Stanton Stephens is a Seattle, Washington-based photographer who began working heavily with color in 2016 and completed his “Color is Everything” project in 2017, which was featured in the Seattle Art Museum throughout the summer. In re-approaching the project this year, Stanton opted to expand his color palette, moving towards a more narrative approach and varying lighting techniques to further his original idea.
I think it is a wonderful exercise to reapproach a concept or theme every year or so to let it breathe and expand. Last year was all about the individual. This year became much more about the narrative of a type of person. Still on color sweeps with an individual but totally different light and pulling in a heavy use of shadow.
How do you approach a project of this size, and what considerations did you have to take during preproduction?
When approaching a project of this size, it is important to have well-defined parameters that will anchor all subsequent decisions; if you know where you are going on a map it isn’t hard to figure out if you need to turn left or right. Then, it’s about getting the right people engaged and involved in the right roles to ensure the project is successful. The best work I have ever done has come out of collaborating with people whose opinions I trust. Additionally, to save on costs I scheduled as many portraits as I could in a single day – this gave the shoots consistency.
How many shoots did you conduct to get all the images?
At first, I was just exploring color in my client work. I started using color sweeps with some editorial jobs. Then I decided to do a full day of it and shot eight portraits that day with a full crew to help with background, wardrobe and lighting changes. I continued to do a few editorials over the following year in the same style if the subject fit the perimeters. Then this year, I decided to re-approach both the kind of subject I chose for the project as well as the set and light design. This required a lot more time on each setup so I only had four setups for that day though I am very excited with the results.
What were the shoots like?
I believe taking someone’s portrait begins not when the subject walks on set, but the moment they enter the photographer’s space. The environment I provide heavily dictates the results I get.
The first shoot was about as fun as a shoot can be. David Rue helped produce the shoot and is the one who helped find all the wonderful people I photographed that day. They were all social and creative ingenues that ran in similar creative circles so there was a group familiarity. A lot of them arrived early for their time slot and I think all of them stayed til the very end of the day. I looked around about halfway through the day and saw several faces that were not on the call sheet. They had begun to text their friends to come to hang out. I LOVED this. My goal was to really show joy and love from those amazing spirits so I turned the music up and encouraged more of a party atmosphere than I would in other circumstances. One of the last to go was particularly stiff walking onto the sweep, but by that time there were a couple empty champagne bottles and a line of his friends dancing just off camera, he couldn’t help but let light shine from his face.
This year’s shoot was way more buttoned up. I was just going for a very different thing this time around so of course, the environment needed to be different from the very start. I had this idea to cast a brother and sister messing with phones and snap chatting each other. I met this 8-year-old boy, Andrew, several years ago at my friend’s birthday party, and thought he was the coolest kid. He came up to me with an iPad and made me a beat that he would rhyme over. So, when it came time to cast a young kid in my shoot I thought of him. Well, he’s twelve now and when he showed up to set he was totally shut off. I asked him if he’d been making any beats lately and he said he didn’t do that anymore, “and anyway Mom took my phone away.” Terrified that I wouldn’t be able to pull a good performance, I spent the next hour, as the set was being locked in, hanging out with him and getting him to trust me. When it came time to shoot, I worked first with Brooklyn, who was playing the big sister in the setup. She was a real professional and was very easy to work with. Andrew watched from a couch offset, pretending not to be looking every time I looked over at him. Then, once I felt it was time, I brought him in to work with them together. In the end, I changed my concept to fit the talent. I got a fantastic shot of both him and of her though not in the same frame. Sometimes you have to let go of your initial intent and let the shoot take you places you never expected.
What has the reaction to the images been so far?
The ongoing project is getting wonderful feedback. Prya Frank was part of the first round and, between her and David Rue, they got the Seattle Art museum interested in showing the work last July. As for clients, I began getting bids requesting my “color work”. I have not gotten any galleries’ interest in showing this new round, though the feedback has been very strong on the commercial side. This body of work has definitely become a semi signature of my work that people reach out about specifically because they want it.
Where do you see yourself heading in the future with this project?
I have been excited recently to bring this concept out of the studio and into living spaces; somehow combine the stylized color and characters with an environment. I don’t know yet what that will look like but I have some ideas sketched out that are leading me down a path.
Check out the behind-the-scenes video of the shoot:
See more of Stanton’s work on his website.
Hair/makeup/wardrobe stylist: Lindsey Watkins
Co-producer: David Rue
Hair/makeup stylist: Akemi Hart
Set designer: Maura Warshawski
Wardrobe stylist: Kimberlee Iblings