Playboy Photographer Ales Bravnicar Discusses His Career and the Magazine's Recent Format Change [NSFW]

Playboy Photographer Ales Bravnicar Discusses His Career and the Magazine's Recent Format Change [NSFW]

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Late last year, Playboy magazine announced that starting this month, March 2016, the publication would no longer - simply enough - feature nudity. This announcement was immediately received as shocking, welcomed, amazing, derided or just plain hated, depending on who you asked. Curious as to the impetus behind the format change, I asked Jarmo Pohjaniemi about it when we spoke recently, and have since heard from another Playboy master lensist, Ales Bravnicar, about the matter. Bravnicar and I also discussed his phenomenal career and his upcoming retrospective in an upcoming international Playboy edition.

With hundreds of published features for the iconic magazine, for 15 years Bravnicar has been a big part of the reason countless model photographers the world over look to Playboy for inspiration on lighting, posing and styling. Bravnicar has 56 Playboy covers to his name, as well as having worked with 30 Playmates as well as 22 pictorials (and counting) - and that's just the beginning.

Ales Bravnicar's covers © Playboy

Aleš Bravničar was born on September 13, 1975 in Ljubljana, then Yugoslavia, and now Republic of Slovenia. Taking a deep interest in photography at an early age when his father entrusted him to his 1938 Leica IIIc, Bravnicar was immediately hooked on the medium. "It was the shiny chrome Leica body that lured me into taking pictures, such a beautiful piece de resistance; a bright, shiny camera with an amazing pedigree," says Bravnicar, "I learned to load film in it - and believe me, with those old Leicas it is not that easy because you load from the bottom – and started shooting away." Within a relatively short time, his innate talent for shooting led him to a role as a contributing fashion photographer for Cosmopolitan magazine, Slovenian edition, among other major fashion publications. 

By chance, the editorial office for Playboy was next door to Cosmo's in Slovenia. Since Bravnicar's work was already turning heads in multiple European fashion magazines, he was an easy choice for the Playboy editorial staff when it came to selecting him as a photographer for the Slovenian edition. Almost immediately, Bravnicar knocked out an amazing set with Playmate Nike Zalokar from Ljubljana, Slovenia, which was ultimately picked up by the U.S. Playboy, thus giving him the honor of being the first Slovenian photographer to be featured in the United States flagship edition. 

The landslide thus began after that, culminating in Bravnicar working with some 30 Playmates for various editions of Playboy around the world over the last 15 years. I prodded Bravnicar for some details about his first real taste of Playboy USA involvement, and he states, "Thirty Playmates later [the Playboy Slovenia editor] got a letter from Los Angeles, saying Hugh M. Hefner invites me to his private movie screening to the Playboy Mansion on Holmby Hills and to Playboy Studios West, where I get to hang with Arny Freytag and Steve Wayda, two of the biggest Playboy photography legends. It was awesome!"

Bravnicar is held in very high regard at the Mansion, it seems. "Hef still has my embroidered photograph of Natalija Osolnik, a top model from Slovenia, up on his wall at the mansion. The embroidery was made by a Slovenian family company Ercigoj, who perfected this unique technique using miles of yarn and millions of stitches and now makes the embroidered gallery photos for Steve McCurry himself", added Bravnicar.

Hef with Ales' embroidered photo hanging from the Playboy Mansion. (Photo by Elayne Lodge - Playboy)

I mean, damn, it's clear they really like him in L.A.

In recent years, Bravnicar joined forces with the world's greatest fashion and glamour seminar, Shoot The Centerfold, as a featured mentor. You should definitely sign up for that as the Miami seminar is slated for April 2-3, 2016. (We will see you there!)

But going back to Bravnicar's artistic motivation in his work, as was stated above, he stemmed from a pure fashion photography background, and it shows in his Playboy output. While Playboy photographers have traditionally been held in very high esteem amongst portrait photographers for their visionary lighting and technical savvy, when Bravnicar was breaking into the Playboy scene the idea of fusing a fashion/editorial style into the classic Playboy glamour style was not as yet widely accepted. Unsurprisingly, various European editions of the magazine, such as Playboy France or Playboy Germany, featured images often showcasing an artful fashion-esque vibe, and oftentimes little or no nudity (despite Europe being far less upright about nudity overall than the U.S., but I digress.)

Photo copyright Ales Bravnicar.

Bravnicar found himself also shooting for Maxim in 2009 and doing less Playmate pictorials just by chance. Seeking a new approach to Playboy sets, he turned to Playboy France and their revolutionary approach to the Playmate pictorials for inspiration. The French edition of the magazine had long since been known to feature top fashion models such as Bianca Balti, Lily Cole and Lara Stone in what can only be described as "fashion poses, wardrobe and overall aesthetics". This did not always sit well with the various international Playboy edition editors, but Bravnicar was determined to prove it could work for his staple Playboy edition in Slovenia. To that end, he persuaded the Playboy Slovenia editor to endorse an all new type of pictorial, replete with Slovenian supermodel Sandra Marinovic and an exotic location (Egypt, as it happens, since he and his team would be there for a swimsuit catalog shoot anyway.) The editor agreed, and without missing a beat Bravnicar set to work and far exceeded the expectations of the editorial staff.

"The editors instantly loved the photos, and I was back in the game with a different concept," Bravnicar says, "My pictorials from exotic places around the world with top models from Slovenia and Croatia became a staple in my native Playboy Slovenia for the past 6 years, appearing also in virtually every international edition of Playboy world-wide." The current count from these projects so far is 22 pictorials, and Bravnicar isn't slowing down. "And counting!" he adds with a laugh.

From the technical perspective, Bravnicar has his preferences from gear to lighting approaches, including and especially his lens selection. He states "I am in love with [what is often referred to as] the normal focal length. By that I mean the one that best emulates the eye, be it 50mm on a DSLR or an 80mm on a Hasselblad. I shot my entire Cuban pictorial with just the 50mm Zeiss Otus to prove my point."

An image from Ales Bravnicar's Cuban Playboy pictorial shot with the 50mm Zeiss Otus.

Asking him for a gear list, it became clear to me that he sets his standards high. His rather succinct equipment tally definitely did not disappoint. "I own a Hasselblad. And I own a Canon 5SDR.” he said in a rather to the point manner. Turns out he also has all Canon primes from 20mm to 135mm, Canon zooms from 11mm to 200mm and then what he calls “His little gem” - the Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 3.4/35-70 (a manual zoom beast in Contax/Yashica mount) which he says he bought off eBay and “Would not exchange for anything.” (except maybe an Zeiss Otus, he later admits), claiming it is the best wide-to-tele zoom he ever owned. To top it all off, Bravnicar is a Slovenian Canon Ambassador, something that surprises me exactly not at all.

Ales Bravnicar is his native habitat.

As we continued to discuss, it became clearer and clearer that Ales Bravnicar was an integral player in this new wave of Playboy photographers taking the time honored publication into new realms of style and aesthetic. If Playboy centerfolds were classically shot in studio with requisite strobes and styling, then Bravnicar found he preferred location sets, natural light and reflectors, and an fashion vibe. While not the only Playboy shooter out there doing this, he definitely set a new bar for tone and caliber with his pictorials. I particularly love how he keeps things simple, but executes it perfectly, as evidenced by a brief tutorial on his blog regarding using reflectors outdoors. "It is no secret that for my work I prefer natural light, coupled with a big Sunbounce reflector. We used to carry lots of strobes on location for glamour and fashion assignments but they were left in their cases for the duration of the assignments so I just stopped and learned to use nature's lighting instead." states Bravnicar.

His ability to improvise without fear on set, something I consider to be the mark of a true professional, made me nod in hearty agreement. "Once we ran out of Canon batteries on a Playboy shoot in Lignano, Italy. It was an hour before dusk and being a mile deep in the swamps of Bibione reserve. There was no time to run for more batteries to the hotel. I pulled out my Canon G1X compact camera [and ultimately ended up shooting] the remaining two shots of the pictorial and the cover with it. I love the G1X as it syncs with all shutter speeds and has a decent-sized sensor with pretty good image quality." quips Bravnicar, with an understandable tone of satisfaction.

Bravnicar making it happen in Santorini, Greece.

And speaking of amazing locations, I was also tweaked to discover Bravnicar's travel photography work. I simply had no idea, but apparently he's been hugely successful in that genre as well, and for good reason: the work is fantastic. I asked him to expand on this a bit. "Well, besides fashion and glamour, I also shoot travel stories. I have over 200 travel journals and stories published, from the first census in Afghanistan to the Transsaharan road of Western Africa, from the Uros of Peru to the splendor of Tahiti," said Bravnicar, "One of the results was the big project Miniverse." which incidentally was exhibited in Triennale di Milano and Maxxi Museum of modern art in Rome.

Bravnicar is clearly a multi-faceted master at his craft. Hell, he even directs commercials, citing an Arri Amira and subsequent Sony CineAlta 4K PL lenses in his apparent video arsenal.

What's was also becoming clear while talking to Bravnicar was the Playboy audience's change in tastes over the last two decades. Something that, when you think about it, totally explains the magazine's recent announcement to go "non-nude", as it were. Apart from giving Playboy an (arguably) more sophisticated tone, not publishing nude images affords the photographers more freedom in their artistic visions, allowing pictorials to occur anywhere, with any model, and focused on almost any theme, without any concern for simply "shooting a nude". Not to mention Playboy magazine can and will be showing up on newsstands that have historically banned the publication. Something that should lead to a potentially expanded audience. 

Photo copyright Ales Bravnicar.

Playboy magazine has not been without it's controversy, and certainly has been the target of criticism and derision for some 60+ years. None of this surprises anyone. However, to think that the classic monthly periodical has now shifted to a new, more accessible format on the coattails of public opinion shifting towards a more mainstream fashion vibe, well, that's a risk I applaud them for taking. And if it means more diverse model portraits from genius artists like Bravnicar and Pohjaniemi, then I am all for it.

In fact, Bravnicar will be given a full retrospective feature in Playboy Slovenia this April to celebrate his 15 years working with Playboy, hitting newsstands on March 11.

From Ales Bravnicar's Playboy Retrospective, copyright Playboy Slovenia 2016

"For me it is a big deal." he adds, which we can all agree is a big deal, and I eagerly look forward to Playboy's new format change.

"In the wake of U.S. non-nude initiative, we in Slovenia will remain fully nude during my time as a Playboy Slovenia photographer." interjects Bravnicar. 

Well, ok, I can live with that, too.

 
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3 Comments

John Sheehan's picture

Interesting article. I love hearing about pro photographer's careers and how they climbed the ladder to success. I'm going to look more into Ales Bravnicar.

Chris Adval's picture

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and interview with Bravnicar. But I think they should have just made a Playboy Light (or a new name) if they wanted a more expanded market. Playboy's reputation is known for great artistic nudes, not just from models but celebrities as well. No matter how hard they try it will always be the face of the brand, celebrating the human and nude body, in an artistic way too in my opinion. They're just using the name and brand of Playboy to make an entirely new brand cause building a new one will take a lot more money and work they do not feel like or can afford doing.

Check the smile of that bloke's face.. :)