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Mental Musings, Caught on Camera

Michael Gilbert crafts images for his "Obsessions and Observations" series with his arsenal of Tamron lenses.

By Jenn Gidman
Images by Michael Gilbert

When Michael Gilbert started taking photos in high school, he ran into the same problem that he still occasionally runs into today: Gallery owners and curators would love his work, but for their purposes of setting up a show or exhibit, they'd implore him to somehow tie together the work he submitted. "They'd say, 'Michael, we need a series of photos packaged together that makes some kind of common statement or follows some theme,'" he explains. "Unfortunately, my brain doesn't always work that way with all of my photography."

Years later, as he was going through random photos that he'd never been able to pigeonhole into a set classification, it hit him: He would make these images, which often defaulted to the classics, part of a new series called "Obsessions and Observations." "Almost everything I shoot can now fall into that category," he laughs. "As soon as I did that, everybody said, 'That's wonderful!,' even though absolutely nothing had changed. Now it's just become an ever-extending portfolio for me."

One literal observation Michael has made in capturing photos for this series: Sometimes the most captivating photos emerge when you haven't planned for them. "I was commissioned to take photos of a professional ballerina, for instance, all full-length shots of her in motion," he says. But as he was shooting, something about her face made him think about his collection of unusual French hats that he'd built up over the years. "She has a classical, teardrop-shaped face that I knew would go perfectly with one of the hats I gather just for this purpose," he says.

After he finished the full-length shots he was there to do, Michael put the hat on her, brought her outside, and placed her in front of a blank wall, where he captured her in all-natural light with his Tamron SP 70-200mm VC lens. "The combination of that veil and the patterns and her type of face and the elegance of it all—it just worked," he says. "In the end, when she wanted a picture of herself to take home, this was the one she chose, not one of the ones I was originally assigned to do."

© Michael Gilbert

Another instance of an "outtake" becoming one of Michael's favorite images came about after a bride came to see him about redoing her wedding photos. "She didn't love her pictures, which had been taken by someone else," he explains. "There was nothing wrong with them, technically, but she said how she'd felt like she was floating the whole day and yet the pictures seemed so rigid. So I came up with an idea: I asked her a) if she still had her wedding dress, and b) if she could swim."

The answer to the first question was yes, the second no, so Michael improvised. He placed the decked-out bride in a green float in the middle of a pool and had an assistant in a black wetsuit push her around in the water, as Michael perched high up on a ladder above them with his Tamron SP 24-70mm F/2.8 VC. "The float was green, like a greenscreen, and the guy's wetsuit was black—meaning it was going to be easy to take them out of the final photo with a couple of clicks in post-processing," he says. "And that's what we did for the final image, which is the one she wound up buying: It just showed her floating in her dress in the pool."

But Michael liked the quirkiness of the original photo, too. "When you look at it, you're kind of wondering what's going on," he says. "Is that guy the groom? What's he looking at? Why are they in a pool? Like the ballerina shot, this was an extra image that wound up turning into something unique all by itself. The moral of the story, I guess: Take as many pictures as you can, because you never know when you'll get a wonderful outtake like this."

© Michael Gilbert

On cloudy days, Michael will often head down to a beach near his Hawaii studio to see if he can capture dramatic sky photos, and it was here where he captured a mysterious man who danced in the sand. "This guy just comes down to this beach with his headphones on and dances," Michael explains. "He's so elegant that I figured he had to be a professional dancer of some sort. At any rate, I started taking his picture because I was so fascinated with his form."

© Michael Gilbert

One evening around sunset, Michael took a photo with the Tamron 24-70, then merged it in post-processing with another photo of the rocks on that same beach. "With a little digital maneuvering, I was able to make it look like something magical was happening," he says. And one day soon after, on a visit to a local coffee shop, Michael solved the mystery of the beach dancer: He was a barista at the coffee shop by day, but at night he performed in hula-dancing shows. "I went home and made him a big blowup of one of the pictures I had taken of him and brought it to the coffee shop," Michael says. "I still see him on occasion dancing on the beach, and now when I go to the coffee shop, he writes 'Aloha' in my latte foam."

On another waterside stroll, this time near the canals in Amsterdam, Michael found another reason to pull out his 24-70: a brilliantly colored boat cover featuring a woman's face. "It was about 5:30 in the afternoon, and I just stumbled upon this striking cover," he says. "The funny thing was, I had walked this same path the day before and that cover wasn't there—so I definitely wanted to capture it in case it disappeared again. I checked it out from a couple of different angles, but I pretty much knew what I wanted to do with it in my mind's-eye as soon as I saw it. A couple of clicks and I had what I wanted."

© Michael Gilbert

From spending so much time in Paris, where his second studio is located, Michael has become familiar with a ubiquitous architectural trait there: the spiral staircase. "There are probably more spiral staircases per square inch in Paris than anywhere else on the planet," he says. "Whenever I get into one, I first shoot up into the staircase, then I climb up to the top and shoot down."

© Michael Gilbert
When Tamron came out with its SP 15-30mm F/2.8 VC wide-angle lens, Michael knew he had to go back to some of the staircases he'd already photographed and give them another go. "Now I had the perfect lens, with almost no distortion, that would really make these staircases come alive," he says. "The one you see here was taken in an old bordello, with a bit of a checkered past. The light was streaming down from a big skylight up top. I decided to create it in black and white because you're really able to focus on the patterns that way."

For a photo of a model named Andrea in his underwater studio, Michael used the Tamron SP 45mm F/1.8 VC lens. "This is one of the most underestimated lenses," he says. "Tamron has really hit the sweet spot with the focal length, and it's fast and needle-sharp, which is perfect for underwater work. Plus it's so compact as a prime—It's become my favorite lens."

Michael paired a kimono to match Andrea's golden-red hair color and explained to her before the shoot (it's difficult to communicate while she's in the pool) what he was looking to do. "Water makes everything move, so I wanted to create a very classical, angelic photo," he says. "I wanted it to look like an old Renaissance painting. I posed my own hands to show her what I was looking for, telling her I wanted her hands close to her body and everything on the same plane."

© Michael Gilbert

He placed her against a black background on one end of the pool and lit her with a light from above. The lines on her face are reflected down from the water's surface. "It doesn't even seem like it's shot underwater, other than the lines on her face," Michael says. "I do a lot of work in the pool studio, sometimes even combining different colors. It's a lot of fun!"

Reliving the days when he used to frequent drive-in movie theaters was the inspiration behind another recent photo with the 45mm. "I love old vintage cars, and I have a whole series of pictures spurred by those memories of why we went to drive-in theaters, including this one of a woman lounging in the back seat," he says. He captured this photo in a friend's garage in Hawaii. "There was just one sliver of sunlight coming in from the window, late in the day," he adds. "There was no other way I could've gotten that look without that one perfect shaft of light."

© Michael Gilbert

To see more of Michael Gilbert's work, go to www.facebook.com/MichaelGilbertFineArtPhotography.