All images by Gareth McGorman. Used with permission.
“I want people to see my photography first and see it on its own merits without knowing much about who I am,” says photographer Gareth McGorman. He continues, “I have revealed a little bit more about myself. It’s something you’ve got to do when you feel ready.” As mysterious as he may be, there’s no hiding from the fact he produces some interesting photography. Knuckled down in his niche of army-men model photography, McGorman is creating a body of work that is fun and interesting. Not lost in the world of photoshop, he puts emphasis on storytelling and creativity. And although he prefers to keep his identity low-key, he agreed to speak with us and tell us more about his photographic journey.
Gareth McGorman’s Essential Gear
- Canon EOS Rebel T6
- Canon 18-55mm
“I plan to upgrade at some point in the near future. Right now, part of what I enjoy is working within my limitations and finding ways to adapt to them.”— Gareth McGorman
Phoblographer: Are you using artificial light or natural light to illuminate your scenes?
Gareth McGorman: For lighting, I use a range of different small LED lights. The colored lighting effects that you see in some of my noir and sci-fi photos are done using toy LEDs from the dollar store. I use them as spotlights if I want to illuminate a figure or object in a photo in a better way.
You can see this in the image with the cupcake and the firefighters. I wanted to convey a sense that the little girl was up to no good. Also, I used some blue and red LEDs to indicate that there were emergency vehicles with sirens blaring. I can also use LEDs to get other effects. For example, in the photo with the spacemen investigating a strange orb, I managed to get the glowing effect by simply placing a green LED behind a marble.
Phoblographer: Please tell us how your photographic journey first began.
Gareth McGorman: This all started with one hobby morphing and evolving into another. For most of my life, I’ve been a scale modeller. It’s a strange-sounding hobby to some, but I enjoy it. One day, while I was unemployed and alone in the house with my brother’s cat, I began taking photos of some of my models attacking her on my phone. This evolved over time. Nowadays, I often select the models I build based on how they would suit my photographic needs, and a couple of years ago I upgraded to a Canon Rebel T6.
Phoblographer: Army Men is a very niche product. Why did this niche interest you?
Gareth McGorman: My style of photography was something that started with my scale modelling hobby and evolved from there. I’ve always been attracted to the idea of telling stories using miniatures. Sharing the kinds of stories that I wanted to through photography felt like a natural choice to me. The more I got into this, the more I realized that there was a broad range for creativity within this niche. In the past couple of years, I’ve branched out a little and started taking a series of film noir and sci-fi themed photos that allow me to experiment a little with lighting. Despite being fairly niche, this is something that allows for a pretty wide range of expression.
Phoblographer: How do you come up with your ideas for the kind of scene you’re going to create?
GM: Most often, my photography starts with the figures that I’m using. I hand paint every single figure that I use and I feel that’s an essential part of my process. It allows me to think of the kinds of contexts that would work best photographically. Often the process of assembly and painting can lead me to some interesting ideas. For instance, a while ago I purchased some EOD technicians(that’s what normal people would call a bomb squad.) But when as I was painting them, I realized that they could make pretty convincing astronauts.
Ideas come from a variety of directions and sources – inspiration can come from anywhere. Sometimes it will start with me simply finding an interesting object, and I will develop an idea from there. For instance, this past summer I came across a vintage bottle labelled “poison” and that led me to the idea of poison being poured into a cup of coffee.
As far as influences are concerned, I would say that I draw most of my inspiration from cartoonists and pulp cover art of the postwar era. I was a huge fan of Herge, Charles Addams and The Far Side when I was growing up, and I feel that some of their influence can be seen in my scenes. I think that the photo of the army men ready to ambush someone who’s about to step on a banana peel is equal parts to Tintin and Mario Kart.
Phoblographer: How long does it take to finish a particular scene? Please talk us through the process.
GM: A scene could take me anywhere between a couple of minutes and several hours, depending on what I’m trying to do. Animals are by far the most difficult to shoot for me, and I’ve had some mixed results. I’ll typically only have a few seconds to get the shot that I want in situations like that. I’ve had to either work very quickly or attempt another take on another day.
Figure placement is a huge part of my process. Because I’m using a stock lens, I generally try to keep most figures roughly the same distance from the camera. This prevents any figures from going too far out of focus. In photos where I put the army men to work, I tend to include a few guys who are just standing around watching. Not only does this help direct the audience to the focal point in the image, but it also indicates that there is a chain of command. It makes everything seem that much more serious. The photo I took with the Rubiks cube is a pretty good example of what I’m talking about here.
For my noir and sci-fi photos, there’s a great deal more time involved. I spend most my time staging the scene, setting up the lighting, and testing it to see how it would look on camera. Typically, these photos are taken in the bathroom, since that is the only room in the house that does not have any windows, giving me a little more control over the lighting.
Phoblographer: Your images seem fresh out of the camera. What kind of post-production do you do?
GM: There is no post-production. I would love to learn techniques. Things like focus shifting that would make a huge difference with what I do. I also want to avoid producing images that look too crisp or hyper-realistic. And I want to try and preserve a fantasy in which people can imagine that these figures live alongside them.
I love getting what I want using practical effects. I remember reading once that Hitchcock wasn’t able to get the camera to focus on a phone in the way he wanted it to. It was while filming the ending to Strangers on a Train and he had the prop department build an oversized phone to help him achieve the same effect. I feel like it’s important to figure out how to achieve visual tricks like that.
It’s also fair to say that I do have a certain kind of stubbornness. I enjoy seeing how much I can get out of what I do, while having limited resources. It really is pretty thrilling when you find ways to make an idea work within your limitations.
Phoblographer: Aside from the creative side, what rewards do you get personally from working on this genre?
GM: One of my noir images did grace the cover of True Dark. It’s a crime novel by Mike Milner that came out last year. I definitely would like to pursue more opportunities of that nature. I’ve had a few of my photos featured in a couple of literary journals. Apart from that, there’s always the thrill of getting likes on Instagram.
Phoblographer: Do you have an ultimate goal with the series?
GM: My goal is to run out of ideas eventually. As long as I still have ideas, I intend to keep producing new work. One day, I would love to create a coffee table book of my photography or something along those lines. Ultimately I enjoy doing this, and I have a great deal of fun with this style of photography.