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The Art of Illumination: Milan Swolfs on Preserving the Soul of Photography in the Digital Age

The-Art-of-Illumination-Milan-Swolfs-on-Preserving-the-Soul-of-Photography-in-the-Digital-Age Hobolite
Milan Swolfs is a fine art portrait photographer born in Antwerp, Belgium, renowned for his exquisite visual signature in the burlesque and vintage styles. His work captures the timeless Hollywood glamour of the 1920s and 1930s, showcasing both women and men in bold, confident expressions with a delicate and glamorous touch. He began his career photographing the biggest burlesque events in Europe before shifting his focus to fine art photography. An ambassador for Leica Camera, Milan's work has been published in LFI (Leica Fotografie International), Medium Format Magazine, and Viewfinder. He held his first solo exhibition, "Light of Seduction," at the Leica Store in Porto. Milan’s portraits are artistic celebrations of individuality and classic beauty, evoking the charm and allure of a bygone era.

What sparked the onset of your artistic journey? What motivated you to pick up a camera and pursue the life of an artist, and how has your approach evolved since then?

My artistic journey began in my early years, back in primary school, where my passion for drawing and painting first took root. I was often praised by teachers for my keen eye and ability to notice details that others overlooked. Additionally, my parents' penchant for travel exposed me to diverse cultures and architectural wonders, sparking a deep appreciation for aesthetics and the art of capturing fleeting moments.

Initially, I delved into videography using an old VHS camera, but I soon transitioned to still photography, driven by a desire to capture more meaningful and authentic moments beyond typical tourist snapshots. My focus shifted towards capturing the essence of people and their stories.

Fueled by a lifelong love for imagination and creativity, I pursued studies in marketing and communication with a specialization in advertising. Interestingly, my journey in photography hit a stumbling block when I failed my photography course in university during the first year. However, this setback only served to fuel my determination to further refine my skills and deepen my understanding of the art form.

Your work beautifully revives the glamour and elegance of the golden era of Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s, focusing on burlesque and vintage themes. What initially drew you to this distinctive period, and how do you strive to capture its essence and iconic aesthetic in your photography today? 

My lifelong passion for photography was deeply influenced by my grandmother on my mother's side. She epitomized sophistication, with a penchant for classic songs playing on the radio and a shared love for discussing old movies and iconic actresses like Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, and Katharine Hepburn. This early exposure to the glamour of yesteryears ignited my fascination with the era's monochrome aesthetics, dramatic storytelling, and timeless elegance.

I am captivated by the enduring allure of this era, where both men and women exuded effortless elegance in their attire and demeanor. While some photographers may succumb to the pressures of social media trends, I remain steadfast in my belief that the essence of photography lies in capturing timeless moments. Whether taken 70 years ago or just recently, a truly timeless photo transcends trends and speaks to the eternal beauty of the human experience.

In my photographic journey, I initially explored various styles and assignments, but eventually, I made a conscious decision to focus solely on the style that resonates most with me. I now prioritize assignments that align with my artistic vision, allowing me to fully immerse myself in capturing the essence of classic elegance and storytelling that has always inspired me.

You’ve mentioned that old movies significantly influence your photographic style. Could you share how certain films or filmmakers have shaped your approach to lighting and composition?

Lighting is the cornerstone of my photography, as I meticulously shape it to weave narratives, evoke emotions, and define visual style. While I initially gravitated towards using soft light to capture subtle nuances, I soon embraced the power of contrast to infuse my images with drama and intensity. In my recent work, I've delved deep into the realm of low-key lighting, harnessing its ability to carve out deep shadows and set a moody atmosphere.

My approach to lighting has been profoundly influenced by the masterful techniques of Alfred Hitchcock, renowned for his ability to use light to heighten suspense and mood. Inspired by his work, I've embraced high contrast lighting to convey the psychological depth of my subjects and imbue my images with a sense of tension.

Additionally, my father's admiration for "The Third Man," directed by Orson Welles, left a lasting impression on me. I vividly recall the hauntingly long shadows that permeated the sewer scenes, serving as a visual testament to the profound impact of lighting in storytelling. These cinematic influences continue to shape my approach to lighting, driving me to explore new depths in my photographic endeavors.

Your portraits are particularly noted for their emotive quality and use of soft, dreamy lighting that resembles the techniques used by Dutch Masters like Rembrandt and Vermeer. What challenges do you face in recreating these classical lighting techniques with modern equipment, and what tools do you use to achieve this look?

In today's digital age, where millions of photos are captured daily, it's crucial for artists to set themselves apart by cultivating a distinctive aesthetic. I firmly believe in the power of differentiation, which is why I dedicate myself to crafting a unique look characterized by meticulous attention to detail.

Drawing inspiration from the Dutch grand masters, I've honed my skills in lighting subjects with precision and artistry. When embarking on my own projects, I take a hands-on approach, meticulously curating every aspect from setting selection to model casting and outfit choices. Through collaborative discussions with models, we explore various looks and concepts tailored to each setting.

While I prefer to oversee every aspect of the shoot myself, I enlist the assistance of a lighting assistant to execute my vision. I shoot exclusively in digital format, yet I'm drawn to the character and charm of vintage lenses, particularly those from Leica dating back to the 1950s. The timeless allure of lenses like the legendary Leica Thambar, with its soft-focus effect, adds a unique dimension to my work.

Incorporating Hobolite continuous lights into my workflow has been a transformative experience. The sleek design and intuitive setup of Hobolites have revolutionized my approach to photography. With these lights, I can instantly visualize how they will shape the light, allowing me to achieve the desired high-contrast film noir aesthetic or experiment with color gels for vibrant compositions.

I'm particularly fond of combining different light sources, seamlessly blending natural and ambient light with Hobolite fixtures. The Hobolite Pro LED light serves as my primary light source, while the Avant constant light complements as fill or background light. Thanks to their lightweight and portable design, I bring these lights along on nearly every shoot, ensuring I have the flexibility and control needed to bring my creative vision to life.

In blending these classical techniques with modern lighting tools, how do you navigate the balance between maintaining vintage aesthetics and embracing contemporary functionalities? What aspects of today's technology have been pivotal in your creative expression? 

The foundation of my work is a thorough understanding of the lighting techniques used in the Old Hollywood era. This includes the use of three-point lighting, soft focus, and dramatic chiaroscuro effects. These techniques create the signature look that defines classic Hollywood portraits.

While I strive to emulate the lighting setups of that era, modern lighting equipment allows for greater precision and consistency. For instance, today's LED lights offer adjustable color temperatures and brightness levels, enabling me to fine-tune the lighting to achieve the desired vintage effect.

One of the most pivotal aspects of modern technology in my work is digital post-processing. With tools like Photoshop and Lightroom, I can meticulously adjust the contrast, shadows, and highlights to replicate the filmic quality of Old Hollywood portraits. This also allows for the addition of subtle grain and other textural elements that contribute to the vintage feel. The continuous improvement of Photoshop and Lightroom by incorporating AI technologies make it more easy to locally adjust skintones, blemishes etc.  

Modern digital cameras provide unparalleled image quality and flexibility. High-resolution sensors capture intricate details and subtle tonal variations that are essential for creating rich, cinematic images. Additionally, the dynamic range of these cameras helps in retaining detail in both the darkest shadows and the brightest highlights, a crucial aspect of the high-contrast lighting used in classic portraits.

While I also use modern lenses for their clarity and sharpness, I also incorporate vintage lenses to introduce characteristic flares, bokeh, and softness that are synonymous with Old Hollywood portraits. The combination of both allows me to capture the best of both worlds.

Maintaining the vintage aesthetics of Old Hollywood while embracing contemporary functionalities is a dynamic and rewarding process. It involves a deep respect for traditional techniques and an openness to the enhancements that modern technology provides. This balance preserves the timeless beauty of classic portraiture while allowing for new and exciting creative possibilities.

As technological advancements like AI continue to reshape the landscape of photography and filmmaking, how do you balance these innovations with the classical techniques that define your style? In your view, why is it important to preserve these traditional methods and aesthetics in an era where audiences still deeply value artcrafted by human hands?

Balancing the rapid advancements in technology, such as AI, with the classical techniques that define my style is a nuanced endeavor. The key is to integrate these innovations in a way that complements rather than overshadows the traditional methods that are at the heart of my work. AI and modern technology can greatly enhance efficiency, allowing me to focus more on the creative aspects of photography. For instance, AI-powered editing tools can handle time-consuming tasks like background removal or color correction, freeing up time to concentrate on perfecting the lighting and composition.

While I rely on AI for certain technical aspects, the core of my creative process remains rooted in classical techniques. AI can offer new perspectives and ideas, but the ultimate creative decisions—how to light a scene, how to pose a subject, and how to capture the perfect moment—are made by me, drawing from the rich traditions of Old Hollywood.

I prefer to spend time meticulously setting up the scene and capturing it as I see it through the camera, rather than adding backgrounds or elements on the computer. Authenticity is key for me, which is why I always seek out interesting real locations instead of just renting a studio or using a green screen to create backgrounds or add elements in post-processing. That approach wouldn't be enjoyable for me. I strive to prepare my photos as thoroughly as possible before and during the shoot to achieve the best results. I limit my time on the computer to essential tasks like color grading and minor retouching, avoiding excessive editing. I'm not a fan of the overly edited and filtered photos that are prevalent on social media today.

As your art evolves and the landscape of artistic expression rapidly changes, where or who do you seek for artistic inspiration?

I often turn to movies and series for inspiration. Recently, the series "Ripley" captivated me with its stunning visuals. The beautiful black-and-white tones, combined with the simplicity and elegance of Italy, made every shot feel like a vintage postcard. The way the series captured the essence of a bygone era resonated deeply with me, fueling my creative vision.

What new challenges and projects are you eager to explore in your artistic journey? Additionally, what aspect of the future of your work excites you the most?

In my artistic journey, I'm constantly seeking new challenges and projects to push the boundaries of my creativity. Recently, I've been drawn to the idea of exploring the aesthetic of old Shanghai, particularly inspired by the iconic kipao dresses featured in Wong Kar-Wai's "In the Mood for Love." I envision incorporating color gels, subtle smoke effects, and low-contrast imagery with a unique color tone to capture the essence of this era.

Reflecting on my past achievements, I had the opportunity to curate my first exhibition titled "Light of Seduction" at Leica Store in Porto back in 2022. Building on this success, I'm considering another exhibition, perhaps focused on a specific theme or series. 

In the fast-paced digital age dominated by social media, I find immense value in slowing down and appreciating tangible prints. There's something truly special about experiencing art in its physical form, and I'm excited to continue exploring this aspect of my work in the future.


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