We sat down with Mister Denial, founding staff member of The Black Angel, ex-rockstar and alt-goth photographer to speak a bit about his latest work, and in the process unravel some of the “mysteries” of the man responsible for all artwork and photos you see on our website. His work has been published in numerous goth magazines in Europe, including legendary Sonic Seducer and Zillo Magazine, and even conservative mainstream publications like Luxemburg’s number one weekly magazine, Revue. This man has dedicated a huge chunk of his life to The Black Angel and has done so for over a decade, so we thought it’s time to honor him a bit and have a little chat.
The Black Angel: Hey, nice to have you here. We know you always have a lot going on, but many people are not really familiar with your work outside of your activity for The Black Angel. So in addition to your current projects, maybe you could tell us a bit about your background?
Mister Denial: Hey, glad to be here. Okay, I am currently re-focusing my work on more gothic looking models; I have neglected this side of my work during the last years, I was more involved in classic beauty projects. So I wanted to get back in touch with my roots, which is why the models seen around my studio lately had lots of tattoos, piercings, undercuts, fishnet and mascara going on! And let’s not forget the kinky stuff, PVC and latex: I am going to shoot with the fabulous Xel Anianka (current Miss Marquis France) soon, that’s a project I really am looking forward to. That’s what I am up to at the moment.
As for my background, well, where do I start? Okay, let’s say that I always have been a person who needs a creative outlet. I don’t like doing nothing, and always need to busy myself with projects. As a teen, I started playing various instruments mostly drums, but also some guitar and bass, and spent pretty much all of my free time jamming, recording, playing concerts.
I didn’t know it yet back then, but I already had a very “visual” mind, I loved looking at people – which I know sounds creepy – but what I mean is, I used to live in Paris, and one of my favorite things to do while riding the Metro was looking at people, especially faces, emotions, details that made people unique and beautiful, even if they maybe did not meet the current beauty norm. So after my band split, and I needed a change, taking up photography was a logical step.
TBA: Right, most people might not know that, but you used to be a member of Pronoian Made (the most successful gothic rock band from Luxembourg, and the only one to ever achieve international notoriety). Some words about that?
MD: I was the bass player for several years, around the EP1613 era, the album that got us into the alternative charts, international press and opened the doors to many of Europe’s largest goth festivals – including the famous Wave Gotik Treffen in Leipzig, which turned out to be a major turning point. It was the peak of our career, and also our downfall.
Basically, we were just a bunch of friends who loved playing music together. I had been friends with Oliver (lead-singer / guitarist) for over ten years before joining the band, and always been a fan of his music. He’s a very talented songwriter and excellent musician, he’s actually one of the best guitarists I have ever personally met, I have to acknowledge that, even if we no longer are on good terms.
We recorded the EP1613 a few weeks after I joined the band, and it became an instant success, earning rave reviews from almost all relevant gothic magazines in Germany and France. Even the rather conservative national TV station RTL did an interview with us. We got booking requests from various smaller and bigger goth festivals, we played in goth clubs, we opened for bands like HIM, and finally, we even got to play the famous Wave Gotik Treffen in Leipzig. We were even featured on the official festival sampler – twice!
Unfortunately this quick rise to fame also lead to ego issues with some band members, which hurt our friendship, and let to my departure in the middle of the recording sessions to the follow up album to the EP16, which was to be called Circus Made. Besides the broken friendships, this is what saddens me most, that these songs never got released, because they were epic.The band did continue to exist for about a year after my departure, and they did release some of the Circus Material, in a different form, but eventually the band broke apart.
It is a bit painful to discuss this, and I usually don’t speak much about my time in the band, but in the end, I really wouldn’t want to miss that time we had, I’ve got lots of positive memories. I mean, we were the first gothic band ever to make it beyond the borders of our small country, we were the first (and so far only) band to get international exposure, we got to play big festivals, and people still speak about the band, nearly ten years after we split -so we definitely left a legacy and made our mark. And most importantly, I met my partner through the band. So it was a great time!
TBA: Can you tell us what you did after your time in Pronoian Made, and how that led to your current work at The Black Angel, and as photographer?
MD: I met Tessy, my partner, through my activity in the band. She had recently opened the first gothic store ever in our country, and we were excited to promote her, just like she promoted our records in her store. You must understand that at that time, there had never been a real gothic scene in our country, it’s a very conservative nation, and people are always worried about what their neighbor might think of them. So underground culture is having a hard time over here. So it was an exciting time, I mean, we were the first ever gothic band of the country, and we were successful, we got national airplay on radio, but we felt a bit alone. And suddenly, there is a real gothic store opening its doors, and people start organizing gothic parties and events. It truly was the birth of the gothic scene in our country. And that scene is still active today!
So I already knew Tessy from my time in the band, and after I quit music, I wanted a professional change too, and started working at The Black Angel. I created the first website for the store, and if you plan on running an online shop, you need product photos. Of course you could just scan catalogs like so many other online shops do, but I don’t believe in that. I like to hold the clothing, touch it, check the quality, and you can’t do that if you only scan catalogs.
TBA: Right, that’s how things are still done to this very day, right? Only putting gothic clothing online that you have seen, approved, and shot pictures of yourself?
MD: Exactly, that how we still do things. I believe that this method gives us better understanding of the items we sell, and for the customer it’s better too. There just are too many shops out there who mass-scan entire product catalogs and have zero stock. That’s the reason I would never trust a shop that uses the same photos as hundred other shops, and which is why I still insist on shooting our own photos of everything.
Of course the problem is, if you want to use your own photos, someone’s got to shoot them. We didn’t want to hire an external photographer when we started the website, so it had to be done internally, and I got stuck with that task.
TBA: So you started photography against your will?
MD: Pretty much, yeah! (laughs) It was a bad case of necessary evil, in the beginning, and the means I had were so primitive! It’s not like today, digital cameras with a gazillion megapixels are really common now, and you can get a decent DSLR for only a few hundred bucks. But when I started, it was really expensive, and I shot my first product photos with a digital video camera that could take stills! (more laughter).
I then borrowed a 2Mp compact camera, before getting myself my own 5Mp compact camera, and then my first real DSLR, the Canon 300D. That camera did a lot to improve my entertainer skills, because when shooting a model, after 3-4 frames, the internal memory would clog up, and it would take the camera a minute or two before I could shoot new photos – and I had to bridge that time-gap with small-talk and jokes.
TBA: So you were both an involuntary photographer AND entertainer? Wow, life’s really been rough on you! (laughs). But how did you get from product photography to shooting models and what you’re doing today?
MD: The first product photos we shot were not cut out like today, they were shot on a plastic mannequin. It looked awful. So we upgraded to using “live” models, which we recruited from among the customers of our shop. One of these models, after a long session shooting gothic clothing for the shop, asked me if I’d mind shooting one or two sexy photos of her, a little surprise gift for her boyfriend.
So I shot her topless wearing nothing but a pair of shiny hotpants and her vampire fangs (made by Father Sebastian of Clan Sabertooth, btw), and edited in some very kitsch gothic windows background, with the limited Photoshop skills I had back then. I made a nice glossy 20 x 30 print of it, and gave it to her at the next gothic party we both attended.
I was very discreet, showing her the photo, because you know, topless and all, so I was very respectful of her modesty and wanted to make sure nobody else saw her boobs on celluloid. “Awesome” she yelled, and then proceeded to show the photo to pretty much everyone in attendance (so much for worrying about discretion). During the course of the evening, another girl came to the table where I was having a glass with friends, and asked me if I’d mind shooting her too, she wanted to hire me for some beautiful nudes. And one shooting led to the next, word-of-mouth propaganda, a chain reaction of sorts, and that’s how it all started.
TBA: So it was a sort of natural evolution?
MD: Exactly, it was not premeditated or planned, it sort of just happened. Evolution is actually a very good word to describe it, because I am not a learned photographer, I never took classes, I learned by doing, as I went along. So my whole art and work did evolve down the timeline, every new model I worked with influenced me, I learned from every session, and the lessons learned would then flow into the next session, and so on.
TBA: Did that also influence your equipment? Or does equipment not play any role in the creative process?
MD: There is a saying in music that a good guitarist can play a brilliant solo on a crappy guitar, meaning it’s more about talent than about equipment, and I’d like to believe that this is true for photography too. Really talented photographers can create unique photos with very little equipment. But to be honest, having crappy lights or cameras can limit you, like I mentioned earlier, about the slow Canon D300. Imagine your model is striking THAT pose you were trying to achieve, her pose is spot on, her expression too, you press the shutter release and nothing happens because the internal memory of your camera is full. By the time it’s ready for the next frame, the magic moment is gone, and it will not come back. Very frustrating!
And regarding lights, at the beginning I used to work with constructions lights, like so many other amateurs. It’s really hard light, with harsh shadows, and it’s physically demanding, as the model is continuously blinded, and it’s really really hot too. Having real flash heads is so much easier for everyone, the model is not blinded, you can adjust exposure to your needs, especially if you work with a flash meter like I do, you have a wide range of light modifiers at your disposal – you have more choices, more possibilities. Let’s take concert photography, for example, you need a fast lens and high ISO, with as little noise as possible. Concert photography might be about talent, like Ross Halfin, who is the god of live photography; but without adequate equipment, even his live photos would be nothing but dark, blurry blobs.
So my conclusion would be, equipment can’t replace talent, but it gives you more creative freedom and makes life easier for both model and photographer.
TBA: So talking about equipment and models, what equipment do you currently use, and what are you looking for in the models you work with?
MD: Okay, let’s start with the equipment. A couple of years back I switched from Canon to Nikon, and have been using Nikon ever since. I use a D700 body which I tether to my computer, so I shoot direct-to-disc in studio. I also have a D200 backup body, just in case. My lenses are Nikkor lenses, I don’t use any of the Nikon compatible lenses by Tamron or Sigma; I had some on my Canon, but there were lots of compatibility issues, and I don’t want to risk that again. My favorite lens is my 85mm portrait lens, it is so crisp and sharp, it has beautiful bokeh, it’s really a charm!
Other than that, I use Bowens Gemini Pro flash heads and light modifiers, various soft boxes, snoots, reflectors, etc… I also use a Sekonic flash meter, which I would recommend to every ambitious photographer who wants to learn and progress. I bought mine only two years ago, and I really regret not having bought one earlier. Like so many others, I was happy with the exposure measuring function of my camera, but a flash meter is so infinitely better, getting to measure exact exposure, ratios, ambient light… I have learned and progressed so much since I bought my Sekonic L-358, some of the best money I ever spent.
As for the software I use, no surprise, I use Photoshop, CS5, as I have not yet come around to buy the CS6 upgrade, although I have been wanting the new, dark interface badly. And I also use Lightroom 4, which is simply amazing software, it has awesome library features, I do all my development in Lightroom before retouching in Photoshop, and I really love the new Blurb interface. And Adobe has cut price on this software too, it’s 50% cheaper than what Lightroom 3 did cost, so it’s a no-brainer, go and buy it.
TBA: And the models, how do you chose them, what qualities are you looking for?
MD: Personality. That is the number one thing I look for. Personality, attitude, which hopefully translates into a unique look and style. Because of my own tastes, I do of course have a preference to models from the dark scene, you know, gothic clothing, fishnets, safety pins… I am really fond of the Batcave and Death Rock looks, but my personal tastes also include the fetish aesthetics, pin-up and rockabilly, and ink, I love tattoos and piercings.
Other than that, I expect my models to be creative and part of the creative process, I like to bounce ideas around, and expect them to make suggestions too. I don’t want to direct every little detail of a pose, where to put your hand, how to tilt your head, models should do that automatically, I need that to create a flow. In a great shooting, all I need to say is “lovely, perfect, beautiful” and of course “chin up” – that’s the one phrase I think all people photographers say a few thousand times in their life (laughs).
I also don’t look for physically perfect models, I have no rules regarding size, weight or BMI, I don’t care about that, I don’t care about small or large breasts, I don’t care about how long your legs are or how slim your waist is, self-confidence and feeling well in your body is far more important. I have worked with physically perfect girls who ere so insecure about themselves, and I prefer a less perfect model that rocks her own look, who is at ease with herself, that is far more sexy.
You need to love yourself to be good at modelling, you need a high opinion of yourself, and maybe a little bit of exhibitionism too, that doesn’t hurt either.
TBA: You say, you don’t need your models to be physically perfect – so what do you think of beauty retouching, a common practice in photography?
MD: I have mixed feelings about retouching. I think it is the duty of the photographer to make the model look as good as possible, but where to draw the line. The tricky thing about a photo is that you will look at it much longer than you would look at the person in real, you will stare at details in a way that would be rude in real life. So imperfections like pimples and scars will strike you as much stronger on a photo. This is something I’d correct.
I retouch photos only to get the model to look as beautiful as I perceive her. I want to portray the reality as I perceive it, which might require me to enhance it a little. I do however not completely change a person, like many magazines do, that is ridiculous. The over-abuse of liquefy filters to shave of weight, the over-abuse of glow and blur to smooth skin, I don’t believe in that.
TBA: How about the themes of your photos, how do you chose what to shoot, which outfits to use?
MD: That can happen in several ways, usually I have a few dozen rough ideas in head, very basic concepts that are then “refined” in collaboration with the model. It’s an exchange of ideas, prior to shooting. Sometimes these ideas change spontaneously during the shoot. This is particularly true for the outfits themselves, as the models also bring some of their own clothing, which might make me change some of the props and outfits around. Inspiration often also comes from clothing I shoot for the gothic shop; as you know, I shoot all the product photos, and often there are items that make me think “I need too shoot that with this model, with these accessories, that will look awesome”. Which actually is the biggest perk of working in the gothic clothing industry, lots of great clothes to pick from.
TBA: Come on, fess up, is that the real reason why you initially created The Black Angel online shop, to have more items to pick from? (laughs)
MD: (laughs) Could be! But actually I only started photography while in the middle of creating the online shop, so it was not premeditated. But it’s true that it’s nice to have a huge choice of items to pick from. I try to not abuse our own stock too much though, which is not easy, with all the beautiful things surrounding me daily. Very distracting, and running an online shop is lots of work, so I don’t get to shoot as often as I’d like, which is why I have to limit myself, and only pick clothing from the shop for the truly exceptional models and shootings.
TBA: It is indeed a lot of work, so why did you start an online shop to begin with? And what is your particular role, in the creation, in the day-to-day business?
MD: Luxembourg is a very small country, one of the smallest in the world. So the local gothic scene is obviously quite limited, we’re only half a million people, so we maybe have a hundred goths, maybe two. Even before we had and online shop, we would have customers from abroad coming to our store, and it quickly became obvious to us that we would need to be international if we wanted to exist in the long run. That’s why we started an online shop. That, and because we were unhappy with available mailorder options, some of these companies were notorious for bad service. Professionalism was a taboo, like a bad word. And we wanted to change that. It was our goal from day one, provide great quality, and great service. I think we have succeeded nicely, and still continue to try and improve, every day.
Now my particular role in this was the business background and technological know-how, I have always been “gifted” with computers, and I had created the first official band page for Pronoian Made, before even joining the band. But I had no clue on how to create a functional online shop, yet I sat down an did it, by trial an error. I can be quite stubborn, which is helpful in this kind of situation. Basically I created the website from scratch, the layout, the whole content, and I keep doing that even today. I am the master of all the content you see on The Black Angel.
TBA: What were the major hurdles to overcome, the biggest obstacles?
MD: Well, the biggest obstacles were not really knowing what I was doing at the beginning, there are lots of things to consider when you run an online shop, it goes far beyond just picking some cool gothic clothes and putting them online, it’s not that easy.
There’s the whole technological side, which type of server to use, which hosting company, which cart software, which content management, which payment processing company… we tried to work with local companies to begin with, but we quickly realized it just wasn’t an option, there was no knowledgeable IT company around that dealt in e-commerce. It was no man’s land, and we were pioneering this very business.
We were one of the first two-three companies to actually have a functional online shop, and we were definitely the first company to really do business on an international level. Over 99% of our customers are outside of the country, and over 50% are outside of the EU. We do of course now have company HQ’s for Amazon, Apple and Paypal here in Luxembourg, but it’s only offices and they’re here for tax reasons. We are the first national company to have success abroad, while based here in Luxembourg. And that makes me quite proud.
TBA: Okay, final question: where can people see your work?
MD: Besides visiting The Black Angel gothic shop? (laughs) I have an official website, which I unfortunately update much less frequently the the store, but I also have a Facebook page, I am on deviantArt, Model Mayhem and Model Kartei. And did I already mention The Black Angel gothic shop? LOL