I, Photographer: Tattoo Shooter Brian Cummings

Shooting artwork on a living canvas is tough work

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Photo: Derek Feldman

How did you start photographing tattoos?
One of my hair and makeup stylists has amazing tattoo artwork all over her body—including her grandparents' portraits—and she asked me to photograph it. I agreed, but didn't know how to start. I was visiting the Chicago Art Institute when it hit me: I'll treat it like the Baroque masters. So I shot her in the Rembrandt style, trying to mimic that lighting. I really liked it and decided to do a series, photographing about a dozen people over six months.

How did your style evolve?
Everything I do involves satire or a twist. In this case, photographing tattoos in the Baroque style was about two different art forms meeting in the middle. But the project evolved, becoming more raw and focused on the personalities. One girl I shot has a tattoo tribute to someone who passed away, and hearing her talk about it made me realize this was much deeper than I ever suspected. You might think that people with tattoos are bold—exhibitionists, even—but that's not the case. They're shy and down to earth. There's a dance to getting comfortable with how much of the body they want to show.

was your favorite ink to shoot?
A pinup girl with her own tattoo. It's like looking into a mirror looking into another mirror—how far can it go? It's great art, and I love the whimsy. Plus, it's one of about 50 tattoos done by different artists on that body, and they all work together, like a mosaic.

Why is shooting tattoos challenging?
Because you're photographing artwork. But the skin is not a flat surface, so there are highlights and shadows. If there are imperfections, you have to be very selective in the editing process when you "clean the file"—you don't want to disrupt the tattoo's sheen or linework because you're trying to remove a pimple. I want to make the image look good but, at the same time, I don't want to distort who that person is, and I sure as hell don't want to ruin the art.

What kind of gear do you use?
A Canon EOS 5D Mark II, with 24–105mm f/4L Canon EF IS and 16-35mm f/2.8L II lenses. For the Baroque photographs, I used a Broncolor Grafit A2 1600-watt power pack, a couple medium-size reflectors with grids, and 4x8-foot white V-flats. The main light was a 20-inch beauty dish with a grid, to create a focal point but also vignette around the subject. I used indirect lighting for a soft fill light. For images with stark white backgrounds, I used a Profoto Acute Pac and D4 ringlight, and several medium reflectors with grids. I add a polarizer to the ringlight to reduce glare and medium reflectors to generate highlights and prevent flatness or shadows.

How has your career changed?
I'm now "the tattoo guy." That's how photography is—if you do something in repetition, then that's what people remember you for, and I'm honored. I'm also incorporating the tattoo culture into a new series, portraying fairytale heroines as femme fatales; Snow White will be getting tattooed by Doc.

Are you inked?
No. I cannot think of a single thing that I will like in 20 years. I'm so glad I didn't do it when my friends were getting them in the '90s, because I'd have some god-awful tribal barbed-wire nonsense on my arm. At this point, I feel like I'd ruin my credibility if I got one. I don't have any personal experience with the subject. I'm a voyeur.

Brian Cummings moved behind the camera after working with pro photographers as a creative director. See more of his work at briancummings.com.

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Photo: Brian Cummings
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Photo: Brian Cummings
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Photo: Brian Cummings
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Photo: Brian Cummings
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Photo: Brian Cummings
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Photo: Brian Cummings
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Photo: Brian Cummings
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Photo: Brian Cummings
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Photo: Brian Cummings
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Photo: Brian Cummings
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Photo: Brian Cummings
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Photo: Brian Cummings
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Photo: Brian Cummings
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Photo: Brian Cummings
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Photo: Brian Cummings
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