Craig Colvin Photographs Landscapes Made of the Human Body (NSFW)

“The initial inspiration for Multiscapes came about while photographing in the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley,” the photographer Craig Colvin tells me. It was more than a decade ago, and he was taking a workshop with the fine art landscape photographer John Paul Caponigro. He spent hours roaming the dunes, and as he navigated the landscape, camera in hand, a thought emerged. 

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“The curves of the dunes reminded me of women’s hips, if they were lying on their side,” says Colvin. “It was an epiphany that the curves in nature matched the curves of the body. That revelation has informed my photography direction ever since.” After he returned home, the idea for Multiscapes, a series of undulating “landscapes” created using light and the contours of the human body, was born and brought to life in the studio.

We reached out to the artist to tell us about the project.

The Essential Gear of Craig Colvin

Colvin tells us,

“All the Multiscape images were shot with a Canon 5DmkII. I used several different lenses. The three‐model photos were shot with a Canon 70‐200mm f2.8L at 70mm. The five‐model photos were shot with a Canon 24‐70mm f2.8L at 45mm to 55mm, depending on the shot. The Rainbow Multiscapes were shot with a Canon 24‐105mm f4L lens, typically set in the 24mm to 35mm range.

“For lighting, I used a combination of AlienBee 800s and Einstein strobes. The Multiscapes were lit with two strobes with 4×1 gridded soft boxes. They were placed behind the models and to the side and then pointed back towards the camera. For the Rainbow Multiscapes, I used three strobes, the two gridded soft boxes located behind the models, and a large six‐foot parabolic umbrella with diffusion fabric attached that was directly over the models.”

Phoblographer: How and when did you embark on your journey as a photographer? What drew you to the medium?  

Craig Colvin: My interest in photography started in my high school’s darkroom in Walnut Creek, California. I loved the darkroom aspects, but my photos were just snapshots. That changed in late 2007 while on a camping trip with a group of friends. I was taking photographs alongside one of my friends. 

When we got back and shared photos, I was shocked by how much better my friend’s photos were compared to mine given the same subject matter. This fueled a desire to learn more about photography so I could take better-looking photos. I tend to go a little overboard with new hobbies, and photography was no exception. For several years, I would spend hours each day learning about photography. While that pace has slowed, I now still devote a half‐hour every day to photography education.

I love photography because it allows me to capture the images and stories in my mind and share them with others.

Phoblographer: Can you walk me through the process of making these Multiscapes?

Craig Colvin: A photographer friend had arranged for three models to come to his studio, and I scheduled some time to shoot with them as well. To shoot the Multiscape images, I had the two front models lie on the floor and put a cushion down for the rear model to raise her slightly. The lighting consisted of two strobes with 4×1 gridded strip boxes positioned at 45 degrees from the camera and placed behind the models pointing towards the camera. This created the edge light highlighting just the top edge of their bodies.

I loved the results and then asked myself, “What next?” If three models were good, then five would be better, right? It was exactly a month after my three‐model shoot that I went back to the studio to shoot with five models. I used the same lighting setup and added a pallet and additional cushions for the models in the back.

To take these photos, I’m lying down on the ground or very low to the ground and ask the models to adjust. With five models, it was very difficult for me to remember which model was which while looking through my viewfinder, and I found myself asking the wrong model to move a hand or raise a hip, and so on. So I came up with the idea of using a long stick I found in the studio.

When I needed a model to adjust some part of their body, I would tap them with the stick and tell them which way to move: higher, lower, rotate away from the camera, etc. It sounds a little strange in hindsight, but the models thought it was great, and we quickly went through a lot of different poses and looks. During the next six months, I had three additional shoots with two models and would always do a few shots for the Multiscape series.

Phoblographer: How did you select the models for this project? Why did you entrust them in particular with bringing your vision to life?

Craig Colvin: The primary criteria I was looking for was a variation in skin tone, as I thought that would add visual interest. If I had selected without this, there would still be skin tone variations, but it would have been more subtle and would not have the same impact. The secondary criteria was models of similar height.

I tend to only work with professional models who know how to pose and know how to take direction. For this series, I used a total of nine different models, five of whom I had worked with in the past, so I knew them and knew that they would deliver.

Phoblographer: Relatedly, why do you think the models trusted in your vision?

Craig Colvin: I believe most models trust me because of my portfolio. They say they admire my work and want to work with me as a result. Trust is also built during a shoot based upon respect. I respect the work the models do. Every photo is a collaboration between the photographer and the model, and I always talk to the model about the concept and incorporate their input into the shot.

Phoblographer: Can you tell us a bit about the Rainbow Multiscapes?

Craig Colvin: After doing the Multiscape series, I again asked myself, “What next?” and was stuck for a while on what the next step was going to be. I had worked with the body painter Trina Merry in the past and came across a photo she had done of seven rainbow‐colored hands, and that was the inspiration for the Rainbow Multiscapes

The actual shoot was planned over three months. Trina is a world-renowned body painter and tapped into her network of models to recruit six of the seven models. The seventh was a friend of mine that I had worked with on the original Multiscape series. I created a storyboard with 22 different shots I wanted to accomplish and shared this with the models. I also built an 8’x8’ ramp that models could lie on so I could get elevation from the front to the back.

The day of the shoot, we had a 9:00 AM call time, and one of the models was a no‐show. The concept really needed seven models, both to cover all the rainbow colors but also because odd numbers look better in compositions. I started calling every model I knew, and the six models who were there called every model they knew, and we finally found someone who could show up at noon.

I arranged all the models by height to determine their color but didn’t know the height of the new model, so I took a chance and decided she would be purple. She ended up being short and really should have been towards the front (orange or yellow) but made it work. If you look closely, you can notice the difference in some of the photos.

The models took turns painting each other with the initial coat, and Trina the body painter would then do the final pieces and touchups. About halfway through the process, Trina suggested using stencils and an airbrush to put patterns on each model to make it more visually interesting.  She did a sample, and we both agreed it was far better than just the straight colors.

The issue was that this was a very time-consuming process, and she ended up finishing the bodypainting at 4:00 PM, at which time we started taking photos. It then took almost three hours to shoot my 22-storyboard ideas plus another five or six, so it was a very long day. I shot a behind‐the‐scenes video of this shoot, available here.

Phoblographer: What’s your most powerful memory from your time creating Multiscapes?

Craig Colvin: The day of shooting the Rainbow Multiscape series was very memorable. After months of planning, seeing it come together just as I had envisioned it was very rewarding. It reinforces that my best shoots are always the ones that require the most effort and planning.

Phoblographer: You’re also an educator. What, if anything, have you learned from your students that has helped inform your approach to making work?

Craig Colvin: Every person sees a shot differently. Looking at how my students see a scene makes me see it differently as well, and that carries forward into my next shoot. As a result of watching my students, I now tend to work a scene very differently than I might have in the past.

I use a wide lens when I might have used a telephoto before, or visa‐versa. I change my perspective more, lying down, or climbing up high. I circle the model and shoot from behind them or from the side when I used to only shoot from one angle. I’m constantly surprised by how we each see something different when shooting the same thing.

All photos by Craig Colvin. Used with permission. For more from Colvin, be sure to visit his website. Follow along on Instagram at craigcolvinphoto, on Twitter CraigColvin, and on 500px at CraigColvinPhotography

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Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.