One of the most annoying questions creative people get asked is “Where do you get your ideas from?” Well here is the secret. You sit down and concentrate and think them up and sometimes it is a long and convoluted process.
I get my ideas from looking at other photographs, looking at film, television, art, radio and walking through my life with my ears and eyes open.
My preferred location for thinking up ideas has always been sitting or lying on my bed. I especially engage in it the day before a shoot. I generally do it early in the evening before I get tired or I will fall asleep. As a photographer, my main source of ideas are other photographs. I keep folders of pictures which I find interesting and sketchpads in which I jot down ideas. When I am in need of one, I start by flicking through these. Even if there are no ideas in them I can adapt, the colour or atmosphere of a picture can help focus my mind. I might even start associating ideas. One thing will remind me of something else which in turn will remind me of another thing.
Sometimes I might take two ideas and put them together. I once saw an illustration of a man lying on a tiled floor in a pool of blood. A couple of weeks later I saw a picture of an oversized paper boat floating in a street puddle. It immediately occurred to me you could float the boat in the pool of blood. It is macabre but could easily be the mark of a serial killer. Sometimes I get ideas strolling along the street. A woman is walking along pushing a pushchair. The baby drops the dummy and the mother picks it up and puts it in her mouth to suck the germs off it. That’s an idea for a picture I have yet to take. I also like to frequent shops that sell cheap tat and kitschy decorations. In one of those I once found small round mirrors, that were selling two for £1. I bought six and they inspired a project. [Here]
You should do a lot of walking but with your eyes open. If you drive or take a taxi everywhere, you are not going to see much. You are not going to take in that interesting window display or find that object in a charity shop that will spark an idea for a photograph.
Another place I go for inspiration are my local libraries and especially the craft section. There are books there on home decoration, quilting, needlework, making lampshades, wire jewellery, painting furniture, sculpting with bread dough and all sorts. Looking through a book on how to make decorative frames, I thought, what if I made a frame in the shape of a face and had a woman looking into it? Then I thought about having objects reflected in it to recreate the facial features. I did not have the skill or the inclination to actually make one but came up with the simpler solution of just drawing in marker pen on a mirror. This led to another project. [Here]
In the same library another time, I was looking through a large compendium of photographers, when I saw a photograph of a man counting a large pile of coins on a table. The piled coins suggested the shape of a man to me. I went off to the bank with a backpack an got £50 worth of two pence coins. They were pretty heavy. I taped some newspaper together, got someone to draw around me, cut out my shape and used it as a template for the coins.
After I come up with an idea, I then have to find a location but sometimes a location itself may suggest a picture. I will stare through the camera and try to imagine what might be enacted within the frame, as in this picture of a boat. I got on a train from London to Brighton on the south coast and rode about 60 miles along the coast to Hastings, in order to find a suitable boat. I had been commissioned by a shoe designer and had the idea of a leg sticking out of a boat. On seeing the boat, I realised that the leg could not stick out as I had first imagined it and had to work out another way.
I’ll let you into a little secret. There is one thing you may not have noticed when looking at my pictures, and it is my lighting is only adequate. I use a flash gun off camera a lot of the time, or a small 1000W video light and rarely do I use a reflector. If I have to, I may use a second light as well. My reason is great lighting does not matter in my pictures.
Years ago, I was worrying about the quality of the printing of my black and white photographs. I was thinking of toning them. I had seen great examples of toning but I could never make up my mind whether mine should be warm or cool or some other colour. It was then that I visited a Larry Clark exhibition at the Photographers Gallery in London. His prints had dust marks on them and no attempt was made at spotting them. It is the only time I have seen such a thing from a professional photographer. After a while, the content of the pictures was captivating enough that the distraction of the dust spots, diminished to the extent, that they no longer mattered. In that moment I came to the realisation that if the content or ideas in your pictures are powerful enough, you do not have to selenium or gold tone them. You do not even need great lighting because the power of the content of the image will carry all before it. I say it was a realisation, but it was not exactly that because it was something I had intuitively figured out at the very start of my photography but had never articulated to myself in those terms.
Listening to the News Quiz one day on BBC Radio 4, the late humourist, Alan Coren, made a joke about hair being stuck to soap in the shower and spelling words. The idea was so absurd and intriguing that I thought I would give it a try. I ran through some appropriate words I could stick to the soap. Words with round letters seemed problematic, plus the word had to be short. In the end I settled for “FILTH”. The soap in my bathroom had worn down to the right amount. I wet it and cut off some of my pubic hair and stuck it on the soap.
Years previously, Radio 4 gave me another idea. There was a late-night programme called Sex in the Head, where people told of their sexual fantasies. A woman described how she liked her partner reading his newspaper by the light of a candle stuck in her vagina. That image stayed with me and two years later I took the picture but substituted a book of philosophy for the newspaper and entitled it The Philosopher Illumined by Candlelight. I lit the scene with five candles and the light from a television set.
One device I frequently use is unusual perspective. My standard lens is a 28 mm wide angle which aids in this particular approach. A wide angle gives more depth of field and allows you to stack subjects in a frame, or distort foreground objects and play with scale. Amongst other things, I have used the technique to make women’s torsos disappear behind their arses and make two women appear as one.
Another technique I used to use long before the popular use of computers, was double exposure. With the use of a Cokin filter holder and two squares of black card, I would take one half of the frame and then the other. On one occasion I even managed a triple exposure in this shot for a designer. Years later I resurrected the technique for the first of my succubus pictures. I do them all on computer now as it is more flexible.
I don’t sleep well at night and I find if think about a visual problem late into the evening, I’ll fall asleep then become half-awake early in the morning while it is still dark and I will start thinking about it again. I have come up with some very good ideas in this state. Ideas sometimes come to me out of the blue but generally I have to work for them. The process of coming up with them is almost as satisfying as realising them with a good picture.
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.