Describing Brad Wilson as being an animal photographer is to do him a great disservice. True - Wilson does photograph animals, but unlike photographers who photograph animals in the wild, Brad Wilson photographs his subjects in the quieter, more intimate quarters of photo studios and sound stages. Rather than seeking out his subjects on their turf, he brings them into his.
The differences don’t stop there. Unlike most wildlife photographers, who go eye-to-eye with big cats and other wild beasts from safe distances and the longest of telephoto lenses, Brad Wilson photographs his subjects close-up, and often with a macro lens. His intent is to create compelling, uncommon portraits of the animals - not just a “pictures”.
Another difference between Wilson’s photographs and photographs captured in the wild by others is that by photographing his subjects in the studio he can maintain complete control over the light that falls onto his subjects. The light doesn’t control him - he controls the light, and it’s this level of intimacy that separates Wilson’s work from others in his field.
Wilson began photographing animals in studio settings in 2010. For continuity, he poses each of the animals against a black background, which in addition to adding a bold, graphic element to the series evens the playing field in terms of size and scale. When viewed as a whole, the smallest and largest animals in the series weigh in with equal levels of presence and stature, and all of them are afforded the full respect and dignity of any human subject.
This is no easy task however and Wilson describes his shoots as “meditations in the middle of organized chaos”. Once within the confines of the studio, the animals are allowed to roam free so they can acclimate to their new surroundings. As they sniff about, Wilson’s assistant periodically triggers the flash as to not startle them when he begins photographing them. Not until they’ve settled down and feel comfortable in his presence (which can take a while) does he begin taking pictures.
Eye contact plays a big role when it comes to interacting with animals. To many species of animals, a direct stare is interpreted as aggression, which makes it imperative to work closely with the trainer and understand your subject’s tendencies before welcoming them into your studio.
Something Wilson learned early on is that many animals quickly pick up on the connection between making eye contact with him and the flash going off, which can easily turn the session into a cat-and-mouse waiting game. “The goal is to capture a direct frontal gaze from the animal, which, to me, is really the holy grail of these images.” As humans we connect more deeply to others with eye contact and creating a portrait of an animal with this element offers the viewer a powerful sense of intimacy. He goes on to say if you can capture a single frontal gaze in three hours you can consider the day successful.
Wilson shoots with Hasselblad H-series cameras outfitted with PhaseOne Digital backs, and in order to get in close to his subjects he works with macro and shorter focal length lenses. Wilson works close to the animals he photographs, and though he considers himself good at ‘reading’ his subjects, he relies on the animal’s trainer to reel him back should he unknowingly get too close.
To light his subjects Wilson travels with up to a half dozen Profoto Acute 2400w/s power packs with Profoto Acute heads. The larger the animal, the more packs he uses. Depending on the size, color, and texture of his subjects he employs multiple Profoto Umbrellas, Profoto Softboxes, Profoto RFi Softbox Strip Lights, Profoto Collapsible Reflectors, and large silks to get the crisp, well-defined imagery that has become his personal photographic trademark. Profoto’s Softbox Strip 1'x6’ is one of his favored tools and you can usually spot them as elongated catchlights in his subject’s eyes.
Why Profoto? “Because they never fail. In all my years of using them I have never had a pack or head go down on me. They’re reliable and the control they afford me is unparalleled.”
Depending on the nature and individual temperament of the animal he is photographing, Wilson’s portrait sessions can get interesting. Some animals take readily being photographed while others can be challenging. A good example was a mandrill who announced his presence by storming around the studio knocking over foam core, light stands and slamming the bathroom door shut just to make his presence fully known.
In order to settle him down, the primate’s trainer suggested Wilson bare his teeth at him, which in the case of mandrills is a sign of friendship. Wilson did this, which evened the playing field temporarily by establishing a shared understanding between them. The peace was fragile however and many more teeth baring moments were required to finish the shoot without incident.
Shooting times vary. Sometimes he can continue shooting for an hour or more, sometimes a few minutes. And if the animal simply isn’t up to being photographed, sometimes you call it a day before you capture a single image. “One way or another the animals usually tell you when it’s over”. The trick is to recognize the signals.
More about Brad Wilson:
Wilson's photographs have been widely published around the world, appearing in articles and advertisements by Paris Match, Vanity Fair Italia, CNN, CBS News, World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, Audubon, Microsoft, Apple, and Sony.
He is currently represented by PhotoEye Gallery (Santa Fe), Surround Art Gallery (Moscow), Artistics Gallery (Paris), and Doinel Gallery (London). His work has been exhibited in a variety of solo and group shows in Europe, Asia, and the United States.