Photojournalist and "Gentleman Adventurer" B.A. Van Sise visited the Steampunk World's Fair with the Neptune Convertible Art Lens System. The subject perfectly matched the optics according to Van Sise -- read on to find out why and more about these unique photographs.
Hello. Could tell us more about yourself?
When I was a little boy, my dentist had a big poster full of different kinds of New Yorkers- in hindsight, most of them were racist stereotypes - and one of them was a hairy guy saying "New York, New York. A city so nice, they named it twice!" Three decades later, I can't say the name of the city without thinking of that poster- oh, the things that stick with you.
My business card actually says, without any irony, "Gentleman Adventurer" on it, and that's probably closer to the mark than any job description. I spend most of my life dressing extravagantly and looking for any dumb crazy thing to do. To borrow an old quip from Dorothy Parker: I speak seven languages and don't know how to say 'no' in any of them.
Tell us a bit about your photography background.
I started as a newspaper photographer sixteen years ago, and have been doing that ever since. Actually, that's a lie; for a little while, after hearing a rumor that money can be traded for goods and services, I left photography and became, of all things, an executive at a private jet company for mega-celebrities. I gave up on the money, went back to photography, and that was a fine, fine idea. Taylor Swift doesn't call me in the middle of the night, anymore, and I get to send my clippings back home, now and again.
What would you call your photography style?
Eclectic. I have a varied client list, which I think is actually pretty unusual for a professional. I do a lot of portraits for magazines and museums. I do a lot of features for newspapers. I shot a two-day advertising spread before coming home to answer these questions. If I had to describe my style, I'd say it's close - physically close, but also emotionally close. It's important to know your subjects, and not just necessarily in the handshakes-and-how-are-you way most people know each other these days. In a limited way one ever can, on a shoot, you should try to understand the person who's trusting you to present them.
What was your first impression upon seeing and holding the Convertible Art Lenses?
I was sure, totally sure, that they were going to completely and totally suck. Like most people, I know in my heart and in my bones that good things are heavy. Impressive things, like impressive people, should have some natural gravity to them. You don't want something underweight. Nobody wants an unfilled bowling ball. Nobody drops top dollar on an underdeveloped lobster. When the prototype was dropped into my hands, I knew that it would stink - after all, it weighs basically nothing. Where's the quality manufacturing? Where's that heavy ground glass to make good images?
Of course, I was wrong. I popped off a couple test shots in the car before walking into my shoot, to make sure I wasn't going to be throwing my entire career down the tubes to test a lens. I have a bunch of little rubber ducks in my car - it's a long story - and I lined them up on the dash and made a few pictures. Low and behold, they were all crystal sharp, and at f/2.8 the background, while not particularly bokehtastic, was soft enough to really isolate them. I knew this was something special. In spite of the weight, the sharpness of these lenses is remarkable.
I like to keep things simple. I prefer uncomplicated lighting structures on studio shoots, and on what I call 'Walking Around Shoots' - say, the Village Voice sends me to do a feature somewhere or a university magazine needs a portrait of an alumnus up to something interesting - I'll generally travel light: one body, one lens, and three lenses to spare in my camera bag. My go-to, everyday lens is a 50mm Art lens, which weighs easily four times what any of the Neptune lenses do. For an every-day shoot, it produces a great product, and every one of my spinal vertebrae certainly noticed the difference.
Could you share your best photo and the story behind that shot?
My favorite from the Steampunk World's Fair shoot is the very first in the set, of the fellow with the white lace blindfold. Much like with the lens, I really didn't know what I was walking into on this shoot: I'd never really heard of the Steampunk World's Fair, and it was sort of a trip, literally and metaphorically, to take it in. Three thousand people show up in all these hand-made, creative, really impressive bespoke costumes. They come from all over the country, and they meet ... in an ugly parking lot full of cargo containers in Piscataway, New Jersey, sandwiched between two hotels. It was dismal, and yet there are all this color and beauty and all these kinda cool crazy people all in one place. I decided to make the cargo containers part of the shoot, put everything on the biggest aperture possible, and sweet talk a bunch of instantly nervous anachronists to come hang out alone with me behind a bunch of abandoned cargo containers with the hope that I would take their picture and not, you know, eat them.
I saw this guy, with his fully white, vaguely funereal Victorian outfit, and knew I had to have him in front of my lens. I have a good friend who likes coming on my shoots to meet all the wonderful unusual people, and she ran over to grab him. His name was Phil, he was as gay as a box of birds, and he was beyond thrilled to be photographed. There was only one problem: he couldn't see anything, not one thing in the entire world, through his garter blindfold, so I had to physically shove him around and position him to get him into place, and he was clearly following my lens by the sound of my voice. I made sure to get real close so that the only thing in focus would be that troublesome blindfold. It panned out okay.