"My style is derivative of many styles," Van Petten says. "There's a lot of '50s superhero, like Superman or Batman, in the way I approach my work. It also has a futuristic look that's sort of retro: It's futuristic in the sense that it's the way the future was [perceived] in the '50s and '60s."
He cites photographers in the '60s who took a similar tack, like Helmut Newton, though Van Petten admits he's not quite as far out there as the controversial German icon.
"Newton has the right sense of 'absurd chic,' and I always approach my shots with a little bit of that," he says. "I always think, 'How would Helmut do this?' I do want to get sexy, theatrical, and provocative like that in my photographs."
LOTS OF LIGHTS
To illuminate his futuristic photos, Van Petten relies on his varied photographic background and years of experience, especially on strategically placed lights and assistants who position the units with finesse.
"I usually like to use lots of lights from the sides and from behind with colored gels to add accents, giving the photo an otherworldly quality," he explains. "There might be green lights coming in from the side or from the floor, or a purple light from behind the model."
In a creative shot done for Eastman Kodak (this month's SP&D cover image), promoting Kodak Professional's new Color Metallic Paper, Van Petten relied on his lighting savvy to show off the paper's eye-popping, metallic qualities.
"We built a 16-foot long by 8-foot high Foamcore wall as a reflector," he explains. "I had a ringlight as my main light on the camera. Then I bounced four Dyna-Lites with colored gels on them onto the Foamcore wall to give the shot some color and to add little highlight kicks down the side of the model's face and on her clothes."
He finished off the lighting with a top hairlight on a boom over the model's head for contrast ("I'm a sucker for over-the-head toplights: It brings people forward and separates them off the background") and a small grid spot right on the model's forehead, eyes, and nose to brighten up the center of her face.
Van Petten shoots with a Hasselblad for most studio work, whipping out his Nikon F100 when he has to walk around.
"I love Hasselblad stuff; I've used it my whole life," he says. "When I blow up something I've shot with a Hasselblad, it always makes me smile."
He mainly shoots on Kodak Ektachrome, and shoots a lot of tungsten when he wants a bluish effect. His studio is outfitted with Epson 1270 and 1280 printers, a Nikon small-format scanner, and Macs and PCs loaded with Photoshop and his trusty studio management program.
"I use a program by Tim Olive to run photography studios," he says. "I'm trying to run this DOS-based studio management program on my Mac Titanium laptop, trying to do the impossible. I'm working with Tim to get the IBM program to recognize USB."
Van Petten relies on local New York businesses for his film processing and high-quality scanning jobs.