Stefan May started his photography career as a medical student in the photo lab of the Munich Dermatological Clinic, documenting skin diseases. In his latest work, "Couples" he makes photos of skin that is far from diseased -- in fact it's perfect, since it's on the bodies of models and actors who are as alluring in a close-up as a human can be.
"Couples," an oversize coffee-table collection of black and white portraits of men and women together, walks a fine line between the feeling of passionate abandon one gets from "La Dolce Vita" and the choreographed perfection of a fashion layout. But some of these pictures are sexually graphic in a way that would make most Vogue editors blush.
May lives in Germany and he answered our questions via e-mail.
The introduction of your book says that these photos are about pheromones, attraction. They do seem to be real couples. Are they?
Some are real couples, some are not. It's the same like in real life, to be a couple means in the beginning that sexual tension and attraction is on a very high level, after a while it often becomes less and less. It happened to my models, not being a couple before, that the chemistry on the shoot was so intense like those of fresh couples. Once I did a casting together with the female model, she had to choose the male model as well; that was great fun even before the shoot, and on the pictures they look like a real couple. Afterwards, they left the studio without being a couple in real life.
How did you work out the scenarios -- did you design them or did you let them happen spontaneously? Like the sex in the car, whipped cream, pasta? Are these your fantasies or theirs?
The frame of the scenes and the scenes itself are always directed by myself; of course I'm open to everything that happens spontaneously; if I see a certain gesture that looks good, I take it. Often I show my models what I have in mind by acting like the model in the scene. Thank God I have a natural, hopefully never-ending vivid fantasy. And the atmosphere is so important, because you are walking on a thin line, you want to create and catch true and good-looking emotions. It's like cooking a soup, you have to organize all ingredients you need, but it's up to your creativity, ability and taste on this day of shooting, how you act behind the camera, and how the others react and act as well. Then you can start playing around, having lots of fun, like with the cream or in the car.
Did any of the models really have sex for your camera? I ask only because some of the pictures look very real, like the people are feeling real passion.
Fantasy and the camerawork together is creating an illusion; if it looks real afterwards, your fantasies become "true" on a photo print. The image is able to imply the same illusion and fantasy in the head of the people looking at it. I think if the models would really have sex for my camera we have passed a certain borderline, but then I would like to show the whole scene and I guess you can name it pornography. Very interesting, Helmut Newton just tried this out for the first time. Other photographers like Tony Ward going this way, everybody has his individual taste and line he follows.
Are all of these people models?
All these people are models, actors, dancers. The models are out of a certain fraction of model characters, people who not only like to show themselves, but having no problem to act totally naked in front of my camera. They love to pose, showing their body power and acting at the same time. But most of them are models working in the fashion, beauty or TV business.
Have you ever asked yourself if you are dreaming in black and white or in color? Well, try to figure this out while you dream or when you wake up next time. Dreams seem to happen in another world, very emotionally, like black-and-white images can do. Paolo Bonnani said in the opening of the book, "with the sense of complicity that comes from black and white, the colors of psychological introspection." I still like to see my black-and-white pictures printed analog on gelatin silver paper, this method still has a timeless quality and a soul.
What was the inspiration for this series of photographs?
I started in 1994 to take a series of couples by accident. I worked together with a model and actor for some fashion shoots. He told me about his new girlfriend, a French model, "Oh Stefan, you have to see her, she is so beautiful, I really love her ...", I said "OK, I'll do some shots of her." On the shooting day they stood together at our car trying to change her styling, it took ages because they were kissing, hugging, they were so concentrated on each other, not noticing that my fantasy got kicked and I just started to take pictures, the rest you can see.
What makes a photograph sexy or sensual?
This is a very difficult question to be answered by the observer. Everybody has his individual ranges to classify a picture as sexy, sensual or whatever. The only thing I can say is, if the image works for me, it's fine. Sometimes the eyes can do it, a certain expression of the face, the character of the model, the shape of a body, the light, a gesture, black and white, a location, a certain view or frame of the image, the technique of camera handling ... all together, mixed up as a wild cocktail of elements, makes a picture with a sexy or sensual flavor. You like cream on top?
How did you get the people to agree to this project? Were they shy at first or were they into it?
The characters are all extroverted in front of a camera, for a shy person I guess this is especially the wrong platform. At least you can do shots with a shy person of course, but in a very different way. Mostly we shoot after a job, like it happened on a production this summer. After we had finished the fashion shoot for a French magazine, Nathalie and Bertrand came to me and said that they fall in love the day before. They asked me if it's possible to do a couple shoot. So we did great pictures with energetic models, full of love, on a beautiful location. The people have total confidence in my person and my work, which makes it easy for me and for them.
These scenes are very hot, yet they also feel wholesome in a way. It's not about S/M or using each other, but more about mutual pleasure and passion. Is that intentional?
I'm a person with extremes in character, but very harmonic in the end. I like beautiful objects, music, people, animals of nearly any kind, which in my taste have a style or an esthetic definition. On the other side I like to polarize the things. In the end my gut tells me what to do. So if a scene is extreme hot, it still carries a certain style and this intentional feeling.
Tell me about yourself, and how you chose photography as your form of expression.
I'm telling about myself the whole time! Photography is a way to create your own world of visuals. I love to see the world with open eyes like a kid; my senses need to be fed all the time. My philosophy is to entertain myself best in life. Photography is a key for that, to be extremely happy and balanced. I don't think too much about it, I'm just living it, I take my camera and I have to shoot what I see and as long as I have fun doing photography, I'll do it. Some people think I'm a Jekyll-Hyde character, because I published another book about New York under my pseudonym Lance Lensfield at the same time as "Couples." You have to understand that I have two sides of a brain, but it's still one brain, it's only the result of my obsessive behavior catching the world around and there are still so many challenges in photography, like my next book waiting for layout.