Insights and ideas from Carl Warner
Compositing intricate landscapes
Carl Warner blends photography and art to make highly conceptual visual images. Based in London, Warner’s 25-year career spans still life and advertising photography. He is best known for his intricate food landscapes, many of which can be seen in the recently published book Carl Warner’s Food Landscapes. In this interview with Photoshop.com, he shares his insights about his background and creative process.
Photoshop.com: What piece of equipment can’t you live without and why?
Carl Warner: My Moleskine sketch book and a good sharp pencil. My notebooks are where I sketch my ideas out and develop concepts in the drawings. Here is where I pin down my ideas on to paper where I can share my vision with clients and art directors, as well as my team of model makers, stylists, and retouchers.
Photoshop.com: What role does Adobe® Photoshop® software play in your photography?
Carl Warner: Photoshop plays a most essential role in my work. I use it to colour and shade my initial sketches to create light and shade within the visuals, and this mood and atmosphere is closely followed during the shooting and retouching stages. We use Photoshop to do rough composites during shooting to make sure everything will fit together properly, and then of course it is used at the high end of the digital retouching/post production stage where all the detailed cutting out, cleaning up, and composites are carried out. Without Photoshop I literally would not be able to do what I do.
Photoshop.com: How did you create the result in the Chinese Junk image (Image 1)?
Carl Warner: This very nostalgic view of historical Chinese culture needed to have a look of golden light to capture the essential visual ingredients that I associate with the 'Golden Age' of the orient. As Hong Kong and China were the epicenter of trade and culture in Asia, I wanted to create a scene that would combine the distinct landscape together with the iconic trade ship known as the Chinese Junk.
The complete Junk in the mid ground and the deck in the foreground were made from various sliced edible roots used in Chinese medicine and cooking, with cinnamon stick masts and lotus leaf sails. These models were built before the shoot by my model maker Paul Baker of 3D Studios who used plans of a model Junk to build this edible version.
The whole Junk was then placed on a large tabletop covered in Pak Choi, which is a Chinese cabbage leaf, and this formed the turbulent waters of the seascape. Once dressed, this set formed the largest part of the image and covered a tabletop of about fifteen feet at the back to four feet at the front and around nine feet deep.
I wanted to capture the feel of that low golden sunlight that breaks through after a storm has passed, so I used a warm tungsten light source with minimum fill in light. For the sky I used kai choi to become the swirling, slightly spooky and mysterious looking cloud formations. The leaves were shot separately to form the second element of the composite, which were assembled later in Photoshop.
Although the final image is quite busy in terms of its content and visual arrest, it portrays for me a sense of sensory abundance that Chinese/Asian culture has to offer in terms of the beauty and diversity of its finer attributes.
Photoshop.com: What is your favorite image from the foodscapes collection and what grabs you about it.
Carl Warner: My favourite photo is the Fishscape (Image 2), as I never seem to tire of looking at it. For me it is the tremendous sense of place that it achieves, as well as the atmosphere and feeling of the cold harshness that the fishing community endures in that part of the world. It was commissioned by Findus in Sweden, and the brief was to create a scene using fish and seafood that would be based on the land and seascape of the archipelagos off the coast of Sweden.
Photoshop.com: How do you know that a photo is really good?
Carl Warner: It's hard to know if something is really good until it still excites you as an image several months after it has been created. I usually get very excited about an image once I have shot and put it together on the computer screen. Several days, weeks, or months later, it then becomes apparent if the image is really any good or not, because not only do I feel the same way about it, but other people appear to share the same feeling.
Photoshop.com: Give an example of how you take an image from the shot to the final form.
Carl Warner: For me, I have to visualize the final image in my head before the process starts. This comes from either a brief for a job or commission, through observation or inspiration from all kinds of different sources, such as cookbooks, restaurants, markets, films, music, literature, or travel. Once I have seen a vision of the scene in my mind’s eye, I set about sketching it and thinking about the ingredients I will use to recreate that scene. When the drawing is complete, I either annotate it or write a description of what it is all made of, and this becomes the hymn sheet that my team of food stylists, model makers, and retouchers all sing from in order to bring the vision to life.
The process of designing, building, dressing, lighting and shooting becomes almost a formality in order to achieve this goal and the shoot, albeit greatly enjoyable, becomes a series of technical and logistical hurdles to overcome in order to arrive at the end result. More often than not, the finished image goes beyond my expectations, but having that initial vision in mind from the start ensures that the bar is set high in terms of the quality of the visual illusion and the goals of realism and authenticity. I do however try to rebel against perfectionism in these situations as results can often become sterile or formulaic. Looking for spontaneity or happy accidents is always key to enhancing or altering the original vision into something slightly different, hopefully better, and sometimes more unexpected.
Photoshop.com: What is the best career advice you ever received?
Carl Warner: I began my career in the affluent, hedonistic mid-eighties. While assisting a veteran advertising photographer, I was enlightened by him as to some of the goings on in the industry and that making a decision whether to take the high or low road would soon be upon me. He didn't tell me what road he thought I should take, but merely illuminated the fact that I would soon need to make an informed decision rather than a knee-jerk reaction to situations or events. Seeing pound or dollar signs instead of pictures was the fall of many talented people in the eighties, and although I occasionally fell foul of some of the pot holes in the road, I knew from the day I was given that advice that taking great pictures and being passionate about the work would be essential in building a career in the creative industry.
Photoshop.com: What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out in photography?
Carl Warner: Don't try and copy what has already been done, try to find a look and style of your own that has a passion about it. Photography is a form of communication, so make sure you have something you want to communicate and if you don't, then ask yourself why you want to express yourself in this medium. Only when you find your way out of the fog of "I just like taking pictures" will you see a clearer direction to forming a body of work that has substance and meaning for you as a photographer and an artist. Whether you photograph animal portraits, weddings, buildings, still life, cars, beauty, fashion or food, as long as you love doing it, have a passion for doing it, and keep doing it, you will always be consumed, occupied, and fulfilled.
Photoshop.com: How have you evolved as a photographer/artist?
Carl Warner: Having been a failed illustrator, a frustrated art director, a lazy landscape photographer and a complacent still life photographer, I have now found my mojo in rolling all of the things I was reasonably average at into something that I am reasonably good at. It's taken me until the age of 47 to do this, but the journey is always much more enjoyable, educational, and enlightening.
Photoshop.com: In general, during a session, how many pictures would you say you take to find the “right one”?
Carl Warner: As my subject is built in front of the camera, there is only ever one picture that is the right one that I actually use, and that is the last picture I take. All the pictures taken before hand are done so in order to check the positioning and lighting of each element to ensure it's in the right place for the final exposure.
Photoshop.com: At what point did you evolve from a person who takes photos to being a photographer?
Carl Warner: I suppose I only really considered myself to be a photographer once I started earning a living at it, as you have to write it down on forms under the heading of occupation. Now, I don't really think of myself as purely a photographer as I am merely using photography as the medium by which I am recording the recreation of the visions I have. For me photography is just the means to the end result, and it is the end results that I find fascinating, rewarding, frustrating, fulfilling, and inspiring.
Photoshop.com: Do you ever find yourself in a creative funk and how do you get out of it?
Carl Warner: I have often fallen into a "creative funk" as you call it, or a "rut" that I can't seem to get out of, and I have always found that these occasions go hand in hand with a loss of self-confidence and low self-esteem, not to mention financial or emotional turbulence! The best thing to do when you feel the well has run dry is to stop trying to create, get out of where you are, change the scenery, read something new, go somewhere new, do something different. Soon you will be putting a lot of time and new experiences between you and the dry well and the longer you spend away from it, the fuller it will be upon your return.
Photoshop.com: Tell us about any other creative mediums you work in; are there any other areas you wish to explore and have not yet?
Carl Warner: TV ads are a new medium for me. I have been directing TV commercials using live action and animation to bring my scenes into three dimensional worlds that motion control cameras can travel through. The experience of this has led me to look at ideas for a children's TV series or possibly even a full-length feature film where real scenes and CGI characters can interact to create a vehicle that could be used to encourage people, and especially children, to eat more healthily, thus tackling some of the issues of food education, nutrition, and diet that are so prevalent in western society today.
Photoshop.com: What’s the very first picture you remember taking?
Carl Warner: It was on a Kodak 'Instamatic' and it was a shot of the Eiffel Tower in spring surrounded by pink cherry blossom. It had colour, depth and a compositional value that I immediately recognised as being quite proficient. It was probably thrown away years ago but like all good photographs or memories I can still see it now.
Photoshop.com: What is the ONE lasting impression you want to leave in your photos?
Carl Warner: The fact that the human mind and imagination is a great Ferrari of a resource that is alive and well, and which we all have access to. But if you don't allow yourself to take it out for a spin, this great vehicle will just rust and rot in the garage while it's owner drives a pale, less thrilling counterpart in some time wasting mindless video game.
People always ask me what made me think of these ideas and how did I come up with such a concept as if it's some kind of freak happening. As I see it, I just had an idea and did something about it. Perhaps if we were all encouraged to act on our ideas more the human race would be a lot happier?