Bodie Strain: Directing Creative Portrait Shoots With Shy Subjects

All images by Bodie Strain. Used with permission.

“I’m not so interested trying to capture some “true” inner self of a subject, and more excited by people showing off an idea of what they want to be.” says photographer Bodie Strain about the types of subjects he likes to work with. He hails from Melbourne, Australia and mostly focuses on portraits and have been featured on album covers, ebook covers, theatre and entertainment promos and news websites.

“One of my bigger jobs has been for an LGBT+ community magazine, working on a series of editorials and cover photos exploring different queer subcultures.” says Bodie. “It’s meant meeting and working with lot of people from often less visible communities, and trying to get a shot that is both representative and striking for the story.”

Bodie’s work is not only creative, but is very punchy, edgy and beautiful.

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Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Bodie: I got into photography quite late, and almost accidentally. I was in a cultural studies and film course which included a small practical photography stream on the side. It wasn’t something I was aiming for, but starting to play around with a camera something clicked with me. I was attracted to the immediacy of photography. Being able to have a simple idea, quickly take a shot and almost instantly look at the result, good or bad, and then iterate and learn and try again. I still feel like that. The feedback loop is so quick and feeling like I can make the next shot better is fun.

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Phoblographer: What made you want to get into portraiture?

Bodie: Selfies! (Before they were called selfies.) I’d been playing with amateur photography for a long time but not in any particular direction. Then at once a lot of things changed in my personal life; ending a long-term relationship, living on my own for the first time. It spurred a period of uncertainty, and I started to take a lot of self portraits in a way I never had before: try on different looks, try a different feel. It was a way of figuring out what I was doing and what I wanted to do. I transferred that process to taking portraits of friends in a collaborative way, figuring out how they wanted to look and feel and present to the world. It’s what made me want to keep taking photography as far as I could.

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Phoblographer: For you, what’s the creative process like? Where do your ideas typically come from and how do you go about applying that to the scenes that you photograph?

Bodie: This might sound awful … but dreams. That half-awake hypnagogic state before unconsciousness is so visual — and a mix of random thoughts — that it’s when things come together. I have a few friends that will sometimes get messages from me at 3am saying I need to try out some photo ideas on them. Or I’ll leave cryptic notes to myself that I have to decipher the next day. Applying ideas to my actual final shots is usually about taking elements away. If I have a mess of vague ideas about how I want a shot to look, it’s about pinning down the essential element of it. How can I convey that and remove everything else? Sometimes what I’m after is as simple as an expression, and so in the shoot and in the edit I’m working to remove every other distraction from the frame.

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Phoblographer: What makes you want to photograph someone? That is, what qualities in a person do you typically choose or look for before collaborating with them?

Bodie: The most exciting subjects I’ve collaborated with are often more shy, quieter people not used to being photographed. Talking with them, figuring out the mental self image that they would like to project, and figuring out what we can make happen in a photo. I’m not so interested trying to capture some “true” inner self of a subject, and more excited by people showing off an idea of what they want to be. I think that’s part of why I work so often with drag queens. They already have this iconic character, a self expression, worked out and can seemingly instantly switch it on. It beams out of the final shots.

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Phoblographer: When you work with your subjects, what’s the process like? I’m sure there’s a lot of conversation going back and forth but do you storyboard?

Bodie: I love if I have a chance to properly talk to subjects before picking up the camera. Usually I’m talking more vague attitude and feel of the shot I’m looking for rather than specifics of how we’re going to do it. Usually it’s me saying “I want you to look at the camera like I’m wasting your time”. With some of the work I’ve done with people belonging to different LGBT+ subcultures I’ve tried to talk to the subjects beforehand to make sure they’re comfortable with ideas I had for the shoot or ways I want to present them. I don’t want to unthinkingly blunder into stereotypes or cliche when presenting their communities.

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Phoblographer: What about the use of lighting and all? How do you feel lighting plays an important part in the scenes that you’re trying to create? You mentioned in your email that you like a 2D pop and flatter lighting typically.

Bodie: The lighting I use is very important to the simplicity of the final image I’m looking for. I often want to flatten the subject’s dimensions with straight-on harsh light. It comes back to how I’m not looking to depict the subject’s “soul”, but more excited by showing their fantasy self image, how they’d like to be seen. I want to almost posterize them, make them iconic. To help with that I lean toward big, punchy, unnatural lighting.

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Phoblographer: On the thought process of that “2D Pop” you generally tend to keep colors simple while still being strong and effective. Is this intentional and something that you give a lot of careful thought to? What would make you render an image in color vs black and white?

Bodie: When I was first learning how to take photos I was using black and white film. I persisted with black and white for a long time until realising how I was limiting myself by staying in my comfort zone. But I still feel like I think in black and white — harsh shadows and overblown contrasts. While I usually work with colour now, I try to use it in a way that fits with the simple, posterised look I want. I generally pick one overbearing hard colour rather than a softer and more natural palette. I often have to fight the urge to make everything black and white, but I do love using colour when it’s big and bold and written in capitals.

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Phoblographer: Why do this type of work with people? What elements do they have that make it so appealing to you?

Bodie: I think portraits (and selfies) are powerful. Try on a different look, try on a different feel. It’s like playing with different ways of connecting to everyone around you. It’s fun working with people who are shy and begin by being intimidated by the camera. Having an exciting portrait of yourself is a way of owning and controlling the way you think of yourself and the way you connect with others.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you use.

pumpkinmook - Bodie Strain

Bodie: I try to keep my gear pretty basic. My camera is consumer level: a Canon 7D. I’d like to upgrade to a bigger, full-frame camera, but remind myself that better ideas and more skill are going to benefit my photography more than better gear will (I still want it though!). I have a couple of Elinchrom strobe lights I love, which I usually use with just small, simple reflectors or soft boxes. I like messing about with little DIY projects for light modifiers I find around on the web. I made gels out of wrapping paper but I’m a bit worried they are going to melt so I should upgrade them next …

Phoblographer: Walk us through your typical post production process. Is most of this in photoshop or in camera?

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Bodie: Mostly I’m trying to do as much in the camera as possible. Simple blank, white walls are my friend. I’m processing mostly in Lightroom, just normal things like colours and contrast, and it’s where I have most control to give the image the harsh tone I’m looking for. If I am editing in Photoshop it’s usually to remove details. Anything distracting I try to get rid of and keep the final image as simple as possible, but it is usually minimal.

Phoblographer: How do you want your work to evolve and what steps are you taking to get it there?

Bodie: I think I’d like my photography to be … more weird. Less concerned with being pretty. People have said a lot of my work is harsh and cold or stark. I’d like to push that if I can, to try not to stay in my safe zones. Luckily I’m surrounded by people who are happy to help me play and experiment with dumb ideas. It’s about taking photos that may well be awful and ugly and I never show to anyone but just … try. And laugh about it while we’re doing it. Sometimes it works out and it give me a new thing to think about and apply to my work.

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pumpkinmook - Bodie Strain

pumpkinmook - Bodie Strain