I knew when I saw this image up in the photo section of our Fstoppers website, I had to inquire about how it was created. It is clearly a thoughtful re-imagining of the iconic painting "Liberty Leading The People", but I had no idea how much effort Anthony Kurtz went into creating this photo. Little did I know that it took three weeks of preparation, two days of set building, one day of photographing, and 50+ hours of retouching and it was all done on a shoe string budget with borrowed props and location. What he created with very little money and a lot of brilliant strategy and vision is inspiring. Read below to learn how Anthony did it.
Anthony told me he was facing a creative slump, like many of us do from time to time. He also realized that it had been years since he tackled a personal shoot to get his creative juices going. He decided that the only way to shake himself out of it was to attempt to start a personal project create an image that seemed almost impossible to make. He needed a solid challenge and he used one of his favorite paintings as inspiration.
Anthony's Artist Statement:
I’m paying homage to Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”, one of the most iconic paintings of the 19th century and a personal favorite, by creating my own interpretation of this historical scene.
While Delacroix’s painting depicts a French upheaval in 1830, my version represents a World Revolution 200 years later, in the almost palpable future of 2030. With that in mind, the familiar scene doesn’t depict any recognizable landmarks, nor does it represent a specific country. The subjects in the photograph are reinterpreted and inspired by current unrest in Venezuela, Egypt, Syria, Ukraine and the USA, to name a few. Replacing the Caucasian Liberty, Marianne, my Liberty is personified as a mixed-race woman with an “Afro” in lieu of a Phrygian cap. Her followers represent all cultures and races, symbolizing a deliberate shift in racial identity. The hand-stitched flag of Planet Earth is the chosen symbol of the human uprising. Barricades are adorned with tires, broken televisions and a tipped-over shopping cart, all of which represents a change in our current mass-consumer culture.
My hope is that this image can raise some important questions about the current political climate and our future, and that it speaks to those countless individuals whose common goal it is to create a world where we can coexist without hatred and destruction.
When creating any good composite, especially as intricate as this one would be, you must have a clear and concise strategy. He began the process with lots of conceptualizing and doing rough composites using elements of the original painting and actual photographs of modern day protesters. That's pretty ingenious if you ask me.
When the idea and concept started to form and gain momentum, he realized that he could actually make this photograph happen, so the pre-production stage began. "Once I realized that this had potential I really got going. Over 2-3 weeks I organized the timing, location, the wardrobe, the models, the lighting, the dress and flag with my stylist, the props, the assistants, the catering etc…it’s by far the biggest personal project to date. Although I pulled most of the prep work on my own, the people who helped me were absolutely vital. I would have never pulled off building the set, creating the dress, finding the models etc on my own. It was also imperative to talk about the concept with friends who ended up giving me some tips that helped it be successful."
When I saw his behind the scenes photos that he emailed, I asked about the location he used because it looked like an alleyway behind a commercial building. It was actually the alley behind his studio. They were performing some construction and maintenance on the building and the workers had left some scaffolding up, which he ingeniously used to hang the white vinyl backdrop he borrowed from one of the other building tenants as well as some of the props.
To keep the costs down, Anthony borrowed much of the "trash" you see in the photograph from the studio owner's basement. The props were "mostly inspired by the revolution in Ukraine, made out of mostly tires and wood. I realized that Delacroix used some foreshortening and perspective tricks: The foreground and the models had to all be raised or tilted upwards so as to be visible and create an illusion of a hill. 'Liberty' needed to have one foot below the stage as if she was stepping up onto the platform and create that dynamic look from the painting. There were all kinds of little obstacles throughout the day to really make you lose it, not to mention that there was supposed to be a big storm throughout the day."
Thankfully we live in this glorious digital age where we can cast models for many of our personal projects form the comfort of our desks. Anthony used Facebook to coordinate, cast, and schedule friends and models. His main actress/model ended up cancelling a week before his shoot day, but he claims this was a blessing because he was connected with the model Natalie Novag, who you see in the final image and he feels she was the best fit for the project.
The Flag And Other Props
The flag was a key element of the photograph's story and Anthony felt it required special attention:
The final flag was a combination of an “Earth Flag” that I bought online and other pieces of fabric. I insisted on having a red part and some white in the final flag so that it would slightly resemble the original French flag. Basically, the viewers subconscious had to agree with the visuals right off the bat and my version had to trigger a similar response to the original which is engrained in most people’s minds.
My stylist and I spent some time ripping it up, burning the edges and using sand-paper and tea/coffee to make it look used.
My biggest worry was the position of the flag in the photograph. I knew there was no way that “Liberty” could hold the flag correctly in each shot. The Flag had to be “perfect” every time! The only solution was to create a rig from above that would hold it in place. This was the big breakthrough that made me realize that this shoot was going to be possible.
The back of the flag was lined and sown together with 3 different metal wires. This way we could control the shape of the flag. The whole thing was then attached onto the scaffolding with a Magic Arm, a light stand, some rope and some plastic pipes. When that was in place 50% of my worries went away. If I had known that the rifle would be this heavy for the model I would have also created a rig for it but instead I had to have an assistant behind “Liberty” helping her with the weight of the rifle.
Liberty's dress was handmade and the rest of the clothing was second-hand or borrowed from friends. The only true cost of this shoot was renting a military uniform, a rifle, and the expense of catering which he estimates came to about 350 euros.
Shooting For The Composite
He knew based on his budget and resources, it was going to be impossible to cast and place somewhere around twenty people on set amongst props and capture everything in camera. It also would have been tedious photographing every person and prop individually and compositing them all in. This wasn't a Hollywood budget and set after all! He opted to break the shoot into two parts by photographing the foreground people and props and background separately.
There was no room for improvisation, for lucky mistakes, each element had to be controlled as to reflect the original painting: everything and everybody had an exact expression, position and gesture and there was no way I was going to have to also manage the background people. I also didn’t want to deal with 20+ people on set. It just would have made the whole thing way too chaotic.
The lighting was the easiest part. Once I analyzed the painting, I deducted that there was one main light coming from camera left at an almost perpendicular angle to the models. The light was relatively narrow as it didn’t even hit the subjects at the far bottom left of the image. I chose a large octabox with a grid, placed at 10-12ft. I also placed a large foam-board/gobo to avoid light spill on the foreground. The available sunlight was acting as fill. I added a strobe at camera-right with a red gel, on the floor, pointing upwards. This was to emulate possible police cars lights. A third strobe was lighting the backdrop.
The Retouching Process
The retouching phase was a major pain in the ass. Although I had my main foreground with all the people in place…nothing was in place.
In one photo, Liberty looked amazing but the kid was smiling or didn’t have the correct arm position. I had to choose the best of everything and then recompose in post. Although I had photographed the background people with white smoke-bombs, it was often lacking. Smoke-Brushes were a life-saver and I could control exactly where I wanted the smoke to appear. You can easily find free PS Smoke Brushes online.
3 Einstein 640’s + 2 Mini Vagabonds
Pocketwizards TT1/5 Wireless Transmitters + MC2 + AC3 (to control flash power)
1 PCB Octabox with grid + reflector
1 Boom Stand
Canon 5d Mark3 with a 24-70mm and a 50mm
Anthony added that his original plan was to shoot on tripod and tethered to his laptop so he could monitor the images and see how they fit in his final composite. Although, that all went south because as he shot he felt either his tripod was too low or too high causing the foreground to be too dominant or not visible enough. We've all been there before. So he ended up photographing elements of the final photograph from different angles, which made the composite process much harder. "I ended up shooting from various angles and that was a definite mistake for when I needed to composite later. In the end it all worked out but I could have saved myself some headaches by only changing one variable. I guess, you live and learn."
I am so happy Anthony shared his story with us. It really reminded me how much you can accomplish with good planning, a great concept, and the help of generous friends and neighbors. I found it all very inspiring.
According to Anthony.
This project opened an entire new way of looking at photography for me and what I thought I was capable of. I was doubtful and fearful but I ended up creating something far beyond what I had envisioned. Hopefully this post can help some artists who are feeling uninspired or people who use their lack of money and gear as an excuse: It’s all about the concept and preparation, not gear and expensive models and locations! Challenge yourself and I’ll promise I’ll keep doing the same.
I am currently working on a new reinterpretation of an iconic war photo, so stay posted!
More of Anthony's Work: