Tim Richardson: Present and Future

A few page-turns into Tim Richardson’s latest monograph, Spiritual Machine, spells out a quotation from Philip K. Dick: “I have never yielded to reality.” Like the sci-fi novelist, reality is something far from Richardson’s mind. He’s far too busy dreaming up and engineering other worlds. As a contributor to Dazed & Confused, V, and Interview, and creator of campaigns for Diesel, NARS, Mugler, and Nike, Richardson has pioneered a type of fashion photography that probes a new, uncharted futurism. Richardson utilizes digital techniques like scanning, motion capture, CGI, and 3-D imaging to reinvent classical portraiture and depictions of the human figure, recontextualized with elaborate sets, hair, and makeup. His subjects glow from within with the cold light of a computer screen—haunting, alienating, seductive, unsettling, and magnetically gorgeous creatures visiting from an incomprehensible future.

Spiritual Machine collects Richardson’s vast body of editorial and film work, in addition to past installations from the Venice Dance Biennale and OneDotZero, into a glossy volume designed in partnership with Baron & Baron. A selection of images and films, in addition to some previously unseen works (including a series with Guinevere Van Seenus, pictured above), will be on view in the exhibition “Spiritual Machine,” at Milk Gallery in New York, opening tonight. Interview called up Richardson earlier this week to discuss his process of image making, AI, his early influences, and the digital tools of the trade. It turns out, for Richardson, evolution is not just a byproduct of technological progress, it’s the lifeblood.

COLLEEN KELSEY: Was reading science fiction one of the first ways you became interested in technology and a futuristic aesthetic?

TIM RICHARDSON: It’s definitely a mix of experience and learning. I grew up in Singapore, which, at the time, was a lot like what Blade Runner looked like the first time I saw it. It’s going to sound really weird to say, but it kind of felt like home. My mom used to take me for walks in old Chinatown before it was cleaned up, and it was just neon and craziness and wet and electric. It stuck with me, I don’t know why. It’s something that keeps coming up. The sci-fi writer part, those guys, they really don’t settle for reality. Something that I find really interesting about making pictures is that you get the opportunity to control and create your own reality. I find a lot of pleasure in that, especially with fashion and beauty, to push the aesthetic part of that idea as far I can.

KELSEY: I would think that movies are really influential in terms of that as well.

RICHARDSON: Yeah, I look at movies a lot. I look at painting, sculpture, anything that kind of takes me away from photography, to be honest, anything that can help me relocate my eye and keep it fresh. That’s a really big part of the process. I do a lot of research, and I do a lot of development, to try to take my images as far as I can take them in the moment.

KELSEY: Where did the title Spiritual Machine come from?

RICHARDSON: Have you ever heard of Dr. Raymond Kurzweil? He’s the guy built a timeline for the way that artificial intelligence would be developed. He called his book The Age of Spiritual Machines. It’s about the idea of the evolution of the human organic form into something that’s more of a hybrid. I like the duality of those words. The title, to me, is an expression of that hybrid of those two completely different aesthetics and how they create really exciting mixes. The in-between phases I find really fascinating visually.

KELSEY: How did you first become interested in photography?

RICHARDSON: Well, I was an art director for about four or five years. I was art-directing photographers, researching photography a lot, and it was fine, but I just really got the urge. I picked it up in college for the first time, but it was really out of frustration that I couldn’t make what I wanted to make as an art director. I really wanted to try something different. As a result of art direction and working with photographers and seeing how they operate, how studios work, on a very simple and practical level, I had a really good schooling. It was a really good learning process.

KELSEY: Digital technology is something that’s always developing and always changing, as is our vision of what the future will be and what the future will look like. How do you think your pictures react to the present?

RICHARDSON: There’s a constant change in the relationship between whether the camera’s in my hand or if it’s digitized. With the CGI scanning stuff, it frees you. You’re able to put the camera wherever you want to. One of the main things about digital technology is that once you have a scan of a human being, you can look at it from a new angle. It becomes more like sculpture than it does photography. It shifts the relationship. I think that’s one of the things that’s changed so much. It’s really evolved a long way past the relationship with the subject in a traditional sense. That’s what I think the biggest change is, not just in the technology, but in the relationship between you and the image you’re making. I direct a lot of film as well, and I feel like those roles are intermingling. It’s a real evolution of the process.

KELSEY: Let’s take your one of your 3-D printed portraits of Brooke Candy, for example. Was the sculptural element created first and then manipulated into the final image?

RICHARDSON: With Brooke, we shot editorial, and then we did a few scans. The print and the 3-D are made at the same time, but the 3-D is completely different, so you can relight it and do other things with it that become a lot more open. The editing is really open at that point. I’m really interested in working with 3-D with celebrities or singers or people who have more of a persona at play. I find 3-D scanning really interesting because it’s kind of going back to a very old school idea of the bust.

KELSEY: And what is your relationship like with the subject? Because there’s so much work that goes into it. It’s not just about taking a picture of someone; it’s about constructing a whole world around them.

RICHARDSON: It changes all the time. Sometimes, when I have the luxury of being able to cast something and meet people beforehand, I can really get a feeling of the character. Other times, it’s about what I, the stylist, and the makeup and hair team come up with for that person. Recently, for this show, we shot Guinevere Van Seenus and we did a CGI film. It’s very much a mix of futurism and gothic aesthetics. What I wanted to do with the film is take these H.R. Giger Alien/sci-fi references, but then change the relationship of the sensuality of the body, making the material of the body change quite dramatically. When you see the film, she’s made of glass. She’s this beautiful, crystalline sculptural form that’s animated and can move.

KELSEY: There’s obviously a lot of collaboration with fashion, beauty, stylists, etc, but what’s your creative process for constructing a concept for the shoot?

RICHARDSON: I do a lot of technical research in terms of lighting and execution. You have to prepare ahead of time—especially when a scanner’s in a shoot—because the scanners don’t read certain materials very well. It’s really informed aesthetically, the way I make pictures. It shifts your practical method away from what you would normally do with a camera. I do research characters and try to have music references and sit down with the model. It’s a universe that I want them to go into with me, and that way, you have a unified vision on set. You’re not struggling to read what you want in a situation, it’s there on the page. I use a lot of references, but not normally fashion references. I use a lot of costume references. With the Guinevere example, we had Alice Glass from Crystal Castles. She was this attitude that I wanted Guinevere to have. We brought a sense of luxury and perfection to the hair and makeup, and I connected that to technology in a way that fused together.

KELSEY: How has your film work and installation work affected your photographic practice? Has it given you more freedom?

RICHARDSON: I think directing motion and live action stuff is very different from directing, say, CGI, and very different from post-production stuff. One thing is happening with the camera. The main thing about CGI is making and editing a storyboard. Doing live action is a bit more intuitive. It has more of a relationship with the emotional capacity of somebody. Both of those worlds, it makes a huge change with your relationship with the subject. I find directing has opened up my mind to different ways to conceiving of a story. For an editorial, for example, the way you frame things and the way you communicate a story through time versus flipping pages. They’re such different things, but they do cross over. That’s what I love exploring, that crossover point. There’s a lot of potential there.