by Monika Viktorova
On Saturday, March 25th, the Alberta Art Gallery (AGA) will host the latest of its “Refinery” evening parties. A ‘narcissistic’ take on their usual event, “Self-Refinery” will blend ‘themes from current exhibitions of portraiture with social media and pop culture.”
Among the artists exhibiting at “Self-Refinery” is home-grown talent Aaron Pedersen. Born in Lethbridge and raised in the suburbs of St. Albert, Pedersen’s career spans nearly two decades, transitioning from early beginnings and a first studio at Arts Habitat Edmonton to an impressive portfolio and his current private studio in downtown Edmonton. Focusing on portraiture and fashion, he was involved since the beginning of editorial’s flourish in Edmonton. A photography history buff, Pedersen counts David Bailey and Helmut Newton among his inspirations and “likes to know a little bit about everything.” I sat down with Pedersen at his downtown studio to talk to him about his evolution as a photographer, his process, what he thinks of emerging technologies and his upcoming installation at the AGA.
[Edited for length and clarity]
A lot of your online portfolio has black and white images. As I was looking at your work I noticed that you like to play with shadows.
“Totally. Maybe this is how I wanted to be different in the market- when I was coming up ‘highlights’ were a big thing. [A highlight is lighting the shoulders and back of the head of your subject with a bright light to separate them from the background.] For me it’s about rim shadow rather than rim light. Framing your subject in shadow rather than in light.”
Has your style evolved over the years?
“I think I’m technically better at it but I hope the spirit is still there.”
With the ubiquity of camera phones and the near-constant snapping of photos that you must observe around you, what do you think of the evolving role of photography in this new photo-saturated climate?
“This sort of sounds elitist but I don’t think it’s photography – it’s documenting. There might be an artistic spin on it but it’s not the same thing. What I do requires pomp and circumstance- It requires a studio, it requires a set and light director. It’s different from taking out your phone and snapping something.”
Pedersen’s photography is the opposite of candid: “What I do requires pomp and circumstance.”
It’s the difference between candid vs staged.
“Yes – candid vs ‘the show’. To me it’s about the feeling of the shoot- it’s a conversation between me and the subject. Putting someone at ease or building tension in a shot- as opposed to ‘Hey, let’s put a dog filter on you’. A camera phone can’t capture that.’”
Are people struggling to come up as photographers today because of the rise of ‘amateur’ photography and the camera phone?
”It’s always been hard to make it as a photographer. When you’re starting out as a photographer it’s hard to prove why your work is worth money, you don’t know what to charge. People just see you as a person with a camera. You haven’t established a clientele that appreciates your eye. It’s perseverance. We had to be around forever- a good ten years of hustling, some free or cheap work, before people started saying ‘Oh yeah, they’re good at it!’. To make money at it, clients want to know [you’re in it for the long haul]. Being able to be there is a big thing- it’s hard. I kept a part-time job for a long time – in a camera store, so luckily I never left the headspace. But the industry is brutal. On the other hand, you’re doing it out of love. I do it because I don’t know what else to do. I chose to persevere. I get the reward of getting to shoot at an art gallery or hanging out at a studio all day.”
What does the emergence of new technologies like VR mean for photography when we’re almost thinking of images as 3D now?
“I’m a firm believer that ‘Photography is technology’. Photography [historically] competed with painting, pictorialism. It was the technician’s version of painting. Photography has always been dependent on what the technology is. Today, like a billion other professional photographers, when I take a photo I don’t look at my camera, I look at a monitor. The technology is at a breaking point because we’re going from 2D to 3D. Personally I think you’ll take a little bit of the magic out. There’s so much you don’t know about a photo when you see it- it’s an instant reaction. When you’re adding more information with 3D – you ask, how much more information do we really need? If it’s 3D I don’t want to see the binder clips at the back of a dress at a fashion shoot.”
A while back I read an opinion piece in Vogue mentioning that VR will revolutionize the way we shop online for clothes. Do you think VR will impact the way the fashion world will interact with photography?
“Totally. It seems gimmicky right now but it just hasn’t cemented itself yet.”
What do you like about shooting fashion as opposed to shooting portraiture?
“Portraiture I like just because it’s the one on one. It’s the banter, it’s the conversation. Fashion looks good, stylistically. Even before I was a photographer I was drawn to a lot of images like that – Helmut Newton, Patrick Demarchelier. What I truly like [about fashion photography] is that I have a team to do it – there’s a lot of pre-production put into it. It’s collaborative – it’s a working set. That’s what I really like. There’s a bunch of people working on it together to make a singular product.”
What are the emerging trends in fashion photography?
”I’m finding it’s more spontaneous. It seems more DIY than before – people don’t need as much [of a crew]. It’s more accessible. To call ourselves fashion photographers back in the day you needed to reach a certain level. You might’ve been shooting a girl in clothes – but is it fashion? You needed certain elements – now anything goes.”
Pedersen’s installation at Self-Refinery will be a ‘pop-up’ version of his studio.
I’d like to talk about the AGA Self-Refinery Event on Saturday. It seems that they’re trying to make many of the aspects of the event very interactive to get the audience to participate. What is your role?
“I won’t have work up – it’s more of an installation. I’ll [bring] some of the luxuries of [my] studio on the main floor of the AGA. The way I shoot – there’s usually banter [with the subject]. I don’t want to say getting a ‘true portrait’ of them because no photographer can do that. A lot of it is ‘What do I think of this person I’ve just met?’. And trying to get the spirit of that. It’s all about the shooting itself, rather than the work. The work is going to be projected as we’re shooting. But that means it’s going to be very temporary at the same time, because it’ll be constantly cycling. They’ll have 10 minutes, and it’s kind of a set experience. We’re blocking it off slightly so it’s not entirely visible but the photos will be projected as it’s happening.”
[Through an online contest that closed March 20th, 2017, Self-Refinery attendees could enter to win a 10 minute photoshoot with Pedersen at the event. Pedersen’s installation features an intimate 10 by 16 foot space with a background, light-absorbing ‘polyboard’ panels and several assistants. The team will work throughout the night to capture and project images of the contestants on one of the walls at the AGA. Winners will later receive a few of their shots as prints. The value of the prize was estimated at $500.]
Have you shot before when there’s the chaos of a whole room full of people or a party behind you?
”Kind of – I’ve done things like a ‘pop up studio’ but not at this level. That’s what I really love about the [Self-Refinery} party- I’ve wanted to do this idea – the projecting it onto the wall of the party so you see both the images and how it’s happening. When the AGA [proposed it] I thought – oh, this is perfect!
This event is a more narcissistic approach to [the ‘Refinery’ event series]. It’s about selfies and selfie-culture. What I do plays into that. The people I always want in front of the lens have to be a bit of a narcissist. The people that we’re shooting actively wanted to be a part of [the installation] – we’re not dragging them on. I’m really looking forward to that.”
It seems that [Self-Refinery] is really aiming to engage all of the guests through social media channels, especially Facebook or Pinterest. A lot of art galleries are trying to reach out to a younger demographic using social media like Instagram and Snapchat, creating platform-specific content meant to grab the attention of a younger user. Do you have a professional presence on Instagram?
“Yes, it’s professional for sure. I have some cat images on it but I kind of weed those out. My personal life I try to keep pretty personal.”
That makes sense because I struggled to find past interviews with you!
“That’s the photographer curse, I think. We’re always a bit behind the scenes. There’s not a lot of interviews with photographers because they’re creating the content as opposed to being the content.“
But you are shaping the way people are viewing something. You’re going to be shaping the way people experience the party at the AGA.
Do you find that the way we display and view photographs is changing?
”I don’t even remember the last time I got a print made- it was a couple of months ago actually, and I thought ‘Cool, I’ve got a print!”. You can make photobooks these days easier than ever and they’re cheaper than buying someone else’s book that’s been printed en masse. Most of my stuff is done so digitally now – digital capture and sending it over Dropbox – these things don’t actually exist. The only worry I have is just backing up to different hard drives every year.
The way we view [photography] also changes shooting. I have to shoot for Adobe RGB monitors as opposed to CMYK printers. For the stuff that I’m shooting that is going into print, [shooting] is different. I hope the idea of how that’s done doesn’t get lost. For newspapers for example I know I can’t shoot blacks as fully black. I have to leave a bit of grey or a bit of information there or else it’ll be crushed. I hope the generation after me still knows that – just because it looks good on my phone doesn’t mean it’ll look good in the Metro or in a glossy magazine, because those are such different mediums. You have to think about where it’s going to be [displayed] and shoot for that.”
And in terms of display at Self-Refinery – you’ll be projecting those images. It departs from a traditional way of displaying photos in a gallery. Projected is different from printed and hung, with a label next to it bearing your name and the photo’s title. Does that change in display medium affect the photographic process?
”A print is still the best way to display [photography] – you can see the tonality. If you can see a great photographer’s print, it’s going to be better than anything else. When we’re creating something for Self-Refinery – because it’s going from camera, to monitor, to the wall, we have to shoot in a way that’s more immediate. We have to change the way we shoot so it requires less editing. Overexposing slightly so you see fewer blemishes. Now ‘photoshopping’ is a verb, but [at Self-Refinery] we won’t be photoshopping. One of my friends says ‘Nobody should ever see themselves getting photoshopped’.”
It’s the – ‘everyone likes sausage but no one wants to know how the sausage gets made’ phenomenon?
Is it just the worry that someone else is judging your appearance?
”It’s that you can see all those things you’ve forgotten about yourself up close. Because you’re seeing yourself [from a different vantage point]. The only way we see ourselves is in a mirror. We’re not used to seeing ourselves in pictures, but in reverse. So you don’t notice that birthmark that’s always there. But when it’s in a photo you think ‘Oh, that’.
At least half of my shoots start with [the subject saying] ‘I’m not very photogenic.’ I’ve worked with enough people that aren’t used to being in front of the camera. My demeanor and set rapport and set presence [will help people] who aren’t used to seeing themselves every day getting over that nervousness. Hopefully they like it. We’ll pull out a few cliches- I’ll have an assistant fanning them to add wind in their hair.
[But] not a lot of people are used to being photographed. It’s a weird thing.”
Have you ever had anybody be a Diva on set?
The models [from your editorial shoots]?
“No, the models are easy. They know what the job is and they know what it’s going towards. But I’ve had normal people say ‘Oh that’s just not me.’ Or they’re so self-conscious that there’s nothing you can do to put them at ease.”
How do you put a subject who is nervous at ease?
“It’s a lot of banter. Sometimes I have to play the clown, I try to relate – or I’ll joke ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t do THIS!’ And I have enough technical skill to know what looks good so I can give them enough direction so that they feel comfortable. It’s technical things like turn your head this way, it’ll look better from this angle. It’s that Vidal Sassoon thing- if they don’t look good, I don’t look good.
It sounds silly but it’s 100% true- I want them to look great. It’s a catch phrase at this point but ‘Chin out.’ We’ve had buttons and stickers made for the event with this phrase. There’s a series of things- chin out, relax your shoulders. If you coach them that way, they feel like they’re in good hands. David Bailey once said ‘It takes an hour to take a portrait- half an hour to banter and half an hour to shoot’.
The number one tip for portrait subjects? ‘Chin out!’- Pedersen’s catch-phrase.
As I’m shooting I’m also chatting with them. When I had to shoot David Suzuki for Georgie – I asked his road manager ‘Give me some info. What does he like talking about that’s not the environment?’ And he said [Suzuki] was a big football fan. And I’m a huge NFL fan so I asked David Suzuki ‘Who’s your team?’ He said Seahawks, and I said Broncos – they’d just played each other in the Superbowl the year before. And I said ‘Sorry David, we can’t be friends’, and he said’Oh bummer,’very sarcastic [and tongue in cheek].”
Do you find you’re trying to bring out who [your subjects] are – their sarcasm, or humor – their ‘innerness’ in photographs?
”I went through a phase where I thought ‘I want to get something out of them that nobody else has seen’. I’ll still maybe try that once in a while, but now I want my photo to be the person they are in their head. You’re listening to Curtis Mayfield, walking down the street with a strut. I want them to be as cool as I think they are.”
So you can really dig deep with a photo because you’re catching someone in a vulnerable moment.
Aaron Pedersen in conversation with The Wanderer’s Monika Viktorova.
Lindsey, our photographer for the interview: What are your feelings of looking at a picture of yourself vs a candid picture of yourself?
“I hate candid shots of me. If someone pulls out a camera I make an awful face. And even more formal shots of me are usually self-portraits – I’m in control. Me and Steph- Steph’s my wife- we don’t have a lot of pictures of ourselves. I think ‘Oh that’s for us to do to everybody else.’”
You can see Pedersen’s installation at the Alberta Art Gallery’s Self-Refinery event on Saturday, March 25th. Tickets: Regular $45; Members $35; Ultra $22.50.
Photography courtesy of Lindsey Catherine Photo + Media.