25th October 2013
Still lives
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Barney Cokeliss has been shooting a series of nudes - often crew and friends from commercial shoots - ever since he was a student. We talk with the RSA director about his intriguing work

RSA Films director Barney Cokeliss works internationally for clients such as Lexus, Credit Suisse and Philips, making commercials that combine strong visuals with an emotive, human touch. His much-lauded Macmillan Cancer Support film ‘Falling’ for VCCP is a current example, and he notably directed the 2012 Lumiere Award-winning 3D short ‘The Foundling’ for the Parallel Lines series. But he’s also an accomplished photographer, and 1.4 saw a selection of his atmospheric, intriguing nudes at the Superette Film Production Gallery in Paris. Click Related Content to see our selection from the exhibition.

Cokeliss’s photographs have a mysterious quality, and a rich, jewel-like colour palette. We caught up with him to find out more….

Could you tell us please about the series, how it started and evolved?

I’ve been shooting nudes for exhibition and book publication purposes for a long time now. In fact, it predates my film work as my first exhibition of nudes took place while I was still a student.

One of the great things about nudes as a genre is that they can hang together cohesively even if they’ve been shot in very different times and places.

My film work takes me all over the world and gives me great opportunities to find models and locations that otherwise I wouldn’t have access to, so it suits me to have one theme that I can use to make all these images cohere.

I’m gratified that you called them “nude portraits” as that’s how I see them too – they should feel as much about the individuals and the atmosphere surrounding them as they are about the presence of some naked human body.

In some of your photographs there’s a mysterious “Dejeuner sur l’herbe” element with the undressed woman, the clothed man…

Where some photographers focusing on nudes emphasise abstraction or graphic elements, I’m much more interested in implied narrative.

I want the viewer of my photographs to feel like there’s something going on – or something about to happen – even if they can’t quite put their finger on what it is.

This is one of the reasons I’ve been incorporating additional characters into my photographs. I love the tension and mystery you get when you combine the nude figure with some other person whose relationship to the central woman you’re not quite sure of.

This way, I also find a home in my photographic work for the interesting characters that I stumble across in my film life. One example is a picture I shot in Belgium of a rather rotund extra who I’ve worked with a few times with his hand on the shoulder of a young female photographer who was modelling for me.

You’re not quite sure if they might be father and daughter, boyfriend and girlfriend, artist and pupil. This kind of ambiguity and sense of mystery is what I’m trying to pull off.

There’s also a strong decorative/aesthetic element. I want to make pictures that people like to look at and like to have on their walls. Colour is important for me in that respect – I want my work to have a rich, jewel-like palette so that even if you looked at it with your eyes squinting and out of focus, you’d perceive interesting tonality and colour on the wall.

As you’re often on a shoot location when you take these portraits do you use the available equipment to take the stills?

I tend to work with available light wherever possible. I find it more interesting to find locations which are going to give me the lighting I want naturally rather than to involve lots of equipment and crew creating it from scratch. In this way, it’s a counterpoint to my film work and I love the fact that I can make these images with just three elements: me, the model(s) and the space.

The simplicity of my shoots makes them a kind of meditative practice after all the excitement and outward-focused energy of directing on a film set.

Since my still shoots very often follow on from commercial shoots, there’s a restorative, contemplative aspect to them. A quiet, purely visual day at the end of a period that has involved all kinds of activity, meetings, recces, rehearsals and so on.

How do you charm strangers, crew, friends to take their clothes off and pose?

People are often fascinated by how I find my subjects and how I persuade them to take their clothes off.

In fact, this is the easy part.

I always have a backlog of people who’ve volunteered to model and my busy commercials schedule makes it hard for me to shoot the volunteers faster than they accumulate. So the backlog gets bigger no matter how many shoots I do. It’s finding great spaces with the right light, textures and colours that’s the harder part.

What is it about a particular person that makes you want to take their nude portrait?

I tend not to use professional models much as I usually find them too…professional!

When you photograph someone who feels they have a skillset in being photographed you often have to cut through a lot of artificial behaviours that they feel are part of being photographed.

Much more interesting to me is a person who’s never been formally shot before, let alone photographed undressed. There’s a rawness, an authenticity, and a kind of intimacy that comes from that situation, which you don’t get so often with people who feel that they have a repertoire of looks and poses that they can offer the camera.

When I work with professionals I sometimes feel like a yoga instructor directing them, guiding their breathing, their posture and their attention – anything to try and dissolve away the mask that so many very confident models project. I want it all to melt away. I want them to plant their feet, feel their weight, and forget that they’re posing.

I’m more interested in pictures of people thinking, than pictures of people modelling.

With “real” people, the focus is more on keeping them relaxed, but that tends to come quite easily because the reality of the shoots I do is that they are very simple, unhurried, quiet and calm.

Even nervous, hesitant subjects soon realise that when they take off their clothes in front of the camera, the sky doesn’t fall, so they tend to relax into it.

I, by contrast, am usually crammed into the corner of a room trying to get that extra couple of inches back from the subject so I can use the right lens. Or I’m awkwardly stuck between immoveable bits of furniture. So it’s not so comfortable for me. I tend to end the shoots in a state of some physical exhaustion, while the models are usually blissed out.

You asked about persuasion – that doesn’t tend to come into it too much. I rarely have to persuade people these days: the people who pose for me are a self-selecting bunch and they do so having seen the pictures and decided on their own that they want to be part of them.

As for the fact that some of them are crew – this is just because some are people I meet on a daily basis.

It’s true that if you look at the exhibition I had up in Paris, you’ll find actors, extras, a costume designer, a casting director, possibly an AD or two in there as models, but this isn’t something I set out to do.

If I was in a different industry many of my models would come from there, though it is true that the people in the film industry tend to be pretty open-minded and creatively orientated and that’s a help.

Do you have favour digital or film cameras?

There’s no perfect camera. It’s always a balance between portability, vibration (since I tend to shoot at slow shutter speeds), optics, useability and so on.

I shoot medium format film, and I find it hugely preferable to digital. I often shoot print campaigns alongside tv commercials (a recent example being Roger Federer for Credit Suisse) and the need to show clients what I’m doing means I usually end up shooting digital on those. But when I’m shooting for myself, I want the unique rendition of colour and tone that film provides. With film, the highlights bloom differently, the shadows fall away more mysteriously, and the colours work against each other in a way that just looks purer to me.

Is there a crossover between your photography and commercials?

There’s definitely a crossover between my stills work and my commercials. Spots like my NHS Scotland safe sex ad, my current Macmillan Cancer ad, my Ancestry.co.uk spot – they have a similar approach to the look, using an available light feel.

Do the ideas behind the photos evolve as you’re shooting or do you think everything through and plan before hand?

I use up most of my planning energies on my film work, so the photography is something I like to approach without too much planning. I do think about the model, the space and the light, but the real magic comes when you’re just responding to what’s in front of you. Since I want my pictures to have a ‘caught’ quality, it’s often more interesting to work with something that happens almost at random, rather than set something up as a tableau. I could do that but I’d find it less interesting. There’s something about responding in the moment that keeps me on my toes and I like that. So photography – which inevitably freezes things in time – is actually a very in-the-moment practice for me.

What’s next?

I’m going to Bucharest to shoot some commercials for a loyal French client, CIC Bank, who have a popular comedy dialogue ‘saga’ in France – amazingly it’ll be my 23rd production for them! So paying attention in French class at school seems to have paid off a bit. Then it looks like I may be shooting with Roger Federer again for Credit Suisse, which I’m looking forward to very much. As for my photography, I want to make 2014 the year I publish a monograph. And it’s also the year I need to get my first feature – an adaptation of a JG Ballard short story – into preproduction.