Interview with Photographer Evan Butterfield, Part 2

Welcome back for part two of our chat with Evan Butterfield, creator of Gentlemen of Steampunk.

Read Part One here.

 

AA: Why is steampunk the aesthetic for this shoot and book? What benefits and limitations did that choice present in creating the images?

EB: I liked Steampunk before I knew it was a thing. I liked old machinery, big steam-driven devices, rust. In graduate school, my area of focus was 19th century English literature, and Dickens’ Bleak House, with its fog and grit and creeky bureaucracy totally informs my alternate reality. Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age, and the Gibson/Sterling collaboration, The Difference Engine, are two of my favorite books ever.

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I’ve already talked about the “political” motivations for doing Gentlemen of Steampunk. Overall though, I think Steampunk is such a rich and creative and liberating aesthetic that it’s just wildly appealing. It can be so many things, and offers so many alternative paths, that it’s a virtually limitless concept. I think that’s part of what makes it so appealing to so many creative, imaginative people: they can explore very idiosyncratic, very personal aesthetic and cultural niches while still enjoying being part of a larger group, or subculture, or cult, or whatever we are.

Anyway, the short answer to the first question is “because I like Steampunk.” The short-ish answer to the second question is that the creative benefits of working in Steampunk are highly attractive, and the only limitations have to do with staying within the general, flexible parameters of the aesthetic.

I also have to mention the manner in which the photos are presented. I purposefully process them to look old and battered, as if they’ve been forgotten in a desk drawer. Sometimes there’s writing “on the back” that’s bled through, or they’re marred with stains, or drawn on, or sometimes have stamps or postmarks. They look faded and wrinkled and, well, old. In my mind, that makes the photos themselves part of the Steampunk aesthetic, and not just the subjects or the narrative bits. It’s a total package, a coherent piece. Sorry if that sounded a little artsy.

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AA: Not at all, it adds to the visual presentation and emotional quality of the images. What are the steampunk elements that were specifically included, either for setting or for ‘feel’?

EB: Oh, OK. Well, obviously I included a number of costume elements. I purchase the costume items for men or women from various sources, usually online, although some—like a beautiful gold high-collared vest that’s probably more Georgian than Victorian, but I think some anachronism is fine, as long as it’s something that could have been leftover from a past period—were purchased at cons. I picked up that vest at this year’s Clockwork Alchemy, for instance, where I was participating in the Artists’ Gallery.

Aside from clothing, I use a lot of props, and for the most part those fall into three categories: things I’ve bought, things I’ve made, and rusty old stuff. I’ve purchased a few goggles, but I tend to do additional modifications to them. I’ve also bought a couple of fantasy pistols. I’ve made some very nice gauntlets with various things attached to them (in my Steampunk reality, they’re referred to as “pembrookes” after their innovator (see Gentlemen of Steampunk), unless it’s one with a telescope attached, generally used by prostitutes and referred to as a “lucy” after Miss Lucy Tutter, their inventrix, who is discussed in the footnote to “There Was an Odd Woman” in Aether & Rhyme).

I’ve also made clockwork- and gear-augmented spectacles and goggles, and some jewelry as well. And for the “Little Red Riding Hood” chapter of Aether & Rhyme I altered a toy M16 into a very steampunky firearm. Finally, the tools I use are pretty authentic to the period. I am fortunate to have inherited really old tools and farming implements from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the Long Beach Flea Market has filled in gaps in my rusty implement collection.

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I have to say that I’m amazed by the phenomenal work some folks do in Steampunk: the costumes and props made by hand that are not only beautiful but as meticulously appropriate to the 19th century as they can possibly be. I don’t tend to dress up myself (I do have an alternate personality: the noted photographer Luxet Tenebrae, but he tends to show up more in my books than walking around the halls of some Marriott at a con); it’s just something I’ve never felt really compelled to do. But I love seeing other people who do it, and I certainly love dressing up other people.

 

AA: What were your guidelines in selecting the final images?

EB: Well, ones that are in focus are good. I look for images that are the most compelling, really. A lot depends on the model. If he’s looking at the camera, I want his eyes clear and sharp, pulling in the viewer. If it’s a moody, shadowy shot, it still needs to be clear what’s going on, and if the model is really defined, with abs you can peel a carrot on, then I want the light and shadow to really show that off. And they have to be—I don’t know how to say this more delicately—hot, sexy images.

The point is beefcake, after all, so there needs to be a balancing of a Victorian look-and-feel and a more modern concept of what’s attractive. Another important consideration, though, is how the image will hold up under the weight of all the layers and processing that it will go through to get to the final look. Some of the photos are minimally mucked-with—they’re desaturated and sepia-ed, and little more. Others have tears and wrinkles and folds and coffee cup stains and scribbled writing, so the underlying image has to be good enough to survive what I put it through.

 

AA: Even with having all great images to choose from, the book can only be so big. What images didn’t make it into the final book?

EB: Um, the bad ones?

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AA: LOL! Well, I suppose that’s as good a filter as any! When people see the images, aside from the artistic components and merits, what would you like for them to take away from them?

EB: I love how you refer to the “artistic components and merits”! I mean, we’re talking about pictures of shirtless guys, really. But thank you.

Seriously, though, I hope that in addition to the simple prurient appeal and topical uniqueness, people will come away with their imaginations tickled a little. The point of both my books has been to provide glimpses of an alternate Steampunk world; just enough hints and clues that the reader (or the looker-at) can construct a version of what I have in mind myself.

Going back to my grad school days in English Literature, we were all about the reader-author interaction, and how a novel gets constructed as a collaborative effort between the words the author writes and the idiosyncratic meanings that an individual brings to those words. So because I’m a big ol’ pedantic poser, that’s what’s happening in Gentlemen of Steampunk and Aether & Rhyme the author, the photographer, is dropping hints about the story, and the reader or viewer is supposed to pick up the pieces and arrange them in a way that makes sense.

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The same world that I hinted at in the first book is continued in the second (even with references to some of the gentlemen characters), and it’s continuing in work I’m doing now. I guess I’m basically too lazy to write a cohesive novel; I’d much rather just leave a bunch of breadcrumbs and let someone else do the legwork.

 

There’s plenty more to cover in this interview, so we’ll pause here.

Keep up to date with Evan Butterfield’s latest news on his website.

You can support Evan and our community by getting Gentlemen of Steampunk here and Aether & Rhyme here.

 

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Published in: on December 15, 2014 at 8:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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