When portrait photographer Matt Carr was approached by Pro’jekt LA curator Jessie Cowan to shoot Steampunk portraits for an exhibition, his response was “Sure thing, what’s that?” He soon found himself immersed in the science-fiction subculture, scouting for people who dress up as, or cosplay, Steampunk personalities for recreation.
The Steampunk genre was born in the 1980s and early 1990s based on writers like H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley and Jules Verne. A mesh of the romantic and scientific, Victorian era influences and futuristic settings, Steampunk is often set in a post apocalyptic or alternate historical timeline with one major common theme – the use of steam power as a source of energy. With a basis in both science fiction and fantasy, Steampunk grew into its own subculture with books, television, film, fashion and art.
Cowan brought her idea to Carr because she knew that he could create captivating portraiture with the subject matter. Carr explains, “We worked together in the past and she thought my style of portraiture would fit the subject.” Carr’s images are direct and honest, carrying a sense of humor in his subjects’ openness with the camera. He keeps his work “uncluttered,” using a limited color palette of two or three major colors while toning down the rest to “strip them to their base elements,” allowing more control over where the message lies.
The Steampunk portraits were created as part of Pro’jekt LA, a four-part projection series on walls and outdoor spaces as part of Month of Photography LA, or MOPLA, this past April. MOPLA was conceived in April 2009 by the founder of The Lucie Foundation, Hossein Farmani, and Executive Director Cat Jimenez. With Los Angeles as the second largest photographic community in the United States, they wanted to organize a month to celebrate photography through events and programs for professionals, enthusiasts, emerging photographers and collectors. This year’s theme was Intersect: An Exploration of Innovation and Technology in Contemporary Photography, aiming to address the role of technology in photography since the rise of the digital medium. The Steampunk portraits exhibited in the fourth part of the projection series, along with other images that shared the theme of the future of technology.
Carr was given a month to cast, shoot and retouch the project before the exhibition. He cast through Facebook and Steampunk meet up sites, looking for people who were thoroughly involved with the culture. He even found himself at a Steampunk party on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, but says his online scouting was more successful. “I spent most of the party talking to women in corsets trying to figure out who was Steampunk and who was just Victorian,” he laughs.
The bonus of cosplayers is that they typically make their own costumes, so the talent he selected brought their own outfits to wear on set. Carr also had hair and makeup artist Ariel Vega on hand, and Thomas Willeford of Brute Force Studios on hand to fill in the gaps with extra accessories and gear. He spent time with each of his subjects, giving them loose instructions but allowing them to “fully emerge” in their Steampunk character. “The natural inclination might have been to overact or go superhero in the outfits,” he comments. “But I wanted them to have that quiet intensity of Victorian era portraits.”
Carr used a simple three-light set up and shot the portraits with a Hasselblad and Phase One P 45+ back. He says he used the P 45+ to shoot massive files, allowing him to pull out the details he wanted to highlight and bring focus to the metal work and leather. The images are quirky and lighthearted, both retaining the formalities of classical portraiture and showing off the intricacies of the Steampunk gear.
Carr’s Steampunk series were on display at The Venice Arts Gallery on April 24th for the event Pro’jekt LA IV: Take Me There. For more of Matt Carr’s work, visit his Web site.