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How Vincent Versace Draws You In by Theano Nikitas

y his own admission, there are three things that Vincent Versace does well: Take pictures, cook and write poetry. While I can’t attest to his cooking or poetic abilities, there’s no doubt that he makes incredibly beautiful photographs. At nine years old, Versace sold his first photograph to a local newspaper for $50. To celebrate, he took his father to a lunch at Woolworth’s where they feasted on two frankfurters, fries and chocolate malteds. He kept shooting and by the time he reached high school, Versace shot his first wedding, which proved to be another momentous money moment for the young photographer since he charged $185 to shoot the wedding, but it cost him $235 to do it. (Yes, his business skills have improved since then.) Perhaps the biggest push into professional photography came when he graduated from the University of Southern California. Versace recalls, “My uncle gave me a camera, taught me photography and said, ‘I’m tired of hearing you bitch about being a waiter. Go take pictures of actors.’” And so he did, photographing people like Kathryn Morris of “Cold Case” and Marcia Cross of “Desperate

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Perhaps the biggest push into professional photography came when he graduated from the University of Southern California. Versace recalls, “My uncle gave me a camera, taught me photography and said, ‘I’m tired of hearing you bitch about being a waiter. Go take pictures of actors.’”

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Housewives”—two of his favorite television celebrities to photograph. “When I used to do Hollywood all the time, I would really be shooting for one or two moments — one or two people a year that you’d feel you were in the presence of greatness.” Morris and Cross were two of those people. “Kathryn Morris is a hoot and an incredible talent and Marcia is an absolute sweetheart and one of the nicest people I’ve ever had the opportunity to photograph.” Versace says that it’s “funny” to watch Cross in “Desperate Housewives” because, “she’s 180 degrees different” than her character. While Versace has had some interesting experiences photographing actors and celebrities, he explains that he really doesn’t specialize in any one type of photography. Rather, his work “is about telling the truth and seeing the pretty.” At the same time, he acknowledges the importance of photographers who “tell you the truth about man’s inhumanity to man.” But, he adds, “My job is, hey, this is how pretty the earth is, this is where we live, take pause for a moment and stand where I got to stand and see this.” His photographs—whether of the Presidio in San Francisco, the landscapes in Myanmar or portraits of flowers— are evidence of his philosophy of putting the viewer “in” the photograph so that he or she can share the experience that Versace had when capturing the image.


they’re going through and to be able to convey that story with as much truth and honesty as possible, and be able to show the visual engagement of that instead of it just being the standard grip and grin.” It’s In The Eyes There’s very little about Versace’s approach to photography that’s standard; it’s often more about philosophy and emotion than f/stops. In addition to his photographic knowledge, he also utilizes his background in filmmaking, acting and poetry, as well as concepts based on the biomechanics of the eye and the biomechanics of emotion. The biomechanics of the eye is based on the predictability of how the eye works. In fact, Versace believes that there are actually two eyes that view an object: The conscious eye and the unconscious eye. The conscious eye is the “eye inside our head, inside our heart—the one that interprets what we see,” while the latter, according to Versace, is the eyeball, which tracks various aspects of a scene. He explains that the eye first goes to patterns that it recognizes, followed by areas of lights to dark, then high contrast

How Vincent Versace Draws You In In addition to working with clients such as Nikon, Epson, Adobe, Nik Software and Hollywood Actors, and selling his fine art on his Web site (www.versacephotography.com), Versace shares his wealth of knowledge and his photographic philosophy through workshops, writing and DVDs. He’s also working on a television show called “Taken by Pictures,” working on a couple of books and a couple of projects that he can’t talk about, but promises that “in 18 months, something really cool is going to see the light of day with regards to black and white.” He was also getting ready to do a combination of shooting and teaching in Vietnam, Laos, China and Thailand. Obviously, he’s a busy man. When I caught up with Versace this past September by phone, he was in the middle of teaching a class to the Navy Combat Camera Unit, the third year he’s been asked to conduct training for the unit. “I’m not just teaching them how to take warm, fuzzy portraits, I’m teaching them how to tell the landscape of a person’s life in one photograph” Versace explains, commenting that, in his experience, the Navy photographer

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is probably the best of all the Armed Forces photographers. In fact, he notes, Edward Steichen was a Navy photographer, giving this branch of the military a photographic pedigree (and a lot to live up to). The day I spoke with Versace, they were learning how to use the environment to “create really nice effects” by using “trees as nature’s gobo” (a gobo is a device or template that, placed in front of a light source, breaks light into interesting patterns). “The Navy, as all of the military,” explains Versace, “has to follow very specific rules of photographic engagement in the sense that they can only selectively lighten and darken images—things you can do in a darkroom. So what we’re working on is, if these are the rules and this is the box and we have to work inside this box, how are we able to see outside the box while still staying in it and make the pictures more interesting.” Teaching the Navy Combat Camera Unit to make portraits using trees as nature’s gobo is one way that Versace is helping them see outside the box. It’s clear that Versace’s goal is to give them the tools to “create the images that will tell the story of the experience that

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to low contrast, high sharpness to low sharpness, what’s in focus to blur, high saturation to low saturation. The photographer’s job is to use this knowledge to draw the eye to where you want it to go and track how to place them within a photograph. The biomechanics of emotion is based on 50 years of research at the Marie Curie institute in France that “universally all human beings register and experience emotion in the exactly the same way.” Because of that, the biomechanics—which Versace cites as “varying levels of tension and relaxation, the musculature of the body in conjunction with the body’s posture and facial pattern in conjunction with the body’s breathing pattern”—can be replicated. And by replicating or mirroring in his body what’s going on in his subject’s body, Versace can “line up with” what a subject’s feeling, gaining the emotional connection that is so important in portrait photography. Just look at some of Versace’s portraits and you’ll see just how he really does photograph “the landscape of the person—both the physical and the emotive.” For Versace, however, it’s the emotional connection that matters most.


digital pictures he takes today to his background and training in silver halide photography. On a practical note, always look at the camera before you shoot. It’s called a “visual search of extremities,” says Versace, who recounts how he was in Myanmar riding in a horse drawn cart when somehow “gremlins” changed the settings on his camera and the portrait he shot came out five stops underexposed. Not surprisingly, Versace also has an interesting perspective on composition. “I think photographic composition is a whole different thing that what we teach as composition. People are so busy worrying about the rule of thirds or the bull’s eye or the golden mean—that’s like taking apart your watch and expecting to know what time of day it is. That’s not the time to take apart your watch; take the damn picture and make it look good. “What’s more important,” he says, is “understanding your personal emotional sensibilities and understanding the biomechanics of the eye. Therein lies great photography; understanding how to move the [viewer’s] eye across the picture.” Versace is all about letting the space take you instead of walking into a situation or scene with preconceived notions or expectations. “It’s like going on a date with expectations; it never happens.” Rather, keep in mind the Buddhist concept of: “Want nothing and you’ll get everything you’ve ever wanted.” Perhaps the most all-encompassing and important advice Versace can give to a photographer is, “If you open yourself up to the world and have the world take you, then you’ll have the most amazing experience with photography and the most amazing pictures.”

How Vincent Versace Draws You In

Although he may not use biomechanics of motion when photographing flowers, Versace does make portraits of flowers. But, he only photographs flowers that are alive. He plucked the first flower he ever photographed and remembers how he “watched it go away” in front of his camera. Although the structure of the flower stayed the same, “I can’t explain it, but I watched something go... it was like photographing a flower in the process of becoming a corpse.” Because of that, Versace tries to only photography “flowers that are busy being alive, not busy dying.”

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Photoshop is Not a Verb Among his long list of achievements, Versace can certainly count expertise in Adobe Photoshop (he had just returned from teaching at Photoshop World when we spoke with him). But when asked for shooting tips, his first response was “Photoshop is not a verb. Get it right in the camera!” As part of his “Photoshop is not a verb” philosophy, Versace suggests that if you can find a place to learn darkroom photography, “do yourself a favor and get a rooting in silver traditional photography before you go to digital photography.” He credits the

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Links: •Versace’s Web site — www.versacephotography.com •Bogen Imaging — www.bogenimaging.us •Canon — www.canon.com •Dynalite — www.dynalite.com •Epson — www.epson.com •Gitzo — www.gitzo.com •Hoodman USA — www.hoodmanusa.com •Lexar— www.lexar.com •Life Pixel — www.lifepixel.com •Lowepro — www.lowepro.com •Nikon — www.nikonusa.com •Peach Pit Press — www.peachpitpress.com •Photoflex— www.photoflex.com

About the author: Theano has been writing about all things photographic — from digital imaging to alternative processes and fine art printing — for more than 17 years. Her reviews of the latest digital imaging gear and software as well as "how to" and feature articles have appeared in Digital Photographer magazine since 2001, and in Pro Digital Imaging since its inception. When she's not writing or making pictures, Theano can be found sorting through books for her latest Bookmark column, making Japanese paper, working on art projects or wandering through museums and galleries.

What’s In Vincent Versace’s Gear Bag CAMERAS D3 D300 D2xs D200 D200 modified for infra-red (Enhanced Color modification) D70 modified for infra-red (Deep Black Modification) D70 modified for infra-red (Standard IR conversion) NIKKOR LENSES 10.5mm 14 mm rectilinear 12-24mm VRA 18-200mm VR 24-120mm VR 70-180mm Macro Zoom 70-210mm 70-200mm VR 80-400mm VR 105mm Micro VR 35mm PC (for Panos) 1.7 tele-extender FLASH MEDIA Eight 8GB Lexar Media CompactFlash cards (4 UDMA, 4 300x) ACCESSORIES Really Right Stuff BH 55 Ball head All cameras fitted with the Really Right Stuff L-brackets Gitzo Carbon Fiber Tripod Epson P-500 Hoodman LCD viewing loupe Canon 500D 77mm Close-up filter Nikon 77mm Polarizer Split gradient Neutral density filters Step down rings LowePro Slingshot camera bag for in the field LowePro ProRoller to travel from studio to location STUDIO DYNALITE strobes Photoflex softboxes, lightstands and articulating arms Bogen Autopoles LOCATION (Natural light) Photoflex five-in-one reflectors Westcott Sunlight reflectors Photoflex softboxes, lightstands, articulating arms Bogen Autopoles 59

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Perhaps the biggest push into professional photography came when he graduated from the University of Southern California. Versace recalls, “...

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