Seeking the Unconventional

by Peter Kotsinadelis

Montalbetti & Campbell

September 01, 2010 — Montalbetti and Campbell (M+C) can best be described as one soul in two bodies. For more than a quarter of a century, the Canadian duo of Denis Montalbetti and Gay Campbell have produced a variety of stunning and unique portraits for clients across the globe. While these portraits may have started out as a photograph, the resulting images are what one would describe as digital surrealism.

While each portrait appears to be a complex work with great attention to detail, they all start out much the same way. “We keep our images simple,” notes Denis. “It’s a person with a background and the image is always about that person.” Their early-stylized portraits have appeared in magazines ranging from Rolling Stone to Harper’s Bazaar. Such portraits include the likes of billionaires Bill Gates and Sir Richard Branson, former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Yoko Ono, actress Cate Blanchett and illusionist David Blaine. Each portrait offers a distinctive look and provides a glimpse into the collective vision of M+C.

The two met as teenagers just out of high school through a shared interest in cycling. During a summer cycling trip with Gay, Denis so enjoyed photographing their journey that he decided afterward to make photography his career. Although Denis chose photography as a profession, for Gay it was the other way around. “Photography chose me,” she says. “Denis and I had been collaborating on shoots since his university days. I initially worked as a makeup artist, but soon began assisting Denis in the darkroom. Eventually I took over the role completely.” It was not until she began to assist Denis behind the camera that she says, “the vision truly became one.”

When you look at M+C’s early film-based portraits you can see an interesting progression in the use of props, high-contrast tones and a variety of colors and tinting added to make the images increasingly surreal. When they made the shift to digital in 2000 everything changed. As Gay explains, “Before digital we were shooting primarily black and white, and then heavily manipulating the work and coloring it in post. Once we changed to digital it gave us the ability to make color the way we wanted to see it.” And when you look at their current editorial and commercial work you can clearly see the huge impact digital has had on their images. Each is a masterpiece of creativity and design, clearly showing what is possible when using tools limited only by one’s imagination.

As Gay began spending more and more time alongside Denis behind the camera, the two began to function as one. She says, “Sometimes Denis would shoot and I would direct, or I would shoot and he would direct, or each of us would shoot and direct, but we think and work together.” Denis adds, “We work utterly and completely as a team. Never one without the other.” In addition to working as a team, when they are on a shoot they also use the benefits of digital to create a collaborative environment that they believe adds even more to the overall creativity. “A major benefit of digital is that by using a large monitor, everyone can see how the image is progressing. It’s not just about us, it’s everyone from the makeup artist to the stylist and models that help to create a great image.”

The way the duo goes about planning their images is, Gay says, to “start mostly with sketches of our ideas. There are times when we will use photographic composites, as when working with supplied layouts from commercial clients, but we prefer to use sketches. Then we’ll start to organize what will become a highly orchestrated studio shoot, including extensive preproduction, lighting, direction and post-production work.” During this time their camera is usually tethered to a computer and they rely on Capture One Pro software to transfer the RAW files directly and for subsequent processing.

“We always begin with the end in mind,” notes Gay. “And it’s always about the image, not what we are doing to the image.” Denis adds, “If you look back at the time of Avedon and Penn, it was a time of craft. They knew what was needed, from lighting and posing to dodging and burning, in order to produce the results they wanted. These days we often work with talented digital retouch artists and dictate the final look of the image, so for us we need to ensure it’s not about the effect but the content.” The resulting images that M+C achieve through their planning and postprocessing are often called extraordinary and clearly set them apart from the competition. This dedication to their craft has provided them a long list of awards on two continents.

For equipment M+C rely on a Canon DSLR kit comprised of an EOS-1Ds Mark III and an EOS 5D Mark II body with Canon lenses. When needed, they will also employ a medium-format Mamiya 645AFD SLR equipped with a Leaf digital back. “When we won the Canon Australian Professional Photographers Institute’s Photographer of the year Award in 2007, it included a generous prize of $20,000 in Canon products, so we are shooting primarily Canon these days,” notes Denis.

For postprocessing, M+C rely on Eizo CG243W monitors for precise color and Canon printers. Their portfolio and promotional pieces are printed using Canon’s imagePROGRAF iPF5100. “We print our portfolios on Pictorico Premium Luster paper for its durable semi-gloss surface and superb color gamut, but also rely on Innova’s fiber papers as well as Fujiflex Crystal Archive when we are producing exhibition prints.” For their recent solo exhibition, Montalbetti and Campbell: The Sensualists, held at the Australian Center for Photography in Sydney, they used the Canon imagePROGRAF iPF9100 large-format printer. It’s 60-inch carriage allowed them to produce the many larger-than-life-size prints needed for the exhibit.

When they are not shooting, M+C are sometimes invited to be judges, panelists and speakers at various trade shows and events. Having just moved back to the United States after living in Australia, they are only now in the early stages of marketing themselves.
With a style all their own and having the benefit of having worked for many U.S.-based clients that seem to still “seek the unconventional,” as Gay puts it, they are well on their way to a very successful future. And with newer digital products further expanding the possibilities in imagery we can only imagine what M+C’s “unconventional” will become.


Peter Kotsinadelis is a writer/photographer living in Pleasanton, CA. He may be reached at peterk727@gmail.com.

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