The L.A. photographer's fantastic set designs and multiple exposures elevate even the most mundane subjects to heroic proportions.
Young Kate Turning's fantasy-fueled work was a bit too fashion-forward for the U.S. market in the late 1980s.
In those days, Turning was working as a newly minted photographer in the fantasy-friendly pop music industry, and her work was selling well. But she didn't want to be limited to record packages, promo shots and posters.
To move on to the big leagues, the studio specialist needed to take a daring step. "I had to leave America to truly find my voice," Turning explains from her Los Angeles studio, where she is enjoying a brief pause before jetting off on another assignment.
"It is very important to develop a personal style" in order to succeed in the hyper-competitive world of photography, she says, and young photographers must make it a priority to nurture and enhance their own true inner voice. "My style is very fantasy oriented, and so I was having trouble getting out of the music world, where a fantasy approach was accepted and admired."
So as soon as school was done, the Art Center College of Design graduate packed her bags and moved — first to Milan, where she did editorial work, and then Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan, where she began doing advertising work. (She continued to work in the States too, mainly in Los Angeles, but also in New York.)
The dramatic mixture of locales energized and inspired Turning, and she recommends this tactic for other fledglings in the industry.
"I always tell kids to leave where you came from and go to Europe and do magazine work," she says. "Or go to Mexico City or South America — wherever your heart leads you. Shoot a project in Mumbai.... It's all just as close as your nearest airport."
Wasn't this jet-setting approach terribly daring for a young woman just starting out as a professional? "No, it is just the sort of thing you do when you're young," she says, reflecting something of her bold personality.
She regards her globe-trotting as not much more disruptive than a trip to the mall.
"It was all about growth," she explains about her need for travel. "Europe and Asia were more receptive to fantasy-themed work at the time. I've found that the bolder, newer concepts tend to start overseas, and then they eventually come here."
If Turning's work strikes the viewer as being, well, quite bold and dramatic, that's the main idea.
The 45-year-old studio and fine-art photographer not only creates surprisingly complex and imaginative work for mega-clients such as Procter & Gamble and Bacardi, but also takes a bigger-than-life approach in accomplishing these flights of fantasy.
"I am deeply inspired by the archetype of the hero," she explains. "My artistic goal is to hold up a mirror to the beauty and heroism that exists in people — creating that heroic ideal in imagery. Call it larger than life or hyper-real, it's an aesthetic [that] I think has a lot of value to put out in the world."
She makes a key distinction, however, adding that her work isn't about the everyday heroism so often depicted by portraitists. Turning is interested in the mythical heroic nature, which she terms the "Joseph Campbell heroic archetype ... the brighter and shinier heroic figures that people aspire to."
Turning says she even tries to extend this idealistic thinking into her everyday work environment. She says she strives always to treat everyone with "a harmonious, upwardly lifting vibe" in her studio.
Turning spends weeks in planning and preproduction for each shoot, working closely with ad-agency art directors and with her longtime staff producer and husband, Steve Jacobi. She also orchestrates assignments with "a small group of very skilled stylists, set builders, retouchers and scenic painters, all on a project-by-project basis, to help me achieve my particular vision for an image."
However, photography "is a service industry," she notes pragmatically. "I want to realize my client's vision as well as my own. So we storyboard everything out before we shoot, and collaborate with the art directors so that everyone's head is wrapped around a concept first. We have multiple meetings; we lay out and detail storyboard elements, props, effects — everything."
She wouldn't have it any other way. "I love the collaborative aspect of photography. I'm inspired when an art director gives me a gem of an idea and allows me to enlarge upon it and then really bring it to life."
Things don't get any less complex when she walks onto the studio floor.
Turning is intensely focused on the importance of production for the big, bold style of imaginative work for which she is known. A typical shooting session involves a crew of 15 to 25 people, sometimes as many as 30.
The studio days can be multitudinous and long. And then comes postproduction, which can take a week to a month, depending on the clients' needs and schedules.
"I'm a bit of a perfectionist, and I feel the production aspect of creating an image is just as important as casting the right model, or even as important as the lighting," she says. "I tie it all together once we are on set."
Shedding some light
For all of Turning's shoots, lighting is the key, and it is "highly, highly complex," she says. All the lighting is done in camera, rather than being manipulated in post. About a half dozen assistants are on lighting duty alone to carry out her plans to the letter.
This task is made even more challenging because her images are often complex composites. (She has described some of her work as "frothy Rossini bonbons.") The lighting all has to match when the multiple images are assembled in post.
"I don't think one can create an image in post out of whole cloth," Turning says. "One has to think ahead, plan everything carefully, and create the magic and integrity of the image in camera." And that, of course, means getting the on-set lighting exactly right. "I think it gives the final composed image a much more seamless, organic quality that enchants and inspires the viewer."
She normally spends a few days fully composing the final image in low resolution, then turns it over to the retoucher she's chosen, along with a set of highly detailed instructions.
"I choose who I want to work with for each project. Every retoucher or studio has their forte, and I'm fortunate enough to work with several with a variety of skills," she says. "We usually have a round or two of revisions to really perfect the image, and then we present it in a highly realized form to our client."
So this wildly creative and imaginative artist starts with that most pedestrian of tools: a lighting schematic. She sketches out "what lights will go where, at what power, long before I ever step into the studio."
It's simply a necessity. She's working on big-budget shoots, often on large, costly motion picture soundstages, so "you do not have the luxury to noodle the lighting around as you might, say, in portraiture."
How many instruments might be on a typical shoot? "Lots and lots; Profoto or Speedotron. Some shoots call for one very concentrated source and some for more varied light sources." Turning works with "the same wonderful crew on a regular basis," which makes the often-intricate lighting setups go more smoothly.
Real is better
While much of Turning's work is heavily postproduced, composited and manipulated, a surprising number of her more fantastic images unfold fully formed, right in front of her Hasselblads.
For instance, "Balls in the Air," shot for a Nikon campaign, in which a woman juggles balls in the air while balanced on a larger orb, was created using an actual circus performer, who spent a great deal of time balanced on the ball, juggling all the while.
The "Balls" image was all about set design, texture, precisely authentic props and, most importantly, a highly talented acrobatic performer. "The girl was amazing!" Turning notes, with unrestrained admiration. "It was essentially all done in camera," she says, although she also "moved some of the balls a bit" in post.
The entire set was built in the studio by a "fabulous builder I worked with who found old stage wood," she recalls. "I wanted a look like wonderful old New York vaudevillian stages. All the curtains and rings and balls were old vintage props from an old circus. The costume was vintage."
Her decision to use a real performer comes down to verisimilitude. "In post you can make something look amazing," she says. "But when you do it in real life, things like the muscle tension of a performer actually balanced on a ball" work convincingly, in a way that digital manipulation cannot yet reproduce.
This real-is-better philosophy extends even with her postproduction-intensive work, where multiple elements are combined and flourishes added.
However, as much as possible is done "in one," in front of her camera.
Turning has special enthusiasm for the rather amazing images from her long-running Secret Sparkle body spray ad campaign for Procter & Gamble. The campaign has connected with its young female audience intensely, she says, and has run for about six years. Turning has done more than a dozen ads so far.
The image called "Vanilla Chai," showing a model pouring milk and surrounded by shimmering jewels and exotic creatures, may seem at first glance to be entirely created with digital tools. While the sparkle effects and flying objects were added later, Turning says all the main elements — the arch, the volcanoes and the background — were all there on set, with the model doing the pour over her head.
Then there was the leopard seated at the model's feet, which was real and a very big deal, and shot on a whole separate day. "I work a lot with animal elements in my pictures. You can work with them in the main shoot situation, but it tends to take over the shoot," Turning explains."
The cat was as big as a Volkswagen, and his treat for doing the right thing was a whole chicken," she recalls. Shoots with ferocious cats the size of small German cars are "very dangerous," she adds. "My assistant and I had to stand stock-still and let the leopard sniff us. It was scary, but very cool."
And as if it weren't dicey enough working with an animal so unpredictable that it's a threat to its trainer, Turning added more complexity by trying to make the animal go against its nature, to look "sweet and gentle."
Turning elaborates, emphasizing again how often her work is the opposite of portraiture, even when her subject is a jungle cat: "Normally you're trying to capture their innate animal nature, but in a fantasy image you might be going for the exact opposite. That can be frustrating for the trainer and the animal. Usually one would want a leopard to look fierce. I wanted him to look sweet and dip his paw in the cream and lick the paw. That was hard to get the leopard to understand; that he wasn't getting treats for looking fierce."
He eventually got the idea and another whole-chicken treat.
Still, she loves working with animals in surprising ways. "We did another shot for Secret Sparkle with monkeys from the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean' movie, and we had them playing ukuleles," she says.
Imagination, daring and an adventurous spirit are the keys to the future for Turning, who today divides most of her time between New York and Los Angeles with her husband.
"I know that people are worried about where our industry is headed, with the rise of stock houses [and] an increase in CGI and other digital techniques being used by potential clients," she says. Still, she adds, no matter what new hardware, software or shooting technique comes along, "at heart, a good photographer is an artist, and that singular creative vision can't be easily replaced."
IN THE LOUPE: Kate Turning
Studio locations: The Los Angeles area. Turning rents studios as needed, including motion-picture soundstages for her larger-scale projects. She once had her own shooting space, but it has been converted into a postproduction studio.
Major clients: Bacardi, A&E, Bausch & Lomb, Honda, Kodak, Luxor Resort & Casino, Miller Brewing, Nikon, Palms Resort & Casino, Playboy magazine, Procter & Gamble, Sony.
Favorite cameras: Hasselblad film cameras with Phase One P 45 backs and Hasselblad H2 digital cameras. "I use large-format, up to 8x10, when it is called for and it suits the assignment," she says. "You can't beat the aesthetics of large format, working deliberately and slowly. That is close to my heart."
Film vs. digital: "I was 50/50 film and digital until a year or two ago. I still enjoy the process of film; it has a much more organic look. I still use film for personal projects and for special projects. For the last two years I've been pretty much 100 percent digital. It's not even a conversation [with my clients] anymore."
Photographic heroes/inspirations: Painters in a wide range of styles, from the Old Masters to pop art. "The best ones really teach you how to see and control light: Delacroix, Maxfield Parrish, Francisco Clemente," she says.
On being a woman in a male-dominated business: "To me, it's been a nonissue. My work speaks for itself."
Website: For more of her work and rep contacts, see turningpix.com.