It all started with a disposable camera. San Francisco-based photographer Rob Prideaux kicked off his career in 1999 snapping shots of friends and parties with dime-store equipment. When the first affordable point-and-shoot digital models came out in the early ’00s, Prideaux made the switch, taking “about 10,000 pictures” in his first year, most of which he describes as “really quite bad.” It wasn’t until 2002, when he started assisting editorial photographer Thomas Broening, that Prideaux really began to hone his skills and discovered a knack for conceptual and product photography, particularly images that “tell visual jokes in still life.” Now an established commercial photographer who has shot for Google, Wells Fargo and Sephora, among others, Prideaux’s true passion sparks in the series Smoke & Fire, a growing collection of striking images of kaleidoscopic smoke and blooming bursts of fire, all frozen against a pristine, white background.
When did you first start experimenting with smoke and fire in photography?
The smoke was actually first, and that was probably about five years ago. I was shooting still life of firecrackers, and I thought it would be nice to have a little more life in the still. So I started adding tendrils of smoke to the firecracker still lifes. I had all this smoke that I had shot independently, and I started to manipulate it. Basically just cleaning it up and carving out shapes, and then getting into those kind of mandala patterns. Then I actually set it aside for about three years. But then, for some reason, I dug out all those frames that I had shot of smoke and started sort of a meditative practice of each morning, for about fifteen minutes, I would select a frame of smoke, and then I would work with it, trying not to think very much. Just letting my hand do all the processing. In photography, especially in commercial photography, it can be difficult to let the creative process go, because you have all these constraints, and it’s difficult to just kind of be unfettered. And so, this was an answer to all of that. Like, how can I just let the creativity flow and not really think about deadlines or goals or advertising or marketing or anything like that? I did that for about three months, basically just fifteen minutes every day, and most of the smoke pictures are a result of that.
Fire is a very different process, but it kind of started the same way. I needed fire for another photograph that I was making, and I figured that I would just find some stock footage or have a CGI artist create it for me. But I needed it to be on a white background, and I couldn’t find anything that looked any good. It all looked either really amateurish or really, really schmaltzy. So I figured I would just do it myself. And that turned into a pretty long process of experimentation to get the effects that I get now. It’s funny, because whenever buyers or editors look at my book, they get to the section that has the fire, and they go, “Whoa!” And they stop, for like four seconds, and then they just resume flipping pages. They’re totally stunned by the work, but they can’t figure out what they would ever do it. So I spent all this time making these beautiful abstractions, and now I’m in the process of taking it back to the ground level and figuring out how this can be used. It’s kind of my responsibility to show people how it can be used, to light a fire under them, so to speak.
Walk us through the process of a fire shoot. What does it entail?
I think the first thing is that, much like photographing children, you have to resign yourself to the fact that you can only control it so much. The baseline is to make sure that I have enough people around for safety. We shoot in the loading bay of my studio, which is all steel and cement, so there’s not much risk of fire. And we don’t use very much fuel at all. Aside from the Christmas tree that we burned, the volume of fuel is incredibly tiny, like milliliters at a time.
The process of shooting is actually pretty chaotic. I use a device called a wave sensor, which is an automatic trigger for the camera. The wave sensor can key off of sound, so for the fireballs we figure out the right delay between when the gasoline explosion makes a sound and when we should have the camera. And then of course the camera fires the strobes and everything happens on one take. Before, I used to get like one useable fireball for every six or seven frames, and now with the wave sensor it’s one-for-one, and every frame has something usable in it.
Camera-wise, we’re using a Canon 5D Mark II. We stay in the digital SLR range because I shoot these with the highest shutter speed that I can find, so that I can freeze the fire. Unlike with traditional photography where you can freeze motion using strobe, my subject here is one of my light sources. I would prefer to shoot with a medium-format camera so that I could get more pixels and more sharpness, but the leaf shutter just isn’t fast enough.
On your blog, you talk about how the Smoke & Fire series was in large part a reaction to the prevalence of retouching in contemporary art and photography. What do you see as the ideal role of Photoshop and other retouching software in photography?
Well with Smoke & Fire, the presentation is a little muddy, because the smoke work is heavily manipulated, and I think that’s pretty obvious, but the fire work is hardly manipulated at all. The fact is that the reaction, especially among non-professionals, is immediately, “Oh, that’s Photoshopped,” for everything, all together. And it’s understandable, because we live in this world that’s awash in images right now, and the vast majority of those images are retouched, some more heavily than others. As to what I think is the role of Photoshop, I think the ideal is to use retouching as subtly as possible and only when necessary. There’s a lack of discipline, I think, in contemporary photography. One, because digital shows you what you’re getting right away; two, because it’s easy to say, “Oh, we’ll fix it in post-.” Everything gets kind of abstracted and disassociated, and the process can get corrupted. Obviously there are images that are the result of heavy manipulation or compositing that are really compelling and beautiful and authentic, but most of the time what we get is a kind of over-engineered sterility. For me personally, my aim is to make as much of the image as possible on set, with everybody who’s there: the thing and the set and the camera and the lights, and everybody’s all there together.