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Photographer Mark DePaola Shoots Beautiful Editorials Without Photoshop


“‘You should take my picture sometime,’” photographer Mark DePaola recounts a model saying to him during his story of how he really got into photography. “We made a plan for her to come over to shoot and eventually photographed. As I was shooting, I realized that photography was an extremely powerful medium.” Mark’s story is the idol of many photographers. He’s a purist who refuses to do any retouching or post-production. He shoots editorials for Gucci, McQueen, Miyake, VOGUE, and others. He’s also got a brand new 402-page monograph called Five Years and Sixty Seconds. But more than anything, Mark focuses on creating. We talked with him about his philosophy on shooting, why he doesn’t shoot with a flash, and his photography methods.

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This blog post is presented by Leica. All images are being used with permission from Mark DePaola. Be sure to check out his website and Instagram.

The Essential Camera Gear of Mark DePaola

“I am a Leica M shooter at heart. I’ve been shooting the M camera since I was twelve years old. I currently shoot the Leica MP240 for its’ exquisite color sensor, the M246 Monochrome “Your Mark”, and the M7. I also have recently loved shooting the SL2-S for much of my commercial work and portraiture sessions. The dynamic range I can achieve particularly in the shadows and for darker exposures is remarkable. For optics, I am a 50mm shooter. I shoot the f0.95 Leitz Cine 50mm Noctilux, the new 1.2 Noctilux, the 35mm 8-element Summicron, and the 35mm Summicron ASPH 2. My lenses never come off of wide-open aperture.”

Model Darya Jemeljanovic with Premium Models ParisStyling Alessia Caliendo
Vitalba dress by The M
Patent sandals by What for
Lead Hair Morgane Stephanazzi
Lead Makeup Mylene Barcelona

Tell us about the first moment you fell in love with photography.

Mark DePaola: That’s a great question. I grew up shooting as a kid because my family was in the business. My father Alessio (Alex) de Paola was one of the top photographers in New York at the time shooting magazine covers, REVLON, Diet Pepsi, and the jazz greats of the time like Billie Holiday and Judy Garland. His contemporaries and friends were Mr. Penn and Avedon. My mother was a model with Ford and my stepfather was a high-level creative director at an advertising agency during the mad men era. 

Taking pictures was a part of my family culture and was innate to me. However, I did not fall in love with photography or have that moment when I knew this is who I would be in my life, until I was 12.

Just after I had saved up enough money, and with an M3 on my shoulder, I was at a newsstand looking through the current fashion magazines of the time. A young girl my age came up behind me and asked, “Are you a photographer?” I turned around. She was a beautiful redheaded girl. I said, “Yes.” She replied, “You should take my picture sometime.” She ran off. 

We made a plan for her to come over to shoot and eventually photographed. As I was shooting I realized that photography was an extremely powerful medium. I could actually have a piece of someone in memory through my own unique perspective. I fell in love with photography.

Some photographers delve into photographing all sorts of things. But you’ve specifically focused on people. What made you want to photograph people?

Model Ola Kedrzynska with Monster MGMT
Styling Alessia Caliendo
Lead Hair Stefania Pellizzaro
Lead Makeup Vania Cesarato

Mark DePaola: Early on in my development as a young boy I discovered that the camera was my way of connecting with people and a conduit to learn another’s story. I am actually a very shy person inside although it may not seem like it. The camera is a seamless introduction to meet new people and to capture some part of them.

Your work is a combination of fine art, editorial, and fashion. But obviously, at the end of the day, it’s all “Mark DePaola.” When we look at Picasso’s work, we know those pieces are his because they were obviously part of his identity. What do you think makes for a Mark DePaola image? Tell us about the identity we see in these photos.

Mark DePaola: My work contains an element of motion, an urgency, a blur, and an internal and emotional narrative. Each image is a deliberate roadmap of optical focus consistent with how we see.

“I am actually a very shy person inside although it may not seem like it. The camera is a seamless introduction to meet new people and to capture some part of them.”

You like to play with motion at times. What makes you switch from one to the other? Is there a more playful side that comes out sometimes, or do you sometimes switch to get a more dramatic shot?

Model Milana Mikhailus with Monster MGMT
Styling Alessia Caliendo
Lead Hair Chiara Marinosci
Lead Makeup Eleonora Juglair

Mark DePaola: I shoot everything at base ISO and wide open. When I am in an environment that is a low-light situation, I refuse to add external light sources that take me out of the environment. I am not afraid of a half a second, a second, or a few seconds of a long exposure. To me, a longer exposure incorporates more of my physicality and emotionality in an image. 

I don’t intentionally create dramatic images. However, I do intend to strip a certain facade from my collaborators, which is oftentimes a forced smile or laugh. I don’t speak to a person while I’m shooting them. Instead, I offer a safe and internal space which can sometimes garner a more serious or dramatic look. It’s a scary thing to open oneself to a truth.

To you, what are the three most important elements of a portrait? Do you think you’re prioritizing moment (an external occurrence) over feeling (an internal occurrence)?

Mark DePaola: I would say that I am most interested in making a person’s internal experience apparently external. There’s a certain pensive and dreamlike quality to my work that feels infinite. I am not interested in capturing a subject who isn’t willing to share something in a photograph that may feel raw or outrageous. I also am really interested in a portrait in motion or in action rather than a stagnant expression. We are moving and living beings in change and flux and I want that tension to be apparent.

What is it about the Leica system that helps you achieve your creative vision?

Model Ola Kedrzynska with Monster MGMT
Styling Alessia Caliendo
Lead Hair Stefania Pellizzaro
Lead Makeup Vania Cesarato

Mark DePaola: Let me count the ways.

Leica forces me to be an active participant in my environment and to engage with those around me. Often in my genre of fashion and portraiture, Leica was traditionally thought of as a photojournalist’s tool. To me, I use it because it is photojournalistic and enables me to tell a meaningful story beyond the facade of beautiful clothes or jewelry. 

In addition, I am shooting through glass when shooting the rangefinder M cameras which, I contend, to be more human. When you’re shooting through a traditional SLR you are being influenced by what the camera’s sensor or optics are telling you to feel. 

And finally, Leica’s optics are unmatched in both quality and construction, as well as their look. To be blunt, there is no way to get to the look of say, a Noctilux, without shooting a Noctilux. The Noctilux, among others, have defined both my career and my look.

“I would say that I am most interested in making a person’s internal experience apparently external. There’s a certain pensive and dreamlike quality to my work that feels infinite.”

For you, where does the magic happen? During the shoot or post-production? Can you talk about why you feel this way?

Mark DePaola: I do absolutely no retouching or post-production to my images. Having come from an age of analog, I had to deliver jobs where I would have to “put it on the neg.” I shoot the same way today for my digital work. 

The magic is absolutely during the shoot as well as in the image selection process.

There’s this series that you did called YOU. This was a collaboration with a model over many years, and you two didn’t speak the same language, but you worked together to make these images. Talk to us about how you communicate with models. It can be super difficult one for a lot of folks, and I think we sometimes rely too much on vocalizations.

Mark DePaola: There are few times in ones’ life when you meet another soul and every image you create is easy and just feels correct. You has been a rare collaborator. 

You lives in Dali, China and we speak not one word of common language. This truly has not affected our collaboration. I have a producer there with me who can translate as needed, however, when we are shooting, we are silent. There really isn’t anything that needs to be exchanged except for energy. It’s almost like an improvisational dance. We know as humans when we are in a safe space to express ourselves instinctively. 

Truthfully, this is the same way I work with all of my collaborators. I’ll present a series or an overall concept for what we are going to shoot, however, I am more interested in what the subject can bring to the photographs and concept rather than what I can make someone into.

You is a shop-girl who lives in the mountains of Dali, China. She sells stationary on the main street in the old town. She has never been out of the country. There is something very pure about her and I was drawn to her energy. 

I was walking down the main street in Dali, China, and saw You working at the stationary shop. I turned to my associate and pointed her out. She then went right up to You to make a brief introduction. I would have never been able to go up to You to introduce myself if I hadn’t had the introduction. Again, I am very shy at heart. Sometimes you’re affected by people in a really intense way that you can’t really intellectualize. You is one of those people.

I’ve got to ask this one: color or black and white? When do you feel that color is more important to the scene?

Mark DePaola: In short, I shoot black and white unless the photograph is about color. I never use auto color settings and always set manual Kelvin temperatures to adapt to either a warmer or a cooler look. 

Color is fraught with emotionality and if I feel that the color is adding an environmental emotionality to a photograph, then I shoot color.

How do you feel the pandemic affected you as a creative?

Mark DePaola: As long as I’m alive, I am going to pursue my story. I switched gears and pursued a body of work I had always wanted to do on the Monterey Peninsula titled “Feral”. It’s a series of fine art nudes that tell the story of the rewilding of women into the natural landscape. In addition, I was able to complete pre-production for my forthcoming feature film A Stab At Heaven. Challenges foster creativity and creativity results in success. 

This blog post is presented by Leica. All images are being used with permission from Mark DePaola. Be sure to check out his website and Instagram.

Lead Image Credits: Model Carmen Maria with Monster MGMT / Styling Alessia Caliendo / Lead Hair Chiara Marinosci / Lead Makeup Eleonora Juglair







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