Dale May’s American Paintings of Light

Written by Ron Egatz on . Posted in Hot Photography

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Dale May grew up in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, a small town between Philadelphia and the Delaware border, which was also the hometown of the iconic American painter Andrew Wyeth. Some might argue art is in the waters of the Brandywine River, which runs through the town. May’s grandfather was a big band era drummer, and his grandmother a singer. A drummer himself since the age of five, May went to Berklee College of Music in Boston. “I didn’t really jive too well with Boston,” he says, “so I switched directions. I knew it would either be music or visual art.”

©Dale May

Transferring to Parsons School of Design, he studied art history, color theory, and painting. Choosing Photography as his major, he began taking portraits of friends. One transformative photo in particular pushed home the power of photography, and helped solidify May’s choice of image making as a career. “I really got attached to the power of photography, and how there’s the whole school of documenting things the way they are, and there’s my school of documenting them as you would like them to be,” he explains.

He credits his painting education as being critical to his image building process. “Of course, it all starts with lighting and composition, so I do a lot of shoots where I’m building elements and layers. I still kind of feel like I’m painting, which I love,” May says.

©Dale May

Considering himself a creature of change, May has reinvented himself several times by his own account. He started off with character and conceptually-driven shoots. Not happy with the kind of work he was getting, he switched to a new portfolio based on music clients. He feels photographers are regularly pigeonholed, “but sometimes you have to really focus to be noticed,” May says. He now has come full circle, and is back into creating conceptual, character-driven images.

May used a Mamiya RZ67 for a long time before switching to a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a 24-70mm lens. He likes the freedom of movement the 5D Mark II affords, versus working from a tripod with the RZ67.

Although he prefers working on location, many of his clients have short time frames and smaller budgets. Musicians and celebrities have tight schedules, and traveling to locations is often not possible. “A lot of times you have to shoot a band and they’re on tour,” says May. “They only have 15 minutes to give you—you have to shoot them backstage in a closet. A lot of times I will add backgrounds. A lot of my concepts are hopefully thought out ahead of time. Whenever I have the time, it’s great to shoot the plates for backgrounds before I get there. Then I can explain to them what they will be doing. That is not always the case. Shooting the subject first and seeing what they deliver sometimes inspires the environment I drop them into.”

May relies on Photoshop to pull together studio shots and location images. “You have to know how to light and understand how to mesh those two together without being glaringly obvious,” he says. For his lighting, May uses Profoto Pro-7 generators. With no habitual lighting techniques used over and over, May lights each shot according to what he thinks he needs. The pool table photo of the cast of West Side Story is a case study in his approach.

©Dale May

Shot on location, it largely consisted of one shot. “I removed the beer sign light and hung a softbox right there,” he says. “I had two edge lights behind the subjects, which I later removed in post, creating the edge highlights, an octabank up front, and a few fill lights. Later, I moved the cast out, put the light back in and burned in some ambient lights. So, in post it was mainly removing the stands and lights that were in the background. Then there is a process I’ll do in post to enhance the skin tones and add contrast locally. I might add curves and color to certain things, like the skin only, or their clothes, or to bring out detail in different things. That’s where painting, I guess, comes back in play. It’s all building in layers, but it’s got to start with good lighting.”

May measures light with a Sekonic Digi Master L-718. “I’ve had it a long time. Still works great,” he says.

May’s own personal apex of this type of image building, layer by layer, may be his cover for the band Aventura’s album, “The Last.” The original concept was for the band to be walking on a desolate landscape. In the end, they chose Times Square. Initially thinking it had to be built in CGI, May then attempted to photograph the real thing at four in the morning. The old cliche says New York is the city that never sleeps. May found this to be true, as there were still many cars and much pedestrian traffic at that hour. Here he explains the process of the shot.

©Dale May

“I had to wait for cars to go by and then run out for a long exposure in Times Square without getting hit by a car. The group was shot in the studio, and then after removing all the cars and all the people, with all the lights and all the signs in Times Square, it just looks totally alive. They said, ‘Oh, can’t you just remove the lights?’” May laughs. “Sure. That was about ten hours of cloning, just to clone out and darken a lot of the signs. Then I had to add some tearing and destruction to the billboards. That was a piece?by?piece, week?long image.”

Always attempting to change and improve his images, May came to his current style by a particular situation on a photo shoot done in his previous style. “I used to have a similar style mixing strobe light and daylight,” he says. “It was very poppy, color?saturated, character?driven work, and I shot everything on location, mixing strobe and daylight. It had a surreal quality, and a painterly quality to it. One day I was shooting a band. It was supposed to be in the afternoon. I was shooting them in an alley somewhere on the West Side of Manhattan. The band was really late. So, they didn’t arrive until the sun went down. I thought, well, shooting strobe outside at night is going to give me a black background. I shot the band and decided to do a long exposure for the background. That had such a surreal quality. Back then, I worked with a retoucher. He put it together, and it just had this unreal quality, I had never seen before. I started shooting things that way, and building a whole new portfolio, with that look. Then, from that point on, I picked up enough to learn Photoshop. Now, [through] my retouching company, I do all of my work and even do retouching for other photographers, ad agencies, and magazines.” May’s retouching company is called Post Image Group.

©Dale May

Back to his character-driven roots, May’s conceptual images continue a tradition of illustrating campaigns begun with the dawn of American advertising and the inception of glossy magazines. His selective, painterly approach to any photo he produces leaves a watermark every image maker should strive for: his own.

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Written by Ron Egatz

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