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BEST OF 2013, Thierry Van Biesen
Brooklyn, NY
Project: Conceptual studio shots with models in complex settings to illustrate six different kinds of watches for the April annual issue of Switzerland's Watch Your Time magazine, presenting a different idea, or world, in each image.

© Thierry Van Biesen

© Thierry Van Biesen


Thierry Van Biesen was assigned to illustrate Swiss watches by Watch Your Time, the weekend magazine for major European newspapers. Seeking a technical and conceptual challenge, he decided to create a unique world for each watch without picturing the products.

“I made my images round, matching the watch style with the picture’s general theme — Jewelry, Sport, Diving, Classic, Complication and Astronomical — and using the model’s limbs to tell the time,” Van Biesen explains. “I shot all elements in my studio and added models in post, so lighting was key and postproduction very delicate. Le Monde liked the results enough to feature an image on its cover.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Thierry Van Biesen: I’ve been a professional photographer since 1989.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

TVB: For the past three years.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

TVB: Fashion, advertising, portraiture and art.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

TVB: The obvious answer would be “my eye,” but to be realistic and respond to the materialistic aspect of your question, I’m afraid I’m going to have to say, “my laptop.” I shoot with a wide variety of photographic gear, but all my images go through a fine-tuning and post-production process on my computer.

ASMP: What is unique about your approach, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

TVB: My style playfully emphasizes lightness of being and colors. It ends up lending my images a signature that more often than not is recognizable and hence sets the work apart from other images. As for my approach, I always start with a mind’s-eye image or a daydreaming session of what I want to create, and in more than 90 percent of cases, the second step of the process is a drawing — I don’t draw well, but I need to do it to help me and my team visualize the image I plan to shoot.

ASMP: The Swiss magazine Watch Your Time assigned you to illustrate six different styles of watches for their annual April issue. How did this assignment come about? Had you worked with the magazine or art director before? Were they familiar with your work or did someone refer you?

TVB: I had never worked with the magazine or art director, but my agent in Paris, Angela De Bona, knew them and had been showing them my work, suggesting for a while that they should work with me. They decided I was a good match for this project

ASMP: Who were your primary contacts at the magazine? The art director, the editor? Were the watch manufacturers or designers involved in this assignment?

TVB: The art director was my principal contact. None of the manufacturers were involved. Since this was an editorial shoot budget-wise, I insisted not to show a specific watch, hence not offering any advertising spin-off to a specific brand, and being fair to all. I wanted to concentrate on freely illustrating the concept of every kind of watch, not promote a specific brand over any other.

ASMP: At what point did you come up with the concept of illustrating individual “worlds” to represent each watch instead of using the actual products? While it’s often difficult to identify the genesis of a creative idea, can you share any inspiration or influences that led you to the concept?

TVB: The art director’s brief was to produce one image for each different type of watch. My input was to not turn things into a camouflaged advertising shoot, allowing myself more freedom in the illustration of watch styles, and staying far from any brand needs or specificities. For my inspiration, I spent a few hours with each concept in a relaxed meditative or daydreaming state, to let images come freely to mind, until I managed to compose one single image from these mixed inspirations for each type of watch.

ASMP: Did you present or discuss additional concepts with the magazine’s editor or art director? Had the magazine presented you with any different ideas or approaches to this assignment initially?

TVB: I presented my layouts to the art director, who fully trusted me and left me free to create. There was no one from the client side with us in the studio. Their input came after the shoot, helping me shape the images through a creative and nourishing feedback process.

ASMP: How did you present your idea to the magazine and what was their initial reaction? At what point in the process did you decide on presenting the images in a circular format?

TVB: I presented my drawings, which were in the circular format from the beginning, since part of the concept was to give the images a watch format.

ASMP: Judging from your work overall, compositing plays a substantial role in your style. Please talk about your vision for this and the evolution of this style of image making.

TVB: My images always start as a daydream, which rarely has to do with reality, so compositing came naturally to me since I developed this style of imagery in the early ’90s. At the time, I even went to work as a demonstrator for a company selling retouching systems, just to be able to work and experiment with the system after work hours. Remember that, at the time — 1993 — a retouching station cost around a quarter of a million dollars.

ASMP: Was there anything different about the compositing aspect of this assignment from your past work? Had you done anything similar to this concept previously?

TVB: I’ve never done anything especially similar to these images, but in the principle of illustrating ideas through similarly controlled compositions, I have of course worked on other projects like this. One of them was illustrating the different aspects of palmistry — crystal balls, tarots, runes and the pendulum — for French fashion magazine BIBA.

ASMP: How did you prepare for this shoot? Do you prepare story boards or other materials to evolve your ideas and present work to the client?

TVB: I draw every image on paper and then submit the drawings as a self-contained PDF.

ASMP: How much input did the client have in the pre-production process for this shoot? Since the magazine is based in Switzerland, how did you communicate with the client?

TVB: The client allowed me a lot of freedom here. They approved my drawings and casting choice in one go. All our communication was via e-mail, except for one Skype call to summarize my production ideas.

ASMP: How long did the pre-production process take from the time you were given the assignment until client approval? And from client approval until the actual shoot?

TVB: I don’t remember exactly, but I’d estimate a week to get approval on the concept after I sent the drawings, and a week of preproduction here in New York, working with my stylist Giannie Couji.

ASMP: You photographed the models in your studio and then comped them into the backgrounds. Was the client present during photography? Did you use video conferencing or other remote communication during the shoot or the post-production process?

TVB: The client was not present and there was no feedback sent to them during the shoot.

ASMP: Please describe your set up for the shoot (e.g., background, lighting, etc.) knowing that you were going to composite the elements later. What equipment did you use?

TVB: I had two Profoto heads lighting a 12-by-12-foot grey screen, and three more heads to light my model. Since each lighting situation was very different (I had the backdrop images ready during the model shoot, to create a lighting that would match them), I used a large 7-foot umbrella, snoots, grids and bounce against large 4-by-8 foot V-Flats. The camera I used was my faithful Mamiya RZII with a Phase One P45+ digital back, shooting tethered into my MacBook Pro. I used 110mm, 75mm and 50mm lenses.

ASMP: You mention that lighting was key; what was the biggest challenge when lighting the models? How did you overcome that challenge?

TVB: The biggest challenge was to create a specific lighting for each image, to match the sense of light in each background image. Experience and the ability to immediately check the comping in real time are key to this, of course.

ASMP: Did you know exactly what poses you wanted in advance or did you photograph the models in different poses?

TVB: I knew exactly what I wanted and drew my layouts accordingly but, of course, as I always do, I described the feel of the images to the model and asked her to express it in her own body language. Melissa Johannsen, our model, did a great job here.

ASMP: What kind of team did you assemble for the shoot? Do you work with dedicated assistants, make-up artists or hair stylists, or did you specifically pick team members for this individual shoot?

TVB: I try to work with people who get to know my style of work, but as they get busier, it’s not always easy to work with the same crew members all the time. In this case, I worked with a stylist, Giannie Couji, and a make-up artist, Pascale Poma, whom I have known for more than ten years; an assistant I know and like to work with, James Yarusinsky; and a hairdresser, Andrew Fitzsimmons, whom I just discovered and really love.

ASMP: What criteria did you use when casting the models? How long did the casting process take?

TVB: I was lucky to be helped on casting by Natalie Joos, a brilliant casting director in New York. I needed a model with long limbs, since I used them as watch hands, and long blond hair.

ASMP: What kind of direction did you give the models during the shoot? Did you have inspiration boards or other visuals to show the models or did you direct them verbally?

TVB: I showed the model my drawings, directed her to match the positions and the feeling that I tried to express in them, then I let her own this idea and suggest her own interpretation.

ASMP: What was the timeline for photographing the models? Did you photograph more than one subject per day? Did you start editing and compositing the images immediately or did you wait until the image making was complete to start post production work?

TVB: We shot the six images in one day, which was made possible thanks to careful preparation and a pre-lighting day. I made a rough composite of each image during the shoot, to check compatibility between figure and background.

ASMP: The backgrounds you used in the composites vary widely. Please tell us how — and when — you gathered the background elements. Did you photograph them specifically for this shoot? Did you already have elements from previous shoots or did you outsource or use any stock imagery? Did you work up multiple options for each illustration or did you pre-visualize the end results?

TVB: I used a mix of my own elements and stock imagery. I only had one version for each background image, as I tend to stick to a plan once I have it and my instinct tells me that it’s good.

ASMP: Please talk about post-production. Do you do all the post work yourself or do you work with collaborators? Obviously the compositing process is critical; what about this process appeals to you?

TVB: I do a lot of post work myself, and also rely on collaborators, depending on the specifics of the job. I started working on postproduction of my images when I was a retouching station demonstrator at Scitex in 1993. Doing the post myself has taught me to plan my images and to make sure I get all the elements needed to create a successful composite.

ASMP: What was the most difficult aspect of creating these composites? What was it like working in circular format? Had you ever done that before?

TVB: The most challenging aspect was to get the lighting to match for each image. I loved working in the circular format, especially since it was meaningful to the watch concept. I had never worked in circular format before.

ASMP: How long did post-production take? Did you confer with the client during the process? Did you present the client with multiple options for each watch concept?

TVB: Postproduction took about a week, during which I did confer with the client, who insisted in the end that I add numbers and watch hands to one of the pictures — the cover image — to make it more obvious we were referring to watches.

ASMP: What was the client’s reaction to the finished images? Did this work meet or exceed their expectations? Which image was selected for the cover of Le Monde?

TVB: The client really liked the images, and therefore asked me to modify one of them, the “Complication” watch image, for use on the cover.

ASMP: Your bio mentions that you’re convinced that those who change the world for the better are the dreamers, not the cynics. How do you project this philosophy to clients?

TVB: Well, a cynic would take a client’s money and deliver only what the client is asking for. A dreamer will always stay true to his or her vision and give the client what that vision comes up with. I’m definitely more of a dreamer, by that definition, and I try to adapt my vision to my client’s practical needs, seeing these constraints as an exciting challenge, while keeping a positive, playful mind. As a professional, my first task is to make sure I create images that, at least, fit the client’s minimum needs, and then offer my take on what it is they are trying to communicate, so they have a choice.

ASMP: The portrait on your Web site shows you sporting a bowler hat, which seems to be an essential part of your brand. When and why did you first start wearing this hat?

TVB: I started wearing it two years ago when I tried one on and liked its lightness.

ASMP: Another important element in your style is to show people in motion or jumping. What is it about this gesture/activity that appeals to you? Is this something that clients specifically request in projects?

TVB: It’s more about lightness than motion. I love movement, but I feel that catching a slice of it in a photograph defies gravity. And time.

ASMP: What impact did this complex assignment and its success have on you as a photographer and on your business? Have you leveraged this work to get other assignments?

TVB: The biggest direct result of this job was to get commissioned to shoot a similar image about Time and Watches for the cover of the New York Times Magazine. Another direct impact is the project I describe [below]. So yes, this work was leveraged, and it’s getting me a long-term assignment. I just happened to be in Paris and showed these images to an agency that deals with artists and celebrities. They liked it and made me an offer.

ASMP: Looking back, what would you have done differently in this project?

TVB: I don’t think I’d have done anything differently in this project.

ASMP: What’s next for you? Are there any upcoming projects you’re particularly excited about?

TVB: I’ve just been asked to spend a few months in Paris to work on celebrity portraiture, for magazines and advertising use. This is exciting because it’s a long-term project that I’ll take as an opportunity to explore portrait photography, and to see how my style and vision can mix with the expression of the different personalities I’ll come across.