Jeff Alves de Lima is a New York City-based photographer and videographer who created our newest collection, "Ink Golems." He works in traditional still photography, most often landscape and architectural shots, but these days, he's been working on a more conceptual series. For "Faces I Dare Not Meet in Dreams," Jeff manipulates fire, ink, vapor, and natural imagery to create symmetrical works of art that are more painterly than you'll see in traditional photography.
For his NeonMob collection, Jeff focused on the ink works, and as the name "Ink Golems" suggests, each work in the collection almost has a face or appears to be character of sorts.
I talked to Jeff to find out more about how he created his collection.
Can you tell us a little bit about where you live and what you do for a living?
I live in New York and work in a commercial still life studio in Manhattan with a small team of multi-talented people who have a wide range of expertise and are wonderfully generous with sharing ideas and resources. We primarily shoot fashion and jewelry and aim to maintain a very high standard. The technical demands are pretty intense and constantly evolving, so there is a great opportunity to really hone the craft.
You have a whole series called “Faces I Dare Not Meet In Dreams,” where you create these symmetrical, abstract images using fire, vapor, tropics, and ink. What was the inspiration for this series?
I was with my wife and her family in a boat off the coast of Paraty, a small and beautiful city in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There are hundreds of little jewel islands scattered all along the coast, and as we were passing one of them, I noticed that it looked like half of a submerged skull. Suddenly, every island we passed was some mythic titan or ancient god winking back at me. I started seeing glimmers of these faces in clouds, peeling paint, piles of shoveled snow... it was as if there was this magnificent beauty behind everything, and I had chanced upon this little key that unlocked an entire strangely familiar world that had always been right in front of me.
Why did you decide to focus only on the inks for your NeonMob collection?
In order for this collection to work, for all of these characters to populate and coexist within the same world, there had to be a very consistent look. So not only was it necessary to create all of these out of ink, they also had to be captured at a very specific moment. From the moment that the ink is dropped into water, it very quickly devolves into a smear of color and indistinction that, while beautiful in its own way, tends to lose the characteristics that make these compelling. There is that Goldilocks-moment after the ink hits the water, that moment with just the right amount of chaos when they come together in a way that resonates with the pattern-seeking part of our brain before entirely unraveling.
Can you take us through the process of how you create the inks?
The camera I used was a very bizarre medium format camera that we use in the studio. It was made back in the days of film, and is this wonderful Frankenstein/Mad Max contraption with all kinds of wires and electronic boxes velcro-ed on and taped with gaffer's tape to make it work with modern digital backs (which are essentially interchangeable sensors for medium format cameras). It is an incredibly versatile tool and gives great results that we haven’t been able to match even with much newer and more sophisticated cameras.
Regarding the ink, I used simple calligraphy ink that I dropped into small acrylic tanks filled with water. By observing how the different colors behaved in the water (the magenta tended to billow while the white branched out very quickly), I was able to adjust how and when the different colors were added to get different results. From there it was simply a matter of selecting images with promise, and cutting and mirroring them to see what emerged.
In coming up with the names and mythology for the collection, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to give names inspired by what the final image looked like, and wanted to use a naming convention something like the Latin names used in biology. Keeping this Latin theme in mind and knowing that there are seven “rarity” tiers on NeonMob, I immediately thought of the seven original hills of Ancient Rome. The Esquiline was historically a populous residential hill where the “commoners” could reside, the Capitoline held many important temples and could be associated with the three bishops of body/mind/spirit, and so on. Clearly I took tremendous liberties with the historical elements, but they served well as a jumping-off point.
As I got more aggressive with the mixing of colors, they seemed to suggest more evolved concepts to me: the single-ink images represented individual species (a beetle, a mushroom, a swan), the two-ink images were about a simple force or idea in the natural world (shadow, growth, the deep), the three-ink images about more global phenomena (atmosphere and storms, tectonic forces, oceans), continuing all the way up to the theological virtues and their counterparts.
Some of the pieces in “Ink Golems” almost look like jellyfish or aliens. Were you trying to make these look like beings or did they just end up looking that way by chance?
That is what is so fascinating with these, they just happen that way. I have very little influence on how the ink unfolds once it hits the water. I have control over the light, the timing, and most importantly, where to cut the image in order to mirror it. All of the rest is some mix of fluid dynamics/thermodynamics, or what-have-you and our brain's need to seek out patterns and classify things. Many in this ink series, especially the single-ink characters, seem to suggest animals to me. It’s funny you mention jellyfish – the pink/magenta card is named “Halipleumon Esquilinus”...and halipleumon is Latin for “jellyfish.”
Looking at your portfolio and Instagram, it seems like you enjoy taking photos of things that other people might not notice – shadows, patterns, textures, cracks. What about these things fascinate you?
I’ve always loved shooting landscapes, cityscapes, street photography, but I began to notice that my images were barely distinguishable from thousands of other beautiful, proficient, and appropriate photos. So I have been trying to look around the edges of these obvious photographs, trying to sketch the place or the moment by only looking at what would be considered “peripheral” to the main subject. Looking at texture, shading, nuance, these little details – I think there may be a deeper truth to be found in all of these things concerning what a place or situation really is about. I have this whole series called “Parenthetical” where I’ve been exploring this idea.
I didn’t see many photos of people in your portfolio. Do you ever take portraits? Is that something you’re interested in doing?
I have done portraits in the past, but never particularly enjoyed the process. There is a balance that is required between interacting with the subject and paying attention to the matter of shooting itself, and I never quite felt comfortable juggling it all. I did get some nice images on occasion but they were never worth the anxiety.
For me, the nice thing about landscapes is that they are patient. Still life subjects generally don't grow tired or second guess what I am doing (There is plenty of doubt and second guessing going on in my own imaginary head!).
The funny thing is that some of my favorite kinds of images to look at are portraits, photojournalism, and documentary photography... perhaps because the art of capturing people and constructing compelling portraits so baffles me.
Are there any projects that you’re working on that you’re excited about?
This whole "Faces I Dare Not Meet in Dreams" project is still quite interesting to me. I have been playing around a bit with oyster shells and corals and think I still have a ways to walk down that path.
I’m also interested in getting my hands on a high-speed video camera to try to connect a few ideas I have with unfolding these inks in super-slow motion.
And finally there is a short story/prose poem that I have been working on turning into a graphic novel, but it is a colossal challenge and figuring out the imagery/illustrations may yet be the end of me! If I ever do pull it off, I think it will be a really interesting work.