All images by David Kai-Piper. Used with permission.
“Creating images that have range and balance is more meaningful and to me more stimulating across all creative aspects than just a photo of a girls boobs.” says David Kai-Piper in our interview. “Saying that, I have never been the ‘boobs & ass’ photographer, I try and stay as far away from what the world now calls ‘glamor’ as I can.” David is a photographer that doesn’t care to get famous off of Instagram. Instead, he’s all about just creating good photographs. He doesn’t like glamour, he doesn’t like any of that stuff based off of what he calls the “Kardashian-esqe culture” these days. Instead, David works to create art.
You’ve been a studio photographer for many years now working with nudes and models. So how do you feel that your creative vision has evolved over the years when it comes to going into the studio and working with various subjects?
It’s odd, I would not use that title myself, never really have. I’ve never really been any genre specific photographer – not in my own view that is. Over the years things have evolved, things do in a natural way even on a subconscious level. As I have gotten older I think there has been less and less frivolous nudity in my work. Having a nude model for the sake of nudity has very little for me in terms of adding to an image. Maybe as time passes we mellow while we start to see the bigger picture. There is some provocative work on my website, but there is a lot of work to balance it out. Creating images that have range and balance is more meaningful and to me more stimulating across all creative aspects than just a photo of a girls boobs. Saying that, I have never been the ‘boobs & ass’ photographer, I try and stay as far away from what the world now calls ‘glamor’ as I can. Saying that, I recently had a designer turn down working with me as I have the ‘male gaze’. Not sure what she meant but kind of did know in the same way. Photographer have styles, we have moods and we have the right to change them whenever we like, it’s our art, it’s our work and we have our own minds too.
Sometimes we have to amend the public perception of our work to fit in with a project, client or sponsors needs. Sometimes my website gets a change around to suit needs that might not be my own. My site is like a shop front and it is there to sell me as a photographer. It has to adapt and flow with trends just as much as anything. As a photographer though, my style of shooting has not really changed. I shoot very few frames these days, even less than I used to. Which I like, but I think a few models and clients get caught off by. They expect 50 images to pick from and I have shot 5. I find that studios can kill the creative spark, so these days I do try and take the studio to the location, if that makes sense. Shooting like I would in a studio, but in hotel rooms, car parks and such.
What made you want to get into doing more risqué work? I personally feel like ever since 500px came about and everything chosen by the Editors is risqué, that there’s been more and more of it coming out to the fore in the past years. Then combine this with a rise in boudoir work, Instagram, etc. But what made you personally want to get into it?
I have not logged in to 500px for ages, I used to use it quite a lot. I remember seeing the influx of amazing work from Estonia, Poland and wider afield.
To this day, I still don’t think I have, I would be the worst photographer to hold a boudoir shoot with, most of the time I am looking at the whole photo and not worrying about if the model looks ‘sexy’ or not, as I said, I try my hardest to not be a glamour photographer, and, it is rare that a shoot with me would be solely about trying to make a girl look’sexy’. Look at what has happened on Instagram, look at the selfie world and the increasing amount of pay-per-view sites that photographers and models can make quick cash by selling ‘naughty’ photos online. I want nothing to do with that.
“They expect 50 images to pick from and I have shot 5. I find that studios can kill the creative spark, so these days I do try and take the studio to the location, if that makes sense. Shooting like I would in a studio, but in hotel rooms, car parks and such.”
It’s a cliché, but I do blame the Kardashian-esqe culture we have these days, it’s all fake, it’s all temporary and it’s all crap. Painful to watch how well it works though. Over the years, I have come to learn that, people love fake, who’d have known. My love and connection with taking images of a risqué nature comes from my love of Newton. It’s about photography and story. I like the challenge to make things that provoke the mind more than anything else. Photographers like Sylvie Blum, Robert Voltaire, Guido Argentini, Rankin all the way to Mario Testino, Mert & Marcus and especially with Ellen Von Unworth, show that you can have as much nudity as you wish, yet still have integrity with a point and reason to create, aside from designing images purely to get Instagram likes. To answer your question though. I liked the challenge, I wanted to know what it was like, I wanted to explore the world with a camera. I am not trying to please others or help them get off on a sexy photo, in fact, this is something that makes me feel quite awkward. Social media, especially for photographers can be a unique blend of narcissism and altruism, when used purely to be get more likes or followers. It’s hard to avoid seeming self-serving acts of altruism while trying to get as much attention as possible for your work; what used to be to be called selling out, is called marketing in 2017. #clickbait
Tell us about what your first nude photo shoot was like and what did you learn after that to make you a better photographer?
Not sure; I know the first nude I was really happy with though. I was in Tuscany (Italy) helping a friend run a workshop. An art-nude workshop actually. I really don’t think it changed anything. The fact that Zoi was naked changed nothing and I don’t think it should. What makes you a better photographer is listening and learning about your own mindset and understanding what your purpose for creating images really is.
Rank these in terms of importance from greatest to least: great model, great wardrobe, great ideas, great photographer, great chemistry. Why do you feel so?
On any given day that order can change from one to the other, there is no secret to photography and the recipe never works twice.
I know that I have pulled shoots when the chemistry has not been right and I know that models have pulled out of shoots with me for the same reasons. Which is fine, I understand it now. A few years ago I might have just done a shoot that was shit and then tried to rescue it. Now, I just say no thanks and move on – Chemistry is important but not that important if it is a client shoot. Professional people bring the A game to work, which is fine too. The one that none of us can produce without is a good idea or concept, saying that I think you missed the only really vital element of the list. Confidence is king, with that, you can rock anything, do anything and your team will rally around you and trust me, if your team thinks they have the best model, the best ideas and the best wardrobe…you do.
“Look at what has happened on Instagram, look at the selfie world and the increasing amount of pay-per-view sites that photographers and models can make quick cash by selling ‘naughty’ photos online. I want nothing to do with that.”
A whole lot of your work is in black and white. What attracts you to this type of work?
Many many reasons, too many to list and this is a topic we both could talk on for till the sun has set more than twice. In short, it is simple. I like to and all else is circumstantial.
I can find reasons to back up why I like black and white or monochromatic images but the statement that I like it is something I have come to feel more comfy with over the years. In my mind color is real, it is what I use with my eyes to see with. When seeing a black and white image, my mind says…this is a story. Why.. that’s complex and I think each person has a different reason, age might have much to do with it too.
The other reason is that sometimes it is easier. Colour is complex and the editing process can be more complex too.
You’re very much about incredibly clean backgrounds when you work with subjects both in a studio or on location. Do you think that when you combine this with your style of lighting that it somehow or another makes your subjects stand out more in the scene?
I had never noted that but you are the 5th person this week to say that since my website reshuffle! I like simple images that have complex stories. Single points of focus that are easy to work out that the subject is works well for me. The lighting type comes from a more logistical element more than anything at the moment. I am trying to work more on my motorbike with means simple lighting and simple set up’s. Recently I have been really enjoying shooting super low depth with flash. Around the f1.2 mark then having a cinematic lighting style. My styles can change week to week though – I like to mix it up sometimes. It’s been months since I have used a full studio setup.
When doing this kind of work, obviously consent and permission is really important. So what steps do you take to ensure that that’s always there? How does that affect creative improvisation on a set–which of course is always key to great shoots?
Really simple and clear communication from the outset is key.
Over the years, especially with any personal work, I tend to be cautious about shooting with new people. It’s bad I know, but I have had second thoughts about shooting with people just on the basis what sort of person they have online. How is my work going to be treated by them etc. I have been burnt in the past and quite guarded about it now. Respect has to be mutual and all parties have to have an input into the final output that way you can be sure to make sure everyone is happy.
“It’s hard to avoid seeming self-serving acts of altruism while trying to get as much attention as possible for your work; what used to be to be called selling out, is called marketing in 2017. #clickbait”
Walk us through your typical editing process. What’s that like?
These days I have got a pretty dialed in the editing process when it comes to my current work – which starts before the shoot. I tend to have a number of images in mind and try to shoot just those images, if we have time then we explore and have some creative fun to see what happens. Typically I have the editing process on my end before the shoot too – this would be a factor in how the image is lit and the styling of the shot too.
CLUT’s or Colour Look Up Tables are my ‘go to’ trick for color processing and using a ‘Black and White’ layer in the luminosity blend mode to make finer adjustments. Before the CLUT’s I was a big fan of using a Duotone process to grade images, but the CLUT’s are just magic.
Photographey by Dave Kai Piper
As an overall stylistic mantra, I try to get the fine line between finished, polished yet real with character. I like to have texture and flaws, photography should have elements of reality otherwise why use a camera at all. Just be a painter.
Using the digital toolbox to highlight the narrative and clean up distracting elements in an image is nothing new. Manipulation is seen as a dirty word these days, but it’s more a lack of understanding and a lack of willingness to question what people see that is causing this friction. ‘People’ on one side say that photoshop is bad and is harming the young girls, giving false ideas about beauty health, weight and all sorts. I am not sure if this is directly linked to your question, but the topic of editing is something that has come over my desk quite about today – I read a paper written by graduate that looked into this all – it is quite a read – you can find here, get ready for a long read though – https://cognitiveresearchjournal.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s41235-017-0067-2 . In short, they raise the idea, again, that using manipulation tools is for the purpose to fool or distort the truth from the creator to the viewer. If this is the case when using programs like Photoshop, if used in news or advertising they should carry a warning to something to the effect. It is a complex area that would be better solved through education rather than legislation.
To get back to your question, with the last paragraph in mind, mostly, I try and do the least amount of editing needed to produce the image I am trying to create – which of course is the vaguest answer I have ever come up with ever.
A whole lot of photographers have used nudes and risqué work to try to build up their Instagram followers like crazy. But you aren’t like that. Have you never found that to be super important to your brand and the type of work that you do? Of course you’re using Instagram but your work there is a lot more tame per se than even what some models themselves post.
Over the years, especially the last few, I have been aware of the impact my work can have on the world around me. When I was teaching at the Uni, I had to be aware that my work was on display and connecting in a different way to how I had intended when producing it. It’s not that I didn’t stand behind my work, it was that I was in another phase and the world is wide place. Some people have problems with nudity, some don’t. Some understand it and others don’t. That’s fine and that’s OK. As I said before, much of my work has an intrinsic beginning and as such, it does not really bother me when I have to pull images down because I am in a different phase of my life.
For example, I have pulled much of the more provocative work off my social media channels – it is all on my website, but I leave it there. I don’t shout about nakedness or how a models ass looks on Instagram. I will leave that to the people who do that – do nothing wrong with them doing it, but, it’s not me or my style. I prefer to have my mom and dad on Facebook and have them happy than post photos of boobs to try and get followers. I have never chased fans, or followers or likes. What the models do with images we make together is totally up to them, within reason of course !!Over the years social media has changed, and the way we use it must change too. My brother’s son will be able to find this interview. My future employers could find this interview and judge me on it, just as much as they could judge me on one to two Instagram posts. I don’t get a say in what they see and in what context they see it. I try and think about these things and try to understand that nudity is an issue for some people, I don’t want to force it on people and I want everything to be in balance.
I have sponsors too, they have public images and everything that goes with that too. Linking back to the very first question, styles and portfolios ebb and flow with the needs and demands of any particular day or reason. At the moment I am looking into branching out into another field of work and talking to new companies, bringing my work into line with a long term agenda only makes sense.
What do you feel is a signature of yours; like a special something that all of your images have and that truly make them yours? How do you plan on making that evolve in the next year?
I have been shooting for years now and I am still no closer to understanding my ‘style’. I love photography. I love landscapes, people, and everything in the middle. I have just as much fun shooting street stuff for clients at Gay Pride in London as I do sat in a rainy tent in Wales. Photography is what I love and trying my best to keep shooting is the challenge. What I shoot might change every day.
But, if I had money and could make a book or big project, yes, I would totally work on a project that each had a style. The closest I have got would be my portraits and my towel projects. For these, I was trying to fix the problem of not having a style, or at least I thought it was a problem for a while. Maybe when I have a few more images I will have to make some kind of exhibition out of these projects. You can check my Towels Project and my Portrait Gallery.