Back to Writing / 8-22-2006

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Through both his erotic nudes and his fetish images, the art of photographer Sean McCall reaches beyond the pretty picture. He skillfully and successfully captures moments of truth in his models, revealing both their psyches and his own. McCall spoke with us about the beautiful women he's worked with and what it takes to elevate his art.

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Sez G: You have many beautiful photos of Angelina Jolie in your portfolio. When were they taken and what was you experience like shooting her?

Sean McCall: Those photos are from a test shoot that I had done with Angelina in the early 1990's for a high end European lingerie designer that was about to release a pricey swimwear line. After scouring the agencies for a "new face" for that particular line, my favorite makeup artist, Rita, called me and mentioned that she had just worked with a wonderful girl and I really needed to see and shoot her. After I saw her "Zed Card" my reaction was "How soon!"

Working with Angelina was a great pleasure as she was both a natural in front of the lens and an extraordinary person. It was easy to see that she was destined for great things in whatever path she chose. Since, at the time she was 17 I asked her whether she had plans for college. She said that she was about to pursue acting and if that did not work out she would then attend to further studies...

I believe this shoot was the first time Angelina was introduced to motion picture lighting. For the B&W I was keying her with a "Baby" (1k) and she commented on how bright the light was. When I told her that the lights can get quite a bit brighter on a production set, her reply was "I would happily put up with that in order to fulfill my acting career..."

Sez G: You've also done a lot of great work with Dita, who has told us she really enjoys creative collaboration with her photographers. How much preparation goes into your shoots with her, and how much is spontaneous?

Sean McCall: I have had the great pleasure of working with Dita for several years now. From our first meeting in late 1994, I knew immediately that she was not only a model with a highly unique look (I recently told the editor of Photo magazine that meeting Dita for the first time must have been similar to the feeling John Cromwell had when Hedy Lamarr stepped onto the set of Algiers for her first US film) but also a very special person with a strong focus on her career combined with the determination and intelligence to make things happen!

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That being said, our shoots over the years have ranged from a quick "let's shoot" call or email to a very intensely planned out production. One of the most rewarding shoots was following a discussion we had about the movie Henry and June which was based on the writers Henry Miller and Anais Nin during Miller's "Paris years." Henry was a neighbor and friend of my parents when I was very young, so I was intrigued at the idea. Dita pulled together the outfit and a hair style ('20s finger rolls) with perfection. I think that even when we shoot on the spur of the moment, Dita always has a plan... for every shoot she has never been less than impeccable!

Sez G: Your photos seem to have deeper messages than the usual "artistic nudes" and "fetish glamour." I know this is a loaded question, but... what would you say is the purpose behind your art? Do you feel your commercial work ever compromises this?

Sean McCall: You're right, this is a "loaded question"...

My intention when I started to take photographs as a childhood hobby (and still as it developed into a professional passion) was to create images that have more of a cerebral and lasting effect. This, to me, is the ultimate challenge. If you consider just the logistics of capturing a moment that becomes meaningful beyond a short "time identifiable" window, one that has become inherent in our visually overdriven culture, the probability becomes staggering.

I have found that one way to hedge my bet (for lack of a better term) is to envision something about the model that is a part of their psyche. This is not a one-shoot proposition. I feel that if you are lucky enough to get to know the model and how they think and feel, you have a much better chance at getting those images (or even one image) that are representative of the model in their persona; one that consequently pulls the viewer's attention into the image in a way that transcends the mere physical attractor.

If you look at the work of the truly great photographers of the 20th century like Horst, Avedon, Newton, Man Ray, Penn and a host of others that are no longer with us, they all had one thing in common: they captured that moment. For some, it may have been contrived; others saw it instantly and got it. For others, they created bond with the model led to a series of these moments.

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Over the years I have been fortunate to either meet or know a few of the legends. The one bit of advice that seemed to prevail in one form or another was "when you see that moment, get it in the camera." That is what I strive to do; to "get it."

Commercial work is almost always a compromise. There is often a lot of money at stake, which creates a shoot with a singular vision. I can't even comprehend how many Polaroid's I have had to pull to keep art directors and clients happy. The same goes for film, especially commercials.

Sez G: Do you prefer shooting in black and white or color? Why?

Sean McCall: I very much prefer black and white film. Personally, I think B&W takes you one step back from reality. Since we see in color, it is my opinion that less is left to the imagination when you shoot color.

However, there are certain times that color is the only film medium that will work. I don't think you could shoot a cosmetic line that makes its reputation on their unique color blends in B&W... that would require far too much imagination.

Sez G: Your lighting is exquisite, often with very rich contrast. Do you prefer shooting in a studio or using natural light? How do you approach lighting?

Sean McCall: I really prefer to control the lighting, and the studio is the best place for that.

For all of my black and white work I use tungsten sources, the majority being fresnel fixtures. These fixtures have the most even and controllable spread to help create good contrast and fall-off. I'm certain this is the reason they have been the main lighting fixtures for motion pictures since Mole Richardson introduced them in the mid 1930s. The downside for me is they do get HOT and I always forget my gloves when I make the adjustments... a small price to pay.

I do really love natural light, though it is all about correct timing and luck, unless you have a ten ton light truck, generators and a good gaffer/best boy with a handful of grips and electricians... well maybe not that much... I used to shoot a ton of outdoor color and had the luxury of picking the time/location where the light would be right, All I typically needed was one or two extra assistants to hold the 4x4 or 6x6 butterfly frame with reflector material.

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Sez G: You've done cinematography on a ton of films and commercials over the years. How did you cross over into Hollywood, and how often do you find work on that end of the spectrum?

Sean McCall: The main reason I returned to UCLA to study film was that I was frustrated with the motor drives on my still cameras and wanted to figure out how to get more exposures per second. [laughs]

In reality, at the time, it seemed like a natural progression for me. I had just been offered a position with a very large corporation to head up an in-house production department. The Chairman felt that the costs associated with outsourcing production were very expensive. I saw the budgets and he was absolutely right...

I took the position which was, in hindsight, a double-edged sword. On the one hand, all worries about my next assignment were gone, while on the other hand I was invisible. All the work I did during my seven year tenure was never credited, since I was an employee. Don't get me wrong, the Chairman was an incredible person and did allow me to use the great facilities for my own projects during non company time... The real hard edge is that corporate politics and eventual takeovers are a bit messy...

After that, I began shooting a string of B movies (using several "nom de guerres"), TV pilots, commercials (I like those), and Art Films (mostly shorts that I also greatly enjoy). I finally hung it up and went back to my initial passion, still photography (until recently)...

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Sez G: You've worked with dozens of our favorite models, including Masuimi Max, Emily Marilyn, Tall Goddess, Darenzia, Angela Ryan, Aprella, Ariel X and Miss Conduct. Any muses?

Sean McCall: I have found great inspiration in so many models!

In this world of art and fetish, I find some of the most interesting, intelligent, and passionate models that I have ever worked with. Many of these models really love what they are doing. They are not simply high priced mannequins waiting to be dressed; conversely, they create themselves. This is something that I really admire!

Sez G: What's next for you?

Sean McCall: I have been working on creating films again that combine elements of glamour and fetish. The new HD mediums have made it fairly cost-effective to work out the bugs and create pieces that have a film-like beauty. This will hopefully end up as a new production entity for an internet film site I have called (under construction)... or a new line for cable/DVD release.

I am also really pushing the limits of this Digital HD medium with some very experimental (and potentially controversial) shooting. A music video I shot this way is now in the final edit.

And last but not least, I am working closely with my old friend Peter Czernich on some new ideas... he is a great person and always very supportive of anything that combines art with a fetish flavor.

To learn more about Sean McCall, visit

Sean McCall - by Sez G.