By Janet Alexander – Photos courtesy of the artist
“Naked Forrest” August 31st, 2012
I arrive at Rebecca’s East Williamsburg residence at 9:47 a.m. for a 10 a.m. call time.
Shoot preparations have already been underway for the past hour, with two of Rebecca’s assistants, Natalie and Cari, testing equipment and picking up food, respectively. “Hey, can you socialize this?” Rebecca asks her third assistant, Kelly, who is apparently responsible for capturing behind-the-scenes photos for Rebecca’s Twitter, Facebook, website, Instagram, Vimeo, and tumblr. Meanwhile, a fourth assistant, Josh, is taking a final inventory of gear. In spite of the delegations, Rebecca maintains a decidedly juvenile demeanor. “I guess fuck it—it is what it is—the sun is being an asshole,” she exclaims in response to Cari mentioning the ominously overcast sky. Rebecca has lived in this house for four years and has been shooting out of it for the past two. Her studio is her office is her bedroom. “A studio is more legitimate, but I have everything I need here, and it’s more comfortable and chill,” she says. Taking a look around the living room, Rebecca’s work is displayed as photography canvas prints on the sun-yellow walls of her living room. It’s a subtle commentary on the artistic merit of photography that I’m not sure even Rebecca herself recognizes.
One by one, the models arrive, and as the 10:15 departure time approaches, Rebecca introduces her motley crew to me. I learn that today marks the sixth time she is collaborating with “makeup artist extraordinaire,” Jennifer Lombardo, a native New Yorker with more than fourteen years of experience and an impressive list of celebrity clientele. I can’t help but notice how the five models seem to vary widely. “Not that many people will get naked without being paid,” Rebecca says. Other essential criteria for the casting call were, “not too long of hair, symmetry and small breasts.” The pervading mood is about as relaxed as can be expected, considering that in less than two hours about half of us will be painting the naked bodies of the other half. Rebecca gushes, “This has never been done before; it’s going to look amazing.” Like nearly all of her work, Naked Forrest is an experimentally creative indulgence in which, “everything has a purpose,” yet has also been spontaneously inspired. In this case, Rebecca received for her birthday two years ago a flip lenticular print, which instantly appealed to her predilection for the kitsch and retro aesthetics of the ‘50s and ‘60s—she addresses me as both “doll” and “hun,” non-ironically.
I’m in the passenger seat of Rebecca’s car, along with Natalie, Josh and “photo equip”—listed on the call sheet as though it were a passenger itself. We’re driving an hour and an half upstate to Harriman, a village located in Orange County, NY, just roughly sixteen miles north of Suffern where Rebecca grew up. Alluding to her Rockland County suburb, she begins, “I came from under a rock,” and after a brief pause, abruptly concludes, “I left when I was able.” Before I follow up, Rebecca mentions, “My family supports me, but they don’t understand what I’m doing.” At the age of fifteen, her parents bought her first camera—a fully manual Minolta X-700—and although she didn’t know how to use it, she took to photography immediately and began working in her local camera store to eventually save up $200 to purchase her own dark room. “I was that girl who carried her camera everywhere,” she recalls. Her enthusiasm carried through a steadfast, self-taught development. “I hid out in the dark room of my high school most of my senior year,” she sheepishly giggles to herself, before off-handedly mentioning that she won a Kodak camera competition, but quickly admits, “I don’t even know why I won.”
By the time she was completing her second year at State University of New York College at Purchase (SUNY Purchase) studying fine art, Rebecca was unimpressed and underwhelmed by her program, which largely consisted of sculpture classes. “It was artsy-fartsy, but not pushing the bar, and there was no business aspect,” she chides. Looking to escape her disappointment, she took a month-long trip to Spain that ignited her photography in an unprecedented way. “I came back with so many pictures that the photography department asked me to contribute to their show.” Rebecca shifted her focus onto photography, becoming obsessed, she describes. Ultimately, her boredom at SUNY culminated with her transfer to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, CA. Rebecca went through three cameras over five years, encouraged by how the school, “promoted the sort of weird shit I was doing.”
Invigorated by a newfound personal and artistic freedom, Rebecca created Ruby Bird Studios, but soon after graduating in 2005 with a BFA in Photography, the business failed to fully materialize. “San Francisco was not a good market for my photography—they were all about lifestyle.” Disconcerting as it may have been, the weird shit Rebecca was doing then has since proven to be a trademark of her imagery, with today’s shoot being no exception. As she explains, “This shoot was inspired by a David Benjamin Sherry art piece—a nude human in a studio covered in stripes.” Rebecca had worked with Sherry when she was a digital retoucher and mentions, “His agency thought he was pushing too far, and I defended him saying that he was entitled to his vision.” At first assisting a studio manager, Rebecca “bs’d” her way into a Junior Retoucher position at the New York studio of Dutch-born photographer, Hans Neleman. Moving on as a Senior Retoucher at retouching and CGI “super boutique,” Impact Digital, Rebecca explains, “I eventually became Managing Retoucher, but it became too much work, with not enough time in the day, and I wasn’t sleeping.” Over the next five years, she gradually transitioned into freelancing, dedicating less time to retouching in favor of more photographing. The landmark moment in her burgeoning photography career came in October of 2010. Aesthetica, a UK-based, bi-monthly art and culture magazine, interviewed her as, “a newcomer to the international photography scene,” and used an image from her Vintage series for their cover, which she credits for inspiring her to pursue photography as a career. “I started to believe, ‘OK, maybe I can do this.’” Shortly thereafter, Broncolor requested an image from her Mug Shot series to advertise their Senso light. “By photographer Rebecca Handler” would appear in the lower third, but for Rebecca, “I didn’t see myself that way; it was uncomfortable, so I said to just put my name.”
Rebecca suddenly pulls over to the side of the road onto a dusty clearing of gravel. “This is it,” she says. As we wait for the two other cars to arrive, she explains that we are going into a forested pathway beyond the street’s visibility. She deliberately scheduled the shoot on a workday in order to minimize the likelihood of being disrupted or noticed by passers-by. Rebecca directs the models to follow Jenn, who’s begun unpacking MAC clay-based Chromacakes. Speaking from her background in sculpture, Rebecca remarks with a playfully devilish smile, “Models are like creatures—they’re my creation.” She talks candidly about liking to have control, often working as her own art director believing that, “Design draws attention away from the image,” and admits, “I’m a nightmare for stylists.” Rebecca’s work is most often described as “young, edgy and hip,” but she claims that her images reference the past to feel classically timeless. “I’m not looking to be original, I’m just looking to be who I am,” she says. It sounds quotably cliché, but on-set Rebecca seems to be genuinely confounded with herself, expressing a serious commitment to her professional success—“I will not let a shoot fail; that is not an option”—while donning pigtails and a purple streak of Chromacake under each eye. “Ultimately, I’m learning to be a boss,” she says.
It ends up taking three hours to complete painting the models, and just then, with cinematic timing, I hear a police siren in the distance. “Grab the towels,” Rebecca exclaims as she begins to sprint toward the police car, still holding a paintbrush in hand. Office Josefitz has never seen anything like this before. I know because those are his exact words once he steps out of the car. Officer Josefitz received a call that someone had spotted us trespassing. “I’m really sorry, Officer,” Rebecca begins, “I had no idea this was private property.” Officer Josefitz points out that there is a children’s playground just down the hill from where we are. “This is art,” Rebecca assures, after apologizing for a third time. “Tell you what,” a grin begins developing across Officer Josefitz’s face, “if you go down here a little farther, there’s a spot where no one should be able to see you.” Rebecca’s fourth apology and a round of thank you’s from the models and assistants later, and Officer Josefitz leaves having never saw a thing. “I can’t believe I talked us out of that shit storm.” I can’t either.
Rebecca positions each of the models on a different plane of distance to create the illusion of depth essential to a 3D stereoscopic image. Unlike conventional 3D images that require wearing 3D glasses, the change in viewing angle that is necessary to perceive three dimensions of a stereoscopic image is smaller, i.e. it consists of more images. As the camera swings in an arc, it captures one shot for each degree that it moves. Using a Canon 7D, Rebecca crouches beside her tripod and proceeds to manually rotate the camera through ninety-nine tedious degrees of rotation, while Natalie counts each shutter snap aloud. The imprecision is an extension of the rough-and-ready quality of Rebecca’s workflow, which accepts, “Not every shoot is for the portfolio.”
November 16th, 2012
It is mid-November, six weeks later, when I meet Rebecca’s printer, Robert Baumeister, at his Midtown studio, Refined Sight. Rebecca was researching 3D lenticular printers—“I read shit and I’m a Photoshop person,”—when she found him a little more than a year ago. Robert immediately took a liking to her work, explaining, “I love the color saturation; she has a style.” Using a $10,000 Israeli software called HumanEyes, he is attempting to pioneer, “lenticular as fine art that is a retro-revival, not kitsch,” since Rebecca opened up a new creative area for him. Not only is she the only photographer he personally works with, but Robert has yet to charge her for any of the experimental projects on which he’s consulted. She comes to him with ideas, and he tells Rebecca what is possible based on his six years in 3D image production.
Robert explains, “Every lens has a ‘pitch,’ meaning, a viewing distance.” Unfortunately, the pitch is off in the Naked Forrest image, because there is too large of a gap between shots. Hoping to salvage her vision, Rebecca asks if frames from a combination of takes can be mixed and matched. Robert pauses, before sealing the fate of the Naked Forrest shoot. “That’s never been attempted before,” he says definitively. It’s a case in point made, “The only way to do it, is to be in love with it,” Robert concludes. Fortunately, Rebecca organized a second shoot at her apartment in October—a flip lenticular beauty shot of a snow queen character, complete with falling paper confetti snow, which printed successfully. “Simple is always what works best in the end,” Rebecca admits.
WHAT’S A LENTICULAR IMAGE?
A lenticular print is specially designed to work with a lens that consists of individual disc-shaped pieces of synthetic material that produces a particular curvature and thickness, called lenticules. Each lenticule acts like a magnifying glass, enlarging each portion of the image to a relatively unique degree, so that in concert, the lenticules create the entire range of an image’s visual perspective. Because our eyes view graphics at slightly different angles, the lenticular print creates a sense of depth while our brain processes the multiple perspectives in a single 3D image. The lenses are manufactured in various sizes that dictate the overall effectiveness of depth perception. Planning for this kind of image is labor-intensive, expensive, and requires specialized craftsmanship. Because 3D lenticular photographs cannot be retouched, design is crucial to a successful outcome; the image must be appropriately suited to be compatible with the lenses.
Rebecca Handler: www.rebeccahandler.com / Refined Sight: www.refinedsight.com
Article originally published in the Spring 2013 issue of Resource Magazine.