The Bear Necessities :: Venfield 8 on ’Bear Hill’
"Controversial" is a word Venfield 8 doesn't shy from. In fact, he's practically made it part of his brand. This is the mainstream fashion photographer who, under cover of his striking pseudonym, has struck out from the beaten path to forge whole new inroads into art, eros, male beauty, and everything those themes suggest -- including his riffs on high fashion and the his tightrope-precise exploration of the border between brutality and sexuality.
The former is the province of Venfield 8's "Designer Dicks" series, a collection of images that celebrate (and put center focus on) the male member, though re-imagined in keeping with the rarefied vibe of various world-class luxury brands. (A corollary series, "Candy Ass," puts the male derriere in the spotlight.)
The latter series, "Luxury Violence," examines the primal edge of aggression that can make sex hot -- or dangerous -- and the rigors of a dog-eat-dog world stimulation, to say the least.
But this lens-master isn't satisfied with any single art form or means of expression. Even as he charts daring new territory with the still image, Venfield 8 has begun to explore the moving image, as well, starting with a short film in which an extraterrestrial -- at least, that's what he appears to be -- arrives on Earth, landing au naturel in the desert, his only item of clothing a helmet encrusted with faux jewels. (The helmet, in a genius, almost comic, touch, is something so iconic as to be instantly recognizable... even below its layers of crystals.)
But it's the still -- which is distinct, mind you, from the static -- image to which Venfield 8 returns as his home ground, and with the publication of his first book the artist recalls, and salutes, another photographer with an eye for male beauty. Bruce Weber's "Bear Pond" served as the inspiration for Venfield 8's project "Bear Hill," which was recently published in a limited edition of only 500 copies. (Collectors, art lovers, and connoisseurs of fine masculine photography, don't wait around: This limited edition, published just a few weeks ago, is flying off the shelves.)
EDGE checked back with Venfield 8 about his creative journey into the woods with a clutch of naked bears, his ongoing and popular "Designer Dicks," "Luxury Violence," and "Candy Ass" series, his second book (already on the way), and what Mr. Moonr8ker might be getting up to next.
EDGE: You might be best known for your "Designer Dicks" series, as well your "Luxury Violence" series. Are those still ongoing? Or have they run their course?
VENFIELD 8: They are still on going projects. I just shot a "Pierre Cardin" Designer Dick that is terrific. I love the idea that some of my younger audience is going to be like, "who?," but it really works. And "Dior" is coming up as well. I have a lot of concepts, and I just wait for the right model to come along....
And the "Luxury Violence" series continues as well. That series is growing and will make a great gallery show. Also, a spin off of the "Designer Dicks" has been the "Candy Ass" series, which is a lot of fun to conceptualize and shoot as well.
R8king the Moon
EDGE: You’ve branched out into filmmaking recently with the short film "Moonr8ker." What was that like?
VENFIELD 8: It was really fun. Filmmaking is such a collaborative endeavor, so it is really exciting to work with people and develop the concepts and shoot it all. The models in the first film are good friends, and I had a great crew. It is a lot of work, but so worth it -- and so satisfying to see the finished product.
EDGE: The setting for "Moonr8ker" is the desert -- was it hotter than hell out there? Or does it just look like it thanks to the light and the film’s tint?
VENFIELD 8: I was hotter than hell, hahahaha! We shot it in the Mojave Desert, and it was 108 or something. But on top of the heat... it was shot on the vast expanses of salt flats -- so the air, everything, is salt. Your eyes start to burn, and of course you cannot drink enough water. Every time any of us stood up, you had to go really slowly -- you always feel so faint. It was exhausting.
But everyone was so amazing, we just kept each other alive. And the poor models with the heavy Swarovski crystal helmet on.... I can’t imagine.
EDGE: What are you thinking you might do for further films?
VENFIELD 8: "Moonr8ker" will continue to be in interesting environments and situations, taking us along his journey. And I may do some others not having anything to do with that character at all. We just have to see where the inspiration comes from.
Switching It Up
EDGE: You work under a pseudonym, and in one famous portrait by Olivier Lebourg you’re seen wearing a Batman cowl to obscure your face... though you are otherwise nude and your, shall we say, your tackle is on view. It seems that you’ve sort of set the idea on its head of what we put out there in public and what we keep hidden away. Was this a deliberate sort of thing -- or did it arise out of the circumstances of your work?
VENFIELD 8: I really admire and enjoy working with Mr. Lebourg -- he has been indispensable to me. So when he suggested some shots with that mask, I thought, "Why not?" I couldn’t have anticipated the reaction those photos received. The elements of informality and iconoclasm work very powerfully. As for putting my "business" out there -- it’s no biggie. Pun intended. Seriously, he crafted a setting in which I could remain anonymous and yet exposed. I think it is genius and beautiful. I am very proud of that shot.
EDGE: You’ve shot portraits of men in urban settings, deserts, and now woodlands. Do you find any particular setting more inspiring than others?
VENFIELD 8: I am always attracted to contrasts. If I am shooting in an urban setting, then I want the model to show a softness or accessibility, whereas in the desert you have this bejeweled character, very sophisticated and stylized. I find that interesting. Environments lend so much feeling to a photograph, I couldn’t imagine just shooting in a studio all the time.
EDGE: What about body types? Do some inspire you more than others? Do you prefer bears, for instance, or might you do a book centered on some other type?
VENFIELD 8: That’s an interesting question. I don’t really have a type. Not in my personal or professional choices. I like all men’s bodies, I don’t think you could accurately look at my body of work and say I have a type or a look, although for a particular shot I may only consider a certain type. With "Bear Hill," we were obviously looking for not only bears, but a certain type of bear, but that was only for aesthetic and continuity reasons. Lots of different types of men inspire me, so I would never limit myself. I find it boring and hard to believe when people say that they only like one type of guy, or when photographers seem to shoot only a particular type of model. It is so limiting.
EDGE: Would you call yourself a bear?
VENFIELD 8: I guess so. I am not big on labels, so I tend to not call myself anything, but certainly others have described me as one. Usually a "muscle bear" although I am not sure how accurate that is. I have a beard, and so, bam -- I am a bear. I just posted a selfie on my Instagram, and everyone said I was a bear -- so the people have spoken.
Hills and Valleys
EDGE: So, now, let’s talk about your first book, "Bear Hill." When it came to doing this book, what drew you to the idea of a homage to Bruce Weber’s iconic "Bear Pond?"
VENFIELD 8: "Bear Pond" is such a beautiful and legendary book, and I have always held it dear to my heart. It wasn’t until I saw a picture of David [Laflamme] that it clicked in me that I would like to shoot him in the "Bear Pond" style. As an artist, you see a model and think, "This is what I would do with them." Usually you never get the chance, but in this case, the creative gods were smiling on me.
EDGE: Right -- David Laflamme is your main model for "Bear Hill." How did you end up casting him, if that’s the right word, for this book?
VENFIELD 8: David is a supermodel -- although he hates it when people say that. Popularity has certainly never been his intention or desire, but it has all happened by accident for him.
I had seen his shots floating around on Tumblr, and he struck me as beautiful and interesting. I found out his name and contact info -- and then just cold call emailed him. He gets a lot of proposals, but he checked out my work, and figured, at least I was professional. We met and I made my pitch, and I brought my copy of "Bear Pond" with me, and he liked it and knew what I was going for. He had never been photographed nude before (or since) so it was a great honor for me when he agreed.
EDGE: You also have included some other models in the book. What drew you to those particular men?
VENFIELD 8: David and I started to look at candidates, and we wanted to make sure that the models were similar for cohesive reasons. There had to be a chemistry and an ease to make the tone of the book work. Ryan was someone David had known, and he had done some modeling before, and John was someone David has known from Facebook, but both guys really took a leap in joining the project. They both hold their own with David -- they are so beautiful and easy to work with.
EDGE: How did they get along with Laflamme?
VENFIELD 8: Perfectly, it was great. We all ended up laughing the whole time, sometimes, it was hard to be serious.
EDGE: Creating a book like this is a lot of work. How many photos did you take total for "Bear Hill?"
VENFIELD 8: True. There are about 500 photos, and lots more that we could have had in the book, but it would have been to hard to include everything. Some that are not in the book will be on a gallery wall someday when we do a show. Some may be in a second volume, should we ever do one.
Suffering (and Stripping) for Art
EDGE: Tell me about the woodland setting. Where did you go?
VENFIELD 8: It was all shot in California -- in Angeles National Forest and Big Bear, which is really appropriate.
EDGE: Did you scout out specific locations in advance? Or did you and Laflamme and the others simply set out to see where the path might take you?
VENFIELD 8: We knew the general areas that we wanted to look for places, but it was very much, "Let’s load up the wagon and drive out and see where we end up." Obviously, we needed to find places off the beaten path -- but that wasn’t a problem. It was really just a bunch of naked bears in the woods -- not a bad way to spend a few days.
EDGE: Laflamme is shown in a mountain stream in a couple of the photos. Was it freezing? He must have been a real trouper!
VENFIELD 8: It was freezing -- but that is the amazing thing about David: He was fearless for any shot. The stream was his idea, and he did that, laid in snow, climbed rocks, walked on thorns -- all in the name of art. They all did. There was a sense that we were creating something special, so everyone just did what had to be done to get the shot. It was really amazing.
Sweet and Soulful
EDGE: Laflamme seems very comfortable in his skin, but he also has a sweet and soulful expression in many of the shots you’ve chosen to include in the finished book.
VENFIELD 8: I know, right? David has that quality. I find myself very protective of him. He is a natural. He really knows himself in front of the camera, and it was completely collaborative -- so he was always aware of what the objective was. And honestly, after the first minute of being naked, it was a struggle to get him to put his clothes back on. It is a quality I always appreciate in models.
EDGE: You have another book, which we’ve talked about on previous occasions. Where’s that in the publication process? What can you say about that and any other upcoming projects?
VENFIELD 8: Yes, I have another publication, "Duo," coming out soon. It started out as an homage to the famous Herb Ritts book of the same title, but it has morphed into so much more. It is very fashion-y and editorial. A lot of fun with two very beautiful models.
There will be more "Moonra8ker" films, as well as images soon. The series will all continue, and there’ll be some gallery shows. It’s great because I get to continue doing what I love, and hopefully people will continue to enjoy it.
EDGE: You now have a Wikipedia entry. Does this mean you have "arrived?"
VENFIELD 8: It is funny, because, yeah, it did provide some sort of validation for sure. On one hand I felt like I arrived when the first person way back in 2012 "followed" me on Tumblr, and on the other hand, in many ways I felt it hasn’t happened yet at all.
I definitely have goals in terms of milestones I’d like to accomplish with Venfield 8, and I have checked so many off my list, but that list keeps growing. One of those milestones was the first cover I got as Venfield 8, right here at EDGE [on the May, 2013 issue of the digital magazine], so thank you so much for that. Your readers have been so kind and supportive, it really made 2013 something special for me. I really appreciate that.
Ordering information and more about "Bear Hill" is available at the "Bear Hill" website. For a preview, check out this Blurb.com page.
For more Venfield 8, visit his website and check out his Instagram.