August Bradley is a storyteller whose images are often steeped in fantasy and mystery. In just two years, he has made a name for himself in the fashion industry by creating a style that is both distinctive and thought-provoking. For his top-flight clients, including Ford Models, Jon Wheat Couture, Philthy Ragz, Gaynelle, and West Coast Leather, Bradley creates titillating stories that blend his artistic vision with his client’s brand.
“I’ll come up with a story line that I think is relevant to the client,” he explains. “If it is a commercial project, I’ll relate it to the company and brand; if it’s an artistic project, it will be more relevant to a specific theme.”
Like his images, Bradley escapes any hard and fast definition of his artistry by breaking stereotypes. “I don’t define myself as a fashion photographer. I define myself as a conceptual photographer, but I have, to a large degree, applied that to fashion.”
Creating a Story
A common theme in his pictures is a sense of irony, which is brought together by his use of contrasting elements. For example, Bradley’s “Ghost Series,” taken at a ghost town by the Nevada border in Eastern Sierra, California, for Runway Boutique in L.A., features models draped in loose, boutique-styled dresses, standing in ravished rooms and dilapidated houses (p. 25).
“Environments contrasting with either the wardrobe or the mood of the models is a big part of what I like to bring into my story,” says Bradley. “The dresses in those pictures are very simple, light, and fun, but the environment is harsh and certainly not what you would expect.”
To heighten his pictures’ almost voyeuristic appeal, Bradley directs his models to look away from the camera lens.
“Very infrequently will I have a model looking at the camera, because when a model is looking into the camera she’s acknowledging another person, the viewer or the photographer. I like the idea of the model being in a story independent of us, which is unusual for fashion. Conventional wisdom is to engage the viewer, but what I do is create a moment that is unraveling in its own right, that isn’t controlled, even though it is.”
Not an advocate of “heroin chic,” Bradley prefers a sense of introspection and thoughtfulness rather than a detached or bored look in his model’s face. He explains, “I like them to be strong and healthy, so that they literally glow.”
Bradley narrates his story through dramatic lighting. “My lighting is very unnatural, especially the outside shots. I use the same lighting whether I’m in the studio or on location, but it becomes less natural outside. I’m not trying to re-create reality—I’m trying to do something that looks hyper-real.”
In order to construct this “illustrated look,” he concentrates on geometric shapes and angles. “With the lighting, I use really extreme angles in terms of where I place the light. The shadows fall very aggressively. I don’t use a lot of fill light, so the shadows go really dark. I like deep blacks,” he explains.
A self-proclaimed micromanager, Bradley says he likes to control every aspect of his shoot and leaves nothing to chance. “I am not going to leave the lighting to fate and to what is going on outside. If I’m shooting outside, either I’m finding a shot in the shade so I can overpower it with my strobe, or I’m building giant scrims to block the sun. I want to control every element.”
To achieve a smooth gradient from his bright lights to his darks, he uses soft lighting modifiers for skin. “If it’s a client who has a product to show, I want the product well-lit, so that means I’ll have a lot of spotlights on it. I’ll use snoots and some kind of shaper, placing it strategically all over the clothes.”
Retouching for Contrast
A large part of Bradley’s craft is his ability to create enigmatic images through elaborate retouching. He takes extensive measures for image security before he begins to “play” with his pictures in Photoshop. He saves four copies of every image, saving on his hard drive and on cards, on- and off-location.
“Once it’s all backed up, I start looking at the images immediately, because clients have their own deadlines for getting their print materials to advertising distribution or catalogs, etc.”