I do not generally do lighting tests for pictures and nearly all my ideas are achieved in one shoot. If I feel a picture fails but it still has possibilities, I may try it again some months or even years later.
For this picture however, I had to shoot it several times in various iterations to get it correct to my satisfaction. It is from a series I did making figures and faces from shadows for a fashion shoot and this was the second and most complex one I achieved.
The idea for the first one came to me when looking in a book of Salvador Dali’s work, I saw a painting of birds in the sky that made a face. I had already started shadows. My first idea was to make a mobile of the birds and suspend it somehow but keep the elements motionless when shooting. That seemed to require too much ingenuity but then I came up with the simple idea of using thin wire stuck in plasticine to elevate them above the tabletop. I cut the birds out of card, painted them, projected the shadow on the wall, then shot them as a still life.
I bought a pale blue toy horse from a charity shop many years ago and it stood in a cupboard as decoration. I noticed it for the first time in a long while. It occurred to me that if I traced around it and dissected the horse, I could space out the separate pieces and project them as a whole horse in shadow form. To create the shadow I used a small 1,000W video light at 45 degrees. I shot it as a still life but when I saw it, for me there was not enough going on in the image. I needed to add something more. What it could be, I did not have a clue. Sometime later I was going through the book again and in a small picture entitled, Enchanted Beach with Three Fluid Graces, I thought I saw a tiny but interesting detail in the small picture and got out my magnifier.
Dali, in what he called his Paranoiac Critical Method, painted figures in landscape that resolved into faces. This picture was one of them and the head of the woman featured a horse. The area I was looking at was about 12 x 12mm and through the magnifier all I could see were the dots of the printing screen but managed to make out the features of the face, made out of six loosely sketched human figures plus the horse. For the sake of simplicity and to be different I made my face out of different elements. Mine was going to be made from the cut-outs of a water carrier for the side of the face, two birds for the lips-cum-arms of the rider, a pear for the body and the sun and the moon for an eye and nose. The shadow was going to be both the face of a woman and a woman riding a horse at the same time.
When I came to set up the shot. I found the toy horse was much too low and had to find something to rest it on. I found two books in a plastic bag among others I was preparing to donate to the very charity shop where I had bought the horse in the first place. It was great serendipity that they were a biography, The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali and Men in Love. I shot a third still life afterwards and thought they would be a good basis for a fashion shoot. I approached the now defunct latex and leather style magazine, Skin Two, who gave me the go ahead to do it.
While I was waiting to shoot the fashion story, I was still refining the picture. I tested it during a shoot with a model. She could only see the face after I pointed it out to her. I thought I had to add another element or something to make it more obvious.
Sitting in the reference library looking through a book of Picasso sketches, I came across one of an equestrienne sitting on a horse, one arm up, holding the reigns and another with a riding crop down on the flank of the horse. I became excited when it dawned on me, if I raised the arm holding the crop and gave her puffy leg of mutton sleeves, they could be lips as well as the arms of the shadow rider. I redrew the sketch and replaced the previous picture on the wall. I also painted my cut-outs with gouache. I then did a test shoot with the model I wanted to appear in the final photograph. She brought her own clothes. Looking at the picture, I found that the framed sketch had little visual presence and decided to make it colour and airbrushed it in Photoshop. While I was at it, I replaced the pin toy with a sketch of the face as well, to emphasise various elements in the shadow.
My next challenge was where on earth I was going to get a dress with leg of mutton sleeves? First seen in the 16th century and quite often in Victorian fashion, they were hardly thick on the ground in this day and age. However, I found the outfit in the first fetish shop I went to borrow clothes. It was a great piece of luck. I then did the final shoot, along with four other pictures and was very pleased with the result. In the end I lightened the face of the shadow to give it even more emphasis.
It is one of my favourite pictures. I have never been a minimalist and quite like images that reveal themselves over time. When you return to them you suddenly notice things you missed previously. The experience is like finding money in the pocket of a pair of trousers you have not worn for months. I like all the visual echo that appear in the image. The multiple instances of the horse in various forms as well as the face of the model. The shadow very much looks like her. The books I lifted out of my donation pile fortuitously fit the theme of the work also. Firstly, the inspiration for the photograph, Dali, gets a cameo by way of his image on the spine of his biography. Secondly, the title of the book, Men in Love, in this context, a dominatrix holding a riding crop, speaks of the perversity of the SM community for whom this was commissioned.
Alva Bernadine makes photographs and films. By using themes such as surrealism, sexuality and violence, Bernadine touches various overlapping topics and strategies. Several reoccurring subject matters can be recognised, such as mirrors, shadows, optical effects and representations of the female form. The work is filled with invented surreal scenarios, witty events, troubling scenes from movies that were never made and almost hallucinatory images that invoke narrative, prompting you to imagine what came before or what is about to happen. They are not only about desire but the problems that go with it. Bernadine was born in Grenada, West Indies and grew up on the outskirts of London. He won the Vogue/Sotheby’s Cecil Beaton Award as a young photographer and has since worked for many prestigious magazines and became Erotic Photographer of the Year for his first book, Bernadinism: How to Dominate Men and Subjugate Women.