Angela Sarafyan, known for her role as the popular character Clementine on the HBO series "WESTWORLD" is captured by celebrity photographer Robert Ascroft in "Milk". The photo editorial featuring Angela Sarafyan will be featured in IRK Magazine's September 2019 issue. We know it is a long wait but it is well worth it!
In the meantime, we were able to ask renowned celebrity photographer Robert Ascroft about his beautiful portrayal of Angela Sarafyan and also learn more about his impressive background. Robert Ascroft is widely regarded as one of the most important and versatile photographers today. Traveling between New York and Los Angeles, Robert is busy shooting celebrity portraits, sports, fine art, fashion, beauty, and advertising. His work has appeared worldwide in print, galleries, web, billboards, and TV. IRK is honored to share with you this exclusive interview with Robert Ascroft:
Through your latest film with Angela Sarafyan, you have captured both her unique beauty and also referenced her character in WESTWORLD! Can you elaborate on the preparation process as well as your inspiration for this shoot?
For the last 16 years I have had the idea of doing this shoot. Everytime I had tried to launch it in the past we ran into the technical and financial issues that go into creating Art. Also it is important in any Artistic endeavor to find the right subject or model for shoot for project.
This is where Angela steps into my life...
Angela Sarafayan and I met at the 2018 Emmy Awards in Los Angeles. I am commissioned to make portraits of the stars on Emmy night in an exclusive backstage studio setup as part of a portfolio for the Television Academy’s magazine. I photographed Angela for the portfolio wearing a Christian Siriano dress. The images were stunning and later she contacted me about getting a copy to post on her social media. Our conversation quickly led to discussions of doing a creative shoot together. She is such a unique beauty and I knew she would move well having found out she was once a dancer. Now I had an amazing model to shoot for the project.
My inspiration for the shoot came from trying to push beyond the boundaries of my photography. I first researched lighting that evoked a mood of sterility and softness. I wanted it to feel as though it were not lit with traditional lighting. Almost the feeling of overhead lighting in a factory. My research also involved looking at photographs of dance and movement as well as sculpture for hand shapes and body position. My cinematic inspirations are Jean-Luc Godard, Wong Kar-wai and Stanley Kubrick. I found inspiration as usual with cool tones and more of an ambient lighting feel. Dark and rich tones with slow movements became the theme for me. Angela’s experience as a dancer informed the way she moved in "Milk".
Music is always a huge inspiration to me and I spend hours listening to all different genre to be inspired. Angela and I were playing different music for each other on set to try and get into the feel of the “character” she is playing. I played Brian Eno “Music for Airports” for her and she played Max Richter “Sleep - Return 2 (song) Pt. 4” and we both found the mood to create the work. In the end I wrote the musical score for the final piece. Oddly enough I wrote the music first and played the song on my headphones while traveling back and forth from New York over a months time. It gave me the space I needed to think about the way I wanted the images to accompany the sound. This is exactly the opposite way I usually work and was also inspired by the OBLIQUE STRATEGIES cards developed by Brian Eno. The one card that stuck out to me said “Discard an Axiom” which I interpreted as “Don’t do it the way you usually do it”. This served as reminder for me to think in a new way.
After exploration into studio spaces and pools I found that the only option was to have an Aquarium fabricator make me a tub to my specifications. I found one that makes room sized Aquariums and I knew they would be able to create it for me and ensure that it would not leak. I also wanted the pool to be a work of art in and of itself. I knew I would want the edges to show and that clean lines would be sleek looking and add to the production design of the set.
I had originally conceived the idea as only a series of photographs and as it got closer to the shoot day I thought it would be great to direct a short film to accompany the images. I also had the good fortune of having my friend Raoul Germain who is the cinematographer for the art films by Catherine Sullivan which are part of the permanent collection of the MoMa. Often times when I am directing I will also be operating the RED camera and this time I was able to focus solely on the movements and directing which I found to be liberating.
It was not until the shoot was finished that someone pointed out the reference to her character Clementine Pennyweather on HBO’s hit series WESTWORLD. I had just started watching the show around the time of our shoot so I was not so aware of a connection. Of course now I believe it is a nice connection to the show without shooting her as her character. My goal was to create surreal images of her and in the end I think that is what we did.
Ultimately, I could not have done this shoot without Angela Sarafyan being so willing to participate and help push the ideas to the far reaches of creativity.
The photos of Angela are works of Art and we are excited to have them in our September 2019 issue “Skin Deep”. Can you tell us about the day of the shoot?
The shoot day was one of my favorite days on set in the history of my career. The day was 10 hours long with much of this time working out the logisitics of filling the Aquarium and getting the right opacity and temperature for her to stay in the milk for hours. In the end she spent 1.5 hours in the liquid and then we took a break. Reviewed the images, had lunch and discussed what else we could do when she got back in. After our almost 2 hour break Angela and I knew we already had the obvious images we had wanted to create. From there we kept trying to come up with new ideas. A lot of the images and the film came out of this second exploration. We both felt that there were no rules on what would be a good image and this gave us the space to be creative without judgement. It is a nice way to work when it comes together that way.
How long was the prep for the set for this film? How many people were involved and what was the setup process with the production designer?
I worked with my production designer Tim Miller for a month in advance discussing how to pull the shoot off. The tub fabrication was a a couple of weeks and we researched places that would be able to build a piece of art that would hold liquid.
In addition I had my trusted team along my side for the whole process during this shoot. My first assistant Jared Mechaber and my son Lucas were there to support the lighting and logistics. My producer Shannon Hunt from Black Shepard Productions as well as makeup artist Stephanie Nicole Smith. Also as mentioned before my cinematographer Raoul Germain. All of these folks are friends and people who wanted to participate in this artistic endeavor. The day was so enjoyable that we all were sad to leave the studio at the end of the day. We kept talking about what we had done and everyone finally left in anticipation of seeing the final film and photographs.
Your Angela Serafyan film and photos show how creative you are while some of your photos are captured moments. Do you have a preference?
There are several ways to work as an artist. I think you can approach things from more than one angle and find a way to make them your own. I have not always had the ability to work the way I do now. When I started out I was just happy to get the assignment and wanted to work on anything I was given. during those years I was developing not only as a photographer but as a person as well. The more experience I had the more I was confident to insert my vision in to the work I do. For some this comes easy but for me it was developed over years of working and gaining the confidence to be in control of the image. You work for years to connect what it is you want to do with what it is you have to do for a clients needs. I think they are very close for me now so there is no real preference.
You have had an amazing career. How did it all start?
I was raised in Rochester, New York which is the home of Kodak. My father and many of my relatives worked there for their entire career. I was more of a music and art kid so I spent most of my time focused on that direction. I photographed my friends bands and became interested in doing portraits and music photography. After design school I started work as an Art Director and designed numerous CD covers and was able to photograph many of them myself. This gave me a platform for my work and I used it to meet bigger artists and shoot with them. Eventually in 2003 I photographed Britney Spears and Charlize Theron right around the same time. My son was also born at this time and it was the first year my career went from young working photographer to legitimate business.
Can you tell us more about your first celebrity shoot and how it changed your career?
My biggest break came form photographing Charlize Theron in 2003 when she was nominated for an Academy Award for the film Monster. My photograph of her was published in the the Vanity Fair Hollywood issue which had been a goal of mine from the early stages of my career. That platform helped me become known as a photographer to the stars. Fashion, Beauty and Celebrity work were all part of what I began to shoot at that time and the recognition that followed was invaluable. Magazines have been and continue to be curators of photography and I think its important for the Art form to have an outlet to create great work.
Your work is so crisp and perfect. Is there room for improvisation or are your shoots carefully planned?
There is much room allowed for improvisation in my work. I would rather plan out a scenario and then have the subject act or react within that scenario. It is important for me to choose the images that feel just slightly off from perfect in the end as this is a major part of the shooting process... which is to find the right edit.
While shooting I often give my models a couple ideas of what to do and then say to them "this is an exchange between you and me, lets come up with something cool together" and I think they realize that it will be a collaboration more than a dictatorship. That being said I do steer the ship towards what I want but its crazy to think that I am the only voice that should matter in a shoot. I rely on all the team from Stylists to Makeup Artists to Lighting Assistants, Producers etc. to inform me of the best solution and then have to make the executive decision on how to proceed.
Our readers and IRK included would certainly love to see your work in a gallery or museum. Do you have any art exhibitions coming up?
I am glad you asked this question. This body of work was created in part to be a gallery exhibition. I do not have a gallery in mind yet but am open to the idea. I think it would be nice to show the work in its entirety along with the film in one space where the viewers will be able to immerse themselves in our world for while. I intend to publish a book of these images as well.
Did you Always see yourself in this line of work?
Yes, I have always been involved in drawing, painting, photography and music since an early age. This seems to have been a calling for me. I think with creativity you move in the direction that is becoming the most successful for you and where you find your greatest passion. In this case it was photography for me.
What has been your most epic shoot?
This shoot of Angela Sarafyan is the one that comes to mind right now. I am pleased with the results and looking forward to showing the world this body of work.
What advice would you give young artists trying to make an entrance into the industry?
Have a point of view. There are hundreds of thousands of people who want to do this type of work. If you don't stand out you will be lost in the crowd. My other piece of advice is to be persistent and determined. Sometimes you have to push to make things happen. It will not always be a smooth ride and you will lose more assignments than you get. But if you keep at it and people like working with you then its possible to be successful. I think the days of difficult, erratic and narcissistic behaviour by photographers is becoming a thing of the past.
What do you aspire to convey through your images and how do you bring it out of your subjects?
I can always tell when the subject looks genuine in a photograph. I can see it in the body language and in the facial expression. I aspire in every session to get beyond the normal, nice picture and try to get something with a little more spark. Just a "moment" which sometimes is not "the moment" for me. I like to edit the sessions days after it is over so I am not judging the images by my experience but solely by the image itself.
I get these results by talking with the subjects and trying to get a feel for what they are thinking. As I mentioned before I like to engage my subjects and have them work with me to find new ways of shooting them. If they feel part of the creative process then I always get something better than expected.
Photographer, Director & Original Score
Black Shepherd Productions
Director of Photography
Makeup & Hair
Stephanie Nicole Smith
Editor & Color
Lukas Ascroft & Jared Mechaber