scarlet until I was satisfied with my work. By then I had the nucleus of a style I could call my own. Obviously, those were early days but they were so important in laying down the foundations of what I do now. It was an organic process where both my technical and artistic skills were continually evolving until I eventually arrived at the point where I was consistently able to satisfy my own stringent standards. It was only then I started to work with other models.
MH : Have you ever looked at someone else’s work and wished you’d shot it ?
GT : Not really. From time to time I find myself admiring a truly artistic composition or a masterful use of light but mostly I look for originality. Unless a photograph is original it contributes very little and one ought to question why it was shot in the first place.
MH : Your work is beautifully artistic and distinctly unique in the photographic realm but have you found inspiration in other art forms, say from the great master painters for example ?
GT : I admire the great painters as much as the next person but I’d have to say I haven’t been consciously influenced by them either; my inspiration is mostly internally generated. Having said that I would admit to being conscious of the so-called rules of photography but at the same time I’m not afraid to break them if circumstances dictate.
MH : You only shoot nudes in the landscape using available light. This leads me to ask why you prefer the outdoors and whether you have ever shot nudes using studio lighting.
GT : I only work in the outdoors because I feel at home there and truly moved by it. I grew up on the beach and felt an overwhelming synergy with nature from a very early age ; today I try and capture that synergy in my art. I’ve shot studio nudes but found it wasn’t for me and besides, it’s contrived and every setup has been done a thousand times before. In any event, it’s not my forte so I’ll leave it to someone else.
MH : What extra challenges does an outdoor setting bring into play ?
GT : Shooting nudes in harsh Australian light at midday is probably one of the most difficult environments a photographer will ever have to deal with. It took me years to perfect and now every time I shoot I’m looking for a different angle, a new perspective or some other aspect to introduce into my images. Luckily, in the Australian landscape be it bush or beach, there’s always new dramas unfolding every day with new and diverse sets of problems to challenge me. It’s totally unique; there’s no other place like it anywhere in the world.
MH : You seem to thrive on these challenges ; why ?
GT : They are essential to my development as a photographer and quite frankly, I get bored if I can always control everything. It’s the complex and dynamic variables of harsh light that keep me stimulated and on my game.
MH : You are considered to be one of the great fine art photographers. How would you define Fine Art Nude photography ?
GT : Some experts claim fine art speaks to you ; it gets inside of you. Some say that it reflects your own preconceptions and experiences and helps define who you are as a person, at least on a subconscious level. I tend to think they’re right. And of course, to be considered fine art, an image must be sensual rather than sexual.
MH : Are you saying that fine art nudes must evoke some form of emotion from the viewer ?
GT : Absolutely. Without an emotive response from the viewer all you really have is a picture of a naked person.
MH : In your images it’s very rare that you allow the model to engage the camera. Why is that ?
GT : My images are all about placing the model into the environment as if he or she is a necessary and integral element of it ; part of the geography if you like. The moment the model engages the camera by looking down the barrel there’s an implicit invitation to the viewer to participate that tends to sexualize the image at the expense of its sensual characteristics. This has a soft-porn effect, much like advertising in the fashion industry. The guys who shoot that stuff want to engage the viewer for a particular reason and that is to get them to buy the product. I’m an artist ; I’m not trying to sell third-party commercial products and I don’t want my art diminished by commercial or pornographic implications.
MH : Fair enough. You don’t have affiliations with any professional bodies ; why not ?
GT : I once belonged to a professional group but it seemed more of a club for insiders with nothing in it for the rest of us. I didn’t have time for that kind of organisation so I quit. Now, whenever I’m invited to join an association I find I‘m continually asking myself, where’s my return ? It’s not selfish, it’s just that I have so little time to pursue the things I want from my work that I can’t allow myself to be distracted.
"One Last Breath"
MH : You’ve often suggested there ought to be a professional society specifically dedicated to fine art nudes. Why do we need such a body and how will it make a difference to photography generally and to fine art genre specifically ?
GT : Generally, I think the mainstream professional bodies are not really catering very well to members who practice this art form. So, if we can attract a reasonably large number of members it will put the other professional associations on notice that they are neglecting a classic genre. Specifically, Australia has some of the best fine art photographers in the world but in my experience the number of people doing it well, not just in Australia but worldwide, is dwindling and I fear without formal organisation the genre might disappear and be lost forever. And that would be a disaster of catastrophic proportion.
"Did You Hear the Tree Fall"
MH : That makes sense but isn’t there a contradiction here ? On the one hand you criticise professional associations and on the other you’re proposing starting one.
GT : There’s no contradiction. All I’m saying is the current establishment doesn’t represent my art form very well and offers little benefit whereas a dedicated group would provide a reasonable return for the time its members would have to invest.
"Time to Rest"
MH : How would your fine art nude society function ?
GT : Initially, it might be nothing more than a collection of like-minded people who get together to exchange ideas. Ultimately, for the genre to grow and prosper, a more professional approach is warranted. Look at any of the self-regulating professional bodies ; they have standards and ethics, membership criteria, continuing professional development, judiciary systems and so on.
In other words, to provide professional representation of our members and our art form it must conduct and market itself in much the same way as any other professional body. This is where many of the photographic associations are failing and if they want their members to be considered professionals by the public then they must promote a professional image (no pun intended) and encourage their members to embrace it.
MH : What are your views on other genres such as classic/discrete nudes, glamour, explicit magazine nudes, pornography etc ?
GT : They have a place but it’s not what I want to do. I see the model as a canvas and my work as art. There’s a huge difference between these other styles and what I do and I wouldn’t want my images to be confused with them. Furthermore, I don’t consider pornography an art form despite what its supporters might argue and I have no time for it.
MH : So pornographers would have no place in your Fine Art Nude Society ?
GT : Definitely not.
MH : There’s a segment of society that thinks nudity should be a private thing and not put on display in the public arena. How do you respond to that kind of criticism ?
GT : I don’t need to respond ; others are entitled to their opinions as I’m entitled to mine. However, I don’t think people ought to try and impose their puritan views on the rest of us because that amounts to nothing more than censorship.
"Look to The Sky"
MH : Some people might tend to lump all nude photography genres into one basket without any understanding of the differences. Have you encountered this and do you find these people tend to be suspicious of your motives ?
GT : In the early days I encountered it and I’ve recognised suspicion from time to time but I tend to shrug it off rather than try and defend myself ; you might say I let my images do the talking. Usually, I won’t respond because I believe if you profess your innocence too loudly or too often, people tend to be more suspicious. I’d rather go about my business and leave my detractors to go about theirs. However, these days it’s a lot different because my art is reasonably well-known, I have a substantial body of quality work and I have won the odd international award so I would say it’s not a problem now.
MH : Just on that body of work, you have successfully published two books of fine art nudes and you’ve been recently commissioned to do a third. What will be different about this next book ?
MH : How will you do that ?
GT : (Laughs) You’ll have to buy the book to find out. It’ll be out in the second half of 2008 and if you can’t find it at your local book shop you could always pick up a copy from my website.
MH : What does the future hold for you ?
GT : Every new day is full of opportunities and the possibilities are endless. Specifically, I expect my work to continue evolving, I want to remain stimulated and challenged and I would like to do something to help secure the future of the fine art nude genre. In terms of projects, I’ll be commencing a new work entitled Defining Masculinity in the second half of 2008. Planning for that book is well underway and it’s very exciting because shooting men is a whole new ball game.
MH : Do you have any advice for younger or less experienced photographers interested in your genre ?
GT : In general terms my advice would be to learn all of the usual photographic conventions but avoid being too rigid in adhering to them ; bring your own artistic interpretations to bear and put something of yourself into your images rather than copying others. Keep inspired and stay in touch with photographers around you and don’t be afraid to ask for or lend support. Through this sharing process we’re all elevated to a higher level. Specifically, in respect of fine art nudes being shot in harsh light, I would say the most important thing is to learn to use your camera’s spot-metering and expose for the brightest point in your image.
MH : What mark would you care to leave behind and how would you like to be remembered ?
GT : I’m less interested in leaving profound images than I am in leaving profound effects. Hopefully, I’ll be remembered for contributing to the longevity of my genre and as a consequence its continuity will be assured. I also hope my images continue to evoke emotion in future generations who view them and help procure an understanding of the wonderfully unique and beautiful Australian landscape, especially for those who will never know it first hand. Most importantly, I care for the models I’ve worked with. Almost universally our shared experience seems to leave us changed in some way for the better for having known, trusted and respected each other.
If I leave nothing else behind then I’ll be satisfied.
But who is MICHAEL HADLEY ?
By himself :
" I’m a CPA taxation specialist who has worked in accounting for 35 years; 27 of those as principal of my own company. My firm is a general practice that quite inadvertently attracted a number of creative clients including filmmakers, television producers and directors, photographers, magazine publishers, sound engineers, radio producers and on-air personalities, artists, actors and writers. I’m not really sure how we achieved such notoriety in the creative arts but I put it down to the fact that creative types tend to be generous and when we did a good job our clients recommended us to their friends and colleagues. I’d also like to think we tended to have an affinity with the artistic clients that culminated in a mutual understanding and ultimately, long term friendships.
Not so long ago, I was feeling a little stale and I decided to take a break from writing. For quite a while before that a friend of mine had been attempting to persuade me to try photography. Since I’d always been interested in the medium I borrowed a few photography magazines and before I knew it I was hooked. I bought a good camera and started with a few workshops followed by a few more and discovered an insatiable craving deep inside of me to create beautiful images.
It was at one of these workshops I first met the internationally renowned photographer Gerhardt Thompson. We seemed to hit it off fairly well and we developed a healthy mutual respect. I always tell my kids if you want to learn something, seek out someone who is a recognised expert and learn from them. It would have been hypocritical of me to ignore Gerhardt’s obvious talent and after I told him of my interest in fine art he was extraordinarily generous to me.
When Gerhardt was looking for a writer for his third book of fine art called Exposing the Nude he approached me I think, not so much because of my writing background but more so because he knew I was absolutely passionate about photography. It’s been a great experience and a wonderful project although I wouldn’t say I’ve found it easy. Writing the accompanying text for a collection of fine art photographs is totally different to anything I’ve done before. At the present time we’re about half-way and we expect to have the book out by mid 2008.
When Gerhardt’s book is complete there’s an opportunity to write another photography book but I’m not absolutely certain I’ll do that. I’m about 85,000 words into my next novel called Killers Came and I think I’d prefer to concentrate on that but who knows? A lot can happen between now and then. I’ve been dabbling in freelance journalism as well and I’ve recently completed An Interview with Gerhardt Thompson that I expect to publish shortly. I also have an interview scheduled with a helicopter squadron commander who has just returned from the war in Iraq and I’m looking forward to that.
All in all, I would have to say my life is fairly full at the moment but no doubt something will come along that sends me off on a completely different tangent. Who knows what it might be ?"
© Interview Copyright Michael Hadley 2007