Sparking Creativity: Photographer Alan SailerPosted: February 3, 2012
For today’s entry in the “Sparking Creativity” interview series, we bring you an exclusive conversation with photographer Alan Sailer.
Since his high speed images went viral a few years ago, Alan’s work has been prominently highlighted by Wired, BoingBoing, Photo Weekly Online, and i09, among others. You can find many, many of his pictures on his Flickr Photostream.
Alan’s trademark high-speed images are captures using specialized equipment, key components of which he designed and built himself.
Today, Alan shares his thoughts on craftsmanship, scavenging goat skulls, and the joy of creating memorable images with tools he’s made himself.
Paul: You’ve pushed back in the past against people labeling your work as “art.” Why? What would you call it instead?
Alan: I am pushing back for several reasons.
Firstly, I may be too close to the subject to be a good judge, but art in my experience is something that moves me at a much deeper level. At its best, good art makes me feel like I want to go out and try to do something just as good.
My work, for the most part, is just well crafted entertainment. It is colorful, contrast-y and easy to digest. It’s not a co-incidence that Getty Images sells a lot of my work to the advertising business.
Second, I am probably over reacting to an area of fine art that I find quite unsettling. This area presents real art as just a clever idea.
I admire the work of Marcel Duchamp a lot, but on seen from a certain perspective, his idea that art can be all about the idea has had a very damaging effect on the craftsmanship of art.
I have wandered through many profound art exhibits, full of work that is really amazingly ugly or boring. When I read the little blurbs next to the work I generally find a very interesting idea supporting a dull artwork.
So, in the second case, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, that’s not a club that I want to be a member of.
What do I call my photography?
Well crafted commercial photography.
How much planning goes into a shoot?
That varies wildly from one shot to the next. Sometimes I literally see something sitting in my garage and wonder what that would look like after a pellet hits it.
So I set it up and fire away.
I also have ideas than can take months to execute. Here is a grisly example.
A year of so back I was out on one of my favorite bike rides and I saw a plastic sack by the side of the road. I am a total scrounger, so I peaked inside to find a dead goat. I decided it would make a great prop and came back a few weeks later and sawed off the head.
After several months of disgusting work that I will leave to your imagination, I had a nice clean goat skull. I spent some time modifying it to let a pellet pass through the eye sockets, then placed two gelatin filled Christmas bulbs in each eye and shot through them both.
Not my best shot ever, but it worked.
So planning can be a simple as walking through a grocery store or spending a few months on and off trying to get an idea ready to shoot.
You’ve made much of your own equipment. Tell me what fashioning your own creative tools does for your end image.
On a very simple level, it makes everything possible. A commercial flash of the type I use costs about 4000$. There is no way I am ever going to pay that kind of money to pursue this silly hobby.
Look, I like building stuff.
My day job is as an engineer. So it gives me great creative satisfaction to try to figure out the simplest and safest way to make a high voltage flash. On a very real level, I have to fight to keep from geeking out, just building, measuring and modifying flashes, never taking pictures.
It’s far easier doing that than trying out new photographic ideas and failing over and over again.
Another benefit of fabricating my own equipment is that I don’t have to be all precious about my stuff. If I break a part, I can just fix it and keep going.
I can say for an absolute fact that many of my best photographs wouldn’t have happened with a 4000$ flash. I would have been so paranoid about breaking a flash that expensive that I would never have risked the shot.
That philosophy extends to everything about my work.
Early on, I decided not to try to keep everything all neat and clean. Every minute I spend worrying about goo getting on me, my flash or my camera is a minute that I am not taking pictures. So I mostly let the crap fall where it wants to.
I keep the lens filter clean and the flash window clear.
That’s what makes a sharp picture.
Your shots frequently take an everyday object (a cell phone, doll’s head, a steak, etc.) and capture them in a moment of, well, extreme duress. Which is awesome. What are you saying through that?
Damn. Photographic philosophy. Here’s where it would be useful to have an art degree so I could say something deep and significant.
I shoot ordinary stuff for two reasons.
First, its cheap and easy to get. Lots of my targets come from garage sales. I try to spend less than a dollar because I am cheap and because I feel bad about destroying all this stuff. Entire families of rats can (and have) made a living off of my destroyed targets.
Second, people respond more to a photograph when they can tell what’s going on. It took me longer than I care to admit to understand that.
Some of my favorite high-speed photographs are ones that very few people like.
People don’t like to feel dumb. If I show a beautiful pictures of shock waves traveling through a glass plate in cross polarized light, few people care.
If I show a Barbie’s head with an exploding strawberry on top of it, people can understand it instantly.
But don’t get me wrong. One of my primary motivations for doing this type of photography is to surprise myself with an interesting image. If an easy to understand image looks good, I am very happy.
I get the impression that you take pictures for the sheer personal pleasure of it. Are you thinking about other viewers at all as you’re preparing to click the shutter?
As I mentioned above, I want to get a thrill when I check out the little LCD in the back of the camera. If that stops happening, I will stop taking pictures.
I have had people contact me several times looking for a commercial shoot. I have turned them down because the idea of trying to make someone happy with my photographic results gives me the purple horrors.
I have a good day job, so I can afford to do this. Any money I do get from this hobby goes straight to charity.
That noted, it would be impossible for me to honestly say that having an audience doesn’t matter. I would have stopped taking these kinds of pictures a long time ago if people weren’t paying attention.
Having my Flickr stream go viral three years ago was quite a shock, it was very stressful. I don’t like lots of attention, it makes me uncomfortable.
Other the other hand, if it wasn’t for that attention, a lot of my best images, pictures that I really enjoy, would not exist.
So the viewers are in the background when I prepare to pull the trigger.
It the foreground, though, are more prosaic concerns as in, will the flash fire, do I have the proper timing. And, strangely enough, will I get hurt by this shot?
Exploding objects, pellet rifles, high voltage… What’s to worry about, eh?
It’s not a relaxing hobby.
Any idea what we can expect from your lens in the future?
My rate of new work has slowed quite a bit. For a long time ideas seem to come faster than I could should them.
I have some more work to do with my new high-speed air cannon. Some more explosive work.
The trend in my high-speed work has been to go to higher power events, but that will not continue. I have very little desire to move into actual firearms, as I really don’t enjoy working with any guns.
Working with real rifles would mean moving to a safe location, with the attendant cost and hassle.
Maybe I could even slow down and come up with some real art:-)
For most of my work, only one in ten tries gives a good picture. Taking a long time to make a set-up under those odds seems wasteful, but maybe more attention could turn a losing set-up into a winner.
Ori Gersht has shown that you can create high-speed photography that works as art. He makes up intricate set-ups that resemble classic still lives and films them coming apart in slow motion.
All photos were made (and belong to) Alan Sailer. He’s the man. Thanks a million, Alan!