Photographer and artist Blake Little’s new project, Preservation, kicked off a run at the Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles (March 7 – April 18) with a book also available now. The behind-the-scenes video on YouTube (NSFW) drew over 2 million views in a little over a month and a deluge of comments (690 as this was published), including persistent criticism about the use of honey and a dog as a subject. We reached out to Little via email for his thoughts on the project and the reaction it sparked online.
What was the origin of this project — and how did it scale from an idea to a full-blown book and exhibit?
Little: The Preservation photographs came organically from a small detail of a shoot. I was fascinated by the way honey looked on a man’s hands and started experimenting with honey on bodies in different ways. The first few shoots I did in my home studio including the cover of the book. Eventually, I rented my favorite place to shoot in LA called The Studio and shot for three weeks with a full crew.
Can you give us a sense of the logistics? Were you tethered and reviewing images instantly? Were there a lot of re-takes?
Little: I had two assistants pouring honey as I shot, posed and directed the subject. The honey was recycled and used over and over. We were shooting with Profoto strobe equipment to freeze the movement. Many of the first set of images I did referenced the figures from Pompeii and Herculaneum A.D. 79 so it was important that there was no blur in the photo and the subjects were frozen in time.
We were also shooting tethered to a Mac Pro tower so we could see the images in real time. I photographed each subject from 45 minutes to 2 hours. The length of the shoot depended on how the person reacted to the honey and how the images looked as we were shooting.
Regarding the use of honey, a fair number of viewers of the behind the scenes video took issue with this, claiming it was wasteful. How do you respond to that? Did it cross your mind during the shoot at all?
Little: Living is wasteful. Making art is wasteful. Almost everything we do can be seen as wasteful. Restaurants throw food out everyday. How much spoiled food do we throw out from our refrigerators? People should be more concerned about wasting water. Honey is a sustainable resource and I was conscious to recycle and reuse the honey from shoot to shoot, both from a conservation perspective and also from an economic one. I was pleased when beekeepers contacted me praising my photographs.
Katherina, an instructor for the Oregon Master Beekeeper Program in Klamath Falls, emailed me to say: “Bees are genetically programmed to keep on producing honey until the flowers stop blooming in fall. They do not know when to stop, they just keep on storing and storing. A single colony can produce over 1000 pounds of excess honey, honey they never will be able to consume by bees themselves in a single winter. Too much honey can lead to other insects/mammals robbing a colony, or wax moths and hive beetles making an utterly mess of the honey comb. Removing excess ( harvesting) honey actually helps them to stay healthy. They cannot control the climate in a hive that has too much honey during winter, and moisture will rain onto the cluster and chill them to death.”
I have always supported environmental issues. I looked into using alternatives material to honey but all the other options were manmade and did not create the effect I achieved. Also, honey is good for the skin and hair. I did not want to use anything that might harm my models. I hope that any controversy over my photographs can educate people about the bee problem so they learn what they, as individuals, can do.
Meagan, a beekeeper from Grenada, emailed me to say: “Anyone can help pollinators (bees) by purchasing more honey from local beekeepers, planting pollinator gardens and using fewer chemicals.”
The best thing people can do personally for bees is to plant bee-friendly flowers.
One other issue raised online was the use of a dog in the set. What was the thinking behind including an animal in the project?
Little: The Preservation photographs comment on the human condition. I wanted to feature all ages, races, ethnicities and body types. Pets are an important part of our domestic family so I wanted to include dogs too. These photos reference the figures from Pompeii and Herculaneum A.D. 79 and one of the most famous Pompeii figures is a dog.
When I cast the dog for the shoot, I contacted animal trainers in the entertainment industry. All of them except one were excited by the project and willing to work with me. Honey is not harmful to animals or people. Both of the dogs we photographed were very close to their owners during the shoot. I shot the owners with their dogs and the dogs by themselves. The dogs were not harmed in any way by the honey.
Any ideas as to your next project?
Little: I am continuing my advertising and editorial work. My next series will be photographing LGBT homeless youth in Los Angeles.