How I Got That Shot: Fashion Photographer Gustavo Marx Turns to the Classic

November 17, 2014

By Holly Stuart Hughes


Marx wanted to follow the model as she moved, so he used continuous lights and shot handheld with an old Contax camera as he looked for angles he liked.

A recent assignment for the Apartamento 03 clothing line inspired fashion photographer Gustavo Marx to look to his past and shoot in a way he hadn’t shot in years. The Brazil-born Marx—now based in New York City—has worked many times with Luiz Cláudio, designer and founder of Apartamento 03. In designing his Autumn/Winter 2014 line, Cláudio had taken inspiration from his memories of his grandmother’s sister, a woman who always presented herself to her family in elegant, glamorous clothes though she had little money and lived quietly on her own. To help Marx understand the woman he had in mind, Cláudio showed the photographer images by Lillian Bassman, a master fashion photographer who shot for Harper’s Bazaar in the ’50s and ’60s. Known for her elegant compositions and grainy, high- contrast black-and-white imagery, Bassman had photographed urbane, sophisticated women who reminded Cláudio of his great aunt. Says Marx, “I could immediately relate his memories to Bassman’s work because of the dreamy black-and-white, the silhouettes, the dresses.”
Marx, who is known for executing sleek, polished and richly colorful imagery in his advertising assignments, was eager to try to emulate the artistic spirit he saw in Bassman’s imagery. “She was working and shooting in what seems to be a very free environment,” he says of Bassman, a protégé of the legendary art director Alexey Brodovich. On the Apartamento 03 shoot, he decided to shoot a handheld camera on a simple, spare set and use a minimal lighting setup that would allow him the freedom to follow the model, photographing any gestures or movements that appealed to him.
“I wanted to go back to my roots, and not be overthinking everything,” he says.
In January of this year, Marx and his crew—which included his long time stylist, Mariana Sucupira—arrived in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where Apartemento 03 is based. They had only five days to prepare.
Marx cast the model himself, after meeting her in person. “I like to have a conversation with models three or four days before a shoot. I’ll send references to the bookers or show them the things I love in their work.” These words of guidance and encouragement, he says, make directing the model easier once the shoot begins.
Marx rented a local photographer’s studio that had a white cyclorama. The day before the shoot, he managed to find a smoke machine. This added more to the shoot than atmosphere alone, he says. “I thought: I don’t want this model to see me all the time. I told her that I wanted to be invisible to her.” He described the woman who had inspired Cláudio, but gave the model no script. Instead, he encouraged her to interpret the character as she wished. He sent most of the crew out of the studio, leaving only himself, Cláudio, the graphic designer and the stylist, to eliminate any distractions for the model. “I wanted her to feel she was in her own world,” he explains.
Marx typically uses strobes, but for the Apartamento 03 shoot, he wanted the model to move all the time, so he chose to use continuous lights. “I didn’t want to lose any single shot because of recycling time.”
He had his assistants set up three 1200-watt HMIs about 15 feet apart in a simple triangle shape. One, placed at the back, was on a stand about 10 feet high; the two in the front were six to seven feet high. The model was in the middle, turning, walking, dancing, stretching or adjusting her clothes, while Marx moved around her, shooting handheld from just outside the triangle of lights. “I was walking around her trying to find the best things to shoot,” he recalls.
After he photographed the first outfit, he began trying subtle variations in the lighting, adjusting the angle of one of the shorter lights with his left hand while continuing to operate his camera with his right. With each adjustment he would watch how the shadows changed, or how the light looked when it hit the hazy wall of smoke.
In some of the shots he took, a light stand or the silhouette of the stylist was visible within the frame. “I thought, I don’t mind, because I’m not losing this beautiful angle I see here.” He let the designer preview these shots, he says, “and the client was saying: ‘Go for it.’”
The precision and resolution of modern digital cameras seemed poorly suited to a shoot inspired by the romanticism and contrast of the images that Bassman had shot on black-and-white film, so Marx turned to an older technology. “I used an old Contax 645 camera and an old digital back. The combination of those with old, soft Contax lenses was right for the final look,” he says.
Wanting to be able to move freely around the studio, Marx chose not to shoot tethered. Instead, as he tried different shots, he would occasionally check the results on the small screen of the digital back, Leaf Aptus II 5, and show them to the graphic designer and Cláudio.
To make sure there was visible grain in the images, he shot at ISO 200, he says. “I shot half of the job at f/2.8 and the other at f/3.5.”
The shoot took about five hours, he says. “This shoot was a statement from me: I need to do more with less.” On more recent shoots, Marx has tried to rely less on well-planned formulas, and to allow for spontaneity, as he did while shooting the Apartamento 03 assignment. “I think it was a return to the best of my work years ago,” he says.
Once Marx had finished shooting one look and the model was changing clothes, Marx’s assistant downloaded images to a computer, then printed four or five of the favorites as 4x5s using an Epson inkjet printer. To make their final selection, the designer and Marx reviewed all the proofs tacked to a blank wall, and chose nine images for the brochure and campaign. Says Marx, “That was truly, truly amazing. I don’t usually make a selection on the day of the shoot. I think it’s because I’m usually really tired. But this day was magical.” He had not hired a retoucher for the job; his only post-production work was to enhance the vignetting and grain himself using Alien Skin Exposure 6 software.
The images were printed in a brochure and on the designer’s website. During the image selection process, the client also photographed the wall of prints, and posted his images to his Instagram account to provide customers and press a sneak peek at his next collection. Marx’s images were also made into 18×24-inch prints and sent as a portfolio to members of the fashion press.