Born in Munich, Germany, Steven Meyer-Rassow spent his youth living in various parts of the world before settling as a teen in Oxford, England. He then earned a degree in graphic design from Central St. Martins in London. With mastery in both digital photography and photocompositing, it’s unsurprising that his works have been featured in Advanced Photography and Digital SLR Photography magazines and appeared as album and book cover art. He was named a Photographer of the Year 2010 by DigitalSLR magazine for his triptych photography. His violently evocative digital photo compositions comprise a litany of destruction and dysfunction, betraying a taste for the macabre (and pork). Steven still calls Oxford home but travels extensively with his wife, Jess, cameras always at the ready. He can be found online at smrphotoart.com.
Did you start in photography or in graphic design?
I guess when I first started out, graphic design was my predominant area of interest, although I started taking photos round about the same time. My interest began after finishing school and going on to do an art foundation program, a one-year course here in the UK that sets students up for a degree in the creative arts. I was introduced to the whole notion of graphic design and photography at the same time. This was back in 2000, when photography in colleges was still very much taught on 35mm film SLRs and with darkroom techniques. I feel privileged to have had the experience at the time as it taught me valuable lessons on how to operate an SLR—back then we were shooting on Pentax K-1000s and everything was a very manual process. It taught me the correlation between film speed (ISO), shutter speeds, and aperture, and to this day, I pretty much shoot ninety-eight percent of my work in full manual mode on my Canon 5DMkII.
But initially it was graphic design that fueled my creative efforts, and I went on to study the subject on degree level at Central St. Martins in London, UK. Long story short . . . it took me six years to complete the degree, since I dropped out after the first year to pursue my love of music before returning three years later to finish the last two years of my degree. I bought my first digital SLR in my third year of studies, and I was instantly hooked. Due to my background in graphic design, I was already very much at home with image manipulation and switching over to an all-digital workflow, which allowed the whole process to speed up immensely. Being able to shoot with a visual feedback via the display on the camera and instant transferal of RAW images into Photoshop opened up the doors to digital image making.
Nowadays, my work has shifted more into photography-based image making, but I can’t honestly say that my background in graphic design doesn’t play into my work in a big way. Most of my work is quite conceptual in the way that I usually have a pretty good idea of what the final image should look like before shooting relevant elements. While shooting my elements, I do always keep processing options in the back of my mind, so realistically photography and manipulation/processing are not only of equal importance to me, but definitely help define one another.
All in all I have been working with digital art of sorts for about three years now. I started back in 1999 with Photoshop 4, and scanning negatives and prints from 35mm SLR cameras. Christ, when I think about it that kind of makes me sound like dinosaur.
For your photo compositions and digital art, you photograph as much of the originating images and textures as possible yourself, rather than relying on stock libraries. This seems like quite a lot of work. Why do this—that is, what is the benefit to you or to the work? Do many other artists in your discipline work this way?
To me it’s important in taking ownership of my work, and I think it also helps define a personal style. When shooting my own photography, I can control everything in accordance with the brief, so lighting, composition and models are chosen rather than using stock images, which inevitably means making sacrifices one way or another.
There was a point a couple of years ago when I got quite focused on my processing techniques to the point where I honestly considered concentrating on that part of my workflow entirely and simply keeping photography as a snap shot career, but I very quickly realized that I would never be able to fight the urge to try and shoot my compositions myself and also started to see that the desire to drive my Photoshop work also meant me wanting to improve as a photographer. I also really enjoy the technical aspect of studio lighting and understanding the effects it has on subjects and scenes.
The way I see it, the current generation of photo artists sit in three categories. There are those who have a love for the pure art of photography, and don’t really think photography should be “messed” with. Then there are those who concentrate much more on the “art” side and create fantastic scenes and compositions often incorporating very complex illustration and analogue media, but don’t shoot much themselves. And then a lot of us like myself have a genuine passion for both, and one helps define the other. I consider it the best of both worlds.
What is the greatest number of original images you have ended up compositing into a single final work?
Honestly, I don’t keep track of how many source images are used to create a final composition, so it’s hard to put a finger on a particular piece. The whole creative process is based on a vision for a final piece and as such the amount of source images can vary from anything between two and a dozen or more initial photos.
As a result, the amount of time putting a composition together will vary. I’ve never had a problem spending excessive amounts trialling new techniques, so I’m used to sinking a lot of time into a single image. I have also in a way “wasted” a lot of hours, although I tend to think of it more as educational time. These days, I will usually spend about twenty-plus hours on a single image, and that’s just processing time. A lot of time is spent doing cut-outs, masking, dodging and burning and playing with different processing techniques before honing in on finer details, such as weathering effects, lighting, localised sharpening and overall tone and contrast. Add to that the time for conceptualization and photography, projects can often run into more than thirty hours. I’m not sure how other people work, but I find that the process for me almost needs to be quite drawn out in order to allow for a lot of experimentation. Even though the concept dictates the final outcome, there are a lot of tools and processing options available these days, and I think it’s important to keep trying new ideas in order to progress one’s own skills and style.
Many of your works don’t merely suggest a narrative, but drip with it. Do you feel like you are telling stories? And where does this omnipresent dark edge come from? Germany?
That’s a great question! First off, yes, I do feel that some of my images carry a message or an emotion. I often refer to my work as “escapism” in style . . . it ties into a fascination of the concept of reality. I’m amazed at the ability that humans have to look at the same thing but feel very polar emotions, be that through religion, politics, art, language or any channel of communication really. One man’s god is another man’s devil.
To me there’s an importance in seeking out extremes. It helps us define our space and place in the universe. You need to understand the importance of pure black in order to define bright white. As such, I’ve always had an interest in the darker side of art. I realised from a very early stage that close-ups of flowers weren’t going to cut the mustard for me.
I guess a lot of my early inspiration also stems from album cover art. My dad introduced me to artists such as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd. I remember marveling over their cover art, which is something I’ve always found to be a real source of inspiration to me. Artists such as Storm Thorgerson effortlessly managed to bridge the gap between photography, design, and art even back then before the days of digital SLRs and Photoshop.
And although I’ve never really considered it before, maybe my nationality does somehow play into my work as well? I mean some of the traditional children’s bedtime stories in Germany are pretty messed up if you think about it: There’s one called “Struwwelpeter” where in one of the stories there is a kid that suck his thumbs, and when refusing to stop, has his thumbs cut off! Hansel and Gretel? They throw an old lady into her own oven!? The idea that these childhood stories had an impact on my visual output cracks me up, but who knows? It’s got me thinking for sure!
What is your dream project?
It would probably have to be an album cover for a big artist. Someone like Lady Gaga. With a big budget, lots of crew, and tech and an insane concept! I like to aim high.
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